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Northern California Adventures with Kids
When it comes to kid-sized adventuring, California, with its vast mountain ranges, lush valleys, sense of history and man-made enchantments is full of possibilities. So many possibilities, in fact, that it makes sense to slice the state in half (horizontally, please) and choose either north or south for your travels, since trying to take the whole state on could be a bit overwhelming. We’ll go north this time around and highlight some of our favorite Golden State adventures.
One of the crown jewels of the national park system, Yosemite National Park occupies a stretch of the Sierra Nevada east of San Francisco and invites you to walk, run, swim, climb, hike, bike or simply sigh year round. Make Yosemite Valley your home base, where you’ll be surrounded by fabled peaks like Half Dome and El Capitan and have a slew of adventuring possibilities close at hand. A good start, especially for kids, is the two-hour valley bus tour . The bus drivers are knowledgeable and entertaining guides and offer an excellent overview of this vast landscape. Hiking one of Yosemite’s many trails is a must and families will want to start on the Vernal and Nevada Falls trail , since the wide paths and gradual climb will encourage even the most novice hiker, as will the ever-widening panorama of streams and waterfalls. Another easy hike is the mile-plus walk around Mirror Lake . Biking, swimming and horseback riding are available during the warm weather months while skis and snowshoes can be strapped on in the wintertime. Ranger-led interpretive programs are available year-round and are a great way for kids to learn more about Yosemite’s natural wonders. Wrap up your day by roasting s’mores in the Mountain Room Lounge (roasting kits available). All that said, the best thing about Yosemite may be those quiet moments when your son listens to a cricket or is mesmerized by a field of wildflowers. Stay Yosemite Lodge at the Falls, Yosemite Valley (559) 252-4848 or yosemitepark.com. Spacious, comfortably furnished double rooms average $160/night. Eat Mountain Room Restaurant and Lounge, Yosemite Lodge (209) 372-1281. Steaks and seafood are the specialty at this room with a view. Ahwahnee Dining Room, Ahwahnee Hotel, Yosemite Valley (209) 372-1489. Reservations are a must for this rustic yet elegant dining room where lunch or Sunday brunch are your best bet. Play Yosemite Valley bus tour can be booked at the Yosemite Lodge. Information on activities and programs within the park can be found at nps.gov/yose.
A bright blue lake straddling the California-Nevada line, Lake Tahoe is most commonly associated with winter sports but also makes for an appealing summertime adventure. Whatever the season, make Tahoe City, on the lake’s western ( California) shore, your home base. If it’s snow that’s brought you here, pick up a molded plastic sled at any grocery store or ski shop and take it to one of the many sledding hills that ring the town. Our young son couldn’t get enough of this simple-yet-thrilling activity. More sledding, of the “Mom, please pull my sled!” variety, can be had in the Tahoe National Forest, a lovely wooded expanse that takes in much of the western side of the lake and cuts right through Tahoe City. Would-be young skiers might want to start out with snowshoes or cross-country skis at the Tahoe XC Cross Country Ski Area, a great way to develop those ski legs. Once ready to take on the mountain, head over to Northstar at Tahoe, where the kids ski school is ranked as one of the best in the country by Ski Magazine. There are plenty of beginner and intermediate ski runs at Northstar, making this a very kid-friendly mountain; advanced skiers should head up the road to Squaw Valley USA, site of the 1960 Winter Olympics and home to some killer ski runs. Face it, though, no ski week would be complete without the requisite snow man or snow angel, so be sure to factor in time for this priceless pursuit. Summertime visitors to Lake Tahoe can trade in their skis for bikes and head back into the Tahoe National Forest for biking or hiking amid spectacular views. The sandy shores of King’s Beach, just up the road from Tahoe City, are an excellent lakefront tanning spot come July. Stay Pepper Tree Inn, 645 N. Lake Blvd., Tahoe City (800) 624-8590 or peppertreetahoe.com. Recently renovated rooms, many with lake view, start at $127/night. “My Tahoe Vacation,” the Lake Tahoe Central Reservations web site, lists condos and private homes for rent at tahoefun.org. Eat Rosie’s Café, 571 N. Lake Blvd., Tahoe City (530) 583-8504. Classic American fare served breakfast, lunch and dinner; the bar’s Happy Hour is hopping. Hyatt Regency Lake Tahoe Resort, 111 Country Club Drive, Incline Village (775) 832-1234. On the Nevada side of the lake and a short drive from Tahoe City, the Hyatt serves the area’s definitive Sunday brunch in a glass-walled, lakefront setting. Play Tahoe XC Cross Country Ski Area, 925 Country Club Drive, Tahoe City (530) 583-5475. Northstar at Tahoe, 100 Northstar Drive, Truckee (800) GO-NORTH or northstarattahoe.com. Squaw Valley USA, Hwy. 89 six miles N. of Tahoe City (530) 583-6955 or squaw.com.
The capital of California has a lot more going for it than the State Capitol and one very famous resident. Begin your visit in the Old Sacramento Historic District, a city-center collection of shops, restaurants and museums that bring the Gold Rush rushing back along cobblestone streets and wooden boardwalks. Possibly the best museum in town is the California State Railroad Museum, where kids of all ages can board beautifully restored coaches or ogle classic toy trains. A six-mile ride along the banks of the Sacramento River on board an old steam train is available Spring through Fall while rotating photographic exhibits brings the rails to life year round. Serious train buffs should consider taking Amtrak into Sacramento, since the train station is right around the corner from the Railroad Museum. The California Museum of History, Women and the Arts has much to say about the men and women who shaped the Golden State. Similarly, the Governor’s Mansion, though no longer in use by the state’s chief executive, has a lot to say about those who lived and worked there for more than a century. And then there’s the California State Capitol, which offers tours daily and a glimpse at democracy in, yes, ACTION! Stay Holiday Inn Capitol Plaza, 300 J Street (Old Sacramento historic district) (916) 446-0100. All the basics in an unbeatable location starting at $109/night. Eat Fat CityBar & Café, 1001 Front Street (Old Sacramento historic district) (916) 446-6768. Turn-of-the-century café serving pub-style fare for lunch and dinner. Play Old Sacramento Historic District, the area near Front and J Streets downtown; oldsacramento.com. California State Railroad Museum, 111 I Street (916) 445-6645 or csrmf.org. California Museum of History, Women and the Arts, 1020 O Street (916) 653-7524 or california-museum.org. Governor’s Mansion State Historic Park, 1526 H Street (916) 323-3047 or parks.ca.gov. California State Capitol, downtown Sacramento (916) 324-0333 or capitolmuseum.ca.gov.
Think surfer dudes and beach boys with a touch of Coney Island and you’ll have an idea of what Santa Cruz is like. This seaside town ninety minutes south of San Francisco is truly a day at the beach, which will be your first stop. The Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk is a mile-long stretch of roller coasters, carnival rides and screaming teenagers. The thrills of the Giant Dipper, a classic wooden roller coaster opened in 1924 and now a National Historic Landmark, should not be missed. There are rides and attractions for all ages, among them the Looff Carousel, built in 1911 and still serenaded by its original 342-pipe band organ. Cotton candy and corn dogs abound, although the health-conscious may want to stroll over to nearby Santa Cruz Wharf for a fresh fish sandwich. The white-sand beach that hosts the Boardwalk is an ideal spot for sunning and swimming while even calmer waters can be found at the Seymour Center at Long Marine Laboratory. This working marine laboratory emphasizes scientists and how they study the ocean, making the exhibits here far more educational than those at a “Mom, look at that fish!” aquarium. Wrapping up your visit is a ride on a Roaring Camp Railroads train, an historic and scenic journey that will take you from beachfront to redwoods and back in under three hours.
Stay Santa Cruz Beach Inn, 600 Riverside Avenue(831) 458-9660. Comfortable double rooms average $159/night. Eat Stagnaro Bros. Seafood, Santa Cruz Wharf (831) 423-2180. The freshest seafood in town, eat in or to go. Las Palmas, 55 Front Street (831) 429-1220. Fast, inexpensive tacos and enchiladas that are hugely popular with the locals. Crow’s Nest, 2218 E. Cliff Drive (831) 476-4560. Excellent seafood in a pretty setting overlooking the Pacific. Play Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk, 400 Beach Street (831) 423-5590 or beachboardwalk.com. Santa Cruz Wharf, Pacific Avenue at Beach Street (831) 420-5270 or ci.santa-cruz.ca.us/pr/wharf/. Seymour Center at Long Marine Laboratory, 100 Shaffer Road (831) 459-3800 or www2.ucsc.edu/seymourcenter/. Roaring Camp Railroads, six miles N. of Santa Cruz in Felton, CA (831) 335-4484 or roaringcamp.com.
Elaine Sosa is a food and travel writer based in San Francisco, California. When she's not busy as a domestic goddess she's out traveling with husband Fen and three-year-old son Steven. She hopes to be the next Charles Kuralt.