Family Adventures in California’s Wine Country

If you want to win that “Parent of the Year” award for 2012 keep reading. Luckily for you I’m 45 going on 12, which means I spend a lot of time goofing around on weekends, checking out new places to play in Northern California. So here’s a round-up of some fun and affordable things to do with the family this summer, and a great excuse to pack up the car and take a road trip to California’s Wine Country.


All you parents of future aviators, pay attention: On the third weekend of every month the Pacific Coast Air Museum in Santa Rosa hosts “Climb Aboard Weekend”, where the hatch of one of their warplanes is open for anyone who wants to sit in the pilot’s seat and play Top Gun. Founded in 1989, the Air Museum is home to more than 25 restored aircraft from the Cold War Era (including lots of cool jets and helicopters) on three acres outside of the Sonoma County Airport. They also hosts hugely popular air shows in the summer and “Hot Dog Thursdays”. Heck, you can even host your kid’s birthday party here (how cool is that?!?).


One of my favorite state parks in California is Salt Point State Park, located on the coast about 18 north of Jenner along Highway 1. This 3,500-acre expanse encompasses 30 campsites, 14 miles of coastal trails, dozens of tide pools, and even old Pomo village sites. There’s all kinds of things to do here, from free-diving and tide-pooling to hiking through coastal woodlands’ wildflower-filled meadows and poking around the 3,500-acre park for wild berries and mushrooms. Simply pull the car over anywhere along the highway and start walking.

At the north end of the park on Kruse Ranch Road is the 317-acre Kruse Rhododendron Preserve, a forested grove of wild pink and purple flowers that grow up to 18 feet tall in the shade of a vast canopy of redwoods. Peak blooming time varies yearly, but April is usually the best time to see the world’s tallest Rhododendron californicum (bring your camera).


This will blow your mind too, and it’s free. In the hills of Rohnert Park is a seemingly ordinary stretch of country road that, due to an amazing optical illusion, appears to be going uphill but actually heads downhill. It’s the damndest thing: You place your car in neutral at the bottom of Gravity Hill, and then the car starts rolling backwards UP the hill. You can even get out and walk it: Your eyes are telling you you’re going “down” the hill, but you body is feeling the gravity of walking up. It’s almost creepy.


Now here’s some trivia I’ll bet you didn’t know: Seven miles east of Santa Rosa at Sugarloaf Ridge State Park is the largest observatory in the western United States, and it’s entirely dedicated to public viewing and education. The Robert Ferguson Observatory houses a massive 24 inch telescope as well as numerous other telescopes set up around the observatory, and they’re all open to the public for a mere $3 fee. Friendly docents are usually nearby to answer your astronomical inquiries. It’s a rare and fantastic opportunity to gaze upon actual galaxies, and hardly anybody even knows this wonderful observatory even exists.


For families into mountain biking, some of the best family-friendly single track in Northern California is in Santa Rosa at Annadel State Park, a 5,000-acre wilderness refuge with 40 miles of well-marked trails. Every time I ride here I’m amazed at how fun the trails are and how lucky we are that it’s open to bikers. The trails range from wide, easy fire roads to hairball rock gardens, so there’s a trail here for any level of riding experience. And because it’s surrounded by neighborhoods you can’t get too lost (eventually you’ll find pavement) and there’s cell phone service, so it’s relatively safe for teens to explore on their own. If you like mountain biking, you will love this park.


C’mon, when the last time you took the family ice skating? One of the best family ice rinks in country is the Redwood Empire Ice Arena in Santa Rosa, located right across the street from the Charles M. Schulz Museum. Every Sunday from 10:30am to noon, the rink offers “Parent & Puppy Practice,” where kids and parents who aren’t so steady on their skates are invited to slide chairs onto the ice to help with balance. When you want to thaw out, head next door to Snoopy’s Gallery and Gift Shop or the Warm Puppy Café for a hot chocolate.


If you’ve never been ocean fishing, be forewarned that it is an extremely complicated four-step process: (1) Get on the fishing boat; (2) grab a pre-rigged fishing pole; (3) lower your line in the water when everyone else does; and (4) reel in the fish. Everything else, from taking the fish off the hook to cleaning, filleting, and bagging it for you, is taken care of by the friendly deckhands, which makes deep-sea fishing pretty much idiot proof.

On the fish-and-crab combination trips you get to keep your catch as well as a few of the enormous Dungeness crabs caught in the traps. The crab combo trips cost about $95 per person (rod-and-reel rental is extra), but the price is easily offset by the gunnysack full of fresh fish and crab you’ll take home. For information and reservations, try Bodega Bay Sportfishing Center at 707/875-3344 or Bodega Charters at 707/463-3618.

I’m running out of room here, but some other awesome family adventures that I highly recommend include indoor kart racing at Driven Raceway in Rohnert Park (their competition electric karts are insanely fun, but there’s a 48” high requirement for kids), and Sonoma Canopy Tours, which offers adventures tours that include 7 ziplines, 2 sky bridges, and an 80-foot rappel deep in Sonoma County’s redwood forests.

If you have your own tips on family adventures that you’d like to share, feel free to add your own comments to our blog below. We’d love to hear from you.

And for more insider tips on California activities and tours, California vacation spots, California tourist attractions, California vacation packages, and California hotels, explore, where you’ll always find best California travel deals.

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By Pooley / Administrator

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on Jul 25, 2012