Point Reyes Station is the social and cultural hub of West Marin, and a fantastic destination for a day out with the family. While the railroad that gave this small town its name is long gone, Point Reyes Station has become something of a tourist mecca in recent years, with a focus on sustainable agriculture, locally produced artisanal and organic foods, outdoor activities, and art. On weekends, the main street of this quaint and charming gateway to Point Reyes National Seashore bustles with West Marin locals, Bay Area day trippers, bicyclists, motorcyclists, hikers, and visitors from around the world.
This is the second in our series of "Day Out" articles profiling family-friendly shopping, dining, and activities in Marin's communities. Read our first article in the series: Day Out in Point Reyes Station.
While Novato doesn't have the upscale cachet of its southern neighbors like Mill Valley or Tiburon, you'll find that there's more to Marin's northernmost town than just Target and Costco. Look beyond the suburban sprawl and big-box stores and you'll find a charming family-friendly community with a small-town atmosphere that belies its large size.
Novato has much to offer for families, from its parks and open space areas to locally-run family-friendly restaurants and shops. Novato also boasts great weather—giving it its nickname of "Valley of the Gentle Seasons"—so if you wish is to escape the summer fog of southern Marin, Novato is the place to go for a little sunshine.
A great place to see what Novato is all about is in its downtown in and around Grant Avenue. Start in the Old Town neighborhood at Grant and Reichert Avenues, home to Novato's iconic city hall (housed in a a red 1890s Carpenter Gothic church), the Novato History Museum, and a number of locally run businesses and restaurants.
One of our absolute favorite family day trips is to the town of Sonoma. Sonoma is a fantastic wine country destination for either a family outing or a weekend getawaty. About a half-hour’s drive from northern Marin, Sonoma is not as busy or as up-to-the-moment trendy as the Napa Valley, its flashier Wine Country neighbor to the east, but it manages to be at the same time both quaint and sophisticated, with a clear sense of tradition and history. Above all, Sonoma is a great place for families, since the Wine Country isn’t necessarily all about wine.
One of our favorite things to do is to stake out a place in Sonoma’s historic downtown Plaza, and have a picnic. Once the parade ground for the Mexican soldiers stationed here in the 19th century, the Plaza is an expansive park in the heart of Sonoma, with lush green lawns, two playgrounds, fountains, a pond with ducks, and plenty of shade. It’s the perfect place for families to relax and play. There's often something fun going on here, too, like art shows, a farmer's market, and even an annual ox roast celebration.
In our last look at the town of Sonoma—one of our favorite places for a family outing—we focused on the historic Sonoma Plaza, picnicing, and places to pick up lunch supplies. The Plaza itself is surrounded by the historic remains of the old Mexican town of Sonoma, which dates back to the founding of Mission San Francisco Solano by Father José Altamira in the 1820s. Sites include the mission itself, the remains of General Mariano Vallejo's Casa Grande, the Sonoma Barracks, the Blue Wing Inn, the Toscano Hotel, and Lachryma Montis, Vallejo's Victorian home, which is located a short distance from the Plaza.
The historic buildings in Sonoma, all part of Sonoma State Historic Park, are open Tuesday through Sunday from 10 am to 5 pm and admission is inexpensive (just $3 for adults and $2 for kids), so you should definitely plan a visit with your family. The park is a great way to learn about California history, especially since Sonoma was the site of the 1846 Bear Flag Revolt that proclaimed the California Republic and marked the beginning of the end for Mexican rule of the Alta California, as well as the creation of California's iconic state Bear Flag.