One of the Bay Areas top visitor spots is Muir Woods. It was beautiful when I was there yesterday. I’ll never tire of the walk to Cathedral Grove along the banks of Redwood Creek. But it can get a little crowded. In fact this year, visitation is up 10 per cent — or about 1 million people a year. I was surprised to learn that the days after Christmas can be as busy as any summer weekend! Unfortunately the shuttle bus service is suspended due to the slide on Highway 1 and that the County is blocking parking along the county road. It had me thinking, if you want to visit the redwoods but want to avoid the Muir Woods crush, where should you go?
I have three suggestions for other spots to try. They are all close by and have the added advantage of being kid friendly!
Live in the South Bay? Head down the coast and turn inland at Pescadero to find Butano Redwoods State Park. Much like Muir Woods, the highlight is a beautiful trail that follows Little Butano Creek with redwoods cloaking both sides. Head up to the campground to see some of the largest trees in the park. And on your way out, stop at Bean Hollow State Beach and watch the breakers roll in. It’s a grand day out!
Headed North across the Golden Gate Bridge? Instead of getting off at Muir Woods, head out on Sir Francis Drake Boulevard as it winds out to West Marin and stop at Samuel P. Taylor State Park. You could start our at the picnic area and admire the classic CCC hearths — you could even throw on a log and heat up your tea. Kids, young and old alike, will enjoy playing on the old stumps. Then take a walk over the bridge to the Cross Marin Trail. It’s a great place to ride your bike, or just enjoy a walk along the creek. Then hike up Wildcat Canyon to see some of the tallest trees in the Bay Area. If you’re feeling ambitious, follow the Pioneer trail up the the hill to an unusual grove at the top.
Want to stay in the East Bay? It may lack the grandeur of the ancient forest, but my kids love to go to Roberts Regional Recreation Area. It’s got a great playground and a beautiful redwood grove where they can play to their hearts content. You can follow the short trail and see the site of the “landmark trees” — redwood beacons used by the early sailors on the bay.
Do you have other places to recommend? Let me know!
Light breaks through, Muir Woods
Little Butano Creek, Butano Redwoods SP
Playing amid the woods, Roberts Recreational
Playing in the tree forts at Samuel P. Taylor State Park
I spent an enjoyable day at Ardenwood Historic Farm, down in Fremont. Lots to see and do for kids — from picking apples, to riding the horse-drawn train, to exploring the historic farm.
The horse wrangler / train driver told me something interesting thing. The park is owned by the City of Fremont, is managed under contract by the East Bay Regional Park District, and much of the programming is provided by volunteers from the cooperating association. It’s the blacksmith, horse drawn train, and animals that brings the place alive. And that’s the volunteer part! Fortunately its seamless to the visitor and I bet most don’t have any idea that this three-way partnership is supporting their visit.
Seems like a great approach that plays to everyone’s strengths and could well be used many other places. Mind you, the volunteer did joke it was hard working with two public agencies and it had taken 20 years to build a new tractor barn. I guess nothing is ever perfect.
And I am not talking about cell phones. I am talking about a growing trend among mobile visitor centers. This goes way beyond capitalizing on the trendiness of mobile everything — think food trucks, espresso carts, etc. It’s really about meeting the changing needs of the park visitor. The mobile center can move around a park based upon where the people are at any particular time of year — and of course, being mobile they can also take the park to the visitor. I even saw the East Bay Regional Park District’s mobile center taking part in the annual Fourth of July Parade on Alameda Island.
I can also imagine that its cost and time efficient. A 2001 report from the GAO summarized construction costs for 80 visitor centers underway in National Parks at that time. They ranged from $500,000 to $39 million — averaging at a little over $6 million. That’s a lot of money, leave aside the time it takes to obtain the permits, bid the job, construct the building and commission the exhibits. Its likely that by the time its completed, its already out of date!
Contrast that to a mobile center that can be designed, fabricated and deployed much more rapidly. I don’t have cost estimates, but believe food trucks can start at around $50,000 fully kitted out. That leaves a lot of change — even from the cheapest traditional visitor center. I would love to see these become common-place: spending there weekends and summers in the parks, and there weekdays visiting schools, city parks and more.
It’s time parks got out of the mindset of the traditional visitor center and started thinking about creative new ways of delivering services to the people in cost-effective ways. The mobile visitor center is a great start!
No blog yesterday as I spent the day with my son’s kindergarten class as they took a field trip to Tilden Park — one of the original parks in the East Bay Regional Park District. Chatting with the other parents this morning I realize that it was not just the kids who learnt something knew — it was the parents as well. And it gave me a new perspective on the role a park can play as an outdoor classroom.
My hat goes off to our naturalist, Trent, who day in day takes out classes of kids excited to be out of school with their friends. He gets each group for maybe one hour during which time he has to keep them safe, calm them down, and hopefully impart a sense of wonder to his young charges. He had three simple rules: stay behind me; respect all living things (including your class mates); and have fun. He soon had the kids shouting out, “have fun” – which was itself fun as he pointed out.
His sense of wonder and enthusiasm was infectious for all of us. Who has ever really looked at a fly? Not only did Trent catch one and pass it around, he talked about how it uses “batesian mimicry” to pretend it’s a hornet. That led to an enthusiastic discussion of snakes and other animals that use similar techniques — what young kid doesn’t love a snake in disguise, especially one that looks poisonous? All that from a simple fly.
By the time we got to the pond the kids were ready to take charge and explore on their own. What appeared to be a stagnant pond covered in “scum” turned out to be a rich ecosystem teeming with life on a small scale — perfect for eager young naturalists. Larvae, slimy newt eggs, water snails, side-swimmers that look like shrimp, and of course the ever popular backswimmer that breathes through its bottoms. The kids were soon dipping their nets and emptying the contents into their explorer trays (in reality TV-dinner trays cleverly repurposed). There’s nothing more exciting that discovering a water snail or unknown bug for yourself.
During my time at Save the Redwoods League I helped provide the funding to get thousands of kids out to the woods on naturalist-led hikes. This was the first time I had been along as a participant and watched it all unfold through the eyes of a kindergartener. I can think of no better way to start learning about the natural world than spending an hour dipping a pond teeming with life. I will certainly remember this trip for a long time. For me it also underscored the importance of having parks close to where our kids are — and not just parks with swings and slides and ballparks. Parks with ponds and brambles and trees. You don’t need a Yosemite-sized park to introduce kids to nature. Just a spot that has been allowed to run a little wild.
The front cover of today’s Chronicle has a fascinating story about the once mighty redwood forests that cloaked the hills of the East Bay. Imagine redwoods with the girth of a small house rising about the hills. Some were of such stature that early mariners used them to take bearings and avoid dangerous rocks. But by the 1860s they were gone. And a few years later the US Navy had to blast one submerged rock — Blossom Rock — out of the water as the redwoods used to avoid them had been cut down and turned to lumber.
The stumps still stand, as does one remnant giant. And that reawakened an idea I have had for a while. The eyes of the world will look towards San Francisco this summer as the America’s Cup comes to town. What better way to celebrate the natural heritage of the Bay Area than by creating a temporary memorial to these trees. Imagine a beacon at the sight of the stump — a tower rising 300 feet above the East Bay hills, lit up at night, so it can once again guide the sailors navigating the Bay.
It would also serve as a reminder of what used to be here — and perhaps what could be here once more if we nurture the remaining redwoods of the East Bay hills.
I challenge Oracle to make this happen, working with the good folks at the East Bay Regional Park District. I am more than happy to help out!