For fifty-one years, you couldn’t walk in Foothills Park unless you lived in Palo Alto. Now it’s open to all, thanks to an ACLU lawsuit that forced the city council to rescind their residents-only discrimination.
Yippee! What a wonderful gift for the rest of us who enjoy nature.
This is not a little urban city park. It’s a large 1400 acres, with spectacular views, trails offering a range of difficulty from easy to strenuous, a pretty blue lake with ducks, and a range of natural environments that include chaparral, woodlands, huge meadows, lovely creeks, and little waterfalls.
My first visit to the park was on a sunshiny Saturday morning after a week of rain. Lots of people were taking advantage of an unusually warm, dry day in a new park, but I never felt crowded.
The secret is good design. Instead of one massive parking lot, you can park deep in the park in several lots and roadside areas. The first lot serves the lake, the next is close to the Chamise Trail on the north, and Toyon Trail on the south. Further along the road, you can find the trailhead of the park’s longest trail, the 7.7-mile Los Trancos Trail.
If a long hike sounds too ambitious, you can drive from the Interpretive Center to Vista Point. Here you’ll find spectacular views of the entire peninsula, several areas for parking, and the entrance to Panorama Trail for more views to the north.
Of course, you can always walk up to Vista Point via Chamise or Coyote trails. I saw a group of senior women who had walked up. I could tell they were experienced hikers. Each carried two walking sticks and wore neck protection.
I walked several other trails, including Toyon and Woodrat. On shady Woodrat, I saw a woman placing a twig in a pile of sticks in the crotch of a tree. She told me that she places one twig there on every hike. I didn’t count the sticks, but she must come here often. (Perhaps she was helping the woodrats. They are known for building twig nests in trees.)
Although signs at Woodrat say it is a one-way trail, I ran into several people who couldn’t read. Even so, one-way traffic on a single-track reduces most awkward passing and COVID-19 danger. Where possible, it seems like a good idea.
I’m looking forward to walking some other trails. The Fern Loop climbs through a dark, wooded canyon past ferns and some waterfalls. Coyote Trail takes you up a mildly sloping trail and a side trail to Madera Point overlook. Chamise Trail offers views of Los Trampas and Wildhorse valleys as you walk from Vista Hill down to Boronda Lake. Sunrise Trail offers views of Wildhorse Valley and Boronda Lake while connecting Steep Hollow and Los Trancos trails. Steep Hollow Trail doesn’t look like much fun. It is steep and dark.
Los Trancos Trail is challenging, too. The first miles are steep, it’s long (almost eight miles) on a one-way loop., but it is a beautiful experience., I more than survived hiking the 7.7 mile loop. I enjoyed it. For more about this hike, see Los Trancos Trail, Foothills Preserve in our April 2021 issue, and listed on the hikes page of this website under Foothills Preserve, Los Trancos Trail.)
Nothing is perfect. Crowding, especially on weekends, may get worse. If too many people show up, the park may close the gates.
Entrance fees have been increased to $6. I think payment is necessary to maintain a heavily used resource, but charging for open space may be seen as an act of discrimination.
You’ll need a mask. Dogs are only permitted on weekdays on a leash. Bicycles are allowed only on paved roads. Remote-control and coasting devices, such as skates, are not allowed. No collecting. No smoking. No fires except in designated areas. COVID-19 has forced the closure of the interpretive center, the Oak Grove barbecue site, canoe rentals, and water fountains.
Official park hours are from 9 a.m. to 3 p.m., but to avoid Highway 280 commute traffic, you may want to get to the park later and leave earlier.
For GPS, you can use the address 11799 Page Mill Road, Los Altos Hills. My GPS and Google directions agreed on a route that takes you off 280 north at El Monte Road (Exit 16), past Foothill College to El Monte, left on Moody, right on Altamont, and left on Page Mill. Watch for the park entrance gate on the right.
Foothills Park (now called Foothills Preserve) is one of the most interesting and beautiful open spaces in our area. I only hope that we don’t love it to death.