Thursday, April 21, 2011

Night Hike with the Kids: "The Stars of Harry Potter" at Russian Ridge

Waiting for the stars to align on Borel Hill. Photo by Frog Mom
Can hiking be any more fun for a kid than a Harry Potter-themed twilight stroll on the spine of the Santa Cruz Mountains with mysterious great horned owls perched high up in trees? I think not. Last Saturday my 7-year old and I attended a night hike organized at Russian Ridge Open Space Preserve by the Midpeninsula Open Space District, joined by my friend Inga and her 8-year old boy. It was, simply put, fantastic. The description read "What do Draco, Sirius, Regulus, and Bellatrix have in common? Find out on this relaxed 2.5 mile walk where you'll experience the magic of daylight to dusk to darkness with docents." I wasn't sure what to expect but sure hoped for some fun stargazing. After 3.5 hours of trail wandering, we had discovered a whole new side to Harry Potter, one studded with Greek mythology, faraway constellations and dragons thrown in the sky by angry goddesses, sharing names with Harry's dreaded Draco Malfoy schoolmate at Hogwarts. Who knew?

On the trails. Photo by Frog Mom
We started in broad daylight at the parking lot of Russian Ridge. In case we weren't familiar with the Harry Potter (HP) characters, the docents conducted a mini-quiz on the houses at Hogwarts, the names of the main students and professors, the game played by witches and sorcerers, and more HP folklore. Good news, we passed!

Our group included 5 children (from 7 to 12) and 7 adults. Suffice to say that the younger crew was on top of the HP game and we adults, scrambled behind. These kids sure can remember a good story and turn it inside out to answer any question.

Luna = Moon. Photo by Frog Mom
We set out on the trails as the light of the sun turned from bright white to golden. Walking on the dirt-packed path, I saw our shadows get longer and longer and darker and darker.

At the first stop, Karen brandished a folder and pulled out carefully crafted posters on Luna Lovegood, the witch girl who took part in the second wizarding war. She explained to the kids that Luna means moon and proceeded to talk about the faces and phases of the moon. Looking at her watch she said "The moon should be up by now." We looked in the sky but couldn't find it until someone shouted "Moon!" There it was, our moonrise.

At our second stop, Karen's backpack revealed a blue felt panel with cut out silhouettes of local owls so we could talk about Hedwig, Harry's personal owl. As it turns out, Hedwig is a snowy owl, an owl unlikely to be ever spotted in California - this species calls the arctic tundra home. However common Northern California owls include the barn owl, the great horned owl, the burrowing owl, the western screech owl, amongst others.

With so many owls, how do you identify them? To everybody's surprise, Karen extracted a CD player out of her backpack, set it on the ground and played sound recording of various owl calls. Neat! I could tell the kids enjoyed that part, particularly the harsh cat-like screech of the barn owl.

Sunset. Photo by Frog Mom
On our way to our next stop, Cathy called out "Coyotes!" On the opposite ridge, two coyotes were tracing their way through the grasses. Exciting! She adjusted her binoculars and passed them around so we could see them before they disappeared.

With the sun setting within minutes, it was time to sit down and have dinner. We all made ourselves comfortable on the gravelly dirt road and admired the views as the fog wrapped its fluffy clouds around redwood forests while the sun was saying goodbye. At last the sun dropped below the horizon and dusk settled in. We had dutifully eaten our sandwiches and treats and were eager to get moving. It was crazy how much colder it got after the sun set. We needed to warm up!

Hiking at dusk. Photo by Frog Mom
Karen advised us not to use our flashlights just yet. She explained that our eyesight adjusts to night conditions in a matter of minutes and our eyesight after a minute in the dark is 100 times better than right after we switch off the lights. Indeed we didn't need lights to guide our footsteps. If anything, the surrounding darkness sharpened another sense - our hearing.

Great horned owl on tree. Photo by Frog Mom
Nature was quiet where we were. Very quiet. Nothing seemed to move, or did it? Kay and Cathy pulled out their binoculars and showed us a pointy shape on top of a leafless tree. Sitting on top of the highest branch was ... a great horned owl.

Cathy showed us the typical Batman-shaped ear tufts on the head. Though we weren't exactly discrete, the owl didn't fly away. It stood there and pivoted its head a few times. Was it sizing us up by sound? Possibly. Great horned owls are known to have the most acute sense of hearing in the animal world.

They can also spot a prey from 100 yards away with 5% of the night vision we'd need so clearly, that owl knew where we were. Regardless, we were enthralled and I kept setting my camera stand up the hill to capture a steady shot. I didn't even end up with a sharp photo but I was happy enough with the result.

Night vision talk. Photo by Frog Mom
Kids took turns at showing their enthusiasm, pointing us to the big bird as if we hadn't seen it. We could have stood on that hill a long time but the clock was ticking. We continued on the trail.

In a dark wooded grove under the thick canopy of oak trees, we listened as Karen and Kay talked to us about night vision. Ironically all the kids in the group - who had great eyesight - had switched on their flashlight or headlamp whereas the adults refrained. Guess we were trying to be "authentic," understand the physics of night vision. I liked it better without the lights anyway.

The next trail segment was going to be an interesting challenge. Karen asked us to walk single file, separated by 3 to 5 feet from others, in complete silence, until we reached an open meadow. We were to sense the sounds of the forest and differences in temperature. Softly we started to walk, all wrapped up in darkness.

"Who switched on such a bright light?!" I thought loudly as a ray of white light shone on my face. It was the moon! Just two days shy of being full, its silvery glow was piercing through the trees and startled us all. Ah, the moon. A gentle swooshing sound passed over our heads in the forest. Bats. Of course, nocturnal animals. We all reached the open meadow, one by one, and dared not utter a word for fear of breaking our silence vow.

Looking down on Palo Alto. Photo by Frog Mom
All gathered, we reclaimed our voices and talked about the experience. None of the kids found it scary but everybody agreed it was cool. For our last stop, we climbed the ridge to Borel Hill, the highest point in the park. Sitting around big rocks, we listened to the theme of Hedwig on a Harry Potter soundtrack, a most magical music at night outside. My 7-year old loved it and asked Karen twice what the song was so I could get it for her later.

It was star time, constellation time, time to spot the big dipper, learn about the bright star Sirius, the Orion star Bellatrix, the story of Draco the Dragon constellation and Hercules in the garden of the golden apples, the three-headed dog Cerberus who guarded a door. It was my favorite part of the hike, listening to stories about stars under the stars, and loosely connecting the dots of the Harry Potter mythology. Wow. That was incredible and the end of our hike.
Harry Potter and his pet owl Hedwig.

When I told my 5-year old about the evening on the next day, she begged me to take her along next time. Will there be a next time? I hope so. Actually, here's an idea.

Would you like to see more programs like that? Make your parent voice heard and email your local park. In the case of Russian Ridge, the email would be Tell your park authorities that you would like fun programs like that to encourage your kids to get outdoors. Give them ideas, tell them how old your child is, write about your child's interest and how that could be turned into a fun day outdoors.

If you can, volunteer to help organize an outing. Not saying it'll happen in all cases but I know that parks are trying hard to reach out to parents and they would like to hear more from them. Last but not least, let's hope there are enough Karens, Kays and Cathys in this world to helm night hikes with Hedwig's theme on top of Mindego Hill. Thanks to them three for a magical night on Russian Ridge.

Wednesday, April 13, 2011

Family backpacking trip to the West Point Inn on Mount Tamalpais

A cabin with a view. Photo by Frog Mom
The Mount Tamalpais' West Point Inn was one of my dreams for a long time - the historic stopover for passengers on the gravity car that snaked on the trails of the crookedest railroad in the world to the top of Mt Tam is a must on every hiker's to-do list. It may be called an inn, but you have to backpack in. You can't drive up to the inn - it's part of the tradition. The 1904 lodging provides shelter to visitors either as tiny rooms in the main building or as rustic cabins with cold showers outside on the deck. You bring your sleeping bag, food, clothes, toiletries and good spirits.

Follow the signs. Photo by Frog Mom
Last Friday, I was floored to find we were outnumbered by kids. For a backpack-in lodge, it's amazingly kid-friendly. That night, 20 cub scouts, 7 9-year-old boys, and our 3 girls from age 5 to 7 were more than a match for the handful of adults trying to cope with the noise and testosterone level. What a scene!

It was my second backpacking experience with my girls, the first trip having been two years ago when they were 5 and 3. Let me tellya, the Mount Tam experience is indefinitely easier than the sierras - no bear containers to store food, no tent to carry, and if you forgot your goose down winter jacket, you can warm up by the fireplace. It's by far the gentlest way to backpack with kids in the Bay Area. Even the trail is easy: 2 straight miles on a wide fire road. My friend Becky, who swam from Alcatraz with me last year, joined me with her 7-year old daughter.

Gummy cougar! Photo by Frog Mom
The plan was to leave San Francisco around 4 pm and hope to be at the inn around 6pm. In reality we didn't reach the trailhead at Pantoll before 5pm and we got to the inn at 6.45pm. By then the sun was low on the horizon and the girls' stomach was grumbling. Almost.

To spice up the hike, Becky created a game to boost the  stamina of our girls. She called it the "gummy cougar" and before knowing the rules, the kids had her attention with the name.

She hid big star-shaped gummy stars along the trail and the girls went on a gummy scavenger hunt to find them. Rocks, stumps, trail posts, were all good hiding places. To be completely fair to the 5-year old who wasn't as fast as her 7-year old counterparts, I hid a couple in my pants' pocket so she could partake in the sugary revelries.

Kids hiking. Photo by Frog Mom
Realizing that the girls were slowing down to look for more candy, we stopped the gummy cougar game and let them take the lead on the trail. I always find that kids walk better if they're not trailing behind. Somehow they forget that they're with adults and engage in lively conversations, moving along without effort.

In terms of backpacks, here is how we had shared the load with my girls. I carried 2 sleeping bags, our clothes, food (we shared dinner and breakfast duties with Becky), two water bottles, 3 headlamps and 3 battery-operated glow sticks, a book and toiletries.

On the trail. Photo by my 2nd grader!
My 7-year old was carrying her sleeping bag, a thermos and her jacket. My 5-year old was carrying her jacket, a water bottle and snacks. It seemed to work pretty well for everybody. Since I knew the trail would be easy, the kids were just wearing good walking shoes but they didn't need hiking boots.

Once at the West Point Inn, Pat, the guardian of the inn, greeted us, led us to the cabin #4 and gave us the spiel. "The cabins get a little cold at night. Feel free to use the extra blankets." At this point, he opened the plain wood double doors opening on the deck.

West Point Inn. Photo by Frog Mom
The dark cabin welcomed some sun light in and I looked at the floor . "Look! A mouse!" The cutest field mouse was crossing the space between two beds and scurried away quickly. We tried to find it later but it was gone. My girls love little rodents.

Pat grabbed the opportunity of the mouse to switch to another topic. "Talking about wildlife, there are two local animals that are dangerous and that you should be aware of: rattlesnakes and scorpions."

Cabin #4. Photo by Frog Mom
Rattlesnakes, we weren't going to see because the temps were too cold. It had snowed on Mount Tam that afternoon. Scorpions too but Pat said something that stuck with the girls until the next day: scorpions like to hide in shoes because they're warm. "Shake your shoes in the morning," he said, adding that the only scorpion he had ever heard of was seen in cabin #4 last year. It was on the ground. It looked like a leaf. A lady bent over to pick it up and OUCH!

Right then, my girls looked like they were going to melt down or cry or both. My second grader got close to me, looking upset. I thought she just wanted to cuddle up. In fact, she was afraid. Pat admitted later he should have saved that information for us adults. I agree, that would have been better.

Waiting for dinner. Photo by Frog Mom
Needless to say, the girls were eager to leave the cabin so we could prepare dinner in the main building. I vaguely unpacked my backpack to get the food and headlamps out, and we all headed over. The inn's kitchen is not small but it's not big either. Built in 1904, it has remarkably resisted to the passage of time and the cream color of the walls, the wood cabinets, the wall sconces and the heavy six-fire stove flanked by giant griddles lend it a certain period charm.

However with 6 to 8 parents preparing dinner to feed armies of ravenous young boys, space to navigate was sparse and we had to wait for our turn. The only smart thing Becky and I could do was ... uncork a bottle of wine - which we did! While our girls watched the boys play a game of cards, we squeezed our way in the kitchen and managed to warm up our dinner of roasted chicken and Thai sticky rice in the giant oven, next to the boys' lasagnas and pizzas.

Dinner time! Photo by Frog Mom
Finally dinner was ready and we all sat down. With the fire crackling in the hearth against the back wall, the room felt terribly cozy and warm. We secretly wished we wouldn't have to get out to go sleep in probably cold and damp cabin but hey, that'll be for next time.

After dinner we brushed our teeth in the kitchen - the restrooms were outside and we felt entitled to more "warm" time before bedtime, and cleaned up the plates. Staying at the West Point Inn is like staying at a youth hostel - you need to clean up after yourself and do a share of the daily chores. It's only after one of the girls fell asleep in front of the fire that we realized it was time to head out. We dashed back to our cabin, quickly changed in our PJs and tucked ourselves tight in our sleeping bags. Of course, we hung all shoes 5 feet off the floor and the backpacks too. Pegs, hooks and nails sticking out of the walls - we used them all! That night we all slept like logs. All of us people and one extra item. The next morning my 5-year old's first words were: "Mom, why is the chocolate bar all squishy?" She had slept with it, holding it against her as her lovey.

To spend the night
You can reserve by emailing or calling the reservation line 415-646-0702.

  • High season: Children: Age 2 to 18 - one half of the Adult Rate.   Babies under 2, Free.Non-Members : $50 per adult/night. ( Except Low Season  Tuesday-Thursday : $35 per person/night ). 
  • Low Season ~ Tuesday-Thursday: Rates are $700 up to 20 persons. Member Whole Inn Rentals on Premium Holidays*: Rates are $1000.00 up to 20 persons. 
All details are on this page.

Tuesday, April 5, 2011

Family Glamping at Mount Madonna: Yurts, Redwoods, and Arrows

It's round and comfy, what is it? Photo by C.G.
The Mongolians are here! Not barbecues, you silly, we're talking about yurts here. The good news is, you don't have to trek all the way to the Treebones Resort in San Simeon to discover the big buzz about yurts anymore. Mount Madonna County Park in Gilroy has everything a family needs to kick back in the redwoods, starting with 5 yurts built in 2010. These round tents with canvas sides are similar to those used by nomads in the Mongolian steppe - only you get a wooden floor, beds, table and nearby restrooms. Plus, at Mount Madonna, kids can unleash their inner Robin Hood at the archery range, follow a nature trail through the ruins of a big estate, and see rare exotic deer - after which you can go om and eat vegetarian at a nearby spiritual retreat. Savvy?

Tada! It's round inside too. Photo by C.G.
Much like your favorite morning java cup, yurts come in three sizes: small ($50/night), medium ($70) and large ($90). For our party of two families (4 adults, 3 kids), we reserved the small yurt and even had space to spread our luggage and move around. The wood lattice frame was a really cool touch, as well as the mosquito net windows that gave me a full view on tree tops as I awoke on the futon bed in the morning.

Surprise, the yurt even had a ceiling lamp, a useful feature as we pulled in at night and struggled to find our flashlights. Since only kids age 6 and over are allowed in the upper bunk beds, we had the 5-year old stay below and the 7-year old stay on top. Just like we do at home! The only downside of the yurt, IMHO, is how noisy it can get at night. The faintest sleeping bag ruffle, the slightest toss, are echoed through the structure. God forbid somebody snores or is suffering from allergies and sneezes! Then you end up like my husband buying ear plugs the next day and spending a jolly good uninterrupted night.

Archery Range
Archery apprentices. Photo by C.G.
Move over Robin Hood, girls are taking over! I was so glad to discover the beautiful archery range at Mount Madonna because kids can really have fun with minimal gear and still be outdoors. Before going, I called a few archery and sports stores and most offered bows at $60+ for children, which was more than I was ready to spend for a weekend or at least a trial. Online, I bought the Bear Archery First Shot Set ($20) for my 5-year old and the Bear Archery Wizard Bow ($20) for my 7-year old and her 8-year old friend. Turns out they were the highlight of the trip for the girls. They loved it! We went on both days and still they were asking for more. Each bow came with two arrows but after we lost some in the woods, we actually found 4 other ones under trees so our stock multiplied!

Aim and shoot! Photo by C.G.
On a girl-power note, archery is one of the rare outdoors sports with a history a female excellency. My girls like to identify with female role models and asked me if there was a female Robin Hood. I was more than happy to tell them about Queen Susan in The Chronicles of Narnia, the Greek goddess Artemis, also Diana for Romans, goddess of the hunt, and the fierce women archers known as the Amazons. When my girls grow older, I will introduce Katniss Everdeen, heroin and master archer of The Hunger Games. Not only is archery fun, but it can't be all bad to improve a kid's motor skills such as hand-eye coordination.

As far as kid safety is concerned, don't underestimate the usefulness of the finger tab and the arm guard provided with the bow. Young archers can be hit by the string as it is released and it's not fun.

Access to the Mount Madonna Archery Range is public and free except on rare days when it is reserved the Bowmen of Mount Madonna or other events, in which case the whole site is closed. When you go, walk down Ridge Road to find individual archery practice areas tucked in the woods, each with their own bench and pegs to hang bows. Bring a picnic and enjoy!

White Fallow Deer
Bambi dressed in white. Photo by C.G.
A sure hit with the playground set, the herd of white fallow deer is so easy to spot it's almost unfair. They're quietly grazing in a pen behind a metallic fence across from the visitor center. Think of it as an outdoors Victorian zoo item on the decline. In following with the Victorian tradition of offering exotic animals as pets, William Randolph Hearst offered a pair of white fallow deer in 1932 to Henry Miller, owner of the estate that later became Mount Madonna County Park. The pair multiplied and today's deer are the descendants of the original two.

Males are kept apart from females so they can't breed. As exotic animals coming from Eurasia, they have no place in the ecosystem of a California park and the decision of the Santa Clara County Parks is to manage them humanely but not allow them to breed. Go see them while they're alive, they're cute as can be and as they're white, my kids called them "ghost deer."

Nature Trail and Ruins of the Henry Miller Estate
A mansion in state of arrested decay. Photo by Frog Mom
You probably knew Henry Miller the writer (yes, Marylin Monroe's husband) but did you know Henry Miller the cattle baron who became a millionaire in California the 1860s and 1870s? Well if you didn't, you're about to meet the man who called this mountain home and built a lavish compound of villas atop a redwood mountain overlooking orchards, vineyards and the great blue Pacific Ocean.

Now completely overgrown by the forest, the estate includes a few standing walls, house prints, stairs that go down the forest floor, the cement base of a fountain and more tidbits alluding to a comfortable mountain getaway gone green. Pick up the park's Self Guided Tour of Mount Madonna's Miller Estate & Nature Walk to enjoy a mile-long tour of the estate and learn about the local flora.

Spiritual Centers
Mount Madonna Center. Photo by C.G.
Ready for yoga and vegetarian food? Inhale, breathe in and relax. Mount Madonna is home to a few spiritual centers where communities live in serene settings and nurture creative arts and spiritual health. While "serene settings" and "children" don't exactly belong in the same sentence, it can be fun just to walk through the grounds of these centers and show children another side of the mountain.

For an Indian-inspired experience, we visited the Madonna Mountain Center and showed the Sankat Mochan Hanuman Temple to our girls. They were transfixed by the burning incense, foreheading blessing ceremony taking place that day, and the story of Hanuman we told them. However as the website points out, "Please keep your children with you and help us preserve our peaceful atmosphere." Meaning, be quiet.

Photo from the Kim Son Monastery website.
For a Vietnamese take on serenity, head to the Kim Son Monastery, a Vietnamese monastery where monks speak Vietnamese, whose website is all in Vietnamese and where Vietnamese Buddhas sit outside surrounded by redwoods. You won't be completely lost in translation though. Some monks speak English and can tell you more about the monastery if you wish.

Kids will enjoy walking through the sculpture garden and the rock cave. The monastery serves free vegetarian meals on certain days but call ahead to confirm that. For a complete family experience, go on major Buddhist events such as the Lunar New Year know as Tet Festival or the Mid Autumn Festival.

Now you know enough about Mount Madonna to consider driving 30 minutes south of San Jose, right? Just know the yurts are very popular and be quick to snatch them!