Posts Tagged ‘Hiking with toddlers’

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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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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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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Hidden Villa is one of our favorite local spots and this week we paid it a spring visit.  Hidden Villa is an organic farm and wilderness preserve founded by the Duvenecks in 1924 and dedicated to the cause of environmental education.  It’s a wonderful spot for toddlers.  There’s an awesome, enclosed Education Garden with rows of different plants and lots of natural playhouses, tunnels and hidden animals for kids to “discover”. My boys will play happily there for well over an hour, running in and out of the tunnels and playing ‘house.’

chasing the hens through the tunnel

Making lunch in the playhouse

More tunnels

Further down the path there are animals to visit: cows and sheep by the barn, and chickens, goats and pigs beyond that.  Both boys love going into the field with the chickens where they can often get close enough to touch the birds.

Chicken Chasing



We go to Hidden Villa fairly often as it changes so much throughout the year. Last time we were there over Christmas, four piglets had just been born. This trip we were able to see how much these babies had grown. The boys remembered the piglets and how they had acted last time and were able to make comparisons with their behaviour this visit.  Plus, the farm had just welcomed a bunch of lambs, some in the last two weeks, and the boys were delighted to watch these little “baas” (as The Puppy Dog calls them) frolicking in the muddy field.  I love having a place like this close by to visit where the kids can see the cycles of nature in action and note the changing seasons.  It’s a great value day trip – Hidden Villa just asks for a $5 donation per car.

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So you know those blogs that give the impression things with kids go wonderfully all the time, the ones where gorgeous, happy children play/create/build contentedly with their joy-filled mothers in beautiful homes, well, this blog isn’t one of those.  Sure, I want to show how much fun it is to get outside with your kids, but I don’t want to pretend it’salwayseasy or that things don’t sometimes go wrong.

And today was one of those days when things just went wrong.  We went for a toddler trek this morning in a large group of kids and adults, and The Puppy Dog cried pretty much the whole way. Not pleasant. And also not that common. He usually enjoys being outside and loves to run along the trials.  So I thought a post-mortem was in order.  Why did things go so wrong this morning? What can I learn from the experience?

1. Hiking in big groups with kids is hard.  The problem is that kids like to meander along the trail examining whatever catches their fancy. In a large group it’s hard to let kids do this however.  Trying to get your kids to keep up with the group means they get frustrated that their own needs are not being met.  That was definitely part of the problem this morning.  The Puppy Dog wanted to spend time playing in the dirt but his older brother wanted to run with the big kids.  This resulted in a pace that was too quick and too steady for the Puppy Dog to explore as he wanted.

2. Knowing the trail is key when hiking with kids.  I’d never done this trail before and it wasn’t terribly suitable for kids: too narrow and not too much to look at.  It was so narrow, in fact, that kids couldn’t stop to look at their surroundings without holding everyone up.  Made for a bit of a joyless trudge.

Basically the big group dynamic and the nature of the trail turned the hike into work rather than play. It just didn’t work.  Ah well, we live and learn.

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We’ve only recently discovered this little gem in Cupertino, but it’s quickly become a favorite with the boys.

The boys on the trail

There are wonderful fallen trees to climb on and jump off:

A Puppy Dog in a tree

Nothing improves a hike like things to jump off

A numbered nature trail to follow:

Mom, there are numbers in the woods!

and a creek to throw stones in (complete with handy natural barrier to prevent soggy children).

Hmm..now how can I get into the water?

What’s so lovely about this little park is how wild it feels even though it’s small and surrounded by suburbia. And how empty – we’ve never seen other hikers there on any visit. McClellan Ranch is also beautifully maintained and it warms my heart that it’s treasured so much by the locals that there is never any trash to be found.  A perfect toddler trek destination on a sunny afternoon.

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This weekend we found an awesome, kid friendly and interesting-to-adults trail in Los Trancos Open Preserve: the San Andreas Fault Trail.  The trail was wide enough for a jog stroller but The Monkey walked the whole way, and The Puppy Dog most of the way.

The Monkey running down the trail map in hand

Puppy Dog liked it too

There was lots for the kids to look at — interesting trees and flowers, little rabbits and a family of deer.  There’s also a guided walk with points of geographical interest. The Monkey loved running ahead and finding the numbered posts that marked each landmark and then finding them on the map. It was really neat to see him understand how maps work and how the things represented there relate to the real world.  His parents enjoyed the information on the San Andreas fault–we learnt lots about pressure ridges and sag ponds, and how fault features looked like great building spots to early settlers until they realised what had made them.

An exercise in map reading

It was also a nice trail to use to talk to The Monkey about earthquakes and to help him make sense of the earth quake drills that he’s been having at school in previous weeks.  Broken fences and mis-shaped trees made great visuals to help him understand what an earthquake is.

A fence split asunder by a quake

Looking down the fault--deadly but beautiful

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