Good climbs. Great views. And a few surprises.
Alum Rock Park
Neil Wiley

Summit Fitness yoga teacher Paulie Angel suggested this hike. So I drove thirty miles for an hour through heavy traffic to East San Jose. It wasnít as comfortable as a yoga childís pose, but the trip was worth it. Compared to our own Santa Cruz Mountains, the hills arenít as high, the trees not so big, and the views are mostly urban, not rural. But Alum Rock Park has its own unique charms.

Californiaís oldest municipal park (1872) is nestled within the Alum Rock Canyon in the Diablo Range foothills. In the 1890s it was a popular spa and resort, complete with a large swimming pool, aviary, and mineral water pagoda. Some called the park "Little Yosemite." Although little is left of the resort, the park retains its natural beauty, unique geological formations, and resident wildlife, including hundreds of ground squirrels, many curious deer, and an unusually large contingent of raptors, especially red-tailed hawks, and turkey vultures.

You enter the 720-acre park on Penitencia Creek Road. (The Alum Rock entrance is closed to vehicle traffic.) I recommend making your first stop at the Rustic Lands picnic parking area. Walk across the road and find the trailhead for Eagle Rock Trail. The trail becomes a wide road with a relatively mild grade that wanders up to the 795-foot-high Eagle Rock. If you go up in the morning and the air is clear, youíll enjoy one of the best views available of Santa Clara County. (Yes, itís better than one of Rebeccaís Google maps.) Youíll even see our Santa Cruz Mountains. After your walk uphill for 6/10 of a mile youíll also appreciate two-bench seating. If you go up in the afternoon, the sun in your face and the smog may temper your enjoyment of the view, but itís still worth doing.

Back at your car, drive deeper into the park through a narrowing canyon until you reach a closed gate and the last parking lot. Go through the gate to find the Mineral Springs Trail. Itís an interesting walk over level ground. As you walk along a lovely little year-round stream filled with giant rocks and tall grasses, you see several graceful old stone bridges and many small stone grottos stained blue and green by sulfur-smelling mineral waters. Perhaps you can imagine the park as a resort in the 1890s, with couples enjoying mineral baths, pool, and long walks in formal gardens. And even if your imagination doesnít extend that far, itís still a pleasant walk.

The South Rim Loop (four miles)

Above Mineral Loop Trail and back on the main Creek Trail near Sycamore Grove, you may see a small trail marker on the right for a switchback trail up to the South Rim Trail, but to get more trail for the money, continue on the Creek Trail until you cross over the creek on the wood-planked steel bridge, known unofficially as the "no-horse" bridge. Youíll soon find yourself at the bottom of the South Rim Trail. The ten switchbacks up to the top arenít particularly steep, but some are rather long and only slightly more interesting than climbing a ladder.

Near the top, youíll see an unmarked trail leading back to the left. Take this trail a short distance to the Upper Meadow Rest Area, a picnic table/bench in a nicely shady but relatively open meadow. I liked this spot so much that I had an early lunch there.

A personal side trip

A tempting path, again unmarked, tempted me to continue on past this rest area. I found that this wasnít a good idea. As I followed this path, the trail became less distinct and the slopes greater. Even though I had a walking stick, the 45-degree-angled paths, slippery leaves, and slide areas, all several hundred feet above the canyon floor, made hiking difficult. I was only ten feet or so from the summit when I realized that even in a four-point crawl, I wasnít making headway. I slid only a few inches, but that was enough to convince me that I didnít want to reach the summit (or the canyon floor). My crawl became an all-points snake slither as I wormed my way back down.

I was in for another shock. When I returned to my lunch site, I found that a young couple was using my table. I couldnít see her, but I saw way too much of him. Respecting wildlife, I retreated a safe distance and contemplated nature for a few minutes.

Back on the trail

When they left, I returned to South Rim Trail. The trail continues west along a narrow ridge out of the woodlands through chaparral, buckeyes, toyons, and small bays. At about half a mile, you see a fork to the right that takes you down a switchback trail to the bottom of the canyon. This shortcut can be a bit daunting if you are afraid of heights. Cut into a steep slope, the narrow trail has no passing lane, and looking straight down can lead to vertigo. If you walk it, bring a walking stick and a heightened awareness of balance.

If this doesnít appeal to you, continue to the left on the South Rim Trail. The trail makes an easier loop with fewer zigzags down to the canyon floor. When you reach the Woodland Trail, turn right, and then walk down stone steps to the Visitor Center. (Unfortunately, due to budget cuts, the center is only open by appointment but you can look in the windows.)

For animal lovers

Fortunately, however, you can walk east a short distance to the Youth Science Institute. Part museum, part zoo, the YSI is a private non-profit dedicated to enhancing science education. The center at Alum Rock features an animal room with live birds, mammals, and reptiles.

I saw one of the big, old rattlesnakes lap water with her forked tongue, but I declined an opportunity to get any closer. Another room displays over one hundred bird specimens.

In addition to the Alum Rock Center, YSI has similar natural history centers at Sanborn County Park in Saratoga and Vasona Lake Park in Los Gatos. For more information on their programs for schools and childrenís groups, visit their website at www.ysi-ca.org.

More

Other trails include the North Rim Trail that takes you from the west boundary along the north side of the canyon, the Todd Quick Trail loop from the North Rim Trail to a shaded rest site, and the Woodland Trail that offers an easy one-mile walk through pleasant shade. In all, the park has 13 miles of trails, including 6 miles for horses, and 3 for bicycles.

This is a nice park for families. It has large lawn areas, a childrenís playground, picnic tables, barbecue pits, water, and restrooms. No pets are allowed.

Details

To visit Alum Rock Park, take Highway 280 to 680, and then exit at McKee. Go right (toward the hills) on McKee, and turn left on White Road. Take White to Penitencia Creek Road. Follow Penitencia into the park. (The old entrance on Alum Rock Avenue is closed due to a landslide.) Parking is $6.00 on weekends, free on weekdays.

Maps may not be available at the visitorís center. Before hiking, get a map on-line. Also, you may find a walking stick helpful, especially on the upper trails.

For more park information and a map, visit www.sanjoseca.gov/prns/regionalparks/arp/arpindex.html, or call 408-277-4661.

 

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