The only thing worse than enduring Thanksgiving travel delays in an airport is enduring Thanksgiving travel delays in a car stuck in hours and hours and hours of traffic. That’s why long before having kids, we gave up traveling from NorCal to SoCal to enjoy turkey with our parents and began our own traditions near home.
In recent years, we realized Thanksgiving was the perfect time for a two-on-two, parent-kid break: It’s after the back-to-school/fall sports frenzy ends but before the holiday frenzy begins. So now we skip the hosting, unplug from devices, activities and friends, and head for the nearby hills. We take a hike, pass a football, play some cards, and basically, just chill out – just the four of us.
Blissful family escape? Yeah, no. You can’t believe the whining. Every year! You would think we were dragging the kids off to plow the fields… But they have endured – and maybe even had an okay time. Plus, we only go for a couple of nights of which leaves the rest of the long weekend free to see friends and do things that require connectivity and/or electricity.
With the massive expenses of summer’s travels not gone from memory and the massive expenses of Christmas looming, we insist on a cheap cabin (maximum $200/night) no more than an hour from home and preferably one without wifi.
Luckily, the San Francisco Bay Area has more than its share of cheap and cozy destinations awaiting your winter visit. We’ve stayed – or wanted to stay – at the spots below. The key is booking as far in advance as allowed. I’ve called on Thanksgiving Day to book our stay for the following year’s Thanksgiving. I was thankful I did.
- West Point Inn There’s no place like the West Point Inn for an off-the-grid family escape. No electricity. No cell phones. No way to drive to this Mt. Tamalpais institution. But make the extra effort and you will be rewarded with 270-degree views of San Francisco and the whole bay area(see photo atop this article) from West Point Inn’s 100-year-old porch – not to mention, a mountainside perch for more hiking, walking and relaxing. It’s an easy one-hour, two-mile walk up the fire road from Pantoll Campground parking lot. Pack in your food, drinks, clothes and sleeping bag to your room in the shared-bath rooms in the inn or the cabins outside. The shared kitchen, living room and parlor are inhabited by like-minded nature lovers and the game cabinet will provide hours of entertainment by the roaring fire. Reservations are never easy to get but during midweek and in winter, your odds of nabbing a cabin are better. ($50/night per adult; $25/night per child.)
- Samuel P. Taylor State Park Cabins These pre-fab cabins are a warm option for a cold-weather getaway in the redwoods Bring your food, clothes and sleeping bags/pillows and you’ll have a room with electricity, heat and bunks. The hike to the top of Barnabe Peak will take all day; the Pioneer Tree hike will only take a couple hours. Or bring bikes and ride the three miles of the Cross Marin Trail that run through the park. The outdoor tables and fire rings are ready for an after-hike picnic, a game or two, and even some smores. Don’t forget to have a look at the salmon ladder on the way out to see who’s jumping. And email me for directions to the grandmother redwood who will seat your family inside her trunk. ($100/night per cabin. Reservations are available at 8am on 1st of the month six months in advance of your visit.)
- Point Montara Youth Hostel
We’ve stayed in several hostels near San Francisco but our favorite stay was our two nights in the four-bunk room at the Point Montara Hostel. Just a half-hour south of San Francisco, the lighthouse station-turned-hostel is set on a pristine cliff overlooking the Pacific and just minutes from Half Moon Bay, Mavericks, Pillar Point Harbor, state beaches, horseback riding and more. Read the details of our weekend here. ($33-36/night per adult in dorm room; kids under 12 are half price. Book online on the 1st of month one year in advance of the month you want to stay.)
- Point Reyes Youth Hostel The private rooms here can be tough to get – and for good reason: The hostel has the only shelter in the heart of Point Reyes unless you bring your own tent. Calling the property well in advance to get your reservation is critical. The private rooms have 3, 4 or 5 bunks and a kitchen/lounge area for hanging out that is separate from the main hostel building. It would be a good place for four families to book out and take over the common areas. The location sets you up for a day hiking the farther away spots like Limantour Beach, Chimney Rock, Abbott’s Lagoon or Tomales Point with the tule elk. Be sure to pack in your food from home and stock up on snacks at Cowgirl Creamery in Point Reyes Station before heading out because there ain’t nothin’ to eat but wild fennel out there. ($130/night for a private room that sleeps 4-5 people. Book online on 1st of month one year in advance of month you want to stay.)
- Elim Grove Cottages What could be better than a cottage in the redwoods of west Sonoma County? A cottage attached to a bakery that turns out mouth-watering pizza and pastries. Follow the bread crumbs to Elim Grove Cottages in Cazadero and you’ll pass the wineries of the Russian River Valley and the eclectic town of Guerneville on your way. Click here to read more details about a weekend stay. ($185/night or less for cottages that sleep up to six people.)
- Steep Ravine Cabins Securing a cabin at Steep Ravine is just about as easy as winning the lottery. These simple old wooden shacks dot the cliff above the pounding surf just south of Stinson Beach. Even on the sunniest day, the nights are cold but the expansive views and wood-burning stove will warm your heart. A stay here defines “rustic” (read this TripAdvisor review – it sets expectations accurately) and “back to nature:” We saw owls, foxes, rabbits, foxes, deer and had to tiptoe around a family of skunks rooting around out front every time we walked to the restroom after dark! (We also had to shoo a garter snake out of the cabin before we laid out our sleeping bags. Ack!) We booked six months in advance by going online on the 1st of the month at 7:50am and were only able to get a midweek booking. That said, the people who stayed in the cabin next to us had booked only days earlier because someone canceled. So keep your fingers crossed, call ahead and you might get lucky. ($100/night for a cabin that sleeps five.)
- Bothe-Napa State Park Yurts If you long ago crossed off “Napa Valley” on your list of low-cost weekend destinations, you will be happy to hear that your family can stay near the world’s finest vineyards for as little as $55 a night. The Bothe-Napa State Park provides a bucolic creekside campground with yurts to shelter your whole clan (they’ve got tent sites and more expensive cabins too!) You’ll be well-positioned for a long hike or bike ride, a wander past the shops of St. Helena, a tour of the impressive Castelo di Amorosa, a spa treatment in Calistoga, a look at the Petrified Forest, a tour of Safari West or, what the heck, even a taste of some wine. ($55/weeknight or $70/weekend night for a yurt that sleeps four. Again, book online on 1st of month six months in advance of your stay.)
- Angel Island State Park – Coming soon! California parks are eager to attract more visitors with cabins similar to those in Samuel P. Taylor State Park. Angel Island is slated to get their own batch of pre-fab cabins behind the immigration station – though no date for their installation has been set. We are ready when they are!
by Maryann Jones Thompson, November 2016
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