Hiking is a popular sport in Silicon Valley (a.k.a. Santa Clara County, California). Because of the generally sunny, mild climate, you can hike here year round. You need only a minimal amount of equipment and no special training. Some physical fitness is helpful, but there are plenty of good hikes for beginners. Hiking alone, with a group of friends, or with your family are all enjoyable (and different) experiences.
I live and work in Silicon Valley. Here's a list of some of my favorite hikes within an hour or so of my home. This is roughly the San Francisco peninsula south to San Jose and Santa Cruz. I prefer hikes of up to 15 miles in length and 3000 feet of elevation gain, but some of these are near other trails you can use to extend their length.
The descriptions below don't go in to a lot of detail about the trails. Instead, I refer you to these excellent trail guides. Most of the trails I list are in one or more of these books:
These books are widely available at local book stores and camping supply stores such as REI (stores San Jose and San Carlos) and Redwood Trading Post (Redwood City).
Unfortunately, these books mostly list individual trails individually, rather than loops you can make by combining trails. The hills around Silicon Valley are full of parks and open space preserves and you can create many interesting loops by connecting trails in different parks. In some cases (listed below), I hiked on some of the trails for years before I realized that I could combine them into a longer loop.
Fortunately, there are many sources of good hiking maps for this area. Most of the state parks publish their own maps and these are available at the park headquarters for at most a few dollars. The Midpeninsula Regional Open Space District (MROSD) also has their own maps, which are free from the district office (330 Distel Circle in Los Altos) and are sometimes available in their parking lots. You can get topo maps from the USGS sales office in Menlo Park (Middlefield Road, near Ravenswood) though these are often out-of-date with regard to local hiking trails.
REI also has a good selection of local USGS maps. The Trail Center (3921 E. Bayshore Road, Palo Alto) has a good selection of local park maps and brochures.
Before we get to the hikes, here's a brief note on the bay area climate. Trails on the west (coastal) side of the Santa Cruz mountains are usually much cooler than trails on the east (bay) side. On some summer days, you might find 100°F in San Jose, but only 60°F in Santa Cruz. Also, the summer fog can make mornings and evenings along the coast somewhat chilly, so a wind breaker and/or sweater is often a good idea. Fortunately, the bay area gets little rain between April and November, so you don't need serious rain gear most of the year.
Because of the dry weather (and extensive logging in the late 19th and early 20th centuries), many of the trails on the eastern side of the mountains get a lot of sun and can be quite warm during the summer. I'd recommend using sun screen to avoid sun burn and bringing plenty of water to avoid dehydration (I usually carry 2 quarts for a 10 mile hike).
Supposedly, there are rattle snakes and mountain lions in the hills. I've never seen any of these, but you should take some precautions. In particular, don't let your small kids run out in front of you or off the trail. A more dangerous animal is the tick, which can carry lyme disease. You can protect yourself from these with a good insect repellent, or learn to spot and remove them.
Also, watch out for poison oak, which is widespread on the east side of the Santa Cruz mountains. The trail crews usually do a good job of trimming it away from the trails, but you should learn to identify and avoid it.
All of the trails I've listed are usually clear and easy to follow. Some of the trail intersections, however, are not well marked. Always bring a map and know how to use it.
During the winter, some trails may be closed due to mudslides or fallen trees. Others may be more interesting due to muddy, slippery trails or deep stream crossings. You can usually call the park for current conditions. The Midpeninsula Regional Open Space District (MROSD) lists closures on their web site.
Several people have asked me about bringing pet dogs on these trails. I know some areas allow them and others don't. Since I don't have a dog, I haven't paid attention. The MROSD does list dog rules on their web site.
This is probably why you came here. Here are my favorite hikes, in no particular order. Each description begins with a short summary giving the hike length, elevation gain (often more indicative of difficulty than the length), and the highlights of the hike.
I also list parking areas for those of you that drive. Many of the hikes are also accessible by public transit (though sometimes only on weekdays). Here's more info on bus and train routes to the trail heads.
Summary: an 11 mile loop through redwood forests to a series of waterfalls; about 1000 feet of elevation gain on the second half of the hike
Parking: Big Basin Redwoods State Park headquarters (on Highway 236, off Highway 9, north of Santa Cruz)
This is one of my favorite hikes and I've done it (or variations) at least two dozen times. There's a big parking lot across the street from the park headquarters (entrance fee currently $6) You can get nice topographic maps of these trails at the park headquarters for a couple dollars. I'd recommend getting one of these maps, since there are several trail junctions along the way.
One of the more scenic parts of the park is the series of waterfalls along Berry Creek in the western part of the park (Golden Falls, Silver Falls, Berry Creek Falls). The waterfalls usually run year round, but are especially strong in the winter and spring, when this area gets most of its rain. Some writers have claimed that these are the nicest waterfalls in the bay area and I don't disagree.
There are three main trails leading out to the Berry Creek area: the Sunset trail, the Skyline-to-the-sea trail, and the Howard King trail (which sometimes runs along the Hihn Hammond fire road). You can make a loop by taking one trail out and another back. I usually take the Sunset trail out to the falls, then the (easier) Skyline-to-the-sea trail back. This loop is about 11 miles. There are no steep hills, but there is a steady climb of about 800 feet from the bottom of Berry Creek falls back to the park headquarters.
There are several trailheads you can use to access these trails, but the one closest to the Sunset trail is at the end of the parking lot across the street from the park snack bar. The sign at the trail head says something like "Skyline-to-the-sea trail to Doon trail". The latter soon meets the Sunset trail.
Besides the waterfalls, there is a beautiful redwood-lined basin in the area between Berry Creek falls and Silver falls. You may not notice it at first if you enjoy waterfalls, so take your time. Also, don't miss the nature trail near the parking lot entrance. There are many huge old growth redwoods there. Some are reportedly 70 feet in circumference and almost 300 feet tall.
If you want a tougher loop than the one I describe, try taking the Howard King trail instead of the Skyline-to-the-sea trail between Berry Creek falls and the park headquarters. This has more ups and downs, but also offers some nice ocean views. For a much longer loop, you can take the Skyline-to-the-sea trail all the way down to Waddell Beach on the Pacific Ocean.
Note: near the park headquarters, there are some signs saying the hike to the waterfalls and back is a strenuous hike taking 6 hours. What they really mean is that novices shouldn't consider this to be an afternoon stroll. Many start hiking after lunch, then are deep in the woods when the sun goes down. Regular hikers will probably find it easy-to-average in difficulty for a hike of this length.
Note: you can also reach the waterfalls from the Wadell Beach trailhead on Highway 1 (near Ano Nuevo). This is the "to-the-sea" end of the Skyline-to-the-sea trail. The first 6 miles or so of this trail are a mostly flat dirt road. The next mile climbs about 400 feet to the bottom of the Berry Creek Falls. You can keep going for the other falls, then return along the same trail for about 14 miles total. This route isn't as intersting as the loop from the park headquarters, but it may be more convenient for people living on the coast.
Summary: a moderate 15 mile loop including an oak lined canyon, sweeping ocean views, and an abandoned Christmas tree farm; one 1500 feet climb in the middle of the hike
Parking: Monte Bello Open Space Preserve parking lot on Page Mill Road, about 7 miles west (uphill) of I-280 and 1 mile east of Skyline Blvd. If this parking lot is full, there's another one across the street at Los Trancos Open Space Preserve.
I hiked pieces of this for years before I finally figured out that I could connect all the trails in to a nice loop. I recommend that you get the Midpeninsula Regional Open Space District's new "South Skyline Region" map which shows all these trails on one sheet.
The best time to do this hike is the spring when the wild flowers are blooming. The northern (more sunny) part of this hike can be somewhat warm during the summer, so bring plenty of water.
From the Monte Bello parking lot, head southeast on the Canyon trail. This is a former ranch road lined with oak trees. After a couple of miles, you get to Grizzly Flat trail. Continue on the Canyon trail another mile to the Table Mountain trail, which heads south (and up) to Skyline Blvd. About half a mile up the Table Mountain trail, it splits into one trail for hikers only and one shared with horses and bicycles. When you get near Skyline Blvd., you'll see signs marking the Bay Area Ridge Trail. (The Ridge Trail will eventually circle the San Francisco Bay, but it is not yet complete.) The Table Mountain trail is the only major climb of this hike, gaining about 1500 feet over 3 miles.
Follow the Ridge Trail signs northwest and across Skyline Blvd. This section of the Ridge Trail takes you along trails in the Long Ridge open space preserve (great views of the coast and ocean) and Skyline Ridge open space preserve (including the Christmas tree farm). Unfortunately, much of the land in this area is privately owned, so the trail sometimes runs fairly close to Skyline Blvd. When you get to the Skyline Ridge parking lot, cross Skyline Blvd. and look for the Skid Road trail. This takes you back in to the Monte Bello preserve and connects with the Stevens Creek Nature Trail, which heads back to the Monte Bello parking lot.
For a shorter hike, park at the Grizzly Flat trail head on Skyline Blvd. Hike down the Grizzly Flat trail to the Canyon trail, south to the Table Mountain Trail, and north on the Ridge trail through Long Ridge back to the Grizzly Flat trail head. This is about 8 miles with 1500 feet of uphill. You get the same great ocean views as the long hike, but miss most of the Canyon trail and the Christmas Tree farm.
Summary: a 6-8 mile loop, including the 1300 foot climb to the summit of Windy Hill (the big bald hill above Stanford University) where you get nice views of both the south bay and the ocean
Parking: There is a small (often full) parking area at the corner of Alpine Road and Willowbrook Drive, in Portola Valley, about 8 miles west of Stanford University. A larger parking lot at 555 Portola Road (near Portola Valley town hall) was built in 1998. Note: during the winter of 2000-2001, the Willowbrook Drive trailhead was closed due to near by residential construction (the Portola Road trailhead was still open).
There are three main trails leading from the trail head to the summit of Windy Hill. Two (Razorback Ridge trail and Hamms Gulch trail) are shady and cool during the summer; I usually take one of these on the 1300 foot climb to the summit. Razorback heads farther south, before winding back to the summit, so is a mile or two longer, but otherwise the two trails are similar. The third main trail, Spring Ridge trail, is more open and offers nice view of the Stanford area on the hike back down the hill.
The Windy Hill summit is grassy and open, giving you nice views of the South bay area (if the smog isn't too bad). The summit is above Skyline Blvd., so you also get nice views out to the west, with rows of coastal foothills stretching the 20 miles or so down to the coast. There is little heavy development in this area; just scattered farms and cattle ranches. The cows have an awfully nice view. The summit can be windy (hence the name) and cool during the winter, so bring a wind breaker.
Summary: a 10 mile round trip from the Pacific coast to the 1800 foot summit of Montara Mountain
Parking: McNee Ranch State Park on Highway 1, north of Half Moon Bay and south of Devils Slide. There are several small parking lots on the west (ocean) side of Highway 1, but these are often filled by surfers. I usually park at the large parking lot east of Highway 1, near the north end of the park.
This trail is beautiful in its own right, but is even more interesting because of the area's politics. Montara Mountain is in McNee Ranch State Park. This is not your average state park. The state of California bought the land specifically to move Highway 1 inland, away from the current (and not very stable) route through Devil's Slide. As you may know, Devil's Slide is regularly closed during the winter due to land slides (sometimes portions of the hills fall on to the road, sometimes portions of the road fall into the ocean). This is also a dangerous section of road; more than a few drivers have wound up swimming (with their cars). Environmentalists and many local residents, however, are strongly opposed to carving into Montara Mountain to build a new highway. Various lawsuits and voter propositions have delayed construction for years. If you haven't yet, you might want to do this hike while it is still there.
Note that during the summer, this area can get a lot of fog in the morning, so dress appropriately. The fog will hopefully burn off by noon, keeping you cool on the climb, but giving you some great views at the top and on the decent. Most of the hike follows old dirt roads (some for stage coaches, some once carried cars before Highway 1 was built).
From the large parking lot take the Gray Whale Cove trail south, parallel to and above Highway 1. After about a mile, turn left and uphill on Old Pedro Mountain Road. This eventually heads to San Pedro Mountain, north of Montara Mountain. Before that, however, turn right on the Montara Mountain Road and right again on the North Peak Access Road. Don't miss that last turn, as the Montara Mountain Road continues on to San Pedro Valley County Park. Many of these roads are still used (only rarely) by service vehicles to access the radio antennas at the mountain peak. When you get to the top, you'll be rewarded with a 360 degree view including the Pacific Coast, Half Moon Bay, San Francisco, Mt. Tam in the north bay, and Mt. Diablo in the east bay. Return along the same trails, hopefully without the fog.
Note that some guide books say this hike is 8 miles. I included the extra 2 mile round trip along Gray Whale Cove trail to the north parking lot.
Summary: an easy 700 foot climb (4 mile round trip) to one of the Bay Area's best wild flower viewing sites
Parking: There's a parking lot at the end of Sneath Lane, near Skyline College in San Bruno.
Sweeny Ridge is near Montara Mountain, but is more easily accessed from the east. Sweeny Ridge is part of the Golden Gate National Recreation Area and the trail is part of the Bay Area Ridge Trail. Unfortunately, this section of the Ridge Trail dead ends at the San Francisco watershed border. Rumor has it that San Francisco wants to build a golf course here, so prohibited the Ridge Trail from using the land.
This is a short hike along mostly paved roads (now closed to public cars), but is worth the effort during the spring when many varieties of wild flowers cover the area. From the parking lot, walk up the paved road. Note the marked "fog line". If the fog is heavy, you should follow the line closely to avoid straying off the trail (and off a cliff). The pavement ends at Portola Discovery Site, where Spanish explorers hiking up the Pacific Coast from San Diego first "discovered" the San Francisco Bay. There is a small monument at the site. From there, you can get great views of both the bay and the ocean.
The Ridge Trail runs both north and south of the monument. During the spring, you'll find a beautiful wild flower display along this trail. Take your time to wander around. A short distance north of the Discovery Site is a cold war era Nike missile site. The Nikes were intended to greet incoming Russian nuclear bombers. Fortunately, they were never used for that purpose and the missiles have since been removed. You can still see some of the abandoned support buildings.
Summary: There are 2 nice five mile hikes on the island (now a state park), one flat and one with a 800 foot climb to the island's high point. If you start early, do them both.
Parking: Take a ferry to the island from either Fisherman's Wharf or Tiburon (about $8 for the ferry and park entrance fee).
Angel Island is a little more than an hour from my house, but it's so much fun that I still go there regularly. You can take the ferry there from either Fisherman's Wharf (Pier 41) or Tiburon. If you leave from Fisherman's wharf, there is plenty of free parking at Fort Mason Center, about half a mile from Fisherman's Wharf. From Tiburon, there is pleantiful ($7/car) parking near the ferry terminal. Ferry service is more frequent from Tiburon.
As I write this, there are 3 ferries on summer weekends from Fisherman's Wharf to Angel Island (9:30am, 11:45pm, 2pm), but only the first one gives you enough time to do both hikes. Make sure you bring a watch and give yourself plenty of time to catch the last ferry back (ferries leave for Fisherman's Wharf at 10am, 12:50pm, 3pm, and 4:40pm).
From Tiburon, summer weekend ferries leave hourly on the hour starting at 10am. They return at 20 minutes after the hour until 5:20pm.
I'd recommend that you confirm the schedule before you leave. Weekday and winter service is less frequent (possibly none on winter weekdays). www.transitinfo.org and www.angelisland.org usually have the current schedules.
The main park visitor center (near the ferry landing) on the island sells a nice brochure (for a dollar or two) with a map of hiking trails and describing the interesting sites on the island. You can also download most of this info from the above web site.
There are two main hiking trails on Angel Island; each about 5 miles. The more popular trail is the Perimeter trail, which circles the island near the shore. This trail is mostly level and passes all of the island's historic sites. The sites are well worth visiting and include civil war era forts, the early 20th century west coast immigration station (often called the Ellis Island of the west, though the truth is somewhat darker), World War II era POW camps, cold war era Nike missile launchers, and modern museums remembering much of this history.
The second major trail leads to the 800 foot summit of the island. The summit gives you great 360 degree views of the San Francisco bay, including the major bridges, the San Francisco skyline, Alcatraz, Marin, and lots of other subjects worthy of postcards. There are actually two trails from the ferry port area leading to the summit (Sunset trail and North Ridge trail), so you can take one up and the other down.
Make sure you remember the ferry schedule. If you do both hikes and stop at all the interesting sites, the departure time for the last ferry will approach too quickly.
And, watch the weather. In the middle of the summer, Angel Island will usually be much cooler than Silicon Valley. As with San Francisco, Angel Island is usually sunny and warm in the spring and fall, but can be cool and foggy during the summer. The shoreline is usually the coolest with the temperatures warming somewhat as you head inland.
Summary: a nice 10 mile loop through redwood forests with a 1600 foot climb up the canyon
Parking: Purisima Creek Redwoods Open Space Preserve's north parking lot is on the west side of Skyline Blvd., about 3 miles north of King's Mountain Road
Purisima Creek Redwoods is a small open space preserve with some nice hiking trails. During the summer, the morning fog gives the redwoods an eerie look, but the fog usually burns off by late morning. When there is no fog, the area near the north parking lot offers some nice views out toward Half Moon Bay and the ocean. As you walk down the canyon, the views are replaced by tall, second growth redwood trees.
From the main parking lot at the north corner of the preserve (next door to the country store), you have several choices of hiking trails. The longest loop hike is to take the North Ridge Trail and Whittemore Gulch trail down the canyon, then the Purisima Creek trail back up, with the Soda Gulch Trail (part of the Bay Area Ridge Trail) to traverse back to the parking lot. An option for a shorter, but a little steeper, hike is to take the Harkins Ridge trail up instead of the Purisima Creek trail. The Purisima Creek trail is wide and smooth. At one time, this was a major stage coach route down to the coast.
Note that the preserve also has a west parking lot at the bottom of the canyon. This is a much longer drive from the Silicon Valley area, but if you like doing your climbs before you descents, this might be for you. The park is much steeper towards the top, so starting from the bottom also gives you more options for less strenuous hikes.
Summary: a nice 8 mile loop on the edge of Silicon Valley including a 1200 foot climb to a great viewpoint
Parking: Rancho San Antonio County Park has several large parking lots at the end of Cristo Rey Drive in Cupertino.
Rancho San Antonio Open Space Preserve combines with Rancho San Antonio County Park to provide some interesting hiking trails in Cupertino, near the high tech companies like Apple (maybe they're former-high-tech now).
Most visitors only walk as far as Dear Hollow Farm, which is about a mile into the park. That makes a nice short hike for your kids.
From the farm, several trails continue west up the canyon. One nice loop is take the Upper High Meadow Trail to the rim of the canyon. The trail loops around the rim to a nice viewpoint (marked on the park map). From there, you can see all of the east peninsula. If you have binoculars, you can see the big South San Francisco sign near the airport. You can also see Mt. Diablo in the east bay and Mt. Hamilton south of San Jose. From the viewpoint, continue back to the farm on the PG&E trail (actually a service road that the electric company uses to maintain its power lines).
Most of this hike is on open trails that are sunny and warm in the summer, so bring lots of water.
Summary: a 9 mile loop through redwood forests with about 1400 feet of elevation gain
Parking: park in Huddart County Park, on Kings Mountain Road, west of Woodside
Phleger Estate is a new park (acquired December, 1994) and is adjacent to Huddart County Park. The two combine to create a nice loop, mostly through redwood forests. Since they are close to residential areas, the cool redwood forest offers nice hiking on hot summer days.
From the Huddart Park parking lot, take the Crystal Springs trail west (uphill) towards Skyline Blvd. This trail climbs 1400 feet over about 4 miles; the only uphill on this hike. Just before you get to Skyline, look for a trail off to the right which takes you in to Phleger Estate. Within Phleger Estate, take the Lonely trail east (downhill) to the Raymundo trail to the Miramontes trail. The Miramontes trail takes you back in to Huddart Park and your car.
Summary: 10 mile loop with views of Monterey Bay and southern San Francisco Bay; mostly rolling hills with one gradual 800 foot climb
Parking: Saratoga Gap parking lot (corner of Highway 9 and Skyline Blvd.)
This loop has some nice view points. It also passes some of the more interesting rock formations in the Santa Cruz Mountains.
Note that the hike crosses Skyline Blvd. twice and passes near it a couple of other times. If you want, you can park at any of these crossings. I start at Saratoga Gap since it is closest to Silicon Valley.
From Saratoga Gap, you can take either the Saratoga Gap trail or the Loghry Woods trail to the Castle Rock (State Park) trail camp. The former mostly follows a private residential road, so the latter is more interesting to hikers. From Saratoga Gap, hike southeast along the Skyline trail (on the north side of Skyline Blvd.), which is the an stage coach route that was replaced by Skyline Blvd. The trail runs parallel to Skyline Blvd. and a after about two miles a sign directs you to cross the road to the Loghry Woods trail, which heads south, away from Skyline Blvd.
The Loghry Woods trail descends about 2 miles to the Castle Rock backpacking camp. From there, take the Saratoga Gap trail towards the Castle Rock State Park parking lot. This trail offers some nice views of the Monterey Bay. It also passes Goat Rock, a large limestone formation that is popular with rock climbers, and a small waterfall (bigger during the spring). Near the Castle Rock parking lot is Castle Rock itself. This is another interesting rock formation, with more rock climbers. This section of the Saratoga Gap trail offers the only extended uphill on this hike, climbing gradually from about 2400 feet above sea level at the trail camp to 3200 feet at Castle Rock.
From the Castle Rock parking lot, cross Skyline Blvd. back to the Skyline trail and head north back to Saratoga Gap. This trail passes Summit Rock, another rock formation for rock climbers. From the top of the rock, you get a nice view of the San Francisco bay and Silicon Valley area.
If you want a shorter loop, there are two trails from the Castle Rock State Park parking lot to the trail camp. The loop is about 6 miles with 800 feet of elevation gain. This offers the same views of the Monterey Bay as the longer loop, but misses the Silicon Valley views.
If you're willing to travel a little further, I've also enjoyed these areas in the past:
There are lots and lots of hikes in these areas, especially the Sierra. Easily available guide books cover the most popular trails.
I'm not making any claims that these are the best hikes in the area. These are just the ones that I've done recently (enough to remember the directions) and have enjoyed.
If you're interested, Yahoo lists more Bay Area hiking trails and local hiking clubs. Many of the clubs lead free hikes and their schedules are often on-line.
If you know any other great on the San Francisco peninsula (preferably 5 to 15 miles in length), please send me a description. Thanks.