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by Lee Foster

As you peruse the bountiful travel options in the Golden State, the question arises: just what are the best things to do and see in Northern California at each of the major travel destinations?

You probably don’t want to be overwhelmed, so let’s consider just five choice options for each area destination.

If traveling with kids, you might enjoy a couple of further suggestions for each destination that would be especially fun for kids.

Here are my judgments on the choicest picks for a traveler.

San Francisco

Suggested Itinerary:

*Tour the downtown of the City on a Cable Car, which you can board anywhere on the line if the Powell/Market start has long lines.

*Pause at the south end of the Golden Gate Bridge to marvel at the aesthetics of the structure, then walk out to mid-span for a look back at San Francisco.

*Stroll in Golden Gate Park and take in the current art show at the DeYoung Museum, stopping for tea at the Japanese Tea Garden.

*Walk Grant Avenue in Chinatown from Post to Columbus, then turn left and walk Italian North Beach up to Washington Square.

*Indulge in a Red and White Fleet tour boat ride from Pier 41 to get out on San Francisco Bay, which gives you views of the City, the Golden Gate Bridge, and the Marin Hills from out on the water.

Especially For Kids:

*Rent a bike at Fisherman’s Wharf and bike out through Crissy Field to the Golden Gate Bridge.

*Immerse kids in the gangster world of Al Capone with a tour of the former federal prison on Alcatraz.

Oakland-Berkeley East Bay

Suggested Itinerary:

*Explore California nature, history, and art at the Oakland Museum of California.

*Walk Oakland’s Asiatown and Old Oakland and have lunch here, perhaps at The District.

*Tour the University of California Campus, making a stop at the Lowie Museum to see the anthropology exhibits. Meander down Telegraph Avenue to visit the bookstores, such as Moe’s.

*Explore north of the campus in the Berkeley “Gourmet Ghetto,” headquartered around Chez Panisse restaurant, near Cedar and Shattuck.

*Encounter the East Bay Parks with a walk out Inspiration Point in Tilden Park, above Berkeley.

Especially For Kids:

*Turn kids loose amidst the wonders of science at Lawrence Hall, on a hill above the U.C. Berkeley campus.

*Hike, bike, or fly a kite at Cesar Chavez park along the Berkeley waterfront.

San Mateo County

Suggested Itinerary:

*Treat yourself to a trail in one of the foothill redwood parks of San Mateo county, such as Memorial Park.

*Walk the beach at San Gregorio to enjoy the rolling surf of the Pacific.

*Explore the one-street town of Pescadero, with its whitewashed frame houses, and stop for a seafood dinner at Duarte’s.

*Tour William Bourn’s Filoli Estate to glimpse the turn-of-the-century (19th to 20th) grandeur of this water baron.

*Sample the boutique agriculture for which the Bay Area is famous, perhaps on a u-pick day at Phipp’s Ranch or at a goat-cheese demonstration at Harley Farms.

Especially For Kids:

*Meet the giant elephant seals that haul out at Ano Nuevo State park, celebrating that these creatures narrowly averted extinction.

*Make the acquaintance of seashore life in the tidepools during low tide at the James Fitzgerald Marine Reserve.

San Jose and Silicon Valley

Suggested Itinerary:

*Peruse the high tech exhibits at The Tech Museum, which catalogs many of the innovations in the Silicon Valley region.

*Sample the cultural life of San Jose at its downtown Art Museum or at its Performing Arts Center.

*Taste wine made by the pioneer Mirassou family at their winery east of San Jose. Their main growing area is now in Monterey, a wine region that the family helped develop.

*Escape from the world of computer chips to rustic Los Trancos Reserve for a walk in the oak trees along a trail describing earthquake effects.

*Attend the Gilroy Garlic Festival, held in late July, to sample the many ways in which garlic can be eaten.

Especially For Kids:

*Instruct a robot to do tasks for you at The Tech Museum in downtown San Jose.

*Turn kids loose on the thrill rides at Great America amusement park.

Marin County and North Coast

Suggested Itinerary:

*Immerse yourself in the glorious redwoods of Muir Woods, the closest redwoods to San Francisco.

*At Point Reyes, take the Earthquake Walk, observe the Miwok Indian Village, and drive out to Limantour Beach for a beach walk.

*Proceeding up the coast, note the Russian presence in California at Fort Ross, a restored Russian fortification.

*At Point Arena, meet one of the classic lighthouse constructions in the western U.S. See the ingenious Fresnel lens that magnified a spare kerosene light to be visible 20 miles out to sea.

*In Mendocino, indulge in a picturesque California seaside town and its quaint B&Bs, such as the McCallum House.



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Especially For Kids:

*As you start the drive north, pause at Conzelman Road in the Marin Headlands to show them a classic view of the Golden Gate.

*Show kids the nesting white egrets at Audubon Ranch near Bodega Bay.

Sonoma Region

Suggested Itinerary:

*At the Sonoma Mission, see the most northerly penetration of Spanish influence in California.

*Visit the home of General Mariano Vallejo to make the acquaintance of a survivor, a Spanish Californian who knew how to function in American California after the Gold Rush.

*Taste wine in Sonoma at the original winery, Hacienda, of the father of California viticulture, Agoston Haraszthy.

*In Glen Ellen, visit the tragically burned Wolf House of writer Jack London, now a state historic park.

*In Santa Rosa, see the house of gifted horticulturalist, Luther Burbank, who stimulated the flourishing fruit and vegetable agriculture of California with his experiments.

Especially For Kids:

*Make an adventure trip from a Sonoma Farm Trails outing. You never know what you’ll find, from beekeepers to apple juicers.

*Show kids the daily life of the soldiers and the priests at the Sonoma Mission, well interpreted at this state historic park.

Napa Wine Country

Suggested Itinerary:

*Tour wineries and taste wine, perhaps on a first trip with stops at Chandon, Mondavi, and Sterling.

*Meet the spirit of the genial commentator on the early Napa wine country, Robert Louis Stevenson, at the Silverado Museum in St. Helena. Read his slim book, The Silverado Squatterss.

*Visit the wine country in September when the season has changed, the harvest is in full swing, and the green vine leaf of summer has changed to striking reds, oranges, and yellows.

*Take a hot air balloon ride to give yourself an aerial perspective on the Napa region.



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*Soak in one of the hot pools or mud baths at Calistoga.

Especially For Kids:

*Show them the Old Faithful Geyser at Calistoga, which is faithful, spurting out every 50 minutes or so.

*Acquaint them with the Petrified Forest west of Calistoga, where they can see felled trees turned to stone, and emerge with a souvenir of petrified wood.

California, San Francisco: Turning the Cable Car around at the foot of Powell Street. Photo © Lee Foster 2008
California, San Francisco: Turning the Cable Car around at the foot of Powell Street. Photo © Lee Foster 2008

Redwood Country

Suggested Itinerary:

*Stop at the Humboldt Redwoods Park for an orientation at the Visitor Center and an acquaintance with the big trees at Founder’s Grove.

*Meander along the Avenue of the Giants and stop at some of the road-side attractions, such as a drive-through tree.

*Visit the quaint Victorian town of Ferndale and admire its excellent hometown museum to the dairying and logging heritage of the Eel River delta.

*Walk the Lady Bird Johnson Trail in Redwoods National and State Parks to see the full spectrum of plants in the redwood environment.

*Lodge in the main redwood town, Eureka, perhaps at the Carter House Inn, and sample some of the finest dining in Redwood Country at their Restaurant 301.

Especially For Kids:

*Track the Roosevelt elk herds in Prairie Creek Park to get close to these magnificent animals.

*Take home as a souvenir a redwood burl, which is a growth around a bud on a tree. Water the burl and watch it sprout over the years into a new tree.

Santa Cruz

Suggested Itinerary:

*Stroll the last of the California boardwalks and take a nostalgic ride on the Big Dipper, one of the best of the old-fashioned roller coasters.

*Enjoy a seafood dinner out on The Wharf.

*Walk Pacific Garden Mall to assess how the city recovered from the Earthquake of 1989.

*Amble around the University of California-Santa Cruz campus to see its innovative and diverse cluster architecture.

*Take a barbecue dinner ride on the Roaring Camp Railroad into the redwoods.

Especially For Kids:

*The Boardwalk is a kid pleaser, whether it’s the carousel horses for the young or arcade games for the teen. An ocean beach good for swimming and boarding is nearby.

*The Roaring Camp Railroad through a redwood forest takes kids of all ages back to the era of steam trains.

Monterey and Carmel

Suggested Itinerary:

*Visit the final resting place of Junipero Serra, the indefatigable Franciscan, at the Carmel Mission.

*Observe the marvels of offshore life along the California coast at the Monterey Aquarium.

*Tour the 17-Mile Drive at Pebble Beach and note the manner in which the Lone Cypress tree has survived the elements.

*Spend a half-day strolling the art galleries of Carmel.

*Walk the trails of Point Lobos to commune with California wildflowers in spring and observe all year the California sea otters cavorting in the kelp beds near shore.

Especially For Kids:

*Introduce kids to the wondrous world of the nearby ocean at the Monterey Aquarium.

*Let kids build sandcastles at China Cove in Point Lobos while you open a bottle of Cabernet to toast the Pacific.

Exploring Big Sur

Suggested Itinerary:

*Stop at turnoffs along the drive, such as at Bixby Bridge, to savor the Pacific.

*Meditate at the Point Sur Lighthouse on the isolation of the area before the road was built.

*Walk the beach at Andrew Molera and Big Sur state parks to discover the driftwood presentations.

*If you have the time, take a side trip on Palo Colorado Road to see redwoods and the pine-covered back country of Los Padres National Forest.

*Enjoy a drink on the deck at Nepenthe, high over the Pacific.

Especially For Kids:

*Let kids become apprentice beachcombers at Molera or Big Sur state park beaches.

*Arm them with binoculars to spot whales, from the Nepenthe deck, going south in January and north in March.

Sacramento and the Delta

Suggested Itinerary:

*Witness the story of the railroad in the West at the California State Railroad Museum in Old Sacramento.

*Observe Swiss entrepreneur John Sutter’s outpost of civilization, Sutter’s Fort, in Sacramento. Sutter’s empire was overrun by the Gold Rush. Adjacent is the State Indian Museum.

*Feel the political power of the Golden State as you gaze up at the State Capitol dome.

*Meander through the Delta waterways by taking side road Highway 160 along the Sacramento River.

*Tour Locke, a Delta town originally founded by Chinese.

Especially For Kids:

*Lodge kids on the restored riverboat, Delta King, now a hotel in Old Sacramento, and immerse them in railroad romance at the State Railroad Museum.

*Authentic Indian lore and artifacts are abundantly evident in the State Indian Museum adjacent to Sutter’s Fort.

Gold Rush Country

Suggested Itinerary:

*Immerse yourself in the Gold Rush at Columbia, the best-preserved Gold Rush community, now a state historic park.

*Lodge in a quaint Gold Rush hotel, such as the City Hotel in Columbia or Murphys Hotel in Murphys.

*Attend a Gold Country event, such as the annual Fireman’s Muster at Columbia, the spring Daffodil Hill flowering, or the Angel’s Camp Jumping Frog Jubilee, recalling Mark Twain’s story.

*Stop at the site where the Gold Rush began, in Coloma, when John Marshall discovered gold nuggets in a logging millrace.

*Indulge in a cozy dinner at one of the Gold Rush era dining rooms, such as the National Hotel in Nevada City, and wash down dinner with a Gold Rush country wine, such as a Zinfandel from D’Agostini.

Especially For Kids:

*Learn how to pan for gold at the Matelot Gulch Mining Company in Columbia.

*See how Indians ground up acorns for food in the thousands of depressions in the rocks at Indian Grinding Rock State Park.

Yosemite National Park

Suggested Itinerary:

*Take the park service tram around Yosemite Valley to see the major land forms, such as Half Dome and El Capitan, from different perspectives and in the varying light at different times of the day.

*Walk to the various falls, such as Yosemite Falls and Nevada Falls, in Yosemite Valley. Use the tram to take you to the farther-away falls.

*Walk up to Mirror Lake to see an alpine lake naturally progressing from lake to meadow.

*Drive up to Glacier Point to get an elevated view of the Valley and the major land forms, stopping at the Wawona Tunnel for the striking mid-level vista of the valley.

*Drive south to Wawona to see the Mariposa Grove of massive inland sequoia trees.

Especially For Kids:

*Show kids the Ahwahneechee Indian village recreated in back of the Visitor Center.

*Rent bicycles for a family ride along the paved paths in Yosemite Valley.

Lake Tahoe

Suggested Itinerary:

*Savor the view of Emerald Bay at the southwest corner of the lake.

*Get out on the lake on one of the cruise boats, such as the Tahoe Queen.

*Spend a leisurely day driving around the lake, with time to stop and explore the Nevada-side state parks, such as Sand Harbor.

*Get an elevated perspective of the area from the top of the year-round tram at Heavenly Valley.

*Drive south on Highways 89 and 88 through the Hope Valley to Kirkwood for a sense of the alpine environment, which is exceptionally lovely during October fall color.

Especially For Kids:

*Take both major tam rides to the top of the mountains, at Heavenly Valley and Squaw Valley.

*Cruise the lake on the second of the major tour boats, the MS Dixie II.

Death Valley and the Southern Sierra

*Marvel at the tufa mounds in Mono Lake.

*Meet the General Sherman tree, the most massive living thing on earth, at Sequoia National Park.

*Drive high into the White Mountains, east of Bishop, to meet the oldest living things on this planet, the bristlecone pines.

*Witness the profuse spring wildflowers at the California State Poppy Park, west of Lancaster.

*Enjoy the rumpled and wild landscape at Zabriske Point in Death Valley National Park.

Especially for Kids:

*Tour Death Valley Scotty’s fantasy castle at the north edge of Death Valley and learn about this desert character.

*Let a Death Valley park ranger introduce kids to a pupfish in a desert spring during one of the guided park outings.

This article is one of thirty chapters in Lee Foster’s new book Northern California Travel: The Best Options (February 2013). See the book online at www.fostertravel.com by clicking on Norcal in the black bar at the top of the page or use Search Lee’s Writings for Norcal. The book can be ordered on Amazon or through other retailers as a printed book or ebook. The ebook version is also available in the Apple iBook Store and the other ebook stores for B&N Nook and Sony Reader. Lee’s books/ebooks on Amazon can all be seen together on his Author Page. See the Lee Foster Author Page

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