Getting in on a Triple Play
Since my kids were babies, I’ve been a big fan of playgrounds. I loved how the simple mix of sand, swings and slide kept my toddlers busy for hours.
But as the kids grew, they were less enthused than I was. So, when we moved to the Bay Area a few years ago, I wanted to find the area’s best playgrounds before my kids were too old to enjoy them.
Friends suggested a few, and we set out. The kids, who were then 6 and 10, were skeptical: How cool could a playground be? This is what we found:
Dennis the Menace Park, Monterey
Our first trek was south to Dennis the Menace Park in Monterey. Created in 1956 by cartoonist Hank Ketcham in honor of his famous character, the park, in my mind, just had to be amusing.
“Cool!” my younger child, Ben, shouted as we arrived. “A big train!” Shimmying up the 1924-circa Southern Pacific steam engine, Ben was already hooked. Theresa, meanwhile, eyed the grounds critically.
Searching for a challenge, the kids entered the hedge-walled maze. They’d done tougher ones at amusement parks and quickly burst out the exit.
So onto a bigger test: the three-story, umbrella-shaped tower. By the time they reached the top, they declared it their private fort, and were deciding which floor would be their kitchen, secret chamber and indoor ice rink. Dangling by one leg from the third floor, Theresa called, “Okay. This place passes!”
Soon, we were all dashing across a long suspension bridge, watching out for “alligators” below. A real threat emerged in the form of a herd of preteens stampeding behind us. We escaped just in time. Besides the tower and bridge, we encountered many big kid features that day, including hillside slides, 10-foot-tall rock walls and the park’s whimsical bridge to the moon.
The park also has plenty for the little ones: a tot area, baby swings, sand and many steps and slopes to climb. The whimsical Dennis the Menace statues and graphics add to the charm.
To cap off our day, we rented a paddleboat only a short walk away at Lake El Estero. The boats were $15 for a half hour, but proved worth it. We imagined ourselves as pirates, taking over the “treasure-laden” island in the lake from other buccaneers. As we raced another boat (the bad guys) back to base, we felt about as mischievous as our old friend Dennis.
Oak Meadow Park, Los Gatos
Ben was all over this park. The play fire truck, the train and the fighter plane all instantly invited him to climb aboard. He rushed across monkey bars, up net ladders and down a ladder that looked a bit like the back of a stegosaurus.
“We don’t have this many monkey bars in the kindergarten playground!” he called.
Mom and dad liked the gorgeous oaks, the meadow with bocce ball courts, picnic tables and benches. But Theresa was not impressed. The towers were not as tall as in Monterey, the planes and trains more enticing to the oodles of little boys present than to a preteen girl.
So, we headed out on a walk. First, we came across the historic Bill Mason Carousel and the cute Billy Jones Wildcat Railroad. Then, we followed a path along the meandering Los Gatos Creek to the 150-acre Vasona Lake County Park next door.
When we saw another sprawling playground at the county park, all four of us joined in the fun. We raced through the long play structures, hopped on swings and flew like the Canada geese overhead. Soon, even Theresa conceded that the two-for-one quality of Oak Meadow and Vasona Lake made this playground complex well worth the trip.
Koret Children’s Quarter, San Francisco
Our playground critic didn’t stand a chance at this park. The Koret Children’s Quarter – possibly the nation’s oldest playground – is also one of the country’s latest and greatest. The park reopened in 2007 after a year-long, $3.8 million renovation by the city of San Francisco and the Koret Foundation.
What makes the facility stand out is its design representing San Francisco Bay’s ecology. Two tree house villages represent the area’s tree-covered hills. The seashore is signified by concrete coastal cliffs where kids can search for “fossils;” a sandy marsh with a stream running through it; and rubber turtles and snails to climb on.
Depicting the ocean are blue 10-foot tall climbing wall “waves.” While Theresa scaled an immense wave, Ben teetered on a ride that looked like a giant version of the cattail plant commonly found along the bay. The kids leapt over “natural” springs, and spun wildly on a shorebird eggshell.
Besides these unconventional rides, the 2 ½-acre playground retains some popular pre-2007 features. My kids sledded down the old, but still wicked, hillside slide. Meanwhile, their toddler cousin took a ride on the 120-year-old carousel.
The high point of our day was scaling the new 30-foot tall rope tower. Theresa challenged us in a race to the top, but the complicated nets soon slowed her down. Ben gave up entirely and bounced happily from the lower ropes. When Theresa joined us at the top, we high-fived and evaluated our day.
The drive from San Jose took well over an hour, traffic was tough and parking was tight. But how often do you get to crest the playground equivalent of Mt. Diablo? We all agreed that a park like this can keep even a 10-year-old climbing and discovering for much of the day.
Dennis the Menace Park – Closed Tuesdays, September through May. Pearl Street at Camino El Estero, Monterey. 831-646-3866. monterey.org/rec/locations.html#elestero.
Oak Meadow Park – 233 Blossom Hill Road, Los Gatos. 408-399-5781. losgatosca.gov/index.asp?NID=170.
Koret Children’s Quarter – 320 Bowling Green Dr., Golden Gate Park, San Francisco. 415-831-2770. sfrecpark.org.
Angela Geiser is an associate editor at Bay Area Parent.
More Great Playgrounds
Julius Kahn Playground – Play areas segregate rough-playing older kids and toddling toddlers. Great for picnicking and hiking as well. West Pacific Avenue, San Francisco. 415-831-2782. presidio.gov/kids/playgrounds.
Moscone Playground – Recently renovated, this playground has sparkling upgrades sure to delight children up to age 10. Great for babies and toddlers. 1800 Chestnut St., San Francisco. 415-292-2045. parks.sfgov.org.
Ryder Park – The seasonal water-themed play area is a big draw for families, who also enjoy inspiring views from the city’s shoreline. 1801 J. Hart Clinton Dr., San Mateo. cityofsanmateo.org.
Washington Park – Close to downtown shopping, the playground includes a train and sand pit, along with a separate area for babies and toddlers. 850 Burlingame Ave., Burlingame. 650-558-7300. burlingame.org.
Larkey Park – This renovated playground is a great place to go after a visit to the adjacent Lindsay Wildlife Museum, Larkey Swim Center or Model Railroad Society. Corner of Buena Vista and First avenues, Walnut Creek. 925-943-5800. ci.walnut-creek.ca.us.
Matteo’s Dream – One of the country’s few playgrounds that accommodates children with a variety of disabilities. Hillcrest Community Park, 2050 Olivera Road, Concord. 925-671-3440. childrensplayground4all.com.
Adventure Playground – Forts, boats and towers tickle a child’s imagination, while zip lines, carpentry projects and painting engage their bodies. Recommended for ages 7 and up. Younger children are welcome to play with close supervision of a parent or guardian. Berkeley Marina, 162 University Ave., Berkeley. 510-981-6720. ci.berkeley.ca.us/marina.
Cuesta Park – This has a children’s play area surrounded by rolling hills and shady open space. Also has volleyball, tennis and horseshoe areas in the 25-acre park. 615 Cuesta Drive, Mountain View. ci.mtnview.ca.us.
Las Palmas Park – This 24-acre Polynesian-themed park features a play area on an island, a ship to explore and a water feature. It also has a second playground, sports fields and dog park. 850 Russet Dr., Sunnyvale. 408-730-7751. sunnyvale.ca.gov.
McEnery Park – This park is designed for children’s creative play with a structure of nets and ropes for climbing for older kids, spring toys and a model boat for younger kids and a re-creation of the Guadalupe River. Guadalupe River Park & Gardens, south side of San Fernando St., San Jose. 408-298-7657. grpg.org.
Rinconada Park – Nestled among oak trees, this beloved park offers two play areas and picnic facilities. It’s also close to the children’s zoo and a public pool. 777 Embarcadero Road, Palo Alto. palo-alto.us.
South / Coast
Anna Jean Cummings Park – An 80-foot wavy slide, mazes, bridges, more slides and two play structures make this one of the Santa Cruz area’s most beloved parks. Public art featuring four huge blue balls give it its nickname, Blue Ball Park. 461 Old San Jose Road, Soquel. scparks.com/annajeancummings.html.
Ocean View Park – This multilevel park features an enormous slide and playground and a view of the historic boardwalk and Monterey Bay. 831-420-5270. 102 Ocean View Ave., Santa Cruz. cityofsantacruz.com.