Some might say that the route for this hike was the hard way to get up to the top of Black Mountain, the highest point on Monte Bello Ridge and the second highest point (after Castle Rock) in the Sierra Morena portion of the Santa Cruz Mountains. What was most surprising to me was that I could start just a 15-minute drive from my house, under 400 feet elevation at the trailhead, and hike up to a summit from which I could see the Pacific Ocean, still 15 miles distant. There were wonderful “distant views,” even with the hazy air we’ve been having lately.
Black Mountain is essentially on the border between Rancho San Antonio Open Space Preserve and Monte Bello Open Space Preserve, and it turns out that there are 3 or 4 routes, depending on how low or high you want to start and how far you want to hike. I started at the equestrian parking area in Rancho San Antonio County Park, adjacent to the OSP and operated by the Midpeninsula Regional Open Space District, and made a loop, hiking up by one route and down by another.
From the equestrian parking area the shortest – but therefore steepest – round trip is 12 miles. I elected to return via a longer, gentler descent. With a short exploration near the summit, the total distance ended up just over 15 miles, with 3200 feet of elevation gain and loss.
I have hiked the first 4 miles many times; it’s one of my favorite places to go for a hilly training walk. The trail is called the PG&E Trail. It is actually a fire/maintenance road, winding in and out of folds along the Wildcat Canyon and passing by several power transmission towers.
The trail is mostly in shade, since it’s on the north-facing slope of the canyon wall. There are numerous bay trees and ferns, which seem to thrive in a shady and/or moist environment.
Each time the trail passes a transmission tower there is a view back across the San Francisco Bay. As the trail climbs the views seem to get better and better. This is a nice view across the Santa Clara Valley, from one of the towers about 3.6 miles up the PG&E Trail, with the Upper High Meadow Trail rippling along the ridgeline.
At the vista point at the top of PG&E Trail there is a discreet sign indicating a single-track trail continuing through the chaparral, with 2 miles to go to arrive at Black Mountain. The remaining elevation gain, some 1200 feet, was an indication that the average grade would be 12%. The first mile, Quarry Trail, is an easement across privately-owned property, and does not show up on any of the park maps. Quarry Trail tees into Black Mountain Trail, another fire road, which continues the steep climb. There is a gate just before a fenced-off area near the broad summit of Black Mountain, filled with communication towers. The gate seems to be the “official” boundary of Ranch San Antonio. To reach the summit, follow the signage to Monte Bello Road. The summit itself is rather bare, with a scattering of rocks.
The first view upon reaching the summit area is Mt Umunhum and Loma Prieta, which are to the south and therefore directly in front of you. To capture this view including nearby rolling hills in Monte Bello Open Space Preserve, I walked toward the edge of the summit area. Unlike many peaks, the summit area is fairly flat for perhaps a 1000-foot diameter, then drops off more steeply as you might expect.
To the west the Pacific Ocean was visible, 15 miles away and 2800 feet below. Note some of the Black Mountain-top rocks in the foreground.
To the northwest I could barely make out the distinctive profile of Mt Tamalpais, 45 miles away and floating on a layer of haze. Similarly, 40 miles to the north is Mt Diablo, obscured at the summit by the Black Mountain communication tower complex and some trees growing at the edge of the summit area.
I noticed a small spur path that seemed to lead to a potential viewing spot for the East Bay Hills, so I walked over to explore. Sure enough, when I got to the edge of the summit area I had a clear view of Lick Observatory on Mt Hamilton, nearly 30 miles east across downtown San Jose.
To the north of Mt Hamilton along the East Bay Hills skyline is Mission Peak (and Mt Allison to the right), about 20 miles away to the northeast. I think the large “blank” area in the mid-range is the Don Edwards San Francisco Bay National Wildlife Refuge, which covers a wide swath around the edge of the lower San Francisco Bay.
As I returned on the spur path I noticed a family of deer – a buck, a doe, and two young – grazing in the dry grass near a small grove of oak trees. Although they were at least 100 feet away and seemed to be oblivious of me, as soon as I activated the zoom on my little camera the doe was instantly on alert to check out the source of the unusual sound.
After enjoying the wonderful views and taking a short break I began my descent, initially down Black Mountain Trail. I was planning, if I thought I had enough time, to explore a different way down – and avoid the steep and narrow Quarry Trail. I decided I had enough daylight time, so I continued down Black Mountain Trail. I knew that this route would be about 2.5 miles longer, but I anticipated that the grade would be gentler – and it was, with no significant climbing during the entire descent.
About 2 miles past the top of Quarry Trail there are two side trails that go to Hidden Villa, which is not far from the Duveneck Windmill Pasture Area of Rancho San Antonio OSP. The Duveneck family story is an interesting chapter of local history. Another mile past Hidden Villa, the Black Mountain Trail continues as the Rhus Ridge Trail to a gate and access point. This is the nearest/easiest access point to Black Mountain from Rancho San Antonio. Turning right instead, the trail continues as the Chamise Trail.
Throughout the day I had seen toyon bushes along the side of the trail. In this area I found a particularly nice example illuminated by the sun.
There were also some nice views to the south toward Black Mountain, with sunlight streaming in from the west and creating a sunbeam effect. Though still over 1000 feet elevation, I could enjoy a sense of accomplishment at having hiked up to the top and back down.
The Chamise Trail descends into the Rogue Valley, a fairly narrow valley that goes east-west. In the winter months there is relatively little sun in this valley, and I have encountered heavy frost on the Rogue Valley Trail, which goes along a streambed at the valley floor. Because of the orientation of the terrain I was able to enjoy a mini-sunset from the Chamise Trail, more than an hour before the official sunset time.
About 2 miles down the Chamise Trail I took the marked side trail to the Rogue Valley Trail, which leads to Deer Hollow Farm. I have hiked in the lower section of Rancho many times, and decided to take a “back way” to the equestrian parking lot, via the so-called Farm Bypass Trail and Coyote Trail. This route selection added perhaps 200 feet of climbing at the end of my hike, but minimal extra distance.
It is evident that I enjoyed beautiful views of the surrounding area, including all 6 of what I consider to be the landmark peaks of the Bay Area (Mt Tam, Mt Diablo, Mission Peak, Mt Hamilton, Mt Umunhum, Loma Prieta) as well as the San Francisco Bay and the Pacific Ocean. I can only imagine how much more spectacular these views would be on a truly clear day. It would be fun to return and find out!