The Best Bay Area Gardens and Farms for Hands-On Family Fun

Looking for new ways to get outside with the kids? Bay Area gardens and farms 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 and farms that offer hands-on fun for everyone in the family.

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IN THIS POST:

FILOLI HISTORIC HOUSE AND GARDEN

Surrounded by light globes at the Filoli Holiday Lights Event - Filoli is one of our favorite Bay Area gardens to visit during the holidays
Filoli has wonderful seasonal events, including December’s Holiday Lights.

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 surrounds 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 its seasonal celebrations. From Orchard Days to the Festival of Lights, this Bay Area garden offers plenty of ways to keep the seasonal celebrations going in unique ways.

THE DETAILS

Open Daily, 10am – 5pm

86 Cañada Road, Woodside, CA 94062

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. 

Check the official Filoli website before visiting for the latest information on hours and programming.

SAN FRANCISCO BOTANICAL GARDEN

Bug loved the Sandlot at the San Francisco Botanical Garden's Children Garden. They. have the one of the most extensive hands on area of the Bay Area gardens that we've explored.
The Children’s Garden encourages a creative hands-on approach to help kids connect with nature.

A list of Bay Area gardens would certainly be incomplete without the San Francisco Botanical Gardens! Located in Golden Gate Park, the San Francisco Botanical Garden is frequently listed as one of the best in the country. 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 storytime from the wonderful Helen Crocker Russell Library’s children’s collection.  

THE DETAILS

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

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

Admission: San Francisco residents are free, as is early admission between 7:30 and 9:00 am. 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.

Check the official San Francisco Botanical Garden website before visiting for the latest information on hours and programming.

HAKONE GARDENS

The lovely koi pond area at Hakone Gardens makes you feel like you're far outside of the South Bay
You can completely forget that you’re in the Bay Area at Hakone Gardens.

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 proves once again that Bay Area 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 wandering through the property.

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. 

THE DETAILS

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

21000 Big Basin Way, Saratoga CA 95070

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. 

Check the official Hakone website before visiting for the latest information on hours and programming.

ARDENWOOD HISTORIC FARM

A friendly docent teaches the boys how to make ice cream the old fashioned way at Ardenwood Historic Farm.
Learning to make ice cream without a Kitchenaid!

East Bay Regional Park’s Ardenwood Historic Farm offers a glimpse into life on a family farm between 1890 and 1930. It has been one of our favorite places to visit for holiday celebrations since we moved back to the Bay Area. We’ve picked popcorn at the Harvest Festival, made ice cream on the Fourth of July, and joined in the egg toss on Easter. It’s a wonderful place to experience some of the area’s history and engage in simple hands-on fun with the kids.

Visitors who arrive on a regular admission day can hop on the train that encircles the property, learn about the turn of the century farm equipment from the park’s friendly docents, and check out the farmyard with its sheep, pigs, turkeys, chickens, rabbits, goats, and cows. Families can also visit the working blacksmith shop, Victorian farmhouse, and surrounding formal gardens.

Since Ardenwood continues to function as a working farm, daily activities change from season to season and no two visits will be exactly alike. Check out their Naturalist Program page for program updates and schedules before your next visit.

THE DETAILS

Tuesday through Sunday, 10 am – 4 pm
Closed on Thanksgiving and Christmas Day

34600 Ardenwood Blvd. Fremont, CA 94555

Admission: 2021 advance registration fees: $2/ adults (18+ years), $2/seniors (62+ year), $2/children (4-17 years), under 4 years and members – free. January through March, and the Wed. before Thanksgiving through December: Tues. through Sun.: $4/adults (18+ years), $3/seniors (62+ year), $2/children (4-17 years), under 4 years – free. April through the Tues. before Thanksgiving: Tues., Wed. & Sat.: $4/adults (18+ years), $3/seniors (62+ year), $2/children (4-17 years), under 4 years – free. Thurs., Fri. and Sun.: $6/adults (18+ years), $5/seniors (62+ year), $4/children (4-17 years), under 4 years – free.

Check the official Ardenwood website before visiting for the latest information on hours and programming.

THE GARDENS AT HEATHER FARMS

The children's garden at Heather Farms has a storybook theme we loved.
The children’s garden at Heather Farms is both fun and beautiful, with a storybook theme.

This garden, located on six lovely acres in Walnut Creek, CA, is one of the few free Bay Area gardens on the list. 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 an 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.

THE DETAILS

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.

1540 Marchbanks Drive, Walnut Creek, CA 94598

Admission: Free

Check the official Gardens at Heather Farms website for the latest information on hours and events.

HIDDEN VILLA

There are so many places to explore at Hidden Villa. This large barn where the goats live is one of our favorites.
There are so many places to explore at Hidden Villa. This large barn where the goats live is one of our favorites.

An educational nonprofit that covers over 1600 acres of beautiful open space in the foothills of the Santa Cruz mountains, Hidden Villa offers unique programs in a setting that is both lovely and engaging for visitors of all ages. Visitors can explore the organic farm and creative education garden and hike the surrounding wooded trails.

I remember coming here as a girl scout and signed JJ up for their preschoolers on the farm program during our first spring in California. It seriously rained for every session that year, but the kids still had fun splashing through the mud and visiting the farm animals. The baby sheep continue to be a highlight of our visit each year!

During COVID-times, we were happy to make reservations and have plenty of space to run around. The boys love getting up close to the chickens, and we finally got out into the breathtaking trail system. No matter the season, weather, or ongoing crisis, we always have fun here and come back home happy.

THE DETAILS

26870 Moody Road, Los Altos, CA 94022

Admission: $10 per car. Season passes are also available.

Check the official Hidden Villa website for the latest information on hours and events.

LOS GATOS FARMS

Bug's first horseback ride at Los Gatos Farms
Bug’s first horseback ride at Los Gatos Farms.

This year, Bug decided he wanted to ride a horse for his 4th birthday. Being that he’s still pretty little, I had to do some thinking about this one. Luckily, I came across Los Gatos Farms, which offered the perfect horse farm experience for our family.

Located in the Redwood Estates section of the Santa Cruz Mountains, Los Gatos Farms offers horseback riding lessons, camps, trail rides, and an introduction to riding in their arena. We got to meet Harley and Hank, two older brothers who offered the perfect gentle introductory ride for our kiddos.

Owner Toni Kent offered plenty of friendly and helpful guidance for all of us, and even found some extra sweaters for the boys when we realized it was much colder in the Santa Cruz mountain fog than it was down in the Valley!

When we weren’t in the arena with the horses, we got to enjoy our picnic lunch near the play area. JJ loved sledding down the hay slide and Bug enjoyed meeting the friendly donkeys, goats, and chickens. Bug was over-the-moon happy with his little birthday party, and can’t wait to go back.

THE DETAILS

Los Gatos Farms isn’t a public facility. It’s a private ranch and lavender farm. Contact Toni Kent to inquire about a visit: (408) 771-6077, info@losgatosfarms.com                    

Check the official Los Gatos Farms website for more information about programs.

GARDEN TO TABLE @ TAYLOR STREET FARMS

JJ's first cabbage harvest at Taylor Street Farm
JJ’s first cabbage harvest. He’s been hooked on red cabbage ever since!

Visiting so many Bay Area gardens inspired us to get our hands dirty and try gardening ourselves. Garden to Table @ Taylor Street Farms is a community garden near downtown San Jose. Despite our very bad track record gardening at home, they welcomed us with open arms. 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 Taylor Street Farms 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 learn to grow at home. 

In addition to time spent at the garden, JJ and I participated in a 6-week online zoom class on the ABCs of Gardening. Our teacher is also a children’s librarian and every 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. A children’s garden is coming soon, and we can’t wait to check it out!

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 in the garden can be for the whole family.

THE DETAILS

Volunteer Opportunities and Classes by Appointment

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

Admission: Free

Check out the official website here for the latest hours and programming.

EMMA PRUSCH FARM PARK

Playing on the tractor at Emma Prusch Farm Park
Tractor time!

As we drove into the Emma Prusch Farm Park parking lot, it didn’t take long before we were craning our heads to make sure we didn’t accidentally hit a chicken. We may have just exited 280, but in less than 5 minutes, it was clear that this wasn’t going to be a regular day at the park. The Farm Park Foundation seems to certainly have succeeded in keeping Emma Prusch’s vision of creating and maintaining a rural country atmosphere alive in the city of San Jose, CA. 

This is a large park with plenty of options for family fun. Children can easily go between the large play structures and the petting zoo areas, ours can pretty much stay in this area all day. If you want to continue along the trail that encircles the Great Meadow, you’re sure to spot peacocks, geese, and roosters roaming.

Behind the old farmhouse, is the large Veggielution community garden. We always see volunteers working here, and even Bug and I had a great time exploring the little children’s garden with my mom. The Farm Stand is open on Saturdays from 10 am -2 pm. Time your park visit so you can pick up some fresh veggies on your way home!

THE DETAILS

Open Daily: 8:30 a.m. – Sunset

647 S. King Rd. San Jose, CA 95116

Admission: Free

Check the official Emma Prusch website for the latest information on hours and events. This park brochure has a helpful map as well.

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