Sunday, July 2, 2017

Everywhere a "Moo, Moo": Best Places to Meet Farm Animals in the South Bay (and beyond)

In terms of fun family outings, it's hard to beat a trip to a farm or petting zoo. Usually inexpensive (or even free!), these mini-adventures let our kids interact with animals rarely seen (but often talked/sung about) in their day-to-day suburban lives. Fortunately, the South Bay and its environs offer many options for farm animal fun, and we have visited almost all of them. Below are some recommendations and tips for your next family adventure.

(And if you're looking for a gift for a little farm-lover, check out my post on our favorite farm-related toys and books for young kids!)

Hidden Villa Farm
Hidden Villa, Los Altos. One of our family's favorite local adventures (of any type, not just farms) is Hidden Villa Farm. Nestled in a bucolic setting in the Los Altos hills, Hidden Villa features a slew of farm animals -- sheep, goats, cows, chickens, and pigs -- in a wide-spread, natural farm environment. While you generally can't enter the animal pens (with the exception of the chickens -- they run free in a large enclosure that visitors can enter), the animals as a whole are very accessible. You can pet the sheep through the bars of their pen (see photo above), and get within a foot of huge hogs. (Note that Hidden Villa does offer special programs and weekend farm tours during which guests interact with the animals -- see the calendar on their website for details.)

The farm also has a really cool education garden (see section on horticulture, coming soon), really great spots for creek splashing (see my post on splashing favorites), hiking trails (beware -- some of them are distinctly not stroller-friendly), and just a really nice vibe. There are picnic tables and portable restrooms spread out throughout the farm (there is one real restroom too). You can spend hours here, visiting animals, splashing, eating, relaxing...and yes, playing.

Admission is free, but parking is $10 (an increase from years past) -- bring cash and pay at the box if the attendant isn't there. There is a dirt trail from the parking lot leading up to the animals, so wear good shoes and, if you bring a stroller, bring a sturdy one. The farm is generally open Tuesday through Sunday (closed Mondays) throughout the year -- however, during the summer it is closed on weekdays and many weekends due to camp activity. The only summer weekends that the farm is open are July 1-2, 15-16, 22-23 and August 5-6.

There are often fun programs, including weekend farm tours, that allow you to get closer to the animals or learn about farm-related topics in a family-friendly setting -- check the calendar for details.

Definitely one of our top picks for a family adventure!
Deer Hollow
Deer Hollow Farm, Los Altos. Another nearby favorite, Deer Hollow is tucked within Rancho San Antonio Open Space Preserve, a short and easy one mile "hike" (more like walk) from the parking areas. Deer Hollow has sheep, goats, pigs, chickens and ducks, and cows. Like Hidden Villa's animals, these are easy to see through the bars of their pens. Again like Hidden Villa, the vibe is very pleasant and relaxed. The farm is very compact, well-suited to little kids. There are picnic tables in the barn next to the farm and two very smelly bathrooms nearby (normal bathrooms are located down by the parking lots).

Parking and admission are free. Bring a stroller or carrier for kids under, maybe, 4 years old -- the walk isn't hard, but parking at farther lots (because the closer ones can be packed) can add to the trek, especially on the way back to the car.

Deer Hollow is closed on Mondays and on Wednesday afternoons; otherwise, it's open from 8:00-4:00. Even when the farm is closed, you can see the goats and sometimes the other animals from the other side of the fence.

Aside from Deer Hollow, Rancho San Antonio offers a wide array of hiking trails of different lengths and levels of difficulty -- it's one of our favorite places to go with kids in the BOB or carrier. The creek that flows through the park also offers a great splashing opportunity on the way up to Deer Hollow Farm -- look on the right-hand side of the trail near the footbridge for a gentle slope down to a perfect "beach". Rancho is also a great place to spot wildlife -- I don't think we've ever been here and not seen deer and wild turkeys.

Keep an eye out for posts about their special events -- there is usually a Halloween party and one or more Spring Farm Tours, when you can actually go in the pens to interact with the animals.

I have a full post where you can read more about a Deer Hollow excursion -- check it out here.

Emma Prusch Farm Park
Emma Prusch Farm Park, San Jose: This is a great option if you're looking for a free, nearby, easily-accessible farm animal encounter and you don't care as much about atmosphere. Emma Prusch is located right up against the 280/101 interchange, but houses a fun little (emphasis on little) farmyard with goats, pigs, chickens, geese, ducks, and rabbits. You can buy feed for the goats and chickens, though on busy days the goats get fed so much that at a certain point they stop being interested in what you're offering, which can be pretty disappointing for the kids. Watch out for the geese that fight for the chicken feed -- those things can be nasty!

In addition to the barnyard, there is a large red barn that houses 4H animals being raised by local students. There are usually cows, sheep, and pigs in there. You can't touch or feed them, but you can see them pretty close-up and be amused by their funny names.

The park as a whole offers a huge grassy area with a paved path around it (nice for a walk with strollers), picnic tables, restrooms, a playground (with a main play structure that is distinctly not toddler-friendly), a few tractors to climb on, and, around the back, a separate entity -- Veggielution -- that I'll write about in the horticulture section to come.

Happy Hollow
Happy Hollow Park and Zoo, San Jose. I'm guessing that the vast majority of my readers who have young kids and have lived here for any length of time have visited Happy Hollow. It's a San Jose institution that I remember visiting as a kid, and I can't count the number of times I've taken Toddler X since his first visit at 8 months old. It features a variety of options for toddler through 7 or 8 year old fun -- zoo animals, a petting zoo with farm animals, two playground areas (one with a fantastic, amazing, incredible big kid play structure), fun little kid rides (and a few that might amuse first and second graders as well), a large grassy meadow, and a beloved crooked house with a very fast slide.

Happy Hollow is in this category for the barnyard animals. It is definitely the closest spot where kids can really interact with furry friends. In the large goat enclosure, there are a bunch of (usually) friendly goats who are more than happy to eat the feed you can buy, and usually don't mind being brushed with the provided brushes either. There are also several other animals in the barnyard section, all of which can be fed through the bars of their pens (the goats are the only ones with which you can enter the enclosure). There are big water troughs with soap to wash hands afterwards, and I suggest you make use of them. Also, it's probably best to put your kids in alternate, washable shoes for their foray into the enclosure, as there is plenty of goat poop on the ground, and the last thing you want is that being tracked back into your car.

Happy Hollow admission is pretty reasonably priced ($14.25 for ages 2 and up), with discounts for seniors, AAA, military, and members of reciprocal zoos and aquariums, but many people choose to get a membership, which pays for itself in three visits (less if you take advantage of the discount in the cafe or store). The memberships are $40 per person, but if you buy 4 or more at one time, the price goes down to $35 per person, so get together with a friend and purchase together. The memberships are individual, not family, so you'll need to get them for kids 2 and up.

Parking at Happy Hollow is not cheap, at $10/day. You can buy an annual pass, which we did the year Toddler X was two and found it worthwhile, but unless you're planning at least 8 visits/year (or visits to Alum Rock Park or Almaden Lake Park, where the pass also works), it may be best just to cough up the one time fee at each visit. There is free street parking a short distance away, but we've always chosen to do the lots -- the last thing you want to do at the end of the day is push a crying, over-tired toddler to a distant parking space.

Hanging out with some kids at Ardenwood.
Ardenwood Historic Farm, Fremont. Though it's a bit farther of a trek than Happy Hollow, Ardenwood is definitely worth a trip (or more -- we've been there probably 10 times over the past four years, and enjoyed each and every visit). It is a full, working farm (you can come join the corn harvest in October -- awesome event!) with cows, sheep, goats, pigs, bunnies, and roaming chickens, turkeys, and peacocks. The animals are are pretty accessible (you don't go in the pens with them, but for the most part they're very close to the fences and there are easy viewing options), and the layout is spacious, but walkable. The setting is so pleasant and old-timey, despite the fact that busy I-880 is just a short distance away. I have a full post on Ardenwood here -- for more details, be sure to check it out. Also check out the calendar for upcoming events, including Toddler Tuesdays, which are a great opportunity to get to know the animals better.

Little Farm
Little Farm, Tilden Park, Berkeley. This is one of our favorite...well, little farms of all. Its name is appropriate in some ways -- the footprint is relatively small for the amount of animals it houses -- but it's far from "little" when it comes to variety, interaction, and fun (you actually get to feed the animals real food!!!). Obviously this is a bit farther from the South Bay than the other options, but Tilden Park has a LOT to offer -- a carousel, walking trails, a train, picnic areas, a lake, and more -- so it's a fun, outdoorsy day trip. Rather than doing a longer summary, I'll direct you to my full post about Little Farm -- check it out here.

Rolling Hills 4H Farm at McClellan Ranch
McClellan Ranch Preserve 4H Farm, Cupertino: This is an under-the-radar spot to see a limited number of farm animals -- I certainly wouldn't come here just for that purpose, but if you're here to visit Blackberry Farm (the pool or playground), walk the nice paved trail, see the nature center, or splash in Stevens Creek, it's definitely worth a little detour to see the Rolling Hills 4H animals at the farm. The animals you'll see will vary depending on what kids are raising at that time, but we've seen lots of goats, pigs, chickens, and I think I remember a miniature horse. The highlight for us here was the time we saw a student walking her goat on a leash, and Toddler X got to give it a treat.

Parking and admission are free, and since you're not really entering a special barnyard, just walking around the perimeter (make sure you walk around the back side, near the community garden, where the animals are closer and more visible), the hours are just the park hours. McClellan Ranch and Blackberry Farm (and the path linking them) form an enjoyable outing and one we have done many times.
    Westmont High School FFA Ag Farm. I've never been to this one, but I've heard from friends and readers that there is an FFA farm at Westmont High School . I'm not sure what the limitations are on visits, especially during school hours, but I do know it's there and perhaps worthy of investigation.

    San Francisco Zoo
    The San Francisco Zoo. The San Francisco Zoo has one of my favorite farm animal petting areas ever. I love how wide open it is, the variety of animals available for greeting, and how gentle they are with the kids. We've found the employees who work there to be very friendly and helpful. Just be careful if you leave your stroller outside the gate with some food inside -- at one visit, we found a very aggressive squirrel actually rummaging around in one of our bags! I have a full post on the SF Zoo if you'd like more information -- you can read it here.

    Lots of goats to love at Lemos Farm
    Lemos Farm, Half Moon Bay. A disclaimer: we have only been to Lemos Farm for Halloween, when it is converted into a pumpkin-laden theme park of sorts, but the farm is open on weekends year-round. (I see Groupons for it all the time.) At our visit a few years ago, the goats at Lemos were Toddler X's favorite part of a whole Half Moon Bay day -- they were gentle and sweet and happily ate the treats he offered (he was able to go into the pen and give them hugs, too). There are also pony rides (the type where they walk slowly around in a harnessed circle) and many other activities. If you're looking for a bit more of an expedition or day trip, heading to Half Moon Bay's beaches, with a stop at Lemos along the way, could be fun. And definitely search for that Groupon before you go! I have a full blog post about Lemos' Halloween set-up if you'd like to know more.

    Seasonal Farm Animal Outings

    Bunnies at Giordano Farms

     Pumpkin Patches and Halloween/Fall Festivals (Fall)

    If you've followed my blog for any length of time, you know that we love all things Fall and Halloween (in 2013, I believe we visited 10 or 11 different patches and had 27 pumpkins on our front stoop). One of our favorite aspects of pumpkin farm visits and fall festivals is the ever-present petting zoo. We've found some wonderful petting zoos around the South Bay, the Peninsula, and the coast -- from sweet bunnies at the Woodside Pumpkin Festival and the former Giordano Farms to baby pigs at Arata to llamas at Gilroy Gardens -- and though the residents are ever-changing, you're almost guaranteed to find some gentle animals that your child will enjoy.

    One of our annual favorites is the fall zoo at Gilroy Gardens -- it's as extensive a petting zoo as you could hope for, and entrance is just $5 per child. I have a full review of it here. For other options, keep an eye out come fall -- most pumpkin patches have one these days (at least on weekends), and I'll post updates and reviews whenever I see one. (For some of our top pumpkin patch picks, see this post.)

    Judging the livestock at the San Mateo County Fair
    State and County Fairs (Late spring through summer)

    While I think fairs are a blast -- the people watching itself is worth the cost of admission -- Mr. X isn't the hugest fan, so we don't go often. In fact, the only fair we've been to since Toddler X came along was the San Mateo County Fair a few years ago, and that was lots of fun. I'm going to make it a point to get to the Santa Clara County version this summer.

    Anyhow, if you're looking to see farm animals, there's no place (outside a farm) better than a fair! You can find pretty much any type of livestock, and you can even watch them being shown/judged/bid upon in some cases. I'm not sure if fairs generally have petting zoos, but I know the San Mateo County Fair had pony rides, and Toddler X really enjoyed his.

    As the summer continues, keep an eye out for the dates of the local and state fairs. Some to consider are the Santa Clara County Fair (August 3-6), Alameda County Fair (going on now until July 9th), Santa Cruz County Fair (September 13-17), Monterey County Fair (August 31 - September 4), and the California State Fair (July 14-30). (The Contra Costa County Fair was in May, and the San Mateo County Fair took place in mid-June.)

    Okay, folks, that's all I have for you on this topic! Hope you enjoyed the post!

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    Here, a moo. There, a moo.

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