Top Five Outdoor Adventures in the Bay Area

Ana Picazo - San Francisco Bay Area
June 15, 2011

Forget the lazy days of summer. Take your cue from your active little jumping beans and take your family on a summer adventure that will have them moving, exploring, and having the times of their lives. Here are five outdoor Bay Area adventures that offer plenty of thrills (with minimal spills), and guarantee a fuss-free bedtime at the end of the day.

Kayak with the seals across Bolinas Lagoon

Nature rules at Bolinas Lagoon. No parking lots, no trails, and no viewing areas means no crowds and lots of wildlife: ducks, geese, seagulls, shore birds, and harbor seals. The lagoon is broad and shallow, so the sand bars in the middle are the perfect place for adults and their pups to lounge around and catch some ZZZs, and it's the perfect place for families to head out in a kayak for a closer look (but not too close!). The lagoon is protected from big ocean waves, and on a sunny summer day, the water is almost warm and shallow enough to stand in. Little kids, big kids, and kids at heart will have a great time as the naturally curious seals surround your kayak and get as close as twenty feet away! Rent kayaks and wetsuits over at nearby Stinson Beach Kayaks, and they will drop you off and pick you up right on the lagoon. Pack a picnic lunch, bring your binoculars, and get ready to become one with nature.

Go rafting on California's rivers

When you think of river rafting, images of churning whitewater and menacing rocks might cause you to cradle your child in your arms and call it a day, but even children as young as four and five can safely enjoy Northern California's mighty American River. The South Fork and Lower Middle Fork both have stretches of class one and two rapids, where the whitewater is more "riffle" than "rapid." Companies such as American River Recreation, Tributary Whitewater Tours, or All-Outdoor California Whitewater Rafting offer rafting trips for families with children on these sections.

For an even mellower river experience that's more Tom Sawyer than Lewis and Clark, spend the day paddling on the Russian River in an inflatable canoe with SOAR Russian River Adventures. This self-guided tour lets families take their time, drifting with the lazy current, swinging on the rope swings that dot the river bank or splashing in one of the swimming holes they encounter along the way. Your SOAR adventure launches from nearby Healdsburg, so you'll have plenty of time to drive home and tuck your tuckered-out adventurer into bed.

Bike around Angel Island

Treasure Island may sound more appealing to your little buccaneers, but neighboring Angel Island is where true adventure lies. Its small size, inaccessibility to cars, and miles of hiking and biking trails make it perfect for landlubbers, scallywags, and seaworthy first mates to have a great day. Start by boarding the ferry from San Francisco or Tiburon and enjoy the views as you make your way across San Francisco Bay to Angel Island. You can take your own bikes on the ferry for an additional $1, or if you don't feel like lugging all that gear in your car, you can rent bikes and trailers on the island. The five-mile Perimeter Road provides plenty of exercise for the whole family. It's mostly paved and fairly family-friendly, though you may have to walk your bikes in some stretches, but you'll be rewarded with spectacular views the entire way.  You can take a picnic lunch with you or purchase food at the Ayala Cove Cafe. Picnic tables are scattered throughout the island, so you can stop for lunch or a snack whenever hunger strikes. 

Ride a horse through the countryside

If your little buckaroos and buckarettes are ready for more than a pony ride around a paddock, it's time to take them on a trail ride. The Bay Area is full of ranches that offer horse trail rides, some for children as young as five.  All it takes is a love for horses, a love of the outdoors, a spirit of adventure and an experienced guide.  At Point Reyes Arabian Adventures, beginners can take a half-hour lesson in the arena, then follow their instructor on a fun hour-long trail ride through scenic Chileno Valley in Sonoma County. Not far away, Five Brooks Ranch guides riders through the trails of Point Reyes National Seashore; their Stewart Trail Ride, with its relaxed pace and shady wooded trail, is perfect for beginners and youngsters. Over on the East Bay, Western Trail Riding Services lets children 5 years and older ride on their own horse and enjoy a thirty-minute circuit around the valley floor of Sunol Regional Park. Getting into the spirit of the Wild West has never been easier!

Climb a rock at Rock City

The rocks at Mt. Diablo's Rock City aren't just fun to climb, they're fodder for countless hours of daydreaming and imaginary play.  Over the centuries, the wind and rain have molded the sandstone hills into formations resembling turrets, towers, auditoriums, daves and grottos. It's a landscape straight out of the Teletubbies world! Little ones will enjoy looking at rocks and searching for resemblances to turtles, jellybeans, dragons and other creatures of their imagination, and the caves and grottoes are just begging for a game of hide and go seek -- but with so many nooks and crannies and large, high, rocks, exercise caution and keep your little ones nearby.  As your day ends, make your way up the makeshift stairs to Sentinel Rock and enjoy the best view of the sunset in the Bay Area.

Remember, it helps to plan ahead, so visit your destination's website and call in advance to confirm opening times and schedules -- but once you're there, it's time to relax, enjoy, and let the spirit of adventure take you and your family wherever you want to go.

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