OpenRoad with Doug McConnell

We live in one of the most beautiful areas in the world. The options seem endless when thinking about where to take our children, visitors, or significant others. I couldn't wait to talk to local expert Doug McConnell about what his favorite Bay Area places are. Doug is host of Openroad with Doug McConnell which takes viewers on journeys to explore the natural, historical and cultural treasures of the Bay Area and Northern California. Catch Openroad on NBC Bay Area, Sundays at 6:30pm through August with periodic prime time broadcasts. Check your listings.

Any suggestions on specific campgrounds that are great for young children in the Bay Area and Yosemite?

Marin: Samuel P. Taylor State Park in Lagunitas, off Sir Francis Drake as you head towards Point Reyes, is a wonderful place to camp. The park features redwood groves and open grassland. It is home to a variety of flowers and animals. Silver salmon and steelhead trout migrate up the Papermill Creek to spawn.

Another amazing place to camp is Kirby Cove located at the Marin Headlands. It has stunning views all around. In one direction is a beautiful ocean where you can watch ships come and go, listen to the foghorns (bring earplugs if you think this will disrupt your sleep) and watch our beautiful city nestled behind the Golden Gate Bridge. Turn around and enjoy the wilds of the Marin Headlands.

Angel Island is also a wonderful place. You feel like you have the whole island to yourself. Extraordinary views all around to enjoy and great hiking and chiding — it’s just beautiful.

One other place is China Camp State Park. It’s a nice easy campground. It has plenty of places to explore with your children including a marsh, meadow, and oak habitats that are home to a variety of wildlife, including deer, squirrels, and numerous birds. There was also a Chinese shrimp-fishing village that thrived on this site in the 1880’s.

Yosemite: As a kid growing up here you did not need a reservation. Now you have to plan in advance, but it’s worth it. The campground I loved is in the eastern portion of the Valley, by the side of the Merced River and the edge of a lovely meadow and with a magnificent view of Glacier Point. In the old days it was called “Camp 14.” These days its a combination of three terrific campgrounds: Lower Pines, North Pines, and Upper Pines. You can enjoy the river, Stonemason Meadow and wonderful views with your children.

Another fun place to wander through is Camp 4 near Yosemite Lodge. All climbers come to Camp 4, which is now a National Registered of Historic Places because of its significant role in the history of rock climbing as a sport.

I would love a quite place to go fishing. Where can I take my daughter fishing?

Phoenix Lake and the Marin Watershed Lakes allow for some fishing and camping but I know two amazing resources on this subject to find out more.

First is The Bait Shop (a.k.a. the Worlds Greatest Bait Shop) at the Loch Lomond Marina in San Rafael. Keith Fraser is the owner (a.k.a. Lord of the Sea) and very knowledgeable about all things fishing in Marin. This is a great place to take your children because Keith has adopted (or maybe it’s the other way around) a number of different birds, such as “Sylvester” and “Emma” and a great blue heron known as “Nasty Junior.” Keith has befriended nearly a dozen wild birds during the past 50+ years. The birds are “regulars" at this shop. Keith is remarkably warm and welcoming too.

Other terrific resources are the guide books from Tom Stienstra. He has made many appearances on Bay Area Backroads and is a writer for the Chronicle. He has written a number if books on camping and recreation in California.

Besides the museums, any other ideas of where to take a toddler?

San Francisco and Oakland Zoos are great. Especially the Oakland Zoo. The Valley Children’s Zoo is a good example of where the zoo is headed, with interactive exhibits, state of the art animal housing facilities and children’s play areas. The Zoo is nationally known for its exceptional elephant exhibit and has been praised for allowing their elephants to roam freely.

Other great places include Safari West in Santa Rosa, The Adventure Playground in the Berkeley Marina and Tilden Park in Berkeley. They have a farm, carousel, train you can take your dog on. There are so many places to go and explore. 

I’d love to know of places for a weekend getaway within about two hours from San Francisco that would be toddler friendly.

Monterey is a wonderful place to explore with children. the Monterey Aquarium is delightful for children and adults. I suggest going on a weekday if possible to avoid crowds.

Other places I recommend are Gilroy Gardens in Gilroy, Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk and just going out anywhere to hike, play, throw rocks a stream, a zillion possibilities.

Any suggestions of places and activities you think would be fun for a small toddler (16 months)?

I use to take my son Patrick to the Ardenwood Historic Farm in Fremont, Tilden Park, Zoos, Slide Ranch, etc. Sometimes I took him just to watch the airplanes take off and land at SFO. At this age it didn’t have to be organized or fancy. He loved the ferry rides into San Francisco too.

Best romantic getaways within three hours of the Bay Area, where there are no kids and stunning scenery.

I love Mendocino. There are many great places to stay, but, I love the Stanford Inn. It’s on the other side of the creek from town.

Lighthouses also provides a great romantic getaway. The Ease Brothers Light Station can be seen on the left  hand side of the Richmond-San Rafael Bridge heading east. It’s more expensive but they provide wonderful meals and the money helps preserve the station.

Point Cabrillo Light Station in Casper just north of Mendocino is excellent too.

But if you drive south the MOST romantic place I have ever been is The Post Ranch Inn in Big Sur.

Clint Eastwood owns a fun place called the Mission Ranch Inn. It has a great restaurant with a patio overlooking Point Lobos.

There are a ton of other places. If you have any questions you can contact us at Openroad with Doug McConnell or feel free to contribute your experience on our website.

We just moved to Marin and will have family coming soon for one week. What are you favorite places to take visitors to get a true feel for Marin and San Francisco?

Such a great question. I just had a friend visit from Chicago. We met in a the city and took a walking tour around the various neighborhoods - North Beach, Chinatown, Japantown Mission, Haight, Castro, etc. We live in such a dense urban cluster of distinct neighborhoods. You can also get in your car for a self-guided tour around 49 Mile Drive - look for the white and blue signs with the seagull. The route starts at City Hall and takes you along many of San Francisco’s historic and iconic landmarks. You can download a map online too.

The next day I took my friend around Marin. We started at the Marin Headlands and drove down Highway 1, through the wonderful coast towns between Muir Beach and ended in Point Reyes where we stopped to see the Tule Elk.

In two days we had explored so much of San Francisco and Marin’s coast. In three-four days you can explore the wonderful towns in Marin and go back to the incredibly diverse neighborhoods of San Francisco, walk across the Golden Gate Bridge, enjoy the wilds of the Marin Headlands. There is just so much to do.

Favorite/best place for chocolate? And coffee? And pizza?

Chocolate is XOX Truffles in North Beach, San Francisco on Columbus Street. 

Coffee, so many places, but I love La Boulange in Strawberry and Rulli in Larkspur.

Pizza - Piccos in Larkspur. Also, Cafe Verde in Corte Madera for coffee and also for pizza….plus it's a great place next to the town park for the kids to play.  

I want to introduce my child to the beauty and wildlife in the Bay Area - where it is safe and easily accessible place for viewing whales, elephant seals. sea lions, birds, deer, elk, butterflies, etc.

In Marin, there no place like Point Reyes for viewing wildlife. In the winter, you can see the elephant seals and birds of all kinds. There's a large area where the Tule Elk roam, after having bounced back from the brink of extinction. Grey whales migration can be viewed from the Point Reyes Lighthouse.

Another place to see the elephant seals is Ana Nuevo State Reserve which boasts it’s the site of the largest mainland breeding colony of the northern elephant seal. December thru March they have daily access to thee reserve via guided walks only.

If you like kayaking, check out Drakes Estero where you can see leopard sharks and other aquatic animals like harbor seals.

Seal lions are a huge attraction at Pier 39. The Aquarium by the Bay is getting better all the time. Another place in San Francisco is the California Academy of Science.

Where are your favorite places to learn about California History, especially the gold rush?

Ardenwood Historic Farm is a great place to learn about California history on a 19th century farm. For the gold rush experience go to Columbia State Historic Park. It’s an intact and functioning gold rush town. Coloma is another mining town where they first discovered gold that started the boom. Bodie State Park is on the east side of the Sierras and is the most intact silver mining town in arrested decay. Alabama Hills, located at the foothills of Mount Whitney, is where they shot a lot of western movies and TV shows such as Hopalong Cassidy, The Lone Ranger, Gunga Din and How the West Was Won.

Trains, tractors, anything that moves. My child is a motor-addict. Where are the best places for anything trains?

For airplanes, I recommend the Hiller Airplane Museum in San Carlos and Fraser Lake in Gilroy, which has vintage planes. 

For trains, there’s Tilden Park in Berkeley, Niles Canyon Railway, Roaring Camp Railroad in Felton, Skunk Train in Fort Bragg and California State Railroad Museum in Sacramento.

For other things that move, I recommend the Golden Gate Ferry into San Francisco. You can get a free transfer from there and ride on the historic and colorful street cars. The cable car is a must. 

When my son was young I took him on a real train adventure and to this day he still remembers it. It was a very special time for us.

I know it’s hard to choose, but in your opinion what is the best restaurant with children?

I love Fish in Sausalito, but you are near the docks so you have to keep an eye on a curious toddler. A really fun place is called Buck Restaurant in Woodside. Inside you’ll find the quirky and whimsical collections of owner, Jason MacNiven. It’s an amazing place and quite the contrast to the surrounding Silicon Valley.

Best place to go on holiday from here with kids?

Depends if you want sun or snow. So many to choose from I don’t think I could choose just one place. Turn in any direction and go.

Not to be missed spots?

So many places, Point Reyes, Marin Headlands, Big Sur, Sierra’s, etc.

Favorite Hawaiian Island?

We love them all but I really find the Big Island special. If you ask my family at anytime were they want to go most in this world they would pick the Big Island. We love the mountains and living spaces. You get a real sense of the power of nature. The beaches are not the best for laying out on but there are lots of places to roam around (despite all the development happening there now.) It’s a great place to get out and explore.

Final thoughts.

We live in a remarkable place with so many options. I was fortunate to have parents who took me into the world to explore and they inspired me to do the same with my children. Get out with your children, plant all kinds of seeds, encourage exploration and soak up every moment.

Doug McConnell is the host of Openroad with Doug McConnell. All stories are available online or visit Doug on Facebook or Twitter.