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.

This entry was posted in Bay Area Ridge Trail, Santa Clara County, South Bay, wildflower hikes and tagged , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to Sierra Vista Open Space Preserve

  1. Pingback: Core Creek Park – Second Exploration | trailhiker

  2. Pingback: University of Wisconsin Arboretum: Greene Prairie | trailhiker

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