The Good, the Bad & the Ugly

Neil Wiley

If you stop along Summit Road, across from Burrell School Vineyards, you can see it all--what’s good , bad and ugly about the Santa Cruz Mountains. Although this view site is neither the best nor the worst, it manages to combine both magnificent beauty and disagreeable ugliness.

The good

Looking north from this site, you see an imposing series of mountains that create what appears to be an impenetrable wall of high peaks and continuous ridges. To the left is Mount Thayer at 3483 feet. In the center is Mount Umunhum, second only to Loma Prieta in height at 3486 feet.

On a dear day, you can see the abandoned five-story radar station that once "blipped" radios and TVs every few seconds as it scanned Monterey Bay for hostile invaders and incoming spy planes, ours and theirs. And although the station is abandoned, except for a caretaker and a ranger, it is still used as a landmark by pilots entering San Francisco airport’s flight path. To the right, you can see 2387-foot Bald Mountain and a ridge that continues all the way to Loma Prieta and Loma Chiquita.

As you look up at this range of mountains, you get a great sense of openness, majesty and quiet. The whole area appears relatively unchanged by time and man, marked only by the seasons, turning from green to brown and back to green. And for those of us traveling along Summit Road, this view brings a touch of serenity to a busy life.

The bad

For hikers, bikers and other local explorers, this beauty has a price. Not content to see these mountains from afar, we want to climb up through Hooker Gulch or Austrian Gulch, ride across the ridge of the Sierra Azul and look down on Lake Elsman, the Summit area and Monterey Bay, or look north to see Santa Clara Valley and the bridges across San Francisco Bay. But most of this area, so easily seen from Summit Road, is virtually inaccessible.

Although Mount Umunhum’s southern flank and old air force radar station facility are now owned by Mid-Peninsula Open Space, they are off-limits to hikers. Unfortunately, the air force left without cleaning up their mess, so the old buildings and hazardous materials make the area a safety hazard. Also, access to the open space area is disputed by a major landowner, Mr. McQueen, who zealously guards the many radio transmitters on his ridge top from would-be trespassers. The property below, including the beautiful Lake Elsman, is owned by the San Jose Water Company, who also employs a private police force to keep people out.

So, all we can do is look, not touch. And perhaps that is not such a bad thing, considering a closer look at our Summit scenic viewpoint.

The ugly

If you look down instead of up, you see a dramatic shift from majesty and beauty to unpleasant ugliness. Close to the road, you find all the junk from drive-by litterers and other folks who use this area as their lunchroom -- beer and soda cans, fast food wrappers, empty cigarette packs and all the other garbage that is all too pervasive in our society. Here you’ll often find truck trailers parked, often for days. And here are deep ruts, formed by cars and trucks that already left their etched signatures.

As you move farther away from the road, you might expect less ugliness, but you would be wrong. What was a nice meadow is now a dump. Here is a broken refrigerator; over there an old clothes washer. And here in the gullies are two cars, smashed and marked by graffiti.

So is this our choice -- beautiful and restricted or ugly and free? Does everything have to be fenced and guarded? Or could we enjoy more beauty if we were simply socially responsible? Tough question; no answer.

In the months to come, we’ll look at other places in our area of the Santa Cruz Mountains, both the best and the worst. Your suggestions on where to look are welcome.

E-mail your suggestions to


(c) 1997, 1998, 1999, 2000, 2001, 2002, 2003, 2004, 2005, 2006, 2007, 2008, 2009 mountain network news All rights reserved.