Archive for the ‘Bay Area Parks’ Category

A couple of weeks ago we were looking for a morning hike that we could combine easily with an afternoon on the beach at Santa Cruz, and ended up at Henry Cowell Redwoods State Park.  This was our first trip to Henry Cowell.  While it looked beautiful from the brochure, most park reviews and trail guides seemed to suggest there weren’t many fun, short walks for little ones.  I’m glad, however, that we finally made it out there.  I can report that it is indeed a gorgeous park and that there are a number of fun activities and hikes that are perfect for the 2-5 year old age range.

Morning at Henry Cowell

The Visitors Center

We started our morning in the main part of the park at the visitors center (the Fall Creek Unit of the park looks awesomely rugged, but less suitable for toddler hiking as all of the hikes are very long).  There is a large car park here but parking spaces were in short supply when we returned to our car mid-afternoon, so I would suggest arriving in the morning on the weekend.  The visitors center is wonderful: plenty of interesting, child-friendly exhibits about the park and super friendly staff.  Our boys particularly loved the little booklets they were given about animal-print spotting and the ‘stamp’ table they could use to fill them in. Once completed, the Monkey proudly carried his around the nearby loop looking for prints.

The Monkey in the Woods

The Guided Nature Loop

Right outside the visitor’s center is a short (under a mile) loop amongst the old growth redwood trees called The Redwood Grove Loop Trail. This path is wide, easy and flat–so easy in fact that we even saw a couple of wheel-chair users exploring there in the afternoon.  Unlike many of these parks, there were plentiful ‘nature trail guides’ available at the head of the loop.  You can either purchase one for 25 cents (honour system but you might want to bring change) or borrow a ‘loaner’.  The redwoods in this area are pretty spectacular and the woods are beautiful.  We were there early in the morning, which I highly recommend, and had the loop pretty much to ourselves and could enjoy the wonderful quiet and morning sunlight filtering through the canopy.  Our kids loved the loop and working out what each of the numbers indicated. They also loved the enormous Fremont Tree with a giant, hollow cave beneath it (you might want to pack a small torch for exploring this very cool redwood). This loop is wonderful for very small kids.  On its own, however, it wasn’t too satisfying for our boys –too short and too easy–so we headed on into the park.

Cable Car Beach

At the far end of the loop you can cut through to the River Trail. The boys enjoyed this wide, easy, flat road as it runs alongside the roaring camp railway track and under the railway bridge.  We then took the narrow trail off to the right of the road along the creek.  After a quarter of a mile, this trail leads to the lovely Cable Car Beach.  This is a great spot for paddling and creek play. Our boys loved it and could have stayed for hours.  If you’re planning to camp at the park, this would be the perfect spot–in summer, anyway, when the water is low–for playing with a small, inflatable boat or ring.

Paddling at Cable Car Beach

A Longer Walk up to the Observation Spot on Pine Trail

A hike out to Cable Car Beach via the Redwoods Loop may be enough for many small children: it’s about 1.5 miles there and back and has a fun destination. If you want to walk further you could take a hike up to the top of the ridge.  We took the Eagle Creek trail from Cable Car Beach and then the Pine Trail up to the observation point. We returned via the Ridge Fire Road and Pipeline Road and stopped at Cable Car Beach to play on the way down.  This was a fun, but fairly tough, walk.  If you’re going to attempt it with small kids, be aware that it’s about 4 miles round, has a long ascent, and that the trail at the top is sandy and hard-going on little legs.  Our three year old managed it in good spirits, but the two year old retreated to the backpack for the return leg.  Warning aside, it is a beautiful trail and the sandy landscape at the top of the ridge is interesting and the views magnificent.

The view from the top


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Last week we spent some time camping in beautiful Butano State Park and absolutely loved it.  It’s a quiet, secluded, rugged valley perfect for families with preschoolers and has lots of places for little ones to explore.

The Campsites

Butano effectively has two campgrounds: a car camping area and a series of sites that are ‘walk-in’.

The car camping area is pretty typical for a California state park: the sites are reasonably spaced, there are clean bathrooms with hot and cold running water, and several water stations with potable water. The usual state park rule applies when booking–if you want privacy, always pick a site on the outside of the loop.


We stayed in the ‘walk-in’ area which I thought was really lovely. The sites there were a little mixed in size and privacy, but some of them were gorgeous and pretty isolated for a state park.  Booking is a bit of a lottery as sites are assigned by the staff, but there weren’t any really terrible ones.  The ‘walk-in’ element to this camping is not very arduous. Our site was one of the more private ones furthest from the parking area and we were able to cart all our gear quickly and easily with the help of a hand-cart.  The facilities in this area of the park are more basic.  There are a couple of drinking water stations and one pit toilet.  It’s certainly not for those who like ‘glamping,’ but it is a really nice way to get a small taste of more ‘wilderness’ camping with little kids in tow.  Just bring some hand sanitizer and be prepared to be dirty. It also seems to attract a more outdoorsy type of camper, so if you’re looking for a quiet, relaxing weekend, it’s the place for you.  One of the nicest aspects of the walk-in section was the absence of cars and bikes which made it possible for little ones to wander round and explore in greater safety.

The camp staff were very friendly and helpful, but the critters were quite aggressive. I’ve camped in many places and never come across raccoons as bold as Butano’s.  My tip is to secure food and anything scented in the bear box at all times, even when you’re sitting around camp.  These raccoons are not afraid of people.  In addition, the park currently has some issues with wasps nesting in the rotting tree stumps around the campground.  I have to say that we weren’t bothered at all by wasps, but it’s a good idea to keep a closer than usual eye on your kids when they’re scrambling about the woods there and to warn them of the potential wasp danger.

Finally it’s worth noting that there’s not much for sale here apart from firewood. Make sure to pack-in everything else you’re going to need.

What’s there to do in Butano?

1. Animal spotting

There were lots and lots of banana slugs. If your preschoolers are anything like mine, this is a huge plus. We found 70 in 24 hours.  There are also birds a-plenty, deer, raccoons and a few California newts. And plenty of weird and wonderful woodland bugs.

Slug Number 63.

2. Hike

I have to add a warning that, in Butano, unlike some other local parks, there are no super-easy, 1/2 mile, paved walks.  It’s probably not the place to come for your preschooler’s first hiking experience. That said, there are a few fun loops and trails for the more seasoned little one who is able to handle a couple of miles.  We must have covered about 8 miles on three separate hikes, all of which my 3 year old walked and most of which my 2 year old walked.  These trails are not jog-stroller friendly and you’ll need a backpack or child carry for non-walking infants.

One of the Six Bridges

Our favourite walks?

We, and especially The Monkey, loved The Six Bridges Trail. We took the path from the Ben Ries campground to the visitor center and back, a little over two miles.  It’s mostly flat, but there are a couple of short, steep climbs. This is an especially fun walk for preschoolers as they love counting the bridges and watching out for newts.  We also tried the Goat Hill Trail Loop and the Jackson Flats Trail, both of which were narrow and windy, with a few scrambly areas, but which could be completed by our two year old without much difficulty.  Now we can’t wait until the kids are old enough to go all the way out to the Trail Camp for a back woods overnight stay.

A pretty typical stretch of the Goat Hill Trail

3. Check out the Nature Center

It’s small and fairly limited for adults, but the kids wanted to visit twice.  They really liked looking at the topographical map/model, especially at the end, and plotting all the walks they’d done.

Impersonating a tree on the Jackson Flats Trail

4. Creek Play

There are plenty of spots where you can easily access the shallow Butano Creek and our boys had fun playing there.

We had a really lovely weekend at Butano.  The campground was more beautiful and quieter than the average state park and the empty trails were appealing to the kids–challenging without being too hard. This might well become one of our regular camping destinations.

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Earlier this summer we discovered the delightful Kingscote Garden on Stanford Campus–a perfect spot for a picnic or to pass half an hour. Our little ones enjoyed watching fish:

Hoping to catch some fish

and jumping off the garden’s various walls:

We always bring our own chaos to the quietest of gardens

It’s also a tranquil spot for parents to enjoy.

Peaceful. Even with kids.

The garden is small so there’s not enough there to keep kids amused all morning, but it’s so close to the dry lake bed of Lagunita Lake and the beautiful New Guinea Scuplture Gardens that you can combine the three destinations for a fun, outdoorsy couple of hours.



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Sure, it’s a bit of a drive from Palo Alto, but if your kids love water play, science and airplanes it’s well worth the effort. Last week we spent a happy morning wandering between the two parks.  We started with a walk around the ‘windy hill’ at Seal Point (do bring sweaters even if the sun is out in Palo Alto when you leave).

Cloudy bay views

The boys loved examining the local wildlife–there were bugs a-plenty, jack-rabbits, butterflies, ducks, and herons–and were fascinated by the beautiful, musical wind sculptures along the path.

They spin. They chime.

But best of all was the air traffic control feed.  At one stop in the park, just below the main set of stairs down from the summit to the bike path, you’ll find a display that lets you listen in to the communications between San Francisco airport and the passing planes.  There is lots of information provided too on the code words the pilots and controllers are using. My boys thought this was awesome.

Playing at being pilots

Then we strolled down to Ryder Park.  This is a lovely little play area with lots of interesting climbing features and some fun fountains (but note that the water is only switched on from 11am-4pm during the summer months).  I had heard that the park gets very busy, but when we were there around noon on a weekday morning there were very few other families around.

Fountains. Always a crowd-pleaser.

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Bol Park is one of Palo Alto’s hidden gems. It has it all: a great playground, a large field for ball games, some woody scrubland for hide and seek, chickens, goats and donkeys to visit and a creek to play in. It’s the perfect destination for a long summer afternoon.

The Playground

The rather hot playground

This has plenty to keep very little ones and older preschoolers amused, including some slightly more adventurous climbing opportunities.  The Monkey and his chums particularly love the tyre swing. The playground backs onto a large open space which is itself edged with woods that the kids love to explore.  It’s really rather bucolic considering the park is only minutes from El Camino Real.

Space to run

The Animals

To find the chickens and the goats, just take the bike path at the edge of the playground deeper into the park.  The animals are attached to a private house on the right about 5o meters past the end of the play area.  The (super kind) owners seem very relaxed about kids petting and feeding the goats, just be careful to read the signs explaining what they can and can’t eat.

I wonder if we can catch one?

To find Barron Park’s two famous donkeys (well, one of them is THE Shrek Donkey), keep going along the bike path for a couple of hundred meters. They’re over the bridge on the right.  Again please pay attention to the posted information about feeding, or rather not feeding, them.  If you want a closer look at the donkeys, their handlers bring them into the playground area most sundays around 10am.

Barron Park’s own furry superstar

The Creek

Bol Park also has a wonderful creek which is perfect for paddling, throwing stones and making rock channels, especially in the warmer months when the water level is low.  There are also a couple of nice rope swings there for bigger kids.  To access the creek take the dirt path that runs along the opposite side of the field to the bike path.  There are some steps down to the creek midway between the donkey field and the playground.

There’s nothing more fun for toddlers than throwing stones into a pool of water.


Bol Park is also the venue for occasional special events, and it just so happens that one of our favourites is coming up this weekend.  On Sunday May 20th it’s the Bol Park Fete running from noon until 4pm. This is a lovely, low-key event perfect for little ones. In past years there’s been maypole dancing, children’s games, music, fire trucks and police cars to sit in, the donkeys and ice-cream.  It makes for a relaxed family afternoon.

The Negatives?

No toilets and not too much shade in the playarea itself.  On very hot days we head to the creek.

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