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.
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.
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%.
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.
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!
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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).
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.