Sanborn County Park
The new John Nicholas Trail

Neil Wiley

Every hike, even on an old, familiar trail, can present unanticipated adventures. Even so, for the curious explorer, hiking a new path is a peak experience. An extension to the John Nicholas Trail is brand-new. In fact, when I hiked this trail, it was not yet officially open. According to Gregory Bringelson of Santa Clara County’s Parks and Recreation Department, the trail should be dedicated April 25, 2015, if a normal winter with rainfall compacts the trail tread, and heals and promotes the regrowth of surrounding vegetation.

The trail extension takes you from Lake Ranch Reservoir in the Lyndon Canyon/Sanborn Creek watersheds uphill for 3.5 miles to the Sunnyvale Mountain Picnic area on Skyline Boulevard. Although it is a 900-foot climb in elevation, the trail-builders have created a dirt trail of long switchbacks with an average grade of four percent. Pretty easy, considering you are climbing up to Skyline Ridge.

The way up is shaded by large trees. Also, the climbs are softened by level sections where you can catch your breath. In one place, the trail passes through a meadow that feels like the bottom of the valley. Near the top, large rock formations offer a reason to stop for a longer look. Even better, there is a great scenic viewpoint that encompasses Santa Clara County and San Francisco Bay.

If you try the short-cut road, you’ll have a much steeper climb and miss the rock formations and scenic view. Better to stay on the trail.

When you reach the top, you can enjoy lunch at the picnic table at Sunnyvale Mountain. Parking and a porta-potty are available, but there is no running water.

Building a new trail.
Trailbuilding wasn’t easy. According to Greg, they hiked, scouted, and laid out the trail over several months before beginning construction in 2012. Over a weekend this past July, they held a volunteer weekend campout/trail-work project with Volunteers for Outdoor California. The 127 volunteers helped build seven retaining walls, including several yards of backfill. They hand-built 500 feet of new trail, and removed vegetation.

Many of the rock walls and other trail structures were built using rock excavated during construction. The crew cut, shaped, and placed the rock for walls and stream crossings using feathers, wedges, and rigging systems suspended from trees. Greg says that the rigging was like a zip line, except it hauled rock rather than people.
Over more than two years of construction, several groups participated in volunteer trail days. Greg can’t say enough about the efforts these volunteers put into this project. Organizations helping included REI, Citrix, Google, West Valley College’s Park-Management Program, California Conservation Corps, Silicon Valley Mountain Bikers, Bay Area Ridge Trail, and Volunteers for Outdoor California. They put in over 4,000 hours of volunteer time. Greg gives them all a big shout out.

The multi-user trail will be open to hikers, equestrians, and bicyclists. Although I talked with hikers who were concerned about bicycle use, Greg says that the trail incorporates reverse grades and long sight lines to minimize multi-user conflicts. The trail now has minimal signage, but interpretive signs may be considered for the entrance, rock-formation areas, and viewpoints.

Up and down, or down and up?

You can reach this trail in several ways. For the shortest walk, park at Sunnyvale Mountain on Skyline Boulevard. The parking area on the left is less than five miles from the intersection of Highways 35 and 9 at Saratoga Gap. If you drive up Black Road to Skyline, Sunnyvale Mountain will be on the right just past Las Cumbres. The disadvantage of hiking from the ridge is walking downhill when you are fresh, and an uphill return when you aren’t.

If you are walking up from the Lake Ranch entrance on Black Road, you can walk 1.4 miles on an easy, relatively flat trail with fifty-percent shade to the reservoir. Another half-mile trail passes alongside the reservoir. Watch for the extension of this trail to walk 3.5 miles up to Sunnyvale Mountain. You can also continue on this trail to Sanborn Road. Although there is no parking on Sanborn, you could walk to one of the large parking areas in the main visitor-center area.

If you are more ambitious, you could walk a large loop using the San Andreas, Sanborn, and Skyline trails to link with the John Nicholas Trail. This park covers 3,449 acres, so for this loop, I recommend a detailed map, water, and compass.
Whatever approach you take, this is a good walk in a shady forest. Enjoy.