Tuesday, September 30, 2014

Toddler Favorites: Ardenwood Historic Farm (Fremont)

Ardenwood Historic Farm, located just off Highway 880 in Fremont, has been one of our family's favorite adventures since our first visit in March of 2013, just a few weeks after Toddler X learned to walk (a toddler in the truest sense of the word!). In the past year and half, we've been back many times -- on normal days, on festival days and on harvest days -- and I frequently post about Ardenwood events and list it as a favorite when discussing farms. But for some reason, I have neglected to do a full review of this wonderful spot.

Until today. This morning, for the first time, we ventured to Ardenwood for their weekly "Toddler Time" event, and it was such a wonderful experience for Toddler X (and Grandma, Pops and me) that it finally motivated me to post a review, both about the farm in general and about the weekly Toddler Times.

In summary, I recommend Ardenwood on all days and in all circumstances. That sounds silly, but I mean it -- I can't think of the family composition or specific needs that would make Ardenwood an inappropriate place (animal allergies, maybe?). Safe and secure, I feel comfortable going alone with Toddler X. Flat and (mostly) paved, it's great for family members of all ages, from infants in strollers to elderly grandparents, as well as people in wheelchairs.

Pre-toddlers will have no problem seeing animals from your arms or a stroller, and toddlers will love the ground-level views and the special steps up to raised viewing areas. Even older kids will love Ardenwood -- animals are an attraction for all ages. The farm is spacious enough that, even on event days, it never seems over-crowded (though the line to get in can be sizable at the start of the day), but there are always enough families there that it never seems creepily empty. It's just pretty darn great.

Here are the details:

What: Ardenwood is a large, working farm and regional park located in Fremont, just off Highway 880 at the 84 West exit. Though it's situated in the midst of a highly developed area, Ardenwood's main visitor areas are set back from major roads, buffered by the farm's wide vegetable fields, animal-grazing pastures and lovely oak and eucalyptus trees. Once you're there, you feel like you've found a peaceful, rural haven, far from the suburban sprawl around you.

In addition to its working fields, where you will see farm machines (real ones!) tilling the earth and farm workers checking the harvest, Ardenwood has pastures with cows and sheep, as well as a barnyard area where visitors can get up close with sheep, goats, bunnies and pigs, as well as free-roaming chickens, turkeys and peacocks. There are barns of historic tractors and farm equipment, a beautifully-preserved historic home (Patterson House), a train (it has a limited operating schedule), and plenty of shady areas for picnics on the grass or tables.

Situated at the entrance to Ardenwood's driveway, you'll also find the Perry Farms organic fruit and vegetable stand -- definitely a place to stop for some healthy delights before you head home.

Where: In Fremont, just off Highway 880 at the 84 West exit. You can find directions here.

When: Ardenwood is open from 10 a.m. - 4 p.m. on Tuesdays-Saturdays, year-round. Ardenwood is open on Mondays for Memorial Day and Labor Day only, and is closed on Thanksgiving and Christmas Day.

How much: Ardenwood is a ridiculously good deal for a lot of fun. The spring-fall entry fees (in effect April 1 to November 24) are $3 for adults on Tuesdays, Wednesdays and Saturdays, $6 for adults on Thursdays, Fridays and Sundays, and free for kids under 4 all the time. Kids ages 4-17 are $2 or $4, depending on the days of the week. In the winter, the price drops to $3 for adults and $2 for kids 4-17 on all open days; toddlers, of course, are still free. Ardenwood accepts Visa and Mastercard, but not American Express.

There are higher charges for certain special events, but it's still very reasonable. Parking is free.

Other notes: 

  • Except for at special events, no food is sold at Ardenwood. You are welcome to bring your own, and there are ample picnic tables, benches and grassy areas for enjoying a picnic. 
  • Dogs are not allowed. 
  • Bathrooms are plentiful and clean, especially the new ones toward the rear of the property near the chicken coop.

Why is Ardenwood so great?

  • A true farm experience. Growing up in Silicon Valley today, toddlers don't have many opportunities to see wide fields planted with crops and farm animals grazing in pastures (aside from perhaps a passing glimpse from the carseat as you zoom down 101 in Morgan Hill or Gilroy). Ardenwood feels not only like a true farm ('cause it is!), but like a true farm from a long time ago. It's a fun and refreshing experience for all ages.
  • Great animals. A few months ago, I wrote a post comparing many of the petting zoos/farms in our area, with the primary focus being the types of animals available and their accessibility for visitors. I think Ardenwood is the local winner in both categories.

    As you walk into the farm, you'll see cows grazing in the pastures (in the spring, they'll have their calves walking alongside -- it's adorable), and you can walk right up to the pasture gate to check them out. Further back in the farm, you'll see sheep in the next pasture -- again, you can stroll on up to the gate for a better view. Continue on to the barnyard, and you'll find a number of sheep, goats and rabbits for you to visit, and in a separate area, two super cool pigs. The sheep and goats are friendly and outgoing, and super accessible -- if they come to the fencing (which they seem more than willing to do), your toddler can easily pet them and even get a little lick from them (no feeding the animals though!!). They usually have a bunny out of the hutch, in just a small enclosure with a low fence that toddlers can see over -- it's a great, up close experience with a much-loved animal. The pigs are also very accessible, although in that case, you definitely want to hang on to your toddler -- pigs can bite, and there are warning signs up to keep your fingers out of the enclosure.

    In addition to the caged farm animals, there are chickens, turkeys and peacocks strolling about. If you sit down for a snack at the picnic benches near the barnyard, be warned that the chickens will be your new best friends -- fun until they start climbing into your stroller!

  • Great setting. Most people wouldn't think that a parcel of land located alongside Highway 84, just 1/2 mile from the busy 880 interchange, with fast food restaurants and gas stations across the street, could qualify for the words "serene" or "peaceful", or the description "great setting." But those people haven't been to Ardenwood. Somehow the fields act as buffer zones, and the big old trees act as draperies, and while you're sitting in the barnyard area, you feel like you're in a barnyard, not a strip mall on the side of the freeway. It's a happy, relaxing place to visit with your toddler.

  • A great deal. Check out the prices in my "How much" section above. Three days a week, you can visit Ardenwood for $3/adult, with kids 4 and under being free. Seriously, aside from just going to a public park, I don't know where you'll find a better deal for a couple hours worth of entertainment. Toddler X usually runs himself ragged on the paths and trails around the park while we're there, so I end up with a delightfully long nap at the end of it too -- as I said, a great deal.

  • Lots of cool stuff to do. In addition to the actual animal pens, there are other fun/interesting things to check out at Ardenwood. If your toddler is a tractor-lover, you are in luck. There is a large indoor display in the main barn, and several outdoor farm equipment areas as well (you'll find that the wandering chickens like to hang out in those). The cow-milking (watering, actually) gizmo for kiddos that's set up in the barnyard is lots of fun too. There are paths and grassy areas to run on, shady tables to picnic at, and a pretty gazebo in front of the Patterson House in which to relax. There's also a little train, but its operating schedule is pretty limited.

  • Fun special events. Ardenwood hosts a number of special events each year, and I've heard good things about them all -- when you have the fun farm as your setting, any additional activities, crafts, etc. you throw in are just icing on the cake. Last fall, we went to the awesome Harvest Festival and ended up with popcorn to use all year long (I think we made our last cob in May), and we plan to be back on October 11th or 12th for this year's event. Ardenwood is also hosting a Halloween train on Fridays, Saturdays and Sundays in October -- I'd love to hear if somebody checks it out.

  • Fun recurring events -- namely, Toddler Time! Finally, I get to talk about our experience today with Toddler Time! For over a year, I've heard about Toddler Time -- a weekly ranger-led look at a specific animal for kids ages 1-4 that takes place Tuesdays at 11 a.m. -- but have been unable to visit with Toddler X because of a standing date with Grandma X on the opposite side of the valley. But today, Grandma and Grandpa X both wanted to join us for an adventure, so we headed to Fremont. I'm so glad we did!

    The event began with a gathering of toddlers and parents at the circle of hay bales in front of the barn near the farmyard -- there were maybe 25 kids there today, and it seemed like many of the families make this a weekly outing. Ranger Ira arrived right on time, and he is just awesome -- exactly the personality one needs to entertain and engage toddlers. He introduced today's animal -- the pig -- via a puppet, then read us a very cute pig-related story and asked the kids some pig-related questions. Toddler X is NOT a library story time kid these days -- he's far too wiggly to sit still for an extended time -- but he happily sat through Ranger Ira's story. This guy is good.

    After that, Ranger Ira led the kids and parents into the barn, where he talked to the kids about what pigs like to eat -- corn -- but how they can't eat it straight off the cob. He gave lots of good info about historical methods of "shelling" corn (I now know the reason for that term!), then demonstrated three ways of doing so. After removing the corn kernels, he explained that the corn needed to be ground into a meal for the pigs to eat.

    This is where the kids got involved -- they stood in line at one of two old school grinding machines (as Ranger Ira pointed out, they were fully kid-powered -- no batteries or wires) and turned the crank three times, creating a fine meal that the pigs could eat. I was amazed at how calm and attentive the toddlers were while Ranger Ira talked about the corn and the grinding, and how good they were at standing in line for their turns at the mills. Something about the setting or about Ranger Ira himself kept them peaceful for far longer than you normally see at toddler events.

    After that, it was out to the barnyard, where Ranger Ira introduced us to the resident pigs and fed them the corn meal that the toddlers had just ground. He gave us a TON of great information about pigs -- so much of it totally contrary to what people commonly believe! -- and parents and toddlers both were pleased.

    Finally, we all paraded behind Ranger Ira to the corn bin (seriously, he was kind of like the Pied Piper), where he rewarded each toddler for his or hard work with a cob of popping corn, which we'll heat up in the microwave for a treat tonight.

    As you know, I go to a LOT of toddler events, and I have to say that this was one of the most enjoyable outings -- both for parents, and for toddlers -- that I've been to in a long while. It was a perfect balance of learning and doing, and the toddlers were engaged and happy the whole time. We will definitely be back.

    Ranger Ira leads these Toddler Time events every Tuesday at 11:00 a.m. Check the schedule for upcoming animal topics -- goats or sheep or rabbits or whatnot -- and give this event a try!

Seasonal note: Perry's Organic Farm's Pumpkin Patch, which sells the pumpkins grown in the Ardenwood fields, is currently open, and will be through Halloween. This is a GREAT patch, and we had a wonderful time there this morning -- it was a perfect accent to our Ardenwood trip. I'll do a full write up of Perry's separately, but I definitely recommend stopping by.

So that's it! I highly recommend giving Ardenwood a try the next time you're seeking a fun family adventure, and if your Tuesdays happen to be open, plan around an upcoming Toddler Time -- you'll be glad you did!

Happy toddling!

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