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Budget-Friendly Day Trips in the Silicon Valley Area

From viewing the elephant seals to a huge yuletide light display, these trips won't eat up much gas and should be fun for all.

Credit: California State Parks
Credit: California State Parks

Written by Bill Zavestoski

Sure, we all want to be home for the holidays. But if home is here in the Bay Area and you just want to get away for a day as 2013 winds down, try one or more of these budget-friendly trips in and around Silicon Valley. Anyone from kids to empty-nesters will enjoy them. The best part? These destinations are only a tank of gas (or less) away.


Año Nuevo State Park

1 New Years Creek Rd.

Pescadero

(650) 879-2025

Why Go? This could be a case of survival of the fattest. This state park is home to the world's second largest mainland breeding colony for the northern elephant seal. Through March, visitors can observe male elephant seals doing battle on the beaches for the right to mate. And by late January, females will be birthing their pups on the dunes.

Insider Tip: Guide-mandatory walks to the colony began on Dec. 15. Be warned, it's a moderately strenuous hike of three miles roundtrip and about two and a half hours.

Must Do: To ensure a spot on a walk, it's recommended that you make a reservation online with Reserve America or by phone at (800) 444-4445. The park's Guided Seal Walks brochure gives full details.

The Fine Print: The park is open from 8 a.m. until sunset, with tours given from early morning to mid-afternoon. It's $10 a car to park, and $7 a ticket for a guided walk, with tots 3 and under free.


Fantasy of Lights at Vasona County Park

333 Blossom Hill Rd.

Los Gatos

(408) 355-2201

Why Go? Drive the mile and a half route within Vasona Park to see the 15th annual version of Fantasy of Lights. The oversized displays, most of them animated, pair with sounds-of-the-season music piped through your car sound system to put you in the holiday mood.

Insider Tip: The line of cars normally will thin later in the evening as families with youngsters make their way home.

Must Do: Take in the sight of the a 90-foot winking, twinkling Christmas tree.

The Fine Print: Bring cash or a check since credit and debit cards are not accepted. A carload of nine or fewer people costs $15. Dec. 31 is the final night. 


NASA Ames Visitor Center

Moffett Field (at the main gate to NASA's Ames Research Center)

(650) 604-6274

Why Go? With security so tight these days in such key NASA facilities as the Ames Research Center, the nearby Visitor Center is a great way to learn more about what NASA is doing in Silicon Valley and the various missions that originated here. Plus, there's a moon rock brought back by Apollo 15 on display.

Insider Tip: Call ahead or check the NASA website if you plan to visit around any major holidays, since an abbreviated schedule will be in effect.

Must Do: Those of us who have followed space travel since the days of the first manned launches will want to view a Mercury Redstone capsule that was launched 130 statute miles high on Dec. 19, 1960. MR-1A was the last unmanned test flight before Alan Shepard's groundbreaking flight in May 1961.

The Fine Print: There is no admission charge. Hours are 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Tuesday through Friday and noon to 4 p.m. Saturdays and Sundays. The center is closed on Mondays and federal holidays.


Computer History Museum

1401 N. Shoreline Blvd.

Mountain View

(650) 810-1010

Why Go? You're in the heart of Silicon Valley, so it makes sense, right? The museum wants you to “learn about computer history’s game-changers in our multimedia exhibitions.” There are more than 1,100 historic artifacts, including some of the very first functional modern computers dating back to just after World War II.

Insider Tip: The museum has a “One-Hour Visit” sheet on its website that highlights a dozen key exhibits in computer history. Print it out and bring it with you as a guide even if you don't plan on being time-challenged.

Must Do: Visit the original "Jeopardy!" stage set where Watson, a cognitive computing system, took on and beat the show's two greatest champions, and play a round with a simulated version of Watson. You can write in your name just like real "Jeopardy!" contestants do and snap some photos on the set.

The Fine Print: Open Wednesday through Sunday from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. General admission is $15 for teens and adults and $12 for seniors (65+), students and active military with ID. Children 12 and younger get in for free.

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