Views. Views. Views.

Hiking Russian Ridge

Neil Wiley

Midpeninsula Open Space maintains a series of preserves along Skyline Boulevard from Highway 9 to Highway 92.

From Highway 9, the first three preserves on the west side are Long Ridge, Skyline Ridge, and Russian Ridge. They have more in common than “ridge.” They all have grassy hills over 2,000 feet high that are yellow and brown until greening from the winter rains, beautiful mountain views in the distance, and trails down into forest-covered valleys.

Russian Ridge is a great place to see the changing seasons. Even in the winter, the winter-green grasslands face the southwestern sun. And when you drop below the breezy ridges, you warm up quickly.
In spring, especially April and May, the preserve explodes with color. Midpen says that Russian Ridge is one of the five best places in the Bay Area to see wildflowers. Early spring brings poppies and lupine. Then June offers the flowers of gumweed, mule’s ear, farewell-to-spring, and queen fabiola. Summer heat turns the hills to gold. And in every season, throughout your hike, you see vast and ever-changing panoramas of the world below.

Russian Ridge is a beautiful 1,822-acre example of Northern California “mounthills”—too majestic to be hills; too rounded and green to be proper mountains.

More impressive, however, is the walk up the Ridge Trail to the highest named point in San Mateo County—the 2,572-foot high Borel Hill. You gain breathtaking 360-degree views that encompass the Pacific Ocean to the west, peninsula and bay to the east, hills to the north, and our own Mt. Umunhum to the south. It’s well worth the short climb.

But there is more to see than the view. Your binoculars or a telephoto lens will come in handy to see wildlife. The ridges are one of the best places in California to see raptors: red-tailed hawks, turkey vultures, Cooper’s hawks, sharp-shinned hawks, and even golden eagles. From the ridges, you can overlook miles of trails, so keep an eye out for coyotes and the occasional, but shy, mountain lion.

On a warm day, however, the open space becomes too open. It’s time to walk down into the valley to enjoy the shade of Ancient Oaks Trail. The trail soon lives up to its name, displaying an enchanted forest of old, gnarled, moss-covered oaks, mixed with Douglas firs and madrones.

The next junction offers two ways back to your car. You can turn here or go another three-tenths of a mile before turning left. Both trails return you to Ridge Trail and the parking lot.

That makes for a relatively short hike. For a more interesting experience, turn right on Ancient Oaks Trail to a left on Charquin Trail. You walk down lower and lower though forest that is darker and darker.

Your hiking companion may be concerned that walking down means walking up. When you reach Mindego Hill Trail, a turn left tells you that your fellow hiker was right. You must now walk up a steep, gravelly road. It may only be a half mile or so, but try walking up a ladder for half a mile. It is not impossible, but it’s a challenge.

Now for the good part. When you reach the top, you are at the Audrey C. Rust Commemorative Site. It has a parking lot where you wish you had parked, toilet facilities, and a short walk to a beautiful view that you can see sitting down on nice benches. If you brought food, this is a nice place to enjoy it. After a short rest, you may notice that this site has a plaque commemorating Audrey Rust, a past president of POST. It is all quite civilized.

Your hike isn’t finished. To reach your car at the Skyline/Alpine lot, you can follow the Ancient Oaks Trail 1.7 miles.

The first section is a nice, shady, relatively flat single-track with moderate grades. As you get near your destination, the hills get higher and shade is replaced with very open space. The last steps on Ridge Trail take you downhill back to your car and civilization.

If you have energy and time, extend your walk through the parking lot and tunnel to the Alpine Pond and the David C Daniels Nature Center. At any time of year, the walk around the pond is pleasant, with lots of animal and plant viewing opportunities. Open from April through November (except during pandemics), the Nature Center building houses interesting exhibits and docents who can answer any question as long as it’s about nature.

Your final decision is whether to drive north to Alice’s Restaurant at Highway 84, or drive south to Highway 9 and a nice Saratoga restaurant. Either way, it’s a good choice, even if you have to take your food to go.

Russian Ridge is easy to reach. Drive up to Skyline Boulevard via Black, Bear Creek, Summit, or Highway 9 through Saratoga. Follow Skyline Boulevard seven miles north of Saratoga Gap to Alpine Road, turn
left, and then turn a quick right into the parking lot. 

Horses and bicycles are allowed on all trails, but dogs are not. Parking and entry are free. For more information, call Midpeninsula Regional Open Space District, 650-691-1200.