The holiday season is about having a great time — hanging out with friends, spending time with family, going to great restaurants and bars, seeing shows, and eating and drinking, a lot. And believe us when we say that you should definitely do all of those things between now and the end of the year.
But the holidays also offer a great opportunity to get away — from work, school, and stress.
To that end, here are five ideas for spending time outdoors, because we believe wholeheartedly that one of the best ways to relax is to get in touch with nature.
Oregon, really? Yes, Oregon, really. We know it’s a bit of a trek, but Ashland is totally worth it. Yes, it’s known mostly for hosting the annual Oregon Shakespeare Festival (which runs from February to November and is one of the best theater festivals anywhere), but Ashland is also a great destination spot in winter, particularly during the holidays.
That’s mainly because Ashland is chock-full of charming little shops and clothing stores and is home to plenty of bars and restaurants, and because it knows how to do Christmas. Each holiday season, the city hosts its annual Festival of Light Celebration in its historic downtown district between East Main and C streets. You can easily spend an entire day, strolling through nineteenth-century era downtown, lingering in stores, cafes, and eateries. Pro tip: Don’t miss the historic 1920s Ashland Springs Hotel on East Main.
For a longer, more vigorous walk, take a hike along Ashland Creek through Lithia Park amid the tall trees to the Granite Street Reservoir, or even farther up to Reeder Reservoir. Plus, there’s great skiing and snowboarding nearby on Mount Ashland, the tallest peak in the Siskiyou Mountains. At 7,500 feet elevation, Mount Ashland typically gets plenty of snow in winter and is only eight miles outside of town.
Redwood National and State Parks
From our perspective, there’s no bad time to visit the redwoods. And the world’s redwood mecca is the four parks along the north coast of California that make up the Redwood National and State Parks system. They are Redwood National Park and Del Norte Coast, Jedediah Smith, and Prairie Creek Redwoods state parks, and they’re home to about 45 percent of the world’s remaining coast redwoods, and to many old growth stands.
There’s nothing quite like taking a walk through the redwoods on a rainy day or when a dense fog envelops the forest canopy and swirls dreamily along the fern-covered forest floor. Situated along Highway 101 in Humboldt and Del Norte counties about five hours north of the Bay Area, the parks are extremely popular in summer, but in winter, you can find yourself alone amid the towering trees for hours at time. Talk about getting away from it all.
One of our favorite pastimes, winter or summer, is searching for elk in Prairie Creek Redwoods State Park. The park has its own herd, and the elk often wander through different segments of the lush-green park, so you’re never quite sure when you’ll stumble upon them. But when you find these majestic animals, just spend some quiet time, hanging out near the herd. It will make your entire trip worthwhile.
The Big Trees of the Sierra
Speaking of big trees and dense forests, during wintertime one of the best ways to traipse among them in the Sierra Nevada is with snowshoes on (assuming there’s snow on the ground). One of our favorite spots is Calaveras Big Trees State Park near the small town of Arnold, on Highway 4 (that’s right, the same Highway 4 that runs through Contra Costa County).
With snowshoes, you can hike for hours amid the giant sequoias of Calaveras Big Trees State Park. And we guarantee that you’ll be overcome by the sheer awesomeness of the place, of being among some of the largest trees on the planet. It’s incredibly quiet too — just you, your hiking partners, the massive trees, and the soft white snow. Plus, there’s a warming hut for when you’ve been outside a bit too long and need a refreshment.
If you’re into other snow sports, Bear Valley ski resort is nearby. Or, you can head south on Highway 49, connect to Highway 120, and then head east to Mariposa Grove in Yosemite National Park. Mariposa Grove Road is closed in winter, however, so you’ll need to hike or snowshoe up about 500 feet to reach the giant sequoias.
Point Reyes National Seashore, Inverness, and Point Reyes Station
The true jewel of the Bay Area is Point Reyes National Seashore. It’s got everything a nature lover would want: miles of hiking trails, beautiful forests, long sandy beaches, a waterfall, an old lighthouse overlooking a craggy point, and even an elk herd (or two) of its own. It’s also much less busy during winter. In fact, we’ll guarantee that you won’t have trouble finding a parking spot at the Bear Valley ranger station in December (or January and February, for that matter).
Rain and wind can scare away many visitors, but don’t let them deter you. Just pack your raingear, put on some good hiking boots, and pack a hearty lunch. One of our favorite hikes, especially when there’s been plenty of rain, is to Alamere Falls, which empties onto an ocean beach. From the Palomarin Trailhead at the end of Mesa Road, hike along the Coastal Trail, past Bass, Crystal, and Pelican lakes to the falls at the end of Alamere Creek. It’s one of the prettiest sites in the region.
Point Reyes is close enough to the East Bay that you can do the Alamere Falls hike as a day trip. But if you want to spend more time in the region — and believe us, you want to spend more time here — check out the small towns of Inverness, Inverness Park, and Olema, near the eastern entrance to the park. They all have cute inns and bed and breakfasts, and there are numerous top-shelf restaurants in the area. And if you need that charming-small-town-during-the-holidays fix, then get thee to Point Reyes Station.
Sometimes you just need to see some sea lions and sea otters, and there’s no better place to do it than Point Lobos State Natural Reserve, a breathtakingly gorgeous park just south of Monterey. Point Lobos, however, can get busy, even in winter, and especially on weekends. So we suggest making an early start from the East Bay, or spending a few days in the area, perhaps in Monterey or in Big Sur.
One of the great things about Point Lobos is that it’s small enough to walk through the entire park in one day, and still have plenty of time to loiter on a beach or near some tide pools — or to just stare at the water, hoping for a glimpse of a sea otter. We like to start out at the Sea Lion Point Trailhead, and then head straight to Sea Lion Point to watch the seals and sea lions laying in the sand or barking at the sky.
From there, you can hike southeast along the rocky coast on Southshore Trail. China Cove, a tiny, secluded beach, accessible only by steep stairs, is a must-see. Then head north-northwest toward Whaler’s Cove — the best place to see a sea otter (it’s also a popular spot for scuba divers). After that, go west along Point Lobos Trail through the cypress trees and past Bluefish, Cypress, and Headland coves back to Sea Lion Trail to finish your loop hike. It’s one of the most beautiful walks in California.