If you want to win that “Parent of the Year” award, keep reading. 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 – and a handful of excuses to pack up the car and take a road trip to Sonoma County Wine Country.
Featured Photo: Pacific Coast Air Museum
Fighter Jets Farm
All you parents of future aviators, pay attention: the Pacific Coast Air Museum (PCAM) in Santa Rosa is home to more than 35 historic aircraft. Many of the planes have a military history and flew in Korea or Vietnam, however some are more modern, like the F-15 Eagle that was the first aircraft to respond after the 9/11 attacks in New York City. There’s also a Pitts Special stunt biplane and a retired S-2A aerial firefighting tanker once used by the California Department of Forestry.
Founded in 1989, PCAM is located on a three-acre parcel at the Charles M. Schulz Sonoma County Airport. The museum hosts a variety of activities throughout the year including the annual Wings Over Wine Country Airshow, open cockpit weekends, and Hot Dog Thursdays, when admission is discounted and paired with a hot dog, a drink and potato chips.
Hiking and Tide-Pooling
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 6,000-acre park (including one of the state’s first underwater parks) boasts campsites, miles of coastal trails, and tide pools. Simply pull the car over anywhere along the highway and start walking.
Adjacent to Salt Point State Park is Kruse Rhododendron State Natural Preserve. Once a family owned sheep ranch, it was donated to the state in 1933. The forested preserve is home to redwoods, Douglas-fir, tanoaks and as the name suggests, rhododendrons. Mid-April through mid-June are typically the best months to see the vibrant pink flowers. The kid-friendly Rhododendron Loop only takes about 10-minutes to walk and offers a look at some of the reserve’s thickest stands.
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. If you place your car in neutral at the bottom of Gravity Hill, it will start 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 your 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 40-inch telescope as well as numerous other telescopes set up around the observatory. The observatory regularly offers Night Sky classes and Public Star Party events. 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 Trione-Annadel State Park, a more than 5,500-acre park with 40-plus 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 really get 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 11 a.m. to 12:30 p.m., the rink offers “Parent and Puppy Practice.” Kids and parents who aren’t so steady on their skates are invited to slide chairs onto the ice to help with balance. When it’s time to thaw out, head to the neighboring Warm Puppy Café for a hot chocolate.
Fly Through Treetops
Sonoma Canopy Tours offers two zipline courses; the original Forest Flight Tour is a solid bet for first timers, whereas the Tree Tops Tour features the outfitters tallest, longest and fastest zips. It’s a splurge, but you can also book a stay in one of a handful of yurt-like treehouses decked out with a queen bed, a set of bunk beds, sink and compostable toilet.