This was quite literally an all-day hike, mostly on a long contiguous section of the Bay Area Ridge Trail on the San Francisco Peninsula. It was a supported fund-raiser hike for the Bay Area Ridge Trail Council, whose mission is to create a continuous ring of trails around the entire Bay Area, open to hikers, along with bikers and equestrians to the extent possible.
With others, I began hiking shortly after dawn and finished hiking just before dusk. It was my longest hike to date, and quite possibly I will never do another longer hike. In fact, the 27-mile route turned out to be close to 29 miles (omitting a couple of short off-route excursions), with almost 5000 feet of climbing! Highlights of the hike included forested sections with majestic trees, the highest point on the currently dedicated Bay Area Ridge Trail, bay and ocean views, and afternoon fog.
As a volunteer, I had been asked to be the sweep hiker for the last 8 miles of the 27-mile route. Beyond that, I had thought it would be an interesting challenge to do the entire 27-mile hike, so I arrived at the meeting point before dawn to board a shuttle bus to the hike start location. I was aware that I would need to hike fairly aggressively to arrive at the lunch stop in time to begin my assigned volunteer task. Due to unexpected circumstances, though, I ended up sweeping the entire hike.
The GPS track shows an overview of the route, which passed through portions of Santa Clara, Santa Cruz, and San Mateo counties. The route also passed through Sanborn County Park, Castle Rock State Park, Long Ridge Open Space Preserve, Skyline Ridge Open Space Preserve, and Russian Ridge Open Space Preserve. The orange dot shows the start at the south end of the John Nicholas Trail at Black Rd.
The elevation profile shows the elevation changes. The only sustained climb was near the beginning, up the new John Nicholas Trail in Sanborn County Park, but there were many other smaller climbs and descents throughout the hike.
Most of the 27-mile hiker group posed for a picture at the trailhead before beginning to hike. It was an enthusiastic group, ready to start hiking! It was only — or already — about 15 minutes after sunrise.
The first 1.8 miles of the John Nicholas Trail are classified as a connector trail to the Bay Area Ridge Trail. This part of the trail is quite level, with a very small descent. At Lake Ranch the trail begins to climb. Near the dam at Lake Ranch I found a few common madia (Madia elegans) flowers still in bloom. Although I was surprised to see any blooming flowers so late in the year, when I did a little research I learned that the blooming period is June through September, so it really was essentially in season.
The John Nicholas Trail passes several interesting features, including 3 bridges, a wonderful tafoni rock formation, a switchback section known as Lombard Street, an abandoned VW beetle, and a vista point overlooking San Francisco Bay. From the vista point Mt Diablo is visible when the weather is clear.
The route continued along Skyline Trail, which is roughly parallel to CA-35, Skyline Blvd. In this section there are many beautiful tall trees including redwoods and others.
For about 2½ miles Skyline Trail follows just below the ridgeline of Castle Rock Ridge, and the trail reaches close to 3100 feet elevation in at least 3 places. This is the highest elevation on the currently dedicated sections of the Bay Area Ridge Trail, and I find it a bit amusing that the actual highest point is difficult to locate because there are several slight rises that reach essentially the same elevation. The trail passes fairly close to Indian Rock, Castle Rock, Summit Rock, and Mt Bielawski.
About 8 miles from the start there was a welcome rest stop, not far from Castle Rock. After a brief pause we were back on the trail. Then, after a brief unintended detour to Summit Rock, about 11 miles from the trail head we arrived at Saratoga Gap, the intersection of CA-35 (Skyline Blvd) and CA-9. Here the Ridge trail Cruz route deviated from the Bay Area Ridge Trail for about 2.7 miles, following Skyline-to-the-Sea Trail to Achistaca Trail, which runs parallel to the Bay Area Ridge Trail but in Long Ridge Open Space Preserve. Near CA-9 we passed another VW just down a hillside from the road. In this general area I now know of 5 such cars that have apparently been junked by driving or pushing them off the road. They seem to be left in place because they are difficult to remove or because doing so would disturb some local wildlife or ecosystem.
The Achistaca Trail passes through more forested areas, including numerous beautiful, large bay laurel trees. This is a nice example.
The trail passes behind the Saratoga Summit Fire Station. Intermittently there are views to the southwest across the Santa Cruz Mountains and San Francisco Peninsula toward the Pacific Ocean. The ocean, which is about 15 miles away, is visible when the weather is clear enough.
The route rejoins the Bay Area Ridge Trail and continues for several miles through Long Ridge Open Space Preserve, with expansive views across grass-covered hills alternating with forested areas. About 18 miles from the start, we entered the adjacent Skyline Ridge Open Space Preserve. About 1 mile later we hiked past a Christmas tree farm, which is operated through an agricultural lease on Open Space land. Another 1½ miles brought us to beautiful Horseshoe Lake, named for its shape. In sunny weather the reflections of nearby forested hillsides are quite pretty.
A nearby parking area was the site of the main lunch break. 27-mile hikers who wanted to complete the rest of the route needed to arrive there by 3:00pm. The hikers I was accompanying (as hike sweep) arrived at about 2:45. After resting and refueling for 20 minutes or so, we continued to the northern part of the route, which was an 8½ -mile out-and-back semi-loop. The first post-lunch destination was a vista point known as the Gene Sheehan Overlook. I have visited this overlook several times, in weather conditions varying everywhere between fogged in and crystal clear. At the lunch break we had been advised that some afternoon fog was starting to come in pretty fast. This view was kind of a predictor of the rest of the afternoon.
About 1.8 miles after leaving the lunch stop we crossed under Alpine Rd in a pedestrian tunnel, entered Russian Ridge Open Space Preserve, and began to climb up to the ridge. In spring, Russian Ridge is one of my favorite places to hike and see wildflowers but the atmosphere is more subdued in the fall. A bit less than 1 mile from the Russian Ridge parking area there is a short side trail to the top of Borel Hill, the highest named landmark in San Mateo County. When the weather is clearer than it was this time, the views are spectacular, with San Francisco Bay to the east and the Pacific Ocean to the west. The view toward the Bay showed a bit of blue sky below the arriving fog layer, which looked quite grey from below.
It was actually rather windy on Borel Hill, so we did not linger to enjoy the views this time. Less than ½ mile past Borel Hill we arrived at another rest stop, staffed by volunteers bundled up in fleece jackets and hats. After a quick snack we continued to the 2-mile loop before passing by once again. At the far end of the loop the route made a left turn at Hawk Trail to make the return trip at a lower elevation than the outbound trip. Fortunately the wind was a little calmer below the ridge line. With panoramic views to the southwest, we could see sunbeams intermittently breaking through the fog.
We could also see the distinctive profile of Mindego Hill, where a new trail is anticipated to open soon. Below the ridge line, the trail passed in and out of groves of oak trees. Along Alder Spring Trail, as well as in other places, there were some beautiful feathery ferns.
After passing the last rest stop a second time the route continued back along Russian Ridge, again taking a parallel path slightly below the ridge line, lessening the fog-associated wind. As we hiked down from the ridge to the Russian Ridge parking area, we got out of the wind almost completely. Having already surpassed 27 miles of hiking and 10½ hours on the trail, we were balancing a bit of fatigue with the approach of dusk and corresponding motivation to complete the hike and be off the trail. After re-entering Skyline Ridge Open Space Preserve, the route followed the Bay Area Ridge Trail’s bike route on Sunny Jim Trail. In the forested area I noted some poison oak, with brilliant red leaves of fall.
As we hiked the last mile or so on Sunny Jim Trail, a Midpeninsula Regional Open Space District ranger checked in with us a couple of times to see if my hikers wanted to simply ride back to the finish (near the lunch stop). Determined to complete the entire hike, they elected to continue. We arrived at the lunch stop and then went on to the parking area where our cars were parked — the official end of our hike — where a Bay Area Ridge Trail Council staff member was waiting to make sure we got there ok and to congratulate us for finishing. It was a few minutes past sunset.
This was quite an ambitious hike, but also a pretty one. I’ve hiked this contiguous section of Bay Area Ridge Trail before, as out-and-back day hikes. The northern end of the contiguous section is about 1.4 miles past the junction with Hawk Trail. I think I ended up doing 6 hikes to cover this same section of contiguous trail! In spite of the fatigue at the end of this hike, there was also a satisfying sense of accomplishment.