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Sunset's travel guide.


Spring biking in wine country

Bright new greens intensify the oncoming of April in the Sonoma Valley, where a white-pink froth of wild radish blossoms spreads beneath the vines. It's a time and place that inspire gentle wandering. What better way to sniff the sun and come outdoors again than with a bike ride through this still-rural-feeling country?

The town of Sonoma's gracious old Plaza, laid out by General Vallejo in 1835 and with much of its original character still intact, makes a good base for a day of leisurely touring--with a group or on your own. You can park your car in the lot behind the Barracks (built to house Mexican troops commanded by Vallejo), visit the mission and other historic buildings around the square, pick up picnic supplies (locally made cheeses, breads, and sausages are memorable), get a map at the Sonoma Valley Visitors Bureau (open 9 to 5 daily, on the Plaza's east side), and pedal your way into spring.

Wheel Escapes, a Larkspur company, offers an extremely pleasant mountain-bike trip that starts and finishes at the Plaza. The thoughtfully chosen winery stops include a catered garden lunch and wine-maker's tour at Hacienda Wine Cellars. A support van carries any purchases you make (varying discounts are available). Good 21-gear Specialized bikes are provided, as are helmets and souvenir water bottles. You meet your trip mates over French roast and croissants in the Barracks lot, where anyone who needs it gets patient instruction in handling the bikes. If you've never tried a mountain bike, this trip might appeal just because it offers such a successful introductory experience. If you're an accomplished cyclist, you won't find this route challenging, but you'll enjoy the conviviality of your guides and fellow travelers and the quality of the wines presented for tasting. The day-long outing costs $65 ($51 if you bring your own bike) and is offered once a month from April 18 through October 17; additional and custom tours are arranged by request. Call (415) 461-6903.

Wheel Escapes' 15-mile, mostly level route is a good one to adapt for individual cycling. Bring your own bike or rent one in nearby Boyes Hot Springs from the Good Times Bicycle Company, 18315 State Highway 12; (707) 938-0453.

From the Barracks lot, go east on the town's (obvious) bike path, continuing east on Lovall Valley Road. Turn right on Seventh Street E., left on Denmark, and left again on Bundschu to Gundlach-Bundschu Winery (open for tastings from 11 to 4:30 daily). Continue northeast on Bundschu to Thornsberry Road, go north, then turn left on Lovall Valley (now westbound). Cycle northeast on Castle Road and then on Vineyard Lane to Hacienda (open 10 to 5 daily). Ride back down Castle, go left on Lovall Valley, then left again on Old Winery Road to the ivy-draped stone cave of Buena Vista Winery (open 10 to 5 daily). Take Lovall Valley back to the bike path, and cycle past the Plaza 1/2 mile to see Vallejo's soulful carpenter-Gothic home, Lachryma Montis (named "Tears of the Mountain" for the property's abundant springs), now part of 20-acre Sonoma Historic Park. (An early-day prefab, the general's lacy-eaved two-story house was built of spruce and shipped around the Horn in 1851.) Retrace your path to the parking lot.

To this itinerary you could add a stop at Sebastiani Vineyards (more commercial; open 10 to 5 daily at 389 Fourth Street E.) or Ravenswood Winery (north about a mile from Lovall Valley Road on Gehricke; open 10 to 4:30 daily). If you want to ride to the bike path's terminus, continue west past the Vallejo home a mile to Maxwell Farms Park, at State Highway 12 and Verano Avenue.


New resource center on national parks

If you're planning a summer trip to one of the West's popular national parks, now is the time to get your ducks in a row. A good place to start is the new National Park Store, at Pier 39. Proceeds from the store support the National Park Service's educational and conservation programs.

The small but densely stocked store offers a wealth of well-chosen books: field guides to parks and other destinations; background works (some beautifully illustrated) on history, nature, and Native Americans; and landmark works in Western literature, including fiction and poetry. You can study the store's wide range of maps, buy an entry pass good at all national parks, and choose videos to help the family "preview" a trip. You'll also find prints, posters, calendars, cards, even a few Indian crafts from areas near the parks.

Most useful may be the many materials (not oppressively "educational") that can help children get involved in a trip. Any parent who has endured a family vacation in the car--with miles of backseat territorial disputes, and the resultant slide toward disintegration--will see the value of the cut-and-assemble totem poles and frontier towns, three-dimensional animal and geographic puzzles, and flower presses and bug-collecting paraphernalia.

The store is on the second floor of Building J, toward the rear of the Pier 39 complex, within close viewing of the ever-entertaining sea lions at the pier's northeast corner.


A lady not for burning

The China Cabin, the elegant drawing room of a 19th-century trans-Pacific steamship and the only extant work by one of America's foremost naval architects, William Webb, is now beached up on a fashionable Marin shore and open to visitors. Adorned in 22-karat gold, with graceful curves and a delicate frame, her appearance belies the strength of an unusual survivor.

After 30 trips to Yokohama and Hong Kong, the wooden side-wheeler SS China was laid aside in favor of steel hulls. Rescued in 1886 from the marine crematory in Tiburon by a local sailor who thought it "too beautiful to burn," the ship's cabin was brought to Belvedere Cove and used in a seafront residence for the next 90 years.

Then, in 1986, master artisans restored the China Cabin to its original glory, and it was opened to the public from spring to fall. Sunlight streams through its clerestory windows, dancing on brass and crystal chandeliers. Fluted walnut pilasters, windows etched with floral bouquets, and more than 20 different patterns leafed in gold ornament its stark white walls.

The China Cabin, which opens for the year on April 5, is a 5-minute walk west down Main Street to Beach Road from the Tiburon ferry dock. It's open, free, with docentled tours, from 1 to 4 Sundays and Wednesdays. It's also available for private parties ($100 per hour). For details, call (415) 435-2251.


Asparagus reigns April 25 and 26

Regional crops often have their regional boosters. But if ever a crop deserved the fanfare in its honor, the Delta's spring asparagus is it. Though the annual Stockton Asparagus Festival--April 25 and 26 this year--is large and popular, it is so well run it comfortably accommodates the crowds, and its site--graceful, lake-laced Oak Grove Regional Park--seems an ideal place for a big, smoothly flowing party with neither bottlenecks nor dead spots.

Good entertainment and a wide selection of juried crafts account for some of the festival's success. But two other aspects of it are outstanding: the asparagus itself (we're glad to say the cause celebre is not lost in the celebration), and the quality of activities for children--as far a cry from the typical kiddie holding pen as you can get.

At the festival's centerpiece, Asparagus Alley, you'll find meticulously clean cooking and serving areas with inexpensive asparagus dishes to sample (we loved the bisque and the asparagus beef, and enjoyed everything else but a farfetched shortcake). A festival cookbook offers these and other asparagus-availing recipes. And well-known restaurant chefs demonstrate their own asparagus concoctions.

Simplest and best of all is a farmer-run sales area near the festival entrance where you can buy half-crates (share with a friend) of just-picked silken-skinned asparagus stalks, to be tagged with your name and stored in a cool enclosure until you're ready to go home. You won't meet fresher asparagus unless you live on a peat bog.

For children, the University of the Pacific staffs Kids College minicourses in subjects ranging from rocketry to camping skills, pantomime to "bubbleology." There's also an entertainment area called Familyland, with animals to pet, quickly organized kids' stage performances, and art activities from mushing shaving cream into patterns on a tray to lanyard braiding.

Hours are 10 to 7 both days. For more information, call (209) 466-6674. Ask about shuttles from San Joaquin Delta College to the front gate; the festival's main parking area on Eight Mile Road (just off Interstate 5) is huge and involves a long walk, probably through peat dust stirred up by Stockton's typical spring winds.


A little-used trail with great spring wildflowers

The going is tough for part of the way, as you pull up and over a tortuous knob of sandstone badlands, but Black Point Trail, in Mount Diablo State Park, is as visually stimulating as it is physically demanding. Though you walk only about 4 miles, you climb more than 1,000 feet from the floor of Mitchell Canyon to the top of Black Point, and you travel through completely different ecosystems. Together, the wooded slopes and patches of meadow northwest of Mitchell Canyon and the sharp, dry rockscape around the point support an array of wildflowers.

Take Mitchell Canyon Road south from Clayton Road to the day-use parking are ($5). Walk a mile south along the Mitchell Canyon fire road (many hikers use it this month, so come early if you favor solitude), then turn right on Red Road fire road to walk west through White Canyon.

After about 3/4 mile, look for a small sign on the right identifying the rather obscure, northward-tending Black Point Trail; here's where the workout begins. From the top of the ridge (1,791 feet), the narrow path twists east, then drops through Digger pines and live oak, opening here and there into flower-embroidered pockets of native grass, to rejoin the Mitchell Canyon fire road.

Among the crowds of spring wildflowers this route presents are zigadene, saxifrage, woodland star, paintbrush, sanicle, shooting star, fiddleneck, owl's clover, yarrow, delphiniums, ranunculus, Chinese houses, salvias, poppies, lupines, wild peas, blue-eyed grass, and wild cucumber vine. You'll also see a beautiful low-growing, sunny yellow flower with a lantern-like form: it's the endemic Mount Diablo globe lily.

If you want to see flowers without a steep walk, look for a dirt path on your right about 100 yards after the Mitchell Canyon fire road crosses Mitchell Creek (1/2 mile from the trailhead). Walking more or less west, you can explore Black Point Trail without the climb from White Canyon.

Watch for ticks. We don't recommend sitting down in the grass.


Buffalo--on the hoof and on the plate

Probably no place has done the buffalo so proud as Denver has. Possessor of its own municipal buffalo herd, the city also boasts a historic restaurant at which the West's favorite grazer occupies a prominent position--on the menu.

Denver Mountain Parks' buffalo herd began in 1913 with two bison trotted down from Yellowstone National Park. Today the herd has grown to a thundering 78--38 of them at Genessee Park, 40 more at Daniels Park. The bison do well at both places, says Martin Homola, buffalo tender for 21 years; the parklands supply adequate pasture in all but the toughest winters.

It's easy to view the buffalo at Genessee Park. From downtown Denver, take Interstate 70 west 20 miles to the Genessee exit; there are turnouts on both sides of the highway.

The herd at Daniels Park moves around more and is less dependably viewable. From Denver, take I-25 south about 5 miles to County Line Road; go west 4 miles to Douglas County Highway 29, then head south 6-1/2 miles to the park. For more information on either park, call Denver Mountain Parks at (303) 697-4545.

All that meat on the hoof got you hungry? You can satisfy your fancy for buffalo steak and burgers at Denver's Buckhorn Exchange, which has served up Western grub for 99 years in the same antler-encrusted dining room. You'll find the Buckhorn at 1000 Osage Street, just south of downtown. It serves lunches from 11 to 3 weekdays, dinners from 5 to 10:30 daily (to 11 Fridays and Saturdays); call 534-9505.
COPYRIGHT 1992 Sunset Publishing Corp.
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
Copyright 1992 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.

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Author:Williamson, Marcia; Fish, Peter
Article Type:Column
Date:Apr 1, 1992
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