The best parks in SLO County — according to a 2-year-old

The author and her son enjoy the swings at Rancho Grande Park in Arroyo Grande.
The author and her son enjoy the swings at Rancho Grande Park in Arroyo Grande.

I love parks.

As the mom of a boisterous toddler with lots of energy to burn, I’m always on the lookout for things to do with my little guy — and parks fit the bill perfectly. They’re fun, fascinating and, best of all, free.

In search of some new places to explore, I reached out to Paso Robles parenting blogger Tonya Strickland, creator of Two In Tow & On the Go, and Facebook groups SLO Moms and SLO Play! for recommendations about their favorite San Luis Obispo County parks and playgrounds.

Here are a few of their favorite picks — and ours.

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The playground at Atascadero Lake Park boasts a net bridge that offers lots of climbing fun. Joe Johnston

Atascadero Lake Park

9305 Pismo Ave., Atascadero

805-470-3360 or

The park: I wish I could tell you how much my son loves all the awesome features of Atascadero Lake Park’s updated playground, which include a balance bridge, net climber and a climbing tower with two huge tube slides. But he spent most of his time during our visit exploring the net tunnel — basically a rope bridge on steroids — that connects the two parts of the main play structure. Not even the jumbo-sized swing set could distract him for long.

Pros: Partially shaded by big oak and sycamore trees, the new play structure, which opened in July, is a great addition to a park that already has a lot going on. We love tossing rocks into Atascadero Lake and checking out the critters at the Charles Paddock Zoo. Plus, the large parking lot has plenty of shady spots, a big plus in the North County.

Cons: Compared to the main play area, the more traditional little kids’ play structure seems a bit dated. My kid barely looked at it.
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Wyatt and Clara enjoy the playground at Cayucos State Beach. Tonya Strickland

Cayucos State Beach

Ocean Front Avenue, Cayucos

805-781-5930 or

The park: Okay, technically this isn’t a park. But where else do you find a playground right on the beach? Here in Cayucos, you can seamlessly transition from soaring on the swings to splashing in the waves and playing in the sand. Plus, the slide is scary tall — in a good way.

Pros: With great views of Morro Rock, this playground, built in 2013, is within walking distance of the Cayucos Pier and downtown. (There, you can find lots of options for tasty eats, including Brown Butter Cookie Co. and Ruddell’s Smokehouse.) Plus, there’s free parking close to the shore.

Cons: Post-playdate cleanup gets more complicated once you add sand and seawater into the mix — although there are public bathrooms and an outdoor shower station nearby.

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Chumash Park in Pismo Beach features play areas next to a wooded area. Joe Johnston

Chumash Park

Mankins Ranch Road, Pismo Beach

805-773-7039 or

The park: Two play areas — a smaller, self-contained structure for littles and a jumbo-sized play structure complete with twin climbing towers and a couple of mammoth slides — greet you at the entrance to this cute park. There’s also a big basketball court, two swing sets standing in a giant island of sand (bring your beach toys) and a grassy area that’s perfect for picnics, playing ball and chasing butterflies. Be sure to get there early; the small parking lot fills up quickly on busy weekends.

Pros: The woodland scenery can’t be beat at this 38-acre park, which features a nice, easy nature trail that starts right at the playground. You’d almost forget you’re just across the highway from the Pismo Coast Shopping Plaza — until you realize you left the sunscreen and snacks at home.

Cons: All of that pretty scenery comes with a price. Past a certain point, there’s no fence to prevent curious kids or stray balls from entering what one friend called “the incline into ultimate doom”: a gentle grassy slope that leads into poison oak-infested woods. The wetlands, which transform into a meadow full of prickly plants during drier months, are also way too easy to access.

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Del Mar Playground in Morro Bay, has one of the tallest tunnel slides around. David Middlecamp

Del Mar Park

Access via Island and San Jacinto streets, Morro Bay

805-772-6278 or

The park: The focal point of this oh-so-scenic park is the huge three-story climbing tower, complete with a tall, tube-style slide that’s positively stomach-churning. Other highlights include a standalone twisty slide, a big swing set and a rope pyramid; my guy is too small to use the monkey bars.

Pros: Renovated in 2007, Del Mar encompasses 9 acres of lush, lovely landscape, including a grassy meadow, walking paths and a wooded creek where kids can hunt for critters. (Bonus point: The park is just a few blocks away from one of our favorite spots for fish tacos, Taco Temple.) You’ll also find plenty of picnic areas and sports courts.

Cons: That towering play structure is perfect for thrill seekers like my almost 3-year-old son, but there’s less to occupy smaller or more timid visitors.

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Highlights at Downtown City Park in Paso Robles include a wheelchair-accessible merry-go-round, a four-seat seesaw and a boogie board. Joe Johnston

Downtown City Park

Spring and 12th streets, Paso Robles

805-237-3991 or

The park: Accessibility is the watchword at this modern, inviting playground, installed in 2016. My kid made a beeline for the ground-level merry-go-round, but he also made stops at the comfy, four-seat seesaw and the low-hanging hammock, er, boogie board. Triangular sun shades strung with lights keep the main play area cool, while a smaller shade covers the smaller playground, which has a roller slide, climbing slope and marble wall that sparkles in the sun. My son is already begging to go back.

Pros: You’re right in the middle of downtown Paso Robles, which means easy access to restaurants and shops as well as City Library, Park Cinemas and Studios on the Park. Another bonus? The public restrooms — spacious, airy and clean — might be the best I’ve seen in our park survey.

Cons: You’re right in the middle of downtown Paso Robles, so you’ll have to negotiate traffic when unloading or loading little ones. (Parking, however, is free.) Also, there’s no shade over the swings — including the big bucket swing, a big hit with my son.

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Roland Meza, 4, enjoys the sky run zip tract at Nipomo Community Park, which celebrated the completion of playground improvements in June 2018. David Middlecamp

Nipomo Community Park

255 Pomeroy Road, Nipomo

The park: “Wow” was the first word out of my son’s mouth when he saw Nipomo Community Park’s new play structures, completed in June. His second utterance? “Logs! Oh my!” He was referring, of course, to the forest-themed little kids’ playground, which has balancing logs and a miniature forest of plastic pine trees. We also love the bigger, barn-themed play area with its numerous climbing structures and slides.

Pros: Can you say “zipline”? The sky run zip track lets two kids glide through the air at once. And the enormous spiderweb-style net climber provides ample entertainment for avid climbers like my kid. This massive park, located next to the Nipomo Library, also has four softball diamonds, four tennis courts, a soccer field, sand volleyball and an off-leash area for dogs.

Cons: There are only two swings on a T-shaped stand that shakes alarmingly when in use. In addition, the playground is within eyesight of Little Bits Preschool and its outdoor play area, which proved confusing for my son; he kept asking to “go to the other park.”

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The main play area at Rancho Grande Park in Arroyo Grande has a big, bumpy slide. Joe Johnston

Rancho Grande Park

James Way, Arroyo Grande

805-473-5474 or

The park: This low-key neighborhood park is one of our favorite places to swing, climb and zoom down the big, bumpy three-person slide. (For a toddler, it’s like riding the rapids.) We also love the enormous, grassy green spaces, which offer lots of room for running around.

Pros: With a basketball court, horseshoe pits, a baseball/softball diamond and soccer fields, there’s plenty for kids to do. And the picnic/barbecue areas work well for gatherings such as birthday parties. (I speak from personal experience.)

Cons: There’s not much shade at the main play area. (Fortunately, the little kids’ play structure is better protected from the sun.) Also, the play areas are on different levels, which means tots could take a tumble trying to get from one spot to the other.

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Shamel Park in Cambria is located just steps from the beach. Kathe Tanner

Shamel Park

5455 Windsor Blvd., Cambria

805-781-5930 or

The park: Here’s another great spot for beach lovers: Shamel Park is located just steps away from the sand. The sizable, shade-covered playground is bordered by a gazebo, picnic areas, a heated swimming pool (open Memorial Day weekend through Labor Day weekend) and a large, sloping lawn that invites kids to roll gently down the incline.

Pros: The beach, baby! We like to explore the slides, swings, tunnels and rockers before having a snack and heading to the shore to search for pretty pebbles, driftwood and shells.

Cons: Cambria is a bit off the beaten path for us, but the beauty of Shamel Park makes it worth the drive.

Sinsheimer Park

900 Southwood Drive, San Luis Obispo

805-781-7222 or

The park: When the city of San Luis Obispo unveiled its beautiful new Sinsheimer Park playground in 2017, we were overjoyed. From the snowboarding simulator to the giant climbing structure with its three twisting tube slides to the artificial turf-covered hill where kids sled on pieces of cardboard, this is one of the coolest parks around.

Pros: My speed demon of a son loves zipping down the hill on an old produce box. (Wear long-sleeved shirts and pants to avoid turf burns.) You can go even faster on a pair of plastic slides installed next to the slope. Another favorite feature, a free-standing zipline, was re-installed in early August.

Cons: Discarded cardboard is a significant problem at Sinsheimer Park; tiny pieces tend to collect at the base of the hill. Also, there’s only one swing set, and it’s reserved for tiny tikes. Finally, the park shares a lot with Sinsheimer Stadium and SLO Swim Center, so parking gets tricky during big events. I suggest snagging a spot just up the road at Johnson Park, which is also worth exploring.

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JUNE: Wyatt Parker, 6, enjoys the water play structure at Heilmann Regional Park in Atascadero on June 15, 2017. David Middlecamp

Other SLO County parks we love

  • Barney Schwartz Park, 2970 Union Road, Paso Robles

  • Cloisters Park, Coral Avenue, Morro Bay

  • Meadow Park, 2251 Meadow St., San Luis Obispo

  • Mitchell Park, 1400 Osos St., San Luis Obispo

  • Heilmann Regional Park, 9400 El Bordo Ave., Atascadero

  • Sherwood Park, 1860 Creston Road, Paso Robles