If you couldn’t find time for a proper family vacation this summer, fear not: You can still squeeze in a short trip with the kids before classes start—and you don’t have to drive far to make it happen. Float down the Russian River in a canoe, hop aboard a steam train in Santa Cruz, spot seals on a walk atop windswept bluffs on the San Mateo Coast, or laze by a giant swimming pool in Calistoga.
The Russian River is running low this year, but there’s plenty of water for a float downriver with Burke’s Canoe Trips—provided you come before fall. The 10-mile trip snakes beneath the canopy of redwoods from Forestville to Guerneville, where a shuttle runs you back to your car. For $58, you get a canoe, paddles, and life jackets. All you need to bring is the cooler. Plan four hours. Make reservations! (I’ll be adding a Russian River guide to the site in coming weeks; stay tuned.)
If you haven’t been to Santa Cruz in a while, you’re just in time for the 100th anniversary of the Beach Boardwalk, the West Coast’s oldest seaside amusement park. Plunk a blanket down on the sand, and let the teenagers run wild while you fall asleep with a book on your face. But really, you’d be foolish to miss the chance to scream aboard the Giant Dipper, a vintage-1924 wooden roller coaster that looks like it’s made of matchsticks. Tip: The front car is a blast, but you’ll catch some serious whip-cracking air in the last car.
Traveling with young kids? Hop aboard the Beach Train to Roaring Camp, high in the Santa Cruz mountains. The three-hour roundtrip winds beneath the canopy of redwoods, along a river canyon, and deep into the forest. At Roaring Camp, you can turn around and come back—a good idea if the kids are getting antsy—or tack on another hour for a ride aboard a narrow-gauge train, pulled by an 1890 steam locomotive, to the top of Bear Mountain. Teenagers risk boredom, but for tots, it’s a big adventure. Once back at the Boardwalk, end the afternoon on the 1911 Loof Carousel, and see if you can grab the big brass ring.
At the end of the day, sip beer while the kids play Ping-Pong at Engfer Pizza Works, Santa Cruz’s best pizza parlor. Or stop at Ristorante Avanti for earthy Italian cooking; read my full review of Avanti in our guide to restaurants in Santa Cruz.
Most people zip right past the fabulous beaches of the San Mateo Coast en route to points south, stopping only to snap pictures of the majestic Pigeon Point Lighthouse. Their loss. Though winter is high season at Año Nuevo State Reserve—the world’s largest breeding ground of elephant seals—summer is the ideal time for hiking along the reserve’s giant table bluffs above the crashing surf. At the end of the three-mile walk through fields of shoulder-high grasses whooshing in the wind, you’ll reach a viewing platform where you can ooh and ahh at seals and sea lions lazing on the sand—six feet away! (NB: Arrive before 3pm to pick up the required permit.) If it’s too foggy for a seaside hike, hike the hills of one of the county’s inland state parks.
End the day with dinner at Duarte’s Tavern (say DOO-arts) in the cute little town of Pescadero. For a full review of this classic American country restaurant, check out our San Mateo Coast guide. Save room for olallieberry pie!
If you’re sick of fog and desperately want a blast of summer heat, head north to Calistoga. Though most famous for its mud-bath emporiums, the town also has one of the most family-friendly swimming pools I’ve found anywhere in Northern California. Though the motel complex’s rooms are out of date, the pool deck at Calistoga Spa Hot Springs Resort includes an enormous swimming pool, a soaking pool, a kiddie pool with fountains, and a huge Jacuzzi for adults only. All are filled with mineral-spring water and heated to between 80ºF and 104ºF. Day passes cost $25. Call ahead to inquire about availability on weekends.
If the resort’s pool is packed to capacity and closed to non-guests, head four miles south to Bothe-Napa State Park, where you can dip in the park’s swimming pool (bring your own towel; open daily till Labor Day). When you’ve had your fill of screaming kids, find quiet in the woods on one of the park’s fir-tree-shaded hiking trails. For a splurge, book an hour-long horseback trip through the park with Triple Creek Horse Outfit, and give the kids something to brag about on their first day back at school.