Good climbs. Great views. And a few surprises.
Alum Rock Park
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
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
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.
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
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
or call 408-277-4661.