A nice surprise
Stile Ranch Trail
Neil Wiley

I’m always looking for a new trail, but this one didn’t sound promising. It’s not even in a preserve or park; it’s in an area called an IBM easement, next to the IBM Almaden Research Center. This didn’t sound like a wilderness experience.

On the other hand, it did promise some hills, views, and a loop trail that is usually more interesting than an out-and-back hike. Also, the trailhead is less than 25 miles away, an easy trip via Highway 85, out to the end of Almaden Expressway, a quick right on Harry, left on McKean, 1.2 miles to a left on Fortini Road, and left again at the “T” junction with San Vincente. So I gave it a try.

Like most things in life, timing is everything. I headed out on this exploration on a sunny but cool morning after a week of rain. It was a perfect day for a hike.
A few steps past a shaded table at the trailhead, I turned left on Stile Ranch Trail. As I climbed the hill, the long switchbacks made it easy to catch the views to the southwest. In the foreground were clusters of small houses and farm buildings backed by our Santa Cruz Mountains, featuring the radar tower on Mount Umunhum and the antennas of a fire-blackened Loma Prieta.

Although the grade was easy, big rocks made for careful walking. I did see a young athletic woman run full speed up-trail in a matter of minutes, but the same section took me an hour.

Fortunately, not all the rocks were in the trail. Fields of orange-tinted serpentine boulders dotted the hills. They appeared to be growing up through the new grass. Named the official state rock of California, serpentine is actually a group of minerals, including cinnabar, chromite, and magnetite. Cinnabar was mined in the adjacent Santa Teresa and nearby New Almaden Quicksilver county parks.

The larger rocks serve as handy sites for reptile sunning, cover, and territorial display. Birds (rock wren, horned lark, grasshopper sparrow, and common poorwill) use these same rocks for perching, roosting, and nest sites. You can also see how smaller rocks were used to create photogenic dry-stack stone fences.
Non-native grasslands dominate the area, but if you hike in the early spring, you can see wildflowers such as lupine, soaproot, blue dicks, and California buttercup. The serpentine bunchgrasses host unique plant species considered rare, threatened, or endangered, such as streptanthus (jewel flower), tidy tip, tarweed, goldfields, brodiaeas, and columbine. There are few trees, and most are dwarfs, but other plant species include melica, wild onion, common jewel flower, coffeeberry, manzanita, and sage.

After reaching the crest at the 0.7-mile mark, the trail descends down into a small valley, across a small bridge, and up a shorter up and down. At the top, you can look east to see Mount Hamilton.

At 1.5 miles, the Stile Ranch Trail ends at a signed junction with the Mine Trail. After a short uphill, the trail flattens until you reach the junction with the Fortini Trail. This trail follows along Santa Teresa Creek. This section can be muddy. A few trailside houses promise a return to civilization. At 2.5 miles, the trail connects with Stile Ranch Trail. A left takes you back a short distance to the trailhead.

This is a good winter or spring hike, but the hill climb and lack of shade might be less comfortable in summer. Although the trail is open to bicycles and equestrians on non-muddy days, it’s better suited for hiking.

Parking at the Stile Ranch trailhead is free, and printed maps are usually available, but you’ll find no water or toilet facilities. Dogs on leash are welcome.

Stile Ranch Trail is a nice surprise.