Archive for the ‘hiking with toddlers’ Category

For a while now, whenever I looked at the map, I’ve found myself attracted to Wilder Ranch State Park. It just sounded rather cool.  Unable to discover too much about it on the internet, last week I persuaded my family to join me on an expedition to check it out.

What it says on the sign.


The Wilder Ranch lands have a long and colourful history.  The watershed was used by the Ohlone Indians for many centuries before the dedication of Mission Santa Cruz (1791) brought European diseases and livestock into the area. In the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries the land was used for grazing, and slaughtering, mission cattle and became known as “Rancho Arroyo del Matadero” or “ranch of the streambed slaughtering ground.” A parcel that contained the current state park was later owned by a Russian sailor who had abandoned his ship, naturalized as a Mexican citizen and who divided his time between raising livestock and smuggling, and subsequently by a dairy farmer who sold fancy butter in San Francisco.  It was purchased by Deloss D Wilder in 1871 and his family ran a successful dairy farm there right up until 1969.  California State Parks acquired the property in 1974 to preserve the landscape and the historic ranch.

The aloe grove

What’s there now?

Wilder Ranch State Park is enormous — 7000 acres–and is mostly wilderness with many interesting looking hikes.  I’m told there is a beautiful trail that leads along the cliffs but it’s too long to do with small children unless one carpools (and if anyone is interested in doing that…drop me a line).  The park also contains an historic ranch which is easily accessible by car and a short walk.  One can tour the old farm house, watch historic cooking in action (and sample the baked goods), check out the farm animals, and examine the old farm buildings.  There’s a really nice smithy and wood work shop which fascinated all the men in my group, young and old. It contained a Pelton water wheel constructed by the original Mr Wilder himself in 1889 and which the docents enthusiastically operated for us.  But best of all are the ranch’s gardens–they’re fantastic for small boys to play in.  There are giant aloe groves riddled with secret tunnels and pathways for little ones to explore, and this incredible tree which my boys could have played in all day:

Quite a tree

A good day out for toddlers?

Yes and no.  Our kids loved the gardens and would have stayed there all day — that alone was worth the $10 parking fee — and they were happy to explore the farm buildings with us for a while (especially when they found the tractor barn). But the hiking available was not terribly preschooler friendly, and was just too much even for our intrepid pair.  I would say that the park alone isn’t worth a trip from Silicon Valley for kids this age, but it would make a fun stop if you were in the area.  Wilder Ranch would, however, be an interesting hiking destination for older kids so it’s going on my list of ‘hikes for the future.’


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I know there are plenty of signs warning of the dangers of the wild but, when you see them every hike and never see a mountain lion or snake, it’s easy to get complacent.  This weekend we had a reminder to take those warnings seriously.  We were hiking our favourite route up to the top of Windy Hill to enjoy the sensational views on a clear, sunny, spring morning.  Part of the ascent requires some rock scrambling.  As we trod the narrow path between the rocks we were suddenly aware of a loud rattle in the bushes to our left.  We froze and peered into the undergrowth only to see two large rattle snakes, tails beating frantically, staring at us and tasting the air.  We backed slowly away down the hill and left the snakes well alone.  On one hand, as no-one was hurt, it was awesome to see these magnificent creatures in their natural habitat.  On the other, it was a little disturbing just how close we had been to them without realising they were there.

Would you have noticed the two rattlers at the side of this trail?

Experienced local hikers tell me this is the season in which rattlesnakes are especially active as they come out of hibernation and onto the trails to bask in the spring sun.  So be careful out there!  Always watch where you’re walking and climbing.  Along with Windy Hill, I’m told one is also especially likely to encounter a rattlesnake in Arastradero Preserve and Rancho San Antonio at this time of year.  But be wary wherever you hike and don’t let little ones scramble too far ahead of you into long grass or over rocks.

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Not knowing anything about this park other than that it’s reported to be quite beautiful, we took the opportunity one sunny spring afternoon to check it out.  We were totally surprised by what we found: not by the scenery which was stunning, but by the park’s history.  Did you know that Alum Rock Park used to be one of the most famous health spas in America? We didn’t. Between 1890 and 1932 it was operated commercially as a spa retreat and thousands of visitors rode the Alum Rock Steam Railroad to reach its mineral baths, indoor swimming pool, tea rooms, restaurants, and dance pavilion. It actually became so popular after the Second World War that the commercial enterprise started to damage the preserve and the health spa had to be shut down.  What’s left now is a beautiful natural preserve with paths that wind in and out of abandoned mineral baths.  It has a strange sort of Romanesque beauty and is most interesting to poke around.

Appian Way, San Jose

Alum Rock Park is basically a canyon in the Diablo Range foothills.  It’s long and narrow with trails winding through the canyon connecting various picnic areas, abandoned spas and interpretive centers, and more isolated trails on the steep hill sides above. While appealing to grown ups, the wild, narrow, steep trails on the gorge sides are not suitable for toddlers and we gave them a pass for now, preferring to explore the shady canyon floor.

Signs within the park are scarce and park maps are hard to come by on a busy day and not terribly helpful if you do find one (very small scale with few land marks indicated).  One immediate word of warning–if you have small kids, ignore the suggestion you’ll find in many other park reviews to use the free parking outside the preserve. It’s a very long walk from that lot to the more interesting parts of Alum Rock.  I recommend paying the $6 day use fee for more convenient access.

Toddler Trekking

Once in the park, I suggest continuing to the Visitor Center along the Penitencia Creek Road.  This is off the road and a little hard to spot. Don’t stop at the first sign indicating the trail to the Visitor Center, it’s a long trail and you’re better off parking about a quarter of a mile up the road in the lot that’s actually by the center itself.  The area around the Visitor Center itself is fun to explore:  there are two nice playgrounds for preschoolers, one with giant animal shapes to climb.  We then suggest walking left (as you face the center) and checking out the Youth Science Institute (entrance fee $1 adults and 50 cents for kids).  This has a small but fun display about local flora and fauna. There are live snakes and spiders, a stuffed fox for stroking, and stuffed bobcats and mountain lions to show the kids.  The YSI also inherited a strange, but intriguing, Victorian Collection of stuffed birds and it’s nice to be able to show children all the hawks and owls that they might see while hiking locally.  I also liked their little curiosity table with bones and nests and preserved frogs that children are encouraged to explore and touch.  The YSI has an attached aviary which houses injured “local” birds which the rangers sometimes bring out to show visitors. When we were there we were lucky enough to see a Western Screech Owl outside the building with its ranger minder.  The kids, especially The Puppy Dog, thought this was pretty neat.

Owl, owl, owl!

To see the slightly surreal ruins of the health spa, continue along the path in the same direction.  It’s a fairly short trail, only a few hundred yards, and is perfect for little children to walk–just watch them near the creek edge.  Both out boys really enjoyed seeing the springs emerging from the rocks, touching the mineral deposits and climbing into the (now empty) old stone spas.  There are two or three bridges, depending how far you walk, and you can cross backwards and forwards across the creek to see the ruins on each side.  Midway round the ‘Mineral Springs Loop’ (as the extremely unhelpful park map calls it) you’ll come to the Sycamore Grove which is perfect for snack time.

Taking the waters

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I’d never heard of this little gem up in the Santa Cruz mountains near Felton until this weekend, but it sounded so intriguing that we had to check it out.  Quail Hollow Ranch is a 300 acre historic horse ranch and nature preserve boasting a plethora of rare Californian plants and animals and no less than 15 natural habitats.  According to the on site museum, it’s also where the owners of Sunset magazine enjoyed the robust, outdoorsy life that kept them young at heart.

No preserve is complete without a dirt pile

After visiting today, I’d say it’s also a great destination for little boys. It has everything they need: large animals (horses), ducks, woodpeckers, eagles, logs to climb on, mud to squelch near the pond, and a flat but varied trail system to run along and explore.  There was also a man in the car park wearing a snake (I think he’s there the first sunday afternoon of every month).

Quail Hollow's airy trails

Quail Hollow Ranch has a couple of trails but they’re all fairly short and easy for little ones to hike.  We, or rather The Monkey, selected the Discovery Trail for our hike. It was actually a useful introduction to the preserve as it took us around the ranch, a little way up the hill, through the valley and round to the duck pond and picnic area.   There are a couple of other trails we plan to check out on future visits.  The preserve also has a cute little museum with some interesting natural history exhibits.  As usual, we didn’t meet any other families when we were there, which was a shame as this is a great spot to take toddlers to let them roam free (no traffic, no glaring natural dangers etc). And it’s free.

neat trees.

Not sure it’s worth a day trip from Silicon Valley, but if you’re heading out that way it’s a great spot to check out.

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This weekend we headed up to Memorial Park to check out the old growth redwood forest.  As usual, we were the only family on the trails (although one hardy family with older children was actually camping out there for the weekend-kuodos to them!).  We fairly flew along the path as it had two key attractions for our children:  The Monkey was fascinated to discover the alphabet amongst the trees and the Puppy Dog was delighted by the banana slugs all over the trail.  Slugs really are magical to eighteen-month old boys.

If you feel like venturing into the forest, it’s a great park.  Just note the $6 day use fee and be warned that there is a distinct lack of parking near the trailheads!

Getting some learning on the trails



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We found this one in Memorial Park. The boys played here for the longest time. I’m finding many of our most successful hikes are those on which we stop and make time for unstructured play if that’s what the boys want to do.

Clambering around their forest stronghold

It's all mine!

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I love how quickly preschoolers learn, and how they are able to draw on their own past experiences to discover new things for themselves.  And the natural world is a great place to see this process in action.

On a hike last week we gave The Monkey a bay leaf to smell.  Since then he’s started thinking more about what he can smell when we’re outside and today he discovered a lavender bush all by himself. He was so excited to be able to show me something he’d found and so proud of his growing ability to explore his world.


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The boys really enjoyed this hike after the rain.  There were plenty of mud and puddles, and the wet really brought the wildlife out.

The exhilaration of a muddy trail

Hard to beat the views

Wet moss. It's even better than dry moss.

A little friend among the leaves

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Hiking with kids walking is different and far, far slower than hiking with adults.  They want to look at everything along the way.   This week we managed a relatively long hike–2 miles!–with both boys walking. It took two hours though as they both needed time to explore.

I’m gradually learning to see the blessings of this slow pace.  I notice many things that, were the boys not with me, I would hurry past without a glance. Had we not tarried so long by a dried up pond on saturday, I would not have heard the frogs calling in the bushes, and had we not spent 15 minutes listening in a woody clearing on sunday, I would have missed the pleasant experience of sitting with nothing but the wind in the branches and the creaking of the trees to disturb me (the boys were too busy really listening themselves to make any noise).

Quiet for once

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On our hike this morning we came across an old plank and fallen tree branches settled in the bottom of a dried-out old pond. The boys wanted to play and the possibilities were endless.

First we made a see-saw

Nature see-saw

Then we experimented moving the fulcrum so that Daddy and The Monkey would balance each other. See, I said there was science involved!

Give me a fulcrum and ...I'll move Daddy

Then we experimented to see how we could get all four members of the family balanced on the plank with both ends off the ground. (This is the view from my end).

A well-balanced family

Then we practiced our balance as we took turns to walk along the plank/see-saw.  So much fun!  The boys were sad to leave at lunchtime, but waved goodbye to their new toy and hoped that other children would be along to play with it soon.

Tipping Point

Me too!

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