So you want to go hiking. And you want (with your kids) to learn something about the Bay Area’s flora and fauna, but your level of nature knowledge amounts to discriminating between trees, flowers & animals. In other words, you are not a born naturalist but you want to support such activities with your kids.
Fortunately, the Bay Area is FILLED with opportunities to hike or explore the outside with someone who knows manzanitas from madrones, or can tell you about the habits of the animals around us. Many of these opportunities are FREE– they just may require a little pre-registering. Below are just a smattering of organizations offering guided hikes for families. If there are some we have missed, please add them in the comments!
Also, one of the upcoming features I hope to add to this site is a calendar with all the various family-friendly outdoor activities on the calendar, so keep checking back!
Once again, the granddaddy of the Bay Area park system comes through. There are SO MANY opportunities for getting kids outside. You need to look up their “activities” section. From there, you can sort by the age of your kiddo, but there are many for each age–especially the toddler or younger age. For example, you could join “Big Break Littles”– a program for children that are at least 1 but less than 5, taking place at Big Break Regional Shoreline.
The Solano Land Trust includes several parcels of land, including Lynch Canyon Open Space, Rush Ranch and King-Swett Ranches. King-Swett is only accessible through guided hikes, but fortunately, the monthly guided hikes they offer at King-Swett are all FREE! Every month, there is a raptor-watching hike offered for $10/person, and a “Get the Rush” day, which is a (free) family-centered day at Rush Ranch featuring various activities (sometimes including a blacksmithing shop!) as well as access to the trails. The family day does not included guided hikes, but it looks like a lot of fun and it’s on my list of places to explore.
Ok, it’s in Winters, which is a bit far outside of the Bay Area proper, but it offers family hikes AND free canoe outings! Kids have to be eight or older, but they will take you out for a two hour canoeing adventure (just pre-register)– we haven’t yet tried this (not all of our people are eight yet), but I’m looking forward to it and I think YOU should try it with your older kids!
Marin County Parks has multiple opportunities to head out on walks with a naturalist. Many of their hikes are during the week, which means they must be of an acceptable length for the under-5 crowd, but they do have occasional weekend hikes for those of us who are otherwise employed during the week. We went on a great hike to Mount Burdell over Winter Break, which you can read about here. On January 31st, they will lead a bilingual Spanish/English hike in search of frogs, toads, salamanders and other winter-season wildlife.
Nature Bridge has several branches around the country, including ones in Yosemite, Olympic National Park, and Shenandoah National Park, but they also have a branch in Marin County, out of Fort Cronkhite. (Note: if you are ever heading up to Olympic National Park, check them out– they seem to have some really amazing opportunities for family adventures.) They offer seasonal activities for families– in the late fall/winter, the activity was a night hike that concluded with s’mores/campfire time. You can read about our experience with it here. Their night hike for February will involve a campfire AND looking at bioluminescent plankton!
Golden Gate National Parks Conservancy
The Parks Conservancy offers many, many opportunities for people to contribute to the stewardship of the national parks around us (like GGNP, for example), but it also has a few guided hikes offered–you just may need to sift through their extremely long list of events to find hikes. Make sure you check the age ranges, as some hikes are limited to ages 8 and up, for example.
LandPaths is a Sonoma County-based organization, whose mission, according to their website is to “foster a love of the land in Sonoma County” While they have an extensive education program that works with local schools, they are also committed to fostering everyone else’s enjoyment of Sonoma County land as well. They offer several different types of outings for families– including one called “Nature Games and Warm Cider,” where they lead families on a walk through the Rancho Mark West property, stopping to play nature games and having lunch (accompanied by warm cider). Their Valentine’s Day hike is a kid-friendly hike focused on Fungi! Definitely an organization worth checking out.
Pepperwood Preserve is a 3, 120 acre nature preserve in Sonoma County. The preserve offers a variety of activities, from youth nature camps to adult classes, as well as family hikes. The preserve’s mission is to encourage conservation through environmental education.
Mid-Peninsula Regional Open Space
The Mid-Peninsula Regional Open Space District comprises 26 different open space preserves! Some of the best-known preserves include Purisima Creek Redwoods, or Rancho San Antonio, but it also includes lesser-known preserves like Coal Creek or El Corte de Madera Creek. The Open Space District offers various guided hikes, including a once-a-month Introductory Geocaching Hike expressly for families! They have various other docent-led hikes, and a handy key at the top of each description letting you know if the hike would be appropriate for children, or how long the hike will be, so you can decide if your child(ren) can handle the distance.
Check out Santa Clara County Park’s Healthy Trails events calendar. Santa Clara County Parks offers a large variety of short guided hikes designed to get people of all ages out and exploring their parks. They have “Story time with a Ranger,” and you can head out to Joseph Grant park for some astronomy time with the Halls Valley Astronomical Group. They even offer a free “Photography for Children” class– definitely worth checking out!
There you have it– TEN organizations that are devoted to getting families out on the trails. Most of them are free, with some fairly low-cost options when there is a charge. Choose the one that’s closest to you, or pick one that is farther away and make an excursion of it! (Putah Creek Council is close to Berryessa Brewing (YUM) and Sudwerk Brewing, were you to need adult refreshments post-canoe trip.) Get out and learn something about our world!
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