Gilroy, California is located about an hour and a half south of San Francisco and about 20 miles north of San Jose. It is probably best known for agriculture, specifically garlic. Gilroy hosts an annual summer garlic festival that attracts large crowds. However, Gilroy has another attraction that is open for much of the rest of the year and is ideal for family vacations: Gilroy Gardens!
Part botanical gardens, part amusement park, Gilroy Gardens eschews high-adrenaline thrill rides and high-profile themed attractions for a simpler, laid-back experience. The trees and grounds are beautiful and the park is a lovely place to commune with nature. The rides are geared to the younger set.
A rarity in the world of ever larger theme parks and faster-bigger-taller-scarier rides, Gilroy Gardens was created for families. The theme here is botanical, inspired by a collection of extraordinary trees, trained into fantastic shapes.
Big, noisy theme parks where everyone rushes from ride to ride all day can be fun but exhausting, but a day at Gilroy Gardens won’t wear you out.
Also impressive here is the maintenance. The entire park is spotlessly clean and all the rides and attractions are well maintained.
What to Expect at Gilroy Gardens
You won’t find big, screaming roller coasters at Gilroy Gardens. Teenagers’ expectations should be set in advance. My niece and nephew’s reactions are probably typical of most teenagers. Thirteen-year-old Samantha got a little more grown-up for the day, enjoying the park the same way her auntie did, while twelve-year-old Nitin released his still-close-to-the-surface inner child, having a good time but declaring that he would rather have gone to a place with thrill rides instead. Solo teens over age 13 may be bored at Gilroy Gardens.
Smaller children seem to have an especially good time here, finding short lines and lots of rides that cater just to them. There’s even a smaller-sized carousel for the very little ones.
As for the adults, my husband the skeptic had a great time, and my even-more-skeptical brother-in-law, who dreaded the thought of going, remarked several times how relaxing and pleasant the day was.
Gilroy Gardens Rides
The rides are similar to those in other parks, but with agricultural themes and names. Get a height tag for kids under 48 inches tall at the information booth near the front gate and consult the signs at each ride to find out whether the kids can ride alone or with a chaperon.
Only a few rides are rated as intermediate thrills, and even those aren’t wild enough to make this motion-sickness-prone writer feel queasy – a sure sign that this isn’t the place to take a roller-coaster-loving teenager.
A few tips:
- You’ll find the park’s best views from the Panoramic Wheel
- The fastest cars on the Garlic Twirl are purple
- Lines are longest at Rainbow Garden and Paddle Boats, but short compared to the big, busy parks elsewhere
On a hot day, the water attractions at Gilroy Gardens are most welcome. Besides getting mildly splashed at the waterfall and misted in the Rock Maze, you can get soaked in Splash Garden, a water play area that includes an 18-foot-tall climbing structure with spraying water and a dry slide, along with plenty of other fun water features.
Gilroy Gardens Circus Trees and Gardens
Monarch Garden, the largest of the park’s five gardens is set in a fragrant 60-foot-tall greenhouse so large that both a train and a monorail run through it.
The magnificent circus trees are the most unusual features here. So-called because they once grew at the Tree Circus in nearby Scotts Valley, California, they’re the creations of Axel Erlandson, a Swedish immigrant. A natural graft between two sycamore trees inspired Erlandson, but his creations are anything but natural. Of his 70 original creations, 25 survive today and 19 are at Gilroy Gardens. As you walk around, look for the basket tree, four-legged giant, spiral staircase, oil well and others. You won’t see anything like them anywhere else because no one knows exactly how Erlandson did it.
Gilroy Gardens at Christmas
From Thanksgiving1 through the holiday season, the park is open from late afternoon into the evening for a special Holiday Lights Festival. With special lighted displays and a festive holiday parade, it’s becoming an area favorite, especially among the younger set. You’ll find it busiest during the first couple of weekends and quieter during the week before December 25.
- If the kids are going to play in the water park area, bring a change of dry clothes.
- There are lots of flowering plants in the park. Take precautions if you’re allergic to pollen or insect bites.
- Gilroy gets quite hot in summer. Bring plenty of sunscreen, water, sunglasses and hats.
- Pets are not allowed and there are no boarding kennels. Leave Fluffy at home. Guide dogs are allowed.
- Food is reasonably priced compared to other theme parks and there’s a lot of variety. Outside food, drinks and alcohol are not allowed in the park, but there are picnic tables outside the gates.
- All the gardens are accessible by wheeled vehicles such as wheelchairs and strollers. Bring your own or rent them at the gate.
Attraction map of Gilroy Gardens
Getting to Gilroy Gardens
3050 Hecker Pass Hwy
Gilroy Gardens Website
The park is easily reached from US Hwy 101 by following the signs, or just take CA Hwy 152 west from Gilroy. From Monterey or Santa Cruz, take CA Hwy 1 to CA Hwy 152 east. It’s about a half hour drive from San Jose, 90 minutes from San Francisco and about a half hour from Monterey and Carmel.
1 Thanksgiving is celebrated on the fourth Thursday of November.
featured image via gilroygardens.org