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Budget-Friendly Day Trips in the Bay Area

Pack up the kids and get ready for an awesome, affordable adventure

Credit: Curiodyssey.org
Credit: Curiodyssey.org

Written by Bill Zavestoski

Sometimes all it takes is a little planning to have a great family outing. When routine exploits just aren’t cutting it anymore, shake things up by exploring new terrain, taking in an exhibition, or visiting a landmark and learning a little something about our local history. Here are awesome events to attend and places to visit around town before fall ends. The best part? All of them can be done on the cheap and on one tank of gas—or less.


Big Basin Redwoods State Park

21600 Big Basin Way

Boulder Creek

Why Go? Big Basin, California's oldest state park, was established in 1902 and has more than 80 miles of trails. It boasts the largest continuous stand of ancient coast redwoods south of San Francisco. Among the many trails are some flat, simple ones that are perfect for families with smaller children and even seniors, if grandma and grandpa are tagging along. Even the 90-minute Redwood Loop Walk, a guided half-mile walk through an old-growth redwood forest offered at 11 a.m. and 2 p.m. each Saturday and Sunday, is stroller and wheelchair accessible. 

Insider Tip: Leave some extra time for the ride to the park itself. If you're approaching from the north, the drive up to the park is narrow and winding, so be cautious behind the wheel. On the trails, keep an eye out for banana slugs. You can't miss the yellow critters. “They look a lot like those peppers that come with all Papa John's pizzas,” noted one Yelp poster.

Must Do: Hike out to a waterfall, with the most accessible being Sempervirens Falls, along the easiest 3.5-mile leg (Route A) of Sequoia Trail. The other four waterfalls are along Berry Creek Trail, a 10.5-mile loop that likely is too strenuous for younger hikers. Make sure you get a trail map at park headquarters.

The Fine Print: The park is open daily from 6 a.m. to 10 p.m. For day use, the fee is $10 per vehicle, cash or check only, and if you arrive before 8 a.m. you'll want to carry that exact amount since you'll have to self-pay to enter. The fee for a family campsite is $35.


CuriOdyssey at Coyote Point

1651 Coyote Point Dr.

San Mateo
(650) 342-7755

Why Go? Kids of all ages will enjoy this combination museum/mini-zoo. “My three grandkids (ages 3, 6, and 9) thoroughly enjoyed our day there, and I learned a lot too,” a retired teacher commented. “Even given the age span of our grandkids, all three were involved and most attentive. Hands-on activities were well organized and creative. The volunteer docents were knowledgeable, enthusiastic and ever-so-patient with questioning kids and adults.” And after that learning experience, the kids can enjoy Magic Mountain Playground with its huge slide next door on Coyote Point.

Insider Tip: Though the museum building itself is not very large and can be toured in an hour or less, the outdoor animal display areas plus an acre-plus garden featuring natural plants make for a complete experience that will keep kids entertained all day. Bring a picnic lunch and enjoy it either on the museum grounds or watching planes approach SFO by the water at gorgeous Coyote Point.

Must Do: Plan your trip around the midday feedings, particularly the river otters and bobcats. The knowledgeable wildlife staff will answer any questions you might have, and often have an animal or snake on hand that kids can view up close and touch.

The Fine Print: Hours are 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Tuesday through Saturday and noon to 5 p.m. on Sunday. It is closed on Mondays. Admission is $9 for adults, $7 for students (13-17) and seniors (62+) and $6 for children 2-12. Call the office at (650) 342-7755 to find out about reduced price tickets for military, AAA members, other zoo members. On Community Days, held on varying days, admission is free. There's also a $6 charge to enter and park at Coyote Point Park, though it is waived for CuriOdssey members.


Hiller Aviation Museum

601 Skyway Rd.

San Carlos  

(650) 654-0200

Why Go? The Hiller Aviation Institute & Museum at the northwest corner of San Carlos Airport was founded by helicopter pioneer Stanley Hiller Jr. in June 1998. The 53,000 square foot complex is “dedicated to the dreams of flight–looking back into aviation’s history while exploring its future.” You won't need a boarding pass or have to go through security lines at this place. Two large display areas house the majority of the exhibits, where vintage and futuristic aircraft, prototypes, photographic displays, and models can be viewed. An adjoining atrium displays more than a dozen large-scale aircraft models. Let the kids take control of a Boeing 747 from the cockpit while you enjoy a seat just to the rear in the first-class section.

Insider Tip: Sign up your kindergartener through fifth grader for a seven-hour “Aviation Adventure Day” (generally held on school holidays) that includes model aircraft construction, flight simulation, exploration of museum aircraft and other hands-on activities.  

Must Do: Play pilot and co-pilot in the the Flight Sim Zone, where for an additional $3, two kids can get behind the controls of a multi-screen flight simulator and take a virtual flight around the bay, using yokes, throttles and rudder pedals. It's often a scramble to secure a seat since the Flight Sim Zone operates only on Saturdays and Sundays from 11 a.m. to 2 p.m.

The Fine Print: Hours are 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. daily, though some private events may lead to an early closing or an entire day or two when the museum is closed to the public. Check the online calendar or call the museum at (650) 654-0200 for the latest info. Admission is $14 for adults, $9 for youths (5-17) and seniors (65+), and children 4 and under are free with a paid adult. An online coupon offers a $1 discount.

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