Budget-Friendly Day Trips in the North Bay

A visit to these state parks and early yuletide celebrations won't eat up much gas and should be fun for all.

Credit: California State Parks
Credit: California State Parks

Written by Bill Zavestoski 

Sure, we all want to be home for the holidays. But if home is here in the Bay Area and you just want to get away for a day as 2013 winds down, try one or more of these budget-friendly trips around the North Bay that anyone from kids to empty-nesters will enjoy. The best part? Each one is just a tank of gas (or less) away.

Mendocino Headlands State Park / Ford House

735 Main St. 


(707) 937-5804

Why Go? Enjoy the beauty of a small New England-style coastal town (it served as the fictional Cabot Cove in the TV series Murder She Wrote) that's enveloped on three sides by this scenic state park. 

Insider Tip: Start your visit at the Ford House, a museum on Main Street that serves as the Visitors Center for the park. Find out about the history of the area, the docent-led interpretive walks and weekend lectures on area wildlife.

Must Do: Hike the Mendocino Headlands Trail, which stretches 2 to 5 miles round-trip depending on your starting point. The trail has bluff-top benches to soak in the scenery and even a frothy blowhole. Dress warmly this time of year.

The Fine Print: There is no cost to enter Mendocino Headlands State Park, which is a day-use facility, so camping is not allowed. The Ford House is open daily from 11 a.m. to 4 p.m. and can be reached at (707) 937-5397.

Mount Tamalpais State Park

801 Panoramic Hwy.

Mill Valley

(415) 388-2070

Why Go? Three things: the hiking trails, and the views from them and the 2,571-foot peak. As one regular puts it: “Mt. Tam is my all-time favorite place to hike. I think I've covered just about every trail in this park by now. I can confirm that you can't pick a bad trail here.”

Insider Tip: You don't have to be a mountain climber to get through the redwood groves and oak woodlands to the top. Motorists can drive to within three-tenths of the summit, which can often lead to a traffic jam, so go early in the day when the crowds aren't as big.

Must Do: Especially if you're a first-timer and go on a weekend, visit the East Peak Summit, where a Visitor Center and the Gravity Car Barn, a small museum on the history of the railroad that once climbed the mountain, can get you acclimated.

The Fine Print: The park is open from 7 a.m. to sunset daily. As with many state parks, the day use fee is $8 per vehicle. The East Peak Visitor Center (11 a.m.-4 p.m.) and Gravity Car Barn (12 p.m.-4 p.m.) are open on Saturdays and Sundays only.

Cartoon Art Museum

655 Mission St. 

San Francisco

(415) 227-8666

Why Go? The permanent collection contains 6,000 pieces including animation cels, comic books and early newspaper comic strips.

Insider Tip: The first Tuesday of every month is pay as you wish.

Must Do: Take an art class. There's a variety on offer, from Parent and Child Cartooning Workshops to Graphic Memoir Workshops. See the full schedule here.

The Fine Print: Tuesday to Sunday, 11 a.m. – 5 p.m. $8 for adults, $6 students and seniors, $4 children 6 to 12 years old, children under 6 get in free.


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