Hello winter, good-by holiday bustle; here are San Francisco Bay Area escapes into the countryside.
Winter in the Bay Area? It can come and go so fast we hardly know it's here. It's that brief time between the last leaves on the sycamores and the first yellow blossoms on the acacia. It coincides with and is lost in the holiday rush.
We've compiled four outings that reveal the subtle winterdormant landscape. You might try one as a family respite from the Christmas bustle--or as a welcome day away for holiday visitors interested in a sightseeing trip.
Our trips include a drive in the Russian River area, a walk through the Berkeley campus of the world's largest university, a tour of the deep redwoods of the Santa Cruz Mountains, and a visit to the mission town of San Juan Bautista.
December can be a showery month, but remember that Bay Area rainfall varies widely: the Santa Cruz Mountains get about 50 inches a year, Berkeley about 20, Sebastopol 41, San Juan Bautista perhaps 14. Along the Russian River, winter mornings can bring low-lying tule fog, covering pastures so you may see just the heads of cows rising eerily from the mist. The San Juan Bautista area generally offers windy, clear days to put your wool sweaters to the test.
1. Harvest bounty north of the Golden Gate: Russian River loop
A drive through Russian River country can take you into rolling green hills, past tidy farms and wineries, and out along the placid river, which is often dotted with wispy fog and wader-clad fishermen.
We've outlined a 125-mile loop starting in Sebastopol, about 90 minutes north of San Francisco (take the Gravenstein Highway--State 116--exit off U.S. 101 at Cotati or the State 12 exit in Santa Rosa). A good resource is the free Sonoma County Farm Trails map; for a copy, call (707) 544-5575.
Known for its Gravenstein apples, Sebastopol also boasts dozens of "U-cut' Christmas tree farms. You can choose from Douglas fir, white fir, and bishop, Monterey, or Scotch pine, even redwood at a few. For a free Christmas tree farms map, call (707) 823-0176.
Heading northwest on the Gravenstein Highway, you'll pass lots of farms and dried-fruit stands. Just before Forestville, Kozlowski Farms (open daily 9 to 5) has local products such as wine jellies, vinegars, and mustards. Russian River Vineyards has an interesting Greek and European restaurant called Topolos (open 11 to 5 Wednesdays through Sundays). Other wineries open for tasting or touring include Caswell, Dehlinger, Domaine Laurier, Iron Horse, Mark West.
State 116 crosses the Russian River at Guerneville, which boasts a dozen restaurants and more shops. Santa is scheduled to stroll the streets December weekends. About 2 miles east on River Road, you'll find historic Korbel Champagne Cellars, the brick buildings decked out in swags and redwood wreaths. You can try sparkling wines in the tasting room (open 9 to 4:30 daily) and picnic at tables outside.
From Guerneville, follow the river 4 1/4 miles west to the Bohemian Highway. Head south past hills dotted with dairy cattle and white barns to Occidental, where two Italian family-style restaurants serve expansive but inexpensive meals (hours generally are noon to 9 daily).
Just before you reach the Bodega Highway, you'll come into Freestone. Its century-old hotel houses an antique store and nursery. You can buy exotic birds at the Freestone Bird Farm (noon to 5 Wednesdays through Sundays), or wool, leather, and sheepskin goods and clothing at Pastorale (9:30 to 5:30 daily all year, to 9:30 Wednesdays through Fridays until Christmas). Try Farwell and Sons (9 to 5 Fridays through Tuesdays) for rhododendron shopping. To return to Sebastopol, drive east on the Bodega Highway.
2. In Berkeley, quiet walks on the West's liveliest campus
At UC Berkeley, this month gets off to a panicky start with the onslaught of final exams. After December 17, only the faculty and administration are left on campus, and from Christmas until January 5, the university saves on the utility bill by closing buildings and hibernating into the new year.
During "curtailment,' the West's liveliest campus reverts to redwood and eucalyptus groves, and grassy meadows etched by the tumbling branches of Strawberry Creek.
The forks of the creek suggest a loop walk for visitors to the quiet campus. After a rain, they flow with purpose, and they lead you past the principal sights.
To cross between the forks at the top of the main campus, walk uphill from the Faculty Club, where the south fork gushes up to Gayley Road across from Stadium Rimway. Go left to Hearst Avenue and down to Euclid Avenue, where the north fork surfaces just inside campus.
At the bottom of campus, the forks join in a eucalyptus grove. You can jump the creek, or skirt the grove on paths down to Oxford Street.
To extend this tour from an hour or so to a full day, drive up Centennial Drive to the UC Botanical Garden, open daily except Christmas from 9 to 4:45, and then on to the summit to a stop at the Lawrence Hall of Science, which has views out through the Golden Gate.
The hall of science, with its collection of hands-on scientific exhibits and educational programs, plans special programs during the school holidays. For hours, admission, and current activities, call (415) 642-5132.
If you arrive in Berkeley by BART, exit at the Berkeley Station (at Shattuck Avenue) and look for the UC Berkeley shuttle stop in front of the Bank of America. The free shuttle runs Monday through Friday every 12 minutes from 7 to 7. At the Mining Circle stop, you can transfer to the Hill service with stops at the botanical garden and Lawrence Hall of Science twice an hour from 7:45 to 6:45. Weekday service is expected to continue through the holidays except for December 24, 25, 31, and January 1. Call 642-5149 to confirm schedule.
Thirty thousand students on vacation means less waiting at movie theaters and restaurants and opens up parking throughout Berkeley. On campus, only specific stall and curb parking restrictions remain. During the energy shutdown period, the otherwise forbidden pleasure of driving clear through the campus from Oxford Street to Gayley Road is yours.
3. A drive through Santa Cruz Mountain redwood country
It takes a long and leisurely day to savor all there is along State Highway 9 in the Santa Cruz Mountains: the old steam railroad, state parks, small mountain towns, a few interesting shops, and of course ancient groves of redwoods.
On sunny winter days, this area makes for a great family outing. Begin where State 9 crosses Skyline Boulevard (State Highway 35) and descends into the San Lorenzo Valley. Get an early start; if it's raining, stay home.
The 6 miles of winding road from Skyline Boulevard down to the turnoff for Big Basin Redwoods State Park are alone worth the drive. On clear mornings, the view rolls down over timbered ridges and shreds of fog all the way to the sea.
A detour on State Highway 236 to Big Basin adds 10 miles to your trip. Drive slowly: the road is tortuous and narrow down to park headquarters (open daily). For a quick leg-stretcher, try the 1/2-mile Redwood Trail. If you'd rather hike later, you can stop at Henry Cowell Redwoods State Park, down the road near Felton.
You rejoin State 9 at Boulder Creek, a peaceful burg that was once a busy redwood milling center. Warm up with coffee, old-country pastries, and an impressive display of gingerbread houses at Country Harvest Bakery. Or visit Boulder Creek Museum--watch for the sign on the south edge of town (open weekends 1 to 4; admission is free).
From Boulder Creek you wind past Ben Lomond, with its antique shops, to Felton, the commercial center of the valley. By noon on weekends, this small town can be jammed with local and tourist traffic. There are a few gems: the covered wood bridge dating from 1892 (just off Graham Hill Road on Covered Bridge Road), and Capritaurus, where you'll find handcrafted dulcimers (about 3/4 mile south of downtown on State 9).
Nearby is the Roaring Camp and Big Trees Railroad. Turn southeast on Graham Hill Road in Felton and follow signs to the depot. Vintage steam trains pull out for the 1 1/4-hour ride at noon daily, with added trips at 1:30 and 3 on weekends. Fare is $9.75, $6.75 for children 3 through 15. On the two weekends before Christmas, carolers and musicians in Victorian garb make merry during the ride to Bear Mountain, where Santa Claus surprises children on board with candy.
From Felton the quickest way to Santa Cruz or to Bay Area freeways is to take Mount Hermon Road to State Highway 17. You might have dinner first--late afternoon traffic on State 17 can be slow.
4. South of San Jose: history, scenery, stars
How undiscovered San Juan Bautista still feels! Despite tourists, the one-time state stop on historic El Camino Real dwells in the 19th century as much as the 20th. Likewise Fremont Peak, at 3,169 feet, is not an unknown site--yet it retains an air of craggy isolation perfect for a December getaway.
To get to San Juan Bautista, take U.S. 101 about 40 miles south of San Jose, turn southeast on State 156, and drive for 3 miles into town.
Start with a visit to Mission San Juan Bautista. Noted for its reredos--altar paintings--it still serves as a parish church. It's open daily 9:30 to 4:30; a donation is requested. Across the plaza lies San Juan Bautista State Historical Park, whose 19th-century buildings show a village changing with the growth of Mexican ranchos and with Anglo settlement. The park is open daily from 10 to 5; admission is 50 cents.
The streets south of the plaza hold a number of galleries and restaurants.
December visitors should consider lingering to view El Teatro Campesino's production of La Virgen de Guadalupe, performed at the mission. For dates, times, and tickets, call the box office at (408) 623-2444. For other Christmas events-- including a December 13 candlelight tour of the mission and state park--write to the Chamber of Commerce, Box 1037, San Juan Bautista 95045, or call (408) 623-2454.
Eleven miles south on winding San Juan Canyon Road lies Fremont Peak State Park. The peak, highest in the Gabilan Range, was named for John C. Fremont, the dashing explorer-politician who remains the subject of best sellers and miniseries. Fomenting war with Mexico in 1846, he raised an Army Corps of Engineers flag here--the first American flag to fly over California. But after a few days, he folded up his tents and retreated.
Once you park, put on a sweater and take a 15-minute hike up to the summit for views of Monterey Bay, the Santa Clara Valley, and the wheeling hawks that gave the Gabilan Range its name.
Fremont's night views are famously clear. New on the mountain is the 30-inch reflector telescope built by volunteers of the Fremont Peak Observatory Association. One star party, open to the public, is set for November 29; come at dusk. For more information on it, or on the association, call the park at (408) 623-4255.
The park has approximately 30 picnic and primitive campsites; day-use fee is $2 per car, overnight $3.
Photo: Turn-of-the-century locomotive (trip 3) lets off steam as it pulls into the station at Roaring Camp in the Santa Cruz-Mountains
Photo: Russian River loop tour takes you to towns like Freestone where traffic may slow to a trot
Photo: They've just cut a Monterey pine near Sebastopol (trip 1), center of an area bristling with Christmas tree farms
Photo: Campus on holiday reverts to park for visitors heading down to North Fork of Strawberry Creek. Apse of Wellman Hall glows in background. Up Strawberry Canyon, solstice sun outlines spiny cactus in new world desert section of UC Botanical Garden
Photo: Equine greetings and winter greenery (trip 4) please drivers winding through hills on San Juan Canyon Road
Photo: Mexico's patron saint beseeches in Teatro Campesino's production of La Virgen de Guadalupe in San Juan Bautista
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|Date:||Dec 1, 1986|
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