On Sunday I headed down to Rancho Cañada del Oro south of San Jose to get in a nice 13 mile hike and check out the wildflowers. Although it’s been a dry winter I was hoping that a little recent rain would help nudge the wildflowers along. They are out, but it is a disappointing season in both quantity and quality. I found a nice variety but they were few and far between. The most common wildflowers I saw were milk maids, Indian Warrior, Hounds Tongue, and shooting stars. A surprising crop of star lily kept me entertained, and it looks like the poppies are about to come in. It is by no means a bumper crop this year, but I do really love local spring hikes when there are wildflowers lining the trail.
The closest place to hike near my house is a county park called Almaden Quicksilver. A mere ten minute drive from my front door, it offers enough to keep me interested and going back over and over again. Wildflowers, steep grades, rolling ridge hiking, multiple trailheads and trails, historical sites, wildlife, views, and surprisingly uncrowded trails make it my regular go-to park when I want to sneak out for a quick hike. It’s even dog friendly! This loop, approximately 11 miles long with about 2200 ft of gain and descent, is one of my favorites when I have a half-day to sneak away.
Here is a link to the park map (pdf) with all of the features that I name below labeled.
Start at the Mockingbird Hill entrance in the northeast corner of the park. It’s easily accessible through a residential neighborhood and offers plenty of parking, restroom facilities, and a trailhead board with a generous supply of paper maps. Parking is free.
I always like to get my climbs out of the way at the beginning of a hike, so I prefer to hike this in a clockwise direction. Going the other way, you’ll end with a steep descent, and if your legs are anything like mine after ten miles of hiking you’ll prefer going up. So, start on up the Hacienda Trail. There is nothing spectacular or interesting about this trail at the beginning, but as you ascend (passing a few trail junctions), you’ll eventually find yourself at a high point with a view towards Mine Hill (the core of the park), The Cube on Mt Umunum in the distance, and Silicon Valley far below.
After about a mile you’ll reach the first major junction with the Cape Horn Pass trail. Follow this wide dirt road until it connects with the Mine Hill Trail, and continue along Mine Hill until you can connect to English Camp via the Castillero Trail. Although the view is obstructed by trees and bushes, there are some interesting plants along this stretch – check out the giant root systems on some of the trees bordering the road.
Take a break at English Camp. Built in the 1860s, English Camp housed a large number of miners and their families. The mines at Almaden Quicksilver produced mercury which was used during the gold rush to extract gold from the ore. Because of the high demand from the gold mines, the mercury mines at Almaden Quicksilver were actually the most profitable mines in California at the time. The remains of the mining operations can be found all over the park, not just here at English Camp.
Once you’re done enjoying English Camp, follow the single-track Yellow Kid Trail to Spanish Town. While Spanish Town doesn’t have the ruins like English Town, you will walk by the former main tunnel entrance with an sign that has a cool picture of what the busy town used to look like from where you’re standing.
At the junction with Hidalgo Cemetery Trail stay straight and loop around the old Rotary Furnace until you connect with the Wood Road trail. Take time to check out the signs about this large ruin, and how they would extract the mercury from the cinnabar ore. This Furnace was in operation until the 1970′s!
Connect back to the Castillero Trail and follow it west until you reconnect with the Mine Hill trail. This stretch offers excellent views towards Mt Umunum and the Valley below. Stay on the Mine Hill trail for a little over two more miles, then turn off on the Cinnabar single track trail. You’ll descend to the New Almaden trail, which you then take east for several miles all the way back to the Mockingbird Hill parking lot. This stretch is completely different than the first half of the hike, offering dark and damp ravines with wildflowers galore.
Almaden Quicksilver is within a few minutes drive of one of the country’s largest cities, yet I can get away for a relaxing, uncrowded hike. I’ll nod hellos to other hikers and mountain bikers (speaking of which, they always seem to be courteous and slow in this park, thank you!) and continue on my loop. It’s an easy and quick getaway on a busy weekend when I want to squeeze in a hike, and this loop isn’t the only option. Take a look at the map and find a hike to suit your preferences – history, difficulty, wildflowers, solitude, views etc. Maybe I’ll see you out there someday!
I’m still digging out from the hole I managed to dig for myself by going on vacation for two weeks, but I was able to squeeze in an afternoon of hiking two weekends ago to celebrate the opening of over five new miles of the Bay Area Ridge Trail. This new segment starts at its intersection near the high point of the Boccarado Trail out of Alum Rock County Park and curves around Alum Rock before ending at its extension to a nice vista point east of Mt Hamilton Road. The track embedded below shows the new segment from where we began at a temporary trailhead/staging area along Sierra Road. Unfortunately this was only opened for this particular day and for the foreseeable future it has to be accessed from Alum Rock Park. This adds quite a lot of miles and elevation gain/descent, so be prepared!
We showed up in the early afternoon just in time to hear some interesting speakers, listen to some politician platitudes, and cut the ribbon for the new trail. Naturally, everyone wanted to get out on the new trail and it was crowded, but most people turned back after the first mile since cars had to be out of the temporary parking area by a certain time. Luckily we had staged a car below at Alum Rock so we were free to hike all afternoon.
If You Visit:
Sierra Vista Open Space and the new section of the BART are only accessible via Alum Rock Park. Access is via the Bocarrado Trail. Alum Rock Map here and Sierra Vista map here.As of this writing it is $6 to park at Alum Rock.
I spent the afternoon at Santa Theresa, a Santa Clara County Park near our house in San Jose. I don’t mention it much here but this is one of my nearby ‘go-to’ parks when I want to get in a few miles but don’t want to drive far. I can do a nice park-circling hike or run that comes in at about 10 miles, and there are other shorter variations as well. It’s also a good place to get a quick check on wildflower status, and that is what was on my mind this afternoon.
We did a seven mile loop across the park that took us to Coyote Peak (nice view). The wildflowers are definitely coming out, but they aren’t anything special. I don’t know if it’s just early or if it is going to be a ‘meh’ year – we’ll just have to see.
Before I dive into the series of desert hiking posts I had to post a quick note about the waterfalls at Uvas Canyon County Park (west of Morgan Hill tucked into the Santa Cruz Mountains). Today was a perfect day to visit as the rain has stopped falling from the sky but it has most certainly not stopped tumbling down the creeks. We did a short loop hike past several waterfalls and only saw a small handful of people while we were out. Anyways, if you’re in the area I highly recommend checking out the park after a good rain. Holy waterfalls batman!
When we lived in Los Altos, if I wanted a quick hike I’d head over to Rancho San Antonio or Monte Bello. When we lived in Sunnyvale, I’d head over towards the parks around Steven’s Creek Reservoir. Now that we’re in San Jose, I’m closest to Almaden Quicksilver, and this makes me very happy.
AQS is so close to San Jose, but I have yet to run into the kinds of crowds I encounter at the other parks. Some parts of the park are busier than others, but for the most part I’ve found that it is easy to ‘get away from it all’ in a park that’s less than five miles from our house in the heart of southern San Jose. There are many trailheads in the park and one can choose a short easy hike, or an all day outing on the trails of Almaden Quicksilver.
One reason for the lack of crowds could be the lack of facilities and diverse recreational activities, but this is okay with me. Sure, there aren’t any fishing ponds, developed picnic grounds, boat launches, or manicured lawns. But there are miles and miles of trails that are open to hikers, bikers, dogs, and horses. From up on the ridge there are views of reservoirs, the Santa Cruz mountains, Silicon Valley, and surrounding areas.
Almaden Quicksilver also has quite an interesting history. While hiking the variety of trails you’ll come across remnants of the era where this was a bustling mercury mining area in the form of old mine tunnels, powder houses, and town ruins.
On Friday, while still recovering from a massively debilitating bout with allergies, I decided to head over to AQS to test my lungs and ability to be out in the wildflowers. It was a good choice – while I was huffing and puffing a bit more than normal, the wildflowers were out in abundance and variety. This gave me ample opportunity to take rests, as I kept stopping to photograph them.
I wandered the trails without a specific route in mind, and ended up covering about 7 miles of fire road and single track trail (careful, the single track is pretty poison oaky at this time of year). There are plenty of wildflowers out now – if there is one thing this rainy weather is good for it’s extending the wildflower season. Some photos of what’s out now are posted at the link below.