Looking for a fun and educational day trip? Why not explore California's railroading past at Sacramento's California State Railroad Museum? Located in the historic Old Sacramento neighborhood, it's an easy day trip from the Bay Area or a convenient stop on the way home from Tahoe. Either way, it's perfect for a family outing at any time of the year.
If you like trains—and really, who doesn't?—the California State Railroad Museum is the place to go. Chronicling the history of California's railroads from the first transcontinental railroad in the 1860s to the modern day, there's really something here for the whole family. Not only can you view two centuries worth of historic locomotives and rolling stock, but you can actually go on board four different railroad cars, one of which is equipped to simulate movement at night.
Also on view in the museum are a huge array of toy trains and model railroad equipment. It's also one of the most family-friendly museums you can visit, full of big machines and fun things for kids to see and do.
Who doesn't like Jelly Belly jelly beans? You probably knew that they come in practically every flavor imaginable, but did you know that they're made just up the road in the Solano County town of Fairfield? Did you know you can tour their factory for free? The Jelly Belly factory offers a fun, tasty, and informative tour daily that's a perfect outing for families and groups.
The Jelly Belly Visitor Center is open every day (except for New Year's Day, Easter, Thanksgiving, and Christmas) from 9 am to 5 pm, and guided tours of the facility operate daily from 9 am to 4 pm. No reservations are required—just show up at the factory at 1 Jelly Belly Lane in Fairfield. Tours leave every 10 to 15 minutes and last about 40 minutes or so. Typically, you'll have to wait for about 15 minutes for a tour, but during really busy periods like holidays, spring break, and Christmas vacation, you can expect to wait for an hour or more.
When it's your time to go, you'll be handed a paper Jelly Belly cap (the wearing of which is mandatory, unless you brought your own cap or hair net) and your group will move upstairs to start the tour. No photos are allowed in the factory, but along the way you'll see just about every part of the plant, including the candy kitchen, the packing and shipping areas, and the place where they coat and polish the jelly beans as a final step in their manufacture. My kids were amazed by all the giant bags of sugar stacked on the factory floor. ("You mean they use all of that?!")
While we love the skiing and winter fun at Lake Tahoe, we know that not everyone's a skiier, and sometimes you just want to take the kids up to play in the snow. While many of the Tahoe ski resorts like Northstar, Squaw Valley, and Heavenly have tubing parks, ice skating, and other winter non-skiing activities for the family, there are plenty of places in the Sierras where you can get your snow play fix without the ski resort hustle and bustle (and price tag).
Most of these snow play sites are within a few hours' drive from Marin and the San Francisco Bay Area. While some have tubes and sleds to rent, others, most notably the California State Sno-Parks, offer little more than a place to park your car so you can go play in the snow. For a list of Lake Tahoe ski resorts that offer both skiiing and snow play activities, read our article here.
While there are plenty of awesome pumpkin patches to choose from in Marin and southern Sonoma counties (see our list of those here), you can find other great places to pick up pumpkins and other Halloween and autumn treats throughout the greater Bay Area. Maybe you're headed on a road trip to the south bay, or bound for the grandparents' house in Leisuretown this October—there's probably a pumpkin patch on the way. Here are a few out-of-town pumpkin patches, in Solano, Contra Costa, and San Mateo counties, that we've visited at one time or another or have had recommended to us.
Of course if your favorite isn't here, now's the time to let us know! Leave a comment to this post or send us an email and we'll consider adding it to the list.
Western Railway Museum Pumpkin Festival
5848 Highway 12
Suisun, CA 94585
(707) 374-2978 www.wrm.org
Saturdays and Sundays, October 13–28, 9:30 am–5 pm
The Western Railway Museum in rural Solano County holds its celebrated annual Pumpkin Festival every Saturday and Sunday from October 13–28. Ride a vintage electric express train to the pumpkin patch at Gum Grove Station for pumpkins, tractor rides, games, music, and pumpkins for sale, of course. Admission is $12 for adults, $11 for seniors 65+, and $9 for children 2–14. Admission includes museum entry, unlimited train rides, picnic area use, and parking. Reservations are not accepted.
Cool Patch Pumpkins
6585 Milk Farm Road (right off I-80—look for the iconic Milk Farm sign)
Dixon, CA 95620
(530) 304-0163 www.coolpatchpumpkins.com
Open daily, September 15–November 1, 9 am-8 pm
A humungous pumpkin patch out in Dixon. Several varieties of pumpkins, squash, and vegetables, a 45-acre corn maze (the largest in the world, according to the Guiness Book of World Records), food, hay rides, a teepee village, and pedal karts and tricycles for rent.
While miniature railroads like Sonoma TrainTown are fun, eventually you have to move up to the real deal. Railtown 1897 State Historic Park in the Gold Country town of Jamestown offers families the chance to see what a real working railroad looks like and, better yet, to experience a ride on a historic, century-old steam train. Railtown 1897 was one of the many parks slated for closure back in July, but due to the efforts of passionate supporters, it remains open for all of us to enjoy.
A three-hour drive from the Bay Area, Railtown 1897 is a fantastic destination for a family weekend getaway, especially when combined with some of the other Gold Country attractions in the area, like Columbia State Historic Park. If you're thinking of getting in one last road trip before summer vacation end, this could be the place to go.
As the name implies, Railtown 1897 has been around since the end of the 19th century, when it was known as the Sierra Railway, a short line railroad that traveled between Jamestown and nearby Sonora, Angels Camp, and Oakdale. The railroad's chief claim to fame, and one of the reasons that it's still around today, is its role in countless Hollywood movies, including High Noon, Unforgiven, and Back to the Future III and TV shows like Wild Wild West and Petticoat Junction. Pretty much any western movie that you care to name that features a train was shot here.
One of our favorite destinations for a quick family getaway is California's Gold Country in the Sierra Foothills. It's a relatively short 3 hour drive from the Bay Area, and there are plenty of things for families to do. You can visit historic mining towns, pan for gold, explore caves, go wine tasting (for mom and dad, of course), take a ride on a 19th-century steam train, hike, fish, and more.
The highlight of our visits to the Gold Country always Columbia State Historic Park in the Tuolumne County town of Columbia. In fact, much of Columbia is the park itself. While most of the small Mother Lode towns along Highway 49 are filled with California history, Columbia takes this to an extreme—its downtown has been preserved to represent its mid 19th-century heyday, and in fact it's the best preserved Gold Rush town in California.
Columbia is kind of like California's answer to Colonial Williamsburg, but on a smaller scale. It's a fantastic place for families with children since there's a lot to do and see. The downtown state park part of Columbia is also closed to vehicular traffic for much of the year (stagecoaches excepted), so it's safe and families literally have the run of the place.
Is your child a Thomas the Tank Engine fanatic? If so, your chance to experience all things Thomas & Friends and even take a ride on a train drawn by Thomas the Tank Engine himself is coming this summer! Tickets are on sale now for Day Out with Thomas: Mystery on the Rails Tour 2012, which takes place over two weekends on July 27, 28, and 29 and August 3, 4, and 5 at Roaring Camp Railroads in Felton, located in the Santa Cruz Mountains.
You can take a train ride, meet Sir Topham Hatt, enjoy live music, take in some storytelling, get a (temporary) Thomas & Friends tattoo, create with Mega Bloks, and even watch videos. There's something for everyone. Of course there are also plenty of ways available to separate you from your cash, with just about every conceivable Thomas & Friends product available for sale.
We attended Day Out with Thomas a few years ago and had a grand time. It's busy (bordering on chaotic, but in a good way), fun, and there's definitely no lack of things to do. When we took our ride with Thomas we got seats in the coach just behind him—try to do this if you can, because you can't see him very well from anything more than two cars back or so.
Just across its namesake bridge from Marin County lies a perfect day-trip destination for familes: San Francisco's Golden Gate Park. This urban oasis boasts over 1,000 acres of forests, meadows, lakes, gardens, museums, playgrounds, and other attractions. There's so much to do here that you'll probably want to visit several times to take it all in.
Established in the 1870s, Golden Gate Park stretches from Ocean Beach in the west to the city's Haight-Ashbury district in the east, and is bordered by the Sunset and Richmond districts on the south and north, respectively. Whether your family wants to play at an historic playground, visit the penguins at the Cal Academy, take in some art at a world-class museum, or have lunch with a view of the Pacific Ocean, there's something for you to do here.
In recent years, the tiny West Marin town of Point Reyes Station has become something of a foodie hot spot, and one of the reasons for this is Cowgirl Creamery, creator of amazing artisanal cheeses crafted from locally produced milk. When you're visiting Point Reyes Station or passing through on the way to the beach at Point Reyes National Seashore, Cowgirl Creamery and Cowgirl Cantina are worth a stop to not only pick up some delicious locally produced foods, but to see how artisan and farmstead cheese is made as well.
Step through the doors of the weathered wood Tomales Bay Foods building on Point Reyes Station's 4th Street (around the corner from the town's main drag), and you'll be greeted by a cheese counter holding a bewildering variety of cheeses, many of which are the products of Cowgirl Creamery. Don't be afraid to ask for samples, which the cheesemongers will happily give.