Although the chill of fall and the rainy season are upon us, there is no reason we can’t get outside with our kids to take a hike. Hiking as a family allows us to enjoy together time while staying fit and healthy. In her new book, Best Hikes with Kids: San Francisco Bay Area, Laure Latham presents 100 Bay Area hikes that are suitable for families with children.
While researching her book, Latham explored trails in different seasons, searching for locations that offered not just a hike but also a “fun factor”—farms, nature centers, nearby museums, creeks or waterfalls, wildlife—something beyond just views and exercise, which often appeal to parents more than their young companions. In a recent conversation, Latham pinpointed fun-factor hikes for PAMP families to enjoy in the late fall and winter.
PAMP: Where in the Bay Area can families explore fall colors?
Latham: In the Santa Cruz Mountains, there are several good parks that have beautiful fall colors. Los Trancos Open Space Preserve [Hike #82 in her book], above Palo Alto, has earthquake walks along a guided trail. It has different oak trees that turn different colors and lose their leaves. Also Purissima Creek Redwoods overlooks Half Moon Bay. All along the creek you’ll find big-leaf maple trees, and the trees’ leaves turn really yellow before falling; they’re beautiful. Enter at Higgins Canyon Road.
Huddart Park in San Mateo has a few trails where you can see some fall colors—not too many, but if you go on the nature trail you’ll see a few. Tilden Park in Berkeley has some really nice trails, and Mount Diablo has some really nice colors, lots of flowers that turn very yellow. Uvas Canyon County Park [Hike #76] has some beautiful colors as well.
Hakone Gardens in Saratoga are traditional Japanese gardens. This isn’t a hike, but there’s an incredible collection of maple trees, and in the fall they are flamboyant. It’s right next to Sanborn Skyline County Park [Hike #78]; you can go there to take a hike then come to the gardens to see the beautiful colors. You cannot do this hike with a stroller, because there are some parts with steps, but you can do it with a carrier. There are lots of leaves to pick as well.
PAMP: Can you suggest some places for Peninsula families to hike during the rainy season?
Latham: One rainy-season hike that I really like is Uvas Canyon County Park in Morgan Hill, south of San Jose [Hike #76]. It’s a beautiful, really short hike on a wide road, and you can see three different waterfalls right off the main trail in just a mile. The ratio of effort to reward is incredible! It’s great for preschoolers, because there are two short fall-side trails to reach the top of two of the waterfalls, and it’s really short—just 0.1 mile. There are lots of different places where you can access the creek and just watch the bugs or build a small dam. [Editor’s Note: While the trails at Uvas Canyon are accessible to jogging strollers, they are a bit steep; a hiking backpack is preferable for young children.]
During the winter, I also like Castle Rock State Park [Los Gatos, Hike #89]. It does get quite cold in the woods. It’s all under oak trees, so if it rains you’re somewhat protected. It’s very green and mossy, which gives it sort of a rainforest feel. The full loop that I describe in the book is a loop around big climbing boulders, so you’ll see professional climbers along the way. There are also lots of smaller trails with small stony caves where kids can crawl in and go from chamber to chamber, especially the biggest rock in the middle. There are tons of flat areas where you can picnic around the big boulders.
If you want to extend the hike another 2 miles up and back, you can walk to an overlook just above a waterfall and a big climbing cliff. Beginners usually climb right next to the waterfall, which is quite fun to see. While the small loop is jogging stroller accessible, a backpack or carrier is better for the big loop. Hiking kids can do an acorn treasure hunt on the way back!
Castle Rock very close to the Skyline Chestnut Farm, where you can go and pick chestnuts under the trees through the end of November. You can do a chestnut expedition in the morning and then go and have a picnic at Castle Rock.
PAMP: Are there wintertime hikes where kids can see wildlife?
Latham: If you want to look at monarch butterflies, there are two places. Ardenwood Historic Farm [Hike #30] is very close, and they have a monarch butterfly program every winter from December through February or March, depending on the temperature. [Editor’s Note: 2011 programs are scheduled beginning November 25; see the website for details.] The rangers take the kids on a small walk to eucalyptus trees where they can see all the butterflies hanging from the branches.
If you drive to Santa Cruz, Natural Bridges State Beach/Monarch Butterfly Nature Preserve [Hike #92] has a stroller-accessible boardwalk and an observation platform where you can watch the monarchs. You can then hike down to the beach and play in the sand.
Oakland’s Redwood Regional Park [Hike #27] has clusters of ladybugs along the trail. It looks like the branches are rusty, but they are in fact covered with thousands of ladybugs. You could combine Fairyland with a hike here! Call the rangers to know when the ladybugs are in season; it’s usually when the weather is below 55 degrees. They’re usually along the stream trail. The ladybugs cluster all together to keep warm. Don’t go on a rainy day because they hide under the leaves! The trail is jogging stroller accessible. Also, there are two playgrounds along the way, so you can even stop at the playgrounds. It’s very child-friendly.
The Palo Alto Baylands Nature Preserve [Hike #81] is nice on a dry day. There are some really nice flat hikes that are really easy with strollers.
Coyote Hills Regional Park in Fremont [Hike #29] is a great place with children’s programs. It’s good for several reasons. First of all, there’s an incredible bike path; if you have either a jogging stroller or a kid on wheels, this is the place to go. They have a really nice boardwalk that goes through a marshy area, and there’s a fun trail for children where you can walk through the reeds. There are so many options, and there’s a nature center. There’s an old reconstructed Ohlone Village, though it’s closed to the public except for special events. (Check with the park ranger.) There are marshes east of the hills, and when you go to the western side of the hills you walk right along the Bay, and you can see the salt flats.
PAMP: What are key items to carry in the backpack when hiking with small children?
Latham: In my girls’ backpack, they usually have a little magnifying bug box to look at bugs on the trail. Kids love to look at bugs! I always bring more snacks than needed, extra layers—even if I know what the weather is going to be like—because they might slip in water or jump in a puddle.
In terms of First Aid, I pack light since we’re usually not too far from the trailhead and we usually have cell phone reception. I have Band-Aids and disinfecting wipes. If you’re nervous about poison oak, I recommend using ointment to reduce exposure. I recommend that children wear long sleeves and long pants all the time to reduce risk.
Sunscreen and a hat are important, as well as a water bottle. We bring a small flashlight that they can use if we find a cave, or if they want to have fun in the woods.
We also have laminated cards listing tide pool animals that we bring on beach hikes.
PAMP: Why do you feel that hiking and raising kids in nature is beneficial?
Latham: I think it makes them very aware of their environment, because in nature obviously you get different sounds than at home. When they are very young, they learn a lot about textures just by touching pinecones, moss on a tree, banana slugs. There are so many experiences you can have outside that you can’t reproduce inside. Because the weather in the Bay Area is variable, you’re always in for a surprise when you go out. It makes them more adaptable to situations. Kids learn to cope with the unexpected, they learn to have fun without toys, and it’s a great way to watch kids have free play, building with sticks or with rocks. It teaches them to make up their own play world; it’s totally unstructured and leaves a lot of room for the imagination. It has that magical, fairy tale appeal. And if they learn to identify a few plants when they get older, they also become aware of the properties of the plants – when they are poisonous, when they are edible, when they are exotic, when they are native. They learn a lot about just reading the landscape.
I want to make my children independent on the trail. When you go outside, it’s also important about learning life skills. When you get to an intersection and you don’t know if it’s left or right, if you’ve been outside quite a bit and you’ve learned how to read the terrain you’ll be able to pick the right path. Now I have my kids hike in front of me so that they can actually show me the way. I let them take the lead, and it’s empowered them. Sometimes they even get to pick where we go.
PAMP has a copy of Laure Latham’s book, Best Hikes with Kids: San Francisco Bay Area for one lucky reader! Comment on this story to enter a drawing for the book; we will announce a winner on November 15.
Hillary Easom is the Managing Editor of the PAMP newsletter. A freelance writer and yoga teacher, she is primarily Mom to two vibrant kids who love to explore the outdoors.
An experienced hiker, climber, and open-water swimmer, Laure Latham is a journalist for parenting websites such as The Red Tricycle and Examiner.com. A former tax attorney in Europe, Latham now lives in Pacifica with her husband and two daughters, where they enjoy getting into the outdoors as much as possible. Follow their explorations at their adventure blog, www.frogmom.com.
Image provided by Melissa Miller & Vinnie Fernandez, PAMP’s Lead Photographers and co-owners of C’est Jolie Photography