Wednesday, May 20, 2015

Park Review: Martial Cottle Park (South San Jose)

One of the longest-awaited attractions in the South Bay opened to the public last week to surprisingly little fanfare. When Toddler X and I arrived to celebrate the opening of Martial Cottle Park on Friday, we almost drove on by -- the main entrance still appeared to be closed off to all but construction vehicles, there were only 2 or 3 cars visible in the parking lot, and there was not a person in sight (much less any indication of a Grand Opening).

Fortunately, I decided to investigate further and found a very nice gentleman in the gatehouse, who pointed me to the newly opened sections of the park. Some parts of the park will not open until late summer/early fall, but set out to explore the Discovery Farm and the trails inside the park, as well as the many historical notes posted throughout.

What we discovered was a very nice open space that reflects a lovely gift to the community from the Cottle family, who had farmed this land continuously for 150 years until the final descendant, Walter Cottle Lester, passed away last year. The Cottles had persistently resisted the efforts of developers to purchase their approximately 300 acres of prime real estate, believing instead that the land should maintain a tie to its agricultural history and be preserved for future generations. Ultimately, they donated the land to the State and to Santa Clara County for the creation of this park.

While the offerings for toddlers are limited at this point, plans for the future -- rumored to include a community garden and a 4H farm -- when combined with the Discovery Farm play area, multiple picnic spots and huge grassy areas, will make this a very pleasant outing for families in the South Bay.

Here's what you can find at the park now, and what is in the works for the future.

Current Offerings (as of May 2015)

  • The Discovery Farm. This is definitely the high point of the park for kids right now, and may remain so in the future (though a 4H farm woulddefinitely be a challenger). The Discovery Farm is not an actual farm, but instead the park's play area -- not a playground exactly, but a fun spot for kids to explore.

    The Discovery Farm has three sections. The first (above) is composed of a couple of simple wooden climbing and balancing features with a very basic, natural appeal. There are logs placed for almost ground-level balancing (a good, safe place for toddlers to work on their skills), as well as a log climbing structure that is very pleasant to look at, but will be challenging for all but the oldest, most agile toddlers. (Most of the playground area is rated for 5-12 years -- I think 4-7 year olds would enjoy it the most.)

    There is also a very small wooden cubical climbing structure, which is really only large enough for one child to use at a time.

    Finally, there is a hollow tree feature, with a cutout entry, which could serve as a fun pretend play house (but again, there's not a lot of room for multiple kids to play at once.) While it's not obvious from ground level, the tree actually has a fun lookout area at the top too (though toddlers won't be able to see over the edge unassisted), accessible by climbing up the grassy hill.

    The second play area (below) is the most farm-ish, with a fun tractor feature and barnyard animals to climb on and run around.

    The tractor will be tough for most toddlers to climb onto unassisted, but with some help up, they'll enjoy riding in the engine compartment or driving up in the seat. The tractor is on springs, but to make it bounce requires more weight than most toddlers can offer -- so mom or dad, climb on up!

    The third play area (below) doesn't really have a theme -- there is a replica of an old, dilapidated house (which, again, could be fun for pretend play), a circle of stumps, and an actual redwood tree on its side for kids to climb through (which is already losing its bark in large quantities -- I'll be interested to see its condition in a year).

    Finally, there is a Golden Retriever that your toddler can climb upon, perhaps getting it out of his or her system and saving your pup at home from the same treatment.

    On the side of the farm-ish area, there's a neat pump-operated water spout feature, but that wasn't working during our visit, and I'm not sure what their plans are for it, given the drought.

    All areas of the Discovery Farm have tanbark for the ground covering, and none are fenced (though they're carefully tucked back from the parking lot or anything dangerous). There is NO shade on the Discovery Farm area at this point, though it looks like some recently planted trees may offer a bit in the future.

    It's important for prospective visitors to know that this is not a typical playground -- there are no swings, slides or basic playground climbing features at the Discovery Farm, and if you're looking for a normal playground experience, you may be disappointed. While there's not anything particularly concerning for toddlers (most will be unable to get very high on the log structure, so there's probably little need to worry about falls), there also may not be a whole lot to engage them after their initial interest in the animals and unique structures wears off. It's very visually appealing for parents, and I loved our time there, but to be totally honest, Toddler X wasn't a huge fan -- he enjoyed the play area while his little friends were there to run around with, but after they left, he lost interest quickly (not normally the case with playgrounds).
  • Walking Paths. A paved path around (almost) the perimeter of the park was one of the first features to open several months ago, and the opening of the central portion of the park offers some extensions to that. The parts of the path that I saw were very nice and new, and would be great for scooters or bikes -- with the BIG exception of the parts that had been overtaken by geese, and were covered with poop. Yuck. Dogs are welcome in the park on a 6 foot leash, and if you have a pup who is particularly adept at scaring off geese, I encourage you to bring him on down!

    I wasn't able to get a sense of the distance of the paths combined. As far as I could tell, there is no shade over any part of the path. If you do plan to walk the perimeter path, know that it does not extend from Chynoweth to Branham along Snell -- you'll find yourself just walking on the shoulder of the road. Now that the park is open, you can cut through the middle instead, but that will obviously take off a good bit of distance.

    A lovely new trail, marred by geese
    The offenders
  • Picnic Areas. One of the main features of the park appears to be an abundance of nice, large, reservable picnic areas for groups, with bbqs and tables (and some with roofs overhead to provide shade). I'm not sure if these are open for reservation yet. There are also some first come, first served picnic tables spread throughout the park.

  • Grassy Fields. The park is covered with very pleasant large lawns, which are hopefully being irrigated with recycled water -- there is a lot of green out there! Unfortunately, many areas of the lawn are still growing and are off limits to foot traffic. I believe there are some areas that are accessible right now, but they were watering during our visit, so we didn't get to try them out. I think they will be lovely for picnics, tossing a Frisbee, kicking a soccer ball, blowing bubbles, and all kinds of other fun outdoor pursuits -- just bring your sunblock, 'cause until those little trees grow, there is NO shade.

  • Historical Documentation. There are lots of interesting tidbits throughout the park documenting the history of farming in the area, the experience of the Cottle family, and the prior uses of the land on which the park in located. If you can get your toddler to stand still while you read the timeline near the Visitor Center, you're a better parent than I.
  • The Beginnings of Orchards. There are newly planted orchards in two areas of the park, one by the parking lot, and the other by the Discovery Farm. It will be wonderful to watch these trees grow and blossom in the years to come!

  • Some Farming Activity. Ultimately, large parts of the park property will be leased out for agricultural uses, but it looks like right now much of it is fallow, with the exception being the field at the corner at Snell and Branham. We could see some farmers working there when we visited the other day, but it is fenced off from the main part of the park and there is nothing interactive for toddlers. One of the goals of the park is to teach children about the land's agricultural past, and I think it would be very cool if they could somehow create viewing areas that identify what's being grown on each plot of land, with maybe a bit of information about the annual farming cycle or displays of the implements used to plant and harvest the crops. Otherwise, the farming aspect sort of seems separated from the park aspect, and I'm not sure kids will learn a whole lot from it.
  • Basic Amenities. There are bathrooms open right now (very clean and pleasant, and they include diaper changing stations in both the men's and women's).

    Even a little seat to contain your toddler while you use the restroom!

    Parking is available in the lot accessible via Snell, near the Branham intersection. Parking is free now and will be throughout the summer. Once the rest of the park features are installed, there will be a $6 charge for parking, like at other county parks. At that point, many people might choose to park on one of the streets bordering the park and walk in via the paths.
What is NOT there: GARBAGE CANS!! Yep, it's true -- they opened the park without a garbage can anywhere! Not at the Discovery Farm, not at the picnic areas, not even in the bathrooms (despite the presence of changing tables -- looks like you'll be hauling dirty diapers around for the duration of your visit). Toddler X and I did a walk around most of the open areas of the park, and we didn't see a single trash receptacle. As we were leaving, we asked the ranger on duty, and he said he was sure that some would be installed soon, but for the present, be prepared to carry out your trash!
[Update! I just heard from a reader that garbage cans have been installed -- I never thought I'd care so much about trash receptacles!]

What's Yet to Come

The core areas of the publicly-accessible part of the park (large swaths will be leased out for agricultural uses, and most of that will likely not be open to the public) are open, but there is still more development on the horizon. I've heard stories of a community garden and a 4H farm, which -- if it's like the 4H areas at McClellan Ranch, Emma Prusch Farm Park and Westmont High -- would be a bit hit with toddlers. I imagine they'll probably spice up the Visitor Center a bit more, as right now it's kind of bare.

As the trees grow and begin to provide some shade, this park will become more and more appealing for families. Finishing the perimeter trail, so that people can walk all around the outside of the park without resorting to the dirt road shoulder, would also make this a wonderful workout/play combination for parents.

But even now, without development complete, this is a really neat place, and worth a visit (though probably not if it's a particularly long drive). Once September arrives, parking will be $6, so you might as well check it out now when it's brand spanking new, totally uncrowded, and free!

Happy toddling!

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