We know the story. You love the great outdoors and want to immerse your kids in the wonders of nature. Unfortunately, your kids would much rather climb, swing and slide at the playground than walk long distances in the woods for no apparent reason. Throw in the ever-present specter of the “suddenly immobile kid with arms raised and a pouty face,” and we understand why you’re reluctant to hit the trails with the little ones. Not to worry. We’ve scoured the East Bay for quiet and off-the-beaten-path places of outstanding natural beauty that also have play structures. And bathrooms too. The following, in no particular order, are our five favorites.
1. Redwood Regional Park, Oakland
Carpeting the canyons and slopes of the Oakland hills is 700 acres of majestic Redwood groves, punctuating over 1800 acres of protected open space and 39 miles of trails. Much like the city it calls home, Redwood Park is an underrated gem. While hoards of tourists cram the boardwalks of Muir Woods, it is easy to find solitude and silence in the cathedral-like forests of Oakland.
Park at the Canyon Meadow staging area then walk, bike, scoot, or stroll along the flat, paved path, 1/6th of a mile to the play structure. It includes a sandpit, two slides, monkey bars and various objects to turn and spin. The flat Stream Trail continues past the playground and into the magical Redwoods.
Bonus: Marvel at the clusters of ladybugs that overwinter along the Stream Trail.
Interesting fact: The Redwoods of Oakland once reached heights of 400 feet and served as navigational landmarks that ships sailing through the Golden Gate would use to avoid treacherous rocks in the bay.
2. Kennedy Grove, El Sobrante
Resting at the base of San Pablo dam is a grove of 111-year-old Eucalyptus trees, surrounding an expansive, radiant meadow, encircled by trails and dotted with picturesque places to picnic. The trees are impressively large and their shaggy bark is painted in shades of pink and gray. Sure they’re invasive, explosively flammable and were hastily planted en masse by Gold Rush developers in a misguided ploy for riches, but their majestic presence is undeniable.
A great playground adjacent to picnic tables features a sand pit, bridge, chain ladder, swings and a fast and fun spiral slide.
Bonus: The park is flat and wide open, giving the little ones liberty to explore freely and you the piece of mind of being able to keep an eye on them from long distances.
Interesting fact: A narrow gauge steam railway ran directly through what is now Kennedy Grove. It was part of a line that was intended to travel from a pier in Emeryville all the way to Nevada. Due to funding issues, it never made it past Orinda and was mostly used by city-dwellers for weekend excursions into the countryside.
3. Chabot Park, San Leandro
Approaching the rustic, single-lane bridge that leads into Chabot Park, it is easy to forget that you are less than half a mile from Interstate 580. Towering Eucalyptus and Bay Laurel trees enchant you into their realm with their humbling magnitude and intoxicating essence. The furious rush of San Leandro Creek establishes a mood that is both energizing and calming.
The park rests at the bottom of a densely wooded canyon that winds steeply downhill from the dam at Lake Chabot. The playground equipment is old school and sparse and includes a simple metal climbing structure, big-kid swings and a zippy metal slide down the slope of a hill.
Bonus: A few cherry trees dot the edges of the park, with branches low enough for toddlers to pick a bounty when they’re ripe in June.
Interesting fact: Rainbow Trout were first discovered and identified as a distinct species from specimen taken from San Leandro Creek.
4. Point Pinole Regional Park, Richmond
Occupying an entire promontory plunging into San Pablo Bay, Point Pinole Regional Park is 2,315 acres of shoreline, cliffs, meadows and Eucalyptus groves. It has an end-of-the-world feel with wide-open spaces and panoramic bay views. It also affords a unique vantage point of Mt. Tamalpais that makes it look like a cone volcano.
The playground is about a quarter mile from the parking lot, by way of a flat path suitable for strollers, bikes and kids that don’t mind a nice walk. The playground has a sand pit, monkey bars and swings.
Bonus: The path to the playground crosses a bridge over railroad tracks. Watching a train rapidly approach, pass directly beneath your feet, then whoosh away on the other side is quite a thrill for kids and adults alike.
Interesting fact: Gunpowder and dynamite were manufactured at this site for almost 100 years prior to it becoming a park. The Eucalyptus groves were planted to shield against accidental explosions.
5. Alvarado Park, Richmond
A National Historic Place, Alvarado Park is a hidden oasis in the lower hills of Richmond. A dedicated streetcar line once traveled here from a pier at the bay for SF residents to use for weekend excursions. The meadow once housed an open-air dance platform and later a popular roller rink.
Park on Park Avenue, then head over the bridge and up the hill to reach a playground nestled among the trees. It has a sand pit, slides, climbing walls and swings. Just above the playground is a nice little field surrounded by grills and picnic tables.
Bonus: After you’ve had your fill of the play structure, head down the stairs to the banks of Wildcat Creek, where you’ll find the perfect spot to have a snack and tons of rocks to throw into the creek.
Interesting Fact: A depression era WPA project led to the installation of extensive stonework by Italian masons throughout the park, including light posts, walls and a beautiful stone bridge.
Have you had a chance to explore these parks? Which of these parks will you be visiting with your kids?
— Neil Chhabra