Boys exploring on a nature scavenger hunt

By Kristy Esparza, Updated Oct 29, 2020

Looking for new ways to get outside with the kids? Bay Area gardens are open year round and offer a fun alternative to parks and trails. They are also multigenerational crowd-pleasers, and tend to be our go-to for an outing with grandma. The following are our favorite Bay Area gardens, plus a few that are on our list to check out next.

Nov 22, 2020 | Destinations

Bay Area Gardens for Hands-On Family Fun

Destinations

Filoli Historic House and Garden

86 Cañada Road, Woodside, CA 94062
Open Daily, 10am – 5pm

Admission: Adult tickets are $25, Seniors (65+) are $22. Students, Teacher, and Military Tickets are $20. Children ages 5 – 17 are $15. Children under 5 are free. 

Always check the official Filoli website before visiting. It will have the latest information on hours, events, and safety requirements.

Bay Area Gardens - Filoli

The Filoli membership we purchased for my mom and aunt last Christmas became the gift that kept on giving throughout 2020!  While I’ve always enjoyed wandering this 654-acre estate and admired their creative approach to events and celebrations, it became a much-needed escape for our family as we looked for safe local getaways.

Most of our visits center around the estate gardens. The terraces near the house itself have simpler designs and feature the wild beauty that surround the property, whereas the formal gardens feature gorgeous flower beds and hidden garden rooms. Between the many different sections and the endless work of Filoli horticulturalists, there is always something new to experience on each visit.

The boys love the working garden with rows of fruit trees, growing vegetables, and flower beds. Follow winding paths through the orchard to the High Place where you can take a moment to rest in the “green theater” while taking in the scents and sounds of nature all around.

On the opposite side of the house, a one-mile walk through the Nature Preserve leads to the Sally MacBride Nature Center. Within a relatively small area, you’ll encounter oak-madrone forests, redwood groves, and chaparral and the deer, wild turkeys, and banana slugs that call them home. 

One of the things I love most about Filoli is their seasonal celebrations. From Orchard Days to the Festival of Lights, this Bay Area garden offers plenty of ideas for outdoor celebrations.

Filoli Gentlemen's Orchard - Orchard Days
Bay Area Gardens - Filoli Turkeys
Bay Area Gardens: Filoli Flowers

San Francisco Botanical Garden

San Francisco Botanical Garden with Kids, The Sensory Garden in the Children's Garden

Golden Gate Park, 1199 9th Ave, San Francisco, CA, 94122
The Main Gate is near the corner of 9th Ave. at Lincoln Way 

Garden Open Daily at 7:30am. Closes one hour after last entry, which varies by season. 
Weekends Only: Garden Bookstore (10am – 4pm) and Plant Arbor (9am – 3:30pm)

Admission: San Francisco residents are free, as is early admission between 7:30 and 9:00am. Free days for all are on the second Tuesday of the month and Thanksgiving, Christmas, and New Years Day. Admission for non-resident adults is $12 are weekends and $9 on weekdays. Youth and Seniors are $7. Children between the ages of 5 and 11 are $3 and toddlers are free. Families (2 adults and all children under 17) are $20.

Always check the official San Francisco Botanical Garden website before visiting. It will have the latest information on hours, programming, and safety guidelines.

Located in Golden Gate Park, the San Francisco Botanical Garden is frequently listed as one of the best in the United States. Its 55 acres of gardens feature over 9,000 different kinds of plants from all over the world.  And if that weren’t reason enough to visit, it’s also a paradise for families looking for unique spaces for hands-on educational play.  

We first decided to check it out because of the Bean Sprouts Day in the Children’s Garden. We didn’t know what to expect, and loved their creative approach to engaging kids at many different levels. Hands-on exploration is actively encouraged (even “conscious collecting”), and children are invited to explore with all of their senses. It’s simply an awesome space for families, and provided a perfect educational alternative to the usual playground experience. 

But the Children’s Garden was only one part of our adventure. As we made our way along the pathways to the children’s section we experienced far more biodiversity than any other equally accessible trail we’ve found. This keeps a feeling of discovery alive as you move from plants that grow in Temperate Asia to the Mesoamerican Cloud Forest to the Redwood Grove.

Consider completing your day with a picnic on the Great Meadow and follow up at home with an online story time from the wonderful Helen Crocker Russell Library’s children’s collection.  

You can find our full post about our experiene at Bean Sprouts Day at the SF Botanical Garden here.

San Francisco Botanical Garden with Kids, the Children's Garden Orchard
Bug on the Stump Jump, San Francisco Botanical Garden Children's Garden
Kids Enjoying the Redwood Grove at the San Francisco Botanical Garden

Hakone Gardens

21000 Big Basin Way, Saratoga CA 95070

Winter Hours (October 31 to February): Weekdays 10:00 am – 4:00 pm, Weekends 11:00 am – 4:00 pm
Summer Hours (March to Friday October 30): Weekdays 10:00 am – 5:00 pm, Weekends 11:00 am – 5:00 pm
Closed on Christmas Day and New Year’s Day

Admission: Adult tickets are $10, Seniors (65+) are $8. Students (5 – 17) are $8, and children 4 and younger are Free. Saratoga residents receive a $2 discount and are eligible for free admission on the first Tuesday of the month. 

Always check the official Hakone website before visiting. It will have the latest information on hours, events, and safety requirements.

Hakone Gardens
Hakone Gardens Wisteria Pavilion

Tucked away in the Santa Cruz mountains just outside of Saratoga, the 18-acre Hakone Gardens was originally the private estate of Isabel and Oliver Stine. Mrs. Stine fell in love with the Japanese gardens she encountered during the 1915 World’s Fair in San Francisco to the extent that she was determined to have the family’s summer retreat designed in the style of a Japanese garden. She named her garden after the town of Hakone located in the Fuji-Hakone-Izu National Park. Today, the Hakone Foundation, which currently manages and maintains the property, is dedicated to conserving and enhancing Hakone for public enjoyment and to promote a deeper understanding of Asian Cultures. 

Our experience at Hakone once again proves that gardens are a great place for a multigenerational family visit. We first experienced this gorgeous garden with my mom and my aunt, and everyone had a wonderful time circling the property. I detail our day in a previous post, but in short, a big highlight for the boys was the Pond Garden. Had they done nothing but spend the morning feeding the koi fish, they would have been over-the-moon happy.

The grown ups in the group really enjoyed the Overlook on the Viewing Deck behind the Cultural Exchange Center and the Bamboo Garden, in addition to tranquil pauses by each of the different pavilions. It was a perfect little escape for the whole family. 

Hakone Gardens - Bamboo
Bay Area Gardens - Hakone

The Gardens at Heather Farms

Bay Area Gardens - Gardens at Heather Farm

1540 Marchbanks Drive, Walnut Creek, CA 94598

Open 7 days a week, during daylight hours. The Gardens may be closed for private events on weekend afternoons between April and November. Check the calendar for specific closure times, or email or call ahead before visiting (925) 947-1678.

Admission: Free

Always check the official Gardens at Heather Farms website before visiting. It will have the latest information on hours, events, and safety requirements.

This free public garden and education center is located on six lovely acres in Walnut Creek, CA. The vision for a family-centered education garden began in 1968 with the idea of making nature-focused family fun accessible to all. While there, we noticed visitors painting en plein air and practicing yoga in the gazebo. It’s undoubtedly a beautiful little escape for many people year round. 

Our boys loved the adorable children’s garden with its whimsical features and underground tunnel that let them play Peter Rabbit escaping Mr. McGregor. Locals might be interested in the Nature Explorer program, which offers weekly parent and child classes with hands-on activities, stories, and songs. The program is targeted for children ages 2 – 5. 

As the name suggests, The Gardens are located within the 102-acre Heather Farm Park, which offers plenty of amenities to extend your visit. There’s a large playground, biking trails, picnic areas, a skate park, trail connections, and even a fishing pond and equestrian center. We took some time to walk down a trail toward the lake area where we found a small group of bird watchers. Curious, we followed in their footsteps and soon spotted a Great Egret and a Black-crowned Night-Heron. Both sites together made for a fun and varied day enjoying the sights and sounds of nature.

Bay Area Gardens - Gardens at Heather Farm
Bay Area Gardens - Gardens at Heather Farm
Bay Area Gardens - Gardens at Heather Farm

Garden to Table

200 W Taylor St, San Jose, CA 95110 (next to the Citibank)

Volunteer Opportunities and Classes by Appointment

Admission: Free

Check out the official website here.

Bay Area Gardens - Volunteering at Taylor Street Farm
Bay Area Gardens - Volunteering at Taylor Street Farm
Bay Area Gardens - Volunteering at Taylor Street Farm

Visiting so many gardens inspired us to get our hands dirty and try it out ourselves. Taylor Street Garden to Table is a community vegetable garden near downtown San Jose. I’m including it here, because the hands-on experiences we’ve had at the garden have been fun and educational for the whole family. Education is central to the Garden to Table mission, and they are passionate about sharing where food comes from and how it is grown. 

I learned about Garden to Table just as they were harvesting summer vegetables and getting ready for fall planting. We showed up and they gave us some seedlings and a tour. One thing I love about their staff is that they welcome families to volunteer, even with little kids. On our second visit we sorted compost, fed chickens, planted cabbage, and went trick-or-treating for (i.e. harvested) tomatoes. Being a part of this community has been wonderful for the whole family and super helpful as we struggle with being newbie gardeners ourselves. 

In addition to time spent at the garden, JJ and I participated in a 6-week online zoom class on the ABC’s of Gardening. Sally, our teacher, is also a children’s librarian and every lively lesson came with amazing story recommendations, recipes, and project ideas. We loved being a part of these classes and hope to be able to take another class in person when we can.

If you’re in the area and are looking for a way to get your hands dirty with your kiddos, check out this little gem. And if you’re out of the area, search for a community garden near you. You just might be surprised at how rewarding a day at the garden can be for the whole family.

More Family-Friendly Bay Area Gardens to Explore

The Bay Area has no shortage of gardens for families to explore all year round. The following are a few that are next on our list!

Bay Area Botanical Gardens: Gamble Gardens Detail

Gamble Gardens

1431 Waverley Street, Palo Alto CA 94301

Open daily during daylight hours. Closed Tuesday and Wednesday mornings from 8am – 12pm for maintenance.

Admission: Free

Website

Gamble Garden is a restored historic estate and garden in the middle of Palo Alto. In addition to providing a space for beauty and tranquility, they offer a number of education events including free Second Saturday programs for families.

Tilden Regional Botanical Park

Intersection of Wildcat Canyon Road and South Park Drive.
Side entrance at Anza View Road

October – May, 8:30am – 5pm
June – September, 8:30am – 5:30pm
Closed New Year’s Day, Thanksgiving, and Christmas.

Admission: Free (Reserved Entry Required as of November 2020)

Website

Located in Tilden Regional Park’s Wildcat Canyon in the Berkeley Hills, this garden is devoted to native plants of California. Explore the plants and trees that exemplify the vast beauty of this state, from the seacoast bluffs to deserts to the alpine zones, in one day.  

UC Davis Haagen-Dazs Honey Bee Haven

Bee Biology Road, Davis, CA

Thursday – Sunday: Dawn to Dusk
Tuesdays: 10am – Dusk
Wednesday: 11am – Dusk

Admission: Free

Website

Ok, this one is admittedly a bit further afield, but this unique outdoor museum all about inspiring and educating visitors about creating pollinator habitat gardens is on my list for a spring day trip. And if you need an excuse for the extra driving time, you can check out other parts of the Davis museum campus like the Arboretum, Museum of Entomology, Botanical Conservancy, and Raptor Center while you’re in town!

 

Thanks for checking out our post on family-friendly gardens in the Bay Area. We hope you enjoy your next family garden adventure!

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