Bowman’s Hill Tower and Wildflower Preserve

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As a child growing up in Bucks County, Pennsylvania, I’m sure I didn’t fully appreciate the local historical and natural features surrounding me. But certain memories were deeply imprinted and have remained through my adult life in California. One of my fondest memories is the numerous Sunday afternoon family visits to Bowman’s Hill Tower and Bowman’s Hill Wildflower Preserve, both located in Washington Crossing Historic Park. This is the real, historic Washington Crossing, where General Washington and Continental Army troops crossed the Delaware River on Christmas night, 1776, on their way to a surprise attack and defeat of Hessian troops several miles downriver near Trenton, New Jersey, leading the way to a turning point in the Revolutionary War. For my siblings and me, visiting the park almost always included a walk on some of the trails in the Wildflower Preserve and a climb – probably a race, when we could get away with it – to the top of the tower. We also often stopped off in a special room in the Visitor Center with a window wall facing bird feeders and the adjacent wooded area, for some up-close bird viewing.

Recently I made two brief visits to the park: one to climb the tower and visit the bird viewing room, and another to walk along some of the wildflower paths. For the visit to the tower, my siblings were all present, and that made it a truly special occasion. The tower sits atop a 400-foot hill overlooking the Delaware River and its valley. The tower is surrounded by trees, so you really can’t get an overview view of it except looking upward from the base.

picture of Bowman’s Hill Tower

Bowman’s Hill Tower

The tower was built between 1929 and 1931 as a commemorative to Washington, his army, and the Delaware River Crossing. It looks like a lookout tower, and it certainly seems as though this hill might have been a good place for a lookout to be located. The tower is 125 feet tall. Today an elevator goes ¾ of the way to the top, but we were delighted to discover that the original staircase, which spirals around inside the shell of the tower, is still in place. Needless to say, we all walked up the stairs. The final 23 steps are inside a smaller diameter tower (at the left, in the photo) in a very tight spiral.

From the top, the views of the river and valley are quite beautiful. Here is a view looking roughly northwest and showing two bridges crossing the Delaware River.

photo of view northwest from Bowman’s Hill Tower

View northwest from Bowman’s Hill Tower

Turning to look downstream, here is a view looking roughly southeast toward Trenton. These two views illustrate what a nice lookout hill this might have made.

image of view southeast from Bowman’s Hill Tower

View southeast from Bowman’s Hill Tower

As it turns out, while descending the tight spiral at the top of the tower, I mis-positioned one foot on a step, lost my balance, and tweaked my ankle. I walked the rest of the way down to ground level – it would have taken a more severe fall to cause me to abandon the walk – but we all decided to defer a wildflower walk until another day.

Instead, we went into the Wildflower Preserve’s Visitor Center and spent some time in the bird viewing room. Almost immediately we noticed several rose-breasted grosbeaks taking turns at one of the feeders. Here is one of the males, showing off his beautiful coloring.   The photo is not the best, but a wire net between the windows and the feeders – which kept the birds from flying into the window panes – made it difficult for me to convince the autofocus on my camera where I wanted it to focus.

picture of rose-breasted grosbeak (male)

Rose-breasted grosbeak (male)

I had a little better luck with this tufted titmouse, a favorite visitor to the feeders we’d had outside our living room window at home.

photo of tufted titmouse

Tufted titmouse

I returned another day with my sister and brother-in-law for a short walk on some of the paths in the Wildflower Preserve, which is at the base of Bowman’s Hill. I was impressed to learn that the web site lists flowers in bloom for each month of the year (well, just one or two covering November through February), and the Visitor Center staff have copies of a list that is updated frequently, including which trails are likely places to find each wildflower that “you may find in bloom today”. We were especially hoping to find a jack-in-the-pulpit, a beautiful childhood favorite. We were unsuccessful, but enjoyed a leisurely walk along several trails.

GPS track

GPS track

Most of the trails are quite short, with frequent distance markers. From the Visitor Center we started up the Cabin Trail, which goes to a cabin, and then took the Azalea and Millrace Trails, which meander next to Pidcock Creek. The trails are well-signed, and many are named for wildflowers that grow along them.

image of sign denoting Azalea Trail

Sign denoting Azalea Trail

At 0.4 mi in length, Millrace Trail is one of the longer trails in the preserve. We decided to walk its entire length to see what we would find along the creek. We saw many forest plants that we did not recognize, as well as lush ferns enjoying the moist environment. We found one particular log on the ground with an interesting assortment of different shaped and colored fungi growing on the cross-sectional surface.

picgture of fungus growing on a log

Fungus growing on a log

It was delightful to walk along and listen to veeries, wood thrushes, catbirds, and other forest birds. Just after we had reached the far end of Millrace Trail and turned around, we heard an eastern wood pewee singing its distinctive “pee-a-wee” song over and over. It seemed close to the trail, and soon we saw it fly from one perch to a different tree, where we could actually see it.

photo of eastern wood pewee

Eastern wood pewee

After we returned to the Visitor Center we walked a very short distance along the park road to the Marshmarigold Trail, one of the “target” trails in our search for jack-in-the-pulpit. While we didn’t find a jack-in-the-pulpit, we did find several pretty wild irises.

image of wild iris

Wild iris

Next we crossed Pidcock Creek and walked the (short) length of Violet Trail, again looking for jack-in-the-pulpit. Then we crossed the park road to explore Gentian Trail, a trail name I could almost hear my dad talk about in my memories. Along this trail we found skunk cabbage, with its extra-large leaves, and these pretty, small, light-green bell-like flowers just a few millimeters across. I think the small leaves near the center of the picture belong to the flowers, while the larger leaves, which remind me of Solomon’s seal, are from an adjacent plant.

picgture of small bell-like flower

Small bell-like flower

We also found a pretty spider web glistening in the filtered sunlight.

photo of spider web

Spider web

Returning from the end of the Gentian Trail loop, we walked along Azaleas at the Bridge Trail and Aster Trail back to the Visitor Center. The entire wildflower trail walk was only 1.8 miles, but it was a wonderful walk down memory lane.

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Core Creek Park – Second Exploration

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This was a second exploration of Core Creek Park, a 1200-acre county park in Bucks County, Pennsylvania, close to the retirement community where my mother lives. My first exploration of the park was two years ago, and I enjoyed walking a portion of the perimeter of Lake Luxembourg, a major feature of the park. This time I was hoping to be able to walk all the way around the lake, even though I had a vague recollection from the earlier walk that there was going to be an impediment. As it turns out, it was National Get Outdoors Day, and my walk was a great way to celebrate the occasion.

I learned that there is a trail through the woods that partly surround the lake on the east side. However, part of the lake shore essentially abuts two roads, so in the end it became necessary to walk along the shoulder of several roads in order to complete my circumnavigation. The portion of my walk that was actually within the park was only about 3.7 miles, or 40% of the total mileage for the walk.

GPS track

GPS track

Because of the proximity to the lake, there was relatively little elevation gain and loss: just 400 feet or so in my 9-mile walk.

Elevation profile

Elevation profile

I started out at the main entrance to Pennswood Village, which is just across PA-413 from the park. The shortest path to the park’s entrance on Tollgate Rd is almost exactly 1 mile. I turned in at the park entrance and started walking along the main park road. Just past the entrance there is a very nice fenced-in dog park, complete with benches, doggie-bag dispensers, trash cans, trees, and – in the middle of the grassy area – a red fire hydrant! There were several visitors in the dog park, one playing chase-the-frisbee.

About ½ mile inside the park the main road turns right, but if you continue straight you shortly arrive at a boat launching ramp, with nearby parking for vehicles with trailers. From this area I noticed some of the on-water activities. First I noticed a colorful small sailboat skimming along through the water in a pleasant light breeze.

picture of sailboat on Lake Luxembourg

Sailboat on Lake Luxembourg

I also noticed a couple of kayakers, alternately dipping their paddles to one side and then the other. They were pretty well synchronized! Also there was a pedal boat nearby. It looked like fun activities for a warm summer day.

image of kayaks and a pedal boat

Kayaks and a pedal boat

I wasn’t sure how I was going to learn about a possible path around the lake, so I was happy to notice a couple of park rangers sitting in their vehicle observing the park visitors. I learned that, a few parking lots farther along the main park road, a trail takes off and goes through the woods. It’s not an improved path, but more like a single-track trail that is used by cyclists and walkers. It sounded perfect, so I continued on my way.

Along the way I walked over to another parking area near the lake shore. From here I had a nice view along the length of Lake Luxembourg.

photo of Lake Luxembourg

Lake Luxembourg

I continued along the main park road, crossing Core Creek. About 1 mile past the road to the boat launch, I found the trail and started off into the woods. Almost immediately I was treated to the songs of cardinals, catbirds, and common yellowthroats.

picture of trail through the woods next to the lake

Trail through the woods next to the lake

There was lots of honeysuckle. Perhaps I’ve been living in California too long (?!) but I’d forgotten how beautiful and fragrant it is. Usually the blossoms come in pairs, but I saw an occasional triplet and even a quartet.

image of beautiful and fragrant honeysuckle blossoms

Beautiful and fragrant honeysuckle blossoms

I also found crown vetch, as well as this pretty, small-sized yellow pea-like flower that I think is birdfoot deervetch.

photo of birdfoot deervetch

Birdfoot deervetch

As I walked through the woods I was a bit startled to notice the sound of a couple of helicopters flying very slowly over the area. I couldn’t help hoping that they weren’t looking for anybody in particular in the woods!

I noticed a very distinctive plant: distinctive because there were 7 lobes on a single platter-like leaf. Among other names, it is commonly known as may apple. Although may apples do flower, I haven’t yet seen a flower.

picgture of may apple

May apple

In the moist woods there were lush ferns and a few logs or tree trunks with interesting fungus colonies growing on them. This colony was growing at the base of the trunk of a tree.

image of fungus on a tree trunk

Fungus on a tree trunk

There were some “social trails” as well as the intended bike trail, and I did get off-trail a couple of times. Eventually the trail led to the edge of the road that goes roughly northwest along the edge of Core Creek Park, Woodbourne Rd. At this point I was 5 miles from my start, and I decided to continue along the shoulder of the road in the direction to continue my circumnavigation of Lake Luxembourg. Within another ½ mile I turned left at Ellis Rd, figuring it was the best way to get back to Tollgate Rd. Ellis tees at Fulling Mill Rd, where I turned left to get closer to the lake, followed by a right turn onto Tollgate Rd. Along the shoulder of the roads there were some more wildflowers. I particularly noticed some pretty, brilliant pink flowers. These beauties were about 1 cm in diameter.

photo of bright pink flower

Bright pink flower

I also passed a couple of places where the edge of Lake Luxembourg comes right up to within several feet of the road. These places are the impediments I was vaguely aware of, and which prevented a full circumnavigation on park paths.

At 6.9 miles from the start I again passed the entrance to Core Creek Park. My entire Lake Luxembourg circumnavigation, including a couple of short detours and nearly 2 miles along the shoulder of public roads, was 5.9 miles. On my way back to Pennswood I decided to walk up two short dead-end residential streets, near the 413 icon on my GPS track image. As soon as I turned on the first street I noticed some beautiful flowers in a front yard next to the street. According to a neighbor, they are called sundrops, and in some ways they reminded me of the spectacular blazing stars I had recently seen on a hike in an open space preserve in the San Francisco Bay Area.

picture of sundrop


Both streets dead-end at private property at the edge of Core Creek Park. As I approached the end of the second street I noticed a deer, initially grazing on the grass but almost immediately at attention to my approach. I continued to approach slowly, and shortly she turned and ran off.

image of deer


My circumnavigation of Lake Luxembourg evolved into a very pleasant walk through Core Creek Park and its woods, along roads lined with wildflowers, and briefly through a residential area. On my way back through Pennswood property, I walked along part of the perimeter pathway to enjoy a bit more of a pleasant afternoon on National Get Outdoors Day.

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Tyler State Park

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Tyler State Park is a 1700-acre park in Bucks County, Pennsylvania, located near where my mother has lived for the past 15 years. I learned about the park while researching nearby places to walk, and I learned that there is an annual half marathon event that runs through the park. Recently I had the opportunity to visit the park and walk the half marathon route, which takes place on paved paths.

GPS track

GPS track

The start and finish lines are near the tree symbol in the lower left of the GPS track image. The half marathon includes 2 loops around the larger loop and one pass on the semi-loop to the right. I decided to modify the route by including the out-and-back detour at the top of the track, in order to see a covered bridge that is an unusual feature of the park. I only went around the loops once, bringing my total distance to 9.8 miles. The park is located in rolling countryside, so the 700 feet of elevation gain and loss is quite moderate.

Elevation profile

Elevation profile

Compared to my usual hiking territory in California, the most dramatic differences are the trees and the lush green. At home, summer means golden brown hills, and forests are generally mixed deciduous (often oak and madrone) and evergreen. Here the vegetation is almost entirely deciduous, with different types of trees. And I grew up calling this type of environment woods (not forest). Many places along the trail were lined with lush ferns. Here is a view of the paved trail passing through the beautiful woods.

photo of trail passing through the woods of Tyler State Park

Trail passing through the woods of Tyler State Park

Not surprisingly, the wildflowers are different also. There were quite a few that I didn’t recognize. I assume that most, if not all, of the flora and fauna I encountered are common in the area. For example, I passed numerous bushes festooned with small, pretty white flowers; after asking a passer-by what they were, I was somewhat chagrined to learn that they were wild raspberries or blackberries. My immediate thought was that there would be a bumper crop of wild berries this year! There is also a lot of honeysuckle. Here is another, which I decided to call a white ball flower.

picture of white ball flower

White ball flower

Where the semi-loop branches off to the right, the trail crosses a small causeway across the Neshaminy Creek. On warm summer days, many park visitors enjoy wading in the creek to cool off. The out-and-back part of the semi-loop follows along the serene Neshaminy Creek for about ½ mile.

image of Neshaminy Creek

Neshaminy Creek

In the middle of the creek there was a portion of a dead tree, with a branch sticking up out of the water. And sitting on the branch was a fairly large bird. It was so still that, at first, I thought it might be an elaborate decoy. Then I saw it move its head occasionally. I was able to get several good pictures with the super-zoom on my camera and make the identification afterwards. It turns out that it was an immature double-crested cormorant. The overall body coloring and orange skin below the beak are distinctive. I thought it was interesting that none of my bird sources mentioned the blue color of the legs and feet!

photo of immature double-crested cormorant

Immature double-crested cormorant

A short distance farther along the trail I was startled to notice a sign indicating “next tee” with an arrow. It turns out that Tyler Park has a 27-hole disc golfing course. I decided to check out the 6th hole, since it was right next to the paved path. Here are a few views of the hole: the sign indicating the tee, some information about the hole (and the path through the woods from the tee to the bucket), and finally the bucket itself. Later I heard a group playing one of the other holes.

picture of disc golf at Tyler State Park

Disc golf at Tyler State Park

Continuing to follow the half marathon route, the path emerged from the woods and continued parallel to the nearby road along the edge of an open meadow for about ½ mile. In the meadow there were several bird boxes, with a red-winged blackbird sitting on one of the boxes. I have gotten so used to the coastal California race of this bird, which does not have the yellow border below the red patch, that I was pleasantly delighted at the novelty of what is actually the more typical coloration!

image of red-winged blackbird

Red-winged blackbird

The meadow area was also brightened by some brown-eyed Susans.

photo of brown-eyed Susan

Brown-eyed Susan

After the path passes alongside the meadow it passes and curves around a school and next to another road. In this area I particularly noticed a pretty-looking pink flower – it turns out the same flower was in many other places as well, especially alongside roads and other hiking paths. It is a crown vetch, often planted for soil erosion control but in some instances considered an invasive plant.

picture of crown vetch

Crown vetch

The path turns left once again and re-enters the wooded portion of the park. Along this section I was struck by the presence numerous trees with poison ivy growing up their trunks: not poison oak, but I knew better than to suddenly become a tree-hugger! And then I noticed another tree with even more greenery growing up its trunk – in this case the greenery was Virginia creeper, which has “leaves of 5” rather than “leaves of 3”.

image of trees with poison ivy (left) and Virginia creeper (right) growing up their trunks

Trees with poison ivy (left) and Virginia creeper (right) growing up their trunks

A particularly delightful aspect of this walk was hearing so many birds in the woods. There were quite a few common species, such as cardinals, catbirds, robins, house wrens, song sparrows, mourning doves, and mockingbirds. Others, such as wood thrushes, veery, and oven birds (“teacher, teacher” call), reminded me more of deep woods. At one point I heard some tap-tap-tapping on a hollow stick, checked it out, and found a (possibly immature) male downy woodpecker pecking on a relatively small branch; perhaps it was just practicing its technique and didn’t care about its location? I also heard common yellowthroats (“witchery, witchery” call).

Another wildflower I saw along the trail that I thought was pretty is this one. I don’t know what it’s called, but it reminds me of the pattern of some fireworks displays, so for now I’ve dubbed it the fireworks flower. A quick online search tells me that there are several completely different flowers, none like this, also commonly called fireworks flowers. (Update: it is similar in appearance to water parsnip and the highly toxic water hemlock.)

photo of ”fireworks flower”

”Fireworks flower,” or perhaps water parsnip

About 5.2 miles from the start I crossed the causeway again and continued around the large loop. About 1.4 miles later I left the half marathon route to check out the covered bridge I had read about, just over ½ mile off the route. The Schofield Ford Covered Bridge crosses Neshaminy Creek. Originally built in 1874, it burned down in an arson event in 1991 but was subsequently rebuilt and reopened in 1997.

picture of Schofield Ford Covered Bridge

Schofield Ford Covered Bridge

In the picture there are 4 small dark diamond shapes, which turn out to be windows. The view of the creek out the windows was especially pretty.

image of Neshaminy Creek through a window in the covered bridge

View of Neshaminy Creek through a window in the covered bridge

Soon after returning to the half marathon route I noticed these pretty daisy-like wildflowers next to the trail. The flowers are about ¾ inch in diameter and they seem to be in groups. Once again I don’t know what they are called, but they were quite distinctive.  (Update: they appear to be daisy fleabane.)

photo of daisy-like wildflowers

Daisy fleabane

The half marathon route makes a few turns to stay within the boundaries of the park. Along the northern edge of the park I happened to find a small bit from a tulip tree, perfectly posed on the trail. This brought back special childhood memories, as my brother once brought home a tulip tree sapling, and he and my dad planted it in our yard. Years later, it is now the tallest tree in the yard!

picture of tulip tree leaves and blossom

Tulip tree leaves and blossom

I continued around the loop and finished where I started, at the Center for the Arts. This was a most delightful walk, which I hope to have an opportunity to repeat. (Note: I returned 2 weeks later for another pleasant walk through this local park.)

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Skylawn Cemetery Trail

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Every year new segments are added to the Bay Area Ridge Trail. This year a newly-dedicated segment passes through Skylawn Memorial Park in San Mateo, connecting to the Fifield-Cahill Trail at the north end and CA-92 at Skyline Blvd at the south end. According to plans, a future segment of trail will proceed south across CA-92 into San Francisco PUC watershed lands.

I hiked this new section of trail on the day of its dedication, which marked the 25th anniversary of the dedication of the first two segments of Bay Area Ridge Trail in 1989. Currently only a portion of the segment is truly open to the public: the portion that passes through Skylawn Memorial Park. The rest of the segment is on PUC watershed lands and is not regularly open. For the dedication, trail users were able to traverse the entire 1.6-mile segment to Cemetery Gate as well as a short section of the Fifield-Cahill Trail.

GPS track

GPS track

The new trail section passes essentially along a ridge line, with gently rolling topography. The entire out-and-back hike included less than 400 feet of elevation gain and loss. There were wonderful views of the San Francisco Bay, the Pacific Ocean, and the ridges that run along the Peninsula.

Elevation profile

Elevation profile

The dedication ceremony took place outside the Funeral Home building, on a portico from which it is possible to see Mt Umunhum, 35 miles away to the southeast. After a few speeches, there was a ribbon-cutting at the trail head. Everyone was invited to stand behind the ribbon with the official folks, with several people at-the-ready to photograph the actual ribbon-cutting. Since I was behind the ribbon, I got to photograph the photographers!

image of photographers ready to record the ribbon-cutting

Photographers ready to record the ribbon-cutting

After the formalities there were outings to experience the new trail, which runs along a service road in the memorial park and onto watershed land. There are some reminders that you are in an active cemetery: on the day of the dedication there was also a burial, and as we started up the trail we soon encountered a casket being transported down the service road.

About 0.3 mile from the trail head, as the trail climbs slightly higher on the ridge, there is a pretty view of the East Bay hills across San Francisco Bay, with Crystal Springs Reservoir in the foreground and CA-92 snaking up the hill to I-280. I did go several yards off the service road on a sidewalk at the edge of a landscaped area of the cemetery to take this picture. The East Bay skyline includes Mission Peak and, farther south and 40 miles distant, Mt Hamilton, as well as Mt Diablo farther north.

picture of East Bay hills across San Francisco Bay and Crystal Springs Reservoir

East Bay hills across San Francisco Bay and Crystal Springs Reservoir

Less than 100 feet further along the trail there is a spectacular view of Half Moon Bay and the Pacific Ocean across a portion of the memorial park.

photo of Half Moon Bay and the Pacific Ocean across Skylawn Memorial Park

Half Moon Bay and the Pacific Ocean across Skylawn Memorial Park

Among the wildlife in the area are killdeer, which make plaintive calls as they fly around. Here, one has paused on a decorative rock.

image of killdeer


About 0.6 mile from the trail head the trail curves to the right. Approaching this curve there is a nice view of the edge of the forested watershed property. The service road that serves as the Ridge Trail passes just outside the forested area along the ridge top.

picture of forested watershed lands

Forested watershed lands

Shortly past this curve there is an older, interesting-looking, house on the hillside to the right of the trail. It appears that there is some renovation work ongoing, but I didn’t learn the history of the structure.

The trail continues 0.2 miles or so to the northeast before turning northwest again. The views to the left are along the canyon formed by Pilarcitos Creek, which exits Pilarcitos Lake – one of the PUC watershed reservoirs – and flows to the ocean. In this area the creek makes a right-hand turn. This view looks upstream toward the watershed lands. The more pointed hill on the skyline may be Ox Hill or Scarper Peak.

photo of view across Pilarcitos Creek canyon

View across Pilarcitos Creek canyon

After the trail turns left and follows the fence line, it is on PUC property. There are ongoing views down the Pilarcitos Creek canyon, and several types of wildflower along the trail. I noticed poppies, thistle, Douglas iris, ice plant, and a few others. At 1.6 miles from the trail head there is a locked gate, designated Cemetery Gate. Some of the PUC outings, notably wheelchair outings, use a small parking area just inside the gate as a staging area. In this area there are beautiful trees, with many spindly branches radiating from the trunk starting rather close to the ground. I always think of these trees as the ghostly trees, because of the branch structure.

image of many-branched trees in the watershed

Many-branched trees in the watershed

For the dedication day outing, hikers entered Cemetery Gate and walked about 0.4 mile further along the Cahill Ridge Trail to its mile marker 2, where we turned around. Near the turnaround point there was a log near the trail with three banana slugs. On the return trip, as we passed the second curve there was a pretty view across the heart of the memorial park to the hills beyond.

picture of view of hills beyond CA-92 to the southeast

View of hills beyond CA-92 to the southeast

The hills on the Bay side of Skyline Blvd south of CA-92 are also part of San Francisco PUC watershed lands. Future plans include more Ridge Trail traversing this watershed, eventually connecting to the Phleger Estate section of Golden Gate National Recreation Area several miles away – something to look forward to.

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Garin Regional Park

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Garin and Dry Creek Pioneer Regional Parks are two adjacent open spaces in the Hayward foothills just behind Mission Blvd, CA-238. They share a network of trails that offer several opportunities for loop hikes up to at least 7 miles in length. I visited Garin Regional Park with a friend to do a 4½ mile hike on a beautiful spring day.

Starting at the Garin Ave entrance, we hiked a semi-loop route around Vista Peak Loop Trail, about 3.7 miles, then followed a second 0.7-mile loop trail around Jordan Pond.

GPS track

GPS track

The highest point on the Vista Peak Loop Trail is a little over 900 feet in elevation, about a 600-foot climb from the trail head. The grade on the trail is moderate, with the steepest parts perhaps a 10% grade on well-constructed trails.

Elevation profile

Elevation profile

Near the visitor center there is an interesting exhibit of ranch machinery. The item in the foreground of this picture reminded me of an insect. And, for some reason, I found it amusing to see the machinery under a palm tree. Perhaps only in California?!

image of old ranch machinery near the visitor center

Old ranch machinery near the visitor center

As we followed the Vista Peak Loop Trail clockwise around the loop we noticed a few wildflowers: not abundant, but pretty. Along the way we saw a thistle as it was being visited by a bee.

picture of bee visiting a thistle

Bee visiting a thistle

Heading toward the right turn at the northwest part of the loop (see GPS track) we had a nice view of San Francisco Bay between two hills. Hayward and/or Union City are in the foreground, and the Peninsula is in the background. When I took the picture I thought that might be Alameda Creek Trail, where I’ve done several longer-distance training walks, in the center of the picture. I subsequently identified it as a flood control canal next to Industrial Pkwy that later empties into Ward Creek or Old Alameda Creek on its way to the Bay.

photo of view across Hayward and/or Union City and San Francisco Bay toward the Peninsula

View across Hayward and/or Union City and San Francisco Bay toward the Peninsula

Looking farther south along the Peninsula, we could barely see Loma Prieta and Mt Umunhum, roughly 30-35 miles away. As we walked we also enjoyed a few poppies and some mustard grass near the trail.

Just before the turn there was a slight rise in the trail, where there was an unexpected view of Mt Tamalpais, with downtown San Francisco visible below and to the left. The view certainly made the short climb worthwhile!

image of Mt Tamalpais and downtown San Francisco

Mt Tamalpais and downtown San Francisco

Although we felt as though we were walking in a more remote location than we actually were, there were occasional signs of the nearby cities (besides the view across the Bay). Every so often a commercial jet flew overhead, on approach to the Oakland Airport.

The Vista Peak Loop Trail goes around one hill and over the shoulder of another. Near the view of San Francisco we looked back southeast along the loop toward the hilltop that the trail loops around.

picture of hilltop within the Vista Peak Loop Trail

Hilltop within the Vista Peak Loop Trail

As we continued around the loop we passed over the shoulder of a hill, with the high point of the loop trail at about 920 feet elevation. We had a brief view of the very top of Mt Diablo, about 15 miles away, barely peeking over the intervening hills. We were also treated to views of nearby hills. The trail in the background may be High Ridge Loop Trail in Dry Creek Pioneer Regional Park.

photo of hills in Garin and Dry Creek Pioneer Regional Parks

Hills in Garin and Dry Creek Pioneer Regional Parks

After returning to the visitor center we continued southeast on a shorter loop trail around Jordan Pond, with tall grasses along the shore and a pretty backdrop of hills to the east.

image of Jordan Pond

Jordan Pond

This was a pleasant walk through an open space that is literally just a half mile or so from a major road in the East Bay, CA-238. It is a treasure, especially for residents of Hayward and Union City, but also for anyone else who comes to visit.

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Sierra Vista Open Space Preserve

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On a map, Sierra Vista Open Space Preserve appears to be piggy-backed on, or partly wrapped around, Alum Rock Park. Sierra Vista is perched higher up the hills, and the wrapping-around effect is due to the terrain, where the Penitencia and Arroyo Aguague Creeks have carved deep arroyos between the hills, with Alum Rock between. Currently the Bay Area Ridge Trail segment in Sierra Vista is usually accessible only through Alum Rock Park. For this hike, however, a group I was hiking with was able to make arrangements to start where a new staging area is planned, shortening the round-trip hike to about 12 miles.

The trail first drops down from the future staging area to the top of the Boccardo Loop Trail, then follows the Sierra Vista Trail and Calaveras Fault Trail to a vista point. Along the way there are wonderful views of the surrounding hills and across the sprawling city of San Jose to the Santa Cruz Mountains. We were also treated to many lovely spring wildflowers.

GPS track

GPS track

After nearly 2 miles relatively high up in the hills, the trail drops 900 feet to cross Penitencia Creek before regaining 1000 feet up to the vista point. The total vertical gain for the round-trip hike is nearly 2900 feet, so I was glad not to need to start in Alum Rock Park, which would have added another 3-4 miles and 1500 vertical feet to the journey.

Elevation profile

Elevation profile

The drive to the beginning of the hike was a little more exciting than usual, since there was fog on the curvy road. As hikers gathered, the fog slowly began to burn back. From the parking area the vista point at the top of Boccardo Loop was visible, but the Santa Clara Valley was blanketed in fog. Just the very top of the Santa Cruz Mountain skyline was visible above.

photo of Santa Cruz Mountain tops peeking through a morning fog layer

Santa Cruz Mountain tops peeking through a morning fog layer

As we descended 200 feet or so on the access trail, we noticed a couple of quail on the trail, running ahead of us and then disappearing into the grass. This descent led to the top of the Boccardo Loop. At the junction we turned left on the Sierra Vista Trail, which curves around the open hillsides with non-stop views. On warm days this area can feel toasty, but on the day of the hike it was glorious.

We were hiking with Open Space Authority (OSA) docents, who had alerted us that there was a section of trail where we would see blazing stars. I don’t think anyone in the group had even heard of them before, but we sure knew when we had arrived at the right area of the trail. These bright yellow wildflowers are just spectacular, and they were right next to the trail and cascading down the hillside.

image of blazing star

Blazing star

Not far away I noticed some interesting pod-like clusters on long stems. A few, like the example in the center of the picture, even had a second pod at the end of a stem coming from the first pod. I thought they were quite intriguing. It turns out that they are chia. Tiny blue blossoms were just starting to appear on some of the pods.

picture of chia


As the trail continued, we could see that soon we’d be looking almost directly along the Penitencia Creek arroyo, which goes through the heart of Alum Rock Park. The trail that is visible part way up the hillside on the right is South Rim Trail, which is near the border between Alum Rock Park and Sierra Vista Open Space Preserve. In the background San Jose is on the Santa Clara Valley floor, with the Santa Cruz Mountains visible behind.

photo of Penitencia Creek arroyo through Alum Rock Park

Penitencia Creek arroyo through Alum Rock Park

About 0.8 mile along the Sierra Vista Trail there is a footbridge that crosses a gully where there is a seasonal stream. For some reason, some people think this is a good place to discard old tires by rolling them down the hill from Sierra Rd above. On a trail work day, volunteers retrieved dozens of tires from the creek bed. Unfortunately, there was a new pile of tires. What a shame to spoil the beauty of the Open Space Preserve in this way!

Shortly before the bridge, the hillside was covered in mustard grass. The view in the picture is looking back along the trail, just before crossing the bridge.

image of hillside blanketed with mustard grass

Hillside blanketed with mustard grass

Here is another view of the nearby hills, illustrating the sometimes steep slopes outlining the Penitencia Creek and Arroyo Aguague arroyos. Whether green or golden, the hills are glorious to enjoy.

picture of hills outlining the arroyos

Hills outlining the arroyos

About 1.6 miles from the trailhead, or 1.2 miles along Sierra Vista Trail, there is a junction with the Calaveras Fault Trail. The Bay Area Ridge Trail route leaves the Sierra Vista Trail and follows the Calaveras Fault Trail. Shortly past the junction we encountered a small herd of cows clustered under an elderberry. As I’ve found to be typical, the cows were curious about the passing hikers, and several of them were checking us out as we hiked by.

photo of cows gathered around an elderberry

Cows gathered around an elderberry

About 2 miles from the trailhead the trail rises to about 1900 feet elevation near Sierra Rd and then begins the main 900-foot descent. Near Sierra Rd there is a nice view of Mt Hamilton, which is about 10 miles away to the east with the observatories dotting the skyline.

image of Mt Hamilton

Mt Hamilton

After a little over 1 mile of descent, the trail passes the historic Furtado House, which used to be the homestead for a family ranch. Sometimes I have to remind myself that, in the Bay Area, ranch landscapes tend to be more vertical than horizontal! A lone, seemingly out-of-place redwood stands just in front of the house.

picture of Furtado House

Furtado House

After passing the Furtado House the trail continues to descend another 300 feet or so before crossing Penitencia Creek and climbing up the other side of the arroyo. Below the Furtado House there was forest lining the creek, but higher up the hill sides were again open and exposed. In these sunny areas there was a nice variety of wildflowers, including mule’s ear, Indian paintbrush, and blow wives. I had never seen blow wives before, but they looked delicate in the sun. These are actually the seed heads, ready to blow away and scatter the seeds.

photo of blow wives

Blow wives

There was an entire field of blooming fiddlenecks right next to the trail. I had never seen – or noticed – fiddlenecks in bloom, so it was very interesting to see so many.

image of fiddlenecks in bloom

Fiddlenecks in bloom

When we had climbed back up to about 2050 feet elevation, there was an End of Ridge Trail Segment sign, just below the crest of a hill with a picnic table on top: the vista point that was the turnaround point for the hike. We happily climbed up the last little bit to enjoy wonderful views of the south Bay Area and the entire city of San Jose. I believe we agreed that the curved road just to the right of center in the picture is I-280/680, and the straight road just to the southeast is Story Rd. We could see Lake Cunningham and Reid-Hillview Airport. A green strip along the valley floor denotes Kelley Park and the Coyote Creek Park chain along the Coyote Creek Parkway, and the Santa Cruz Mountain skyline includes Castle Rock Ridge and, farther south, Mt Umunhum and Loma Prieta. While the drive and our hike were much longer, it is only about 7 straight-line miles from the heart of San Jose. We were also able to look across the arroyos and see the start of our hike, thanks to a couple of canopy tents that had been set up as part of the event.

picture of San Jose from the vista point at the south end of the Calaveras Fault Trail

San Jose from the vista point at the south end of the Calaveras Fault Trail

After a lunch break enjoying the views, we began our return to the trailhead; currently, there is no other way to exit the preserve other than the way we came or via a longer hike back to Alum Rock Park. For the most part, we simply re-visited and enjoyed the views and wildflowers we had seen on the outbound hike. Not far from the blazing stars, I noticed some somewhat unusual poppies: instead of the typical orange, they were yellow. There were even a few poppies that were orange in the center with yellow tips. I am not sure if these are different species, or variants of the same species. Either way, they are pretty!

photo of yellow poppy

Yellow poppy

At the junction of Sierra Vista and Boccardo Loop trails, we took the short detour to another vista point at the top of Boccardo Loop. This vista point is much closer to Alum Rock Park and well worth the short (0.5 mile round trip and 100 vertical feet) climb from the top of the loop. From here the views are a little different and include – on a clear day – Mt Tamalpais, roughly 55 miles away. I think that Mt Tam is obscured by another hill from the vista point at the far end of Calaveras Fault Trail. Also, though we had heard meadowlarks here and there on the hike, we heard and saw them close to the start and finish of the hike. I always feel like I’m out in the country when I hear meadowlarks, and it’s kind of a delightful contrast to hear them within sight of a city as large as San Jose.

This was a truly memorable hike, and it was a treat to be able to do it in a slightly shortened format.

Posted in Bay Area Ridge Trail, Santa Clara County, South Bay, wildflower hikes | Tagged , , , , , | 1 Comment

Russian Ridge Open Space Preserve: A Wildflower Extravaganza

This spring I am finally understanding why people say Russian Ridge Open Space Preserve is a wonderful place to go to enjoy spring wildflowers. I recently hiked there and – even with the unusual winter and spring weather we’ve had, or perhaps because of it – was both impressed and delighted by the wildflower display. I returned several times over the course of a week, re-hiking different sections to look for certain flowers, sometimes just to enjoy them some more and sometimes to see if I could get better pictures. In this post I want to share my wildflower experience in this amazing open space preserve.

My path was along the Bay Area Ridge Trail route between trailheads at Horseshoe Lake in Skyline Ridge Open Space Preserve and Rapley Ranch Rd at the north end of Russian Ridge OSP. This route passes through several different plant ecosystems. There are moist, shady areas as well as drier open, grassy hillsides. There are other habitat differences that I’m not knowledgeable enough to appreciate and identify. Each type of wildflower has a preferred habitat, and some wildflowers are more widely and abundantly found, while others seem to prefer a certain hillside.

The day of my first visit was grey and misty, and even the abundant poppies seemed to be in hiding, with their petals closed. When I returned two days later on a fine, sunny day, the poppies were open and enjoying the sunshine. I noticed different shades of blossoms: besides the usual orange-poppy color there were yellow poppies as well as some with orange centers and yellow tips, which I imagined might be some kind of naturally-occurring hybrid. I also noticed distinctive pink disks pierced by the stem, though I did not initially realize that they were part of the poppy life cycle, being the “remains” after the petals fall off. This picture makes it clear that they are part of the same plant.

image of California poppies

California poppies

Another common wildflower is blue-eyed grass. At Russian Ridge these pretty plants are found in a variety of sunny habitats, and in some places they are quite abundant. The origin of the name is curious, since the plant is not a grass, but apparently a member of the lily family; the flowers are closer to purple than blue; and the central “eye” is yellow!

photo of blue-eyed grass

Blue-eyed grass

Checkermallow is a common name for several different species of flower. In fact, I saw at least two different types of flower that might both be checkermallows. The picture shows the type I saw more frequently. In another type the 5 petals were wider and overlapped to form a cup, but the rest of the petal structure seemed – to me, a definite non-expert! – to be similar.

picture of checkermallow


On the misty day I noticed a pretty flower with a similar petal structure but a purple color. I am not always careful to photograph the rest of the plant, and that additional information would often help with identifying the flower. I thought this one was especially pretty, however, with the water droplets and an ethereal atmosphere.

image of pretty purple wildflower

Pretty purple wildflower

Another purple wildflower that I saw in many places is shown here. The blossoms hang from the stems in rows, and each blossom includes several distinctly different shades of color. Because they seemed to flower in tall spikes, I informally call them tall purple wildflowers, even though they’re not actually very tall: perhaps 8” (20 cm) above the soil.

photo of tall purple wildflower

Tall purple wildflower

Other common and abundant wildflowers include buttercup and lupine. The purple thistles were just starting to bloom and will soon become more apparent and visible along the trails.

About 0.2 mile north of the Hawk Ridge Trail junction there is a viewing platform at the edge of a grove of trees. Just before reaching the viewing platform, coming from the south, I found 3 trilliums starting to bloom. This one was the most advanced, and it is interesting to be able to see, in the picture, the vein structure in the petals.

picture of trillium in bloom

Trillium in bloom

In the same shaded area there was Solomon’s seal, a pretty plant with a distinct vein structure in its leaves. I found more near the end of the hike, at the edge of Horseshoe Lake several miles south.

image of Solomon’s seal

Solomon’s seal

Miner’s lettuce is another of my favorite shade-loving plants. I observed it several places along the trail. I tend to think of Indian paintbrush as a sun-loving wildflower, but I saw a little bit of it not far from the trilliums. It will be more prominent later in the season.

Not far south of Rapley Ranch Rd, on the misty day, I saw some salsify flowers. Unfortunately, all of my pictures were blurry, so I looked especially hard for them when I returned 2 days later. To my surprise, I couldn’t find a single one. In just two days, apparently the flowers had completed that portion of their life cycle and gone on to the next. On the return day, however, in the same general area, I found a pretty butterfly sunning itself on a long delicate tendril of a stem. It stayed there for nearly a minute before flying off to another perch.

photo of butterfly sunning itself

Butterfly sunning itself

The 2-mile stretch of Ridge Trail from the main parking area to the Hawk Ridge Trail junction was a treasure trove of wildflowers. On my return visit, less than 0.1 mile after leaving the parking lot, I was already marveling at the poppy display and commented about it to a couple returning down the trail. Their quick reply was “wait till you get up top!” And sure enough, the poppy display was even more spectacular, along with a wide variety of wildflowers on the sunny grassy hillsides.

Tidy tips are particularly delightful, with their bright yellow centers and crisp white tips.

picgture of jaunty tidy tip

Jaunty tidy tip

There were also numerous yellow pansies, also called California golden violet or viola pedunculata. I had never seen these before, so I’m documenting the various names here where I can quickly find them again! The delicate pattern of the darker color is quite striking.

image of yellow pansy

Yellow pansy

This small, bright pink wildflower was common in this area. It grows close to the ground and was very noticeable next to the trail. Although common, I haven’t yet discovered its name.

photo of bright pink wildflower

Bright pink wildflower

On this hike I “discovered” owl’s clover, though I didn’t learn the name until later. In the early stage of blooming, when viewed top-down, the flower-head has an intricate swirly pattern that suggested my colloquial name of “brain flower”. Once the blooms get a little farther along, the flower head opens up and small white blossoms start to emerge.

picture of owl’s clover, top view

Owl’s clover, top view

Another wildflower that seemed to be changing quickly was fiddlenecks. I’d previously seen – or noticed – just isolated plants like the example at the left in the picture. On a return trip just days later, there were masses of fiddlenecks in bloom, with the characteristic tops unrolling as the blooms emerge.

image of fiddlenecks


Other flowers in abundance in this area of the preserve include mule’s ear and several different types of sweet pea, including bright yellow and two-toned purple-and-pink.

Moving farther south into Skyline Ridge OSP, near the overlook (as well as in other places) I found yellow sticky monkeyflower. Also, there is a particular hillside not far from the main parking area near Horseshoe Lake where I think other wildflowers will soon join the poppies, blue-eyed grass, and buttercups.

Near the junction with Ipawa Trail, about 0.5 mile from the Horseshoe Lake trailhead, I noticed some beautiful wild irises. I think that perhaps they had been yellow; however, the color had faded but the petals were all still intact. These flowers seemed especially delicate, so I didn’t try to touch them to determine whether that was the case or not.

photo of previously yellow wild iris?

Previously yellow wild iris?

As I returned to the trailhead from Horseshoe Lake, I noticed a couple of unusual plants with long leaves extending upward from a seed pod-like structure. I don’t know what they are actually called, but I decided to refer to them as lamp plants, since the leaf structure is reminiscent of a certain old-fashioned style of lamp.

picture of striking lamp-like plant

Striking lamp-like plant

While enjoying my hikes in Russian Ridge and Skyline Ridge OSP’s I had a delightful time finding and photographing more and more wildflowers. I’m sure that I’ve captured only a fraction of the more common types, and that there are many dozens, if not hundreds, more. I look forward to continuing to learn to recognize more of the beautiful wildflowers that live in the local open space preserves and put on beautiful displays as the season progresses.

Posted in Peninsula, San Mateo County, wildflower hikes | Tagged , , , | 4 Comments