A superb playground and carousel, carnivorous plants, paddle-boat rides beside paddling ducks, a simple wooden structure that delights both children and adults for big, wonderful chunks of time – there may be no better bet for family fun than Golden Gate Park.
Starting four blocks from Haight and Ashbury streets, a landmark that to put it mildly lacks a kid-friendly vibe, the 1,107-acre rectangular greenbelt stretches 3 miles westward to the Pacific Ocean. In this great municipal park, guardians can let their guard down. Maybe not all the way down, but enough to be able to focus on enjoying the park’s many attractions.
My family, which includes a 7-year-old, went there twice in recent weeks and sampled as many sites as we could manage. Golden Gate Park is roughly bisected by Highway 1, and we restricted our movement, which covered a lot of ground, to the eastern side.
Here are five attractions in the order we experienced them, and two others we couldn’t squeeze into our visits.
Play and plants
Koret Children’s Quarter, which was built in 1888, is thought to be one of the country’s oldest public playgrounds, although its huge play structure is modern and in good repair.
On a Saturday afternoon in early June, my family went to the playground with friends Camilla Kendall and her 5-year-old daughter, Gia Nichols, of Rancho Cordova. Gia and my daughter, Prairie, made good use of the rock waves and two cement slides down which kids glide (pretty slowly; it’s not anywhere near bobsled-esque). They also took a couple of spins on the neighboring Herschell-Spillman Carousel, which was constructed in 1914 and operated in Los Angeles and Portland before being installed at Golden Gate Park in 1940.
Kendall, an animal rights activist, called the carousel incredible, pointing out it “had anything from a cat to a wild boar to ride. And after all, the only way to ride any animal is on a carousel!”
Tracy resident Cindy Cornejo and her 7-year-old daughter, Ellyana, climbed to the top of a cone-shaped rope structure in the middle of the playground.
“I used to come here when I was younger,” the mother told me after gingerly descending. “I really wanted to bring her here to experience this.”
A 20-minute walk away, the lush 5-acre Japanese Tea Garden and its striking five-story pagoda offered other serene delights.
Gia and Prairie became fixated with what they referred to as the circular bridge (although it’s actually shaped more like half an oval, round side up, and some would call it a moon or drum bridge). Up and over they went, again and again, giggling, as did many older people who seemed to find the steep, wooden structure a perfect place to pose for photographs.
Beneath the bridge, koi provided more photo ops, their bright-orange scales pairing nicely with all the surrounding deep-green foliage. Staring at the pond’s banks, they seemed to be waiting to be fed once the garden closed and the tourists had departed.
Created in 1894, the tea garden is also the oldest such site in the United States. The pagoda dates from the Panama-Pacific International Exposition of 1915, and the bronze Buddha sculpture behind it was cast in Japan in 1790.
Closer to the playground, the Conservatory of Flowers is Golden Gate Park’s oldest building. Its white, curvy, windows-and-metal exterior has served as a signature sight since 1879, with about 1,700 species of aquatic and tropical plants.
The conservatory’s kids booklet “Tropical Trekkers!” offers visitors a checklist of activities, with two pages devoted to dinosaurs and their diet – ferns and cycads – 200 million years ago.
“How do we know what dinosaurs ate?” the booklet asks. “Scientists look at fossilized dino dung, called ‘coprolites,’ for evidence of plants or bones from prey animals.” Sure enough, next to that description is a photograph of a 7-inch-long pile of a fossilized No. 2.
Waiting inside are such marvels as the purple, dangling insect-eaters broadly identified as pitcher plants.
“On land, carnivorous plants catch gnats, flies, moths and, rarely, small animals,” explains a sign, neatly weaving education with the “ew” factor. “In water, the plants ‘eat’ mosquito larvae and other tiny, aquatic organisms. Nearly all these plants dissolve their prey with enzymes and absorb the nutrients.”
Through Oct. 16, the conservatory’s special exhibit in the west wing is “The Wild Bunch: Succulents, Cacti & Fat Plants.”
We also enjoyed strolling around 12-acre Stow Lake and scoping out all the ducks, paddle-boaters and rowers there. Human-made in 1893, the roundish lake contains Strawberry Island and its 110-foot waterfall and walking path, which is accessible via handsome stone bridges.
We encountered our only disappointment at the San Francisco Botanical Garden at Strybing Arboretum, a 55-acre site that opened in 1940. We were impressed with the 8,000 varieties of bushes and trees, including the Australian section, certainly, and there is boundless room for children to run off energy and explore nature. But we got frustrated in trekking to the children’s area tucked as far as possible from where we entered at the main gate, with minimal and confusing signage. When we finally got there, we found its sand pits and olfactory garden bereft of children and looking derelict.
Along the way, though, our daughter was happily distracted by a black, orange-spotted insect that inched across a path in the California Native area of the garden. The pipeline swallowtail butterfly caterpillars, we learned, eat plants that make they themselves toxic to any creature that deigns to eat them.
For most children, that’s cool trivia.
The California Academy of Sciences and de Young Museum, both on the park’s eastern half, are kid-friendly attractions, too. The academy contains an aquarium, planetarium and natural history museum, and is chock-a-block with opportunities for children to sow scientific seeds into their developing minds. San Francisco Recreation & Parks calls the current version of the academy, which opened in 2008, the world’s largest “green” museum due to its sod-covered roof, solar panels and other eco-sensitive design elements.
The de Young’s building is three years older, and includes a 144-foot-tall tower from which visitors can look across the park and city. The museum offers several programs for children, including two 90-minute Saturday classes in art techniques and appreciation geared toward 4- to 12-year-olds.
Walking around the park all morning is a good way to build an appetite. Answering that call are several snack bars, including one by the carousel that serves hot dogs (both traditional and vegan) and pretzels. A few food trucks park behind the band shell at Spreckels Temple of Music; we sampled samosas (two for $4) and chana masala ($8) from the Annakoot Indian truck. There was also a coffee/pastry stand and a Sam’s Chowder Mobile with lobster rolls ($13-$18) and fish ’n’ chips ($11.25-$14.50).
The Japanese Tea Garden’s very popular cafe sells, of course, cups of tea (genmaicha, hojicha, jasmine and sencha). They cost $3.25 to $4.99. Food items such as soup, edamame, green tea cheesecake and sandwiches run from $3.95 to $8.99.
The boathouse has a snack bar, and both museums contain cafes.
After our two visits, we concluded that our wish list of seven sites had been too ambitious for the time we had allotted. It is remotely possible you could see all those things in one day, but unless you are willing to short-change most of them (or you are a marathoner and your kids star on their schools’ cross-country teams), be choosy.
The playground/carousel, it should be noted, might be of little interest to teenagers.
If you park in one spot for the day and walk among the park’s eastern-half attractions, wear proper footwear and, if your children are young enough, bring a stroller. One Sunday we parked (for free) on Kezar Drive near the playground and walked, all told, nearly 7 miles to and from Stow Lake.
Assuming you and your kids have any patience and energy left, at the end of the day drive to the park’s northwest corner and check out the Dutch Windmill and nearby Murphy Windmill. Seeing them, coupled with the sun setting over the Pacific Ocean across the street, make a great cap to a day in the park.
Call The Bee’s Reed Parsell, 916-321-1163.
Golden Gate Park highlights
1. Conservatory of Flowers is at 100 John F. Kennedy Drive. Admission is $8 general, $6 for ages 12-17, $2 for ages 5-11, and free for ages 4 and younger. Hours are 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Tuesdays through Sundays; it’s also open on Memorial and Labor days. When a volunteer is available, tours are offered at 11 a.m., 12:30 and 2:30 p.m. For more information, call 415-831-2090 or visit conservatoryofflowers.org.
2. De Young Museum is at 50 Hagiwara Tea Garden Drive. Admission is $15 general, $10 for ages 65-plus, $6 for college students with ID, and free for ages 17 and younger. Audio tours are $8. Hours are 9:30 a.m. to 5:15 p.m. Tuesdays through Sundays; it’s also open Labor Day, Dec. 19 and Dec. 26. For more information, call 415-750-3600 or visit deyoung.famsf.org.
3. California Academy of Sciences is at 55 Music Concourse Drive. Admission is $34.95 general; $29.95 for ages 12-17, students, and ages 65-plus; $24.95 for ages 4-11; and free for ages 3 and younger. Hours are 9:30 a.m. to 5 p.m. Mondays through Saturdays, and 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. Sundays. For more information, call 415-379-8000 or visit calacademy.org.
4. Japanese Tea Garden is at 75 Hagiwara Tea Garden Drive. Admission is $8 general, 6 for ages 12-17, $2 for ages 5-11, and free for ages 4 and younger. Hours are 9 a.m. to 6 p.m. daily (through November; last entry is 4:45 p.m. December through March). For more information, call 415-752-1171 or visit japaneseteagardensf.com.
5. Koret Children’s Quarter Playground is off Kezar Drive, north of Kezar Stadium. It is free and always open. The nearby Herschell-Spillman Carousel offers rides from 10 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. daily through Labor Day, and Fridays through Sundays from then until Memorial Day weekend. Rides are $2 general, $1 for ages 6-12, and free for ages 5 and younger if accompanied by a paying adult. For more information, call 415-831-5500 or visit sfrecpark.org.
6. San Francisco Botanical Garden at Strybing Arboretum is at 1199 Ninth Ave. Admission is $8 general, $6 for ages 12-17 and 65-plus, $2 for ages 5-11, and free for ages 4 and younger. Hours are 7:30 a.m. to 5 p.m. daily (through early November; last entry is at 4 p.m. from the first Sunday in November through January, 5 p.m. from then until early March, and until 6 p.m. starting the second Sunday in March). Free tours depart daily at 1:30 p.m. from the Main Gate, weather permitting. For more information, call 415-661-1316 or visit sfbotanicalgarden.org.
7. Stow Lake Boathouse is at 50 Stow Lake Drive. Hours are 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Mondays through Thursdays, and 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. Fridays through Sundays. Rentals cost $21.50 an hour for rowboats, $27 per hour for standard pedal boats, and $37 per hour for both electric boats and pedal boats that hold up to six people. For more information, call 415-386-2531 or visit stowlakeboathouse.com.