Thursday, February 9, 2017

Point Reyes Lighthouse and Drakes Beach

I have mentioned in several blog posts that Point Reyes is my happy place. It is easily one of my favorite travel destinations in the Bay Area and I always feel a tremendous amount of calm and peace when we visit. The Point Reyes Lighthouse has been on my list for a while, but the additional 40 minutes of driving PAST Point Reyes Station has always seemed a bit intimidating to me. It just so happens that our holiday break coincided with the last day before the official tourism season started at the lighthouse, which was the additional push I needed to get moving! Visiting before the high season (or on a non-holiday Friday and Monday) means smaller crowds and you don't have to take a shuttle bus to the lighthouse (win, win!!!). 

Our first stop when heading to the area is always at Bovine Bakery in Point Reyes Station. They have great pastries, coffee and reasonable prices. There is also a lovely open area next to the bakery with picnic tables that no matter what the time of year, always seems to have sunlight shining on them. We planned ahead and brought a picnic lunch for the afternoon, but if you're looking for an easy lunch, Cowgirl Creamery is right around the corner and has a really nice prepared foods counter.

After breakfast we headed out to the lighthouse. One thing I have to say for all of the drives that we have taken in this area is that the kids are always exceptionally well behaved on them! The roads aren't too windy, they offer spectacular views of Tomales Bay, the Pacific Ocean and picturesque farmland with what must be some of the happiest cows in the world! Plus, if you ever buy Strauss dairy products you can say "Hey kids...those cows help make the ice cream we eat at home!" 

We arrived at the lighthouse around 11am and I definitely recommend getting there on the earlier side to get a good parking spot (there were far fewer spots available when we left less than two hours later). The Point Reyes Lighthouse is located on the western-most point of the Point Reyes Headlands. From the parking lot, there is a paved trail that is just under half a mile long that takes you to the stairs that lead down to the lighthouse. We immediately started spotting dozens of deer playing along the hillside below the path and even saw some elephant seals resting on the beach in the distance! 

I was a bit worried that the kids would have trouble with the steps, but they are very deep steps with a smaller than average rise to them, which made walking down them very easy. The pathway is protected on both sides by a chain link fence and there are several opportunities to pull off into viewing areas that are set up just off the main path. January through mid-April is prime whale watching time, so we were hoping to spot some whales during our visit. Thankfully we were not disappointed! Within just a few minutes of being down at the lighthouse we were able to spot a whale, and over the course of maybe 15 minutes, we saw several whales go by! It was a bit tough for our 3.5 year old to spot, but our 5.5 year old was able to catch a glimpse of the whales surfacing.

After a short visit we started the climb back up the steps. Every 10th stepped was stamped with a number, which made the climb sort of fun for our oldest who enjoyed looking for the numbers and reading them aloud as we passed. I was expecting my legs to be burning by the time we got to the top, but I actually found the walk up to be much easier than anticipated! I think the trick might be to keep your expectations low and then be pleasantly surprised! Bribing the kids with a small treat for making it to the top on their own also works well :)

The views on the walk up aren't bad!
Our next stop was just down the road at Drakes Beach. We got so incredibly lucky with the weather, seeing as it was late December and we had blue skies, very little wind and temperatures in the mid-60's! The beach itself is beautiful and there was plenty of room to spread out for a picnic, play with some beach toys and dab our toes in the extremely cold water. 

The views of the sandstone cliffs alone are enough to make this beach a memorable place to stop, but what really made our trip amazing was getting to see an elephant seal arrive! We have made a couple trips to see elephant seals along the California Coast, but those trips always involved walking to a spot that was already full of elephant seals. On our visit to Drake's Beach, we were throwing a frisbee around and enjoying the beautiful scenery when I saw this giant thing floating along with the current maybe 40 feet out from the waters edge. I yelled to my husband "What is that?!!!" and then we all watched as this massive elephant seal rode the waves onto the beach and slowly squirmed his way up onto the warm sand less than 100 feet from us. It was honestly one of the coolest things I have ever seen. Visitors are warned to keep their distance from the elephant seals that arrive on the beach and it just so happened that the fog was starting to roll in, so we packed up our belongings and cautiously made our way back to the car, stopping to admire this massive creature that was taking a nap on the beach. 

Another amazing trip to Point Reyes.

What are your favorite spots along the 
Point Reyes National Seashore?

Details: Point Reyes Station is about an hours drive from Berkeley and the lighthouse is an additional 40 minutes past Point Reyes Station (but I promise the drive isn't so bad, especially if you break it up with a stop in Point Reyes Station for food). Parking/admission is free if you visit the lighthouse during non-peak times. Check here for details of the shuttle and related fees for visiting during peak times from January through mid-April. My favorite family-friendly options for food in Pt. Reyes are Bovine Bakery and Cafe Reyes for take-out pizza (if you're being frugal) and Cowgirl Creamery if you were willing to splurge a bit more. When we are trying to keep costs down, we will also bring along our own food and maybe supplement with a side salad from Cowgirl or some pastries/treats from Bovine.

Friday, January 27, 2017

Cabin Camping in the Bay Area

One of my biggest challenges when approaching affordable travel was finding places to take overnight trips. Camping sounds fantastic, and I think that someday we will get there, but at the moment we aren't quite ready to make the financial investment in camping gear. Cabin camping to the rescue! There are so many truly spectacular cabin camping options in California and it just so happens that there are several right here in the Bay Area! Check out my recent roundup of cabin camping options here on 510 Families.

What are your favorite cabin camping or glamping spots in California? Please share!

Thursday, December 22, 2016

Escape to Mendocino

Mendocino has been on my list for a while, but due to the distance (about a 3 hours drive) it kept getting pushed to the back burner in lieu of closer destinations. That was until a couple of months ago when we decided to heck with it! Sure it's a long drive, but it's also an adventure, and we were very much in need of an adventure. So we woke the kids up at 6am, packed them into the car and we were off!

We broke up the drive by making a pit stop in Healdsburg to fuel up on coffee and pastries and to let the kids stretch their legs. We loaded up on muffins, scones and rolls from Downtown Bakery & Creamery, grabbed some drinks at Flying Goat Coffee and got back on the road for the last leg of the trip. While this is certainly a long trek to make for a day trip...the scenery is pretty amazing. The drive takes you along windy country roads, through a Redwood forest and along the coast for the last leg.

The main draw of this trip for me was getting to rent an outrigger canoe at Catch a Canoe. With two young kids, we don't get a lot of opportunities to tackle water sports, so a family friendly and safe option for canoeing was very attractive to me (and worth a 3 hour drive!). The outrigger canoes are longer and narrower that a typical canoe and don't tip over making them a great option for groups with small children.

The staff at Catch a Canoe were extremely accommodating and friendly and had us out on the water about ten minutes after our arrival! The canoe route takes you inland along Big River, which is an estuary for the first 8 miles. The scenery is breathtaking. Not far from where we rented the canoes, we found ourselves alone on the river, surrounded by hills of lush forest and wildlife. Five minutes on the river and I was ready to relocate our lives to Mendocino and spend my days floating down the river. Of course I quickly realized once we were in the canoe that my camera battery was dead, so unfortunately you are stuck with my iPhone pictures.

Aside from the beautiful scenery, Big River is also known for being home to river otters. We were really crossing our fingers that we would have at least one sighting, since we had jumped the gun a bit by promising the kids we would see otters. Thankfully we hadn't gotten far before we saw a small otter floating on it's back along side us, eating a fish!

A bit further down the river we spotted what we initially thought was a massive rock, but turned out to be another seal! This one was laying happily in the sun and had it not been for some small movements, I think we would have floated on by without noticing it. It was HUGE and we got a nice video of it waving to us on our way back.

Our rental was for a generous 3 hours (and only cost $60 since the kids were free) so we paddled down the river for a bit over an hour before turning around and heading back. Even after the excitement of the otters, we were still in awe of the nature surrounding us. It felt so special to be paddling down this river with almost nobody else in sight.

The river is tidal, meaning when the tide changes, the flow of the river changes with it. The ideal scenario is to paddle out with the incoming tide and then return with the outgoing tide so you are never paddling upstream. We didn't time our trek perfectly and found ourselves paddling upstream on the way back. This wasn't particularly straining aside from a few stretches that were exposed to the wind. Definitely plan on your paddle back taking a bit longer than your paddle out. I would also suggest wearing lots of layers. We had spectacular weather inland, but much colder weather as we approached the mouth of the river and hit the coastal fog. Thankfully we had brought along a blanket that the kids wrapped up in. Our youngest actually fell asleep on the way back, a testament to the comfort of the canoe I suppose (or the 6am wake-up)!

After getting back on land, we headed over the bridge to the town of Mendocino. We indulged in a warm meal at Goodlife Cafe and then took a leisurely stroll around town. Despite being a fairly small town, there were a number of shops to peruse and lots of tiny alley ways with cafes and small gift shops. Definitely a place I could relax for a long weekend!

Since we had a long drive ahead of us, we said our goodbyes and got back on the road. Our plan for the afternoon was to make a stop in Boonville, but we had no firm itinerary for our visit. Our first stop was at the Philo Apple Farm, where we purchased some fresh apple juice from their self-service farmstand. The gardens on the property are so beautiful!

After filling up on all sorts of apple goodness, we took an impromptu trip down to the nearby river. While I am all for a well-planned day-trip it felt particularly rewarding and relaxing to have a portion of the trip where we had the freedom to do as we wanted and not worry about checking destinations off the list. We threw rocks into the water and the kids watched minnows swim around their bare feet as they teetered on the river rocks.

We had planned on stopping by Anderson Valley Brewing (see our first visit to the area here), but unfortunately they have an early closing time on Sundays! Aside from a stop in Healdsburg for ice cream at Noble Folk (their pies are also amazing!) and a quick change into PJ's for the kids, we made good time on our trip back to Berkeley. The kids fell asleep on the last leg of the drive and we were able to easily transition them into their beds when we arrived home (love when that happens!!!).

While I hope to post more often in the coming months, please follow along on instagram for more frequent updates!

Details: Mendocino is about a 3 hour drive from Berkeley. Outrigger rentals at Catch a Canoe are $28 for adults, half off for kids 6-12 and free for kids 2-5 and include 3 hours on the river! Lunch at  Goodlife Cafe was very reasonable, with most dishes under $10 (and organic/local ingredients). Fresh pressed apple juice is $2 at Philo Apple Farm (self-service, so bring cash) and access to the adjacent river is free!

Have you been to Mendocino County? Any recommendations?

Friday, July 15, 2016

Our West Point Inn Adventure

"Secluded among the trees on the upper south slope of Mt. Tamalpais, the Inn was a brief stop on the “Crookedest Railroad in the World”, where passengers could meet a stagecoach bound for the beach. The railroad is gone now, but the West Point Inn remains as an "off the grid" haven for hikers and a monument to the rich historic heritage of our region."

To say I am excited about sharing our recent stay at the West Point Inn would be an understatement. The Inn, which was built in 1904, is a beautiful building situated near the top of Mt. Tam that boasts huge original windows, built-in dining hutches, two large fireplaces, propane lights and a massive wrap-around covered porch that looks over the entire Bay Area. In other words, a dream of a place to call home for a night. The main Inn has 7 rooms (all of which are single or double occupancy) as well as 5 cabins (which accommodate 2-5 people).

I approached the day of this trip thinking the adventure was either going to be awesome or completely horrible. My trepidation mainly stemmed from the fact that when I eagerly booked the rare Friday night opening for one of the cabins at the Inn, I had completely failed to recall all of the research I had done months prior that led me to the conclusion that this would be a great trip for when our kids were older. My conclusion was based on the fact that a stay at the inn required a two mile hike to the lodge. Somehow I forgot this key fact and had revised it in my head to be more like a 15 minute jaunt.

Two days before our scheduled stay I decided to brush up on the facts and get prepared for our trip. Multiple reviews from people who had stayed with young kids had estimated the hike to be close to two hours with little ones. My initial response was panic. The hike to the Inn requires you to carry all of your belongings, which meant carrying a child was not going to be an option. More panic. So it was with this slight uneasiness that we set off on what we told the girls was going to be a "very big adventure". We made sure to not downplay the length of the hike with the kids and kept asking them if they were sure they could handle the "very big adventure". Thankfully they were up for the challenge, and they didn't disappoint.

After over an hour of hiking, we catch a glimpse of the lodge in the distance!

Check in time at the lodge is 2:00, so we arrived at the parking lot on Mt. Tam around noon, strapped on our heavy backpacks and set off on the trail. The first half mile or so is on a wide paved road, after which it turns into a wide dirt path with occasional rocky portions. There is a gradual incline, but overall the hike is not strenuous (the extra weight of a backpack made it challenging for me). In an attempt to keep the kids engaged and moving along on their own accord, we packed lots of snacks and had some fruit snacks to use as an incentive to reach the next bend in the trail. There were also frequent breaks to regain our strength and energy. Along the way we spotted lots of lizards and birds and even had a brief encounter with a snake that slithered past our 4 year old (which she thought was very cool).

The hike was easily my biggest concern, but I happy to report that we survived! The kids did an amazing job. Our youngest (almost 3 at the time) actually carried her own backpack for the first 1.5 miles and both kids walked the entire way there. The views along the way are nothing short of spectacular and they only got better when we reached the Inn. We arrived shortly before 2:00 (the hike took about 1 hour and 45 minutes) and got the keys to Cabin #10.

The sleeping porch is clearly the prized jewel of the cabin, which turns an otherwise small and rustic cabin into a truly special retreat. The large barn doors open onto a sizeable porch with an outdoor sink and shower and sweeping views of the Bay Area. Oh the views! I could have spent hours, if not days, just staring at the views. We quickly (and with quite a bit of relief) laid down our bags and began to explore the property.

Everything at the Inn was better than I expected. The grounds were so beautifully maintained and it was obvious that the volunteers that run the Inn take a lot of pride in maintaining both the buildings and surrounding landscaping.

We walked along the stone path that ran between our cabin and the main lodge, stopping to discover a small vegetable garden behind the Inn and taking a moment to relax in the adirondack chairs. The girls tried their hand at horse shoes (which is a surprisingly dangerous game when played by a three year old), and then happily occupied themselves for quite some time digging around in the dirt and rearranging rocks into small piles.

There is a nicely equipped kitchen at the Inn that is available for all overnight quests. It includes a refrigerator, gas stove/oven and all the utensils, bakeware, dishes you would need to accommodate a small army. I was concerned about how crowded the kitchen would get with all the guests sharing the space, but was surprised to never see more than a couple of groups overlapping at once. We brought along this sweet potato salad for our meal and I immediately wished we had taken on the extra weight of a bottle of wine!

After dinner, we headed back to the cabin where the kids eagerly tested out the outdoor shower! We were graced with absolutely perfect weather during our visit, which peaked in the mid-80's and made the cold-water showers refreshing and enjoyable for the kids. After changing into our pajamas, the kids settled in with some books from the main lodge and alternated between "reading" and coloring with some books we had brought with us.

Our cabin was furnished with a double bed and two single beds. There were pillows and quilts/down blankets available, but you are required to provide your own pillow cases and sheets (or you can rent them for a nominal fee). We brought along sleeping bags, so we just laid those on top of the already made beds and called it a day.

After the kids fell asleep, we snuck out onto the porch and enjoyed a beer while watching the fog roll in and the Bay Area light up as the night sky darkened.

a bit blurry...but you get the idea!
The next morning I woke up a few times to catch glimpses of the sun rising.

The kids are awake!
Once everyone was awake, we headed to the main Inn where I retrieved a loaf of banana bread that we brought along (I froze it the night before we left so it would travel better, and it was perfectly defrosted by morning). We sat on the porch and enjoyed a light breakfast along with some coffee while we stared in awe at the view.

While I would have loved to savor the morning, it was going to be another hot day and we had a long hike back to the car. So with a bit of reluctance, we said goodbye and set off down the dusty trail. The walk back was considerably easier since we were walking on a slight decline. While there were no encounters with snakes on the walk back, we did get to see a deer standing in the middle of the trail! This might not seem like a big deal to many, but we don't have deer in the flats of Berkeley, so this was a pretty exciting encounter with nature for us! We quietly watched the deer for a minute or so before it effortlessly scaled the rocky mountainside and peered down on us from above. With a boost of adrenaline from our deer sighting, we powered through the rest of the hike and made it back to the car in about an hour and a half.

What are you favorite overnight adventures in California?

Interested in more cabin camping options? Check out our visits to Samuel Taylor Park near Point Reyes, and the Steep Ravine cabins near Stinson Beach.

Details: Cabins/rooms at the West Point Inn are $50 per adult and $25 for children ages 2-17. Even if you don't plan on spending the night, I highly recommend taking a day hike out to the lodge for a picnic and the views!