Wednesday, October 28, 2015

Tule Elk Preserve in Point Reyes National Seashore

Do you have a happy place? For me, a happy place is somewhere that slows me down, where I am so happy in the moment that I am not thinking about what comes next or sticking to a schedule. It's also a place that I can think back to when I am in the midst of everyday life and it gives me that same sense of peace. While some of my happy places are not so easily attainable, like a rooftop deck in Sorrento, Italy where we vacationed years ago, or lounging in Vondelpark in Amsterdam, there are others that are closer to home like a trip to Point Reyes National Seashore. Visiting this area is like one giant deep breath for me. Even the kids, who are normally very happy, seem to become extra giddy on our trips.

There are so many things to do in this area that I feel like I could visit a dozen more times and still have new beaches to explore, hikes to take and food to eat! With that said, one constant with all our trips so far has been to start our day off at The Bovine Bakery in Point Reyes Station. The kids love their massive pastries and whether it's the fresh air or the fresh coffee, I can't get enough of the small open space next to the bakery. We usually settle in on this large bench made from a giant log and the kids eat their food while running around the picnic area. Despite there not being any play structures, swings or toys in this small outdoor space, the kids could entertain themselves for hours if we let them.

This is her new "go-to" face when she knows I'm taking a picture.
On our most recent visit, they had a small farm stand set up with pumpkins, tomatoes, strawberries and fresh herbs that you pay for on the honor system.

That is the look of someone who just realized she can reach the tomatoes and strawberries. Explaining that these weren't samples for her to consume was a task!

After our visit to the bakery, we walked the two blocks of shops, stopping in at Toby's Feed Barn for some honey sticks (a favorite for the kids), perusing the stalls at the Farmer's Market, and making a quick stop at Coyuchi.

The Farmers Market is open seasonally on Saturdays. Check hours here.
Coyuchi is an organic textiles company, based in Berkeley, with this lovely outlet/retail store in Point Reyes Station.

After our leisurely morning, we hopped back in the car and headed to the Tule Elk Preserve. The drive is about 30 minutes from Point Reyes Station and weaves through the National Seashore, passing by dairy farms and giving you occasional glimpses of the ocean. The kids enjoyed the drive since there were a lot of cows and horses to spot along the way. We had been preparing the kids for our Elk spotting adventure for the week leading up to our trip, so I was a little nervous that we might not spot any! Thankfully, we saw a huge heard of them along the roadside before we even got to the hike! We pulled over and I made sure the kids got a good look at them on the off chance that we didn't see any more during the day.

A short drive down the road we found ourselves in the parking lot of the Pierce Point Ranch, which is also the trail head to the Tomales Point Trail. On weekends from August through October, there are docents at both the Tomales Point trailhead and at Windy Gap (about 1 mile into the trail) that are available to answer any questions you might have about the Tule Elk. Before setting out on our hike, we took some time to explore the Ranch. It was actually a bit difficult to pull the kids away from the old barn when it was time to get moving!

As is the case with most of the Northern California Coastline, this area is known for being blanketed in fog. While this limits the amazing views of the ocean and rugged cliffs, it felt particularly adventurous to be walking in the clouds. Another bonus was our kids continually reminding us how "soggy" it was.

We hiked the first mile of the trail which led us to Windy Gap, where there was another group of docents to answer questions. They quickly engaged the kids with Elk horns they had for display and binoculars to view a herd of elk that were down below in the valley. These elk were considerably further away than the ones we had seen on the drive in, so the kids weren't able to spot them, but they still enjoyed the binoculars!

From here, we opted to turn back since we didn't have any carriers for the kids and everyone was growing hungry. On our walk back, the fog began to burn off a little, and we got a glimpse of the beaches and coastline below. It was beautiful with the fog, so I can only imagine what it must look like on a clear day.

We took one last tour of the Pierce Point Farm on our way back to the car.

Stay tuned for part two of our trip: Cabin Camping at Samuel Taylor State Park!

Interested in exploring more of the Point Reyes National Seashore? Here are some links to some of our favorite day trips in the area.

A short hike to Abbott's Lagoon and an afternoon at Limantour Beach.

What are your favorite places to explore in the area? 
Please share in the comments.

Details: Point Reyes Station is about an hours drive from Berkeley and the Tule Elk Preserve is another 30 minutes down the road. Admission to the Tule Elk Preserve is free. Pastries at Bovine Bakery are around $3, and coffee is around $2.50 with a free refill during your visit. 

Thursday, October 22, 2015

Redwood trees, Wine and Beer, Oh My!!

Tackling wine country with kids can seem intimidating, but when planned properly, it can be really fun for the entire family. We have taken several trips to Sonoma County this past year, some included wine or beer tastings, while others just took advantage of the amazing food and parks. All of them were really enjoyable, relaxing and memorable outings that have left me wanting to explore more of the area. 

Our most recent trip started with a visit to Armstrong Redwoods park in Sonoma County. We had a more adult oriented afternoon of beer and wine tasting planned, so we wanted to give the kids a chance to run free for a little bit. We arrived a little after 9 in the morning and easily found a spot in the parking lot next to the visitors center. After a quick look at the map, we planned out a nice loop and headed on our way!

I'm not sure how long this stage will last for our kids, but they are wonderfully entertained by adventures like this. We set out in search of the largest tree in the park, frequently stopping to walk on fallen trees, pick up sticks and give out a few hugs to particularly large trees. With the exception of a handful of other groups, we had the trail to ourselves, which was a treat since our kids aren't exactly quiet observers of nature.

There are several options for easy hikes and we settled on a 1 mile loop that took us by both the tallest and oldest trees in the park. The trails are wide and level, with small barriers along the perimeter to keep you on the path. There is also a road that winds through the park which had very light car traffic and looked perfect for riding bikes. I was definitely envious of the families I saw exploring the park on bike - what a peaceful ride that must be!

After our hike in the Redwoods we packed up and headed down the road to Sebastapol, where we met up with my husband's parents at The Barlow. How I didn't come across this place when researching our first trip to the area is beyond me. Formerly an apple cannery, the area has been re-purposed into a collection of local retailers, restaurants and tasting rooms. I am in love with this concept and very much appreciate the ability to experience the local flavors and products without having to drive to a dozen venues with kids in tow. The Barlow reminded me a lot of the Swift Street Courtyard in Santa Cruz (a re-purposed brussel sprout packing plant), but on a larger scale.

I can't say enough about the charm of The Barlow. All of the shops and restaurants had such a beautiful and cohesive aesthetic. Most of the storefronts had industrial garage doors or sliding glass panels that allowed the venues to open up to private dining patios or the sidewalk, resulting in very inviting spaces. A perfect example of this open concept was Vignette Pizzeria, where we settled in for a delicious lunch. The kids were able to transition from our table to running around the neighboring plaza, making for a very enjoyable and relaxed meal!

After lunch we went around the corner to Subzero Ice Cream, which makes ice cream from scratch with the help of liquid nitrogen. The kids enjoy the "magic" of watching the ice cream emerge from a cloud of liquid nitrogen and I have to say that it tastes pretty darn good too!

Next on the list was wine and beer tasting! This is where I cross my fingers and hope that the ice cream somehow results in extra good behavior. Our first stop was MacPhail Family Wines, where you can buy wine by the glass or experience one of their tasting flights. I opted for a glass of wine and enjoyed it on the outdoor patio with the kids. The venue was kid-friendly (there were multiple families with young kids sitting on the outdoor patio) and overall very enjoyable.

After wine tasting, we made the short walk down to Woodfour Brewing for some beer tasting. We were able to snag an outdoor table and quickly settled in for some beer flights. One thing that I particularly appreciated was that in addition to their reasonably priced beer flights, they offered both 8oz and 16oz pours, a perfect compromise if you aren't up for a full tasting.

Although our visit to The Barlow was several hours long, there is still so much more I want to see on our next trip. Circle of Hands toy store was a favorite for the kids and coffee at Taylor Maid Farms and pastries from Ultra Crepes are just a couple of places that will likely be a part of our next visit. Whether you are looking for a full day of entertainment or just a quick pit-stop, I highly recommend making The Barlow part of your Sonoma County itinerary.

What are your favorite spots in Sonoma County?

Here are a few other ideas if you are spending time in the area;

The details: Armstrong Redwood State Natural Reserve is about an hour and a half from Berkeley  (Sebastapol is a bit closer at about an hour from Berkeley). Parking along the street and in the lot by the visitors center is free, but you will want to arrive before 10am for best parking availability. If you choose to enter the park gates with your vehicle, there is an $8 fee per car. Pizza at Vignette Pizzeria ranged from $13-$19. A kids scoop at Subzero was $3.75 (and it's a generous scoop). Tastings at MacPhail Winery start at $20, with glasses ranging from $8-$14. Beer flights at Woodfour were $8/5 beers, or $5 for a pint, $3.50 for a half pint.

Wednesday, October 14, 2015

Steep Ravine Cabins

If you were ever going to create a Bay Area Bucket List (or maybe you already have?) then the Steep Ravine Cabins should definitely be high on that list. They first came on my radar back in December when we took our very first family trip to Stinson Beach. While sitting on the sand, I noticed what appeared to be a cluster of bunkers sitting on a hillside about a mile down the coast. After doing a little research I was ecstatic to find out that not only were they cabins, but you could rent them!

The reservation process is a bit daunting and the entire month will book up in less than a few minutes once the reservation window opens. With that said, getting a weekend slot is hard to come across, so our reservation ended up being for a Monday night. I'm not one to complain about an extra long weekend, and traffic tends to be lighter during the week as well, so it was a win-win!

Check-in time is 2:00 pm, so we decided to spend the first half of the day at Stinson Beach. Since we booked our cabin 7 months in advance, we had no idea what the weather was going to be like, but we ended up getting unseasonably warm beach weather! It was a perfectly clear day and mid-80's with a slight breeze. Stinson is such a sweet little town and the beach is just beautiful. We had no problem finding a nice spot in the sand where the kids entertained themselves by building sand castles and chasing the waves.

We wrapped things up in the early afternoon and arrived at the gate to the Steep Ravine Cabins promptly at 2:00. We were so eager to check everything out! Once you drive through the gate, there is a long single-lane road that hugs the mountain and winds its way down to the cabins. On the drive in we saw huge hawks circling overhead and small lizards crossing the road.

We parked our car in the small lot next to the cabins and eagerly rushed down to our home for the night, otherwise known as Cabin #5. The cabins were originally built in the 1940's and were leased out to individual families. They were later acquired by the state and fell into disrepair until the 1980's when the cabins went through substantial renovations and were made available to the public to rent. I have mentioned before how much I love good architecture, and I am particularly in love with functionally designed small spaces. This cabin was probably no more than 300 sq. feet, but I felt like our family of four could comfortably live there forever! There is a common room with a wood burning stove, built-in table and benches and a built-in sleeping platform as well as a nook for setting up a make-shift kitchen. A small hallway leads to a bedroom with two more sleeping platforms (one full size, one twin size), and off the hallway is a small closet and another small room with a sleeping platform perfect for a child. And of course there are the huge windows over-looking the ocean which make the cabins feel twice their size.

One of my favorite parts of trips like this is the disconnect you feel from the rest of the world. Aside from some play-doh and a couple of flashlights, we didn't bring any "entertainment" for the kids, and we didn't need to! They were happy exploring the hillside, looking out for lizards and birds and playing with rocks and sticks. After grilling up some sausages we took a short walk along a nearby hiking trail and watched the sunset (a luxury we don't often get to experience with kids!).

Once the sun went down, we got out our flashlights and sat in the common room chatting with the kids and having some very silly conversations. There is something about staying up way past your bedtime in a dark cabin with flashlights that brings out the silly side of everyone. We had a cabin full of laughter.

After the girls went to sleep, we stayed up a little longer, enjoying the peacefulness of the setting and watching as deer passed outside our window! We don't see a lot of wildlife, aside from squirrels, birds and maybe the ocassional racoon, so having a deer walking just a few feet from our cabin window was pretty amazing!

I think this is a good point to talk about having realistic expectations when traveling with kids. This was our very first cabin-camping experience with the girls, and I approached it knowing that the likelihood of me getting a great night sleep was pretty much zero. Our youngest was moving all over the place on her sleeping platform which made me nervous that she would fall out, so she quickly was moved into bed with us. Halfway through the night our air mattress was pretty deflated and by 4 in the morning both kids were WIDE awake and wanting to explore! After a few more changes to our sleeping arrangements, everyone was back to sleep until about 7am. We definitely have not figured out the sleeping situation (is it possible to sleep comfortably while camping??) but that didn't take away from the experience at all for me. If anything I just laugh at the memory of our 2 year old wanting to sleep on top of me while I sank further down into a deflated mattress, and our 4 year old peeing outdoors at 4am while we looked out on the ocean and the fog rolling in.

The weather on the coast can change drastically from one day to the next, and we woke up to a pretty cold cabin and a lot of fog outside. It didn't faze the kids one bit, and I got to work making some pancakes and coffee, which quickly warmed me up. Despite the cold morning and dense fog, we got to see some pretty amazing wildlife in the first few hours of daylight. We saw dozens of dolphins swimming along the coast as well as a seal that was thrashing around in the water with a large fish for a solid ten minutes while birds circled overhead and dove down trying to get the fish each time the seal came above the water. Again, since we aren't used to a lot of wildlife where we live, this was a particularly amazing treat for us.

After breakfast we packed the car up and said goodbye to our lovely little cabin.

Some tips if you are headed to Steep Ravine:
  • There really are no bad cabins, but after scoping out all the options, I would say that our cabin (#5) probably was the least desirable because the cabin below us obstructed some of our view. The other cabins had more of an elevation differential and therefore, less obstructed views. The upside to our cabin is that it had the gentlest slope surrounding it and more room for the kids to explore without getting close to some of the steeper portions of the hillside. 
  • The cabins come equipped with brooms and a dustpan, as well as a bottle opener and a wood burning stove. You can purchase wood for the stove in the parking lot, or bring your own. There is also a barbecue outside each cabin (don't forget to bring charcoal and matches).
  • You may want to bring extra sheets to hang from the windows for additional privacy. There are clips already in place, you just need to bring the sheet. 
  • There is no electricity in the cabins or plumbing, however there are water spickets located centrally among the cabins and two bathrooms with sinks and real toilets. They do NOT have soap or paper towels, so bring your own. 
  • They allow you to light candles in the cabin and there are hooks in the ceiling beams for hanging flashlights or lanterns. 
  • While there are sleeping platforms, there are NO mattresses, so you will need to bring your own mattress pad and linens. 
  • The best cabins in my opinion were #10 and #9, followed closely by #7 and #8. Cabins #5, #2 and #6 are in a row above cabins #7-9 and therefore have slightly obstructed views of the water. The upside to this row of cabins is that you are further away from where the hillside becomes steeper and potentially dangerous for kids. With that said, assuming there is appropriate supervision, I don't think that any of the cabin locations would be dangerous for families with young kids. 
  • Small field mice CAN get into the cabin, so you want to make sure you don't leave food out. I also noticed that some people have used duct tape to tape over any openings at the bottom of the door to the cabin. This seems like a good option if you don't plan on having to exit the cabin multiple times at night for bathroom runs.
  • Stinson beach is a short 5-10 minute drive away and there are restaurants and a small market if you forget anything.
  • The cabins rent out for $100/night, which is pretty amazing considering the location and views!
  • Reservations can be made through Reserve America up to 7 months in advance.  Make sure you are reserving a cabin and not a campsite (assuming you want a cabin). You can also check for last minute cancellations if you have a flexible schedule.