Tuesday, January 28, 2014

Monarch Butterflies

One benefit to the drought in California is it makes for great day trips. Add a bonus day off from school ("staff development day") and you've got a sunny, uncrowded day to go touring. The kids and I decided to take advantage of this by driving down to see the Monarch Butterflies and go to the beach at Natural Bridges State Park in Santa Cruz.  I also hoped to take a few good photos of butterflies with my DSLR and zoom lens.

Good to knowThe best time of year to see the butterflies are during the months of Oct. through Jan/Feb. Call ahead before visiting. (831) 423-4609

We headed out after a leisurely breakfast with a picnic lunch, water, camera, jackets, hats, sunglasses, sunscreen, towels, blankets (you never know if it's going to be cold or hot in Santa Cruz), and books to read in the car. Remembering what to bring was the most difficult part of the trip!

The drive was relaxing; from the Peninsula south, you are going against traffic, and we got there in less than an hour. The directions were clear; there were even Natural Bridges signs to help guide the way.

The main parking lot ($10 fee) is bordered by a grove of eucalyptus trees that includes a picnic area, barbecues, water faucets and restrooms. Paths lead from there down to the beach. Although the kids were hungry, we were eager to view the butterflies, so after a quick visit to the Visitor Center and natural history display (worth seeing), we headed down the boardwalk (wheel chair accessible) to the butterfly preserve.

Interesting fact: Monarch butterflies migrate from two regions every winter. Those that live west of the Rocky Mountains winter in pockets of eucalyptus trees along the coast of California and in parts of the Southwest. Monarch butterflies that live east of the Rockies migrate to Florida and Mexico.

The boardwalk wound though eucalyptus trees, past a dry pond (usually filled with water lilies) and to the bottom of a shallow canyon. At the bottom was a wooden deck for easy viewing of the butterflies. And butterflies there were! Hundreds of orange and black monarchs flitting among the trees, crossing patches of blue sky and coming to rest among the eucalyptus leaves.

What a great opportunity for a photographer, I thought. But I was wrong - well, wrong for this amateur. Even with my 300mm zoom lens, the butterflies were too far away to get a close picture, and the play of sunlight and shadow among the trees made it very difficult for me to know which exposure to use. Nevertheless, I gamely shot away and let my kids take some pictures as well. It's too bad I hadn't brought my camcorder; it would have captured the entire scene much better.

Luckily, I always follow the number one rule for a photographer - put down your camera and enjoy the view! I took plenty of time to watch the butterflies - lying down on the deck and using my backpack as pillow. The whole thing was so relaxing and peaceful; everyone spoke in soft voices, it was sunny with a gentle breeze, all that was missing were some hammocks so we could take a nap.

But kids being kids - mine were soon clamoring to go to the beach; so we went back up the path, had a snack, got in the car, drove about 50 yards and re-parked. Turns out we could have left the car where it was but we didn't notice at the time!

Natural Bridges Beach is named for the original three bridges that mother nature carved out of a sandstone cliff. Over time the wind and waves eroded the bridges and now there is just one left. The beach itself is a beautiful small cove, bordered on one side by tide pools and on the other by the remaining bridge. The tide was high the day we went, so we avoided the tide pools and enjoyed the sandy beach. The kids had a great time running back and forth racing the waves and digging holes at the waterline. They got very wet of course (darn, forgot the extra clothes!) and had to wrap up in beach towels for the drive home. But that was a small price to pay for the fun they had.

One note of caution, the tides at Natural Bridges can be very dangerous with sudden waves that can sweep a person off their feet, so the tide pools should be avoided during high tides. This is not a swimming beach but there were plenty of surfers enjoying the winter waves the day we were there.

I took lots of pictures at the beach but the best ones were of my kids. The view shots and bird pictures (Brown Pelicans, Seagulls, Cormorants) were marred by the hazy, middle-of-the-day light. It just wasn't my day for photography. Oh well, the kids and I had a great day and that's all that really mattered.

Monday, January 27, 2014

Family Fun In Downtown Los Altos

Who knew so much fun could be had in downtown Los Altos? My son and I spent several hours exploring there last weekend and found many places worth re-visiting. I will go through some of them here.
Build It Again with Bricks!
Our first stop was at a new store called, Build It Again with Bricks at 398 Main Street. This store is so new that the previous tenant's building sign is still on display; but there is a nice red LEGO sign in the window.  The owner, Karla Oliveira, is friendly and passionate about LEGOS. Not only does her store buy and sell used bricks, they also offer drop off play for kids, building classes and birthday parties. The play area is roomy with natural lighting from a large picture window, and it has an abundance of LEGOS.
Used LEGOS in excellent condition
 Build It Again also has a private room for hosting birthday parties. It is large and has been repainted a bright yellow and green. Parents can buy pizza from Skips Place Pizza right next door and get a 10% discount. I have a feeling this store will become very popular!

Our next stop was at Miyo Yogurt for a much needed snack. This place is hard to find, sandwiched between Starbucks and the Olivia Boutique, but look for it anyway because the yogurt there is delicious! They have many flavors to choose from including my new favorite - salted caramel!

Refortified, we visited the awesome Helix Community Science Center at 316 State Street.
Helix is part of the SF Exploratorium and offers two stories worth of hands-on science play, evening talks, workshops and unique items for sale. Instead of an entry fee, they have a "pay what you wish" admission policy. We spent 30 minutes here but could have easily stayed another hour.  Local journalist Tony Hicks, recently wrote a good article about Helix that describes activities in more detail, so I will be content with just showing you some pictures:
"Touchy-Feely" fun

Magnetic Marvel

Captivating sound

Really cool products
 Also worth looking into, Helix is advertising a special adults only event for Valentine's Day that includes "film screenings, dissection (of a rose), and l'amour," plus chocolate and wine. This is a drop in event - no additional fee!

If you'd like more hands-on action for your children, visit the new Red Racer Hobby Shop at 170 State Street.
Yes, they sell hobby-type products, but the big draw is their custom Slot Car Track that "measures 6 ft wide x 18 ft long with 4 lanes and 72 ft of lap length." For a small fee, your kids will be off and racing.

I discovered one of my favorite stores at our next stop - Know Knew Books. By the way, we did not follow a logical route, just happily wandered, so I wouldn't recommend trying to trace our footsteps!
You never know what treasure you'll find . .
Know Knew Books recently moved from California St. in Palo Alto to 366 State Street. What a difference location makes. This store is large, airy, light and beautiful. The owner, Bill Burruss (friendly and charming man!) prides himself on the quality of used books that are for sale; and he should, I bought a copy of Inheritance by Christopher Paolini that looked brand new but sold for half price.  Not only do they buy and sell quality used books, they also sale vintage jewelry and artistic greeting cards. But most important, the owner wants everyone to know that Know Knew Books is freely available for community gatherings, such as musical recitals, poetry readings, artistic displays, etc. He wants the store to be a gathering place, which is why they stay open till 9pm each night. I just might do some storytelling there!
Welcoming front lobby

 Speaking of book stores, I must not forget a downtown classic - Linden Tree Books at 265 State Street.
A great place to hang out
They are a children's book store that hosts many community events, author events are a favorite. They also have a fantastic staff that can make book recommendations based on a child's age group and particular tastes. I highly recommend them.

Finally, we come to my son's personal favorite - Area 151 at 151 First Street.  This old fashion, yet modern arcade, was a wonderful surprise. It is fun, clean and safe.
An arcade downtown - who knew?
Area 151 has traditional games like skeeball and air hockey plus modern games that use "state-of-the-art technology." Players win tickets that can be traded in for a prize or put into a savings account - there is no expiration.  Weekend evenings they sell popcorn and offer a "Double Token Happy Hour." They even have a special offer for "stellar students. What's not to love?

Hard to resist

Retro delight

10 free tokens and a popcorn for an 'A' grade!

 There are many wonderful stores and restaurants in downtown Los Altos, too many to mention, but I wanted to show these two windows just because I thought they were cool:
Los Altos Town Crier's bell collection

Does your child know what a typewriter is?

 I hope you enjoyed reading this blog and that it inspires you to visit downtown Los Altos and support their community building efforts!