Ten kid-friendly trails in Sonoma County

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Tips for hiking with kids

Your kids may already look forward to hiking, but the pleasure of walking may elude them. Here are a few tools to motivate a child who has decided not to take another step.

Toys: Binoculars, traditional cameras, notebooks for drawing and field guides are great things to carry and use while hiking. Orienteering tools — a map and compass — also are great on-the-trail motivators. Most hikers carry cell phones: In a pinch, your child use it to take pictures, but make sure the volume is disabled and return the phone to your pocket when done so the focus remains on hiking.

Play I Spy: Whether a flower, an insect, a bird, a piece of bark, a shell or something else along the trail, make a game of looking for things to check out. Take turns, and when something curious is found, pause to observe it. This is also a good opportunity to instill and practice “leave no trace” ethics. No need to pick the flower; leave it to be enjoyed by the next person. Don’t kill the spider; watch where it’s going and what it’s doing. Don’t collect rocks or shells; they have a purpose where they are. Take only pictures, and leave only footprints.

Little steps: The ultimate destination may be a mile away, but you can break up what might seem a thankless march by picking interim goals and encouraging a child to that next way point. It can be the top of an incline, a trailside bench, the next bend, the big oak ahead.

Give ’em candy: Yes, it’s a bribe, but when meltdown is imminent, you’ve gotta do what you’ve gotta do. If you want to stay true to hiking tradition, add chocolate chips or M&Ms to your gorp (Good Old Raisins and Peanuts), then let the kids pick out chocolate if they wish. Chances are good something nourishing will end up in the belly, too. Gorp also can be a great pick-me-up for flagging parents.

With Thanksgiving here and winter break on the horizon, parents may find themselves scrambling for ways to keep their school-aged children entertained and active. Fortunately, the Bay Area’s abundant open space parks and walking paths add a screen-free option to the activity slate. Take the kids on a short hike, and work out the wiggles in the great outdoors.

Given the Bay Area’s mild climate, chances are you’ll hit the trail in sunshine. Fog generally isn’t an issue in late fall and early winter either, which means views can stretch for miles.

But don’t let rain put a damper on things — just be prepared to get wet. None of these walks are expedition-length, and none are far removed from shelter and a warm drink. Dress in rain gear if possible, but you can get away with regular walking shoes and wool socks, fleece jackets and wool caps if the storm is mild and you choose a short hike. Carry changes of clothing in the car, and be prepared to turn around if anyone gets so cold and wet they stop enjoying themselves.

That said, use your best judgment when picking a winter day hike. Don’t go to the coast if a major storm is expected. And watch the wind: It can be as chilling as rain, and the combination of wind and rain can be particularly uncomfortable if you’re not prepared.

Consider these options a starting point, and keep in mind that they are great in any season, weather and time permitting.

Take Them to the Redwoods: Armstrong Woods

Easy trails wind through a rare pocket of old-growth redwoods in the small nature reserve located just outside Guerneville. James B. Armstrong was a lumberjack by trade, but set aside this stand in the mid-1800s to protect it from redwood harvests fueled by the Gold Rush all along the California coast.

To keep your visit short, cruise the easy interpretive paths leading to the giants of the preserve, including the Parson Jones Tree (310 feet tall) and the Colonel Armstrong Tree (more than 1,400 years old), a round-trip walk of about 1 mile. A longer loop (nearly 3 miles) links the old-growth stands with the Pioneer Tree Trail and the East Ridge Trail, passing a creekside picnic area and a cascade. For more information, visit parks.ca.gov/?page_id=450.

Take Them to the Blufftop: Bodega Head

Though whale-watching season won’t hit its height until after the kids return to school, you might still catch sight of leviathans and other sea creatures on a short tour of Bodega Head. On a clear day, views are spectacular from this point southward toward the mouth of Tomales Bay and the Point Reyes peninsula, and east and north across the arc of Doran Beach and Bodega Harbor into the green folds of the Coast Range.

A mostly flat 2.1-mile loop hike circles the headland. There is some exposure, so make sure everyone stays on the obvious path. After the hike, check out the docks on Bodega Bay, play in the sand on Doran Beach, and pick up some fresh fish for dinner and saltwater taffy for the ride home. For more information, visit parks.ca.gov/?page_id=451.

Take Them ’Round the Lake: Spring Lake and Howarth Park

Howarth Park and neighboring Spring Lake are wonderful recreational outlets for residents throughout greater Santa Rosa. The parks offer a number of kid-friendly amenities, including a playground and mini-amusement park, and during the summertime, fishing, boating, and swimming. Loop trails encircle Spring Lake and Lake Ralphine, and these can be linked with a paved stretch of trail for an excursion of about 3.6 miles.

Tips for hiking with kids

Your kids may already look forward to hiking, but the pleasure of walking may elude them. Here are a few tools to motivate a child who has decided not to take another step.

Toys: Binoculars, traditional cameras, notebooks for drawing and field guides are great things to carry and use while hiking. Orienteering tools — a map and compass — also are great on-the-trail motivators. Most hikers carry cell phones: In a pinch, your child use it to take pictures, but make sure the volume is disabled and return the phone to your pocket when done so the focus remains on hiking.

Play I Spy: Whether a flower, an insect, a bird, a piece of bark, a shell or something else along the trail, make a game of looking for things to check out. Take turns, and when something curious is found, pause to observe it. This is also a good opportunity to instill and practice “leave no trace” ethics. No need to pick the flower; leave it to be enjoyed by the next person. Don’t kill the spider; watch where it’s going and what it’s doing. Don’t collect rocks or shells; they have a purpose where they are. Take only pictures, and leave only footprints.

Little steps: The ultimate destination may be a mile away, but you can break up what might seem a thankless march by picking interim goals and encouraging a child to that next way point. It can be the top of an incline, a trailside bench, the next bend, the big oak ahead.

Give ’em candy: Yes, it’s a bribe, but when meltdown is imminent, you’ve gotta do what you’ve gotta do. If you want to stay true to hiking tradition, add chocolate chips or M&Ms to your gorp (Good Old Raisins and Peanuts), then let the kids pick out chocolate if they wish. Chances are good something nourishing will end up in the belly, too. Gorp also can be a great pick-me-up for flagging parents.

Circling Lake Ralphine is the shortest option at about 1 mile but a great choice for younger kids, with a dam crossing and a narrow waterside path along the north shore. A loop around Spring Lake is about 2.5 miles; be sure to include the flat, wide, dirt Fisherman’s Trail, where you’ll have the best chance to see ducks and other waterfowl. For more information, visit parks.sonomacounty.ca.gov and srcity.org/departments/recreationandparks.

Take Them into Space: Sugarloaf’s Planet Walk

It’s all relative on the Planet Walk. Start your hike at the Sun, and in the span of a quarter-mile you’ll have left Mercury, Venus, Earth and Mars behind. Signs along this interpretive path tie the earth underfoot to the planets beyond, each step translating to a million miles.

A 3.5-mile loop hike begins near the campground at Sugarloaf Ridge State Park and encompasses the Planet Walk at the Creekside Nature Trail, with interpretive signs identifying plants and wildlife indigenous to the park. The Planet Walk proper begins at the Ferguson Observatory and follows the Meadow Trail to a bridge over Sonoma Creek, which is a shorter out-and-back option. To complete the longer loop from the bridge, hitch up briefly the Brushy Peak Trail to scope out Uranus, then return to the Creekside Nature Trail via the Hillside Trail. For more information, visit sugarloafpark.org.

Take Them to the Little Farm: Sonoma Developmental Center

This 1.25-mile circuit is mostly flat and paved, located on the east side of Sonoma Developmental Center adjacent to the Sonoma Regional Park. The draw here is the Eldridge Farm (known locally as the Little Farm), where rabbits, ducks, miniature horses, rock doves, fish and perhaps other animals are housed in a charming cluster of red farm structures.

Park at the farm so you can check out the animals at the beginning and end of the walk. The loop follows the paved road that continues northeast from the farm, passing an equestrian facility, then swings southward past the stables. At the John Mesa soccer fields, go right and begin to curve westward, then make a sharp right turn onto Baker Street to complete the loop. Watch for little brown birds (sparrows and kinglets) on the final leg along Baker.

There’s no website for the farm: To reach it from Arnold Drive, head east on Harney from the stop sign at the main gate of the Developmental Center for about a half-mile to its junction with Baker. Continue straight (left) on Sunrise; the farm and parking is just ahead on the right.

Take Them to the Overlook: Sonoma Overlook Trail

This is the hardest of the bunch, involving a pretty stiff climb to the top of Shocken Hill above downtown Sonoma. But it’s short (less than 3 miles) and well graded, so only the littlest kids might need a pick-me-up.

The views on a clear day are amazing, encompassing Mount Tamalpais and Mount Diablo, and there’s an old cemetery to explore on the way back to the trailhead. Benches and interpretive signs on the Upper Loop at the top offer places to relax and study the lay of the land.

Take the Toyon Trail down into the Mountain Cemetery as you head down the hill; be sure to pick up a brochure as you enter the cemetery to help you locate notables buried here, including General Mariano Vallejo.

The historic Sonoma Plaza is a few blocks away, with a playground, duck pond and picnic sites. Depot Park is even closer to the trailhead, with ball fields and a rail car housing the Sonoma Valley Historical Society’s museum. For more information, visit sonomaecologycenter.org/sonoma-overlook-trail.

Take Them to the Summit: Mount Tamalpais State Park

Two short paths wander around and then up to the summit of Mount Tamalpais, one of the North Bay’s highest peaks at 2,572 feet. The Verna Dunshee Trail circles the East Peak, a 0.8-mile paved loop, and the Plank Trail, a 0.25-mile out-and-back spur, climbs to the Gardner Fire Lookout tower built in 1937.

The Gravity Car Barn is located near the trailhead for both paths, housing one of the open-air cars used in conjunction with the Mill Valley and Mt. Tamalpais Scenic Railway, also known as “The Crookedest Railroad in the World.” The barn also houses historic information about the railroad. For more information, visit parks.ca.gov/?page_id=471.

Take Them to the Faultline: Point Reyes National Seashore

There isn’t a red-blooded California resident of any age who doesn’t thrill at the thought of straddling the San Andreas Fault. The fault’s rupture in 1906 and the enormous fire that followed destroyed much of San Francisco, an event that shapes the psyche of the state to this day. The 0.7-mile interpretive Earthquake Trail wanders through a lovely riparian zone, but the highlight is a series of blue posts across a meadow that mark the fault line itself.

Add to the exploration by visiting the Bear Valley Visitor Center, which houses interpretive displays, and walk 1 mile out and back to Kule Loklo, a recreation of a Coast Miwok village. For more information, visit nps.gov/pore.

Take Them to the Botanic Garden: Tilden Regional Park

The East Bay hills host a string of remarkable open space parks, many hosting short trails suitable for families with school-age children.

One of the best is Tilden Regional Park above Berkeley, which encompasses a petting farm, a carousel, a steam train, an Environmental Education Center with interpretive displays and a botanical garden showcasing the amazing botanical diversity found in California.

Easy paths — you can walk for a mile or more on interlocking loops — link plant communities from the Sierra Nevada to the Channel Islands to the deserts of Southern California. For more information, visit ebparks.org/parks/tilden/botanic_garden.

Take Them Through the Ruins: Lands End

At more than 5 miles round-trip, an out-and-back hike along the length of the Coastal Trail at Lands End might work with older children. For the young ones, it might be enough to follow the short spurs from the visitor center at Merrie Way down to the ruins of Sutro Baths, onto the parapet in Sutro Heights Park and up to the USS San Francisco Memorial, totaling about 1.2 miles.

If you have more time and energy to spend, meander down the sidewalk to the Cliff House to check out the barking pinnipeds on Seal Rock. Ocean Beach is not much farther along, a long strand pounded by the Pacific and frequented by surfers. For more information, visit nps.gov/goga/planyourvisit/landsend.htm.

Tracy Salcedo is a Glen Ellen-based writer and editor who has written more than 25 guidebooks to locations in California and Colorado, including “Hiking Through History San Francisco” and “Best Easy Day Hikes San Francisco’s North Bay.” She can be reached at laughingwaterink@gmail.com.

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