Hiking through cool, dark forest
Wunderlich County Park

Neil Wiley

Here is a cool hike for a warm day. The trails in Wunderlich are shaded by a wonderful assortment of treesógiant redwoods, eucalyptus, oaks, cypress, acacias, madrone, fir, laurels, buckeyes, maples, and bays. Sure, some arenít native, but they fit right in.

A San Mateo County park, Wunderlich is 942 acres of mixed forest on the eastern slopes of the Santa Cruz Mountains between Skyline Boulevard (Highway 35) on the southwest, Highway 84 on the southeast, and Woodside Road (Highway 84) on the northeast. The park was named after Martin Wunderlich, who donated the property for the park to San Mateo County.

The trails are well-maintained, the signage is good, and the terrain is varied. Although deeply forested, changes in elevation support a wide variety of trees, shrubs, and wildflowers.

The lower end of the park features the Folger Ranch complex of boarding stables, riding facility, and horse ring. This complex is listed on the National Register of Historic Places. And yes, it was the James Folger II of Folger coffee fame, who bought this property in 1902. He built an estate in 1905 designed by Arthur Brown, Jr. This is the same Brown who built such San Francisco landmarks as the Ferry Building, the Opera House, City Hall, and Coit Tower.

The stable is no ordinary horse barn. The architectural style is French baroque. Adornments include corbels under the eaves, paneled soffits, a balcony, and an arched portico. A nearby carriage house is now used for informal community meetings. Other buildings include a blacksmith barn and a dairy house, built in 1874 by previous owner Simon Jones, an ex-senator from Texas. For safety, and respect for the existing horse boarders, visitors are asked not to enter the buildings, but they can take a walking tour through the area.

Over twelve miles of developed trails are available to hikers. Most also serve equestrians, although some narrower trails are closed during the winter. You can walk from one end of the park to the other on the 5.1-mile Alambique Trail. It runs from the Woodside Road trailhead at 475-feet elevation to Skyline Ridge (Highway 35) at 2200 feet. ("Alambique" is also the name of a creek running through the park. The name comes from the Spanish por alambique, which means sparingly.

You can also take several intersecting trails to form loops. One favorite hike for families is a two-mile loop to and from Salamander Flat, site of the Salamander Pool.

This pool began life as a reservoir for the Folger estate. Now it is home to rough-skinned newts, which come here to breed. I guess the old pond should be called a new newt pond. Its new use suits newts to a "T." By the way, donít eat the newts. The flash of their orange underbelly is a warning to predators that these newts are highly toxic.

Although signage is excellent, the lower part of the park has many intersecting trails. Whatever trail you take, I recommend getting a trail map from the Internet. The online map is much easier to read than the map available at the trailhead. For a map, perform an online search for San Mateo County Ė Parks Department, Wunderlich Park. When you reach the official park site, download the printer-friendly park map.

My hike

I followed a five-mile loop through the park recommended by the Bay Area Hiker (www.bahiker.com/southbayhikdes/wunderlich.html). The loop takes you up a relatively easy grade to about a 1446-foot elevation, by some of the parkís most interesting features, and down another trail to complete the circuit. It also provides several short cuts if you or your fellow hikers get tired.

I began my hike at the southern edge of the parking lot on the Alambique Trail. At first, the trail was shaded by bays and oaks, but as the climb became a little steeper, bigger redwoods loomed above. I passed signed junctions with the Loop Trail and Meadow Trail. I was passed by three young women hikers wearing riding jodhpurs. (I thought they might have lost their horses, but their conversation appeared to be centered on a man who was spending his money unwisely, perhaps not on them.)

At Alambique Flat I detoured left over a rough path leading to a small redwood grove. I returned to the main trail, then stayed left past the junction with Oak Trail. At the next junction, I turned right to Bear Gulch Trail. This trail took me through forest up to "The Meadows"óa large open meadow with nice views to the southeast. A new and welcome bench invited a lunch stop.

I then took the Meadow Trail down through the meadow. Recent brush clearing improved the view and made it a nice "walk in the park." I passed the first junction, Oak Trail, but turned left on Redwood Trail, and shortly after, right on Madrone Trail for a short walk to Salamander Flat and Salamander Pool. A high-wire fence surrounded the pool, either to protect the famous rough-skinned newts or visitors, but there were places where I could shoot pictures over the fence. Unfortunately, the newts were further protected by green-algae scum covering the pool. They may like the pool, but I didnít drink the water.

I continued on, making a right on Bear Gulch Trail, then down many switchbacks, past Loop Trail, and down to the stables and my car.

I had one more stop. I drove up Highway 84 to Aliceís Restaurant on Skyline for a well-deserved hamburger. While there, I met a photo-journalist from Canada who was doing a story on the California coast. Like many a tourist, he had some trouble with our Spanish place-names. He was looking for Ano Nuevo, but his pronunciation was so garbled, it took me several minutes to translate.

Getting to Wunderlich

If you are in a hurry, take Interstate 280 north to Highway 84/Woodside Road, then drive west about three miles to the park entrance. Watch for the parkís small sign on the west (right) side of the road.

If you want to enjoy my favorite road, take Black Road up to Skyline Boulevard (Highway 35), then turn east (right) on Highway 84. About four miles down 84, and half a mile past the fork with Portola Road, watch for the small sign on the west (left) side of the road. As an alternative, you could drive up the coast on Highway 1 to Highway 84. Another alternative is to park on Skyline, and walk into the park. You can then follow a loop of the Alambique and Skyline trails.

There are no entrance or parking fees. Portable toilet and drinking fountain are near the main entrance parking lot. Donít forget your map, water, and money for hamburgers. You may get hungry.

Hike on.


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