Posts Tagged ‘hiking with preschoolers’

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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and last week we found a gem when we walked out to the tafoni sandstone formations in El Corte de Madera Creek Open Space Preserve.  The trails here are wide and secluded–perfect for toddlers–and this one ended in a spectacular destination that was interesting for the whole family.

The Monkey on a sunlit path


I learnt all about local geology and ‘tafoni’ (the little crevices and pocks in the sandstone) while the boys had fun wild-life spotting and running along the windy path.  It’s a bit of a trek at 2.2 miles, but highly recommended for the keen preschool hiker.

sandstone formations in the wood

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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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Last week we had a great hike at Sharon Park. This tranquil spot is a great toddler destination: there’s a grassy area for kids to run around, a great (but short) hike through the woods, a pond to explore, a little play structure for climbing and sliding, picnic tables and plentiful parking.

Looking for the fish

To do the hike, head left from the car park past the climbing frame and pick up the trail going into the wood. The trail veers round to the right and runs parallel to the pond through the woods.  This is a great area for kids to explore off trail and enjoy some unstructured play and fort building.  After a few hundred yards the trail re-emerges onto the grass at the far side of the pond and from there you can explore the path around the water.  There’s lots to see in the pond including insects, large koi and ducks.  Most toddlers really get a kick out of the big, colourful fish–mine could have watched them for hours.

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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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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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