Thursday, April 17, 2014

Toddler Favorites: Deer Hollow Farm

One of our favorite weekend adventures with Toddler X -- one that feels exciting and exotic to him, but is really quite simple for us -- is making the "trek" (it's a relatively flat one mile walk) up to Deer Hollow Farm. Deer Hollow is a working farm situated within the Rancho San Antonio Open Space Preserve, and it's open 6 days a week for visitors to come look at the farm animals in their pens.

So that you're not disappointed, I need to tell you in advance that Deer Hollow is NOT a petting zoo -- except on special occasions, like the Spring Farm Tours (March 15, April 19 and May 17 from 10:00 a.m. - 1:00 p.m.), the pens are closed to visitors. Even so, it's a fun, free animal adventure that, combined with the walk up and back, is sure to please a toddler.

Here are the details:

Deer Hollow Basics
  • Hours: The farm is closed on Mondays and open to the public from 8:00 a.m. - 4:00 p.m. every other day, except it closes at 1:00 p.m. on Wednesdays. Even when the zoo is closed, you can see some of the animals from outside the gates.
  • Admission: Admission is free on normal days (the farm in a non-profit and is supported by donations), but the cost is $7 per person for the Spring Farm Tour days, and we found it to be well worth it.
  • Parking: There is no parking at the farm itself -- to access the farm, you need to "hike" in (again in quotes, as it's more of a stroll than a hike). Most people park in the main parking area at Rancho San Antonio and make the one mile hike to the farm from there (just follow the signs and all the strollers!).

    The Rancho parking lot gets PACKED on weekends -- and sometimes on weekdays -- so we prefer parking on the street in the vicinity of Kent Drive and St. Joseph Avenue in Los Altos (off Foothill Expressway), walking to where St. Joseph dead-ends right under the 280 overpass, and catching the trail just past that on the right (it meets up with the main trail from the Rancho parking lot after about 1/3 mile). Note that the streets immediately around the Kent/St. Joseph intersection are resident parking only, so you probably will need to backtrack a street or two to get to a permissible parking space (we usually end up on Highlands Circle). Parking at Highlands Circle and Kent adds about .7 miles to the overall walk, so that getting to the farm is 1.7 miles, rather than just 1, but it's a pretty walk and so worth it to us to avoid the parking chaos in the main lot.
  • Strollers: Unless your toddler is an absolute all-star walker, you'll want to bring a stroller for the walk up to the farm. There are two side-by-side (pretty much) paths up to the farm, one a dirt trail and the other a utility road (don't worry, no traffic), and which one you take will probably depend on what type of stroller you bring. The paved road (it later becomes dirt, but is well-maintained) can accommodate any stroller (or wagon or bike), while you'd probably want to take the dirt trail only if you have a BOB or similar all-terrain stroller. Toddler X generally likes to walk most of the way, but it's nice to know we have the stroller as an option.
  • Food: No food is sold at the farm (with the possible exception of the Spring Farm Tour days -- when we were there, they were selling lemonade and coffee cake), but you are, of course, welcome to bring a picnic and eat at one of the dozen or more picnic tables in the covered barn, just past the farm.
  • Restrooms: There are park restrooms just past the farm (beyond the large barn picnic area), and they smell AWFUL. 

Why We Like Deer Hollow
  • Deer Hollow is great because it feels like an adventure -- I guess because of the hike to get there -- but it is so easy, close and free. Sometimes planning is hard with a mercurial toddler and with parents' busy schedules, and this is one outing that feels exciting but can really be squeezed into a couple of hours with little effort and no advance planning. You get there and your toddler is in a bad mood? You leave! You've wasted little time and effort, and no money, and you've gotten a nice walk.
  • Kids love farm animals, and Deer Hollow has them. There are cows (one or two, can't recall), goats, sheep, chickens, rabbits, ducks and pigs. As I mentioned above, you don't actually go into the pens with them on normal days, so there is no real interaction or petting, but there are several places to stand and watch the animals, and most of the pens have pretty good visibility for a toddler (in one area, the fence folds down over a step so kids can stand independently and look in). There are often volunteers who will share a bit with you about the animals who live there.
  • The hike up to the farm is really pleasant and is a perfect nature outing for a toddler. As I mentioned in the parking section above, we park on the street in Los Altos and walk in from the end of St. Joseph Avenue, and last time we were there, we saw three deer and an amazing flock of wild turkeys, both within 20 feet of us, on that quieter part of the trail. It's so much fun to watch your toddler experience nature (Toddler X is fascinated with big fallen trees, we discovered) and to take the walk at their pace (we bring the stroller, but let him walk as much as he's up for). The path is very manageable for toddler feet (and if your toddler needs a bit more stability, you can walk on the road), and there are occasional bridges and cool stumps (one on the side of the dirt path is open in the center, and toddlers love to climb inside). There is so much for them to see, and the excitement of discovering the animals at the end of the path just makes it better.
  • The Spring Farm Tour is a blast, and a perfect toddler outing. There are three farm tour days this spring, in March, April and May, and we attended the one in March. On these special Saturdays, (almost) all of the pens are opened up to visitors, and are staffed by volunteers who love to introduce you to the animals and share information about their backgrounds and personalities. When we were there in March we met a couple of week-old baby goats, and two new lambs had just been born that day! We watched the cow get milked, petted bunnies, chased ducks and chickens, felt a warm egg, and petted the sheep and goats. We also checked out the garden and looked for worms in the dirt. (The term "tour" is actually a misnomer -- there's nobody leading you around, and you're free to visit what interests you and spend as much time there as you like -- which is perfect for toddlers.) We grabbed some coffee cake and lemonade (I believe they were selling it as a fundraiser) and sat in the huge picnic barn to eat, along with a large number of other happy families. On Spring Farm Tour days, admission is $7 a person, and I recommend you get there early because they're very popular events.
  • Deer Hollow is a great jumping off point for a longer hike. The trail connects to the Rancho San Antonio Trails (which, in turn, connect to other open space preserve trails in Cupertino and Los Altos, I believe), so if your toddler is a willing participant, you can pause at the farm and continue on a longer hike, with the promise of more farm fun to keep your toddler in good spirits until the way back. We actually haven't tried this with Toddler X yet, but it's definitely a benefit of Deer Hollow's location.

Overall, this is an excursion that every toddler family should do at least once -- there's really no reason not to! And if at all possible, do try to go for the Spring Farm Tours, where you actually get to interact with the animals -- it's lots of toddler fun.

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