Saturday, August 22, 2015

Family Adventure: Boating at Vasona Lake (Los Gatos)

A duck's eye view of Vasona Lake
Vasona Lake County Park in Los Gatos, with its huge lawns, abundant picnic tables, pleasant creek (parts of which are great for splashing), playground, wonderful running/biking/walking trail, and easy footbridge access to Oak Meadow (with a train, carousel and playground of its own), is a South Bay treasure, and one that we visit often. But one of the park's most prominent features -- Vasona Lake -- had just been scenery for us until today, when we decided to conquer its waves and set sail on the tides aboard a bright red pedal boat.

Okay, so the waves were little more than ripples, and the tides were...well, non-existent, but hey, there was a stiff breeze that gave me quite a workout getting back to port (Mr. X was on toddler management duty). But the whole family had a wonderful time during our one hour asea, so much so that Toddler X was trying desperately to steer us away from the dock when it was time to return. We will definitely be doing this again, and I encourage you to check it out as well.

Here's what you need to know:

Cost: The boat house at Vasona, operated by the Los Gatos-Saratoga Recreation Department, rents pedal boats ($15), kayaks/canoes ($15), stand up paddle boards ($15), rowboats ($20), sailboats ($20), and four passenger sailboats ($25) by the hour for use on Vasona Lake. (We chose a red, sparkly pedal boat.) They take cash, check, Visa and Mastercard.

Note that there is also a parking charge of $6 at Vasona (we bought a county parks season pass for $90 a few months ago, and it's been nice to have -- if you visit our local parks frequently, definitely consider it). You can park in various outside locations and walk in, but the convenience of parking right behind the boat house with a toddler is probably worth $6.

Capacity: The pedal boats seat 4 max (2 adults and 2 children), and that number would be comfortable on the spacious, well-balanced boats. The kayaks seat 1 or 2 people, and the canoes up to 3, but I'd be worried about a mobile toddler on a less stable vessel. The rowboats seat 3, and the sailboats seat 2 and 4 depending on the size.

The experience: Start off by paying at the boat house, located on the opposite side of Vasona Lake from the playground (signs throughout the park as you drive in will guide you there ). Next, grab life jackets for your party from the bins outside (everyone is supposed to have one; kids under 12 must actually wear them).

Boarding the pedal boats is easy at the little dock -- the boats are very stable, buoyant, and well-balanced. We had no problem climbing from front to back and switching places onboard, even out on the lake (which was a must, because Toddler X constantly wanted to try a different vantage point). Barring some big error, you won't get wet at all on this adventure.

The boats are easy to pedal and easy to steer. Both front passenger seats have pedals, so you can split the effort, but if you have a toddler with you, be prepared to have an adult assigned to supervision duty -- there are no seatbelts, railings, etc., and even though the water isn't deep, you really don't want to go into it.

You're instructed to stay 15 feet from shore, and to go no further than the bridge. There's plenty to explore. We cruised over to the island close to the dam and found lots of cool birds as we circled around it, including (I think) two blue herons.

I've become a birder!
We enjoyed watching dragonboats training, people stand up paddleboarding, dogs walking along the shore, schools of little fish swimming underneath us (a few were jumping out of the water), and birds diving for those fish. At first, I wondered what on earth we were going to do with a full hour out there, but as it turned out, we got back to the dock with just two minutes to spare -- it was more fun that we were expecting.

Appropriate ages: All ages are welcome, though kids 12 and under must wear a life jacket, and I'm not sure if they'd have appropriate ones for infants (the toddler one we used fit Toddler X fine and would work on a 2 year old for sure). We saw younger toddlers on the boats with their families, but if you have a really young one and are concerned, I'd say to call first.

Parking: There is a large parking lot located right behind the boathouse -- signs will guide you there as you drive through Vasona. As stated above, there is a $6 parking fee at Vasona.

Hours: Boat rentals are available daily during the summer months (June through mid-August), and then weekends only from the spring through early fall (in 2015, it's April 4th - October 11th). Weekend hours are 11:00 a.m. - 6:00 p.m., with the last rental going out at 5:00. (Check here for the current schedule.)

Crowds: We arrived just after 11 a.m. on a beautiful Saturday, and were the third family out on the lake, though it began to fill up quickly with various types of watercraft. By the time that we returned at 12:10, all but three or four of the pedal boats were out, but the first wave of families was finishing up -- in other words, at no point during our stay would there have been a wait. I can't speak for mid-summer, but given our experience today, I suspect that you could easily get a rental most days.

Making a day of it: As I mentioned in the first paragraph, there are an endless number of family-friendly activities to enjoy at Vasona. Today, after our nautical adventure, we had a picnic in the shade on a large lawn right near the boat dock, then Toddler X ran up and down the big hill nearby, blew bubbles, stomped on our stomp rocket (launching leaves is a new favorite activity!), and enjoyed rides on both his scooter and his balance bike (Vasona's paths are great for both) before we headed home.

Other Vasona activities could include romping on the playground, splashing in the creek, fishing, or visiting the Youth Science Institute, and a walk across the footbridge to Oak Meadow Park adds on options such as the Billy Jones Wildcat Railroad, the Mason Carousel, and a huge playground, complete with an airplane that's been there since I was a kid.

Overall, we had a wonderful outing today and will definitely be back soon!

(Note: Other local lakes that rent pedal boats include Shoreline Lake in Mountain View and Lake Elizabeth in Fremont. Shoreline takes reservations, but when I got online to make one this morning at 9:30, they were booked until 4 p.m. I'm not sure if they accommodate walk-ups if there are cancellations, but I prefer Vasona's first come, first served philosophy. Lake Elizabeth's policy seems to be like Vasona's.)

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