From Highway 9 to 84
Skyline Boulevard, Part II
Perhaps no stretch of highway offers so many pathways to nature along both sides of one beautiful road. Enjoy long, winding trails over sunny, meadow-covered hills or through dark forest canyons. Share multi-use trails with hikers, bikers, and horses, or discover narrow single-tracks for hikers only. Enjoy solitude or share nature with friends or a friendly docent.
Bring your children on nature hikes, complete with a nature center visit, walks around small lakes and ponds, or an educational earthquake tour. Choose the terrain you like—a short walk over flat or gently rolling hills, or challenge yourself on longer, steeper climbs rewarded by scenic vistas. You can find the trail you like, and who knows, you may even find yourself.
We begin our tour at the vista point parking lot at the intersection of Highways 9 and 35 (Skyline Boulevard), with a walk across Highway 9 to the Saratoga Gap Open Space Preserve. The one and only trail takes you 1.7 miles along Skyline. It is too close to the road to escape civilization, but the trail ends in Upper Stevens Creek County Park at the trailhead for Charcoal Road on the right and Table Mountain Trail on the left. Both lead you deep within the county park down a steep grade to the east. The trails meet in about three miles to form a loop, but it is a steep climb back up, so steep in fact that for safety, bicycle riders can only ride uphill, not downhill, on Charcoal Road, which features grades up to eight percent.
A short drive north on Skyline bring you to another pair of trails east into Upper Stevens Creek County Park. Although these trails go downhill, they are shorter and a bit less steep. The main trail is Grizzly Flat. You can take a shortcut or a longer loop connection near the bottom. You can also continue on to the Canyon Trail. A right-turn on this trail dead ends after 1.4 miles to a gate at Stevens Creek Road.
Across the road to the west from the Grizzly Flat entrance is the trailhead for the popular Peters Creek Trail in the Long Ridge Open Space Preserve. The top section of the trail is open to dogs. This is a nice walk by a tranquil pond, through deep forests, then out to open grasslands and ridge views. You can see the ocean from a bench dedicated to Wallace Stegner.
If you are ambitious, you can take the Bay Area Ridge Trail through three open-space preserves—Long Ridge, Skyline Ridge, and Russian Ridge. Although long, the trail stays relatively close to Skyline Boulevard.
A few miles north by trail or car is Skyline Ridge. It is one of my favorite preserves, especially in winter or spring. In January, I took a pond-to-pond hike. Beginning at the equestrian parking lot, I walked down to and around the unusual Horseshoe Lake. From there, I hiked over to Fir Knoll Loop and the easy hills of Sunny Jim Trail to Alpine Pond and the Daniels Nature Center, where I enjoyed a snack-bar lunch. (The center is open on weekends from April to mid-November.) The highlight of the trip was hiking back along the Ipiwa Trail to overlook the coastal range.
When I was at the Daniels Nature Center, I could have walked across Alpine Road to the main entrance and parking lot of the Russian Ridge Open Space Preserve. In this preserve, a favorite trail is the Bay Area Ridge Trail with a short detour to Borel Hill, then on to the RR01 gate where you can cross over Skyline Boulevard to get a scenic view of the San Francisco Bay and Peninsula. You can complete the loop by returning on the Charquin and Ancient Oak trails back to the parking lot.
To explore deeper sections of Russian Ridge, drive down Alpine Road to park at the new Audrey C. Rust Commemorative site. From there, you can hike a 3.3-mile loop of Mindego Hill, Charquin, and Ancient Oaks trails. You can also drive down Alpine Road to visit Portola State Park. It’s a bit remote, so make sure you have a full gas tank, food, water, and perhaps some extra clothes.
Across Skyline Boulevard to the east are several more open space preserves: Monte Bello, Los Trancos, Coal Creek, Windy Hill, and Thornewood.
Monte Bello Open Space Preserve is big (3,278 acres), diverse (wide range of wildlife and ecosystems), and beautiful. Its riparian corridor is one of the finest in the Santa Cruz Mountains. From Skyline, turn right on Page Mill Road. Watch for the sign on the right at about 1.4 miles.
A short walk from the parking lot of less than five hundred feet takes you down a gentle slope to an excellent vista point. From there you can look down over Stevens Creek Canyon, and beyond to our mountains. A nice bench provides a restful stopover before heading back to the parking lot, or down to the canyon. A good three- mile loop begins on Canyon Trail, across the Skid Road Trail, and back via the Stevens Creek Nature Trail. Although Canyon Trail and Bella Vista Trail are popular with bicyclists, Stevens Creek Nature Trail is closed to bicycles or horses.
Across Page Mill Road, the 274-acre Los Trancos Open Space Preserve has a special offering, the San Andreas Fault Trail, which along with a descriptive brochure or docent-led hike helps visitors better understand our geologic environment and the effects of earthquakes.
Further north on Skyline is Coal Creek Open Space Preserve. It’s a bit funky as you might expect with a trail called Crazy Pete. You can follow it around a loop via Crazy Pete’s Road and Cloud’s Rest Trail back to Skyline just north of the vista point, then along the road back to your starting point. It’s a nice, short, but slightly weird hike.
Windy Hill is the next preserve to the north. Although most hikes along Skyline take you downhill first, Windy Hill is an exception. If you enter the preserve from the Portola Valley entrance, you can climb Hamms Gulch Trail or Razorback Ridge Trail up to Skyline, then return on the other trail, or opt for the one-mile shorter but steeper Spring Ridge Trail to go back down. Spring Ridge Trail offers great views of the San Francisco Bay and Peninsula, but it is in the open without shade. Whatever loop you choose, you’ll hike from seven to eight miles with an elevation gain of about 1400 feet.
For a great view, take the Anniversary Trail from the Skyline entrance for a short walk up to Windy Hill. It takes only a few minutes but rewards you with an exceptional 360-degree view.
Thornewood’s entrance is on Highway 84. Turn right (east) from Skyline to Highway 84. Go through the gates on the right at 1.9 miles. You’ll find a small parking lot and an information signboard. A shady single-track trail wanders down through oak forest to a small lake. It is a pleasant short hike, especially in the summer.
Next month, if all goes well, I’ll give you a thumbnail view of the trails off Skyline north of Highway 84.
In the meantime, to read more about local trails, visit our website at www.mnn.net, and click on Hikes and other explorations. For more about MidPen Regional Open Space preserves, visit www.openspace.org.
A few cautions. Be sure to tell someone where you are going. Bring a map, compass, and water. Forget work. And if this hiking made you hungry, drive to the intersection of Skyline and 84 for a well-deserved burger at Alice’s Restaurant. Enjoy.