Northern California Staycation Notes

After my big trip to Russia earlier this summer, it made sense to keep our family vacation local. We spent 3 days in the Sierra Foothills, then I took a father-son overnight camping trip with Jacob to Angel Island, then I took a father-daughter day trip with Dina to kayak in the Elkhorn Slough. Comments on our activities:

Mercer Caverns, Murphys.

I’ve been to Mercer Caverns a few times over the past 2 decades. I like the caverns for their convenient location and visual interest compared to the other local cave options. Moaning Cavern in Vallecito is also convenient, but the main tour just visits one big chamber. California Caverns in Mountain Ranch is interesting inside, but it requires a long twisty ride on backroads from Highway 4. Mercer Caverns, just a mile outside of downtown Murphys, is easy to get to; and the tour goes through multiple chambers with diverse and interesting formations. The cave is a cool respite to a hot summer day. We were comfortable wearing our sweatshirts despite the 90+ degree day outside.

Overall, I was disappointed with the tour. First, it’s pretty expensive. It cost our family of 4 about $45 for the 45 minute tour. Second, our tour guide was uninspired. The tour guides work off a script that’s fine (it has some stock jokes and anecdotes that I remembered from many years ago), but our guide showed her youth. Third, although the kids seemed to enjoy themselves at the time, I don’t know that the cave visit made much of an impression. The cave was soon forgotten and didn’t make any highlights lists.

Yosemite. See the photos.

Yosemite is filled with icons revered around the world: Half Dome, El Capitan, Yosemite Falls and so much more. Yet, I haven’t gone in decades because I’ve been deterred by the seemingly omnipresent and crushing crowds. This year, we decided to go despite the crowds because the huge runoff meant the waterfalls were running especially high.

We parked at Curry Village, took the shuttle to the Mist Trail trailhead, and hiked up the Mist Trail to the top of Vernal Falls. The Mist Trail is noteworthy on three fronts. First, the trail is beautiful, especially as it goes into the splash zone and then to the fall’s top with its emerald pools. Second, the trail was PACKED with people. At some narrow junctures, we had to wait for traffic going in the opposite direction. Third, it is dangerous! We went right after 3 people went over Vernal Falls to their death, and more people have died since. Some of those folks made riskier choices than we did, but the trail is very steep and very slippery.

Remarkably, both kids handled the trail fine. Jacob is a bit of a mountain goat, so I wasn’t worried about him, but Dina likes the concept of hiking more than she likes the reality. My wife found a way to motivate Dina, however, by promising an ice cream cone back at Curry Village if she got to the top without complaining much. Dina got to the top, didn’t complain much, and got her earned treat. Everyone won!

We went on a Monday, and Yosemite was still quite crowded. It was unquestionably better than going on a weekend or holiday, but the off-season is a better time to visit.

Camping at Angel Island. See the photos and videos.

Angel Island is a fantastic camping destination. It easily ranks in the top 10 most scenic campgrounds I’ve ever camped at. If it weren’t for one serious defect, I’d rank this one of the best camping destinations I’ve been to.

Getting There. Ferries service Angel Island from Tiburon, San Francisco and Alameda. The Tiburon ferries operate frequently, but Tiburon isn’t convenient unless you live in Marin. We took the Blue and Gold Ferry from Pier 41, which only operates a few times a day during the week. We took the 1:05 pm ferry to the island (which stopped in Tiburon along the way) and the 1:45 ferry back the next day, giving us about 24 hours on the island.

As an integral part of our adventure, we took mass transit almost the whole way: Caltrain from Mountain View to Millbrae (we drove to the Mountain View train station), BART from Millbrae to Embarcadero station, the electric streetcar from Embarcadero to Pier 39, the boat from Pier 41 to Ayala Cove, and then a hike from the cove to our campground. The mass transit added a couple hours of extra travel time, but the multiple transportation modes was exciting to my son, more earth-friendly, cheaper than driving plus parking, and didn’t involve us leaving a car overnight in a San Francisco parking garage.

The Campground. We camped at East Bay #3. This site was huge and fairly well set-off from the other two East Bay sites. We didn’t hear our neighboring campers or see them except at the water spigot (although we could hear some shouting from the workcamp at the Immigration Station). The East Bay sites are much more private than the Sunrise sites, which have effectively no visual or aural privacy from each other. Both the East Bay and Sunrise sites have favorable microclimates compared to the Ridge campsites on the island’s southwest side. By being on the island’s east side, they are shielded from the fog pouring in from the west. Indeed, our tent’s rain-fly was barely wet in the morning. The mountain ridge also blocks some of the wind, but we did get a little wind.

When the fog lifts, the Ridge sites have jaw-dropping views of San Francisco and the Golden Gate. However, in summer, the fog rarely lifts for very long In contrast, our campsite had fantastic mostly fog-free 180 degree views of the East Bay from Richmond to Oakland. Among other points of interest, the shipping lanes run along the island’s east side, so we watched ship after ship trundle past. At sunset, I watched the fog roll through the Golden Gate and across the bay, hit the East Bay hills, and spread progressively further north. Check out my short videos of that scene. I could have spent hours just watching the fog, the ships and the sunset. It was amazing.

The campsite required about a 45 minute hike from Ayala Cove. It wasn’t very steep or arduous, but we had packed light. The campsites have a water spigot for fresh water, so you don’t need to pack water. The campground has an outhouse. Our campsite also had a picnic table and food locker.

The campsite, including the reservation fee, cost less than $40/night. If you want a comparable view of the Bay at a hotel, expect to pay many hundreds of dollars a night. Camping on Angel Island is unquestionably one of the best bargains in the Bay Area. Even better, because we were willing to go mid-week, we had no problem getting a prime campsite with about 10 days advance notice. Weekend reservations will require more advance planning.

Now, about the major downside. From East Bay #3, we could hear a buoy warning signal going 24/7. It wasn’t very loud, but I’m sensitive to those kinds of noises. If you listen carefully to my videos, you’ll hear it in the background. Then, as the fog deepened through the night, other foghorns turned on. By pre-dawn, 3 or 4 different foghorns were going simultaneously along with the buoy warning, each with their own sound and cadence. It was like a discordant symphony–beautiful in a way, but not very peaceful. I take melatonin when I camp to help get some sleep, so I ended up doing OK overall; and my son slept through it all. If you can sleep with earplugs, bring those.

What to Do. Angel Island activities mostly relate to nature, military or immigration.

For nature, you can hike or bike around the island and to the top of Mt. Livermore. We did both. Mt. Livermore offers 360-degree views of the San Francisco Bay, but the view depends heavily on the fog situation. For the best views, go on a clear winter or spring day. In summer, it’s highly likely that some of the iconic sights–such as the Golden Gate Bridge or downtown San Francisco–will be partially or wholly obscured in the fog. The good news is that the fog is aesthetically pleasing itself…so long as it’s not on top of you! The loop around the island offers constant beautiful views with the same fog caveat.

For military history, Angel Island is remarkable. I was blown away by Ft. McDowell (on the east side) and Camp Reynolds (on the west side). They are exceptionally well-preserved ghost towns with interesting ruins set among beautiful views. I could have spent more time poking around Ft. McDowell, where visitors have effectively unrestricted access to most of the abandoned buildings (be safe, but many of the buildings still look very sturdy). Camp Reynolds has a totally different feel, and it was instantly obvious that it was from a different military era. I didn’t get much out of the batteries and Nike missile installations, but they are an important part of Angel Island’s military history as well.

For immigration, the immigration station has been nicely restored. Unfortunately, we missed the guided tour, but we still enjoyed taking the self-tour and inspecting the remaining buildings. I include the quarantine station at Ayala Cove in the immigration category; and while it’s less interesting than the immigration station, it’s a nice complementary destination.

It’s hard to see all of the sites during a single day trip to Angel Island, even if you catch the first boat in and leave on the last boat out. Overnighting on the island left us with the perfect amount of time to do everything. I would have enjoyed another night on the island (except for the foghorns) but only to watch the fog and the ships; we saw virtually everything else we wanted to see.

On a day trip, you might choose to take the tram ride around the island with its pre-recorded instructions or rent a Segway or bikes. If you’re a Bay Area local, bring your own bikes on the ferry if you don’t want to hike.

Kayaking at Elkhorn Slough. See the photos and a video.

I plan to take Dina on father-daughter overnight trips similar to the trips I’ve done with Jacob the past 2 years, but I didn’t think Dina was quite ready this year. Instead, I proposed a day trip, and she said she wanted to go kayaking. This might have something to do with the fact that I took Jacob kayaking last year when we went to Mendocino and he loved it. I chose the Elkhorn Slough for kayaking due to its proximity (less than 70 minutes from Mountain View) and the odds of seeing marine mammals.

Unfortunately, the kayaking trip was an unexpected bust. We took the 2 hour family tour from Monterey Bay Kayaks. This was a disappointment on a few fronts.

First, I misjudged Dina’s readiness for kayaking. Her short arms just weren’t strong enough to hold a kayak paddle, so kayaking wasn’t very participatory for her. She didn’t complain, but it wasn’t the experience I planned.

Second, the tour guide wasn’t very good. Inexplicably, he paid more attention to the other family than ours. More importantly, he didn’t relate well to kids. He was soft-spoken, prone to tangents, and dry. Dina couldn’t hear him, and when she could, his commentary didn’t resonate with her.

Third, the two-hour tour barely got out of the Moss Landing harbor–and everything in the harbor could be easily seen from the harbor parking lot. So we didn’t see much from the kayak that we couldn’t have seen from our car. In fact, after we got out of the kayak, we walked back around the parking lot to get a better view of the sights we passed on the kayak. Naturally, a longer tour would go deeper into the slough itself, but a 2 hour tour was plenty for Dina.

On the plus side, we saw plenty of sea lions, otters, seals, jellyfish and birds. Elkhorn Slough looks worth another visit, but probably as an adults-only visit where I can see more of the slough.

Vegetarian Tourism

We are vegetourists, and that’s true even when we’re close to home. Some of our stops during the week:

Garden Fresh, Mountain View. Garden Fresh has been one of my favorite restaurants since the 1990s. I became a little disenchanted with the restaurant when it changed owners in the early 2000s because I felt the quality dropped off some. Since then, I think the quality has improved, although it’s been accompanied by higher prices and fewer freebies. For example, back in the old days, the lunch special used to include fried spring rolls, and all of the dishes included complimentary brown rice (even at dinner). Still, Garden Fresh is one of the better deals around, and its best dishes are excellent.

On our most recent trip, we got the lettuce cups and the veggie chicken curry. The lettuce cups were not nearly as good as I remember; something was “off” with the flavor. I don’t think we’ll try that dish again. The veggie chicken curry is wonderful comfort food. Sometimes I’m not in the mood for something tasting so “heavy,” but this time it was exactly what I wanted.

Some of our other favorites: Mongolian veggie chicken and Hunan veggie chicken (these dishes are pretty similar), basil moo shoo rolls, the veggie curry noodle soup and the moo shoo vegetables. Many other dishes are good too. I also like the tofu chowder they frequently serve complimentary. My wife prefers the hot-and-sour soup, and sometimes they will substitute that for the tofu chowder without charging more.

The restaurant itself is hardly atmospheric, although it is slightly more spruced up than it was in the 1990s. It’s basically a few rows of formica tables in a mini-mall. Then again, my culinary tastes were honed in Southern California, where the best meals always were in mini-malls, so the setting doesn’t bother me. For us, its convenience is an added bonus; it’s in easy biking distance from our house.

Mineral, Murphys. I still have a hard time wrapping my head around Mineral. It’s an upscale vegetarian restaurant located in Murphys, a small and out-of-the-way Sierra foothills town. There probably isn’t another all-vegetarian restaurant within 60+ miles in any direction. When Mineral first launched in 2007, it aimed for the high-end vegetarian connoisseur flush with dot com money. See my review of the restaurant in that phase. In 2008, during the last crash, it revamped into a more mid-scale vegetarian restaurant/cafe, broadening its audience and becoming a place where we felt comfortable bringing the kids for lunch.

The boom must be back on, because Mineral has abandoned its mid-scale orientation and is back to positioning itself as a high-end gourmet vegetarian restaurant. The good news is that the food remains excellent, with extraordinary attention to detail, and the prices are reasonable (compared to Bay Area prices) for the quality of the food and presentation. We had the Mineral Burger (an excellent burger), the “Land Scallops” (a tofu dish), the Watermelon Salad and the Green Papaya Salad, and we devoured everything from all plates before they went back. Total cost at lunch was about $65.

Unfortunately for us, Mineral has lost any pretense of being a kid-friendly place. Even if the menu options look passable to kids, the tastes are just too sophisticated for most kids’ palates. I understand that not all restaurants cater to kids, but it’s an issue when we’re on a family vacation. The server basically warned us when we walked in with Jacob and Dina in tow, asking us discreetly if we’d been to Mineral before as a way of trying to signal that it wasn’t a kid-friendly place. It’s even more strange because the proprietors were warm and gracious towards our kids and let them watch the laborious presentation of each dish, which our kids totally enjoyed.

For now, assume Mineral is an adults-only place. Murphys has better kid-friendly options just across the street if you’re on a family vacation. If you’re on an adults-only vacation and you haven’t tried Mineral, I highly recommending taking the trip to Murphys for a meal. It’s worth the detour.

Sunflower Drive-In, Fair Oaks. This is a funky place. Old Town Fair Oaks is a ramshackle business district with undomesticated chickens wandering around. Then, this restaurant seeks to be the cost-effective vegetarian fast food mecca that we as vegetarians dream about. Most seating is outdoors, amidst the chickens, with unappetizing views of the parking lot baking in the hot Central Valley sun.

Sunflower Drive-in a holdover from the 1970s, and the menu mostly reflects a conception of vegetarianism from 4 decades ago. Their flagship item is a 1970s-style nutburger. Nutburgers have become trendy again, but their recipe is anything but trendy. The nutburger was the best thing we ordered, but it hardly compares with the veggie burgers at Mineral or Source or even Smart Alec’s.

Other items were hit-and-miss. The falafel–which some people raved about at Yelp–was only vaguely reminiscent of a “real” falafel. I thought it was bland and uninspired. The kids’ menu items were about what you’d expect–the burrito was lots of bean and cheese but not much else; the quesadilla was cheese and not much else. Chips and salsa were run-of-the-mill. The vegan potato salad was pretty good. Vegan cupcakes were as dry as you would expect. The root beer float was a rare overpriced item: $4 buys a paper cup, a dollop of ice cream and a can of off-the-shelf root beer.

As many other reviewers have noted, for a restaurant called a “drive-in” and hawking pseudo-fast food, they process orders at a maddeningly glacial speed. I don’t know exactly why things take so long for what should be a well-oiled machine after decades of practice. We placed our order at 11:35 am and the bulk of the order took about 20 minutes on an ordinary workday. With properly calibrated expectations, this wait isn’t insufferable; but compared to a place like Smart Alec’s in Berkeley or Oreans in Pasadena where fantastic vegetarian food comes speedily, it’s nevertheless baffling. I guess their method of operation works for them, but I imagine they could boost profits and throughput if they upgraded their operations.

Although I can’t say the food rocked my world, we’ll revisit Sunflower Drive-in when we go to visit my stepfather (now living in an assisted living facility just a couple miles away). It’s cheap, filling and tasty enough to justify the small detour.

Plant Cafe, San Francisco. Jacob and I patronized the location right by the Embarcadero BART station (101 California Street). At lunchtime, it’s a high-volume operation. Order at the counter, hunt for a seat, and wait for the food to arrive.

We tried four dishes: the Plant Burger, Masala Vegetable Stew, Shiitake Spring Rolls (we took it for later) and a Chocolate-Banana Smoothie. The Plant Burger was a little disappointing after all the Yelp raves. My son rejected it outright; I thought the burger was average. Personally, I think Source has the best veggie burger in town. The Masala Vegetable Stew, which comes with some nice flatbread, tasted excellent, was a generous portion, and was priced attractively. My son hijacked my bowl and ate most of the stew. The Shiitake Spring Rolls were tasty but fairly expensive for what you get. The Chocolate-Banana Smoothie was fantastic, but it had an unexpectedly “adult” chocolate taste that I expected my son would reject. He loved it anyway. My overall assessment was strongly positive, and I’m sure we’ll be back. I know some reviewers have complained about the price. We spent about $35 for our meal, and I thought that was fair.

I noted that my old law firm (Cooley Godward) is in the same building. If I still worked at the law firm and had this restaurant in the building, I would eat there nearly every day. We need more restaurant options like Plant Cafe. Please come to the South Bay!

Saturn Cafe, Santa Cruz. Saturn Cafe is a venerable vegetarian institution, but it easily can get lost in the shuffle. Trendy restaurants like Source and Plant Cafe have stolen some of its thunder, and Saturn Cafe’s chainification has diluted its uniqueness. But Saturn Cafe always delivers a hearty, tasty, cost-effective meal, and it retains a special place in our heart accordingly.

I kept Saturn Cafe as a secret post-kayaking destination for Dina. Even when the kayaking trip went bust, I knew Saturn Cafe would be a hit. We took Dina there a year ago and she loved it–the decor, the coloring menu and the food. What fun!

This trip she had banana walnut pancakes and I had the very tasty vegan breakfast burrito. Both were completely devoured before we left our seats, feeling quite full. The bill was a paltry $15.

I wish Saturn Cafe would come to the South Bay. It would compete directly with Hobee’s in both food and price, but I would pick Saturn Cafe over Hobee’s (a long-time favorite of mine) both for being completely vegetarian and for its more flavorful options.