City Escapes Abound on California’s Northern Coast

Three itineraries for exploring the great outdoors. 

The big cities on California’s southern coast have their draws, but families looking to escape the city life would do well to look north. With a San Francisco start, the options are only limited by what your family is after. Will it be trees that require looking up, or would you prefer crouching down to find sea glass? Do you want to stretch your legs, or are you hoping for a ride? These three itineraries give you a variety of adventures to choose from, whether you’re after a day-trip or weekend getaway.

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Redwood trees soar into the sky in Muir Woods National Monument in Marin County, California. 

The Escape: A woodland day-trip

Where You Should Go: Muir Woods

Time Requirement: Half day

When the cable car bells and tourist maps become too much, San Francisco locals know they’ve got options. Muir Woods National Monument offers easy walks and tall trees (some upwards of 250 feet) just across the Golden Gate Bridge. The city’s escape valve is named after John Muir, a naturalist who was influential in advancing the idea of national parks. A maintained boardwalk runs through the 558-acre coastal redwood park, making it easy to explore whether you’re traveling with infants in strollers, toddlers intent on running ahead, or teens in search of selfie-worthy spots.

While the size and height of the trees will leave your eyes astonished, don’t forget to engage your other senses. The sounds of the wind in the trees and the birds (including scrub jays, California towhee, and acorn woodpeckers), along with the smells that rise from the damp forest floor, heighten the experience. With plenty of signposts and trails as short as half a mile, there’s great hiking for families who aren’t prepared for something more strenuous. If yours is a family that wants more than a short walk in the park, seek out a ranger who can provide suggestions, a map, and directions to nearby offerings.

Need to Know: Parking is often tight at Muir Woods. Follow signs to the park-and-ride shuttle bus (adults $5 round-trip, kids under 15 free) off U.S. 101.

Cost: Adults $10; kids under 15 free

The Escape: A guided deep-forest excursion

Where You Should Go: Point Reyes National Seashore  

Time Requirement: A full day (about a two-hour drive from San Francisco)

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Horseback riders take a forest trail surrounded by giant trees in Point Reyes Seashore Park. 

On the cusp of more than 70,000 acres of parklands, you’ll find unique views at the family-owned Five Brooks Ranch. Riding pros and newbies alike are expertly paired with the most suitable horse before setting out on a guided exploration of some of the most pristine coastal parklands in the state. You’ll need a light jacket for this cooler climate, in a fog-friendly part of California, but the weather isn’t a hindrance to a beautiful ride. In fact, it brings a fairy tale-like quality to the experience.

Jesus Martinez, our guide, pointed out the Douglas fir trees and called out the names of some of the ferns and plants we passed as we trotted and cantered, but the names aren’t as important as the way the ride slows your heart rate. Even tweens fall silent. On more than 120 miles of trails that crisscross the parklands, horseback riding allows you to cover more terrain than you’d conquer on foot. On our three-hour Glen Trail ride, I marveled at the changing scenes that unfolded as we went. The ride itself was easy enough for beginners, but my knees were less excited than my eyes at the end of the trip. Shorter trips out will be more forgiving. Those with some experience may enjoy the six-hour Wildcat Beach ride that takes you out to waterfalls and views of the Point Reyes Lighthouse.

Need to Know: The lighthouse in the distance will demand another hour of driving to get to. If you go, a windbreaker jacket and binoculars will give you the best chance of seeing California gray whales making their long, slow journey from Alaska to Baja. (Late April and early May are the best times to catch a glimpse of mothers with their calves.)

Cost: $40 per person for a one-hour trail ride; $100 per person for a three-hour trail ride 

The Escape: Small-town coastal charm

Where You Should Go: Mendocino County

Time Requirement: Two to three days (about a five-hour drive from San Francisco)

You could visit Mendocino and its surroundings in less time, but doing so would mean that you wouldn’t have the chance to really get to know it. That would be a shame. While some will inevitably buzz through the area en route to what they may think are bigger and better adventures, those who choose to stay and explore will be rewarded. The small and intimate area is home to Mendocino Inn and Spa, where a light breakfast is served in your room so you can take in views of the gardens or llamas next door. It’s a great place to linger after a day of searching Glass Beach for natural sea-glass keepsakes, fishing off the sands of Big River beach, or looking at the old-timey homes around the Point Cabrillo Light.

Not to be missed is the Skunk Train, named for the stench the historic logging train gave off when the smells from its oil-burning potbelly stove mixed with the gas-powered engines. Younger kids will get a kick out of the one-hour Pudding Creek Express, which gives them a glimpse of the redwood trees towering above as they move along through the estuary. On board a conductor dressed in a red vest and black cap points out deer and heron and explains the area’s history. Older kids will likely prefer a longer option. Campers should consider the overnight camping adventure at Noyo River Canyon, 17 miles east of Fort Bragg at an old logging camp. The fully serviced campground includes access to canoes, rowboats, and kayaks (stays have a two-night minimum).

Need to Know: The Skunk Train is a popular outing for locals and tourists alike, so tickets often sell out. Book in advance to ensure there’ll be space when you arrive.

Costs: Pudding Creek Express: adults $25, kids $15