Hiking Through History
Almaden Quicksilver County Park
Once, 1,800 mercury miners and their families lived here. Now, it is home to a few historical relics—mine shafts, reduction equipment, a powder house, a railroad trestle, and a few old buildings battered by time. It was this history that brought me back to Almaden Quicksilver County Park. I wanted to share some pictures of this unusual place before these relics disappeared.
On a previous hike, I entered the park from the Wood Road entrance across from a trailhead for Sierra Azul Open Space. This time, I followed the park’s historic trail from the main Hacienda entrance at the south end of New Almaden. This trail provides numerical markings and interpretive signs. A park brochure, complete with a trail map and descriptions of each numbered site, provides a self-guided tour. All you need is a good pair of legs to hike the 5.1 miles around the trail loop.
(The brochure is usually available at the trailhead, but it’s safer to get a copy online at http://www.sccgov.org/sites/parks/
Click on Almaden Quicksilver Historic Trail Guide.)
After you park your car at the Hacienda entrance, walk across the road to see a registered landmark commemorating the first quicksilver mining in California, and a plaque honoring Patrick Tillman, a New Almaden native who was killed in Afghanistan in 2004. Back in the parking lot, you’ll find another plaque dedicated to the attempted takeover of the New Almaden Mine by Abraham Lincoln.
Your first interpretive sign provides an overview. Discovered by a Mexican cavalry captain in 1845, the New Almaden Mine was the first and richest mercury mine in North America. Named after Spain’s famous Almaden Mine, the New Almaden Mine produced almost 84 million pounds of mercury by 1976.
Entering the park, we walk to post 2, located in front of the reduction works in a large, almost perfectly flat meadow. You can see an old wooden Cornish pump used to drain mine shafts, a cylindrical piece of machinery called a rotary furnace that extracted mercury from cinnabar ore, ore cars, and other strange machines.
Walk through the field, and then turn sharply on the right to enter Deep Gulch Trail. This narrow, single-track trail becomes wider as it takes you uphill for about a mile.
Post 3 identifies the Harry Shaft, visible through large piles of rock tailings. There are more than 100 mine entrances in the park, but most are hidden.
We continue up Deep Gulch Trail, and then take English Trail up to English Camp (post 4). As many as 1,000 men, women, and children lived here. There was a school, a church, mining offices, and many cabins. In 1886, 253 students attended the school.
In 1933, English Town became the Mount Madonna camp for the Civilian Conservation Corps. The CCC built roads, fire-service buildings and lookout towers, telephone lines, and ranger stations. A plaque, walkway, and flagpole commemorate their service.
To the left of the flagpole, take the Castillero Trail for a short walk, then a left on the Yellow Kid Trail. Post 5 indicates the site of Spanish Town where as many as 1,500 Mexicans and Chileans were housed.
The trail takes us to post 6, where a giant rotary furnace was used to process mercury from ore. The large pipe rotated while heating cinnabar, breaking it down to mercury sulfide and turning mercury into a gas. The massive condensers on the left would liquefy the mercury into flasks for shipment.
A few steps down the trail is post 7 and the notorious hanging tree. Justice was quick, but the condemned had a pleasant last view of Loma Prieta and Mt. Umunhum.
For a better scenic view, we walk back a few steps and up to Castillero Trail. A turn left on this trail takes us up a small hill to the post 8 viewpoint. Although Loma Prieta is the tallest mountain in the Santa Cruz Mountains (3,786 feet elevation), it appears only as a high point on the ridge. Mt. Umunhum looks more like a mountain, with steep slopes up to the five-story tower. Although the tower is a locally famous landmark, Mid-Peninsula Open Space may tear it down if private donations don’t fund restoration to meet safety requirements. Even then, the tower interior will not be open to the public, but the Sierra Azul master plan calls for opening the mountaintop site in the future.
At post 9 (Bull Run) we reach the most westward point of the loop and an intersection with Mine Hill Road. Two picnic tables in shade and a nice view suggest lunch, snacks, or at least, a rest stop.
As you walk down a relatively steep but smooth Mine Hill Road, watch out for bicyclists, especially those coming down hill. This appears to be one of their more popular routes, and some riders are in “dive” mode.
When you come to your first right, take a short 1/10 of a mile trail to the San Cristobal mine tunnel (post 10). You can inspect a large block of granite used in competitions to compare drilling speed and depths, and walk a short way into the tunnel.
Double back to Mine Hill, and turn right (east). As you walk along Mine Hill, you’ll see views of San Jose and the Santa Clara Valley (post 11).
Take a sharp left when you reach April Trail. On your walk down April Trail, you soon reach the Powder House (post 12), a small, reconstructed brick building used to store explosives. (When I mentioned the Powder House to another hiker, she said she didn’t need to go to the bathroom.) Although the building is not a powder room, it does use manure insulation between two layers of brick to keep explosives cool and to channel any blasts.
Continue on the April Trail to walk around the April Tunnel Trestle (post 13). This imposing structure was used to dump ore into a wagon or truck.
You could walk back up the trail, but continuing along April Trail is easier. The trail loops back to Mine Hill Road, saving steps and a steep climb. It was along this quiet trail that I had one of my more interesting sightings—a giant buck. I took several pictures before he casually walked off the trail.
At post 14, look up to the ridge to see an immense chimney used to release dangerous sulfuric gases that the wind would carry away, maybe. Unfortunately, these gases were blamed for acid rain in the South Bay.
Post 15 indicates the location of the tramway, which was removed in the 1940s after several youths were killed attempting the ride. An interpretative sign offers more information about the tramway.
There are no more posts, but if you are into history, your last, or first, stop, should be the Almaden Quicksilver Museum located in the largest building in New Almaden—the Casa Grande. To learn about docent- and ranger-led hikes, call 408-268-3883.
You don’t have to walk. You can ride 23 miles of equestrian trails, with spacious horse-trailer parking at the Hacienda and Wood Road entrances. Biking is popular on ten miles of trail. Dogs on leash are welcome. The park is open every day, but while the museum is open year round on weekends, the schedule for other days changes with the seasons. For museum information, call 408-323-1107.
Admission, tours, and parking are free. You can arrange your own group tour at 408-323-1107. No matter how you travel, be sure to bring a map and water. Although signage is good, the park is 4,152 acres big.
See you on the trail.