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Seals, Foraging and Buffalo Soft Serve: 5 NorCal Summer Day Trips

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A view of the coastal cliffs in Point Reyes National Seashore. (Janet Kopper/Getty Images)

I have over a century of family history in the Bay, which is good for two things: knowing the fastest route to everything, and day trip recommendations. When I take people around Northern California, it’s important to me that we end the day feeling love for each other, this place and its history. So in my pantheon of day trip criteria, food and ecology are where it’s at. My go-to is sea urchin foraging, which never ceases to fill people with profound wonder. But when sea urchin roe is scarce in the heat of summer, there’s still plenty to eat and marvel over.

Please be advised: You will need access to a car, rental or otherwise, for most of these trips.

A male elephant seal lounges on the shore at Año Nuevo State Park. (Jessica Christian/The San Francisco Chronicle via Getty Images)

Artichoke bread and 5,000-pound seals

This is pretty much as good as it gets: You’re eating steamy artichokes kneaded into fresh bread from Arcangeli Grocery Co. in Pescadero, and you’re on route to see some of the most wondrous creatures on earth. Just 20 minutes down the coast from Arcangeli is Año Nuevo State Park. In the summer, you can take self-guided walks from the visitor center to the beach, where elephant seals of all shapes and sizes — but mostly large and rotund — are sunbathing, brawling and giving you massive side eye.

Now alive and well in the hundreds of thousands, these seals were once on the brink of extinction after being hunted relentlessly for their blubber. For eight years in the late 1800s, not one northern elephant seal was seen anywhere in the world. So their comeback is huge. And as you look out over a horizon of squabbling marine sausages that could crush you with one roll, you may even shed a tear over the harrowing journey these creatures have been on. For folks who need mobile assistance, the park offers Equal Access tours.

Blackberries abound in Northern California in late summer, especially in Point Reyes. (Creative Touch Imaging Ltd./NurPhoto via Getty Images)

Blackberry picking and buffalo milk gelato

In the summer, my dad and I like to can blackberry jam, which burnishes our morning toast and engulfs our vanilla ice cream for the rest of the year. Blackberries are everywhere in the Bay in July, but Point Reyes is especially teeming with jammy berries, so much so that you’ll fill a small basket in 20 minutes. Be sure to refuel post-picking at Palace Market with a swirly dollop of buffalo milk soft serve from the buffalos at Double 8 Dairy in Petaluma. These buffalos make a mean serve that’s denser and creamier than the cow stuff. This day trip itinerary comes with an obligatory reading of Seamus Heaney’s poem “Blackberry Picking” about the transience of blackberries, summer and life, too.

Two Mexican free-tailed bats find a roost at a barn in Yolo County near Woodland. (Michael Macor/The San Francisco Chronicle via Getty Images)

Thousands of teeny, tiny bats

Something magical happens on a stretch of Interstate 80 just a little over an hour northeast of San Francisco. Lil bats, so lil they could fit in your palm, roost at Yolo Causeway in the hundreds of thousands — because there’s strength in numbers when you’re the size of a tangerine. Mexican free-tailed bats, which are the kind of bat we’re talking about, are cute the way your great-aunt’s ancient pug is cute — which is to say they’re cute, but puggish. At dusk, visitors can see the bats take to the sky, swirling around in huge numbers like aerial calligraphy. The Yolo Basin Foundation offers a bat talk and tour that’s $15 for adults, $5 for youth and free for kids.

The Sea Ranch chapel. (Ingrid Taylar)

A chapel and a crab roll

Tucked into the hillside at Sea Ranch, there’s a little structure like a giant acorn cap or the hat of a forest witch — the cool, D.I.Y. kind of witch, not the scary kind. This non-denominational chapel and architectural marvel was created by artist James Hubbell in 1985. The inside of the Sea Ranch Chapel is otherworldly like a seashell, carefully inlaid with husks of sea creatures. Whenever I’ve brought folks here, a hush falls over the group as we take in the slant of light and the smooth wood.


Cafe Aquatica along Highway One is a great place to grab lunch on the way up. You can eat a decent crab roll and listen to live music there with an unbeatable backdrop: right where the Russian River meets the Pacific.

Once you’re in Sea Ranch — and pretty much anywhere along this stretch of Highway One — there’s plenty of hiking, foraging and sea-shoring to be done.

Siskiyou, a female gray wolf, wanders through her habitat in the California Trail exhibit at the Oakland Zoo in Oakland, Calif. on Friday, May 4, 2018. (Paul Chinn/The San Francisco Chronicle via Getty Images)

The wolves from ‘Game of Thrones,’ basically

Seeing a pack of wolves roam the Oakland Hills isn’t just rare — it’s only possible at one place. Everytime a friend or a friend of a friend visits the East Bay for a super limited time and asks me what they should do with their day, I tell them to go to the Oakland Zoo. Are zoos a little sad? Yes. Is this one pretty cool, though? Also yes. In 2018, the zoo added a new California wing and welcomed a whole bunch of regional animals including bald eagles, mountain lions and a six-member pack of gray wolves. They’re beautiful, they’re massive and they’re totally worth staring at for hours as they roam the hillside and wrestle each other.

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