ERSKINE: Santa Teresa County Park

Ron Erskine

Getting Out: Of the many parks and natural preserves in our
area, few are easier to get to than Santa Teresa County Park. While
it is close to residential development, this park offers easy
access to a surprising retreat even at lunch or on the way home
from work.
Of the many parks and natural preserves in our area, few are easier to get to than Santa Teresa County Park. While it is close to residential development, this park offers easy access to a surprising retreat even at lunch or on the way home from work.

The park rolls and folds through the southern end of the Santa Teresa Hills that separate the Santa Clara Valley from the Almaden Valley. Its 1,688 acres and 14 miles of trails offer a variety of terrain and natural diversity for cyclists, equestrians and hikers.

The main entrance is past Santa Teresa Golf Course at the west end of Bernal Road, which takes you above the valley into the heart of the park. One recent weekday, as dusk was approaching, I decided to explore the Almaden Valley entrance and watch the day end in these hills.

The Almaden entrance is at the end of Fortini Road off of McKean Road above Calero Reservoir. There is no fee to park on this side as there is at the Bernal Road entrance, but you are on the valley floor and must ascend into the park from here. I grabbed a map at the kiosk and began my walk up the Stiles Trail, which climbs the hill directly in front of you when you park. The hill is steep, but the climbing is moderate due to the trail’s easy grade.

Quickly, I saw a favorite plant of mine, Black Sage, among the chaparral shrubs along side the trail. When you see the dried tiers of spring’s long-gone flowers, pluck a leaf and roll it in your fingers for a sweet mint aroma. Black sage is common on El Toro in Morgan Hill, but it is a Southern California plant, and we are near the northern extent of its range.

Most of the park is underlain with serpentine, a gray-green rock you will see poking through the ground along the trail. The high-magnesium, low-calcium composition of this soil is toxic to much flora, but supports a specialized plant community. The park brochure brags about spring wildflowers displays on this trail, including tidy tips, jewelflower, columbine and gilia. Make a note for a March visit.

It wasn’t long before I turned to see a fabulous view across the Almaden Valley toward the Santa Cruz Mountains and Loma Prieta. New green from the recent storm and long shadows from the setting sun combined to make a sweet scene.

Being in nature at the edge of the day dramatically improves the chances of seeing wildlife on the prowl. As the slope eased near the hilltop, the landscape ahead of me opened up, and I was treated to one of those moments. A northern harrier was skulking across the rolling terrain; never more than five feet off the ground except when he would pull up briefly, then slide off in a different direction. We are used to seeing raptors lazily riding thermals high above us, but no autopilot for harriers. This bird was fully engaged in his tricky maneuverings and carefully watching for prey. He came quite close to me showing off his elegant plumage. You will recognize a northern harrier by this hunting flight pattern and a distinctive white rump patch.

Beyond the hilltop the trail dipped, then rolled over one more hump before swinging right and descending easily to the Mine Trail, then the Fortini Trail back to the car. Deer browsed for acorns under the oak trees — so tame they barely moved aside to allow me to pass by.

The streaking warm light and long shadows made days-end a spectacular time to walk this 2-mile loop, but at any time, and from either side, Santa Teresa County Park offers a handy pause from the din down below.

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