Outdoor activities with a healthy dose of curiosity, brought to you by Laure Latham
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The Mongolians are here! Not barbecues, you silly, we’re talking about yurts here. The good news is, you don’t have to trek all the way to the Treebones Resort in San Simeon to discover the big buzz about yurts anymore. Mount Madonna County Park in Gilroy, CA, has everything a family needs to kick back in the redwoods, including 5 yurts.
These round tents with canvas sides are similar to those used by nomads in the Mongolian steppe – only you get a wooden floor, beds, table and nearby restrooms. Plus, at Mount Madonna, kids can unleash their inner Robin Hood at the archery range, follow a nature trail through the ruins of a big estate, and see rare exotic deer – after which you can go on and eat vegetarian at a nearby spiritual retreat. So, you’ve considered Family Glamping – Mount Madonna is just the place! Savvy?
Much like your favorite morning java cup, yurts come in three sizes: small, medium and large. For our party of two families (4 adults, 3 kids), we reserved the small yurt and even had space to spread our luggage and move around. The wood lattice frame was a really cool touch, as well as the mosquito net windows that gave me a full view on tree tops as I awoke on the futon bed in the morning.
Surprise, the yurt even had a ceiling lamp, a useful feature as we pulled in at night and struggled to find our flashlights. Since only kids age 6 and over are allowed in the upper bunk beds, we had the 5-year old stay below and the 7-year old stay on top. Just like we do at home! The only downside of the yurt, IMHO, is how noisy it can get at night. The faintest sleeping bag ruffle, the slightest toss, are echoed through the structure. God forbid somebody snores or is suffering from allergies and sneezes! Then you end up like my husband buying ear plugs the next day and spending a jolly good uninterrupted night.
Move over Robin Hood, young archers are taking over! I was so glad to discover the beautiful archery range at Mount Madonna because kids can really have fun with minimal gear and still be outdoors. Before going, I called a few archery and sports stores and most offered bows at $60+ for children, which was more than I was ready to spend for a weekend or at least a trial. Online, I bought the Bear Archery First Shot Set ($20) for my 5-year old and the Bear Archery Wizard Bow ($20) for my 7-year old and her 8-year old friend. Turns out, they were the highlight of the trip for the girls. They loved it! We went on both days and still they were asking for more. Each bow came with two arrows but after we lost some in the woods, we actually found 4 other ones under trees so our stock multiplied!
On a girl-power note, archery is one of the rare outdoors sports with a history a female excellency. My girls like to identify with female role models and asked me if there was a female Robin Hood. I was more than happy to tell them about Queen Susan in The Chronicles of Narnia, the Greek goddess Artemis, also Diana for Romans, goddess of the hunt, and the fierce women archers known as the Amazons. When my girls grow older, I will introduce Katniss Everdeen, heroin and master archer of The Hunger Games. Not only is archery fun, but it can’t be all bad to improve a kid’s motor skills such as hand-eye coordination.
As far as kid safety is concerned, don’t underestimate the usefulness of the finger tab and the arm guard provided with the bow. Young archers can be hit by the string as it is released and it’s not fun.
Access to the Mount Madonna Archery Range is public and free except on rare days when it is reserved the Bowmen of Mount Madonna or other events, in which case the whole site is closed. When you go, walk down Ridge Road to find individual archery practice areas tucked in the woods, each with their own bench and pegs to hang bows. Bring a picnic and enjoy!
In addition to glamping, Mount Madonna features a rare type of wildlife for California. A sure hit with the playground set, the herd of white fallow deer is so easy to spot it’s almost unfair. They’re quietly grazing in a pen behind a metallic fence across from the visitor center. Think of it as an outdoors Victorian zoo item on the decline. In following with the Victorian tradition of offering exotic animals as pets, William Randolph Hearst offered a pair of white fallow deer in 1932 to Henry Miller, owner of the estate that later became Mount Madonna County Park. The pair multiplied and today’s deer are the descendants of the original two.
Males are kept apart from females so they can’t breed. As exotic animals coming from Eurasia, they have no place in the ecosystem of a California park and the decision of the Santa Clara County Parks is to manage them humanely but not allow them to breed. Go see them while they’re alive, they’re cute as can be and as they’re white, my kids called them “ghost deer.”
You probably knew Henry Miller the writer (Marylin Monroe’s husband) but did you know Henry Miller the cattle baron who became a millionaire in California the 1860s and 1870s? Well if you didn’t, you’re about to meet the man who called this mountain home and built a lavish compound of villas atop a redwood mountain overlooking orchards, vineyards and the great blue Pacific Ocean.
Now completely overgrown by the forest, the estate includes a few standing walls, house prints, stairs that go down the forest floor, the cement base of a fountain and more tidbits alluding to a comfortable mountain getaway gone green. Pick up the park’s Self Guided Tour of Mount Madonna’s Miller Estate & Nature Walk to enjoy a mile-long tour of the estate and learn about the local flora.
Ready for yoga and vegetarian food? Inhale, breathe in and relax. Mount Madonna is home to a few spiritual centers where communities live in serene settings and nurture creative arts and spiritual health. While “serene settings” and “children” don’t exactly belong in the same sentence, it can be fun just to walk through the grounds of these centers and show children another side of the mountain.
For an Indian-inspired experience, we visited the Madonna Mountain Center and showed the Sankat Mochan Hanuman Temple to our girls. They were transfixed by the burning incense, foreheading blessing ceremony taking place that day, and the story of Hanuman we told them. However as the website points out, “Please keep your children with you and help us preserve our peaceful atmosphere.” Meaning, be quiet.
For a Vietnamese take on serenity, head to the Kim Son Monastery, a Vietnamese monastery where monks speak Vietnamese, whose website is all in Vietnamese and where Vietnamese Buddhas sit outside surrounded by redwoods. You won’t be completely lost in translation though. Some monks speak English and can tell you more about the monastery if you wish.
Kids will enjoy walking through the sculpture garden and the rock cave. The monastery serves free vegetarian meals on certain days but call ahead to confirm that. For a complete family experience, go on major Buddhist events such as the Lunar New Year know as Tet Festival or the Mid Autumn Festival.
Now you know enough about Mount Madonna to consider driving 30 minutes south of San Jose, right? Just know the yurts are very popular and be quick to snatch them!