One of our favorite places for a hike with the family is Bear Valley Trail. Located at the Point Reyes National Seashore's Bear Valley Visitor Center near Olema, this trail is for many reasons one of the most popular in Marin, and a great spot for novice hikers and children. It's flat, wide, and sheltered from the wind and sun. While there's a slight uphill on sections both ways, it's not too challenging.
Starting at the end of the parking lot, Bear Valley Trail follows Bear Valley Creek all the way to the Pacific Ocean, if you're willing to go that far—it's approximately 8.2 miles round trip. A more manageable destination for those hiking with children is Divide Meadow, which lies at a little over a mile and a half into the trail. There you'll find a wide meadow ringed by Douglas firs. There are benches cut out of fallen logs to sit on, and it's a great place to stop for a picnic. You can usually count on seeing some wildlife here, mostly deer, but on at least one occasion we've seen a bobcat. The trip to Divide Meadow and back is 3.2 miles total.
If you choose to continue on the Bear Valley Trail, you'll find yourself at the ocean, where you can partake in stunning views of the Pacific and Arch Rock, a natural stone bridge marking the entry way to a small beach.
There are plenty of things to keep kids occupied on the way, from throwing rocks in the creek to looking for animals. The trail is in fact the access road for the ranch that once occupied this spot, and is perfect for a sturdy stroller. It's also ideal for bikes, although they're not allowed all the way out to Arch Rock. As mentioned above, Bear Valley Trail is popular and can get quite busy, although we've never found it to be unpleasantly so. It will definitely be more crowded on weekends, and expect to share the trail with mountain bikes and horses. The Park Service runs a training facility for Morgan horses here, and often we've encountered friendly rangers on horseback who were happy to introduce children to the horses and let them get up close and personal.
If You Go
Bear Valley Visitor Center and the trail are located off of Bear Valley Road near Olema. From Point Reyes Station, head south on Highway 1 and then turn right after the bridge onto Sir Francis Drake Boulevard. Take your next left onto Bear Valley Road and follow it until you get to the visitor center. The trail head is located on the far end of the big parking lot past the visitor center building. From the south, via Sir Francis Drake or Highway 1, go north on 1 and turn left on Bear Valley Road just north of Olema. Follow Bear Valley Road to the visitor center.
At any time of year in West Marin, the weather can change drastically in a short time. Dress in layers: a sweater or fleece jacket is ideal along with a shell or windbreaker that you can stash in your backpack just in case. Drinking water is available at the visitor center and the adjacent picnic area, so you can fill your water bottles if you need to. Obviously take the usuals like sunscreen and hats. Bring your lunch if you plan to picnic. There's not food available at the visitor center, but you can pick up good deli sandwiches and snacks at the Palace Market or Tomales Bay Foods in Point Reyes Station or at the Inverness Market. Restrooms are available at the visitor center, picnic area, and at Divide Meadow.
As in much of Northern California, you'll find poison oak, stinging nettles, and ticks out among the trees and brush, so make sure everyone stays on the trail. There have also been a few mountain lion sightings out there, although not in places commonly visited by hikers (and you're extremely unlikely to encounter one when the trail is busy—they really like to avoid people), but in any case it's probably not in your best interests to let children go running around the bend out of sight, just in case. Check the information sign at the visitor center before you go for up-to-date information, trail conditions, and warnings.