Best Bay Area Parks
Whether you’re looking for a fun hike for kids or a great playground, these parks are worth exploring on a day when you can venture farther than your local favorite.
Tilden Regional Park. The jewel of the East Bay Regional Park System, this 2,000-plus acre park has something for everyone. Take little ones to ride the antique carousel or Redwood Valley Railway stream trains, or feed lettuce and celery to the animals at the Little Farm. Take advantage of warmer days by swimming at Lake Anza (May through September) or fishing year-round. For hikers, there are more than 39 miles of trails, from the paved (and stroller accessible) Nimitz Way, sometimes known as Inspiration Point for its breathtaking views, to a walk along a 750-foot boardwalk through the woods to Jewel Lake to a strenuous climb up Wildcat Peak for panoramic views.Grizzly Peak Boulevard, Berkeley. (Note: South Park Drive is closed to traffic through April 1 due to migrating and breeding newts.) 888-327-2757, option 3, ext. 4562.
Sunol Regional Wilderness. This nearly 7,000-acre wilderness remains grazing land for cattle, but also attracts thousands of visitors for hiking, horseback riding, camping and more. Stop by the Old Green Barn Visitor Center, open weekends and most holidays, for information about naturalist-led programs and the one-mile, self-guided Indian Joe Nature Trail. One of the most popular destinations is Little Yosemite, a hidden, boulder-strewn scenic gorge on Alameda Creek about two miles upstream from the Visitor Center that is heaven for kids who like to clamber over rocks. While it is easily accessible via the flat Camp Ohlone Road, it’s not much of a hike. The mildly steep Canyon View Trail that leaves from near the Visitor Center is more scenic, but poorly marked along the way. Ask a ranger or other hikers before heading out. Make sure to bring your own water, as there is none in the park. $5 seasonal parking fee, weekends and holidays. 1895 Geary Road, Sunol. 510-544-3249.
Koret Children’s Quarter at Golden Gate Park. Established in 1888, Koret Children’s Quarter is considered the first playground to be built in the United States. In 2007, it became a new and improved play area after it underwent major renovations thanks to a donation from the Koret Foundation – hence its name. Its design draws from San Francisco’s natural landscape with climbing wave walls, seaside animal sculptures, sea caves and tree house villages. Be sure to bring a slab of cardboard so you can zip down the playground’s historic concrete slide. Next to the play area is the carousel, created in 1912 and a gem in and of itself. The carousel costs $2 for adults, $1 for children 6 to 12 and FREE for children 5 and under. 320 Bowling Green Drive. 415-831-2700.
Frontierland Park. Nestled in the Pacifica hills, this spacious park has charming wooden play structures built by neighborhood parents. Kids can hide in a castle, scale a wall, slip down a slide and make music with metal pipes. It was dreamed up by a group of Pacifica moms who wanted a playground that would capture the wonder and excitement of childhood. Outside of the playground area, there’s also a picnic area, half basketball court, horseshoe pit and plenty of lawn to kick around a soccer ball. Yosemite Drive and Humboldt Court. 650-738-7381
Silicon Valley and South
Quail Hollow Park. Remote yet not too far from civilization, Quail Hollow Park is nestled in the Santa Cruz mountains, a 300-acre historic horse ranch and nature preserve that will appeal to families looking for a pastoral outing. It is home to 15 different habitats and 4.5 miles of equestrian and hiking trails, some of which are best suited to strong hikers. In the center of the valley, you can visit the ranch complex, which includes the visitor center in a historic ranch house, picnic areas, horse barns, lawn area and orchard. You will find basic amenities including bathrooms and drinking fountains. Free guided walks, classes and workshops about the natural and cultural history of the park are offered on Sundays and occasional other days. Be sure to check the schedule. In addition, educational birthday parties, science enrichment programs, field trips and a summer day camp are offered for a fee. Quail Hollow Ranch County Park is open daily from dawn to dusk. The visitor center is open weekends 8:30 a.m. to 5 p.m. and closed when the site is rented for a special event. 800 Quail Hollow Road, Felton. 831-335-9348.
Rancho San Antonio. Kids can walk with quail and wild turkeys at this 3,988-acre Open Space Preserve in the heart of Silicon Valley. Follow the trail from the parking lot for about a mile to Deer Hollow Farm. Kids can pet cows, goats and sheep, and watch ducks, chickens and pigs frolic in the mud. You can also buy farm-fresh eggs and seasonal produce. The farms also hosts a weeklong camp each summer. 22500 Cristo Rey Dr., Los Altos. 650-691-1200.
Vasona and Oak Meadow Parks. This popular duo of parks in Los Gatos is a joy for all ages Vasona, which surrounds a serene reservoir, is host to fishing, non-power recreational boating and has pedal boats for public rental from early spring through early fall. The picturesque setting has 45 acres of lawn that can be used for play such as Frisbee, softball or soccer. There are several picnic areas available by reservation and on a first-come, first-served basis. A variety of flat hiking and biking trails won’t overtax little legs. Just a short walk away is Oak Meadow Park, a 12-acre fun zone with barbecue and picnic facilities, a bocce ball court and a large playground area with a real, decommissioned jet that kids love for climbing and pretend flying. The Bill Jones Wildcat Railroad offers rides around the park on 1/3-scale steam and diesel locomotives. The beautifully restored W.E. Bill Mason carousel takes kids and parents on a ride of a different sort. Hours of operation vary by season, so check the schedule online. Vasona Park, 333 Blossom Hill Road. Oak Meadow, 233 Blossom Hill Road.
Wilder Ranch State Park. Situated on the bluffs along Highway 1, the park has 34 miles of spectacular hiking, biking and equestrian trails. Kids can explore the farm and pet goats and horses. The park also hosts a regular family living history program, where you can try your hand at butter churning, ice cream making, branding, cooking, roping skills and wagon rides. 1401 Coast Road, Santa Cruz. 831-423-9703.
Jill Wolfson is the editor of Bay Area Parent. Janine DeFao, Amy Ettinger and Teresa Mills-Faraudo are associate editors.