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.

This entry was posted in Midpeninsula Regional Open Space District, San Mateo County, wildflower hikes and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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