It has been a dry winter and the trivial rainfall we have received has left the hills a timid shade of green.
Nevertheless, it is spring, and whether our hills are bright green and bursting with flowers or slightly muted, jaw-dropping vistas abound. Not only are we blessed to live in a beautiful area, we are lucky that so much of it has been set aside for us to seek solitude and peace – nature’s anti-depressant with only healthy side effects.
Here are three special day hikes guaranteed to please in any season. One of them is close to you.
Hang up the parka.
Dig out your shorts, T-shirt, a pair of comfortable striders, and hit the trail.
Rancho Cañada del Oro: (Morgan Hill)
Established in 1992, the Santa Clara County Open Space Authority was created to help preserve dwindling open space in regions south of the Mid-Peninsula Regional Open Space District. Since then, the Authority has purchased or protected key areas including Palassou Ridge east of Gilroy and a portion of Morgan Hill’s iconic El Toro Mountain.
But the Authority’s crown jewel is its first preserve, Rancho Cañada del Oro.
This 3,882-preserve was opened in 2004 and is adjacent to Calero County Park between San Jose and Morgan Hill. It is a little secret tucked underneath Loma Prieta Mountain, but it has marquis caliber scenery.
Several miles south of Calero Reservoir and Cinnabar Golf Course, McKean Road becomes Uvas Road and continues on to Morgan Hill. Where the road changes names, there is a signed turnoff to Casa Loma Road. The preserve staging area is a few miles out Casa Loma Road at the end of the paved portion of the road.
There are eight miles of trails at Rancho Cañada del Oro laid out in a unique loop-de-loop pattern that allows you to hike just the four-mile loop or the full eight miles. When the short loop curls back near the staging area, you can choose to continue on or call it a day.
Hop on Mayfair Ranch Trail, cross the road, and begin the gentle ascent of the ridge above. This wide trail climbs gradually through manzanita and toyon bushes finally reaching the top where it begins a lovely transit along the ridge crest. A dark forest of coast live oaks gives way to a grassland dotted with elegantly twisted valley oaks. Here the view opens down both sides of the ridge. On your left, beautiful hills rise above Llagas Creek. Below you on the right is Baldy Ryan Creek. Beyond and above the creek is Bald Peaks, where the long loop will take you.
At three miles the trail drops down to Baldy Ryan Creek and the moment of decision. If you’ve had enough, follow the creek for level one-mile walk back to the parking area. If you are ready for more, turn left onto Longwall Canyon Trail and get ready for a treat.
No treats for free, however. The climb to Baldy Peaks is very manageable, but a little longer and steeper than the Mayfair Ranch Trail. Stop now and then and turn around. Bit by bit, you rise above the ridge you traversed that morning. Morgan Hill’s El Toro and country beyond comes into view. Give yourself a pat on the back.
Scamper to the top of one of the grassy knobs along the Bald Peaks Trail and take it all in. If you picked a clear day, you’ll see Mt. Tamalpais, the Transamerica Building, the Bay Bridge, and Hoover Tower at Stanford. Closer in, the sweeping view includes Mt. Hamilton and the Diablo Range, downtown San Jose, and immediately below, Calero Reservoir.
If you arranged a car shuttle and have the energy, you can connect here with Calero County Park and drop down to the reservoir. More likely, you will hop on the Catamount Trail and turn toward home. The reward for climbing Bald Peaks is that gravity will be your friend all the way back.
Rancho Cañada del Oro, short loop or long loop, has lovely country and lovely views just outside Morgan Hill.
Harvey Bear Ranch – Mummy Mountain Trail (Gilroy)
We live in beautiful country with many places to hike and get out, but if I had to pick just one hike near home, it would be the Mummy Mountain Trail in Harvey Bear Ranch County Park. On the edge of Gilroy, this trail shows off the best of the classic California hills while throwing in some vertigo-inducing exposure usually reserved for alpine high country.
The lands of Harvey Bear Ranch encompass the first fold of the Diablo Range east of Highway 101 between San Martin Road and Leavesley Road in Gilroy. At the south end, you can see a separate and distinct portion of the ridge that (use your imagination!) resembles a reclining human figure. That’s Mummy Mountain.
This 4,595-acre park has twenty nine miles of trails open to hikers, bikers and equestrians. The main entrance is at the east end of San Martin Avenue, but that entrance is on the valley floor. All the bells and whistles are on top of the ridge – a hefty slog away. That’s why I love the Mendoza Ranch entrance. It is on top of the ridge, 3.5 miles up Roop Road just before the entrance to Coyote Reservoir. Up there, the hard work is done, and we can comfortably stroll to the main attractions.
As you step from your car at the Mendoza Ranch parking area, look to the west. That bulge rising above you is our target, Mummy Mountain.
At the trail junction a few hundred yards inside the gate, you can turn right onto Coyote Ridge Trail and ride the ridge top four miles along the full length of the park, enjoying views that alternate between the reservoir and the Santa Clara Valley. But turn left onto the Mendoza Trail and curve around the south end of the mountain. After a third of a mile, the Mummy Mountain Trail turns right up the hill. If you are allergic to climbing, continue on the Mendoza Trail that will meet the Coyote Ridge Trail at the north end of the mountain and bring you home. This is a level 2.5-mile loop that takes you all the way around the mountain. But dig deep and head up. You’ll be glad you did.
The trail traverses the back side of the mountain before making a big “S” that lifts you to the top. Now, the show begins. From this lofty perch, views alternate between Coyote Reservoir and Palassou Ridge to the east and the full reach of the Santa Clara Valley to the west. The flowers in spring are fabulous. In some places, the ridge top is so vast and open that you have a 360-view – nothing is above you, everything is below. Here and there, the hillside drops away from the trail edge like a Sierra path etched in a granite wall.
Admire the trail builder’s masonry staircase as you ease off the ridge top back down to the Coyote Ridge Trail. A flat one-mile walk takes you back to the parking lot. It’s only a 3.5-mile walk, but it has 100 miles of scenery.
Pacheco State Park (Hollister)
In 1868, John Muir stepped off a steamer in San Francisco, and asked directions to “any place that is wild.” He set foot for Yosemite by way of Pacheco Pass. It was here that he first glimpsed the Sierra Nevada, the mountains that would define his life. He later wrote, “Looking east from the summit of Pacheco Pass one shining morning, a landscape was displayed that after all my wanderings still appears as the most beautiful I have ever beheld.” He went on to describe a 50-mile wide sea of yellow flowers, and beyond, “the mighty Sierra, miles in height, and so gloriously colored and so radiant.”
Today this land atop Pacheco Pass, not far from Hollister, is Pacheco State Park. There are 2,000 acres open to the public with 28 miles of trails that roll over and around the scenic grassy knolls that comprise this park. In good years, the flowers can be gangbusters, but the views are fabulous any year.
From Highway 152, turn onto Dinosaur Point Road at the top of Pacheco Pass. A short distance ahead, turn right into the parking lot. If you come in the early morning, be prepared for surprising weather. Twice I went to the park and turned toward home without leaving the car. Cold screaming winds raking over the pass slammed porta-potty doors madly back and forth and bent staked trees a full ninety degrees under the gale’s surprising force. I believe I even saw Dorothy and Toto fly by.
But the early morning bluster will settle, and when it does, Pacheco State Park sparkles. There are countless loops one can devise, but however you choose to return, begin your loop on Spikes Peak Trail. After a short approach, the trail rises to a ridge that bobs and rolls above the surrounding hills.
This is open grassland with only occasional oaks, an open landscape that provides unobstructed views in every direction.
The 2-mile walk to Spikes Peak is a spacious overlook the entire way. At the peak, take time to soak in the amazing view, then choose your route back. You will want a map (available at the kiosk), but at Spike’s Peak the entire park spreads out beneath you allowing you to trace nearly any trail through the actual terrain.
You might choose to return past Pig’s Pond, a poor name for a lovely spot, or take a closer look at the wind turbines on the high ridges on the far side of the park. Dinosaur Lake Trail takes you past Dinosaur Lake and to the foot of these turbines that provide enough power for 3,500 homes.
Come to Pacheco State Park (bring drinking water) and walk in the foot steps of John Muir. Few people recognized a good view better than he did so this landscape comes highly recommended.
Ron Erskine writes an outdoor column every week in Sports. Read Erskine’s columns online under “Sports.”