A pleasant walk through green forest
Portola Valley Trails
Neil Wiley

Take the Alpine exit west off Highway 280 to Portola Valley, and drive 3.6 miles. Almost to the end of the road, just before intersecting with Willowbrook Drive, you’ll find 250 acres of wooded open space with trail easements open to the public.

This land offers a nice, easy walk through shady forests of oak, madrone, and bay, interspersed with open meadow. Some of the trails, such as Toyon, are only for walkers, others are shared by horses, and a few allow bicycles. (Most bikers would rather go up Alpine Road.) Some trails are barely wide enough for one person. Others, such as Spanish Trail, are two-persons wide, and a few are actually fire roads.

In summer, it is a good place to walk. It’s green, cool, and shady. In spring, the wildflowers will be blooming. The fall displays lots of color. Even on a cool winter day, the trees sheltered me from the wind, and when I walked out into a newly green meadow, the January sun felt great.

In any season, the trails are easy. The climbs aren’t difficult. On my chosen loop, the elevation change is about 500 feet. The trailhead is about 640-feet high, and the highest point is approximately 1100 feet. The climbs provide a little challenge with a variety of plant life and scenery. The views are not awesome, but you can see across the Peninsula to the east, and Midpen’s Windy Hill Open Space Preserve to the west. In fact, if you are ambitious you can hike out of Portola to three trails through Midpen land up to Skyline Boulevard.

Although not readily apparent, there is some interesting history. A main route through the preserve is the Old Spanish Trail, first mentioned in an 1823 account of Spanish soldiers pursuing an escaped mission Indian toward his hideout west of Skyline. In the 1830s the trail became a road between two ranchos, one which became the center of the Stanford campus, the other extending to the Pacific coast, perhaps the first road to cross the outer coastal range.

As late as the 1960s, the road was considered for a highway across the mountains. The road did not gain sufficient support, and the nearby Alpine Road was also abandoned just two miles beyond the preserve trailhead. I drove upper Alpine in the ’60s, and it was barely passable then. You can, however, walk or ride your horse along the Old Spanish Trail, and perhaps gain a sense of history. (It would be even better if this preserve had some interpretative signage.)

Another preserve trail, Toyon, is a tribute to more recent history. More than one hundred volunteers built the trail over 44 workdays in three years.

My hike
I walked a popular loop of about 3.7 miles that included the Alpine, Old Spanish, Coal Mine, and Toyon trails. The Alpine Trail took me from the Alpine Road trailhead a short climb to Old Spanish Trail. Most of this trail is wide. It passes through a mixed-hardwood forest and several open meadows. The Coal Mine and Toyon trails are true single-tracks, running along the side of high ridges. The Toyon Trail sometimes appears a bit precarious, especially when winter rains make for slippery walking.

This loop is a good way to sample the park, but there are many other trails. Some take you to residential areas. Others extend to other roads, including Los Trancos, Valley Oak, and through Windy Hill Open Space Preserve to Skyline Boulevard.

Parking across the road from the trailhead is free, but it could be full on weekends. Be careful to avoid the no parking curbside areas. There are no entrance fees, but there are no restrooms or drinking water either. Don’t count on finding maps on-site. Get a copy of the “Town of Portola Valley” GIS base map at www.portolavalley.net. Most trails, but not the Toyon, are open to horses. No dogs are allowed. Restaurants and a gas station are located on Alpine Road. For more history, read “The Old Spanish Trail” in The Portola Valley Primer, and A History of Portola Valley by Nancy Lund and Pam Gullard. Enjoy.