Last weekend, we visited one of our favorite outdoors spots in the Bay Area, Jack London State Historic Park. Located in the small Sonoma Valley town of Glen Ellen, it's about a 45-minute drive north from Marin.
The park is made up of land that was at one time the Beauty Ranch owned by renowned writer, social reformer, and rabble-rouser Jack London (1876–1916), author of classic adventure tales like The Sea Wolf,The Call of the Wild, and White Fang. This is always a destination for us in later winter and early spring—the wild mustard and other wildflowers are in bloom, the weather is cool and clear, and it's breathtakingly beautiful.
Nestled at the foot of Sonoma Mountain, Jack London State Historic Park is full of stunning scenery, historic buildings, and short easy hikes that are perfect for families. There are also longer treks available for those who don't have kids in tow.
We love to visit the Sonoma Valley, especially during the fall. The weather's usually great, and it's a fun Wine Country destination for families, with family-friendly wineries, historic sites, and more. If you're up for an easy hike with the kids while you're there, check out the Sonoma Overlook Trail in the north end of town. With sweeping views of Sonoma Valley and interesting things to see along the way, it's well worth seeking out.
The trailhead is adjacent to the entrance to the Sonoma Mountain Cemetery at the end of 1st Street West, just north of the Sonoma Plaza. It's well marked, and there's a kiosk with trail maps and information. Make sure you pick up a brochure to take with you on your hike so you can learn about the plants and animals that live in the area.
The round trip is approximately three miles, although shorter hikes are possible. While the Sonoma Overlook trail winds uphill with a considerable change in elevation, there are plenty of gently sloped switchbacks which make the climb easy for anyone. In fact, you don't really realize how far you've climbed until you come into a clearing that offers a spectacular vista of the valley below.
McClelland's Dairy, a family-run certified organic dairy located just west of Petaluma, is a relative newcomer to the North Bay pumpkin patch circuit. Actually, that's only partly true—they last had a pumpkin patch on the farm a decade ago, and decided last year to revive this October tradition.
Compared to other pumpkin patches around Petaluma, McClelland's is a low-key affair, but that doesn't mean it isn't a lot of fun. It's just a slower, gentler fun.
Keep an eye out for their signs as you head down Bodega Road into the Two Rock area west of Petaluma. Turn into the dirt driveway and follow over a little bridge to the dairy farm. On your left you'll see a three-acre pumpkin field where you're welcome to go hunt for that perfect Halloween pumpkin.
In addition to u-pick pumpkins, there's a small bounce house, a hay maze, a big box full or oat seeds (perfect for digging—buckets and shovels provided) and a pen where you can meet some gentle and friendly farm animals, including goats, calves, a bunny, and chicks. Don't miss the large arrangement of pumpkins, squash, gourds, and straw bales—it's perfect for a family photo op.
Many families in Marin and the North Bay have fond memories of visiting the popular pumpkin patch at Cardoza Ranch outside Petaluma. In 2005, the Sonoma County Agricultural Preservation & Open Space District and the Sonoma County Regional Parks Department acquired Cardoza Ranch, also known as Tolay Lake Ranch, turning its 1,737 acres of farmland into a county park.
Tolay Lake Ranch is a unique spot, with a freshwater lake, wetlands, diverse wildlife, and 8,000 years human habitation with extensive archaeological and historical sites. Tolay Lake Regional Park is currently under development and access is restricted, although the public can now make use of the park through a day-use permit program.
However, I'm sure what's on many people's minds is "What happened to the pumpkin patch?" The Sonoma Regional Parks Department has kept the spirit of the old Cardoza pumpkin patch alive by holding the annual Tolay Fall Festival, now in its seventh year. This popular event takes place over two long weekends in October; the Tolay Fall Festival 2012 happensThursday–Sunday, October 11–14 and Wednesday–Sunday October 17–21. The Festival is open on weekdays from 9 am–3 pm and Saturdays and Sundays from 11 am–5 pm.
It's been a while since we've been to TrainTown, the fun and fantastic miniature railroad located in the town of Sonoma, so we decided recently that it was time for a return trip. It's been around since before I was a kid, and it's the kind of place that takes you back to a simpler time.
Sonoma Train Town offers train-related activities that are fun for everyone from toddlers to gradeschool kids (and adults, too), as well as a selection of carnival-style rides. It's also a short drive from pretty much anywhere in Marin, which makes TrainTown a must-visit attraction for North Bay families.
We don't find ourselves up in Santa Rosa all that often, but when we do, we make it a point to stop by Howarth Park and play for a while. This large park on the east side of town is packed with attractions and things to do, and it's well worth a visit if your in the area; it might even merit a special trip up north.
Howarth Park has been a Sonoma County fixture since the 1950s. Not only does the park boast a large, modern set of play structures, it has plenty of other attractions as well. Kids can take a trip on a miniature train, ride a carousel, meet some animals at the barn, take a pony ride, and even rent a boat to sail on adjacent Lake Ralphine.
The main "Land of Imagination" play area is divided into several sections, each suitable for different age groups. At the center of the play area is an Old West town where kids can indulge in creative play. A Native American village area is also part of the playground. An additional playground on the other side of the parking area features swings and a rock climbing wall structure.
Over the last couple of years we've heard a lot of great things about Petaluma's Tara Firma Farms. This family-run farm produces humanely raised pastured chickens, pigs, turkeys, and cattle on 300 acres just across the Sonoma County line. In addition to raising and selling their products, they're committed to educating the public about life on the farm, healthy food, and environmentally sustainable agriculture.
Tara and Craig Smith were inspired to start the farm in 2009 after reading Michael Pollan's The Omnivore's Dilemma, and today you can purchase their products at local farmer's markets, their on-site farm store, and through their popular CSA delivery program, which includes their meats and eggs as well as produce and dairy products from other local organic producers.
Tara Firma farms also offers free farm tours on weekends at 10 am, noon, and 2 pm. We decided we had to visit and check it out, so we headed up to Petaluma for a farm tour last weekend. It was a fantastic experience for both parents and kids!
When we're looking for something fun for the family to do in the Wine Country, we often head to CornerstoneSonoma to explore and play in the gardens. Located just outside the town of Sonoma off Highway 121 (Arnold Drive), across from the Gloria Ferrer winery, Cornerstone is unique complex of gardens, art, galleries, shops, and tasting rooms—and best of all, it's free.
For us, Cornerstone is all about their Gardens. Every time we go to Cornerstone, my kids have a fantastic time exploring the 20 different innovative installations, each with a different theme and each designed by a world-famous landscape architect. Gardens include plants, trees, natural materials, water features (often with fish), and various architectural elements. Wandering through the gardens can be a magical experience for both children and adults, and many of the installations include some sort of hands-on interactive or participatory feature.
If there's a winery out there that strikes the perfect balance of Wine Country sophistication and family-friendliness, it's Cline Cellars. Located on the south end of Sonoma Valley on Highway 121, Cline is a kind of wonderland that has a ton of things to see and do for wine tasters and children alike!
Cline looks pretty unassuming from the highway, where most of the grounds are obscured by vineyards and a low fieldstone wall. Turn into the entrance and you'll realize the expansiveness of the place, which is sited on 350 acres. Park around back or up front by the tasting room, which is housed in an cute 1850s farmhouse. You'll probably want to take a moment to walk around the park-like grounds, which feature lawns, six spring-fed ponds, paths, rose bushes, fountains, and even some vintage Pullman dining cars.
In the lawn area to the right of the tasting room you'll find large bird cages housing a number of brightly colored exotic species of pheasant and pigeon. Behind the tasting room on the other side is a large pond filled with huge fish—you'll see them jumping up to the surface if you wait long enough. There's a machine back there near the pond that dispenses fish food that you can toss to them, if you like.