Saturday, July 25, 2015

Toddler Travel: Playgrounds of Lake Tahoe (North/West Shores)

A great find in Truckee!
During our two weeks at Tahoe last summer, I made it a point to scope out some of the playgrounds on the North Shore (primarily Truckee and Tahoe City areas) and West Shore (from Tahoe City to Homewood). While "nature's playground" is obviously our go-to outing up in the Sierras (we spend whole days just splashing in the Truckee River and exploring trails wherever we are), sometimes it's fun to check out what other parts of the state offer in terms of organized play areas -- 'cause that's kind of my specialty, right?

Here are the good and the...um, not-so-good.

North Shore

Truckee Regional Park


A fantastic park and a must-do for any families with young kids who are visiting the Truckee area! 

With multiple play structures (including a challenging one for older kids and a more toddler-appropriate one for the littles), baby and big kid swings and a large and fun sand area with cool climbing features, the playground has everything a family could ask for.





The park as a whole has even more: a beautiful, pine tree-shaded setting, with picnic tables and bbqs, a frisbee golf course, paths leading down toward the Truckee River, and (if you head toward said paths) a great view of the trains cruising by on the opposite side of the river. (Just watch out for disc golfers playing the course.)
A toddler-friendly path extending from the play area down toward the Truckee River -- just watch out for flying discs!
One more big plus: Last summer, when we were visiting, they were putting the finishing touches on a little train that was to run around the perimeter of the playground. I look forward to seeing it in action this year! (Note: A reader reports that the train is operational now. but only on Saturdays. If you're around on a weekend, check it out!)



Pros: All of the above features, plus ample parking, bathrooms, a lovely setting, and easy access from Brockway Road (a short distance from downtown Truckee, and also a short distance from Highway 267 -- only maybe 5 minutes off Highway 80 at the 267 exit if you need a break on a long drive.

Cons: Tanbark ground surface, playground isn't fenced (but not very close to street).

Conclusion: A great park in a beautiful setting.


Katie's Playground, Truckee Airport

Another must-do for families staying in the Truckee/Northstar area. Katie's Playground, located on the grounds of the Truckee Airport (just a mile or two from Truckee Regional Park, above) is TOTALLY under the radar, invisible unless you drive out to the airport in Martis Valley (and who randomly does that?). The playground itself is delightful, with a super cute forest theme and lots of fun features, and it adjoins a nice lawn for running about. The creative and unique structure is enjoyable for older kids (my 8 year old niece joined us), but very accessible and safe for the little ones too.





Beyond the cute play structure, Katie's Playground has one huge draw that may be totally unique among playgrounds: it's located at an airport, with the runway only 30 or 40 yards from the play structure (yes, it's fenced off). We watched families and pilots board small planes, watched them take off and land, and even got to see a helicopter warm up and take off just a few feet away from us -- so cool!


You can watch the airport activities from the playground area, or head inside the airport building for viewing from the observation deck. If your toddler visits the airport information booth upstairs and asks nicely, they just might give him or her a glider or two (because the first one is guaranteed to break pretty much immediately) to fly off the balcony -- tons of fun! (Bathrooms are also available inside the terminal.)



Another huge plus of this park: the airport restaurant, Red Truck Cafe, is FANTASTIC! It's just inside the airport terminal, across the lawn from the playground, and you can choose to eat indoors or grab your food to go and eat at one of the outdoor picnic tables (some are upstairs on the observation deck -- a great, shady place to have lunch). The menu is sort of food truck gourmet (I believe it actually started as a food truck), and the naan-wich is to die for.




Only cons of the park: no shade on the actual playground (it was hot when we were there -- though fortunately you can go inside the restaurant and terminal for some relief), no swings. 

Conclusion: Definitely a fun adventure, especially for airplane-loving tots. 

Squaw Valley Community Park


Located just inside the entrance to Squaw Valley from Highway 89 (turn in at the Olympic rings, then take your first left into the parking lot), this is an average (but still fun) playground, and a good option if you're staying at Squaw or in the vicinity.




The playground features a mediocre toddler structure (partly in need of repair when we visited last summer, but with a couple of fun features), a pretty nice big kid structure (much of which is pretty toddler-friendly), two toddler and two big kid swings and a cute little playhouse. The tunnel on the toddler structure was a big hit with the local wildlife.


There's also a great turf field just up the hill from the playground if your toddler needs to burn some energy, with some shady picnic benches located alongside and a lovely setting.



The playground is located just across Highway 89 from the start of the great Truckee River trail, so it would be a good spot to let your toddler run around before strapping him or her into the stroller or bike seat for a cruise down the trail.

Pros: Structures are reasonably fun, Squaw as a whole is a great place to visit, parking is convenient, bathrooms are available.

Cons: No shade on structures, tanbark, structures are a bit run-down. Though the setting is beautiful Tahoe, you do get quite a bit of noise from nearby Highway 89.

Conclusion: This playground is located not too far from Tahoe City and Truckee, and the great playgrounds located in both (see above and below). If you're staying at Squaw and need some playground time, this is a fine option, but if you're coming from Truckee or Tahoe City, it's not worth the drive.

Commons Beach Playground, Tahoe City



One of our favorite places to play at Tahoe! It's tough to imagine a prettier playground view than the one from Commons Beach's playground in downtown Tahoe City. Toddler X has spent more hours here than at any other playground at Tahoe, and it's always lots of fun.


Given that Commons Beach is the centerpiece of Tahoe City's lakefront area, it's not surprising that the playground is bustling all summer long -- and often, it's downright packed. Fortunately it's a large space, and its location right along the beach gives kids lots of room to spread out with other beachy activities (playing with rocks is a particularly fun pastime here). 



The playground features plenty of options for both big kids and little. There is a fun toddler play structure, a couple of spring toys, a sandbox area (though ringed in rocks that just scream "head injury!" to me), and a cascade-type water feature that doesn't actually include the water -- usually some older kids (or moms) run over to the water fountains or (big tip -- it's much quicker) bathroom sinks right next to the playground and bring back bucketfuls for play.




The water feature -- bring your own water!
For big kids, there's a nice, feature-rich big kid structure and a huge climbing rock. There are big kid and baby swings with one heck of a view.



Across from the playground is a large grass area (cut very short), some sandy beach, then a rocky area leading into the water (with the water so low due to the drought, the rocky area is extended). Toddler X could play with the rocks here forever.




Finally, the playground is located right along the path that can take you all through Tahoe City, and, in fact, much further down the North and West shores. We usually combine the playground with some shopping and lunch at one of our Tahoe City favorites (see shops and restaurants section).

Oh, and if your kiddos act up, you can always threaten to send them to the original Tahoe City jail, located right next to the park.



Pros: Pretty much everything. We love this park.

Cons: Can get crowded. Tanbark ground cover. Keep an eye on your kids, as the playground is not fenced, there are large groups of people moving by on the path, and the water is not too far away. If you aren't staying in walking distance, parking in Tahoe City can be kind of a hassle on busy summer days.

Pomin Park, Lake Forest Glen


Quick summary: Don't go out of your way to visit this playground, located adjacent to the Lake Forest Glen boat launch. If you're already there to launch a boat or have a picnic at the tables on the rocky beach, then by all means, stop by. But besides that, it's simply not worth a visit. The playground is composed of one medium-sized (though nice and very new) structure, geared primarily toward older kids, situated a few feet from a busy parking lot, with no fencing, no landscaping, and no shade. In a land of beautiful settings, this play area's placement is pretty unfortunate.


The rocky beach, located down a path and across a bridge, has picnic tables and lots of nice smooth stones for throwing in the lake, but the playground is definitely not the draw here.

Conclusion: Don't bother.

West Shore

Kilner Park


We really enjoyed this playground, situated in a lovely wooded area right off Highway 89 at Ward Avenue (on the opposite side of 89 from the lake). With two play structures, big kid and baby swings, picnic tables and bbqs, a sand volleyball court, a tennis court, and a good amount of shade on the playground area (a ton in the woodsy areas that form the rest of the park), this place definitely has a Tahoe-ish feel. It was completely empty during our visit (just one other family there), and it may be a good option for families staying in/around Tahoe City who get overwhelmed by the crowds at the Commons Beach playground. There are bathrooms, and parking is convenient.


Little kid structure

The little kid play structure is fun and, aside from one chest-high opening, is very well-enclosed. The big kid structure, located a short distance away, has a very very high twisty slide, but even that is well-enclosed at the top. This would be a great park for a family with kids of multiple ages, as you could supervise the whole playground from pretty much any vantage point (including from the shade).


Big kid structure
Pros: Lovely, woodsy Tahoe setting, fun play structures, shade. Easy parking.

Cons: Not many. Tanbark ground covering, if I had to think of one.

Conclusion: Worth a visit if you're looking for a relaxing Tahoe playground experience.

Rideout Community Center

An incredible indoor/outdoor option that we were lucky enough to discover one rainy day last summer, the Community Center features an outdoor playground (average, but fun) and a complete indoor recreation facility that has a ton to offer kids (and adults, for that matter). For a small fee, you have access to a toddler playroom (tons of toys, climbing features, puzzles, games and more -- think a mini Duck Pond), foos ball and ping pong, and a gym with basketballs. (I think there were other features too, which we didn't check out.) Unfortunately, I somehow deleted all my photos of this great spot, but trust me, it's a winner for a rainy day during your Tahoe trip.

Marie Sluchak Community Playground

Of all the playgrounds we visited last summer, this one, located by Homewood, was the least impressive. Though it has a lovely setting amid tall pine trees, the playground is small (a basic play structure, no swings or sandbox or anything), antiquated, and, far worse, un-fenced, even though it's located in sort of a "Y" of cross-streets -- we had to keep a close eye on Toddler X the whole time. There is a nice little amphitheater and picnic tables, but not bathrooms (other than a porta-potty) and nothing really to recommend this park for toddlers. Conclusion: Not worth the trip. (These were among the deleted photos as well. Sorry.)

There are still many playgrounds we have yet to visit along the North and West shores, and I'd love input from my readers on which ones to prioritize.

Happy toddling!

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