Day Trippers

It might seem almost prosaic to mention Lake Tahoe …

It might seem almost prosaic to mention Lake Tahoe …

Photo By Jessica Santina

Many of my greatest childhood memories are of day trips. My father, keen on foregoing expensive overnight stays, was a master at the one-day adventure. I vividly recall being awakened at 3 a.m. so that we could hop in the car for the five-and-a-half-hour drive from our home outside Atlanta to the beach at Hilton Head or Savannah, where we would lie around on towels and read, swim in the warm waters, eat succulent seafood meals and then drive home.

These days, my husband and I embrace the day-trip tradition. Long before In-N-Out made it to Reno, we frequently drove to Auburn just for burgers and fries. And now that we have a 4-year-old daughter, a common day trip involves Ikea, lunch in Roseville and a brief Sacramento park excursion.

The day trip is a marvel. It lets you shake off the dust of home, open your perspective and feel as if you’ve had a vacation, all without spending vacation dough. That is why we make an effort to squeeze one in whenever we can, especially in spring and summer. Here are some of our favorite day-trip destinations.

Train to Truckee

Train travel is vastly underrated and underused. It’s cheap, it affords great scenery, there are electrical outlets for those who insist on plugging in, you can use your cell phone, the seats are comfy, and hello? Dining car, anyone? For families, it’s a dream. From Reno you can hop aboard the California Zephyr to Truckee for about $13 (kids’ tickets are less) at the downtown Reno Amtrak station at 8:30 a.m. After the one-hour scenic train ride alongside the Truckee River, you’ll disembark in Truckee around 9:30 a.m. Now you can shop, stroll, dine or hit the Truckee-Donner Regional Park for a little play and picnic. After lunch, head on back to the train station, smack dab in the center of town and catch the 90-minute ride home at 2:30 p.m. You’ll be home before dinner time. For the money and convenience, it’s hard to beat.

Tahoe Beaches

I know, it’s almost prosaic at this point to mention Tahoe, but I’d like to point out two ideal spots for families. First is my personal favorite, Commons Beach in Tahoe City. There’s grass, which is cool and comfortable for picnicking. In the summer, there’s a free concert there every Sunday afternoon. There’s a shady playground. There are restrooms (for families, this may be the top criterion). There’s a great walking path. And you’re right downtown, in case you want to take a break to shop, grab lunch or find some ice cream. Or take a walk over to Fanny Bridge at the “Y” and show passing drivers your rear as you watch the duck-and-trout show in the water below.

Commons Beach:

Taylor Creek Visitor Center

This park, on the California side of Tahoe’s south shore, is an ideal day-trip spot any time of year, but it’s really best in October. That’s because the creek is home to Kokanee Salmon (landlocked Sockeye Salmon), which turn bright red and spawn in early fall. At Taylor Creek, the gentle, flat Rainbow Trail runs alongside and level with the creek. In fall, the shallow water (in some places only inches deep) is full of hundreds, maybe thousands of red salmon spawning, making their way up the creek. Fish flop and wiggle so close you could touch them (don’t try to), and the “show” is free.

But summer at Taylor Creek is lovely, too, with its great picnicking, biking and hiking spots for families. Not only does the Visitors Center offer gifts, concessions and restrooms, but the Rainbow Trail is flat and even, with plenty of shade and benches, so it’s an easy walk for kids or older folks, and it’s nice and wide. (I’ve easily pushed a stroller on the trail.) Even without the red salmon jumping in the stream, we’ve made summer visits to Taylor Creek and spotted wildlife—deer, fish, birds and big, fuzzy caterpillars.

Fallon and Churchill County

It might surprise you to find Fallon on this list, but it really makes a great day trip for families because of its affordability, and because it’s close despite feeling a world away. One of our family’s favorite activities (again, great for fall, but also open and ideal for summer, too) is Lattin Farms. Not only can you pick up farm-fresh, organic produce, preserves and fresh, homemade baked goods at the produce stand, but you can picnic on the premises or pick your own produce as well. In late summer, we like berry- and tomato-picking; just grab a bucket and head out to the field, where working on the farm is actually fun. Little ones will love the cow train—a tractor pulling a series of hollow metal barrels made into “cars”—as well as the Critterville, where you can see chickens, rabbits, goats, pheasants and turkeys up close. And in October, Lattin Farms also hosts a corn maze, hayrides, a scarecrow factory and, of course, a pumpkin patch.

Once you’re finished at Lattin Farms, take your breads, jams, fruits and veggies on a picnic at Stillwater National Wildlife Refuge in Lahontan Valley. This wildlife sanctuary has been designated a “globally important bird area,” as it’s home to more than 280 species of birds. During the Spring Wings Bird Festival May 17-19, visitors can take a variety of tours, via hiking or kayaking, of nature areas and marshlands. Decoy-carving contests, tours of Grimes Point, one of the largest and most accessible petroglyph areas in the country, and birds-of-prey educational talks for kids and adults are also part of the festival. On non-festival days, though facilities (i.e. restrooms) are limited at Stillwater, there is abundant hiking, overlook and picnic areas.

And if it’s simply too hot to be outdoors, the recently updated and expanded Churchill County Museum offers hands-on activities for kids and interesting historical exhibits for adults.

Lattin Farms:

Stillwater National Wildlife Refuge:

Grimes Point Trail:

Churchill County Museum:

Bowers Mansion and Davis Creek Regional Park

On a hot summer afternoon, there’s little else I feel like doing than lying on a blanket in the shade. On the grounds of Bowers Mansion in Washoe Valley, you’ll find expansive lawns shaded by huge, mature trees, so it’s just about the best picnic area around, and there are two playgrounds nearby. According to Eric Crump with Washoe County Parks, there’s exciting news this year: On May 18, the Bowers Mansion, which has been closed for years due to budget cuts, will reopen for weekends throughout summer. Tours of the historic mansion run every hour from 10 a.m.-3 p.m. on Saturdays and Sundays. Perhaps even more exciting is the June 8 return of the Bowers Mansion public pool, well-loved by area residents for its size and naturally heated spring-fed waters. Your family might also like the hike from the mansion to the Bowers family cemetery, a cool, potentially creepy walk that lets your imagination run wild.

Bowers Mansion Regional Park:

Davis Creek Regional Park: