"All good things are wild and free." --Henry David Thoreau

Sunday, July 29, 2012

Fairies in Oakland? Fairyland at Lake Merritt

As one who prefers trails of dirt to those of concrete, and outdoor wonderlands made of trees and caves and creeks, I was a snob about visiting the Children's Fairyland in Oakland.

Then I visited and now I repent my snobby ways.

Children's Fairyland is the best man-made children's park I've ever been to, seriously, and blows doors on any modern playground or amusement park. I also happen to be a lover of myths, legends, and fairy tales, so this was a treat for me too.

I was afraid the setting would be hot, literally baking like most playgrounds constructed of artificial things in the middle of a city, but most of the play structures were under enormous oak trees, redwoods, and along a meadow. Flowers bloomed everywhere, and the place felt cool and refreshing.

I came for a play, but fell in love with the place. With forty different fairy tale and nursery rhyme settings, how could I see all of them? Then there were puppet shows, a hill to slide down, farm animals (I only saw the two donkeys), rides, a day camp, overnight possibilities, and more.

Blossom the Possum
We met some interesting characters there, and not just from fairy tales. There was a couple of my parents' generation: a visiting wizard named Oberon and his fairy-wife, Morning Glory, both sweet as can be, carrying a gentle opossum named Blossom in a knitted bag. (As an aside, they run a wizardry school, GreySchool.com, worth looking into if you like magic)

I love history and old places, and Fairyland opened in 1950, when my mother was a little girl and long before Disneyland existed (there is a rumor, or truth, that Walt Disney was inspired when he visited this park). 

Fairyland in the Fifties. Photo from alamedainfo.com 
As I wandered around, following my daughter as she went from carousel to toadstool to crooked house to rabbit hole to the belly of the whale to pirate ship, I thought about the generations of children who have explored this place. There's a cool retro style to the place, a real Fifties vibe. 
Fairyland in the Fifties. Photo from alamedainfo.com
Fairyland is right against Lake Merritt, a tidal lagoon that continues to draw enormous flocks of birds and resident Canadian geese. The walking path around the lake is a little over three miles, and there are boats one can rent, plenty of food places, and easy public transportation, like BART, nearby. 

One drawback to Fairyland is the price, $8 per person (everyone 1 and older), but that's not so bad considering entrance includes unlimited rides (carousel, train, Ferris wheel), and the place is a nonprofit organization where you can volunteer in lieu of payment. Membership only allows those people named on the card to enter (meaning no loans to friends or babysitters). Free passes can be obtained, according to Fairyland's website, but I don't know how easy they are to get.

The next time I come, I am going to pack a picnic (there's food to buy and an espresso bar, FYI), and maybe bring a book or two of children's fairy tales, plus a Mother Goose nursery rhyme book. Maybe a big ol' floppy hat too, since it's always so much sunnier in Oakland than SF.

Related Links:
Fairyland, Official Website
Bay Area Children's Theater

the ancient donkeys of Fairyland
Anansi the Spider's Ferris Wheel



A mash-up special posting by Sara Kerry, Tiki Stew, Laura Waters,
Marshall Hahn-Taylor and Jess 

On a lovely summer day in southern England, a group of adult friends and three kids  (ages 2, 6, and 9) decided to explore a new place for all of us: Battle, just outside of Hastings in East Sussex, England. Not only was it a majorly important site in British history (in 1066 AD, William the Conqueror and the Normans battled King Harold and the English here), but there were trails, a ruined abbey, an interactive museum, and a meadow where the pivotal battle occurred. The site of the Battle is a rough field, shrouded by undergrowth and trees--rendering reenactment perhaps impossible. :-) There is a very good visitor centre with some artifacts, audio and a short film about the battle that help to bring the site to life. On the ride home, we agreed how  everyone in our group loved the place. 

The six-year-old loved the interaction---the audio guide, the way he could pick up the Norman shields in the museum, the grass hopper he caught in the field, and that there was nothing restrictive about the place. Everything encouraged him to use his imagination, especially when he ran amok, exploring the ruins of the old abbey (that William the Conqueror built after his success).
The nine-year-old loved the independence---that she could go on her own down the trails and in the abbey, listen to the audio guide instead of hearing adults yammer at her, and the chance to order a piece of cake and a cup of tea at the cafe. She also appreciated the short movie in the museum.

The two-year-old loved the sensory experience---handfuls of fresh blackberries that she picked along the trail, running through the meadow which was the battlefield, and chasing the other children in the old abbey.

Battle marks the site of the last successful military invasion of Britain. The Normans were originally Vikings who settled in northwest France in the 900s eventually creating a powerful state - Normandy. In 1066 William, who had a claim on the English throne, defeated King Harold at the Battle of Hastings and was crowned King on Christmas Day. A new alien aristocracy was imposed on the English population. The Normans dispossessed many Anglo-Saxon landowners, pressed the peasantry into service on their feudal territories and treated their subjects with contempt but they also taught better farming practices, developed the economy and built fine stone cathedrals and churches.

The abbey was founded by William the Conqueror in thanks for his victory and in penance for the bloodshed. The altar of the abbey is said to be located on the spot where Harold died. The abbey was prosperous and during the Dissolution of the Monasteries in Tudor times it was given to Henry VIII's Master of Horse who demolished the church, cloister and chapter house and converted the rest into a country house. The west wing is today a private school, while the fragments of the old abbey are very atmospheric and good to explore.

Related Links:

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Tuesday, July 17, 2012

Fitzgerald Marine Reserve: where the seals come to do some people watching

So your child wants to see animals up close and personal? There's not much better than being on a beautiful seashore half an hour south of San Francisco with incredible tide pools at your feet, and a herd of harbor seals writhing with pleasure on the sand a hundred yards away.

Fitzgerald Marine Reserve in Moss Beach has been a designated plant and animal haven since the late Sixties, and subsequently over two dozen marine species have been discovered here. In terms of discovery, I couldn't believe I'd never been here. What a cool place! I love seals, tide pools, the ocean, and all of that also being close to home. 
The tide pools are chock full of seaweed, anemones, sea stars, crabs, sponges, and fish. A friend of mine actually found an octopus once, she told me. A huge group of seals were farting and grunting on the beach, cool as could be, and so exciting---you just have to stay 100 yards from them (park rule), though lots of them were swimming alongside the shore, quite close with their doggy heads peering out of the water, checking out all the humans.
To get a walk in, cruise along the bluffs on a mile's worth of trails, or ride a bicycle several miles down the California Coastal Trail, all the way to El Granada if you like, where there are plenty of sweet restaurants (Ketch Joanne is my favorite) and picnic places.

Before visiting Fitzgerald Marine Reserve, make sure to check a tide schedule to arrive during the lowest tide:www.Saltwatertides.com.
Keep in mind the park opens at 8 am. Dogs are only allowed on certain trails, and not around the tide pools or the marine animals.
200 Nevada Avenue Moss Beach, CA 94038 San Mateo County
(650) 728-3584 Park HQ (650) 363-4021 Group Tours

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Saturday, July 14, 2012


Fog coming over San Bruno Mountain at sunny Candlestick Point
How many people know there are beaches in southeastern San Francisco? Candlestick Point State Park has 252 acres with not only beaches, but trails, more picnic sites than you can shake a stick at, meadows, piers, and is as relaxing and beautiful as any park situated next to a great blue body of water. It’s such a cool place that you might consider it a necessary destination. 

Windsurfers use the park as a starting point for their forays into the chop, fishermen cast reels from the pier, families have picnics and barbeques, people walk dogs on leash, and bicyclists can cruise for miles. 
Photo by pier Kathryn Rodriguez
 I like to park at the main lot off of Hunter’s Point Expressway, or at the Last Port lot on Harney Way. A trail leads between the two lots.

Percussion! Pic by K. Rodriguez
Each area is great to explore—find Hermit’s Cove, Windharp Hill, Sunrise Point, and an awesome set of permanently installed metal percussion instruments that kids can bang their hearts out on.

If you want to barbecue, it seems like there are dozens of sites to choose from. Almost every picnic area has a view of rippling water, a wind wall, grills, water spigot, garbage cans, a picnic table, and bathrooms within a short walk.
This park probably has more animals than the average park in the city, hands down, because of the Bay, the proximity to large natural spaces such as Bayview Hill and San Bruno Mountain, and that this was/is marshland, which has a high amount of biodiversity. 
Cormorant; pic by K. Rodriguez

This park is also part of the Pacific Flyway, a major route for migrating birds during certain times of the year. Regular residents include crows, ravens, hawks, brown pelicans, seagulls, terns, egrets, and cormorants. Ground squirrels, skunks, and jackrabbits also consider this their home.

 Much of the flora isn’t native because it was planted on landfill, but you’ll find trees like coast live oak and buckeye, bushes like ceanothus and coyote brush, and the ubiquitous invasive edibles, wild radish and wild mustard. Candlestick Point has officially been a park since the late 1970s, but many of the plants look older.
Pic by K. Rodriguez
Come soon. On a recent walk, two park rangers said, “Our schedule is literally month to month.” Despite decreased funding that has left the park understaffed and the parking lot closed on Thursday and Friday, bathrooms are open every day. And how do we keep our state parks from shutting down?!?

Kids on the beach at Candlestick Point

I'll say it---the reputation of this park and the Bayview neighborhood is ill deserved these days. It's crazy that so many maps in San Francisco cut off--literally omit--the southeastern portion of the city (the de Young Museum map in the observation tower, for instance). It's racist, unfair, and unjustifiable.

This is not directed at you, dear reader, it is just my rant now.

In my experience growing up in San Francisco, and now raising a kid here, acts of violence have been random and happen anywhere. Walking in the cities should be done with open eyes. Stay safe wherever you are by bringing a friend, your cell phone, and not living in a vacuum. Say hi to people you pass and help break down the damn stereotypes; they are so tiresome.   

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High and low tide are quite different, and low tide is pretty stinky, so plan your picnic, birthday party, or hike accordingly! You won’t find tidepools here during lowtide, but mudflats that smell gassy and fishy. 

Candlestick Point State Park Brochure (and best trail map) http://www.parks.ca.gov/pages/519/files/CandlestickPt.pdf

Pacific Flyway info (for bird-lovers)

Tide Schedule (high tide recommended)

Thursday, July 12, 2012

Chasing the Alpine Blue at Hetch Hetchy, Yosemite


I was always like, “Yeah, Hetch Hetchy—the place where the water in SF comes from.” But I’d never been there, until this summer.

Hetch Hetchy Reservoir
It’s incredible. I expected the quintessential Yosemite, a mashup of nature and mankind, and in a way Hetch Hetchy is, but walking along it’s northern shore was sublime, the kind of feeling that is almost religious, which says a lot for this atheist city slicker. Instead of humans all over the place, there were hundreds of teal colored butterflies, alpine blues, yellow and black swallowtails, and orange butterflies flickering over the rivulets moving down the granite walls of the valley and into the reservoir, a space so blue and flat and pristine, you almost start to plan a secret skinny dipping event for the next full moon. ;-) There are three great possible hikes from the Hetch Hetchy Reservoir, destinations being the dam itself, Wapama Falls, or Rancheria Falls.

THE TODDLER’S HIKE-- O'Shaughnessy Dam
On the trail
The walk along the top of the dam gives you a feeling of being on the wall of some American castle, and at the far end is a tunnel that a toddler would love to walk through. The dam is an undeniable engineering feat, constructed from 1915 to 1922, and happens to be in a setting so beautiful that John Muir fought tooth and nail to keep it from being built. The view is dazzling, as is the fact that Hetch Hetchy's water travels 167 miles more or less downhill by gravity, and serves more than 2.4 million people with clean drinking water. The tunnel at the far end, where dam meets the valley way, was dynamited out of the rock and it has the feeling of gnomes and magic, dripping with moisture and cooled by wind blowing through it. If you have rain boots for the toddler, bring 'em for stomping in puddles.
Wapama Falls

THE BIG KID’S HIKE--Wapama Falls (3 miles r/t)
The three-mile round-trip walk from the dam to Wapama Falls is plenty for kids, and you’ll need to bring water, snacks, and a hat with an extra wide brim. (In fact, I was fortunate to have a newborn blanket on me, pinned to my hat to keep sun off my shoulders). The trail winds up and down the valley’s edge on a trail that faces the sunny south, but the shade of oaks and bay laurels keeps you cool in moments, and otherwise you smell the aromatic sage, yerba santa, and the scent of hot granite in the sun.  

THE HIKER’S HIKE--Rancheria Falls (9 miles r/t)

En route to Rancheria Falls
The round-trip hike to Rancheria Falls is 9 miles (5.4 one-way from the dam), an all-day trip that eluded even my husband and I. We almost made it, maybe halfway where we came to green meadow with purple flowers and ponderosa pines, the wind warm, the place magical. Some people we passed were going to camp there; they had the right idea.

It’s about three and a half hours drive to Hetch Hetchy from San Francisco, and basically you go east through the Central Valley and towns like Oakdale, where you can buy big baskets of fruit grown in the local orchards. Hetch Hetchy is located on the northwest corner of Yosemite National Park, which is far less trodden than the main valley, FYI.

There is great lodging within a couple miles from each other: camping by a creek with your own “bear box” and flat tent site (Dimond-O Campground), cabins in San Francisco’s own Camp Mather, or deluxe accommodation with a restaurant at the historic Evergreen Lodge.

Trail between Wapama Falls and Rancheria Falls
Bee on lupine flowers
The O'Shaughnessy Dam
Hetch Hetchy Reservoir
Indian paintbrush

Monday, July 9, 2012


Herb Garden of the Visitacion Valley Greenway

Have you ever heard of the Visitacion Valley Greenway? Many people haven’t heard of it, or visited Vis Valley, but don’t worry, the Greenway is like a secret gem within a pretty cool neighborhood. Over a decade ago some neighbors rallied together and created six gardens in empty lots owned by the city, set in a checkerboard pattern of city blocks. We’ll walk the route through them for pleasure, exercise, and the chance to hang out with some like-minded individuals who probably also happen to have kids.

Sunday July 15th, from 10-12. I’ll be at Hans Schiller Plaza by 9:45 am, on Leland Avenue (b/t Rutland and Alpha).  We start walking at 10:15. (If you need coffee and a bathroom before, Eat Drink and Play CafĂ© is a few blocks down the street) 

The Greenway starts flat and is full of blooming flowers this time of year. (Talk about lovely!) Hummingbirds are frequent, as are crows and scrub jays. At the Herb Garden, there’s a staircase, but you can still manage with a stroller (I have on numerous occasions, and am happy to help anyone carry things). The rest is gently uphill, and toddlers will set the pace. 

We’ll wander through Hans Schiller Plaza, Community Garden, Herb Garden, Children’s Play Garden (with a break for swings, sliding, and snacking), the Agriculture Garden, and the Native Plant Garden.

My hope is to picnic in the Children’s Play Garden on the way back down, but break anytime, and do try to make it to the Native Plant Garden for the view (and the biggest amount of lupine I’ve ever seen). It’s usually pretty sunny in this neighborhood, but don’t be discouraged if its overcast—the fog makes incredible patterns coming over San Bruno Mountain and down Geneva Avenue, which we can see.

Fran Martin and Jim Growden of the Greenway will be joining us to talk with anyone about design, landscaping, and more. Possibly someone from Nature in the City will also come along.

Optional: Anyone who wants a gung-ho five-star workout-style hike should go two blocks over from the Native Plant Garden to McLaren Park (there’s a trail starting at the intersection of Wilde and Ervine Streets that’ll give you four or five more miles, at least, of new sights in a great setting).

Plenty of free parking since it’s Sunday, and lots of public transportation within a block or two (Cal Train, T Third Street, 8AX/8BX Bayshore Express, 9 San Bruno, 56 Rutland)
Vis Valley Greenway

Hill Babies Group Hikes in 2012
1.     May—McLaren Park’s southern slope
2.     June—Bayview Hill
3.     July—Visitacion Valley Greenway
4.     August—Rock City on Mount Diablo
5.     September—?

Possible Future Hikes
Glen Canyon, Mt. Davidson, Lands End, Heron’s Head, Grandview Park (on the Green Hairstreak Butterfly corridor), Sign Hill in SSF, Russian Ridge, Rock City on Mt. Diablo! Basically SF and close by. Everyone is welcome.

Looking out from the Native Plant Garden