Explore: Santa Cruz Mountains

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Looking for a quick escape from the bustle of the city? The Santa Cruz Mountains are at their best during the holiday season, combining beautiful forests with ridgeline ocean views, boutique wineries, and the only chestnut u-pick farm in the Bay Area. (update: chestnut u-pick is currently closed for the season) If you’re driving from San Francisco, head down the 280 and hop onto Highway 92; turn left at the pass to get onto Highway 35, aka Skyline Blvd. This is one of the most scenic routes in the Bay Area; the almost-empty road follows the ridgeline separating the eastern and western Santa Cruz Mountains, traversing redwood forests and grassy hilltops that provide tons of fabulous photo ops.

If you’re in the mood for an easy redwood stroll, stop at Purisima Creek Redwoods Open Space Preserve and walk the all-access 0.5 mile nature trail under the tall giants. It’s as stroller-friendly as it will ever get, and the route is short enough that little legs won’t get too tired. Continue down Skyline Blvd past El Corte de Madera and the grassy hills of La Honda Creek Open Space Preserves.

Getting hungry? Alice’s Restaurant, located at the intersection of Skyline and Highway 84, is a popular bikers’ hangout with terrific fries and family comfort food. Breakfast huevos rancheros, a plain hamburger lunch, various dinner options (served with live music!) – whatever your choice, rest assured that the restaurant at the top of the mountain serves classic food. The kids’ menu features the usual choices, but for healthier items, pick out a soup or salad.

Your next stop is Windy Hill Open Space Preserve where you can easily hike to the summit at the top of the park – panoramic views guaranteed! The road winds along to the next big intersection, where Alpine Road and Page Mill Road crawl up from the 280 to meet Portola State Park Road. On weekends, you can stop at Skyline Ridge Open Space Preserve and hike the 1-mile loop around Lake Alpine – be sure to visit the nature center if it’s open.

Just three miles after Page Mill Road on Skyline Blvd, take a right and pull into Skyline Chestnuts, the only u-pick chestnut farm in the Bay Area. Remember the classic holiday line “chestnuts roasting in the open fire”? On a cold, crisp day, there’s no better holiday outdoor activity. The season’s short so head down there before mid-November, if at all possible. Just grab a plastic bucket and a pair of thick gloves at the farm and scout the fallen leaves under chestnut trees to find the plump, shiny brown nuts. Make sure kids bring tweezers or wear suitable protective clothing; the chestnut bogs are very prickly! To roast chestnuts at home, follow instructions here for oven roasting or roast them outside on the barbecue!

To discover the local wines, check out this map of the Santa Cruz Mountains Winegrowers Associations or head to Ridge Vineyards where you can enjoy the wine at the outdoors picnic area. Savor the Santa Cruz Mountains spirit, as filtered through grapes, at the Cinnabar Winery tasting room in downtown Saratoga; let the little ones relax in a kids’ corner complete with crayons, coloring books, and grape juice. Wrap up the day in Saratoga by stopping at Coffee Grounds (14567 Big Basin Way – 408-872-0810) for cookie-and-cream ice-cream or at Big Word Café for sandwiches, soups and drinks.

—Laure Latham