Bay Area aerial exploits

May 5, 2004
Outside Magazine
Week of October 22-28, 1998
X-country skiing in British Columbia
Beach side: where to go with a family?
Bay Area aerial exploits

Bay Area aerial exploits

By Grant Davis

Question: My son is turning 16 in two weeks and we are looking for a place in the San Francisco, Napa, or Solano areas to take him on a glider or helicopter ride. Any suggestions?

J. Durant
Suisun, California

Go airborne in the San Francisco Bay Area without an engine
Adventure Adviser: The San Francisco Bay Area offers a wealth of places to go airborne without an engine. The combination of cold ocean air, mountains, and the hot Central Valley create a seemingly ever-present wind to help keep you aloft — hence the reason Microsoft’s “Flight Simulator” uses the Sonoma/Napa Valley for its glider game. While a helicopter ride is fun, with all the amazing mountain views surrounding the Bay Area, why not save your money and drive up to Twin Peaks in the city, hike to the top of Mt. Tam, or head up behind Berkeley on Grizzly Peak Drive, picnic in tow? Better yet, give your son the keys to the car and let him enjoy racing up the curving mountain roads while you sit home and pray.

As for gliding and hang-gliding, surely these activities would rate highly on any 16-year-old’s adventure list — and they won’t cut into your savings.

Head 61 miles north of San Francisco to the Napa Valley, stopping in Yountville or St. Helena for a gourmet snack on your way. Amidst the thermal springs of Calistoga, you’ll find a small airport, home to Calistoga Gliders (707-942-5592). They offer daily flights for one or two people that last 20 minutes and cost $79 and $129 respectively. For an additional 10 minutes of gliding time, tack on $40 to $50. (Note: on two-person trips, passengers’ combined weight can’t exceed 340 pounds). The glider pilot/tour guide will point out all the famous sights in the Napa Valley, and on a clear day you’ll be able to see San Francisco in the distance.

Twenty-five miles further up the road in Middletown, Crazy Creek Soaring (707-987-9112) provides single-passenger rides, charging $85 for 20 minutes; $100 for a half-hour; and $130 for 40 minutes. In flight, you’ll head west then north, gliding over Clearlake, Lake County and up Mt. St. Helena. Hours of operation are 9:00 a.m. to sunset, Wednesday through Sunday, by appointment only. On the drive back, take the Silverado Trail from Calistoga to Napa to see the wine country at its most exquisite.

For hang-gliding, I’d start with one of the area’s very fine hang-gliding schools. The Bay Area just so happens to be one of the oldest, most storied hang-gliding areas in the world, with more experience and expertise than you’ll find virtually anywhere else. Solo and tandem hang-gliders launch off the Pacific Ocean cliffs of Fort Funston just south of San Francisco with regularity, or from atop Mt. Tamalpais in Marin county for an epic soar down to the beach. The Mission Soaring Center in Milpitas (408-262-1055) is probably your best option. They run tandem flights all week (reservations are required on weekends) for $175. You’ll launch from Mt. Tam and 20 minutes later hit the soft sands of Stinson Beach.

If you’d prefer lessons, the actual training flights take place 50 miles further south in Hollister. It’s a long drive, but you’ll be rewarded with one of the highest launching sites in the region, thus more flight time over wide, open California ranch land. If the wind’s blowing right, you’ll be able to smell the garlic farms in Gilroy. Prices are $120 a day for a lesson, with three flights guaranteed by day’s end. Five-day training packages will run you $500, including all books and training materials.

If your son enjoys himself so much that he spends the rest of his teenage years pestering you for lessons, be grateful we didn’t recommend the helicopter ride. Those lessons would leave you bankrupt.

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