Golden Gate Bridge Drive

Exploring the Marin Headlands of San Francisco’s Bay Area

Early in August, we set off for our annual family summer trip and chose to spend a week exploring Northern California. We have been to San Diego and Southern California many times and have all loved it. This time, we thought we’d enjoy exploring the northern coast and the Bay Area.

With ten days to plan, it wasn’t hard filling up our time and were able to do a wide variety of things that pleased everyone in our family of four. From hiking the mystical Marin Headlands, to getting lost within the towering giant redwoods of John Muir’s famous quotes, and being mesmerized in San Francisco’s Chinatown, there was plenty of nature, culture, and togetherness for our family.

Over the course of nine days, we began our trip in Marin County moving next down the coast to Monterey and finishing up our journey in San Francisco for two days before flying home. It was a wonderful vacation filled with beauty and adventure.

With so much to do and see in the area, it can be a bit overwhelming to make the most of your stay. Here are some tips on what to do and see in the Marin Headlands before heading south down the coast.

First stop: Golden Gate Bridge Vista Point

After arriving at the San Francisco International Airport, we got our luggage, rented a car and headed 20 miles north on Highway 280 to the Marin Headlands across the bay from San Francisco. It was our first taste of real California traffic and we were quite thankful that we were heading into town in the middle of the day as opposed to rush hour.

After crossing the glorious Golden Gate Bridge in full fog, we pulled over at the Golden Gate Bridge Vista Point on the edge of the craggy Marin Headlands overlooking the bay. Although it was quite busy, we had no problem waiting for a car to pull out and grab the spot. This is where we took our first photo of this iconic landmark graced in fog.

Golden Gate Bridge

Our first glimpse of the Golden Gate Bridge. My daughter smiles proudly. 

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Focus on the Bay Area with Jane Lurie Photography

One of the best things about blogging is the people you met along the way. Over the years I’ve been really fortunate to have met a lot of wonderful people through my blog who have inspired me deeply and have helped me plan my own travels to new places. When we began planning our family trip out to Northern California I knew I’d have to reach out to one of my favorite photographers in the Bay Area, Jane Lurie, for some advice on where to go and what to see. I have been following Jane’s beautiful photography blog for years and I love her inspiring work. No one knows how to capture the Bay Area and Northern California better than Jane.

Jane gave me some ideas on where to go, and while we were in California I realized how difficult it truly is to capture such a stunning place on film. We were there in early August which is normally quite foggy in the along the northern coast. I have never shot in fog before so it was quite a challenge. A few of my photos came out alright (which I will show later in another post) however I realized what a true art it is work with varying light and fog.  I knew instantly that I’d have to contact Jane and find out how she does it so beautifully. I also wanted to learn more about the woman behind Jane’s Lens so I invited her to do an interview with me. Here is what she had to say.

How long have you lived in the Bay Area? Where are you originally from?

I’ve lived in San Francisco for five years and part-time for ten. I grew up in New Jersey and worked in the education field there throughout my career. Then, my husband Bob and I lived near Charleston, South Carolina on Kiawah Island for many years before moving to San Francisco.

“Day is Done”. Photo credit: Jane Lurie

When did you learn photography?

I have been interested in photography for as long as I can remember. As a kid, I proudly created photo albums with pictures from my little Kodak Instamatic and received my first “big” camera, a Minolta DSLR, in high school. I always had that camera with me taking photos of my friends and family. I studied photography and darkroom early on and continued when I switched to digital photography after my career in the education field ended.

I currently enjoy courses at SFAI (San Francisco Art Institute)— the photography department, by the way, was founded by Ansel Adams – a lifelong inspiration.

“Fog and Trees”. Photo credit: Jane Lurie

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El Matador State Park, Malibu, California

A Beautiful Morning at El Matador Beach in Malibu

“The best way to pay for a lovely moment is to enjoy it.” – Richard Bach

After spending three glorious days in San Diego, it was time for us to head up the coast and check out LA. I haven’t been to LA in years and thought it would be good place for our children to experience. Unfortunately our timing couldn’t have been worse as it was New Year’s Eve weekend meaning everyone was off enjoying all the sights and beaches. Traffic was horrendous, the crowds at Santa Monica Pier and Beach were insane and even our excursion to the stunning Griffith Observatory ended up being stressful due to the swarming crowds and congestion.

After the relaxing, serendipitous past few days watching sunsets and playing on the wide open beaches in San Diego, LA felt like a madhouse for the kids. They were both cranky and miserable, seeming to take after their mother in not liking crowds. Everything we did ended up being filled with complaints and irritation but I guess I couldn’t blame my children. As a LA rookie, I had no idea that traffic could be so bad and that the city was so spread out. It took hours to cut across and there was nothing worse than sitting in wall to wall traffic when one of the kids was hungry, grouchy or had to use the bathroom.

It took two days to realize that we would need to come up with a better system for navigating the city and also find a little bit of peace and solitude for me and the kids. That meant finding a beautiful, relatively uncrowded area where we could relax but did not take hours to reach. At first, I thought I was dreaming that we could truly find such a place but after a little research on Google maps, I realized that our hotel in Agoura Hills was not far from several amazing State Parks. In fact, the Robert H. Meyer Memorial State Beach in northern Malibu was only about a twenty-five minute drive away without traffic. We were in luck!

The next morning we had breakfast at the hotel and set off early to explore El Matador Beach, one of three separate but distinct beaches that make up the Robert H. Meyer Memorial State Beach. Our drive took us through the winding, lush valley which ended at Pacific Highway 1 along the coast.

We arrived at the small parking lot atop the bluffs of El Matador State Park a little past ten o’clock and gratefully got one of the handful of parking spots in the tiny lot. At first sight, I knew we were in for a very special morning. The sky was a brilliant blue, the sun was warm and bright and best of all, the tide was rolling in. Soon it would be low tide and we would get the added bonus of seeing El Matador’s tide pools!

El Matador State Park, Malibu, California

What a place for a picnic!

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Torrey Pines State Reserve, California

Why I’ll Always Love Torrey Pines

“When you leave a beautiful place, you carry it with you wherever you go”.-  Alexandra Stoddard

There are some places in the world that seem to cast a spell on you, and always drive you back. For me, one of those places is Torrey Pines State Reserve in San Diego. Every time we visit San Diego, I feel an incessant pull towards visiting the park on the first night we arrive so I can watch the sunset across the beach. I am never disappointed and I am always mesmerized by the sheer beauty of this magical place.

Located along the rocky coast of the Pacific Ocean between La Jolla and Del Mar, the 2,000- acre Torrey Pines Reserve affords one of the wildest stretches of land along the Southern California coast. Named after the nation’s rare pine tree, the Pinus torreyana, this beautiful wilderness area offers several hikes affording spectacular panoramic views of the ocean and craggy cliffs leading down to a vast, unspoiled beach. It has been a favorite of mine ever since we first visited San Diego for Spring Break in 2015.

Since I am somewhat of a fanatic about sunset, we always try to plan our visits to Torrey Pines at least two hours before sunset so we can first do a hike in the park and then play on the beach before watching the sunset unfold. There are two places you can park your car depending on how long of a hike you want to take. If you want the shorter option (which is great with kids), you can drive your car all the way up to the top of the bluffs and park near the visitor center. The only downside is that someone has to hike back up to get the car at sunset. If you want a longer hike, you can park your car at the beachside parking lot or even out on the street for free. From the beachfront, you can walk up the long, winding road to the top of the bluffs and then hike down to the beach.

This time we unfortunately arrived a little too late to do the hike and only had time to play on the beach. I forgot that the sun sets very early in the winter and the park closes at sunset (which tends to be a little after 5 pm in December).  However, as soon as I saw the sky my disappointment disappeared. We were in for a special treat. The clouds, the sun and the light beams aligned. We could have had fog or no sunset at all. How lucky we were to have such good luck!

As the kids walked along the beach, playing in the water I snapped away at the changing light. Soon I realized my daughter was the perfect subject to capture the serenity of the place. Where earth meets sky, waves strike land and the smell of salt water satiates your soul.

Torrey Pines State Reserve, California

Torrey Pines State Reserve, California

Torrey Pines State Reserve, California

I watched my daughter walk along the shore and was engulfed in this moment of time and beauty. At eleven, she is still a girl but it won’t be long until she become a young lady. If only I could bottle up her innocence!

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Torrey Pines Reserve California

A Return to Torrey Pines

“Far away there in the sunshine are my highest aspirations. I may not reach them, but I can look up and see their beauty, believe in them, and try to follow them”. – Louisa May Alcott

Sometimes you find places in the world that are truly special. That is how I feel about Torrey Pines State Natural Reserve. During a visit last April, I immediately fell in love with its dramatic windswept ocean views from the jagged cliffs covered in its namesake, Torrey Pines. I swore if I lived in San Diego that I’d be a frequent visitor to this magical place. Little did I know I’d be back visiting San Diego so soon.

Over the Christmas holiday in Arizona, we decided to do another road trip to San Diego from my parents home in Tucson. My husband, a devoted college football fan bought us tickets to the Holiday Bowl where we would see our alma mater, the University of Wisconsin-Badgers, defeat California’s beloved USC 23 to 21 in an exciting, action-packed game. Besides the game, we would have a little time to revisit some of our favorite places in San Diego.

After a six-hour car ride, we didn’t have much time to spare for our visit to Torrey Pines. We only had about an hour and a half until sunset. Yet, it was so stunningly beautiful that we had to do a short hike down from the top of coastal bluffs to the beach. The lighting wasn’t the best for taking photos but of course I couldn’t resist. I was amazed by how different the rocks looked at this time of day and how much the color changed with the setting of the sun.

Torrey Pines Reserve California

A father and son shot before we head out on our hike.

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The Flower Fields San Diego CA

An afternoon at the Carlsbad Flower Fields

Springtime in San Diego is a wonderful time to visit as the weather is perfect and all the gorgeous flowers are in bloom. My family and I went for my children’s spring break vacation during the first week of April and despite the crowds at some of the main tourist sites, it was a fabulous time to go.

One afternoon while the kids were enjoying Legoland, I decided I needed a break from the crowds and commotion and decided to check out the neighboring Carlsbad Flower Fields. I had read about it in my guidebook and knew that it would be something I’d enjoy seeing especially after a long, colorless winter in Minnesota.

The Flower Fields San Diego CA

Open every spring, the Flower Fields at Carlsbad Ranch is an extraordinary burst of color and beauty with thousands of Giant Tecolote Ranunculus flowers  in bloom, covering over 50 acres of hillside property overlooking the Pacific Ocean. To see the Flower Fields is quite an experience. The striking inundating colorful hills of flowers juxtaposed against the backdrop of the dark blue water is spectacular especially for the color-craved eyes.

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Torrey Pines Reserve San Diego CA

An afternoon at Torrey Pines

One of the highlights of our family trip to San Diego was our visit to Torrey Pines State Natural Reserve. Located along the rocky coast of the Pacific Ocean between La Jolla and Del Mar lies a treasure: The 2,000- acre Torrey Pines Reserve, one of the wildest stretches of land along the Southern California coast. Named after the nation’s rare pine tree, the Pinus torreyana, this beautiful wilderness area offers several hikes affording spectacular panoramic views of the aquamarine ocean and craggy cliffs leading down to a vast, unspoiled beach. It is also home to several kinds of birds and waterfowl as well as magnificent, colorful wildflowers in the spring.

We headed to the park just as the midday sun was lowering, opting to drive our car up Torrey Pines Park Road to the Visitor Center on top and park there. You can also park your car at the bottom of the reserve near the South Beach entrance and walk up the road to the top of the bluffs- a distance of a little over a mile – but with children it was easier to park on top.

Torrey Pines Reserve San Diego CA

Driving up the paved road to the top of the Coastal Bluffs at Torrey Pines Reserve.

There is a nice visitor center with trail maps near the parking area on top, and on the weekends and holidays the reserve offers guided nature walks as well. Torrey Pines has over 8 miles of trails with many options depending on how far you want to go. You can hike the short half mile Razor Point trail to a gorgeous overlook of a gorge, badlands and wildflowers, or do what we did, simply find your way down to the beach.

Torrey Pines State Natural Reserve San Diego CA

View from atop the high, coastal bluffs.

Torrey Pines State Natural Reserve San Diego CA

The Torrey Pine is one of the rarest native pines in the United States.

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Torrey Pines State Reserve CA

Top Five Things to Do in San Diego with Kids

This year for our kid’s spring break, we decided to do something a little different. Instead of spending our entire vacation in Tucson with my parents, we split our vacation in half and spent four days in San Diego and the remainder of the week in Tucson. We had never been to San Diego before and had heard it was a great place to visit with kids. We booked our ticket to fly from Minneapolis to San Diego and return from Tucson, Arizona. Given the high price of airline tickets, it really wasn’t that much different and would save us driving time.

I had high expectations for San Diego and I wasn’t the least bit disappointed. It is a fabulous city with tons to do, beautiful weather, excellent outdoor dining and enough sunshine and ocean air to make anyone smile, even a grumpy kid. What I loved so much about San Diego is its ease for pleasing everyone and its endless amount of things to do outside. By carefully planning a trip that involved a little bit for everyone, we all had a fabulous, memorable time.

When traveling with kids, it is easy to fall into the trap of doing everything that is kid-focussed and kid-friendly. But after you read this post, you will see that you can easily find enough fun for all ages making San Diego the perfect place for a family vacation.

Here is my top five list of what to do in San Diego with Kids:

An evening in La Jolla

La Jolla is magical, simply serene in its beauty and tranquility. And, what can be better than seeing all the mama and baby seals in the wild? The kids loved this place as did I. We meandered along the boardwalk taking in the gorgeous views, watched the seals and their pups and then finished with a spectacular Italian meal on an outside patio near the beach. In my book, it was the perfect way to spend a lazy afternoon.

A day exploring the San Diego Zoo

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La Jolla Caves, San Diego California

An afternoon in La Jolla

Nestled along the coastline north of San Diego lies the beautiful, hilly seaside town of La Jolla. Known as the one of the most affluent addresses in all of San Diego, La Jolla is the perfect place to dine, shop, and visit some of California’s most beautiful beaches.

I had heard all the rave reviews of La Jolla and was curious to see if it would meet my expectations. After landing in San Diego on a Friday afternoon in late March, we headed to our hotel in nearby Del Mar to check in and then drove straight to La Jolla. As soon as we arrived and we saw the spectacular, rugged 7-mile coastline I knew La Jolla would be wonderful. La Jolla is a place that anyone instantly falls in love with.

La Jolla Caves, San Diego California

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