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July 1, 2004 -- All the parks have ranger programs for children and adults, and some will even take the kids off your hands for an hour or 2; but for an in-depth learning vacation, consider joining a field institute or camp. Park educational institutes offer outdoor seminars and multiday programs for adults or families on subjects such as art, science, and outdoor skills. While the kids join in structured outdoor activities, parents enjoy the park or otherwise amuse themselves, and then the family reunites for meals and evenings in family dorms. For any of these opportunities in Point Reyes National Seashore or Olympic National Park, we suggest you plan well ahead.

Point Reyes National Seashore

Places for Learning

Point Reyes Bird Observatory Field Station, 999 Mesa Rd., north of Bolinas (tel. 415/868-1221; www.prbo.org). May-Nov Tues-Sun 7am-5pm, banding 7am-noon; Dec-Apr Wed and Sat-Sun only.

We stumbled upon this small wooden building by a dirt road on our way to go tide-pooling at Palomarin. We walked into the banding lab, where a biologist was measuring and banding a wren. She explained her work and held the bird's tiny chest to our ears so that we could hear its fast-beating heart. A volunteer brought in a chickadee from the nets. After study, my son Robin, then age 5, tossed it from his hands back into the air. Never had science felt so intimate. The nonprofit observatory studies and protects birds in the national seashore and the huge bird colonies on the Farallon Islands. The staff leads occasional bird walks for visitors and welcomes volunteers at the observatory, where there's also a one-room museum.

Pierce Point Ranch, north end of Pierce Point Rd. No phone. Open daylight hours.

Urban children especially will enjoy seeing how ranch families lived self-contained on remote Tomales Point, with their animals, schoolhouse, and large barn (it's the only building you can enter). The ranch operated for 100 years starting in 1858.

These three sites all are next to the Bear Valley Visitor Center, on Bear Valley Road near the park entrance in Olema.

Coast Miwok Cultural Exhibit

A .5-mile nature trail from the visitor center passes through a replica of a Coast Miwok village called Kule Loklo. Nestled among oak trees where the Native Americans would have gathered acorns, it's quite rough and realistic. You can go in the buildings and imagine what it was like to live there. The path is a bit rough for strollers. The group that maintains the exhibit and sometimes holds demonstrations there is Miwok Archeological Preserve of Marin (tel. 415/479-3281; www.mapom.com).

Earthquake Trail

The San Andreas Fault is visible on this .5-mile trail from the Bear Valley Visitor Center. It is paved, easy for strollers, and marked with explanatory signs. This was the epicenter of the quake of 1906, and you can see where the fault slipped 16 feet along a broken fence line. The fault is quite clear on a map of Point Reyes, too, running along a straight line that includes Bolinas Lagoon and Tomales Bay. West of the fault, the point is riding northwest past the rest of California as the Pacific tectonic plate pulls it along. Also check out the seismograph in the visitor center.

Morgan Horse Ranch

Rangers use Morgan's to patrol the park and sometimes offer demonstrations at the ranch behind the visitor center. At other times, you can look at the old farm machinery, tack room, and stables on your own.

Programs

The national seashore runs a few ranger programs on weekends starting from the Bear Valley Visitor Center, the lighthouse, or other sites. Check the park newspaper or website (www.nps.gov/pore) for dates and times of the changing menu of programs, which could include the typical talks and nature walks, a tide-pool excursion, or a whale-and-wildflower walk.

The national seashore's Junior Ranger Program allows children to win a badge one of three ways: by completing a worksheet found on the park's website (www.nps.gov/pore/activ_jrranger.htm), by completing a self-guided program about the Coast Miwok at the Bear Valley Visitor Center, or by doing the same at the Point Reyes Lighthouse. I'm not sure I'd bother with the Web version, which is minimal, but the specific programs at the two sites sound more interesting.

Point Reyes Field Seminars (tel. 415/663-1200; www.ptreyes.org), sponsored by the Point Reyes National Seashore Association, (tel. 415/663-1224; www.ptreyes.org) offers programs through the year, including many outings geared specifically for families. The trips cover tide-pooling, birding, geology, and other topics; some last an afternoon and cost around $40 for a child-parent pair, while others take all weekend for a family camp. The choices are intriguing. The association offers even more programs for adults (an instructor may admit a mature teen) covering many areas of natural history, art, or photography. Reserve well in advance; register online or by phone. The association also runs 4- and 5-day overnight camps for children 7 to 12 in three age groups, and a 6-day adventure camp for 13- to 16-year-olds.

Fun Beyong the Natural Wonders

Our family enjoys the Bay Area Discovery Museum (tel. 415/331-2129; www.baykidsmuseum.org), a campus of hands-on science exhibits, play areas, and arts-and-crafts activities aimed at children ages 1 to 10 at the foot of the Golden Gate Bridge on the Marin County side. You can make a day full of playful discoveries. The museum is in Fort Baker, part of Golden Gate National Recreation Area, just north of the bridge. From the north, take the last exit on U.S. 101 before the bridge; from San Francisco, take the Alexander Avenue exit and follow signs for the fort. Admission is $7 adult or child, free for babies under age 1. It's open Tuesday through Friday 9am to 4pm, Saturday and Sunday 10am to 5pm. Avoid crowded weekends. The snack bar serves light meals.

Olympic National Park

With our enthusiasm for tide-pooling, we greatly enjoyed the Arthur D. Feiro Marine Biology Laboratory, on the waterfront at the north end of Lincoln Street in Port Angeles (tel. 360/417-6254; www.olypen.com/feirolab). It's just one room, but it has several touch tanks containing tide-pool specimens of prodigious size and a few aquariums of local marine life. Volunteers engage kids, letting them touch creatures they may not be lucky enough to find in the wild. The laboratory is open Memorial Day to mid-September Tuesday through Sunday 10am to 6pm, and off-season Saturday and Sunday noon to 4pm. Admission is $2.50 adults, $1 children 6 to 12, free for children under 6.

Children's Programs

The Northwest Interpretive Association (nwpubliclands.com) produces a meaningful workbook of nature activities for kids. Children who finish the workbook, attend a ranger-led program, and go for a hike earn a Junior Ranger badge. The booklet costs $1 at the visitor centers, and children as young as 5 will be able to do it, with help. Don't get into it unless you have time to devote. If children are going to learn the answers to the questions in the booklet on their own, a visit of at least a couple days is required.

Family & Adult Programs

Ranger programs take place at many sites all over the park. Times and topics appear in the park newspaper, the Bugler. Occasionally, programs target families with children; more often, the walks and talks are for adults, but are open and enjoyable to children. Also check the Bugler for schedules of evening campfire programs, which take place at the larger campgrounds in the summer.

Consider spending a few days of your trip learning intensively about the park. The Olympic Park Institute, 111 Barnes Point Rd., Port Angeles (tel. 360/928-3720; www.yni.org/opi), offers seminars from May to mid-October, with many choices in July and August, including several for families with children. Most programs last a full weekend. A typical tide-pool, stream, and canoeing session is $195 for the first adult, $115 children and additional adults, including 2 nights and meals at the institute's campus on Lake Crescent. Reserve well ahead. The catalog and registration are on the website.