The Ultimate Guide to Walnut Creek's Playgrounds

Patch writers—three moms and a granddad with kids in tow—tested Walnut Creek's notable playgrounds to give you a comprehensive view of each one.

What is Walnut Creek's best playground for the future rock climber or sports star? Where can a mom relax in the shade and and keep an eye on her active toddler while the little girl wears herself out before a nap?

Which playground offers the most convenience in terms of parking, restroom availability, things to do nearby once you're done pushing the kids on the swings? What safety issues do you have to think about at each site? 

 Patch editors and writers checked out Walnut Creek's parks that have notable kids' playgrounds and observed them being tested by the experts—their own kids or grandkids, other kids and the caregivers who supervise children's play. 

A note: Many of these play areas have signs posted prominently saying that the play structures are "5-12-Year-Old Play Areas." The signs further state: "Comply with age use rules."

Not many parents we saw at playgrounds were stopping their under 5-year-olds from climbing some of those play structures, though usually the parents were right behind them supervising and helping. 

The signs were posted in June as part of Walnut Creek's risk management program to meet recommended federal and state playground safety standards," Tess Wendler, a city human resources manager, 

"Although the intended user group should be obvious from the design and scale of equipment, the signs posted in the playground area should give some guidance to the supervising adults as to the age appropriateness of the equipment," she said.

Here are the parks we visited: Civic, Heather Farm, Rudgear, Larkey, Tice Valley, Arbalado and Walden. 

1375 Civic Drive at North Broadway

What's here: Ten-acre park in downtown Walnut Creek. The children’s play area includes a large swingset (with four baby/toddler swings), a sand and water play area, two play structures with slides and climbers, a train play structure, some large fake rocks for climbing, a few benches and a grassy area with trees for shade. The park itself also includes a picnic area with multiple grills, a community center, a gazebo and a butterfly garden. It is near the the Iron Horse Trail and the Creek Walk.

Coolest feature: My kids (ages 7 and 5) are most drawn to the "roller" slide and the climbing "rocks." They also enjoy climbing in and out of the train, though I think it’s geared more toward littler ones.

Ideal for: Large groups, people who don’t mind crowds (this park gets busy), families with kids of different ages, people who want to stop and let their kids run around after a day of shopping in downtown Walnut Creek. And, the afternoon we were there, teenagers in search of a spot to make out.

How's the sand? The sand in the sand play area is coarse and kind of “dirty” but that didn’t deter kids from playing in it. Most of the surfaces are sand, with sections of the park connected by an all-weather path.

Close to: Downtown Walnut Creek shopping and dining, the new library and the Iron Horse Trail.

Parking? A large free lot, but there’s a three-hour limit. There is additional metered parking along Civic Drive, and in the underground library garage, which has a two-hour limit.

Restrooms: Restrooms are outside the playground near the parking lot.

Safety concerns? None of the equipment seemed out of date or dangerous, although the play structures seem geared toward older children. Toddlers and preschoolers likely need supervision on these. Because the playground is so large and spread out, parents may find it difficult to supervise more than one child if they are interested in different activities. Along these lines, the benches are on the outskirts of the play area—parents may find it difficult to relax and supervise. Small pieces of wood from nearby trees tend to get mixed in with the sand, so splinters when playing in the sand aren't unheard of. On hot days there is shade under the trees but not as much in the play area, so remember to wear hats and sunscreen.

What the experts say:

Jonathan, 5: “I like it because it has a train and that cool slide. And the rock structures.”

Matthew, 7: “That’s what I was gonna say! The rock structures. Ugh. He took my idea. I’m not doing this now.”

Jonathan: “And the monkey bars!”

Matthew: “Oh, that thing you hang on and glide to the other side. The zipline!” 

—Katie Fries 

1750 Heather Drive (near the intersection of Ygnacio Valley Road and San Carlos Drive, across Ygnacio from the new Fresh & Easy store).

The setting: The children's playground sits in the midst of a large, picturesque grassy field with a clear view of Mount Diablo. Picnic tables dot the grass that surrounds the sandy play area. A manmade lake is just north of the play area. Basketball courts are adjacent to the west as is the Clarke Swim Center. The park and ball fields to the east encompass 102 acres. Heather Farm is an easy place to have a barbecue while the kids play.

What's here: The playground features a wooden train and two wood playhouses for smaller children. It also boasts two main play structures with slides and other amenities for older children. There are 12 swings and five slides. Adequate but not an abundance on a busy day. My 5-year-old grandson, Shea, has enjoyed coming here since he was 2.

Coolest feature: A climbing wall stands in the middle of the playground. It has plenty of small nodules to step on, but it's a difficult wall to climb, so it's really for ages 8 and up. The small ones can take solace in ascending the first row or two. Shea needs help after the first row, but he still enjoys trying.

Ideal for: If your child is a runner or a climber, like Shea, then this is a great playground for them. There is plenty of room to roam and a variety of things for kids to safely climb. Shea likes to climb every slide he uses rather than take the steps leading up. He also likes to climb across the two sets of hanging rings, although he still needs help.

How's the sand? The sand here is nice. It's grainy but not rough. It has plenty of depth, so kids can fall or jump onto it without getting hurt.

When you're done playing: There is a shopping center on the other side of Ygnacio Valley Road with a Fresh & Easy grocery store, a yogurt shop, several sandwich shops, a pizza parlor and The Contra Costa Canal bike trail runs along the park's northern border for those who want to bike there.

Parking? There is a lot adjacent to the playground with about 80 spaces. It's more than adequate on most days unless there is a swim meet at the Clarke Swim Center.

Restroom proximity: The bathrooms aren't that close. You either have to go to the swim center across the parking lot, the city offices just north of the play area or the ball fields east of the grassy picnic area. All of them are a bit of a trek with a small child.

Safety concerns? The lake a little north of the play area is a safety concern for parents of small children who can't swim. There are a lot of ducks and geese around that water and sometimes small children will make a run for it. It's also easy for a child to run from the play area to the parking lot, so parents should always keep an eye on their kids. There is also the occasional inconsiderate dog owner who thinks it's OK for their dog to run free through the play area even though there are signs prohibiting it.

—David Mills 

2250 Stewart Ave.

What's here: Sixteen-acre park in a primarily residential area. The playground has a separate toddler play area (intended for kids younger than 5) with swings, a bouncy horse and a play structure with slides and a tunnel. A picnic area with tables and grills separates the toddler playground from the bigger kid playground (intended for ages 5 – 12). This area has swings and a large play structure. There are some random concrete structures in the toddler playground. Both play areas have lots of sand for digging.

Coolest feature: The toddler play area is separate from the main playground—nice for those who have small kids who are too small to safely play on the larger play structure or who might be intimidated by older children.

Ideal for: Families with small children or kids who fall into different age groups; Birthday parties (there are six picnic tables); people who prefer a quieter atmosphere than Civic Park.

How's the sand? Fine-grained sand but it was dirty with twigs and leaves from nearby trees.

Close to: Rudgear Park also has basketball and tennis courts, a soccer field, a baseball field and access to walking paths.

Parking? There is a large, free lot below the playground (accessible via stairs).

Restroom proximity: Restrooms are near the basketball and tennis courts.

Safety concerns? Stairs leading to the playground from the parking lot could be tricky for small children. The play area lacks shade, which could be an issue on hot days. Parents can watch kids play from a distance from the benches and tables but it may be difficult to supervise kids who want to play in separate areas.

What the experts say:

Jonathan, 5: “I liked the little kid playground.”

Matthew, 7: “I liked climbing on the concrete ‘M.’ ” 


Buena Vista and First avenues 

The setting: Larkey Park is a well-maintained neighborhood park with a large open area and ample space to hold gatherings for large groups. The park also is home to the and the

What's here: Larkey has a layout that is open and inviting with a large open turf area for variety of outdoor sports such as soccer, baseball and Frisbee. There is  a shade-covered event area of six picnic tables and barbecue pits to accommodate a large group gathering. 

Coolest feature: There are two playgrounds catering to all ages. The smaller playground – geared toward tots to preschool age — has two slide play structures and one toddler climbing structure. There is a sailboat play structure for imaginative play as well as three toddler swings and two “big kid” swings. All equipment is on tanbark and mixed sand ground covering. The larger play structure is adjacent to a smaller playground with the equipment on sand. This larger play structure is better for school-aged children and has three slides – one two-story twisty slide, metal plank walkway, monkey bars, rings and lots of areas to climb.

Ideal for: Parents with two or more kids several years apart will delight in the fact that they can feel safe with the younger child while the older one roams and explores the larger play structure.

The park also seems to be a stop for many school children to let out some steam after a field trip to the , a refuge for injured or orphaned animals.

How's the sand? The sand in the larger play structure is not as clean because of the pine needles from trees shading the area. The smaller playground has sand mixed with bark and a wet n' wild area with regular play sand.

When you're done playing: The Lindsay Wildlife Museum is adjacent to the park and there is a pathway from the playground to the museum. The museum is open at noon during the week and parents of young toddlers needing naptime may opt for weekend visits instead. During the summer, Larkey Swim Center is open for recreational public swimming but there are many swim groups that regularly occupy the pool. The Walnut Creek Model Railroad Society also calls Larkey Park home. These hobbyists created Diablo Valley Lines Railroad, a show-stopping HO scale model railroad display (train cars are about 6 to 11 inches long). The display is open to the public on designated days and features 4,300 feet of hand-laid track

Parking? Minimal. About 20 spaces in front of the park but street parking is widely available on Buena Vista and First avenues and Larkey Lane.

Restroom proximity: Public restrooms are on the side entry of Lindsay Wildlife Museum. The sign is not quite visible unless you are on the path to the museum, and younger children may have difficulty locating the facility.

Safety concerns? The play structure geared for school-aged children needs an update. The aluminum slides are too hot to use on warm days and children can easily come down too quickly.

What the experts say:

“It's so nice to have a picnic area located next to the play structures to have snacks before play time,” said Jess, mother of a 2-year-old girl. “And I love that there is a big hill that deters your kids from running away from the park out onto the street.”

“Larkey has a lot of room to play softball, Frisbee or whatever sport that may interest you,” said Michael Sheehan, father of three girls. “It's really great if you happen to come on the days when the train museum happens to be open.”

“I love to picnic when I am here!” said Sally Sheehan, 7. “And it's next to my favorite place in the world, the Lindsay Wildlife museum!” said Alex Sheehan, 9.

“Maya loves all the playground equipment, the Lindsay, picnic tables, massive lawn area. It's always the top request for daddy time,” said Michelle Bleich, mother of 5-year-old Maya.

—Sylvia Sheehan

2055 Tice Valley Blvd.

Tice Valley Neighborhood Park features a fenced-in play area for toddlers, an adventurous rocky hill for young explorers, a wide field for all manner of athletic sports and is adjacent to the Jewish Community Center of Contra Costa, which offers educational and recreational programs for children of all ages.

What's here:  The park has a large open area of grass for athletic sports such as soccer, lacrosse, baseball and Frisbee. The playground area is mostly shaded with two separate play structures. The smaller play structure is geared for tots and preschool-aged children and is even safe for unsteady tots just learning to walk. They can climb, slide down a pole and explore under a shaded area. The larger play structure has a two-story slide and lots of areas for exploration and imaginative play. There is a fantastic multi-seating teeter totter for kids to rock on and sit under the canopy when they get tired. There is a picnic table in the shade next to the play structures for rest and snacks during play. All equipment is on sand and the entire playground area is fenced in to keep in little “runners.”

Coolest feature: There is a small hill with a mountainous formation of rocks on which young explorers can venture into “secret caves” – a great hideout with a rocky terrain amidst trees and bushes and perfect for imaginative play. You can just imagine a young boy pretending to be Robin Hood finding exciting adventures right here in Walnut Creek.

Ideal for: Active roamers, school-age kids who can freely seek adventure by the rocky hillside. The playground also is great for tots since it is fenced in and has easy access to the restroom.

How's the sand? The sand is coarse and grainy and less likely to get into the eyes of small children.

Close by: The Jewish Community Center (JCC) shares the parking lot with Tice Valley Park. There are numerous programs offered at the JCC, including Jewish culture and education programs, fitness programs, drop-off day care center, adult day care, and youth and teen programs. The center has a banquet room for private events, basketball courts, a fitness center, a game room and a recreational pool.

Parking? Parking may be one of the best features of this park. There is a large parking lot in front of the park with ample room for larger cars, such as a minivan or SUV, and there are always plenty of spaces to park.

Restroom proximity: A public restroom in the playground is hard to miss. Very clean, safe and visible from the playground so young children can enter by themselves.

Safety concerns? There is no fencing on the other side of the rocky hill so unsupervised children may be in danger of oncoming traffic on Tice Valley Boulevard and Rossmoor Parkway if they leave the hillside. Also, some parents have reported seeing glass bottles among the rocks and trees – perhaps due to some late night party-goers?

What the experts say:

“My kids love exploring and climbing on the rocks,” said Karen Bakar, mother of two girls ages 8 and 11. “They especially love the ‘secret caves.’ ”

“I love the rocking animals,” said Sally Sheehan, 7. “You can make them go really, really fast.”

“I like to come here because it never gets too hot,” said Alex Sheehan, 9. “I also love to dig for treasures by the rocks!”


Arbolado Drive at Doncaster Drive 

Nestled in a quiet residential area of the Northgate area, Arbolado Park is a 26-acre park with all the amenities for sports lovers young and old. And the lush green lawn evokes calm and tranquility after a long day of walking the trails.

What's here: There is a large asphalt area with four basketball hoops, three tennis courts and a large grassy field for soccer that can be rented out to organized groups. There also is a direct connection to the Iron Horse Trail. 

Coolest feature: There are dual playgrounds catering to all ages. The playground for younger kids has three play structures: the biggest with four toddler swings and a twisty slide; the midsize structure for young climbers just learning to roam through a play structure on their own; and a truck-shaped play structure for imaginative play. The playground for the older kids has one large play structure with four child swings, a twisty slide, a multilevel climbing area and a roller slide. An orchard with a small trail surrounded by bushes is directly behind this playground, where older kids can roam and make believe they are in a jungle or out on an adventure.

Ideal for: Active children and adults can enjoy the large grassy field overlooking Mount Diablo to rest or have a picnic. Also, children can continue playing on the play structures after a sports game or practice.

How's the sand? The Arbolado Park sand seems to be a favorite among many parents who visit. The sand is fairly medium sized, grainier than fine in texture and easy to dust off small hands and feet.

Close by: The Iron Horse Trail is connected to the park, so many running groups meet at the park as a starting point when training for marathons.

Parking? Two parking lots. The first one is by the playground structure, the second one is hard to locate. The lot does not have a sign so visitors must turn into the second driveway in order to find and park.

Restroom proximity: A public restroom is near the second parking lot and at the far end of the park. Not ideal for young children.

Safety Concerns? The biggest complaint for parents of young children is the location of the public restroom. It is on the farthest end of the park and many parents opt to leave the park to take their kids to the restroom rather than lugging all their belongings with their children.

What the experts say:

“The kids love the slides here,” said a mother of two young children. “Most of the kids come here because of Kids Love Soccer and end up staying to relax and play a little longer.”

“The kids pretend it's a jungle behind the trail and sometimes they find little forts,” said one mom who is part of a play group that visits Arbolado every week.

“The grassy hill is really fun to roll sideways. You keep going and going!” said Alex Sheehan, 9. “I can learn to play soccer and I won't fall because the grass is really soft,” said Sally Sheehan, 7.

“This is the best laid out park in Walnut Creek,” said a father of three girls. “It's really peaceful here with such a large grassy hill.


2698 Oak Road, near the intersection of the Iron Horse and Contra Costa Canal trails

This is the playground to come to in Walnut Creek for the toddler, preschool set. Located on the north side of one-acre Walden Park, the playground is small and its structures are modest and close together. The small size and modesty is what parents like; it's easy to keep an eye on your kids. Walden Park also is essentially the back yard for families who live in apartments and condominiums along Oak Road.

What's here: There is a swing set with four swings, two for toddlers, and there are two play structures. The three-tiered wooden structure has scoops on pulleys that allow kids to lift sand and dump it out The main play structure has stairs, several types of ladders that challenge kids of different ages, and several slides, one of which allows kids to go down side by side. Circling the play structure are paved walkways on which kids can ride their tricycles or scooters. Kids who are a little older can ride their trikes or two-wheelers around a walkway that runs along the perimeter of the park. The park itself has picnic benches, small rolling hills of lawn perfect for a Frisbee or ball toss and a basketball court that is popular for pickup games.

Coolest feature: It's not a play structure. It is three oak trees circled by retaining walls that also serve as benches. These benches beneath the shade of the trees are close to the play structures and provide a good place for moms, dads, grandparents and other caregivers to sit and watch their kids. This is also where parents gather their kids for playtime snacks. 

How's the sand? The sand is fairly medium-sized and grainy, but those oaks and other trees blow small sticks into it.

Close by: The Iron Horse and Contra Costa Canal trails. Renate, who gave her first name only, was with her 23-month-old grandson, Landon. She said she pushes him in a stroller along the trails the mile from her daughter's house. That's her morning exercise. Downtown is a mile to the south and the Contra Costa Centre Transit Village is about 2/10 of a mile to the north, as is the BART station. The center plans to lease space to a Starbucks coffee shop and other eateries in the near future.

Parking? Not great. The parking lot has only 20 spaces and can fill up on weekends. Street parking is not allowed along this stretch of Oak Road. Fortunately, many of the park's users live in the nearby apartments and walk here.

Restroom proximity: Pretty close to the playground. Kris Gregory, a Concord resident who brings her 20-month-old daughter, Brooke, to Walden two times a week, described the restrooms as clean. 

Safety issues? Sand accumulating on the tiers of the play structure with the sand scoopers can make the surfaces slippery. Renate said she's wary of the restrooms and has found them to be dirty and worries about who is using them. She suspects that transients might use them to wash up.

What the experts say:

"It's always clean here," Kris Gregory said of the playground and the park. "I never see any dog poop or trash or anything." She added it's the perfect place to bring her daughter after visiting her grandparents, who live nearby. "It's a great place to exhaust her before we go home for her nap."

"I come here as much as possible," said Renate, as she sat on the bench in the shade of oaks, feeding her grandson a snack. "A lot of nice people come here regularly. We're always sharing food."

—Martha Ross 

Staci May 16, 2011 at 03:04 PM
Thank you for running such an informative article! It was very helpful. Please give us more features like this.
Martha Ross May 16, 2011 at 04:16 PM
You're welcome. I think the writers had fun "researching" with their kids. I had a nice time visiting Walden Park, where I used to take my son when he was a toddler/preschooler. I also went to Civic Park a lot. My son is 13 now. Some of my most pleasant memories--not just as a mom but in life--is taking my son to playgrounds, and watching him play and explore. Supervising him, or sitting in the shade and watching him make new friends.
Dolly May 17, 2011 at 01:10 AM
Don't forget Larkey Park also offers a great swimming pool during the summer. It includes a toddler pool as well as regular pool with diving board. The staff there are excellent and it is usually pretty low key.
ecgs May 17, 2011 at 08:06 PM
"You can just imagine a young boy pretending to be Robin Hood finding exciting adventures right here in Walnut Creek." Or a young girl .... Just saying.


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