Getting Out: Hiking the ‘pearls’ of Skyline

The Long Ridge Open Space Preserve is one of the many “pearls” of the Skyline Boulevard. The area stretches from San Francisco to Highway 17.

Skyline Boulevard traces the crest of the Santa Cruz Mountains down the peninsula from San Francisco to Highway 17. Rain that falls on the southwest side of the road collects underneath Douglas firs and redwoods on its way to the Pacific Ocean. Just across the road, runoff goes the other direction, down through the various peninsula communities and into San Francisco Bay.
In another sense, Skyline Boulevard is a long strand of pearls. Strung along its entire length is a virtually unbroken succession of parks and preserves that drop from the road down into the hills and canyons below. Take your choice: views of the entire Bay Area on one side or views across fir-covered ridges to the ocean on the other. Either way, you win.
I set out for one of the pearls near the south end of the strand – Long Ridge Open Space Preserve. This west-facing preserve is located at the one place where the San Mateo, Santa Clara and Santa Cruz counties all intersect. The guide book said that its 2,035 acres and 13.2 miles of trails offered great views toward the ocean. Short days and the approach of winter seem to make the world contract. Sweeping vistas sounded like the perfect antidote.
I took the Saratoga Avenue exit off of Highway 85, turned south and followed my nose through the town of Saratoga and up Highway 9 to Skyline Boulevard – a twisty but lovely drive. Three and a half miles north on Skyline, I pulled into the Grizzly Flat parking lot, which accesses Upper Stevens Creek County Park on the right side of the road and Long Ridge OSP on the other.
I crossed the street and descended a gentle half mile through a patchwork of grassland and forest to the Peters Creek Trail. From here, the trail climbs gradually alongside the creek and passes through an ever-changing setting. A dark forest of Douglas firs, bay trees and canyon live oaks gives way to a brighter riverside edged with willows and an old apple orchard with tree branches veiled in gray-green lichen. After a mile, the trail crosses an earthen dam holding back a beautiful little pond.
Hills on the far side of the dam still blocked views toward the ocean. Into the forest again, I switched back and forth up a half-mile slope to the junction with Long Ridge Road where I turned right and into the bright sunlight and spacious scenery I was chasing. With this southern exposure, the thick forest that thrived on the north slope gave way to grassy hills and the largest canyon live oaks I have seen. It was a delight to follow this road as it edged south through folded sun-washed hillsides.
A half mile down Long Ridge Road, 2 1/2 miles in all from the trailhead, I reached the star attraction and the perfect spot to linger and have lunch. A masonry bench sits on a level part of a grassy slope where the view is widest. The bench was built in memory of Wallace Stegner, resident of Los Altos and Pulitzer Prize winning author (“Angle of Repose”) who worked to save open space including Long Ridge Ranch in particular. From here, a string of fir-covered ridges recede into the fall haze. In the vast landscape visible from this bench, I could see no sharp reflections from any man made object. I entered the forest once again for the remaining two miles of this loop.
This Long Ridge OSP loop would shine brightest in spring. The moss-covered boulders in the bed of Peters Creek hint at a beautiful scene once enough rainfall has filled it, and the varied landscape tells me to return in March with a wildflower book.

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