Ages: all but ages 5 and up will have a greater appreciation for the area. Travel from San Luis Obispo: 1 1/2 hours.
A word of warning on the website says not to rely on directions from computer map programs or GPS (they will lead you astray). See directions below from the website or check the website for directions from other areas.
Tips: bring lunch, snacks, and water. There are no facilities on the way or at the plain. Gas up before you go. I didn't see any gas stations on the way.
The Goodwin Education Center (Visitor Center) is open from December to May, Thursday - Sunday, 9-4.
Painted rock trail closed March - July except with docent led tour on Saturdays (book ahead)
It was a beautiful spring day in early April and the end of the kids two week spring break. We decided to take a day trip adventure to the Carizzo Plains. I'd heard of the beauty and natural life on the plains for years and there'd been a lot of talk about the area in the news recently since it's a proposed site for two solar energy projects.
We invited another family to join us and loaded everyone in the minivan (3 adults, 2 boys ages 7 and 11 and two girls ages 10) and headed out at 9:00 a.m. We drove to Santa Margarita and then to highway 58 a two-lane road that meanders through oak-tree dotted rolling hills. We had plenty of color with the wild flowers blooming in vivid yellows, oranges, and purples along the way and a herd of wayward sheep blocking the road was cheap entertainment for the kids.
An hour and a half later, we turned off on Soda Lake Road and were welcomed with a view of Soda Lake glistening in the distance. A Carizzo Plains Monument sign confirmed we were in the right place. It was a short ride to our first stop the Soda Lake Overlook. Bathrooms at the overlook were a welcome sight as well as a display with a map of the area and information on the flowers and wildlife we were likely to encounter.
A short walk up a hill and we had a great view of the lake. Another short climb to the top gave us an even greater view of the entire plain. Spring flowers in bloom carpeted the area in shades of yellow, blues, and purples.
Across the street was the Soda Lake Trailhead, but first we took a quick drive up to the Visitor's Center. There we got an overview of the area. We learned about the flowers, wildlife, the San Andreas fault that traverses the plain and Native Americans who lived there, and Painted Rock, a horseshoe shaped monolith rock formation that rises about 55 feet above the plain near the Caliente Mountain Range. Still considered sacred by the native peoples, the rock is considered one of the most important rock painting (pictograph) sites in the United States. The trail to Painted Rock is closed from March until July (open during this time only on Saturdays with a guided tour that must be booked well in advance).
From there we drove back to the Soda Lake Trailhead and took the .9 mile walk with a .5 mile boardwalk made out of recycled plastic milk jugs. The kids ran down to the lake and walked on the crunchy, white, salt-coated shore while the parents took pictures of the Tremblor Mountain range reflecting in the water. The ranger at the station told us the lake was only about 8 inches deep all the way across and that it drys out most of the year. As I stood there looking at the quiet plain bordered by two mountain ranges, I felt I was in an area by-passed by time and a sense of life in a long-gone era where there was nothing but wilderness.
After a walk along the boardwalk and a stop for lunch at the trailhead, we drove over to the Wallace Creek Trail, home of the San Andreas Fault line. The ranger at the Visitor Center told us to avoid the shortcut on the map to the trail head as it's deeply rutted and suitable for 4 wheel drives. He gave us directions to the 7 mile road and the drive only took about 10 minutes.
The Wallace Creek interactive trail had information on the fault. We were all surprised to learn that that we are moving one inch a year toward San Francisco. Where we were currently standing, it said, in 10 million years we'd have a view of the Golden Gate Bridge. We walked up a short hill to the creek and a view of the famous offset creek bed, a clear visual of how the creek bed was offset about 40 yards during earthquakes. The kids went into the creek bed and I explained they were currently standing on the Pacific Plate. I had them run across the fault to the other side of the creek onto the North American Plate. They giggled at their "plate hopping."
We climbed the trail a little further to the top and had an even better view of the creek. We continued on the trail a little further, but the kids were getting tired. It wasn't until we got back down and checked a sign again that we noticed there were numbered posts above showing the different movements of the fault, something to look forward to next time.
We drove out and looking at the map noticed we were very close to Highway 58, so instead of backtracking, we picked up Highway 58 and headed home.
Directions from the Central Coast: Take US Highway 101 to Santa Margarita (which is located half-way between Atascadero and San Luis Obispo). From Santa Margarita take State Highway 58 east about 40 miles turn right (south) on Soda Lake Road toward California Valley and the Carrizo Plain National Monument. In 7.6 miles you will arrive at the boundary of the Carrizo Plain National Monument. As you travel south on Soda Lake Road be sure to pull off at overlook hill and the Soda Lake boardwalk. Seven miles from the boundary, a dirt road heads west (right) 1/2 mile to the Goodwin Education Center.
Fun Factor: easy hike; fun for the kids
Location: Terrace Hill Open Space. On Bishop Street just past intersection of Augusta Street (Bishop Street is off of Johnson Ave. near French Hospital). Park on Augusta Street and take a short walk up Bishop's Street to trail head.
This is a great hike for families. It's easy, quick, and has a great view of San Luis's most beautiful peaks - San Luis and Bishop Peak Mountains.
From the trail head,head up the wide trail to the top (about 5 minutes). At the top you will be greeted with a flat open space and great views of the city. There is a trail that makes a circle around the top. There are a few benches for resting or to sit and look at the city below.
Tips: There are a few rock outcrops that are fun for the kids to play on.
The peaks make a great backdrop for family portraits.
This hike isn't really jogger stroller friendly because the gate at the bottom is really skinny and hard to get through (might be able to lift a closed stroller over the fence), but you don't really need a stroller because even a two-year old can climb this one. You can get through with a child in a pack on your back if you get sideways just the right way.
Central Coast Adventure # 3 Where the Wild Things Are: Wild Things Exotic Animal Sanctuary - Salinas, CA
Do your kids like wild things? Would they enjoy seeing real live "movie star" animals? If so, then come hob nob with the baboon used as the model for Rafiki in Lion King. See the most photographed Tiger ever and watch elephants and zebras roam on an African Savannah (well, a movie set Savannah that is). Wild Things in Salinas, CA is a unique experience for you and your family. Tours are given daily at 1:00 (last one hour and reservations are not required, just show up. 3:00 tour also available in June, July, & August). $10 Adults, $8 children. There's also a bed and breakfast on the site where you can stay in a safari-like cabin with a view of elephants and zebras.
Wild Things is dedicated to providing professionally & humanely trained wild/exotic & domestic birds and animals for film, television, live productions, education and much much more. Wild Things takes great pride in offering sanctuary to many animals that can no longer participate in entertainment or would otherwise not have a home or family.
I took my kids ages 11 and 9 and they loved it. An animal trainer gives a tour that last about an hour. You will learn about the different movies the animals were in and how they train them, i.e., How do they train bears to look like they're attacking someone? Answer: Teach them to dance then instruct them to dance. Add some ferocious sounds and you have what looks like a bear attacking.
For a unique lodging experience, check out their B&B. Listen to the lions and tigers roaring only yards from your canvas walled hotel suite. Wake to a continental breakfast delivered to your tent (often by our animal friends). Prices start at $225 a night.
Salinas is about 30 minutes from Monterey, CA. This is a great companion trip to a weekend in Monterey and a trip to the Monterey Bay Aquarium.
For more info: http://wildthingsinc.com/html/_welcome_to_our_jungle_.html
Age Range: 3 and up
Fun Factor: Very
Price: about $20 for train tickets. More money needed if you have dinner after.
This is an annual trip we started with friends when my son was 3 (my daughter was 1 and started going when she was 3). He loved trains and the hour train ride was perfect. The train goes over the grade and through a tunnel. The train leaves the San Luis Obispo Train Station every day at 3:15. We usually buy our tickets beforehand (one year we didn't and they were sold out). If you have AAA and buy a week in advance you can usually get a good discount. The tickets are pretty cheap. I think about $20 for three tickets.
We've always sent the dads with the kids on the train and the moms are the pick-up crew. The moms usually stop for a quick cup of coffee on the way or a Target stop (in the earlier years when we never had any time for a Target run). Then we drive to the Paso Train Station to pick up the crew. After that, we usually go and have dinner at a family friendly restaurant like Senor Sanchez in Paso Robles. The kids look forward to the trip every year.
Tip: The tickets usually have assigned seats, but the kids prefer the upper viewing lounge with the big windows (seating is first come, first serve).
Age range: 3 years and up.
Fun Factor: Very
This is a must do for families with kids on the Central Coast. The Bitter Creek Western Railroad (BCWRR) is a privately owned 7.5-inch gauge railroad operated for the benefit of children of all ages who enjoy playing trains. It is only open to the public once a month. Public ride dates are listed on their website (see below). The railroad is on the Nipomo Mesa (map link is on the website). It's about a 20 minute ride and is usually open from 10-4. Rides are free, but donations are accepted.