​​15 Free Things to Do in Hayward, CA

Free Things to Do in Hayward, CA
Sundry Photography / iStock.com

Hayward is also called the “Heart of the Bay” due to its prime location in San Jose and San Francisco.

It is the third-largest city in Alameda County and the sixth-largest in the Bay Area.

Incorporated in 1876, the city was first known as Hayward's, followed by Haywood, Haywards (without the apostrophe), and finally Hayward (without the “s”).

It was named after the city founder and hotel owner William Dutton Hayward.

Hayward has California’s first Japanese garden, one of the country’s earliest gay proms, and is the birth city of famous wrestler-actor Dwayne "The Rock" Johnson!

Hayward offers numerous outdoor leisure activities with over 3,000 acres of open space and parks, plus 20 miles of walking and running trails.

Dozens of amazing public murals dot the landscape, making the city an outdoor gallery!

If you need to save money without compromising the trip, don't worry.

Explore the city from the slopes to the coast with these free things to do in Hayward, California.

See the Beauty of the Hayward Japanese Gardens

Trail lined with bonsai trees at Hayward Japanese Gardens
Mercurywoodrose, CC BY-SA 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons

The Hayward Japanese Gardens is California’s oldest Japanese garden and one of the many gems managed by the Hayward Area Recreation and Park District (HARD).

This elegant garden offers a tranquil escape from the hustle and bustle of the city.

It contains over 70 plant species, including Japanese black pine, mondo grasses, junipers, incense cedar, rhododendron, and other colorful flowering plants.

Master Gardener Kimio Kimura created this 3.5-acre garden.

Footbridge at Hayward Japanese Gardens
Mercurywoodrose, CC BY-SA 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons

It features artfully-shaped trees, enormous granite boulders, manicured shrubs, several pavilions, a bridge, a traditional teahouse, a waterfall that flows down into a huge pond filled with koi, and a creek overlook for relaxation and meditation.

Also found in the Gardens is a monument honoring the connection between sister cities Hayward and Funabashi, Japan.

Hayward Japanese Gardens is also a popular wedding location that’s available for rent.

Observation deck at Hayward Japanese Gardens
Mercurywoodrose, CC BY-SA 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons

Connect with Nature at the Sulphur Creek Nature Center

The Sulphur Creek Nature Center is a quiet haven in the suburban neighborhood of Hayward Hills.

This Nature Center is a place for wildlife rehabilitation and education.

It has exhibits showcasing local species, education programs, a discovery center, a wildlife hospital, outreach programs, and opportunities that foster a connection between people and nature.

It all began in the 1960s when a local found a lost rabbit whom he named Happy.

Happy found a home at the community center, known today as the San Felipe Community Center, where an animal sanctuary was established.

In 1970, the Hayward Area Recreation and Park District (HARD) acquired the land, first utilized as a wellness retreat.

The district eventually developed the Sulphur Creek Nature Center into a sanctuary for people and wildlife.

Take the family and delight in the outdoors while exploring the animal and bird habitats, the resident amphibians and reptiles in the Discovery Center, and more.

The Sun Gallery has boosted community interest in the arts and enhanced Hayward's reputation as a cultural hub since 1976.

Sun Gallery is a hub for innovative experiences in Hayward, working closely with local individuals and organizations to showcase emerging artists and offer special programs for all ages.

They place a high value on giving back to the community and enjoy bringing the arts closer and making them more accessible for families from all socioeconomic backgrounds.

Sun Gallery offers gallery visits and bi-monthly Family Art Saturdays free of charge!

During Family Art Saturdays, bring the kids and spend the day getting creative, from DIY projects to fingerprinting and more, and bring your masterpiece home!

Sun Gallery offers other art programs (for a cost), such as art parties, art socials, field trips, school visits, and art summer camp!

Visit the Hayward Shoreline Interpretive Center

Facade of the Hayward Shoreline Interpretive Center
Hank Shiffman / Shutterstock.com

The Hayward Shoreline Interpretive Center introduces you to the ecosystem of the San Francisco Bay Estuary, situated on stilts above a marsh.

It features exhibits, programs, and activities designed to inspire a sense of appreciation, respect, and stewardship for the bay, the inhabitants, and the services they offer as a nature preserve.

Established in 1986, the Center is a place where community groups, schools, and the general public can learn the history, ecology, and importance of the wetlands surrounding the San Francisco Bay estuary.

Front view of the Hayward Shoreline Interpretive Center
Mercurywoodrose, CC BY-SA 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons

The Center offers a small permanent exhibit of local aquatic life and changing displays on various related topics.

The Hayward Shoreline Interpretive Center adjoins a park and trail system called the Hayward Regional Shoreline, which the East Bay Regional Park District manages.

Catch a Public Event at the Hayward Heritage Plaza

The Hayward Heritage Plaza allows the community to congregate for public events and programs across the street from the Hayward Public Library.

The location of the Hayward Heritage Plaza was originally a portion of rancher Don Guillermo Castro’s homestead, dating back to Hayward’s formative days in the 1840s.

Don Castro divided and sold the property in the 1850s, creating the current layout of Downtown Hayward.

He dedicated the Heritage Plaza to be used as a public plaza for a lifetime.

The Plaza spans a complete city block, about the size of Union Square in San Francisco.

Hayward Heritage Plaza features gathering and event spaces, including a 25,000-square foot event lawn, and an arboretum with more than 40 species of rare, mature trees.

Some of the trees are more than 100 years old.

It also has paved pathways, art pieces, interpretative signs, a 2,150-square foot children’s garden, and a rainwater catchment system.

Enjoy a Lakeside Picnic at Don Castro Regional Recreation Area

The 101-acre Don Castro Regional Recreation Area is an urban paradise on the borders of Castro Valley and Hayward.

The lagoon and neighboring lake, built in 1964, are a favorite among locals of Alameda County.

Swimming in the blue and chlorinated waters of the swimming lagoon is a popular summer attraction.

However, swimming is only permitted when lifeguards are on their post.

A California state fishing license and a Park District daily fishing permit are required before fishing in the lake.

Anglers can catch bass, bluegill, catfish, and trout.

Picnic sites in the park are on a first-come-first-served basis.

Swimming in the lagoon, fishing in the lake, and several reservable group sites charge fees.

A picnic on the grassy lawn near the lake make a simple but excellent way to unwind after a hard week.

Access to Don Castro Regional Recreation Area is free; visitors only need to pay for parking.

Walk the Trail at the Hayward Regional Shoreline

Bench at the end of Hayward Regional Shoreline's trail
Jonathan Percy / Shutterstock.com

The Hayward Regional Shoreline is a 1,841-acre regional park situated on the San Francisco Bay shoreline in Hayward and stretches to the coast of San Lorenzo.

Hayward Regional Shoreline consists of brackish, fresh, and saltwater marshes: Cogswell Marsh, Hayward Marsh, and Oro Loma Marsh.

It also has seasonal wetlands, and trails for biking and hiking.

The Shoreline also features opportunities for picnicking, birdwatching, and fishing.

A bird at Hayward Regional Shoreline
Hank Shiffman / Shutterstock.com

However, you can only fish from the levees and not in the marsh areas; California State Fishing License is needed for those aged 16 and above.

Although the park has no picnic tables, there are benches along the trail for picnics and relaxation.

While walking or biking, please stay on the trail and avoid human interference in wildlife breeding and feeding sites.

Cormorant beside the waters of Hayward Regional Shoreline
Sarah Stierch, CC BY 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons

Stroll around Kennedy Park

Kennedy Park, one of the district’s most used multipurpose parks, is run by the Hayward Area Recreation and Park District (HARD).

Established in 1940s, Kennedy Park was initially known as Airport Park because of its proximity to the Hayward Executive Airport.

Kennedy Park sits beside McConaghy Park, where the historic 1886 McConaghy House is located.

Children’s playgrounds, tennis courts, a concession stand, a petting zoo, a merry-go-round, a pony ride, a two-foot miniature railroad and train, and more are located in the park.

Although you must buy tickets for each park ride, Kennedy Park is a fun place with many attractions for kids to play in and a wide area for an enjoyable stroll.

Appreciate Art Exhibits at the John O'Lague Galleria

The John O'Lague Galleria is an art gallery inside the Hayward City Hall in honor of John O'Lague, a renowned graphic artist and arts champion in Hayward.

He played a crucial role in building the infrastructure needed to sustain the arts in Hayward and the surrounding area of Alameda County.

The Hayward Arts Council (HAC) oversees the Galleria, following guidelines in a Letter of Understanding with the City of Hayward, signed in 1998.

The Council has organized numerous groups from local art institutions in the John O'Lague Galleria for more than 20 years.

The John O'Lague Galleria hosts seven exhibitions and artist receptions annually, with each exhibit display lasting eight weeks.

Explore the Trails of the Garin/Dry Creek Pioneer Regional Parks

Greenery at Garin/Dry Creek Pioneer Regional Parks
virgmos / Shutterstock.com

The Garin/Dry Creek Pioneer Regional Parks are two adjacent parks, once 19th-century ranches situated in the gently rolling hills of Hayward.

The Park District has conserved the parks' heritage while improving them with trails, ridges, and outdoor spaces that are historically and environmentally important.

Over 5,800 acres of the open area encompasses both parks, and over 35 miles of trails wind through undulating hills and small valleys that offer sweeping Bay Area vistas.

The most used sections are kept apart from the Hayward suburbs by a small ridge.

Hiking trail at Garin/Dry Creek Pioneer Regional Parks
Sundry Photography / Shutterstock.com

The parks feel incredibly natural and tranquil despite being only a few yards from the Bay Area.

Garin Regional Park features a visitor center, picnic areas, a lovely duck pond, a kite field, and a steep slope where children can slide down the lawn.

It’s also home to the late-summer Garin Apple Festival, which features unique apple varieties from the apple trees in the park.

Dry Creek Regional Park offers a more natural setting with wide-open, grassy hills that offer stunning views of the Bay Area.

It has a historic garden and cottage, and great trails that follow through the bottom of the valley.

View of the sunset from Garin/Dry Creek Pioneer Regional Parks
Sundry Photography / Shutterstock.com

Play Tennis at Mount Eden Park

One of Hayward's public parks is Mount Eden Park.

It has open lawns, picnic areas, a playground, and sports amenities, including a baseball/soccer field, basketball, and tennis courts.

The Hayward Area Recreation and Park District (HARD) manages several tennis courts across Hayward, Castro Valley, and San Lorenzo.

Mount Eden Park’s four lighted tennis courts are among these.

All the district's tennis courts are designed for recreational use in conjunction with the District's programs and classes.

Courts are accessible on a first-come, first-served basis without charge unless reserved in advance, which incurs an hourly fee for each court.

Join the Mural Arts Program

Hayward’s award-winning Mural Arts Program has fostered collaborations between artists, schools, entrepreneurs, and volunteers.

It has also improved community art, and reduced trash and graffiti in Downtown Hayward.

The City’s Mural Arts Program was created in 2009 to solve the increasing vandalism and graffiti on buildings, schools, overpasses, and utility boxes.

It was also intended to support the Safe, Clean, and Green priorities of the City Council.

Over 1,200 volunteers have participated and installed over 200 public art pieces throughout the city, including murals and tile mosaics.

As a result, Hayward’s Mural Arts Program has gained national attention as a thriving arts center.

See the artwork through joining a tour, interacting with the local artists, or signing up as a volunteer yourself.

Explore Meek Estate Park

Exterior of Meek Mansion at Meek Estate Park
Sanfranman59, CC BY-SA 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons

Meek Estate Park is a public park on Hampton Road, featuring open and manicured grounds, a historic mansion, play structures, picnic spaces, and grills.

One of the things at the park is to see and visit the historic Meek Mansion, built by William Meek in 1869.

Listed on the National Register of Historic Places, this Victorian house asks for a suggested donation amount before admission.

Enjoy a walk around the park, sit and relax on the grassy lawn or one of the park benches, and admire the Meek Mansion from a distance.

Meek Estate Park also offers a space for weddings located on the north lawn side of Meek Mansion.

Other Things to Do Nearby

Ride a Bike at Five Canyons Open Space

Aerial view of Five Canyons Open Space
Lights and freedom, CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons

Five Canyons Open Space (FCOS), a multi-agency project of the East Bay Regional Parks District, Hayward Area Recreation and Parks District (HARD), Alameda County Public Works, and several homeowners’ organizations.

You can find it in Castro Valley, California, about a ten-minute drive from Hayward.

It opened in 1998, and over 300 acres of open land cover Five Canyons Open Space.

Enjoy five miles of trails that include an essential section of the Bay Area Ridge Trail. This ridgeline trail circles nine counties in the San Francisco Bay Area.

Numerous miles of inner loop trails connect to Don Castro Regional Park and Hayward Area Recreation District parks.

Five Canyons Open Space has essentially no amenities such as restrooms, campgrounds, picnic facilities, and drinking water.

It’s essential to know these before going!

Main park visitors are dog walkers, bicyclists, hikers, bicyclists, and equestrians.

Park access and dogs are free of charge.

See Breathtaking Vistas at Lake Chabot Regional Park

Lake Chabot Regional Park is a unit of the East Bay Regional Parks system located in the southern portion of the Berkeley Hills of Alameda County.

This park is also in Castro Valley, about a 15-minute drive north of Hayward.

Lake Chabot, built in 1875, is a reservoir that serves as the primary water source for the East Bay.

For 91 years, the 315-acre lake was off-limits to recreation, but in the 1960s, legislation was passed to reopen it to certain recreational activities.

The park has numerous fishing piers where anglers can fish bass, crappies, catfish, trout, and other fishes; boat launches require a fee, and a Daily Fishing Access Permit.

Picnic sites with barbecue pits and tables come on a first-come-first-served basis, with six more reservable picnic facilities for large groups.

Lake Chabot Regional Park has more than 20 trails connecting to the extra 70 miles of hiking trails at the adjacent Anthony Chabot Regional Park.

Enjoy the lakeside trails that offer stunning and refreshing views and several vista points such as Duck View Point, Coot Landing, Alder Point, and Raccoon Point.

There is payment for parking, but access to the park is free except for some of the mentioned activities.

Final Thoughts

Hayward is a thriving city that’s increasingly becoming known as one of the best places in the Bay Area to live, work, and play.

Most importantly, Hayward is surrounded by nature preserves and regional parks that provide public recreation opportunities.

What makes the Heart of the Bay so unique?

See for yourself with the best free things to do in Hayward, California!

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