Category Archives: Geek Stops

Trick your kids into actually learning something.

Marshall Gold Discovery State Historic Park

There is nothing particularly exciting about ditches. People don’t usually go out of their way to stand and ponder ditches, unless they’re the mothers of a soon-to-be-fourth-grader, looking for ways to make California history come alive.

I thought about this as we stood in front of one of the most important historic sites in California: the spot where the carpenter James Marshall found  a few pieces of gold in 1848 in the water of a mill trailrace. It turns out that a trailrace (or at least what’s left of it) is really just a ditch full of muddy water.  This historic spot is commemorated with a worn-out plaque which reads: “Here on a chilly morning in January 1848 a carpenter named James Marshall picked up the small pieces of gold that touched off one of the largest most frenzied mass migrations in history.”

There were no frenzied crowds of tourists or curious Californians visiting Marshall Gold Discovery State Historic Park on that summer afternoon, maybe they just hadn’t heard about the historic ditch. Or maybe they were all working and knew better than to visit Coloma in 100-degree heat. Go figure.

We braved the heat because I was determined to squeeze in a side trip to this important site, mostly for the benefit of my son who would be learning all about the California Gold Rush in his classroom in the fall. So we toured the historic park, and I reckon he learned a few things.

The town of Coloma grew around the area of the gold discovery site-the ditch-and nearly 70 percent of it lies within the historic park. Clearly, it’s not a bustling metropolis. Nowadays you will find some original buildings, a replica of Sutter’s Mill, the Gold Discovery Museum, and plenty of people cooling off in the American River on hot days.

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The blissfully air-conditioned Gold Discovery Museum and Visitor Center is a good place to start your tour of the park. There are plenty of exhibits to give your kids an overview of Coloma’s history, although there is not a lot in the museum that is interactive. But don’t worry there is a gift shop and penny press, in case the kids need the to whine for some souvenirs.

In the area near the museum, you can take a self-guided tour of the historic buildings. You can peek in and see displays of artifacts showing what life was like for the miners, storekeepers, and other townspeople of the Gold Rush era.

To get to the replica of Sutter’s Mill and the gold discovery site you can walk across Highway 49 to the south fork of the American River, or you can drive to the parking area (hey, it may be too hot to walk). There was a park ranger giving a talk near the sawmill when we went, and he was eager to answer questions and share information.

You can get back in the car and drive past the south end of town to see the statue of James Marshall pointing down to the spot (the ditch) on the American River where he discovered gold. Just take Cold Springs Road past the pioneer cemetery, then take the Church Road/Monument loop past the statue and then past James Marshall’s cabin.

Useful Tidbits

Although there are some stores selling snacks, there are not many food options nearby. You are better off bringing a picnic and parking at some of the picnic areas along the American River. It does get more crowded on weekends, since this is a popular rafting and swimming site.

You can get to Coloma on by heading south on highway 49 from the town of Placerville. Check website for current park and museum hours, and also for special events. Gold panning is still allowed on some portions of the American River and there are lessons available at Beakart’s Gun Shop across from the museum.


Take the Kids to the de Young Museum of Art

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The de Young Museum of Art in San Francisco houses over 25,000 works of art, but most kids will only appreciate a few of these during their visit. That’s fine. It doesn’t take a lot to foster a love of art.

I’ve been taking my son to the de Young since it reopened in its new building in 2005, and we have found new reasons to enjoy our visit each time.

The Works of Art

There are eight major galleries in the museum; housing works of art ranging from Mesoamerican ceramics to Contemporary American art. In other words, there are plenty of opportunities for kids to find a piece they like. Sometimes my son gravitates towards the masks in the Art of Africa gallery, while other times he is drawn to the Superman painting in the modern art wing. You can rent the family audio tours, or just view the art at your own pace.

The Osher Sculpture Garden

Who says that you have to be inside the museum to appreciate art? When he was five years old, my son loved to run around the apples in the sculpture garden and eat cookies at the cafe tables outside. Heck, you wouldn’t even have to pay admission if you just wanted to stroll through the sculpture garden. There will, however, be an additional cost for bribery through cookies.

The Observation Tower

Even if your child isn’t inspired by the works of art, he may be taken in by the views of Golden Gate Park and San Francisco from the observation deck in the North Tower. This is my son’s favorite part of the museum. He comes for the views, while I sneak in some art. There’s no rule for how to get kids to like art museums. Again, there is no admission cost for anyone to take an elevator ride up to the tower.

When You Go

When visiting art museums with kids, it’s always a good idea to go at their pace. Luckily, you won’t feel so bad that you only see half the museum, since the admission is free for children under the age of 12.

The museum hosts special family art programs on Saturdays. Check website for more information. On Friday nights, the museum is open until 8:45 and has some art-making activities for all ages.

 

Ty Warner Sea Center

The Ty Warner Sea Center is the aquatic branch of the Santa Barbara Natural History Museum, and is located right over the Pacific Ocean on Stearns Wharf. It is a small aquarium, but what it lacks in size, it makes up with engaging and accessible exhibits.

At the shark touch-pool, my son got to touch a harmless swell shark. The tidepool tank had viewing windows that were accessible to even the youngest toddlers and an underwater tunnel for them to walk through as well.

Older kids enjoyed some of the computer-based exhibits throughout the first floor of the center. We also spent some time with some other aquarium youth volunteers as they pulled up samples (of mostly seaweed) in netted cages attached to ropes. They were all great about answering questions and giving information about specimens they had for viewing under video microscopes. 

The second floor of the aquarium was a special exhibit called Superpowers, about animal adaptations, which included another touch-pool opportunity. The 39-foot model of the gray whale and her calf hangs in the main entrance, right over the gift shop.

Useful Tidbits: Admission for just the Sea Center is currently $8 for adults and $5 for children ages 2-12. You can also get a Santa Barbara Nature Pass and get admission for the Sea Center and Natural History Museum for two days. Parking is free for the first 90 minutes with validation from the Sea Center. Check the website for current information.

Pismo Beach Monarch Butterfly Grove

I saw the first Monarch Butterflies fluttering around the streets of San Luis Obispo, about fifteen miles away from the Pismo Beach Monarch Butterfly Grove. I’m glad that I did, or I would have completely forgotten that they start arriving at their winter home in the groves of Pismo Beach in early November. So then I would have just driven right by them on Highway 101, and I would have missed the best pit stop ever.

If you’re in the Pismo Beach area between the months of November and February, follow Highway 1 to Pismo State Beach and the North End Campground entrance. Find the free parking in the campground and follow the marked path. Besides seeing trees full of butterflies, you’ll find docents, displays, and some binoculars set up for the kids to get a closer view.

I have already written about our annual visits to the Natural Bridges Monarch Butterfly Sanctuary in Santa Cruz, California: here, here, and here. I know that I’m a little obsessed with these orange buggers. It’s just that they’re so darn cool. So what are you waiting for? This winter, go find a butterfly grove near you.

Columbia State Historic Park

What: Columbia is a preserved and recreated Gold Rush town located about three miles north of Sonora, California. There are exhibits displaying historical artifacts throughout the town, and some even provide hands-on activities for kids. You can also take a stagecoach ride or try your hand at gold panning. Some of the proprietors of the shops, restaurants and hotels are dressed up in period clothing.

Why: We were driving back from a trip to Yosemite National Park along historic Highway 49 and knew this was the perfect opportunity to introduce the kiddo to a slice of California history.

My Kid’s Picks: He didn’t let the lanky cowboy intimidate him while he tried panning for gold at the Hidden Treasure Gold Mine place in the town’s southern end. It took a few tries and some refinement of his technique, but he got to take a few “gold” flake home for show-and-tell. At the working blacksmith shop, he also got his named hammered into a horseshoe souvenir. We took an ice cream break at the Fallon Ice Cream Parlor and also bought a few bottles of sarsaparilla (looks like a beer bottle) soda. And of course, our kid-approved activities wouldn’t be complete without a stop at the ol’ candy shop.

Mom’s Verdict: This is one of the best sites along the Mother Lode highway for kids to get a feel for the Gold Rush era. It may not be the most historically important town, but its neatly restored buildings and living history component makes it the most enjoyable for kids. It was worth walking up a few blocks to check out the old Columbia Schoolhouse, where school is no longer in session, but you can take a peek at the rows of desks and dunce chair at the front of the room. You can also get a bathroom pass and check out the historical outhouses by the school. I don’t know about you, but I think it’s always good for kids to get a bit of perspective, so that they can better appreciate the bathroom at the at the next gas station pit stop.

Useful Tidbits: California’s Gold Country towns can get unbearably hot during the summer. Be prepared for the heat or plan your trips for summer or fall instead. Admission and parking are free. The museum open 10-4 daily, most businesses are open until 5. Gold Rush Days are held on the second Saturday of every month 1-4. Check the website for regular town tour times.


Spawning Kokanee Salmon in Lake Tahoe

Every autumn the Kokanee Salmon of Lake Tahoe, make their triumphant but tragic journey up Taylor Creek to fulfill their spawning destiny, and every year I drag my son out to see it. Maybe I’m just giving him one more reason to hate me when he turns sixteen, but I’d like to think I’m teaching him all about one of nature’s most fascinating cycles. So far, my son thinks the whole thing is pretty cool.

Throughout the month of October, you can walk the trail along Taylor Creek and come within inches of the salmon as they swim upstream. There are sections of the creek that turn red, they’re so full of salmon. The trail goes through the Stream Profile Chamber, where you can get an underwater view of the creek and a look at a few informational exhibits on the wildlife of Taylor Creek. Did you know that the Kokanne males develop a humped back and a hooked jaw to help their chances with the whole mating thing? Well you and the kids may get a close-up view of this distinct hooked jaw through the aquarium windows. They will also enjoy looking at the 180-degree diorama mural of Taylor Creek and spotting the animals hidden throughout the room.

I have to admit that besides witnessing the exciting journey of the Kokanee, I enjoy our autumn visits to Taylor Creek because of the beautiful views of the aspens in their fall colors. There are not many places in California where I can walk in forest of golden trees, so the Rainbow Trail at Taylor Creek is one of my favorite fall foliage destinations. The trail is paved, an easy hike for all ages, and begins outside the Visitor Center. There are other trails that fork out from the visitor center, including the bike trail that leads to Tallac Historic Site.

I hope I can make a visit to Taylor Creek again this year (haven’t asked my son, though). I’m penciling in a weekend in October, packing my picnic basket, and looking forward to a brisk autumn afternoon with the Kokanee.

Useful Tidbits: The Taylor Creek Visitor Center is off Highway 89 in South Lake Tahoe, just north of the Tallac Historic Site. The Kokanee Salmon Festival will be held on the weekend of October 2-3 this year. Although I have never gone, there are plenty of kids’ activities, food, ranger talks, and Sammy the Salmon Mascot. This weekend may be more crowded, so check website link for more information. Oh, and there are bear sightings during the spawning season, so take precautions.

Be An Aquarist for the Day

I may not be able to get my son a backstage pass to the Diary of a Wimpy Kid movie set, but I have been able to pull a few strings to get him a behind-the-scenes look at some of his favorite aquariums. No, I don’t know some very important aquarists, but I do possess a very powerful credit card. I’m here to tell you that participating in the special programs offered at many aquariums is well worth the cost, so save your pennies and get ready to handle some squid.

Morning Rounds at the Monterey Bay Aquarium

You have to be eight years old to participate in the Morning Rounds tour of the Monterey Bay Aquarium, so my son waited patiently for years to get a very special look at one of his favorite places on earth. He wasn’t disappointed. As soon as the tour was over, he wanted to know when we would be back to do it again.

In this program, you arrive at the aquarium about an hour before it opens to the general public, put on an apron with a special eau de fish, and get a a very memorable tour of a very quiet aquarium. Our group of 12 wannabe aquarists was led by an education specialist and an aquarium volunteer to take a look at some of the exhibits before the general public came in. We saw the aquarium’s newest rescued sea otter pup-a.k.a. as 502, for its number as the five hundred and second sea otter rehabilitated at the aquarium-playing with it’s adoptive mother. You don’t get to feed the otters, and on the morning we went, the sea otter pup was getting a check-up from the vet.

Then we got right to work feeding the anchovies, the bat rays, the rainbow trout, the sardines in the Kelp Forest exhibit, and the fish in the Monterey Bay Habitats tank. Feeding the bat rays in the touch pool, was the most interactive of all the feedings, since we held shrimp and squid under the water and waited for the rays to come slurp them up out of our hands. The whole experience was a bit squishy, but we were soon petting the rays like they were a family pet (move over Hermie the hermit crab). Feeding the fishes in the bigger tanks involved throwing handfuls of juicy krill and squid, so we were thankful for our aprons and good aim.

Inside the aquarium’s food-prep area, we slipped the penguin’s vitamins inside some fishes. I know that most mom’s will have no trouble relating to the old hide-the-vitamins-inside-the-food trick. We didn’t get to feed the penguins ourselves, but that’s alright with me, since I don’t think it smells all that great inside those penguin tanks anyway.

We were only aquarists for a couple of hours, but we managed to get a glimpse about what it takes to keep this world-renowned aquarium ticking and learn at thing or two about some of the animals. For more information about the Morning Rounds program, or other behind-the-scenes tours, click over to the Monterey Bay Aquarium website.

Sea Turtle Mania at the Maui Ocean Center

Most families make a stop at the Maui Ocean Center while on their Maui vacation, but a few lucky ones may get to visit when the aquarium offers some of their behind-the-scenes programs. We visited the Maui Ocean Center in August, when the aquarium has special activities and tours that focus on the sea turtles. The programs have a changed a bit since the year we went (they actually got cheaper), but the main activities of their Sea Turtle Package are similar to the one we participated in a few years ago.

On our tour, we learned all about how the aquarium’s sea turtles are cared for, and also got to prepare the food that we fed to the turtles in the lagoon exhibit. Feeding the sea turtles was a much less smellier experience than our fish feedings at the Monterey Bay Aquarium, since the sea turtles like to eat their veggies. He was only five years old, when we did that tour at the Maui Ocean Center (there is no age limit for the Sea Turtle Package tour) but he was captivated by his visit to the aquarium kitchens and those hungry sea turtles.

Looking over the Maui Ocean Center website, I noticed that they now offer the Amazing Aquarist Tour on some months, as well as other package tours that take guests behind the scenes. Check their calendar section and click on the month you will be making your visit on, for more information.

Extreme Mammals at California Academy of Sciences

Did you know that whales once walked on four legs? Don’t worry you’re not alone, I didn’t know either. My son did, and he was happy to tell me all about the walking whale, Ambulocetus, while we toured the new Extreme Mammals exhibit at the California Academy of Sciences in San Francisco.

My Kid’s Picks:

Nothing impresses an eight-year-old more than the extreme, whether it be extreme cannon balls in the swimming pool or extreme mammals at the museum, so this exhibit was right up his alley. As we strolled the nine sections of the exhibit, my son tugged at my sleeve begging me to check out the “freaky” animals. He did stop and read the information behind each display, but seeing the fossils and animal models was the big draw. It’s one thing to learn about prehistoric animals at school, and a whole thing altogether to see them in person. His favorites were the glyptodont-an extinct relative of the armadillo as big as a car-and the live tree shrew in the Reproduction section.

Mom’s Verdict:

I really liked that the prehistoric focus of this exhibit, since this is the one area I found a bit lacking in the new Academy of Sciences. Whenever there is an opportunity to take my son to see some of these fossil and taxidermy displays in person, I will hop at the chance. This exhibit is better suited for school-aged children, but even the younger bunch will enjoy getting a glimpse of the extreme mammals. We saw a few toddlers touring the exhibit, but at a much speedier pace. The timed entry made the exhibit easier to see, without hordes of people trying to push your kid while he checks out that three-horned deer relative. The lighting is a bit darker in this particular hall, so it may be a bit scary to sensitive toddlers.

Useful Tips:

This exhibit requires you get passes for timed entry. Get your passes on the second level once you enter the museum. They are handed out on a first come, first serve basis.

There will be a picture taken of your group in front of two wooly mammoths before you enter. Do tell the photographer you would like to have at least 50% of your group not come out with their eyes closed in the picture. I speak from personal experience.

There is no photography allowed inside the actual exhibit, though, so I wasn’t able to share any with you. But there are a few on the Academy website.

I found my second visit to the new Academy of Science to be much more enjoyable, mostly because the crowds have thinned out. I will have to revisit my previous tips post and will have a more detailed post about the Academy later this month. In the meantime, head down to the Academy of Sciences to check out the Extreme Mammals before they’re gone. The exhibit runs until September 12, 2010.

We received complimentary media passes for this visit to the Academy of Sciences, as always views and opinions shared here are all my own.


San Francisco Family Vacation

San Francisco Cable Car Museum

What: The San Francisco Cable Car Museum

Where: It’s located high up in the Mason and Washington cable car barn in (you guessed it) San Francisco, California.

Why: We wanted to learn more about those famous cable cars, without having to actually stand in one of the long lines to board one.

My Kid’s Picks: The penny machine. Yes, there seems to be one of those wherever we go. He also enjoyed seeing the wheels that turn the cables and checking out all of the maps and grids for each cable car line. In the downstairs viewing area, he checked out the cables that entered the building from the channels under the street. This is a trip underground.

Mom’s Verdict: The museum is often overlooked, mostly because it is not near any other major attraction. You can, of course, ride up in a cable car and then back down. In addition to the behind-the-scenes look at the machinery that keeps those cable cars moving, there are a few antique cars on display. It is worth a stop if your kids are into learning about modes of transport, and if you’ve already seen many of the other attractions in San Francisco. School-aged children will get the most of out of the visit. Oh, and if you can’t guess from watching the video: it’s loud.

Useful Tidbits: Admission is free. There is only street parking so we parked in a garage on California Street (a few blocks away). The whole tour of the museum took less than twenty minutes (including a bathroom break and penny machine session). There is also a small, inexpensive cafe across the street. We stopped there for a panini and Italian soda for lunch.


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San Francisco Family Vacation

The Trains at Griffith Park

What: Griffith Park Southern Railroad and Travel Town

Where: Griffith Park in Los Angeles

Why: We needed a to make a pit stop while on an eight-hour drive from San Diego to the Bay Area and stopping at the In-N-Out just wouldn’t do. Griffith Park is conveniently located right off of the parking lot/freeway I-5. So to prevent any road trip melt downs (from me) we took the freeway exit to check out some trains and burn off some steam. Choo-choo.

My Kid’s Picks: What’s not to love? There are trains. My little conductor dude enjoyed the miniature train ride on the Griffith Park Southern Railroad. Then he really got his train geek on, when we headed over to Travel Town and got a close up view of some really big engines. The locomotives, cabooses, and passenger cars are on display outside and there are some smaller vehicles on display in a building. There was also a small corner of the building geared for smaller kids with some hands-on activities. Because he was older, he wasn’t as intrigued by the trains as he would have been as a preschooler. He also wished he could have gotten to go inside some of the trains. But it was still a fun stroll through the train yards.

Mom’s Verdict: Both of these places where blissfully uncrowded on a Monday afternoon, and inexpensive. Travel Town is a great place for either really big train fanatics, or the under-5 crowd.

Useful Tidbits: Tickets for the train rides are $2.50 and trains operate year-round (except Christmas day). You can hop on the train at Griffith Park Southern Railroad or at Travel Town. Although the day we went, the train ride at Travel Town wasn’t operating. Parking and admission to the museum in Travel Town is free and also open year-round (except Christmas day).

Los Angeles Family Travel Tips