From Bald Mountain, a180-degree photograph
of Santa Clara Valley and the new Almaden
Reservoir by W. David Schwaderer.
For photo details, click here.

This is the park of paradox. Although you can see it from Summit Road, Highway 17 and much of the Santa Clara Valley, some areas of this open space preserve are difficult to access; other areas impossible. It may lack the beauty of redwoods or waterfalls yet it has its own unique charms—interesting scenic views, hidden canyons and high, flat plateaus covering thousands of acres. You can look down on millions of people but rarely see another hiker. (On my weekday morning hike, I saw only two hikers and one bicyclist.)

It is called Sierra Azul (blue range) yet the preeminent color is brown. Although the Midpensinsula Regional Open Space District’s largest park covers nearly 15,500 acres, much of it is unavailable for use. This is partly because of many noncontiguous parcels, partly because some access roads are in dispute, partly because the area that was the Almaden Airforce Station on the top of Mount Umunhum left some toxic contaminants and abandoned buildings, and partly because the rugged and steep terrain has discouraged casual trail building and trail hiking.

But here’s another paradox. While part of the beauty of the Sierra Azul is the challenge of getting there, it turns out that it isn’t that difficult, at least to sample, this special wilderness.

Hike 1 is a good way to start your exploration. The walk measures a little over five miles, takes less than three hours, grades are relatively moderate, and some morning shade is available through the first hour climb of about 800 feet.

From Highway 17 north, take Alma Bridge Road across the dam to the first parking area. Buy a parking ticket here for $4.00, then continue on to the second parking lot (where the crew boats are stored.) Cross the road to gate SA21 and walk up Priest Rock Trail through Lexington County Park and into the Kennedy-Limekiln area of Sierra Azul. As you hike, bike or ride your horse up the trail, you’ll see some giant eucalyptus trees and interesting views of Lexington Reservoir, Soda Springs Canyon and Soda Springs Road.

As you near the intersection of Priest Rock and Limekiln trails, you’ll reach a large, dry chaparral-covered ridge. This is a good place to see wildlife. (I saw six deer in a matter of a few minutes.) It looks like high country in Nevada, Utah or Wyoming.

If you’ve seen enough, take Limekiln trail back to Alma Bridge Road. After a few fast drops, the trail assumes a gentler grade down through Lexington County Park. The lower part is well shaded as the trail passes through large groves of Bay trees. The only annoyance is the noise of a continuing flow of gravel trucks to and from the Limekiln Quarry. You can’t see them that often, but they do make a racket. When you reach Alma Bridge Road, walk back south along the road to the parking lot.

Hike 2 involves more driving and more hiking, but it offers some excellent views and takes you deeper into the park. Drive Highway 17 to the second Los Gatos exit, turn right on Saratoga, left at the “T” to Los Gatos Boulevard, and right on Blossom Hill Road. Turn right on Camden, then right again on Hicks Road. Take Hicks past the Guadalupe Reservoir to Mount Umunhum Road. Park in the small roadside parking area. (Plans call for construction of a 15-car off-road parking lot next year.)

Walk through gate SA06 to the Woods Trail. For a short hike, turn left off Woods Trail to Barlow Road. This trail takes you back to Mt. Umunhum Road. Walking back down Mount Umunhum Road will complete the circuit back to the parking lot. Before you walk down, you can cross the road and take a short hike to 2347-foot Bald Mountain for some great scenic panoramas. If you want more of a challenge, stay on Woods Trail. It will take you up through a series of switchbacks to the 2999-foot Mount El Sombroso. Past the mountain, you can turn right on Kennedy Trail to Kennedy Road, or turn left on the Limekiln Trail to Lexington County Park and Alma Bridge Road. Of course, you’ll need to shuttle back to your car.

The first part of the Woods Trail is relatively flat and shady, but the climb up Mt. Sombroso looks a bit daunting. It’s also a long hike—over twelve miles. Know your limits, and bring extra water. For shorter hikes, one canteen of water should be enough. Other helpful aids include some “Off” spray to ward off pesky little flies, a hat and a few sandwiches.

Hike 3 isn’t available yet, but someday I hope that we’ll have a trail at the south end of the park that will give us access via Summit Road right up to the top of 3486-foot Mount Umunhum (resting place of the hummingbird). If I can’t make it, perhaps my grandchildren will.

In the meantime, enjoy the paradoxical park, the Sierra Azul. For more information, visit www.openspace,org or call 650-691-1200.

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