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.
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
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.