By J.C. Thomas
With vibrant and artsy Oakland as its urban hub, the East Bay is a fantastic destination for a family getaway. Adding to its appeal are dozens of other charming cities set against substantial stretches of wilderness. Whether it’s part of an epic exploration of Northern California or an impromptu outing for locals, there’s no shortage of memorable places to go in the East Bay with kids in tow. Here are some of our favorites…
(Looking for somewhere to stay in Oakland? Read all about The Waterfront Hotel on Jack London Square.)
Oakland has one of the most impressive zoos in California, an acclaimed, AZA-accredited institution that dates to 1922. It’s home to more than 750 animals, among them many of the exotic species most beloved by children.
The giraffes, lions, zebras and elephants residing across the African Savanna and African Veldt sections of the zoo are sure hits with little visitors. These big, exotic mammals are familiar to kids and easy for them to spot. Meanwhile the meerkats, vervet monkeys and baboons are especially playful, often putting on quite a show. The raucous troop inhabiting Baboon Cliffs, an expansive exhibit with climbing towers and a waterfall, are especially active. Be sure to spend some time watching them loudly chase each other in bids for dominance worthy of a David Attenborough documentary.
There’s a different vibe to Oakland Zoo’s newest exhibit, California Trail. Oakland Zoo added 65 acres to its property for this major expansion unveiled in July 2018. Dedicated to educating visitors and conserving the native wildlife of California past and present, California Trail comprises habitats for eight key species. Bison, gray wolves, American black bears, grizzly bears, jaguars, mountain lions, California condors and bald eagles inhabit the California Trail section of the zoo. The exhibit also adds an unmissable new feature to the zoo’s landscape – a gondola that carries guests from the lower, main part of the zoo, over a wooded hillside and up to California Trail. The gondola ride is included with the price of admission and offers incredible panoramic views across the San Francisco Bay and six Bay Area counties.
From the gondola you might also spy the zoo’s bison herd grazing on a vast area of grassland and scrub. These beasts represent one of the most iconic animal species native to North America. Note that Oakland Zoo works with the Iinnii Initiative in Montana to raise young bison, which are then released yearly into the care of the Black Feet Nation in Montana. These efforts add genetic diversity to the heritage herd there.
Step off the gondola and follow the trail to the grizzly bear exhibit. Kids might recognize these great bears’ profiles from the California state flag. They once inhabited the entire western United States and were hugely abundant in the Bay Area. California’s wild grizzlies were wiped out by 1924, but here at the zoo you can watch them idle around their spacious grassy habitat, snack on green peppers (their favorite, according to zoo reps) and on hot days play in the sprinklers.
You’ll soon spy the bears’ age-old competitor, the gray wolf. Signage asks visitors to refrain from howling, which causes the wolves stress. You might also read that the species, once almost eliminated from the lower 48, has in recent years started ranging back into Northern California. Oakland Zoo’s wolf couple had a litter of pups in the summer of 2019.
A species few are aware once lived in the Golden State is the jaguar. The biggest of the American big cats once ranged from Oregon east to Pennsylvania and south to Argentina. The last California jaguar was killed near Palm Springs in 1860. The zoo’s resident jaguar is certainly an imposing animal, even while lazing in a sunbeam like a house cat.
As an exhibit dedicated to the conservation of native species, there’s perhaps no more fitting creature on show at California Trail than the California condor. These enormous birds have a wingspan up to 9.5 feet and stand up to 3 feet tall. With their wrinkly bald heads and glossy black feathers they’re equal parts ugly and impressive. Just a few decades ago California condors were on the brink of extinction. Due largely to DDT poisoning, the population stood at just 23 birds in the wild by 1982. An intensive recovery program has brought those numbers up to 400-plus condors. Joining them on California Trail are bald eagles, a majestic species and American icon as well.
To balance the major educational value of the animal exhibits, kids can run around and play on the California Wilds! Playground. It’s inspired by the diverse eco-zones of California.
Other Oakland Zoo highlights for all ages include animal feedings (check the schedule) and rides at Adventure Landing. Check out the tigers, chimps and macaws in the Tropical Rain Forest exhibit. Pet the large, lackadaisical goats at the Wayne and Gladys Valley Children’s Zoo, and ride the Outback Express Adventure Train to see the emus and wallaroos at Wild Australia.
For more information visit www.oaklandzoo.org
Chabot Space and Science Center
On 13 acres within Redwood Regional Park is Chabot Space and Science Center, a remarkable institution comprising nine exhibits, a planetarium, and three research-level telescopes open for public viewing. The overall experience is equally compelling for children and adults, and for visitors who aren’t already enthralled by space and science it might just spark a new interest.
Indoor exhibits include “Destination Universe,” which details stars, nebulas, galaxies, black holes and more; and “Going the Distance: Our Reach Into Space,” dedicated to humans’ explorations into the far reaches of the Universe. Here you can sit at Mission Control (modeled after the one at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory), pilot a rover, see authentic spacecraft and conduct experiments at interactive challenge stations. A 3.3-billion-year-old moon rock is another unmissable item.
Outside on the observatory deck are domes housing world-class telescopes: the 8-inch Leah dating to 1883, 20-inch Rachel from 1916, and the contemporary 36-inch reflecting telescope Nellie. Docents are on hand to assist in viewing celestial objects. Also out on the deck is a solar clock and a dozen interactive stations that encourage children to discover, observe and appreciate environmental sounds, the daytime sky and even our own bodies in a new way. There are pinhole cameras, a lab bench with magnifying glasses, sets of binocular and monoculars, and a heat camera.
Don’t miss a showing at the 241-seat full dome planetarium, the only one of its kind in Northern California. And if you’re visiting with kids 5 and under, be sure to let them explore and play inside the Discovery Lab. It’s filled with fun, hands-on tables and stations just for them.
For more information visit chabotspace.org
Redwood Regional Park
If you’re visiting Chabot Space and Science Center you can continue the family fun with a short or long hike through Redwood Regional Park. Some of its almost 40 miles of multi-use trails skirt the science center. Pick up a trail just minutes away and lead the kids into a serene grove of 150-foot coast redwoods and other evergreens. You might spot deer, raccoons or golden eagles among the forest’s native inhabitants.
Habitot Children’s Museum
The award-winning Habitot Children’s Museum in downtown Berkeley has entertained and educated infants, toddlers and preschoolers for more than 20 years. It features nine distinct exhibits within a space that’s big enough to keep little visitors entertained for a few hours without getting overwhelmed. There’s a separate infant and toddler garden, while every other area is ideal for kids up to around 5 or 6 years old.
The art studio is a major highlight, especially the huge paintable wall. Art educators are on hand to guide children in creating and exploring paint, clay, dough, mixed media and various tools.
Right at the entrance to the museum is a big, climbable wooden fire truck, complete with a stuffed life-size dalmatian and kid-sized firefighters’ uniforms. Continue inside to the large “Four Rs- Reduce, Reuse, Recycle and Rot” exhibit. It’s a hands-on play area with a recycling and garbage truck, spinning compost bin and conveyor belt for sorting recyclables. The kids can also crawl through the “Wiggle Wall” with levels of tunnels up to the ceiling.
Next to that exhibit is a face-painting station, and a few steps away the “Little Town” grocery store and café with scaled-down produce and dry goods stands, cash registers and shopping baskets. The Water Works area is another big hit, with vinyl aprons to keep the kids somewhat dry while they splash, play and explore water tables, a river ramp, buckets, funnels, boats, waterwheels and more. Also check out the button-operated wind tunnel.
Learn more about Habitot, including free-admission days, at habitot.org.
Disclaimer: California News Press and its contributors may have received goods, services and/or other professional courtesies to facilitate this review. All opinions are those of the author.