During an average year, we Villanos are away from home as a unit anywhere from 60-80 days overall. Last year we logged nearly 160 days away from home (including a 122-day stint in England). The year before, we spent 31 consecutive days in Hawaii.
Naturally, then, the four of us jump at the chance to explore uncharted territory closer to home.
Because we live in Northern California, this means pretty much everything from portions of the Peninsula to the Central Valley and places in between. It also means the North Coast.
One of our favorite recent finds: Goat Rock Beach, part of the Sonoma Coast State Park that extends 17 miles from Bodega Head to Vista Trail, north of Jenner. This area is literally less than one hour from our home. It also has everything my kids love: Crashing surf to watch, shells to collect, marine mammals to ogle (or ignore), and a river in which to splash.
I took the girls on a Friday earlier this spring. Our goal: To hike to the southern edge of the mouth of the Russian River and watch members of the resident harbor seal colony raising pups and otherwise doing their things (really, I should write, “thangs”) on the other side.
The plan began flawlessly. We left the house after breakfast and arrived at the beach parking lot by 10 a.m., well before the typical crowds. After snack in the trunk (I drive an XTerra, and L and R like hanging out back there with the gate open), we grabbed our shell collecting bags and bee-lined for the beach, about 500 feet away.
This is where things slowed down considerably.
First was L, who decided the best way to collect the shells was to find a spot of beach, sit down, and parse through EVERY SINGLE SHELL within reaching distance. Then was R, who wandered for a bit, then whined, staggered over to me, and threw her body between my legs until I simply had to pick her up.
Finally, after about 45 minutes of these shenanigans, I convinced the girls to race me to the end of the beach.
When we arrived, two researchers were watching the seals through binoculars. The humans were eager to share their opera glasses and excited to pass along knowledge of the seals to my kids. I was jonesing for the girls to learn about seals, too; I had studied this species during a college job at the Shedd Aquarium, in Chicago, and the kids had never seen these critters in the wild.
Unfortunately, the girls had other plans. To put it mildly, they are more interested in toe fungus than they were in those seals on that day.
So we improvised. We skipped stones into the oncoming surf. We imitated seagulls as they took flight. Then we wandered around the back side of the beach—the river side—and I let the kids splash around in the shallow and (relatively) slow-moving water.
They were so happy in that water, they didn’t realize how long it took us to walk back to the car, how many pictures I snapped, how much time passed, or how wet they got. In that moment, all my daughters cared about was splishing and splashing and imitating fish and quacking like ducks. The whole way home, the river experience was all they talked about—the shells were cool, but the river-splashing was AWESOME. L insisted on knowing: How come had not taken them there before?
The lesson in all of this is an epiphany I’ve had in these (virtual) pages previously: Sometimes the greatest family travel adventures aren’t as far afield as we think.
To find them, research your area, put in the effort and—on the ground—let your kids lead the way. No, you might not get to teach them about seals (or whatever seals represent to you), but you might find yourself face-to-face with something even more earth-shattering for them. That’s all that really matters anyway.
What sorts of family travel adventures do you seek close to home?