Coal Creek Open Space Preserve

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This hike was my first visit to Coal Creek Open Space Preserve, a 500-acre preserve along Skyline Blvd (CA-35) just northwest of Page Mill Rd in the southeast corner of San Mateo County.  The preserve is just across Skyline Blvd from Russian Ridge Open Space Preserve, another of many preserves along the peninsula owned and managed by the Midpeninsula Regional Open Space District.

There aren’t any especially long hikes in Coal Creek OSP, due in large part to its relatively small size.  This hike, which was written up in a book devoted to descriptions of hikes in Midpen open space preserves, was a modified figure 8 just under 5 miles long.  It was a perfect length for the day.  I had planned to meet a friend for the hike and, when we first reached Skyline Blvd, we found ourselves in a cloud of fog, with sufficient breeze to cause the equivalent of light rain to fall from the trees.  The temperature was barely 50 degrees and neither of us had thought to bring a jacket.  So we retreated downhill toward the Bay slightly and explored nearby Los Trancos Open Space Preserve for a couple of hours, essentially waiting for the fog to dissipate, which it cooperatively did.

As a result of the residual fog, we ended up starting our Coal Creek OSP hike at 1:00 pm instead of 11:00 am.  The hike was very pleasant, with a somewhat surprising variety of wildflowers for late May, and with nice views from several locations on the route.  This is a view of some of the nearby hills, in the process of changing from winter-time green to summer-time golden.

picture of view of hills close to Coal Creek Open Space Preserve

View of hills close to Coal Creek Open Space Preserve

Our starting point was a small off-road parking area at the Skyline Blvd junction with Crazy Pete’s Rd, which passes several private property parcels before fully entering the preserve after 0.4 mile.  The GPS track image shows an overview of the figure 8 route, with the orange dot denoting the start/end point.

GPS track

GPS track

As shown on the elevation profile, the route descends for just over 1 mile, then climbs for a little longer distance before descending again and re-climbing to the trailhead.  The total elevation gain and loss were each nearly 1100 feet, so the average grade was about 8.5%.  The lowest point on the hike was along Alpine Rd, between the two loops, and was reached both on the outbound and return legs of the hike.  The high point almost halfway through the hike was along Meadow Trail where it is closest to Skyline Blvd, near the 35 route indicator on the GPS track.

Elevation profile

Elevation profile

The first part of Crazy Pete’s Rd passes along the edge of preserve property passing several residences on private land.  It is the access road for these properties, and there is a sign along the road advising preserve visitors to “watch 4 cars”.   Along this section of paved road there was some thimbleberry (Rubus parviflorus) as well as western vervain (Verbena asiostachys).

picture of western vervain along Crazy Pete’s Rd

Western vervain along Crazy Pete’s Rd

After 0.4 mile there is a kiosk with preserve information and maps, as well as a junction with Coal Rd, which is a hiking trail.  We would return via Coal Rd, but initially we continued straight on Crazy Pete’s Rd, unpaved past the kiosk.  It shortly turns east and then southeast, continuing the descent.  Along the way we passed some hedge nettle (Stachys ajugoides).  After another 0.5 mile we reached the southeast end of Coal Rd, where we continued on Crazy Pete’s Rd to Alpine Rd.  Alpine Rd is a bit interesting: where Page Mill Rd intersects Skyline Blvd, the paved continuation of Page Mill Rd is called Alpine Rd, and it continues generally toward Portola State Park.  About 1/2 mile before the end of Page Mill Rd a small, unpaved road – also signed Alpine Rd – strikes out to the northwest.  This unpaved Alpine Rd shortly becomes essentially single-track trail and passes along the northeast boundary of Coal Creek OSP, connecting to several trails in the preserve.

Near the junction with Alpine Rd we passed a small stream, which I presume to be Coal Creek, with a tiny cheerful waterfall.

picture of tiny waterfall and pool in Coal Creek

Tiny waterfall and pool in Coal Creek

Near the creek we found numerous western columbines (Aquilegia formosa).

picture of western columbine near Coal Creek

Western columbine near Coal Creek

We proceeded along Alpine Rd for about 0.8 mile, with a steady climb of about 225 feet (5% grade).  Along the way we saw several Fernald’s iris (Iris fernaldii).

picture of Fernald’s iris

Fernald’s iris

Next we found blue witch (Solanum umbelliferum ) and prolific pink honeysuckle (Lonicera hispidula).  The honeysuckle blossoms weren’t fully blooming yet, but they were recognizable.  Then, to my surprise, we found a few common trilliums (Trillium chloropelatum).  My usual experience is that trillium tends to bloom much earlier than late May, so even though this specimen was clearly past its prime it was a (pleasant) surprise.

picture of common trillium

Common trillium

About 2 miles from the trailhead we came to a junction with Meadow Trail, where we made a sharp right turn and continued climbing.  This 0.8-mile trail passed through a pretty meadow and provided viewing of many wildflowers, including California poppies (Eschscholzia californica) and smooth mule ears (Wyethia glabra).

picture of smooth mule ears along Meadow Trail

Smooth mule ears along Meadow Trail

A bit later there was a cluster of Chinese houses (Collinsia heterophylla), coincidentally near the high point of Meadow Trail.

picture of Chinese houses

Chinese houses

Next, during the descent, were some blow wives (Achyrachaena mollis), with distinctive puffs of what look like delicate white flowers with rounded-tip petals.  Actually the puff is a seed head, and the purpose of the “flowers” is to disperse the seeds in the wind.

picture of familiar blow wives seed head

Familiar blow wives seed head

After about 0.8 mile Meadow Trail tees at Cloud’s Rest Trail.  Here you can go left to climb up to Skyline Blvd or right to descend to Alpine Rd.  We went right.   Along Cloud’s Rest Trail we found a few owl’s clover (Castilleja exserta) among the grasses.  Note the tiny face-like sacs near the top of the flower head.

picture of owl’s clover

Owl’s clover

Along Cloud’s Rest Trail we started to see intermittent views of San Francisco Bay, generally looking across Palo Alto’s Foothills Park, Arastradero Preserve, and Stanford University campus.  Meanwhile next to the trail there was a colorful mass of white leptosiphon flowers (Leptosiphon sp) with yellow throats and stamens.

picture of mass of leptosiphon flowers along Cloud’s Rest Trail

Mass of leptosiphon flowers along Cloud’s Rest Trail

After about 0.6 mile on Cloud’s Rest Trail we came to Alpine Rd, closing one loop of the figure 8.  We retraced our path on Alpine Rd for about 0.5 mile.  This time we noted several globe lilies (Calochortus albus).  In this picture the left blossom is past prime and the seed is growing to a more prominent size, shortly to emerge from between the spent petals.

picture of globe lily

Globe lily

Near Coal Creek, along with some Pacific starflower (Lysimachia latifolia) we noted horsetail (Equisetum arvense) in the moist environment.

picture of horsetail


When we reached the first junction with Coal Rd we turned left, climbing once again.  Along with some clover, most likely tomcat clover (Trifolium wildenovii), there was some miner’s lettuce (Claytonia perfoliata).  I had never noticed miner’s lettuce with its flowers apparently past prime and this dark pink-purple color.  But the leaves were distinctive.

picture of miner’s lettuce with dark (past prime?) flowers

Miner’s lettuce with dark (past prime?) flowers

About midway along Coal Rd’s 0.8-mile length there is a mini high point with more nice views, both of the nearby hills and of San Francisco Bay.  In this picture the East Bay Hills kind of fade into some background haze, but the foreground and the Bay itself are clear.

picture of view of San Francisco Bay from Coal Rd

View of San Francisco Bay from Coal Rd

There was one final surprise wildflower along Coal Rd: I believe it is Mexicali onion (Allium peninsulare) based on the bright pink color, the growth pattern of the flower head, and the local distribution of other potential Allium species.

picture of Mexicali onion, I believe

Mexicali onion, I believe

Near the end of Coal Rd we found some woodland madia (Anisocarpus madioides).  When we reached Crazy Pete’s Rd at the kiosk, completing the second loop of the figure 8, we turned left and returned to the car.  Although the web page for Coal Creek specifically mentions that it is dog-friendly (dogs on leash permitted on our entire route), we did not encounter any dog-walkers, or other hikers, and only one or two cyclists on Alpine Rd.  It was a quiet, secluded, and pleasant late-spring hike.

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Presidio of San Francisco – short walk from Inspiration Point

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For the last several years (10, to be exact) I have walked in San Francisco’s famous Bay to Breakers, one of the longest-running foot races in the country.  This year the weather was exceptionally good, and I had decided that I would linger in the city long enough to go to the Presidio of San Francisco – this is the formal name for the Presidio – and take a nice cool-down walk in the area near Inspiration Point.  A specific objective was to see if I could find a rare wildflower, the Presidio clarkia (Clarkia franciscana), which only grows in two specific protected serpentine areas.  One is in the Presidio and the other is in Oakland.  I was delighted that I had no trouble finding the flowers, and they were in bloom.

picture of Presidio clarkia

Presidio clarkia

Of course I could have immediately terminated my walk, having achieved my objective, but it was too nice a day to hurry back to other demands and activities.  From the end of Bay to Breakers I had a short walk, similar in length to getting to one of the official optional post-race shuttle buses back to downtown, to the first of two Muni buses that got me close to the Arguello Gate of the Presidio.  After that it was about a 0.3-mile walk to Arguello Gate.  My walk within the Presidio proper was 2.3 miles, which included 0.2 mile each way to/from Inspiration Point.  The GPS track shows my somewhat wandering route, with the orange dot denoting the bus stop at California and Arguello.

GPS track

GPS track

The elevation profile is partially truncated, since I forgot to begin recording until I reached Arguello Gate, but shows that the elevation gain and loss were modest: I estimate 430 feet for the entire route, including the part I forgot to record.

Elevation profile

Elevation profile

Walking into the Presidio, some of the trail way-finding signage was a reminder that I had entered the Presidio similarly before, when I hiked the Presidio segment of the Bay Area Ridge Trail.  On other visits to the Presidio I have simply driven to Inspiration Point, where there is a small parking area.  Especially on such a beautiful day, the views from Inspiration Point are just that – inspiring – and include Angel Island, Alcatraz, and the dome of the Palace of Fine Arts.  The Golden Gate Bridge is actually hidden behind trees out of the left side of the picture, but it is visible from other viewpoints in the Presidio.

picture of view from Inspiration Point

View from Inspiration Point

In order to get to the area where I hoped to see the clarkias I planned to take the Ecology Trail, which makes a loop to the east of, and downhill from, Inspiration Point.  It was easy to find trail signage and start down a set of steps set into the hillside.  Before leaving the parking area I found some seaside daisy (Erigeron glaucus), and before long I passed some California bee plant (Scrophularia californica).  This is a shrub with very small, just 1/4” long, flowers.  I learned the identification relatively recently, and it seems that I’ve seen it often since then.  Once you know what beeplant is, it is easy to identify.

picture of California bee plant

California bee plant

I walked south on the Ecology Trail and then north on the lower part of the trail, passing a few common yarrow (Achillea millefolium) plants on the way.  There was also some San Francisco coyote mint (Monardella villosa ssp franciscana).  This is a subspecies of the same plant I’ve seen many times in other parks, but the subspecies is local to the San Francisco area and has been reported in the Presidio.

picture of San Francisco coyote mint

San Francisco coyote mint

I had looked up some observations of Presidio clarkia so that I would know where to look carefully.  As it turned out I really didn’t need the assistance: when I began to pass a steep grassy hillside I found hundreds of plants in bloom.  There is a fence right next to the edge of the paved trail surface, making it clear that visitors should stay on the trail (and away from the clarkia plants).  Farther along the trail there was an interpretive sign explaining the reason for the fence.  In addition, the Presidio is a national park (part of Golden Gate National Recreation Area), so picking flowers or otherwise disturbing plants is prohibited.  I spent at least 20 minutes walking back and forth, choosing which specific blossoms to photograph, simply enjoying the flowers, and taking a few dozen pictures – my usual routine when I see a special rare wildflower for the first time.  Since the bloom was clearly in its prime, it was not surprising to find some buds just getting ready to open.

picture of Presidio clarkia bud ready to open

Presidio clarkia bud ready to open

The hillside was dotted with pink (clarkia), yellow (California poppies [Eschscholzia californica]), and white (probably buckwheat).  In addition there was some Ithuriel’s spear (Triteleia laxa) and bright pink coast onion (Allium dichlamydeum).

picture of coast onion growing among the Presidio clarkias

Coast onion growing among the Presidio clarkias

Eventually I continued north along the trail, passing a damp area with seep spring monkeyflowers (Erythranthe guttata, formerly Mimulus guttatus) and also some yellow sticky monkeyflower (Diplacus aurantiacus, formerly Mimulus aurantiacus).  When I came to the first intersection – the location of the interpretive sign about the Presidio clarkias – I decided to explore a short trail that would be the shortest path back to Inspiration Point.  This trail passes through a beautiful shady grove of trees.

picture of shady grove of trees

Shady grove of trees

In the shady area I found a couple if irises, probably Douglas iris (Iris douglasiana).  When I reached the so-called upper portion of Ecology Trail I returned to the intersection and continued straight, following signage for El Polin Springs.  On the way to the springs I passed some California wild rose (Rosa californica) making a bright pink statement.

picture of California wild rose not far from El Polin Springs

California wild rose not far from El Polin Springs

In the immediate area of the springs there is a very short loop trail with interpretive signage about native people who used to live in the area and use the springs as a water source.  There are actually several places where water reaches the ground surface, and the water is now directed along small rock-lined channels.  There were several wildflowers that I took note of, including calla lily (Zantedeschia aethiopica) – well-known but non-native – as well as yellow bush lupine (Lupinus arboreus), scarlet pimpernel (Lysimachia arvensis), more California bee plant, and some blue-eyed grass (Sisrinchium bellum).

picture of blue-eyed grass

Blue-eyed grass

There was also a particularly unusual-looking flower, which I think is meadow rue (Thalictrum fendleri).  I have seen meadow rue only once previously, in the Lake Tahoe area, so I wasn’t expecting to see it in San Francisco.  When researching the identification I learned that there are male-only and female-only plants, so my photos did not look like some of the pictures in the reference.  This situation can complicate an identification!

picture of meadow rue (maybe), near El Polin Springs

Meadow rue (maybe), near El Polin Springs

In the center of the small loop there is what I consider to be a special resource: a Nature Nook, stocked with nature-themed books and pamphlets that visitors can use while visiting the springs.  Although it looks similar to a Little Free Library its intent is for visitors to borrow the materials only during their visit and return them before they leave.

picture of Nature Nook at El Polin Springs

Nature Nook at El Polin Springs

Another unusual-looking and distinctive plant near the springs was coast twinberry (Lonicera involucrata var ledebourii).  I have to acknowledge that the common name is quite apt!  It’s also, therefore, easy to remember.

picture of coast twinberry

Coast twinberry

After enjoying the El Polin Springs area I returned once again to the nearby intersection, where I noticed a few checkerblooms (Sidalcea malviflora).  This particular plant was somewhat unusual in that it was very short; in fact, it looked like there wasn’t even any foliage.  The blossoms overwhelmed the rest of the plant.

picture of checkerbloom


At the intersection I turned right to explore the northern part of the loop, which is about 0.6 mile long, after which I continued back toward the Inspiration Point parking area.  Along the way I found some more of the white buckwheat I’d seen earlier among the Presidio clarkias.  It is most likely coast buckwheat (Eriogonum latifolium), with characteristic dense flower heads of tiny, mostly white, 6-petaled flowers.

picture of coast buckwheat along the Ecology Trail

Coast buckwheat along the Ecology Trail

When I reached the parking area I decided that I would see if I could find my way to a unique sculpture called Spire, created in 2008 by Andy Goldsworthy.  It turned out that the Spire was easy to find – I just had to turn away from the traditional Inspiration Point view and look in almost the opposite direction, and the top of the 100-foot sculpture was easily visible among the trees of the Presidio forest, with an informal path leading to it right across the road.

As I walked over I passed an unusually pale, almost white, blue witch nightshade (Solanum umbelliferum).

picture of blue witch nightshade

Blue witch nightshade

It is only about 0.1 mile from the parking area to the Spire, which is an impressive sculpture constructed from some 37 Monterey cypress trunks.  Young cypresses have been planted around the base, and eventually they will – by design – partially obscure the sculpture.

picture of Spire


After enjoying the Spire I made my way back to Arguello Gate and down Arguello Street to the bus stop, where I was able to take a bus to BART and then to my car.  This was a very enjoyable, low-key way to relax for a couple of hours after the stimulation of Bay to Breakers.

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Santa Clara County Parks PixInParks Challenge: Santa Teresa

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A 2.6-mile loop hike at Santa Teresa County Park on the Stile Ranch, Mine, and Fortini Trails is well-known as a great spring wildflower hike.  And although I’ve hiked this loop, or part of it, several times, on this particular occasion my objective was to complete the last of 7 hikes for the 2018 PixInParks Challenge, sponsored by Santa Clara County Parks and to check out the late spring wildflowers.

The idea of each challenge hike is that you hike a specific route, generally less than 5 miles.  The route passes a specific location where you take a picture of yourself or your group, and you post the picture on social media with certain hashtags.  Per my usual hiking mode, I did the hike solo and took a picture of my day pack and hiking poles at the specified location.  For this hike the photo spot was almost halfway around the loop and featured a nice view generally west toward the southern Santa Cruz Mountains.

photo of PixInParks Challenge hike photo spot in Santa Teresa County Park

PixInParks Challenge hike photo spot in Santa Teresa County Park

As mentioned, I have hiked in Santa Teresa County Park on several occasions.  The first was to complete a segment of the Bay Area Ridge Trail; the segment includes about 1.5 miles of this loop, the western and northern portion on the Stile Ranch Trail.  The GPS track image shows the route of the PixInParks hike, with the orange dot denoting the trailhead near the north end of Fortini Rd.

GPS track

GPS track

I hiked clockwise around the loop.  The Stile Ranch Trail climbs up the hillside via several switchbacks, which ascend along an easement granted by IBM on the property of a research facility.  After climbing about 350 feet the trail drops about 100 feet into a small valley and then climbs back out the other side, again via a couple of switchbacks.  The PixInParks location is at the top of the second climb.  The remainder of the hike is mostly downhill.  The total gain and loss for the hike is about 520 feet, so the average grade is about 7.5%.  As the elevation profile shows, the first climb is the steepest part of the loop; here the grade is about 10%.

Elevation profile

Elevation profile

It should be noted that this loop, as well as other trails in Santa Teresa County Park, are popular with mountain bikers.  All of the bikers I’ve encountered in the park have been courteous; not all yield to hikers, but they respect the steepness of the grades and the (at times) rocky terrain conditions.

The lower, or southern, half of the trail is on serpentine rock and soil.  Serpentine supports a unique flora community, including specialized plants that typically do not grow in other soil types.  I was hoping to see some of the seasonal serpentine plants, and I was not disappointed.

On the hillside near the trailhead there had been a wonderful display of California poppies (Eschscholzia californica) several weeks earlier; at the time of this hike most of the poppies were done for the season, though there were still a few.  Poppies are not serpentine species, but they often grow well in serpentine areas among the serpentine species.  Near the beginning of the loop there was also quite a bit of common yarrow (Achillea millefolium), as well as some golden yarrow (Eriophyllum confertiflorum).  As may be concluded from the Latin names in parentheses, golden yarrow is actually not a true yarrow, even though the flowers resemble those of common yarrow.

photo of golden yarrow

Golden yarrow

Quite close to the beginning of the Stile Ranch Trail there is a seep where I often find seep spring monkeyflowers (Erythranthe guttata, formerly Mimulus guttatus).  This time I was looking for Mt Hamilton thistle (Cirsium fontinale var campylon), a rare type of native thistle found only in serpentine seep areas in the general vicinity of Mt Hamilton.  I had seen plants before, but not flowers.  It is interesting that the flower heads hang downward, apparently an adaptation that ensures that seeds are not dispersed very far from the parent plant and away from the specialized ecosystem it needs for survival.  It was quite interesting to finally see a plant in bloom!

photo of Mt Hamilton thistle

Mt Hamilton thistle

Another specialized wildflower for serpentine soil is the most beautiful jewelflower (Streptanthus albidus ssp peramoenus).  The blossoms of jewelflowers are small, about 1/4 inch in diameter, and the stems are hard to see when surrounded by dry grasses.  So it’s easy to pass by them without even noticing.  I was happy to find quite a few along the side of the trail.

photo of most beautiful jewelflower

Most beautiful jewelflower

After climbing the initial set of switchbacks there are nice views to the southwest.  In this view Fortini Rd is prominent.  The hill just past the far end of Fortini Rd is in a new section of Calero County Park, another wildflower hotspot.  The skyline includes Loma Prieta, with Mt Umunhum just out of view to the right, in the southern Santa Cruz Mountains.

photo of view from Stile Ranch Trail toward the southern Santa Cruz Mountains

View from Stile Ranch Trail toward the southern Santa Cruz Mountains

Just at the top of the initial set of switchbacks, 0.3 mile from the trailhead, I found the first of many clay mariposa lilies (Calochortus argillosus) that I would see on the hike.  Like several other species of mariposa lily, the clay mariposa lily can be variable with respect to the markings.  In some individuals the entire upper portion of the petal is light violet, for example.

photo of clay mariposa lily

Clay mariposa lily

This is a close-up of a different blossom.  The appearance of the anthers signals that the blossom is in a later stage of the flowering phase.  The petals are a bit more open, clearly revealing that the inner surface of the sepals also contains markings that are reminiscent of the petal markings. And it is easier in the close-up to see the area on the petals where there are hairs.

photo of clay mariposa lily (details)

Clay mariposa lily (details)

After reaching the top of the hill around 0.7 mile from the trailhead I began to see different flowers.  I believe the soil is no longer serpentine, and the sun exposure changes.  One of the “new” flowers was ruby chalice clarkia (Clarkia rubicunda), one of several clarkia species also known as farewell to spring.  Clarkias typically bloom relatively late in the spring wildflower season and are viewed as a signal that the end of prime wildflower viewing is approaching.

photo of ruby chalice clarkia

Ruby chalice clarkia

I also found some buckwheat, I believe naked buckwheat (Eriogonum nudum).  Naked buckwheat is common across nearly all of California outside of the Central Valley and the southern deserts.  Other than basal leaves, leaves around the base of the stem, the stems are leafless.

photo of naked buckwheat

Naked buckwheat

At some point I noticed that I seemed to have something on my sunglasses, apparently on the inside surface of the lens, getting brushed by my eyelashes when I blinked.  When I took off my sunglasses to see what it was, I discovered an insect.  It actually remained essentially stationary long enough for me to take its picture – after which I encouraged it to fly away.

photo of insect on my sunglasses

Insect on my sunglasses

The PixInParks photo location is at the top of the second climb.  From this location, when you look toward Loma Prieta it is easy to see the Stile Ranch Trail zig-zagging down the hillside on the other side of the little valley.

photo of Stile Ranch Trail with Loma Prieta in the background

Stile Ranch Trail with Loma Prieta in the background

The trail descends for most of the rest of the loop.  For a brief section you can see one of the IBM facility’s buildings.  On this hillside there was some Ithuriel’s spear (Triteleia laxa).

photo of Ithuriel’s spear

Ithuriel’s spear

I also found a few Western larkspurs (Delphimium hesperium).  I was interested and a bit amused to note that the larkspurs were in the same section of the trail where I have seen them previously – and nowhere else along this loop.  There must be something favorable about the conditions in that location.

photo of western larkspur

Western larkspur

In addition I found some butter and eggs (Triphysaria eriantha), sometimes called Johnny tuck.  It was interesting to get a close-up of the flower head and study some of the details that I typically do not see from a normal (standing) viewing distance.  It looks like the sacs turn pink at the end of the blooming phase.

photo of butter and eggs

Butter and eggs

The trail crosses what I presume to be a small seasonal stream around the flat area on the elevation profile.  Here there was a small forest of non-native teasels (Dipsacus sp), which I used to call lampshade plants before I learned the correct identification.  There is also an impressive valley oak (Quercus lobata) next to the trail.

photo of valley oak

Valley oak

About 1.5 mile from the trailhead the Stile Ranch Trail essentially tees into the Mine Trail at a large triangular-shaped intersection.  The Challenge Hike loop continues by going right on Mine Trail and then going right again on Fortini Trail about 1/4 mile later, after the last minor ascent of the hike.  Fortini Trail descends through the serpentine area.  Along the upper portion of the trail there is a small rock wall where some Santa Clara Valley dudleya (Dudleya abramsii ssp setchellii) grows.  This is another rare and protected plant only found locally.  I was hoping that some of the plants would be blooming, and they were.  This was a lovely example with more buds than blooms.

photo of Santa Clara Valley dudleya

Santa Clara Valley dudleya

A short distance after the rock wall the trail crosses a small depression with a seep.  Here I again found some seep spring monkeyflowers and another beautiful oak.  Continuing down the trail I noticed a virtual array of entrances to underground spider homes, each blanketed by a small, dense web.  I’ve not yet learned whether these webs assist in capturing food, or whether they are intended to deter intruders or predators.  However, I’ve seen them along many other trails in local parks.

photo of spider web covering a spider home

Spider web covering a spider home

Along the Fortini Trail I also noticed a few impressive manzanitas (Arctostaphylos sp).  There are many species of manzanita in California and, alas, so far I have not learned to identify many individual species.  This is what I might term a medium-sized species: between a small shrub and a tree in size.  The base trunk is several inches in diameter.

photo of impressive manzanita along Fortini Trail

Impressive manzanita along Fortini Trail

Along the lower part of Fortini Trail there were a few more clay mariposa lilies, most beautiful jewelflowers, Ithuriel’s spear, and California poppies among the now-dry grasses.

On a short hike several weeks ago, just along the lower portion of Stile Ranch Trail, I saw several earlier-season wildflowers, including red maids, tidy tips, popcorn flower, beeplant (Scrophalaria californica), chia sage (Salvia columbariae), common phacelia (Phacelia distans), and California plantain (Plantago erecta).  I saw a few of these on this hike but didn’t take pictures, and some had completed blooming for the season.

I always enjoy coming to this part of Santa Teresa County Park during the spring to appreciate the constantly changing displays of wildflowers.

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Santa Clara County Parks PixInParks Challenge: Almaden Quicksilver

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Almaden Quicksilver County Park is a Santa Clara County Park rich in California history and located in the New Almaden National Historic Landmark District.  The history is mainly related to the mining of quicksilver, or mercury, in the latter part of the 19th century.  There are many remnants of this mining history, including English Camp, Church Hill, the Hidalgo Cemetery, and many mine ruins, several of which I visited on this hike.

Almaden Quicksliver is also the location of one of the seven hikes designated in the 2018 PixInParks Challenge.   The idea of the Challenge is that you hike a route, generally 5 miles or less, that passes a specific location where you take a picture, preferably of yourself or the group you are with.  You then post the picture to social media with hashtags.  I did this hike by myself, as I often do, so I took a picture that included my day pack and hiking poles.  For this hike there was a slight additional challenge for the photo, since the picnic table that was intended to be in the picture’s foreground was occupied by a group of hikers also enjoying the beautiful day.  So I modified the angle somewhat, but in such a way that Mt Umunhum was visible in the background.  I would see Mt Umunhum several other times during the hike.

image of PixInParks Challenge hike photo spot in Almaden Quicksilver County Park

PixInParks Challenge hike photo spot in Almaden Quicksilver County Park

The day was a beautiful warm spring day, and the views and wildflowers were equally beautiful.  I added several side trips to see specific features related to the park’s history, so the intended 4.5 mile route became 7.1 miles.  In the GPS track image, the orange dot denotes the start/end point at the park entrance on Hicks Rd.

GPS track

GPS track

There were several short climbs and descents, with a little over 1150 feet of elevation gain and loss.  The average grade was about 6.2%, which I consider to be a comfortable grade.  There weren’t any sections that I considered to be steep.

Elevation profile

Elevation profile

Although I had done another, shorter, hike earlier in the day in another part of Almaden Quicksilver, where I was expecting to see a good wildflower display, I actually saw more wildflowers on this hike.  I am always glad to see a nice display!  Virtually all of the wildflowers I saw are typical spring flowers for Santa Clara County.

The first flower I saw, almost before I started hiking, was Fernald’s iris (Iris fernaldii).  Though I saw more later in the hike, the first one was along a short access trail from the parking area to Wood Road Trail.

image of Fernald’s iris

Fernald’s iris

In the same area I saw a few checkerblooms (Sidalcea sp) and Johnny jump-ups (Viola pedunculata).  Shortly I began to see some of the beautiful views I would see off-and-on throughout the hike, including nearby Loma Prieta and Mt Umunhum.

Wood Road Trail leads southeast, then east, then northeast into the heart of the park, for about 1.3 miles; this is the balloon-string portion of the semi-loop route.  Along the way I would see, among others, some white-colored lupine (Lupinus sp), yellow-sticky monkeyflower (Diplacus aurantiacus, formerly Mimulus aurantiacus), scarlet pimpernel (Lysimachia arvensis), and some owl’s clover (Castilleja exserta).

image of owl’s clover along Wood Road Trail

Owl’s clover along Wood Road Trail

As Wood Road Trail approaches the tee junction with Castillero Trail there are great views of the rotary furnace, which I consider to be a landmark of this part of the park.  I actually took this picture later in the hike, near the end of the main loop, since it shows an even better overview of all of the remaining structures.

image of rotary furnace

Rotary furnace

I also found several Douglas iris (Iris douglasiana), though with their extensive sun exposure they had progressed past their prime.

image of Douglas iris

Douglas iris

Shortly before the tee junction with Castillero Trail the Yellow Kid Trail strikes out to the right, and I went that way in order to set up a side trip to Hidalgo Cemetery.  I have hiked in “AQ” several times before and not taken this side trip, so I decided this would be the day to explore more of the park’s history.  Along the Hidalgo Cemetery Trail there is an enormous prickly pear (Opuntia ficus-indica), almost like a hedge next to the trail.

image of prickly pear along Hidalgo Cemetery Trail

Prickly pear along Hidalgo Cemetery Trail

In this area I found bluedicks (Dichelostemma capitatum) – both normal blue and unusual white colors – as well as some blue-eyed grass (Sisrinchium bellum) and a few California poppies (Eschscholzia californica).  In addition there were a few flowers that I often associate with serpentine soil: California goldfields (Lasthenia californica) and California plantain (Plantago erecta).

image of California plantain

California plantain

There was also a very nice view of Almaden Reservoir, which is less than 1 mile south, just outside the park and across Los Alamitos Rd.

image of Almaden Reservoir

Almaden Reservoir

As I got closer to the cemetery there was a pretty view west into nearby Sierra Azul Open Space Preserve.

image of view into Sierra Azul Open Space Preserve

View into Sierra Azul Open Space Preserve

And as I approached the cemetery I passed a row of Italian cypresses (Cupressus sempervirens), which denote the location of many other similar-age cemeteries in California.

image of row of cypresses along the path to the Hidalgo Cemetery

Row of cypresses along the path to the Hidalgo Cemetery

From the cemetery itself there was a great view of Mt Umunhum and its radar tower.  In a way this view is a juxtaposition of different points of history: both the ancient and modern on Mt Umunhum and a century-plus old in the cemetery.

image of Mt Umunhum

Mt Umunhum

After enjoying the beauty and solitude of the cemetery I retraced my way back to the Yellow Kid Trail, where I turned right, parallel to the main loop on Castillero Trail, toward English Camp.  After this turn I had a great view of Mt Hamilton directly in front of me.  The trail passes by at least two former mines – and some miner’s lettuce (Claytonia perfoliata) – on the way to English Camp, where I took a short detour to Church Hill.  In this area there are several interesting historic buildings, each with an interpretive sign.

After continuing past English Camp the route continues on Mine Hill Trail, which passes more mines.  Along the way there was a nice view, generally to the north, of the southern Bay Area metropolitan area, making another striking contrast with the relative solitude of the park.

image of view toward the South Bay metropolitan area

View toward the South Bay metropolitan area

There were a few more flowers along the way, including hedge nettle (Stachys ajugoides) and columbine (Aquilegia formosa).  I took a short detour to the San Cristobal Mine, which has the remains of a major entrance.  Nearby there was a large mass of two-eyed violets (Viola ocellata).

image of two-eyed violet

Two-eyed violet

About 0.3 mile past the side trail to San Cristobal Mine the Castillero Trail rejoins Mine Hill Trail.  At this junction I took yet another short detour, this time north to visit the Catherine Tunnel, which appears to be a collapsed near-surface mine tunnel.  The tunnel itself is interesting-looking, with nice views toward either end: either Mt Hamilton or Sierra Azul.

image of Catherine Tunnel

Catherine Tunnel

After visiting Catherine Tunnel and returning to the Mine Hill Trail – Castillero Trail junction I walked less than 100 yards over to the picnic table where the PixInParks photo spot was located.  I was a little surprised to encounter a group of nearly a dozen younger hikers enjoying a picnic at the table closest to the hillside drop-off.  So I simply modified slightly the viewing angle for the photo, took a short snack break, and continued on my way roughly south on Castillero Trail.  About halfway along this 0.6-mile segment there was another pretty view of the green tree-covered hills in the area.

image of view from Castillero Trail

View from Castillero Trail

Near the rotary furnace I completed the main loop of the hike.  At the junction there is an interesting-looking oak tree where, if you stand in the right place, you have another nice view of Mt Umunhum and the radar tower.

view of Mt Umunhum

Mt Umunhum

Finally I started hiking back along Wood Road Trail toward the trailhead to complete the hike.  This was really a wonderful hike with terrific views, interesting local history, and beautiful spring wildflowers.

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Golden Gate National Recreation Area – Tennessee Valley Trail

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This hike could be characterized as short and sweet: short, at just over 4 miles round trip, and sweet, for the stunning views and beautiful wildflowers.  The Tennessee Valley Trail leads from a trailhead at the end of Tennessee Valley Rd to Tennessee Beach, on the Marin County coast.  The trail is within the Golden Gate National Recreation Area (GGNRA), a large and varied complex of parks in Marin, San Francisco, and San Mateo counties.  A portion of GGNRA has been designated by UNESCO as the Golden Gate Biosphere Reserve.  It is truly a remarkable place to visit.

I have hiked in the Tennessee Valley area three times previously, all related to the Bay Area Ridge Trail. The first time, I hiked a Ridge Trail segment north of the Tennessee Valley trailhead, and the day was so foggy I missed most of the views.  The second time, I hiked a Ridge Trail segment south of the trailhead.  And the third time I passed through as part of a longer hike for the annual Ridge to Bridge event.  This time I was volunteering for Ridge to Bridge and decided to hike down to the beach afterward.  The day was glorious.  This was a view of Tennessee Beach from a nearby overlook.

picture of view of Tennessee Beach from a nearby overlook

View of Tennessee Beach from a nearby overlook

At very low tide it’s apparently possible to see part of a shipwreck that is fully submerged at most tide levels.  The valley, cove, and beach are named for the SS Tennessee, a passenger ship that entered the cove instead of the Golden Gate in heavy 1853 fog and ran aground.  I made no effort to coordinate my hike with the tides.

The Tennessee Valley Trail leads from the trailhead at the end of the paved road to the beach and is just 1.9 miles long, as shown on the GPS track image.  The orange dot denotes the trailhead.  The trail is well-signed and easy to follow, essentially a fire road.  There is a short section in the middle where the trail splits into an upper and a lower trail.  On my outbound hike I took the upper trail, and on my return hike I took the lower trail.

GPS track

GPS track

The elevation profile shows that the route of the lower trail has a gradual gradient between the trailhead and the beach.  The upper trail goes over a small hill, with just 50 feet or so of climbing.  At the beach I found that there was a short trail that climbs up about 150 feet to an overlook with spectacular views.

Elevation profile

Elevation profile

Shortly after I left the end of the trailhead parking area I passed by some large, low-growing yellow flowers, obviously composites, that turned out to be prostrate capeweed (Arctotheca prostrata).  The tip of my finger helps set the scale: the blossom was nearly 2 inches in diameter.

picture of prostrate capeweed

Prostrate capeweed

Not much farther along I found a few beach evening primroses (Camissoniopsis cheiranthifolia).  By the end of my hike I would find several wildflowers with either “beach” or “seaside” in their common names.

picture of beach evening primrose

Beach evening primrose

In many places along the trail there was silver bush lupine (Lupinus albifrons).

picture of silver bush lupine

Silver bush lupine

Roughly a mile from the trailhead the Tennessee Valley Trail crosses the Coastal Trail.  Not far away I particularly noticed a distinctive cluster of trees.  This view was back toward the trailhead after I had passed the trees, and it indicates just how clear the afternoon was – rather unusual for this part of the Marin Headlands coast, making it all the more special.

picture of cluster of trees next to the trail

Cluster of trees next to the trail

The upper, or main, Tennessee Valley Trail section climbs a small hill, then dips slightly and crests again.  From the top of the second crest there is a beautiful view of the valley’s mouth opening into the Pacific Ocean.  Just inland from the beach there is a pretty lagoon.

picture of view of a lagoon and the Pacific Ocean

View of a lagoon and the Pacific Ocean

Hiking down from the crest I noted a small bit of flowing water next to the trail, and in places there was seep spring monkeyflower (Erythranthe guttata, formerly Mimulus guttatus).

Not surprisingly, given the beautiful weather and full parking lot, there were quite a few people enjoying the beach.  Families and couples had brought picnics, and youngsters ran alternately toward and away from the gentle breaking waves.  I propped up my poles for this view of the south end of the beach, marked by the above-water cliff edge of the Marin headlands.

picture of Tennessee Beach

Tennessee Beach

After enjoying the beach for several minutes I turned around to walk over to the trail I’d previously noticed that climbs up to an overlook.  On the way I noticed a single plant of yellow sand verbena (Abronia latifolia) in bloom.  This flower had been on my To Do list, so I was happy to find it.

picture of yellow sand verbena

Yellow sand verbena

As I climbed up a set of steps at the beginning of the 800-foot (per the signage) trail I noticed a cluster of seaside daisies (Erigeron glaucus).  Note the tiny yellow needle-like stamens protruding above the disc flowers.

picture of seaside daisy along the trail up to an overlook

Seaside daisy along the trail up to an overlook

I noticed a single coastal tidy tip (Layia platyglossa) growing in a crack at the base of one of the steps.  The blossom was facing downward so I had to hold it in order to view the flower.  Tidy tips are another variety of composite flower, and I had never previously examined one closely enough to appreciate the detail in the disc flowers.  From a more typical viewing distance, the most distinctive characteristic of tidy tips is the color pattern on the ray flowers: yellow toward the disc flowers, and crisp white tips.

picture of coastal tidy tip

Coastal tidy tip

Along the trail there was a bit of yellow sticky monkeyflower (Diplacus aurantiacus, formerly known as Mimulus aurantiacus), a common flowering shrub, as well as checkerbloom (probably Sidalcea malviflora) and a cluster of California manroot (Marah fabacea).  I also noted some seaside lizard tail (Eriophyllum staechadifolium).  I initially thought this was golden yarrow, a related species, but while researching the identification I learned that seaside lizard tail has more ray flowers than yarrow has.  Sometimes an ID can be confirmed by taking note of this type of easy to see, but also easy to overlook, detail.

picture of seaside lizard tail

Seaside lizard tail

Near the top of the overlook trail there is a former bunker, now liberally “decorated” with painted graffiti.  Along the California coast there are numerous former Nike bunkers dating from 20th century wars.

picture of “decorated” bunker

“Decorated” bunker

Before I arrived at the top of the overlook I didn’t realize how beautiful the view would be.  With clear skies – the famous marine fog bank well off-shore – the afternoon sun made the headland bluffs glow, and the ocean water and dark sand beach contrasted with the white foam of breaking waves.  (See the first picture in this post.)  When I looked down the bluff on my right I noticed that small waves were entering the edge of Tennessee Cove and breaking up at the base of the cliff, every so often sending up white spray.

picture of breaking wave sending up white spray at the base of the overlook

Breaking wave sending up white spray at the base of the overlook

After pausing for some minutes to enjoy the waves and views, I descended the overlook path and began making my way back to the trailhead.  At another damp area I noticed a miniature forest of common horsetail (Equisetum arvense).

picture of common horsetail in a damp area

Common horsetail in a damp area

When I came to the split between the upper and lower trails I took the lower trail, which is essentially single-track and covers about 1/2 mile.  Here, and in other areas, there was winter vetch (Vicia villosa ssp varia), a common wildflower at this time of year that looked pretty in the late afternoon sun.  After the lower trail had rejoined the main trail there was an especially pretty view up Tennessee Valley.  A few people were hiking down to the beach, but more were returning to the trailhead.

picture of view up Tennessee Valley

View up Tennessee Valley

California poppies (Eschscholzia californica) are well-known for closing up at night.  In fact, they open only when there is relatively abundant sunlight.  I found it interesting that I passed a number of poppies that were still bathed in sunlight but had closed up for the night.

picture of California poppy in late afternoon, closed for the day

California poppy in late afternoon, closed for the day

Toward the upper end of the trail I noticed some pretty white nodding flowers with slender, lush green leaves in a shaded grassy area near the trail.  I think they are white flowered onion (Allium triquetrum).  The delicate stripes on both the outside and inside surface of the petals are distinctive.

picture of white flowered onion

White flowered onion

After I arrived at the trailhead parking area I began to drive back out to CA-1.  Along the way I passed several pale-colored Douglas irises (Iris douglasii) and stopped for a few final pictures.

picture of Douglas iris

Douglas iris

Although I planned this hike almost impulsively, it turned out to be a wonderful hike on a beautiful day.

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Almaden Quicksilver County Park: loop near El Senador Mine

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I’ve hiked in Almaden Quicksilver County Park several times before (see here, for example), including hiking a segment of the Bay Area Ridge Trail.  There are three main entrances to the park, all in the eastern portion, but this hike began from a smaller, residential neighborhood access point in the northwest corner of the park on McAbee Rd.  One can only commend Santa Clara County Parks for providing easy access for residents of adjacent neighborhoods.

I had read somewhere that the spring wildflowers in this part of the park were especially nice, so I planned an April visit with this in mind.  As it turned out, the wildflowers were nice but not spectacular – but the hike was pleasant anyway, and I enjoyed hiking in a corner of the park I hadn’t visited before.  The views of the surrounding hills, such as this view, were quite nice.  This was barely 1 mile from my car and provides a nice illustration of how remote one can sometimes feel immediately upon entering a park or open space, even one that is so close to a metropolitan area of several million people.

photo of view of area near Almaden Quicksilver County Park

View of area near Almaden Quicksilver County Park

The hike was basically a loop within Almaden Quicksilver County Park, with a short, about 1/3 mile, access trail to the official park boundary from my on-street parking spot.  The GPS track image shows an overview of the hike, with the orange dot denoting my starting point at on-street parking.

GPS track

GPS track

The loop within the park was about 4.5 miles long and included parts of New Almaden, Senador Mine, Guadalupe, and Mine Hill Trails.  Per the park map, the entire route is designated as hiking/equestrian use.  Over the first 1.25 mile there was a 375-foot climb, followed by a 200-foot descent, another 325-foot climb, and a final 500-foot descent.  The average grade was a very comfortable 4.5%.  The first descent was the steepest part of the hike, with a 10% grade.

Elevation profile

Elevation profile

The park is located in the historic town of New Almaden, in south San Jose in Santa Clara County.  It has a rich history in the mining of quicksilver, or mercury, which was crucial to gold-mining efforts.  There are several sites of former mines located throughout the park.  All of the mines and adits (horizontal openings leading into mines for access or drainage) have been sealed for safety reasons.  It is worth noting that there is sufficient residual mercury in the soil that the streams within the park, as well as nearby Guadalupe and Almaden Reservoirs, are designated as catch-and-release fishing sites, as the fish are not safe to consume.

About 0.4 mile after entering the park there is a junction with New Almaden Trail, where I continued roughly southwest on the Senador Mine Trail.   In this area I noted some teasel (Dipsacus sp) probably left from the previous season.

photo of teasel


A short distance later I came to the remains of El Senador Mine.  At its peak activity between 1909 and 1926 it produced more than 20,000 flasks (totaling 1.5 million pounds) of mercury.

photo of El Senador Mine ruins

El Senador Mine ruins

From the area next to the mine there were views roughly to the northeast toward Mt Hamilton, nearly 20 miles away.  Near the trail there was both blue and white lupine (Lupinus sp) as well as blue and white varieties of bluedick (Dichelestemma capitatum).

photo of white variety of bluedick

White variety of bluedick

Continuing along Senador Mine Trail I passed a couple of toyon (Heteromeles arbutifolia) bushes, some blue-eyed grass (Sisrinchium bellum), and, later California poppies (Eschscholzia californica) and non-native milk thistle (Silybum marianum).

photo of blue-eyed grass

Blue-eyed grass

About 0.8 mile from the beginning of the loop there is a junction with Guadalupe Trail, where I continued straight and had the view shown in the first picture of this post.  This junction is at the first high point on the elevation profile.  The Guadalupe Trail drops about 200 feet and curves to a southeasterly direction, following parallel to, and close to, Hicks Rd.  In this area the trail is nicely shaded.

photo of shaded area of Guadalupe Trail

Shaded area of Guadalupe Trail

The trail briefly emerges from the wooded area to reveal a tree-covered hill ahead, then re-enters shade where there is a pleasant picnic table.  Typical wildflowers enjoyed the sunny areas, including checkerbloom (Sidalcea sp) and winter vetch (Vicia villosa ssp varia).  There were some beautiful bay trees (Umbellularia californica) with interesting multi-trunk configurations.

photo of bay tree

Bay tree

In sunny areas there was Ithuriel’s spear (Triteleia laxa); this example had several blossoms and many buds waiting their turn to bloom.

photo of Ithuriel’s spear

Ithuriel’s spear

There was also some yellow sticky monkeyflower (Diplacus aurantiacus, formerly Mimulus aurantiacus).  I have recently noticed that this monkeyflower tends to produce blossoms in pairs, though this is not obvious in the photo.

photo of yellow sticky monkeyflower

Yellow sticky monkeyflower

About 2.4 miles from the beginning of the loop the Guadalupe Trail starts to pass by Guadalupe Reservoir.  The trail has been climbing gradually and is about 200 feet higher than the reservoir’s surface.  The water was very calm, providing pretty reflections of the nearby hills across Hicks Rd in Sierra Azul Open Space Preserve.

photo of serene reflections in Guadalupe Reservoir

Serene reflections in Guadalupe Reservoir

On the way to the next trail junction I found some scarlet pimpernel (Anagallis arvensis), and I noticed an interesting rock formation across the road in Sierra Azul.  Just before I reached the trail junction I was startled to be notified that I’d gotten too close to a rattlesnake that was sunning itself near the side of the trail.  The rattle sound certainly got my attention!  Once I was a safe distance away I stopped for a couple of photos, making good use of the high-power zoom on my camera.  For some reason, even though the temperature was around 80 degrees, I was not yet thinking that rattlesnakes would be out and about in April.  I think maybe the still-green grasses fooled me a little bit.

photo of rattlesnake letting me know I should move away

Rattlesnake letting me know I should move away

Once I reached the trail junction I turned left on Mine Hill Trail, where there was a view of Mt Umunhum as the trail continued to climb.  The trail was more like single-track climbing a grassy hillside, whereas the previous 3 miles of my hike had been on fire roads.  I paid extra attention to anything I could see in the vicinity of the trail, and I made a point to hike in the middle of the trail.  Before long I heard, and then saw, an Anna’s hummingbird (Calypte anna) perched on a bare branch of a chaparral shrub.  The lighting was not really optimal for pictures, but I tried to get an interesting pose as the hummingbird looked first in one direction and then in another, between characteristic squeaky-gate vocalizations.

photo of Anna’s hummingbird

Anna’s hummingbird

At a junction with Cinnabar Trail I continued straight on Mine Hill Trail, which soon crested and then began to descend.  Near the high point of the trail I found some paintbrush (Castilleja sp) as well as smooth mule ears (Wyethia glabra) and common yarrow (Achillea millefolium).  Also near the high point there was a pretty view across the nearby residential area with the East Bay’s Diablo Range in the background.

photo of view across residential area adjacent to Almaden Quicksilver County Park

View across residential area adjacent to Almaden Quicksilver County Park

As Mine Hill Trail descends it crosses New Almaden Trail; I continued on Mine Hill Trail to complete my loop.  On the way I noticed a particularly pretty oak tree (Quercus sp) with prolific foliage.

phot of beautiful oak along Mine Hill Trail

Beautiful oak along Mine Hill Trail

When I reached the junction that closed the loop, I retraced my path out of the park to my parking spot.

Even with the surprise rattlesnake encounter this was a pleasant hike for a warm spring day, with a variety of commonly-found local wildflowers.

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Santa Clara County Parks PixInParks Challenge: Calero

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Calero County Park is the location for one of the seven challenge hikes in the 2018 PixInParks Challenge, an annual program sponsored by Santa Clara County Parks.  Because I knew that the challenge hike was relatively short, about 3 miles, earlier in the day I did another hike in the newly opened Rancho San Vicente section of Calero.  So this was my second hike of the day!

The idea of the challenge hikes is to follow a defined route that passes an interesting viewpoint where you take a picture of yourself or your group.  You then post the picture on social media with certain hashtags.  I generally hike solo, so I’ve been taking a picture of my day pack and/or hiking poles.  For this challenge hike the photo spot was at a picnic table shaded by a stately oak tree and overlooking Los Cerritos Pond, with a nice view of the East Bay hills in the background.

image of PixInParks Challenge hike photo spot in Calero County Park

PixInParks Challenge hike photo spot in Calero County Park

For this hike the photo spot could be near the beginning of the loop or near the end of it, depending on the direction taken around the loop.  I decided to hike the loop in the clockwise direction so that the photo spot would be near the end of the hike.  The GPS track shows the loop, which consists of parts of Los Cerritos, Figueroa, Vallecito, and Peña Trails.  The loop is accessed from the McKean Rd staging area via a 0.2-mile access trail.

GPS track

GPS track

For the first two miles of the hike the loop climbs gradually, making a circle around an 850-foot (peak elevation) hill.  After crossing a low ridge the trail descends more steeply, with a grade of about 13%.  I found it straightforward to hike down, but some hikers might find it rather steep to climb; fortunately, it’s only about 230 feet of elevation loss or gain, depending on which direction you go around the loop.

Elevation profile

Elevation profile

Once I reached the Los Cerritos Trail, both the beginning and the end of the loop proper, I turned left to go around the loop clockwise.  The trail climbs over a small ridge, only about 40 feet high.  Near the top of this mini-ridge there is a nice view across the park, with Mt Hamilton’s Lick Observatory buildings gleaming white in the afternoon sun.  Calero Reservoir is also in view, though to the left of the photo.

image of view from Los Cerritos Trail

View from Los Cerritos Trail

A small side trail enters, and the main loop becomes Figueroa Trail.  For a short distance the trail is parallel to, and close to, McKean Rd.  On the day of my visit there was fairly steady afternoon traffic on the road.  Then the trail curves away from the road and enters a pretty wooded area with a variety of common wildflowers, such as Ithuriel’s spear (Triteleia laxa), blue witch nightshade (Solanum umbelliferum), checkerbloom (Sidalcea sp), blue-eyed grass (Sisrinchium bellum), lupine (Lupinus sp), pineapple weed (Matricaria discoidea), and common fiddleneck (Amsinckia intermedia).  There were also quite a few Johnny jump-ups (Viola pedunculata) scattered along the trail and nearby.

image of Johnny jump-up

Johnny jump-up

A bit further in the wooded area I found some smooth mule ears (Wyethia glabra), one of which was being visited by a variable checkerspot butterfly (Euphydryas chalcedona).

image of smooth mule ears with visiting variable checkerspot butterfly

Smooth mule ears with visiting variable checkerspot butterfly

There was also hedge nettle (Stachys ajugoides), whose square stem, opposite leaves, and leaf shape announce that it is a member of the mint family.  The delicate light pink blossoms are decorated with tiny pink dots.  For many wildflowers, such markings – especially on a lower petal – are guides for pollinating insects.

image of hedge nettle

Hedge nettle

The trail continues to curve to the west, still climbing gently.  It passes through sunny clearings and then back into relative shade.  I noted a variety of ferns, two types of buttercup (Ranunculus sp), miner’s lettuce (Claytonia perfoliata), and California poppies (Eschscholzia californica).  I also found some flowers that are probably baby stars (Leptosiphon bicolor), with a characteristic cluster of finger-like leaflets and fairly long flower stems.

image of baby stars near the top of Figueroa Trail

Baby stars near the top of Figueroa Trail

Nearby there was some tomcat clover (Trifolium willdenovii), with colorful detail in the individual flowers of the flower head cluster.

image of tomcat clover

Tomcat clover

About 1.6 miles from the trailhead, just over half way around the loop, Cañada del Oro Trail comes in from the left and then Vallecito Trail from the right.  The loop continues on Vallecito Trail.  A nearby hillside has a pretty cluster of oak trees.

image of oak trees

Oak trees

The climb is a little steeper for the next 0.6 mile until the highest point of the loop is reached at the junction with Peña Trail.  The Peña Trail is basically a 200-foot descent within 0.3 mile.  I stopped near the top of Peña Trail in order to sit down and study an area with small-sized wildflowers, and I found quite a nice variety within a very small area.  First was shamrock clover (Trifolium dubium), one of the relatively few yellow-colored clovers.

image of shamrock clover

Shamrock clover

Nearby there were some aptly named Q tips (Micropus californicus), also called cotton tops.

image of Q tips

Q tips

There were also blow wives (Achyrachaena mollis), covered in soft fine hairs in an early blooming phase, prior to the more noticeable white puffy balls that develop later.  Note the shamrock clover in the foreground and a tiny flower in the background.  The field of view for this photo is only a couple of inches wide.

image of blow wives in bud

Blow wives in bud

The tiny flower in the background is most likely a bedstraw (Galium sp); several species have been reported in the general south Santa Clara County area but I could not decide which one this is.  Note that the individual flowers are only about 1/8 inch across.

image of bedstraw


From the top of the hill, at the junction of Vallecito and Peña Trails, there is a lovely view across the Coyote Valley, again with Mt Hamilton on the skyline.

image of view across Coyote Valley from the hike’s highest point

View across Coyote Valley from the hike’s highest point

From here I simply hiked carefully downhill, turning right where Peña tees into Los Cerritos Trail.  Even from the top of hill it was possible to see that there was steady traffic on Bailey Rd.  After a bit I zoomed in on my camera to see it better.  I hoped I would not need to contend with the traffic to get home from the end of the hike!  (It turned out not to be a problem.)

image of afternoon traffic on nearby Bailey Rd

Afternoon traffic on nearby Bailey Rd

At the end of the steepest descent there is a short climb to reach the PixInParks photo location overlooking Los Cerritos Pond.  After enjoying the view and taking pictures I continued downhill past Los Cerritos Pond.  There were several red-winged blackbirds (Agelaius phoeniceus) near the pond, sometimes sitting on fence posts and making their familiar characteristic sounds and calls.

image of red-winged blackbird near Los Cerritos Pond

Red-winged blackbird near Los Cerritos Pond

Just a short distance, about 0.1 mile, past the photo spot I arrived at the junction with the access trail, completing the loop, and then hiked back to my car.  This is a pleasant, relatively short, hike in an area that feels more remote than it actually is.

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