Monday, January 26, 2015

Family Adventure: Lake Elizabeth & Central Park (Fremont)

Yesterday, at the suggestion of many SV Toddler readers, the X Family set out for Lake Elizabeth in Fremont, which I soon learned in the centerpiece of Fremont's Central Park. The only attraction that I'd previously visited in Fremont was Ardenwood, so I was excited to check out this other highly-recommended spot. Well, as usual, the SV Toddler readers didn't let me down! Lake Elizabeth proved to be a fantastic family outing, and one we'll definitely enjoy again.

Here's what we found:
  • LocationLake Elizabeth is located just a few miles off 880 at the Stevenson Boulevard exit, easy to reach from anywhere in the South Bay (provided it's not a commute time, of course). Heading north on 880, exit right onto Stevenson, then turn right onto Paseo Padre Parkway and Central Park/Lake Elizabeth will be on your left. For where to enter the park, see below.
  • ParkingParking for the park/lake is free, and there are multiple parking lots. Newbies that we were, we pulled into the first lot at Sailway Drive and parked to the left. Knowing what we know now, we would've parked closer to the Community Center, entering on Mission View Drive. (Note, though, that the parking lot on Sailway was practically empty -- because it's farther from all the good stuff -- while the lot accessible via Mission View was pretty crowded. If it's a particularly busy day, it may make more sense to park in the Sailway lot and enjoy a bit longer walk along the lake path.)
  • The Lake: Lake Elizabeth is BIG -- bigger than what I was expecting for a city park -- and is spread against the backdrop of the (currently green!) foothills -- a very nice setting. In winter, the lake is home to lots and lots of birds (and yes, their attendant waste products), and apparently some fish (we saw one guy fishing), but in the late spring through early fall, it's also home to aquatic activities -- paddle boats, kayaks and stand-up paddle boards are available for rental at a well-developed dock. I'm pretty sure you wouldn't want to swim in it.
  • The Path: One of the best things about the park/lake is the perfectly paved, 2 mile path that surrounds it. There's a marker in front of the boathouse at the start/finish point of the path, and though I didn't look for them, I'm guessing there are mile markers (or, I guess, 1/2 mile markers) around the lake. The path is excellent for walking, biking, tricycling, scootering -- all manner of things. It seems wider, or at least more wide-open, then most of the Los Gatos Creek Trail, and though it was in heavy use during out visit, it didn't feel too crowded. The surface would probably be rough on your knees for jogging, but there is a dirt edge that you could use instead. We only traveled about 1/2 mile on the path, so I can't comment on the whole thing, but the part I did see was very well maintained and pleasant.
  • The Playgrounds: The park offers four distinct playgrounds -- pretty cool, huh? We hit three of them, and were very impressed by two. Here's the lineup:
    Playground #1 -- meh...
    • We started at what I'll call Playground #1 -- the one near the Sailway entrance parking lot, which wasn't all that impressive. The only structure was a somewhat run down age 5-12 structure set on tanbark ground covering, and though Toddler X enjoyed the slides and some time on the baby swings (a pretty view for swinging!), it didn't hold his attention (or ours) for long, so we set out along the path to...

    • Playground #2, known as Kennedy Playground and located right next to the Community Center (enter via Mission View Drive and turn right into the parking lot).

      Playground #2 -- Ooh!
      Playground #2 -- Age 2-5 structure
      Playground #2 -- Age 5-12 structure
      This one is a winner -- modern and fun, with an age 2-5 structure and a 5-12 structure connected by a cool rope climbing apparatus, baby and big kid swings, and rubberized ground surface. While the first playground we visited was empty (because it's out of the way and not all that cool), this one was pretty packed -- and there's a lot of playground equipment set in a rather small footprint, so that didn't help the dense, crowded feeling. The two baby swings were occupied the entire time we were there. All the same, the nice (though somewhat small) chest-high toddler structure, the fun big kid structure, and the pleasant lakeside setting might make you want to stay at this spot until...
    • You see Playground #3 like a mirage rising in the distance -- and, mesmerized, you abandon Playground #2 and set out across a field to reach it.

      Playground #3 -- Be still, my beating heart!
      Playground #3 is INCREDIBLE -- one of those playgrounds that has me walking around saying, "Ooh!" and "Aah!" and "Check out that feature!" to Mr. X, who isn't nearly as excited about unique playground structures as I am. :) The whole thing was created in sort of a rustic, wilderness, forest-y theme, and it was very, very well done.

      As you approach the playground, you're greeted by a huge bear-shaped "rock" climbing-sliding-tunneling structure. Behind that are two large big kid structures, with bridges, very high slides and tons of cool features. To your right is a toddler-friendly area, with a very small structure, but lots of fun fossils, logs and stumps for climbing on, and two baby and two accessible swings. There are additional neat features -- a "forest" full of trees for climbing, an awesome spinning mushroom (definitely meant for older kids -- Toddler X tried it out with me hovering right underneath, but we had to decamp when bigger and faster kids came), various stumps and logs for balancing. Visually, it's one of the coolest playgrounds I've come across. The pictures here barely capture it.

      Very small toddler structure
      Climbing options in the toddler area

      The ground surface is the great rubberized stuff, but one thing I really liked is a front area, slightly separated from the structures, that was covered by astroturf. It seemed like a nice place to sit down for a snack or just a brief break from the chaos of the play structures.


      But, alas, a great playground often draws great big crowds, and this one was no exception. It was PACKED! And, not surprisingly, since the major features are geared toward kids aged 5-12 and this was a weekend, it was packed with school age children -- kids under 4 were definitely in the minority. The more attractive, cool features are not designed for toddlers, but -- for Toddler X and his adventurous ilk, at least -- that's ALL they want to do. The toddler section is neat -- stumps and fossils to climb on, a few tunnels, a very small structure -- but the big kid area is the draw, and it's hard to keep toddlers away.

      I didn't see general safety as the major concern -- the only really high points, the slides, are accessed by ladders that toddlers won't be able to manage on their own, which effectively keeps them low to the ground, and they're well-enclosed at the top anyway -- but I was more concerned about rambunctious school-age kids running right over little ones, pushing ahead of them on steps or ladders, hurrying them down the slides. I saw a lot of this, and while Toddler X is getting bigger and doesn't mind physical play anyway, it could definitely be a problem for younger or more sensitive toddlers.

      Another concern about the main structure is visibility. It is IMPOSSIBLE to keep a quick moving toddler in your sight, as the structure is very dense, with lots of stuff at ground level or past low bridges -- from one side of the structure, it's impossible to see people on the other. You'll find yourself ducking and running and occasionally panicking a bit when you lose sight of your little one amidst such big crowds.

      The high slides also cause a visibility problem. Toddler X loves tall twisty slides, and with a bit of support from me, was able to climb the ladder inside the tree to get to the top one. But what we quickly discovered is that, from my vantage point at the base of the tree, there was no way for me to see him when he emerged from the slide, or to get over there quickly. Again, it was very hard to keep track of his whereabouts, and that's always stressful. And this was the case even though he was dressed in bright colors and I had Mr. X there to help me -- I can't imagine if I were there trying to chase him down on my own.

      What this all leads to is my recommendation that, on weekends at least, you don't attempt this playground with an energetic, quick moving toddler unless you have another adult with you to help supervise. There were just too many people and too limited visibility for a parent to enjoy himself or herself while constantly losing sight of their little one. If you have one highly mobile kid, bring two adults; if you have two kids, then do your best to find three supervisors. No joke, it was pretty crazy out there.

      All that being said, though, the playground is so cool that it's worth checking out. I imagine the situation is VERY different on weekdays during school hours, when most of the visitors will be 5 and under, so if you can, try to time your first visit accordingly -- one of my readers mentioned that 11 a.m. -- 2 p.m. on a weekday is an ideal time.

      And while the playground isn't fenced (none of the ones we visited were) and is in relatively close proximity to the lake, I had no concerns about Toddler X taking off, and I'm guessing your toddler won't either.

    • We didn't get over to visit Playground #4, which is located by the softball and soccer fields and is presumably intended to entertain siblings during games. It looks a lot smaller on the map, and I'm pretty certain it's not as cool as Playgrounds 2 and 3. If playgrounds are your thing, those are the ones I'd hit.

  • Additional Attractions: A couple of other spots caught my eye -- a Nature Center, a boardwalk through Stiver's Lagoon Nature Area and, of course, Aqua Adventure Water Park (it's hard to miss), but we either didn't have time to visit those or they were closed for the season. Good reasons for a return trip. :)

  • Other Park Amenities: Central Park offers a lot besides playgrounds, the lake, the boathouse/dock and the path. There are tons of soccer/softball fields, two snack shacks (the lakeside one was closed for the season -- not sure about the ball field one), picnic tables everywhere (some first come, first served, others subject to reservation), and plenty of restrooms.
Overall, I would definitely recommend Central Park/Lake Elizabeth as a wonderful outing for any family. From the great biking/walking/scootering path to the playgrounds and more, you'll be sure to find something to entertain your kids while you get some fresh air -- and, as an added bonus, it's free! If you can make it on a weekday during the school year, you'll no doubt find fewer crowds, but even on a weekend (and a gorgeous one, at that) it was worth our visit.

Yay for a fun new favorite!

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