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

Saturday, August 31, 2013

The Little Pond on the Ridge

 My quest with twin newborns is to find trails wide and flat enough to accommodate a double stroller. I want to feel like I'm far from the city, but I don't want to drive over an hour. An easy level trail isn’t bad either, considering I'm still sort of recovering from giving birth. Finally, since my mom accompanies me on occasion, and hiking isn't her thing anymore (once upon a time we trekked the Himalayas, but that was a long time ago), I'd walk with my kids no more than a mile while she read a mystery novel at the trailhead. 

Alpine Pond met all criteria. It has a wide, flat trail. It's less than an hour south of San Francisco. 

 And so it was that on a fine mid-week afternoon where fog hung over the city most of the day but sunshine blazed on the peninsula, that we--my mom, my kids, and I--set out. 

We drove south on 280, west on 92, and then south on Skyline Boulevard, also known as Highway 35. The road wound through forests, including redwoods, and as we traversed swathes of coast chaparral we got jaw-dropping views of the Pacific and the peninsula.

I’d visited Alpine Pond many years ago with a group of teenagers when I was a teacher and one of the leaders for our school’s hiking club. We had hiked Skyline Open Space Preserve, an area that seems epitomized by golden hills, oak trees, and views, but today with babies, a four year old, and my 72-year-old mom, we’d just roll around Alpine Pond. 

We were the only folks there, so it was particularly quiet, even meditative.  It was a great way to spend time outside with kids, have a little picnic, and not tax the elders.

The trail around Alpine Pond
The Trail
We parked in a lot where a friendly motorcyclist affirmed, “Oh yes, Alpine Pond is the way to go for a stroller.” He gave us a park brochure and told us we could find evidence of Ohlone culture, mortars chiseled into a boulder, located off a trail (he wasn't sure which) near the pond.  

A long ramp, perfect for strollers or wheelchairs, led from the parking lot to the main trail, starting under Alpine Road. 

The tunnel under the road
We walked through a tunnel with corrugated walls, the breeze making the air distinctively cool. My big kid found a stick, enjoying the tat-tat-tat-tat sound of wood on metal. 

The trail was less than a quarter mile to Alpine Pond, and it passed one informational sign listing the different critters one could find her, and passed under a large, gnarled, and moss hung oak.

At the pond's edge is the David C. Daniels Nature Center, some picnic tables and benches, and a water fountain. There's an observation platform on pontoons, a little weeble-wobbly as you walk on it, but it gets you past the reeds and up close with the water. 
Floating observation deck

The David C. Daniels Nature Center looked intriguing from the outside with its bulletin boards and placards, but it's only open on the weekends, noon to 5 pm from April to mid-October, and 11 to 4 from mid-October through the last day in November. It's free too. Though we didn't go inside since it was closed, a sign proclaimed attractions such as a "touch table,"an aquatic lab, a "skull and skins" display, and a pet gopher snake. 

The trail around Alpine Pond is wide and flat (0.5 miles), just what I wanted. The sun beat down, my babies sweated, and my big kid whined a bit, but it was a good walk. Iridescent dragonflies zipped around us. A duck cruised into center lake. Cattails waved. All around other trails branched off, inviting and interesting, one of them leading to those Ohlone "bedrock mortars" carved into a boulder, but they meant for other days and bigger adventures. 

Dusk and Dawn 
Coming in the middle of the day when it's 80-plus degrees isn't the optimal time to see wildlife, but that's when we were there. If possible, check out the pond in the evening or the morning and maybe you'll spy raccoons, deer, or rabbits. Coots, ducks, and herons might be swimming. This is also mountain lion territory, but one would have to be really lucky to get a glimpse of one of those big cats. 

Alpine Pond was a spring that was dammed in the Fifties for livestock. It's now 25 feet deep in the middle, and has become a water source for wild animals instead of cows and whatnot. Long before the ranchers of the 1800s, the Ohlone lived, hunted, and traveled through here. The bedrock mortars that you can find near Alpine Pond were used to pulverize acorns into a flour that'd be turned into an edible mush.

From San Francisco head south on 280. For the prettiest drive, go west on 92 to Highway 35, then south on Highway 35. About 13 miles down Highway 35 you'll pass Skylonda, a sweet little rest spot with food, gas, and water. Sally on 9 more miles to the intersection of 35 and Old Page Mill Road. Turn right onto Alpine Road. You'll immediately see a parking lot for the Skyline Ridge Open Space Preserve, where you'll park. Grab a map, use the port-o-pottie, and head for the ramp.

David C. Daniels Nature Center
Old Page Mill Trail
La Honda, CA 94020
(650) 691-1200

Big kid and grandmom
Three kids on a picnic table
Kids in the shade around Alpine pond
Map to Alpine Pond

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Sunday, August 25, 2013

Book Review! Best Hikes With Kids: San Francisco Bay Area

Best Hikes with Kids: San Francisco Bay Area
By Laure Latham

Copyright: 2011
General subject matter: hiking, California, family recreation
Laure’s blog: http://frogmom.com

I have a fairly good book collection about local hikes and outdoor places, and one of the superior ones is Laure Latham’s Best Hikes with Kids San Francisco Bay Area. Someone once recommended this book long before I acquired it, and at the time I shook my head, thinking the hikes would be too easy. Little did I know. Easy doesn't mean boring, and when you have children, easy to moderate hikes that are full of interesting things to see and do are what turns recalcitrant children into inquisitive, happy beings. Once I acquired Laure's book, I loved it! The reasons are numerous: it has an intelligent introduction, comprehensive chapters, great organization, family focus, and breadth of trails, many which are new to me.
(credit: randsco.com)

Dad, 2-month-old baby, 4-yr-old kid
Laure believes all ages can and should hike. In her introduction she expands on Richard Louv’s Last Child in the Woods book and his philosophy to bring children into outdoor spaces by advocating that even babies should be taken hiking, claiming “they are the best hikers.” Laure shares her positive experience hiking with a seven week old baby in Yosemite (which triggers fond memories of taking my thirteen-day-old baby around Bayview Hill in San Francisco).

Laure emphasizes having fun. Some of the tips she has for motivating children include having them hike with friends, telling stories out loud (she’s got a great list of recommended books), doing arts and crafts on the trail, building fairy houses, and bringing lots of snacks. Practical tips, but potentially forgotten or de-emphasized by tired parents in their rush to get out the door, or finish a trail.
Kids on the go! (credit: durangogov.org)
A hundred hikes are divided between neighboring counties of San Francisco, Alameda, San Mateo, Contra Costa, Marin, Napa, Sonoma, Santa Clara, Santa Cruz, and Solano. There’s a map in the beginning of the book to show you where the hikes are, stretching as far north as Guerneville, as far south as Gilroy, and east from Fairfield.

Each hike has a “Before You Go” info box about maps and relevant web resources, and an info box about the hike’s vital points: length in miles, estimated hiking time, elevation, season, and level (easy, moderate, difficult). There are awesome detailed maps and a photo for each hike.

at Candlestick Point, SF
It seems that Laure likes the trails less traveled, and I must say, I’m quite pleased Laure gave so much attention (two out of ten hikes) to the southern parts of San Francisco: McLaren Park and Candlestick Point. It’s amazing to me how many San Franciscans haven’t been to McLaren or Candlestick, even outdoorsy natives. (Conversely, it’s always a thrill when people say they have gone to these spots). Laure touches on interesting historical points about these parks, like Candlestick’s creation in the wartime of the 1940s, their natural features, like Yosemite Creek which flows through McLaren, and somewhat secret destinations, like the stone labyrinth on top of Visitacion Knob in McLaren Park.

Tarantula (frogmom.com)
Because of Laure’s penchant for less beaten paths, I trust her to lead me someplace great. For instance, she has a fascinating write-up about Mount Diablo’s tarantulas, which you can encounter in the fall on a 2-mile hike in Mitchell Canyon in Contra Costa County.

I love water and walking, but with newborn twins and a double stroller, I’m a little stymied for ideas of where to go to swim and stroll. I appreciate Laure’s write up about a 2.2-mile trail with a paved path at Spring Lake Regional Park in Sonoma County.

Smittle (credit: westernwildflower.com)
Laure describes a flooded town underneath Lake Berryessa in Napa County, and a 1.5-mile loop there at Smittle Creek, including how to identify an osprey nest, and where to get a Junior Ranger activity book for your kid. I appreciate that she recommends the best season to check out a particular trail, and in this case it's in the spring because of the vibrant flowers growing among the green grass. 

Monarch butterflies fascinate both my four-year-old and myself, and we’ve always wanted to see flocks of them. But when, and where? Laure tells where to find monarchs in Santa Cruz County. She recommends an easy 1-mile loop at Natural Bridges State Beach during certain migration months (and one is coming up!). On this hike you’ll also see amazing rock formations (Laure gets into describing the geology too) and get a chance to explore tidepools.

Yes, this is Laure Latham! :-)
One day in early 2010 an editor from The Mountaineers Books contacted Laure because of her blog, Frogmom, which is about kids, creativity, and the outdoors. The editor asked her to write this book, proving that writing about what you love, even through a blog, could give you some awesome cerebral adventures.

Laure created three rules to guide her research and writing:

"First, I wanted my book to be fair to each county and represent the diversity of the Bay Area wherever you lived – not just for San Francisco families. That way, you could take the book with you on a day trip to Sonoma or a day trip to Santa Cruz and still find stuff to do. That meant popular Marin hikes would not be included but people would be able to discover the green side of Napa or Solano.

"Second, I wanted to include sightseeing and nature facts sidebars because I love to combine trails and travel. Seemed like seasonal events would be cool additions too.

"Third and last, I wanted each hike to have specific kid appeal – animal farm, cool nature fact, animal migrations, historic buildings, famous children’s books locations, shipwrecks, native American way of life, etc."

Laure and her book! (credit: frogmom.com)
Nine months later Laure basically gave birth to a manuscript (lol) after having walked 400 miles and 110 hikes. She submitted it to The Mountaineers Books, and it rolled out onto bookstore shelves nearly a year later. You can read Laure’s story here: http://frogmom.com/2011/09/best-hikes-with-kids-san-francisco-bay-area-my-book-is-out/

And better yet, because the written word on printed page shall never die or go out of style, Best Hikes with Kids: San Francisco Bay Area is available and fully able to be stashed in the glove compartment of your minivan, in your baby's diaper bag, or in the undercarriage basket of your stroller. 

Sunday, August 18, 2013

Big Break Regional Shoreline--the Delta up close

We escaped the cold summer fog of San Francisco to the delta of the San Joaquin and Sacramento rivers, where days are longer and less cloudy, and Mount Diablo rises in the near background, golden brown and taller than anything else. We headed for the water, and when we were an hour away from San Francisco, we found ourselves at Big Break Regional Shoreline.

Once upon a time, about a century ago, asparagus grew here. In 1928 the levee between Dutch Slough and the San Joaquin River broke and the asparagus farm flooded. Thus, Big Break was born.

Common yellowthroat (Jerry Ting on flickr)

The salty water from the Pacific mixes here with the fresh water coming off from the Sierras, a combination that is particularly tasty for plants and animals. As well, Big Break is a resting place for migratory birds.

The Baby and Kid Factor
Big Break was a great place to bring two newborns in a stroller and one four year old who walked alongside.

The "Delta Discovery Experience" is a half-mile trail (the red trail in the map to the right). With a visitor center, bathrooms, barbecues, grassy areas, a small amphitheater, shaded sandpit, and drinking water nearby, this area is a great place to sit back with a baby, picnic, and relax.

Observation Pier

We rested on an observation pier that jutted 100 feet into the marsh, our faces in the breeze as we looked over the railing at all the hundreds of baby fish swimming in the shallow water. Birds sang in the cottonwoods growing along the shoreline. Tule weeds waved. Rusty farm equipment jutted like enormous sculptures from the bushes. High, thin clouds moved overhead. The babies slept in their stroller, and the big four-year-old didn't want to leave. Being here was the best part of our experience at Big Break. 

If you're lucky you might see a river otter here, as one visitor told us. On our visit we saw lots of birds and tiny fish. If you had a canoe or kayak, you could launch from here. You could fish from here with a license (though I don't recommend eating the bass and catfish you can catch here, but then again what do I know?). If you just want to cool down your little piggies, there's some steps leading down to the cool green water (though the water's not meant for swimming, sadly). 

White Catfish

Delta Map
One of the coolest man-made features of this park, and located right by the observation pier, was a huge three-dimensional map of the Delta region (I’m talking 1,200 square foot—that’s the size of my house!). It showed all the twisting waterways, the serpentine rivers, the cities and towns. My oldest daughter could stand on the top of Mount Diablo, and then stomp across the rolling hills and into Antioch like a giant. The map gave a great perspective on how much moving water courses through this area, and the general lay of the land.

Delta Visitor Center 
The Delta Visitor Center here is the first of its kind, meaning it focuses on the flora, fauna, and history of the Delta. It has all the basic amenities, plus taxidermy and a floor-to-ceiling mural in the back room of all the Delta critters: birds, rivers otters, muskrats, beavers, garter snakes, and western pond turtles. Keep in mind it's only open on the weekends.

The Delta Visitor Center runs all sorts of free kids’ programs on the weekends (Saturdays from 11-noon, Sundays from 2-3 pm). When we visited they had upcoming events like “Macro Invertebrate Mayhem,” “Critter Clues: Tracks,” “Our Wonderful Water Cycle,” and “Ravenous Raptors.” Also on the weekend from 9-10 visitors with kids are invited to learn how to do water testing to track the water quality of the Delta—pretty cool stuff! You can call (510) 544-3050 for more info.

Though I didn’t have the chance to bicycle around, you can bicycle Big Break Trail, 3 miles of paved trail running along the shoreline, going a little inland here and there, and eventually connecting with the Marsh Creek Regional Trail. I think you can keep on going, if you’re game, all the way through Oakley and Brentwood to the Delta de Anza Regional Trail. If the trails are anything like Big Break, they’re flat.
Credit: kqed.org


69 Big Break Rd, Oakley, CA ‎
(510) 544-3050 ‎ · ebparks.org

Car: From Highway 4 in Antioch/Oakley, take Highway 160 north, exiting at IA east. Right on Main Street. Left on Big Break Road. Right turn at the sign for Big Break Regional Park.  

Bus: Take Tri Delta Transit #300 to Vintage Parkway and Big Break Road, and walk to the park. www.trideltatransit.com
"Big Break at Dawn" (thepress.net)

Relevant Links

Big Break Map (click to enlarge)

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