Friday, April 30, 2010

Wilder Ranch: a Victorian dairy farm with a fern grotto on the beach

Just shy of Santa Cruz past Davenport, Wilder Ranch State Park hides a discrete spot accessible only when the tide is low above the Pleistocene marine terraces. It's a cave carved in the sandtone cliffs, right above a white sand beach, where ferns grow down from a ceiling dripping with water from an underground spring that permeates the rock. If it sounds too good to be true, too "Pirates of the Caribbean" to be in California, you probably need to go down there and see for yourself. Wilder Ranch is a fantastic hiking - and biking - place, one of the few coastal parks where you can hike from the ocean to the redwoods through grassy meadows and rolling hills, passing a Victorian dairy farm. Totally worth a visit.

Before Wilder Ranch was a creamery belonging to Levi K. Baldwin and Deloss D. Wilder, it was the land of the Ohlone Indians who lived on the coast and traded local stones, shells and bone tools with inland tribes. The 1776 expedition of Gaspar de Portola followed by the Mission Santa Cruz had a tragic effect on the Ohlones whose population rapidly dwindled down due to European diseases and the loss of their land.

While the current state park does not include an Ohlone village, the interpretive center does a great job at introducing visitors to the Ohlones' way of life. The highlight of the park is clearly the dairy ranch with Victorian homes, barns, and gardens, a historical area that local schools visit with gusto to learn local history.

On the day I visited, a class of kindergartners was just finishing to churn butter and kids were running on the grass looking for tunnels underneath clusters of aloe bushes. It felt like summer camp before summer. My own girls started by climbing a tree and then were thrilled to realize that the farm part of the ranch still had animals. It had many in fact and we paid them a visit.

From Veronica the French Alpine goat to Lettie the cow named after Lettie Wilder who received a house as a wedding present from her father on the ranch, the local barnyard is very colorful.

According to a docent who was cleaning the wooden cows that kids use to practice their cow milking skills, "the former rooster Thomas Henry was big and mean," so he had to be put down. Pedro the current rooster is quite the ladies bird and enjoys a happy life at the chicken coop. Other goats included Hazel, Deedee, Peanut, Jessie and Nina, while sheep were named Martha and Daisy. When animals have that much personality, I can only applaud.

We went inside every single barn and tool shed before I looked at my watch and decided to head to the coast. The ranger on duty had told me that high tide would be at 1pm and low tide at 5pm. I absolutely wanted to see the fern grotto and it was 2pm. I figured that by the time we got the it would be just right. We hit the dirt trail and heard the ocean way before we saw it. It was loud and wild and slammed the coast with rough white waves.

As we neared the coastal bluffs, a man walked to us at a brisk pace pointing to the Old Landing cove. "Humpback whales!" he said excitedly. There were two humpback whales a mere hundred yards from shore, a mother and her calf, diving and throwing geysers at regular intervals. I was beyond myself. My first whales from shore! I wish I had been able to photograph them but they were too unpredictable. All I can say is that they looked like giant shiny leeches coming to the surface before diving again.

We continued and were amazed at the numbers and varieties of shore birds along the trail. Pigeon guillemots, cormorants, pelicans, sea gulls, they were everywhere and the white guano-encrusted cliffs attested of their presence. 

Fortunately we had binoculars with us and the girls took turns spotting nesting pelagic cormorants precariously perched on cliff ledges, their body facing the cliff to facilitate a backwards take-off so that the nests wouldn't be knocked down. Quite a system indeed.

Finally we caught sight of the fern grotto beach. At first I got it all wrong and thought the giant sea cave north of the marine terraces was the one. My heart sank when I saw how slick and wet the terrace was and how the waves still battered the cliff barring the entrance to the cave.

As much as I wanted to, there was no way I could risk a slippery climb on the marine terrace to try to get to the cave.

I settled for a quick visit to the white sand beach and was about to retrace my steps when I noticed a darker opening in the rock. I got closer and there it was!

Pretty well hidden if you ask me, the fern grotto was in front of me, strings of dark green ferns hanging from the cave's ceiling. I jubilated internally. Such a cool place - literally. It was way far from the ocean, that's how the ferns didn't regularly take a salt bath. The location explained everything. I walked inside and listened to the drip-drop of water echoing in the grotto. It made my day.

To visit Wilder Ranch
If you plan to visit Wilder Ranch, don't miss the Independence Day 1910 Celebration with a noon family parade, games, children's craft area, music, living history demonstrations, historic speeches and flag raising. It sounds like a great family event. Bring your picnic lunch or buy food and drink there. And by all means, bring binoculars.

Saturday, April 10, 2010

Woodside's general store, a well-kept secret

Woodside, one of the wealthiest small towns of the US, keeps a nifty little secret tucked away in the woods and it's got nothing to do with the Silicon Valley. It's Woodside's historic general store, an unassuming little building that thousands of locals pass by when driving to Huddart County park and one of only two public historic sites in all of San Mateo County.

Just looking at the general store from the road, you'd think it was a vacant building or something. It looks awfully dark inside. I went on a week day and there was nobody around it. I even thought it was closed. The dirt lot behind had only cars parked. And yet, the white shirt hanging on a clothes line outside should have ticked me off. All I needed was to push the door to discover a real general store frozen in time in the 1880s. Woodside's historic general store is a museum.

Listed on the National Register of Historic Places, Woodside's general store was built in 1854 by Dr. Robert Orville Tripp and his partner M.A. Parkhurst. In these early years of European settlement, Woodside was a logging town and by 1855 there were eight saw mills and one shingle mill in the city. The Woodside General Store sold everything loggers could need, from leather boots to pots and pans, from fresh produce to ax handles.

Being one of the few stops between San Francisco and San Jose, the store also became a post office with Tripp as the postmaster, operating for people as far as Half Moon Bay. Since Dr. Tripp was also a dentist by training, he brought a dentist chair for one of the back rooms and performed regular dental check-ups of the locals there. Pulling teeth was his specialty. Don't miss the arsenal of instruments he used in the back rooms!

As you enter the store, you will be struck by how dark it is inside. Museum atmosphere guaranteed. Next thing you will notice, there are strings of garlic hanging from the ceiling and blue enamel pots and pans hooked on the wall. Lining the area beneath the staircase, wooden boxes piled with fake produce get you in the country store feel. Walk to the right of the main counter in front of the period food cans. There you will see neat vintage piggy banks that perform cool coin tricks. On the floor and in the cases you will find all the proper clothing and sewing paraphernalia you need to go live in the woods.

The docent on duty that day told me that the store was immensely popular with school field trips. Students get to churn butter, they learn how to use a two-man saw to cut redwood and make shingles (they all bring a shingle back home), they do laundry chores with an old-fashioned washboard and wringer, and they all participate in a scavenger hunt that makes them discover the shelves of the store. I want to be a third-grader again!

Wait, I don't need to be a third grader again - that's actually pretty good news. On Sunday May 2nd, 2010, the Woodside General Store will host its annual History Day with hands-on activities for children, horse wagon rides and games. So mark your family calendar now and be ready to bring a shingle back home!

Details: Open Tuesday and Thursday, 10 a.m. – 4 p.m., Saturday and Sunday, 12 p.m. - 4 p.m. Closed all other days and holidays. 
Address: 3300 Tripp Road , Woodside, CA 94062  
Directions: click here.

Friday, April 2, 2010

Columbia, America's best preserved Gold Rush town

Pale Rider, Little House on the Prairie, The Lone Ranger - these staples of wild west cinema have one main street in common and it is located in Columbia State Historic Park. Columbia is said to be America's best preserved Gold Rush town and the city just celebrated its 160th anniversary with a birthday cake and period costumes. What better excuse for a day trip from the Bay Area?

Met by two friends and their two children, I drove the 140 miles to Columbia with four children from 3 to 7 years old and we spent the day enjoying this little jewel of a town. Did they like it? You bet. At 5pm we had to pull away the young'uns from the climbing heaven they just discovered next to the gold panning operation. Before then they had tried their hand at old fashioned children's games on Main Street, been introduced to the most popular hobby of the gold miners, written their name on paper with a quill and black ink and dipped candles in buckets in colored wax. Columbia rocks! Here's why you need to visit.

Unlike Calico Ghost Town which is run like a period theme park, Columbia has the subdued authentic feel of a state park. If you want information on the city, you head to the visitor center and get a map. Rangers can help you out and it's free. Better than Bodie, a high desert ghost town in Bridgeport (another California state park and a Frog Mom favorite too), Columbia is open year round except for Thanksgiving and Christmas from 10am to 4pm. No desert snow storms that close it from the outside world. But the best part is how close it is from the Bay Area and the fact that it is a real town with a pedestrian historic downtown.

Sandwiched between Angels Camp and Jamestown in the heart of the Gold Country, Columbia is close to a rising wine region. Think Murphys and the blockbuster Ironstone Vineyards or the boutique Stevenot Winery. Tourism and wine tasting is huge in Calaveras County. So really, a day trip or a weekend getaway are more than justified.

Right after we arrived on Main Street next to the Fallon Theater, my girls were intrigued by the open door of the Columbia Gazette Newspaper Office. A woman gestured for them to come inside. She showed them how to line old-fashioned lead types backwards and upside down on a galley to write their name so it could be read in a mirror. They were floored that it worked.
We would probably have written an entire sentence if the woman hadn't mentioned something about "the birthday cake - oh yes you have to go get a slice, it's by the museum." A big birthday cake? The next minute we were marching up Main Street firmly intent on getting a slice of the cake. There it was: vanilla with red, blue and white frosting.

But where the kids going? The cake was next to where kids activities were organized. Hoop games! Stick games! Rope games! Bubble games! They didn't know where to start and I was left with a half-eaten slice of cake in my hands.

It's hard to say whether the bubbles were more popular than the hoop trundling but it sure kept them busy a long while. The wooden box version of tug-o-war where you kneel on a box drew a big crowd of kids who wanted to show off their steel biceps. Most of the hoops and sticks were readily available in a red wagon and newcomers got the idea very quickly - this was here to play with. What I loved in these old west games was that they all appealed equally to boys and girls. It made things easier for us too since our party counted two boys and two girls.

Understandably the children didn't want to leave the play area when we told them we wanted to see the show about how gold was discovered in Columbia. We begged and won - with promises of hot dogs. Yes, it's called bribing. Us adults thought that we had to see the re-enactment because Columbia is about the Gold Rush after all.

It was fun to arrive in front of a cowboys' encampment in a meadow, to watch them brew cowboy coffee on a campfire (don't ever want to try that), and to hear them yell in unison when a gold nugget was retrieved from the river. The fact that we were next to the route of the stagecoach definitely added to the period charm of the show since the children couldn't get their eyes off the horses as they clip-clopped on the road behind us. The play was quickly over and we dashed to the the hot dogs wagon for lunch.

Our savory cravings satisfied, we had to find an ice cream parlor because the sky was just too sunny. It was ice cream weather, no doubt. Didn't take us long to follow scoops on cones walking by and soon enough we found the treasure trove: Brown's Coffee House & Sweets Saloon. Four ice creams on cones please! Across the street came a rumbling noise preceding loud cheers. What was that? That was the local bowling alley, a funky place with one room only open on the wooden walkways. Alongside one wall, a single bowling lane in wood with pins neatly lined up at the end and a sloped hand rail to roll the ball back to you.

Would you believe that bowling was the most popular hobby of gold miners - aside from drinking? Apparently this place was never empty for more 10 minutes in any 24-hour period and one minute on Sundays. Holy cow! How could we not try it? The children pushed each other to get in line and try to strike.

Since there was only one lane, they took turns at rolling the ball, re-arranging the pins and getting in line again. Now I could see how the place would have the buzz of the town in the 1850s.

They couldn't get enough of it but I had other plans in mind for the afternoon. I also wanted to see the rest of Columbia: the general store with a straw mattress in the back room, the chicken coop with the Dominique hens laying eggs, the old school house perched on top of a hill just like in The Little House on the Prairie and ... the cemetery.

Whenever I visit historic places, I always try to include the cemetery. It's revealing of the place and the way people lived - or died, rather. On that front, Columbia did not disappoint. It was like reading a local history book.

I started reading the tombstones and asked the children to search for early pioneers born in the 1820-30s. They took it as a treasure hunt and quickly learned which lines they had to look for. Each time, I told them the short story if there was one.

This man died at age 28. This one at age 16. This one came from Prussia and his neighbor too. This one drowned in the river and the next one was murdered. Ah, the insane brutality of the Gold Rush days. And then came a litany of infants and mothers, some dramatically young and a sad reminder of infant mortality back then.

We even found a French trapper guy who settled in California. He was laid to rest in a big plot with his wife and his son. I was sad to think that whatever this man had started in Columbia had finished in Columbia. There was no one left from his family. Under the foliage of the trees on a sunny day, it felt peaceful to walk around the graveyard. No cars, no sounds, just birds chirping above us. However come October and chilly nights, the place must be pretty spooky.

We turned around and came back to the historic downtown as the children asked to try their luck at gold panning before we left. At the corner of Main Street and Pacific I admired some pretty sleek motorbikes in front of the St Charles Saloon. Reminded me of Murphys in the summertime. Total biker place. But hey, we were headed for the gold so we made it back to where Washington Street drops several feeet into a rocky area that resembles a rock garden.

On the way, we stopped at the butcher's where the butcher and his wife showed us the old lard in a box, the bars of solid black tea stamped with Chinese characters and pagoda designs, the ceramic flasks of rose wine coming from China, the bits of tobacco to chew on, the mystery boxes with unknown powders.

It was a small store but it had its fair share of eye candy and the docents were charming. They told me that in the 1850s Columbia's population grew by 5,000 in one week. Wow. Word of found gold sure spread like fire.

Finally we got to the gold panning operation. We rolled up our sleeves, picked up a pan and got wet. Our experience being minimal we didn't find any flakes of real gold but filled our vials with a few garnets, tiger's eyes, colored quartzes and iron pyrite.

It was fun but not as fun as climbing the rocks a few feet away.Now that was a riot. There is a miners cabin at the edge of the boulders and the kids started climbing in and out of the rocks like regular monkeys. Would you know that this entire area used to be under ground? Yes, that's why it's way below Main Street. It was blasted away with hydraulic mining techniques to look for gold. That explains the resulting rugged shape of the limestone boulders.

It was time to call it a day but I regretted it was too late to visit nearby Jamestown, the fabulous old train depot. Maybe next time?

Visit: Gold Rush Days are held every Second Saturday of each month from 1 to 4pm. Many special exhibits open and hands-on activities throughout the day. Park docents in period attire lead programs throughout the park. Call 209-588-9128 for details.