"There was no 'one, two, three, and away,' but they began running when they liked, and left off when they liked, so that it was not easy to know when the race was over. However, when they had been running half-an-hour or so, and were quite dry again, the Dodo suddenly called out, 'The race is over!' and they all crowded round it, panting, and asking, 'But who has won?'"
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Photograph by Michael Amsler
Best Place to Swim While You Walk
With its utterly flat flatness, Sebastopol's Joe Rodota Trail--a cement path along the Laguna de Santa Rosa linking West County to Santa Rosa--also negotiates fairly as runner-up for Best Holland of the Mind. Nary a rise interrupts the fleet-footed who daily exercise along this route. Given the beauty of the surroundings, there's plenty to notice as the willow buds make an early spring appearance, the red-winged blackbirds begin to arrive, steam rises mysteriously from a wheat field, and ring-necked pheasants are spotted. But for those of us who tread this tarmac daily, it's a dry version of swimming laps, as the Joe Rodota Trail doesn't demand that its exercisers guess their prowess; it's--hallelujah!--marked in paint right on the trail! One and a half miles, and smack goes the tennis shoe in pivot, then back one goes to the start, just like a fancy underwater flip against the side of the pool. As with swimming, gaining exact speed with other walkers is tricky. Do you slow down or speed up, and if you go ahead, will they just dispassionately watch your butt as you struggle to stay ahead? But such small traumas are nothing to the vain relief of not having goggle-lines when you're done. The Joe Rodota Trailhead is on Petaluma Avenue, across from the Powerhouse Brewing Co., Sebastopol. --G.G.
Best Proposed--But Currently Uncertain--Wildlife Park
The expansion of Shollenberger Park in Petaluma, designed by award-winning nature park designer Patricia Johansen, would be a remarkable place to immerse oneself in the glories of the West Coast's largest saltwater marsh. Too bad the Petaluma City Council is about to kill it in order to put up a bunch of industrial buildings. Modeled after successful saltwater marsh attractions such as the one in Arcata, the proposed park--adjacent to Shollenberger Park along the Petaluma River--would incorporate elements of the city's planned $88 million, all-natural wastewater treatment system, using the tidal waters to clean and filter water on its way to the bay. Walkways and bridges--along with various floating art installations--would allow visitors to view the marsh at bird's-eye level, while the massive industrial complex preferred by the mostly pro-growth council would bury the marsh beneath concrete and asphalt. Too bad birds don't pay taxes. Interested parties can call the Petaluma Wetlands Park Alliance at 707.763.2310.--D.T.
Best Place to Survey Our Kingdom
Climbing a mountain doesn't always have to involve Everestesque equipment (crampons, helicopter rides, base camp, freezing temperatures). Consider Mt. St. Helena. Though the hike sounds long--10 miles total, and you're climbing a mountain, after all--it's pretty smooth going. You start out in the woods and pass where Robert Louis Stevenson spent his honeymoon and got the inspiration for his books The Silverado Squatters and Treasure Island. Soon, you start gently sloping up a gravel road that winds around the mountain and offers plenty of places to enjoy the jaw-dropping views of lush vineyards, craggy rocks, yellow hills, and thick rugs of evergreens. As you near the top, the trail gets steeper, but it's worth the effort. At 4,000 feet, the view is sublime. On good days, you can see San Francisco, Lassen Peak, the Sierras, and the ocean. And, hey, you know you're tasting life when you can say you sat on the top of a mountain. Going north on Highway 29 to Calistoga, stay on 29 to the Robert Louis Stevenson State Park parking lot.--J.L.
Best Place to Pretend You're a Character in a Stephen King Horror Novel
Ever read It, the terrifying epic of death and dismemberment by Stephen King? The scariest parts of the story take place near water. If you hear drips and splashes, the evil clown is probably nearby. Well, in all of the North Bay, no spot is drippier and creepier than the spooky, eerie, wet, slimy, shady--and secluded--concrete steps leading down from the Alpine Dam in the hidden hills above San Rafael. A favorite walking spot for edgy individuals, the semicrumbling steps snake down hundreds of feet from the road above and ironically lead to one of San Rafael's most beautiful hiking trails, hugging the little stream that trickles from the dam and on occasion--whenever rain waters have filled the lake to its shadowy brim--is turned into a raging torrent exactly like the kind King might use to wipe out unsuspecting victims. Or the monsters stalking them.--D.T.
Best Place to Trip and Wipe Out While Running in Front of Hundreds of Spectators
The treacherous and notorious Dipsea footrace stretches from downtown Mill Valley to Stinson Beach. It's 7.1 miles of sheer, heart-pounding torture, and it's one of the best cross-country footraces in the world. Along the course, runners must traverse portions of Mt. Tam and Muir Woods, negotiating along narrow trails booby-trapped with jutting rocks, tree roots, fallen logs, and some terrifyingly steep cliff-side trails. Oh, and it all begins with a climb up three murderous flights of rock and wood stairs totaling nearly 800 steps. The decades-old race takes place in June and is one of the few handicapped races of its type--handicapped meaning that the very young and the very old are allowed to start before the very buff and the very-likely-to-win-otherwise. In other words, participants all have a chance at victory--if they can manage to survive the race.--D.T.
Best Way Short of a Long Plane Ride to Go on Safari
When you think of it, the yellow hills of California are pretty similar to the grasslands of Africa. At least from what I can tell from the Nature Channel. Covering 400 acres in the hills by Calistoga, Safari West takes visitors on an honest-to-goodness safari, complete with open-aired tan jeeps and a naturalist who will point out interesting facts. You're likely to see a variety of animals, including cheetahs, giraffes, wildebeests, gazelles, addaxes (with horns like tree branches), waterbucks (known for swimming), and, of course, zebras. The tour also includes a walking portion where you can interact with the animals at a slower pace. With all the exotic animals and no trace of wineries or freeways in sight, it's easy to forget where you are. 3115 Porter Creek Road, Santa Rosa. 707.579.2551.--J.L.
Best Place to Be Attacked by Seagulls
Everyone knows that the lagoon San Rafael's Civic Center is a great place to feed ducks. Seldom will you walk the loop around the lagoon without encountering at least one elderly duck fancier or a nuclear family of people with time to kill distributing bread crumbs to the resident mallards and buffleheads. What's less known is that the same lagoon is the site of the occasional spontaneous seagull attack. The flying rodents with razor-sharp beaks know where their butter is breaded and have become expert at snatching stale Wonder Bread crumbs, intended for the ducks, before they've hit the duck-infested water. The gulls have even been known to grab a snack from the hands of bread distributors before they've even let go. Hey, even a seagull deserves a bite to eat--even if the bite came out of your hand.--D.T.
Best Place to Dodge Crazed Powerboaters and Vicious Yellow Jackets While Drifting in a Plastic Canoe
Lake Sonoma, 11 miles north of Healdsburg, is a nice place to visit, whether you are speed-boating across the lake's 2,700 acres of surface water, camping along the water at Liberty Glen Campground, or checking out the massive Don Clausen Fish Hatchery. In nearby Cloverdale, a number of establishments cater to lake-goers, offering for rent all manner of boats, kayaks, and fishing gear. Not that remote, and hardly difficult to find, it's a wonder the lake isn't better utilized by recreationists. Oh, well. More for the rest of us. 3333 Skaggs Springs Road, Geyserville. 707.433.9483.--D.T.
Best Professionally Guided Tour Through Nature
The Audubon Canyon Ranch's Bouverie Preserve is located near Glen Ellen, but it's easy to drive by it. That's OK, because you can't really just go and walk around the 500-acre nature preserve anyway. You have to take one of the guided nature walks offered one or two Saturdays a month, and even though it's free, you have to make reservations. But it's worth the trouble. With a well-trained docent as your guide, you will get a good, long hike, which, if you're lucky, may include a stop at the Stewart Creek Waterfall. And you'll learn a lot. When I went, I learned that mistletoe is not native to California and acts like a parasite on the oaks; that piles of twigs and bushes I ignored in the woods were actually made by pack rats; and that certain small holes in the banks along the road were made by spiders. You just can't get that kind of stuff in biology class. 707.938.4554 or www.egret.org.--J.L.
Best Place to Imagine You're a Character From a 'Mad Max' Movie
The rusting WWII-era gun turrets and scary metal tunnels snaking through the otherworldly hills of Fort Baker in Sausalito are slightly eerie. The decayed and moss-covered edifices are enough to make one have flashbacks to those over-the-top postholocaust movies we all grew up with--and may end up seeing more of, if the current Zeitgeist begins to make art from our growing fears of global annihilation. Hey, at the very least, if there's ever a Mad Max 4, we know exactly where they can film it.--D.T.
Best Bridge for Watching the Escapades of Drunken People in Inner Tubes
The erector-set-style Healdsburg Avenue Bridge, spanning the Russian River within a softball toss from Veterans Memorial Beach, is not just a great spot to take pictures, as birds and boaters and crazy people slide beneath and on down the River--the bridge is mighty picturesque in and of itself. Built in 1921, the landmark span is a truss-style bridge with a superstructure resembling spider webs of steel, a once popular type of bridge that disappeared in the 1930s shortly after freeways made automobile travel so commonplace. Due to be retrofitted within the next few years, the Healdsburg Avenue Bridge, once described by the local paper as "an architectural triumph," is a beautiful sight to see--or to see from.--D.T.
Best Geological Oddity
You may have noticed it: a mysterious, black wall of semishiny bumpy rock stretching up alongside Pt. Reyes Road, just past the Nicasio Reservoir on the way from Petaluma to the coast. Attractively out of place, the wall of rock has caught the eye of many travelers over the years, causing them to wonder what it is, how it got there, and why it resembles a piece of fossilized gizzard from some giant alien creature like, say, the Blob. Well listen up, folks. The wall is made up of pillow basalts (that's a geology term), cool-looking, volcanic reminders of the area's once fiery and deeply submerged past. Pillow basalts are formed when the hot lava from an underwater volcano makes contact with the cool seawater, creating big bumpy bubble blobs, or pillows, that stack up and fuse together, comingling like slow-dancing teenagers at a Sweethearts Ball. This explains the slightly mutant, vaguely Twilight Zone look of the rock. Now you know.--D.T.
Best Place to Heed 'the Call of the Wild'
It was 100 years ago that Jack London mesmerized readers worldwide with his now-classic novel The Call of the Wild, the wilderness adventure that chronicles the author's attempts to strike it rich in the Klondike gold rush. London never did stake his Yukon claim; he became a great literary figure instead. When he wasn't traveling the world as a writer or newspaper reporter, London sequestered himself at his beloved Beauty Ranch, an 1,800-acre spread in the Valley of the Moon. A portion of that estate--including a visitor's center filled with mementos of London's travels, the writer's grave, and the ruins of his ill-fated Wolf House--comprise Jack London State Historic Park. The centennial of his best-known book offers a perfect reason to venture to the wilds of this sprawling park, where you can watch the red-tail hawks spiraling in the air, contemplate London's writings, or just listen to the wind blowing through the arching boughs. Sit on a fallen log, breathe the same air as the great man, feel the same breeze, watch the same hawks, and let your troubles slip away. 2400 London Ranch Road, Glen Ellen. Admission is $6 per vehicle; senior discounts. 707.938.5216.--G.C.
Best Place to Ride Horses While Dodging High-Spirited Backpackers, Or to Backpack While Dodging High-Spirited Horses
The Stewart Trail at Pt. Reyes leads from the horse ranch at Five Brooks Trailhead and out to the remote coastal campground at Wildcat Camp. It's about a six-mile hike that takes you in and out of the trees, up to breathtaking heights where the entire valley comes into view below you, and then out to the coast where, a mile down the beach, you will find a delightfully conspicuous waterfall spilling from the high cliff wall onto the waiting sand. While the trail is popular among hikers and equestrians, the primitive campground tends to be mainly utilized by hardy scout troops, people who are lost, and the occasional convention of smelly, male-bonding Pagans. www.bahiker.com/northbayhikes/fivebrooks.html. --D.T.
Best Moonlight Hike
During the summer and fall months, the national park rangers at Marin County's Pantoll Campground lead a number of nighttime hikes up and down the various trails of Mt. Tamalpais. One of the best begins at Pantoll and leads out to Bootjack Trail and up to the Mountain Play's Cushing Memorial Amphitheater. A beautiful hike, it is fairly easy to stay on the trail, and the moonlight illuminates the world in a very Shakespearean, Midsummer Night's Dream, hey-where-are-all-the-fairies kind of way. Owls and other night-flying birds are usually involved, zipping above your head in that spooky habit they have, and the rangers are always happy to point out whatever skittering beasties happen to be out for a stroll. Call the station at 415.388.2070 for more details.--D.T.
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