Mount Umunhum from Hicks Road

From Woods Trailhead Mount Umunhum is a 17 mile round trip with really great views all along the trail. The radar cube perched atop the summit, beckoning from the trailhead, grows in size until, in the final steps, it towers overhead. The vista from the summit fantastic.

Mount Umunhum is the most prominent peak in the Santa Cruz mountain range, notable for the large cube structure on its peak. During the second world war the peak was an army base and the cube is the base of a radar dish installation that scanned the Pacific coast. Last September the newly constructed trial and rehabilitated peak was opened to the public, and I’ve been looking forward to visiting ever since.

Mount Umunhum is visible from Woods Trailhead, 8 trail miles away.

The road actually goes right up to just shy of the peak, and there’s another trailhead 3½ miles from the top, from which the new Mount Umunhum Trail begins, at Bald Mountain, but I wanted a more challenging hike so I started at Hicks Road from Woods Trailhead. From here the peak is a little over 8 miles away with a little over 3,000 feet of climbing.

The morning sun looking back along Woods Trail.

Mount Umunhum Road is closed from half and hour after sunset until sunrise (actually, as I would discover, 7am). At the entrance there’s an automated gate, and the Woods Trailhead is just on the other side, so you can’t park up earlier. I arrived 10 minutes before the gate opened and set off for the morning shortly after the gate automatically rose at exactly 7, setting off in the cool morning air, the sun already starting to beat down.

Woods Trail is a continuation of the dirt road the reaches across the Sierra Azul Open Space Preserve to Kennedy Trail and Lexington Reservoir, following the power lines. As it contours around the steep-sided valleys fantastic views across the open space and beyond to San José and the mountains on the far side are frequently visible. This section is actually reasonably flat, at first a descent to cross Guadalupe Creek, and then climbing back up to meet Barlow Road.

Power lines stretch across the slopes of Sierra Azul and beyond through Almaden Quicksilver County Park beyond.

Barlow Road starts off steep and carries on that way for little while. This is definitely the steepest part of the hike. The trail first climbs up and over a ridgeline before dropping back down to again crossover Guadalupe Creek. At this time of year the creek is still flowing, not very fast, but enough to cool the air in the gully. The climbing resumes, and Barlow Road ends at the junction with the newly constructed trail to Mount Umunhum.

Trees arching and wrapping around Mount Umunhum Trail

Up to this point I haven’t seen anyone else on the trail all morning, I can’t imagine many people hike down Barlow Road, although it does have some great views out and across the valley, but clearly the main attraction is Mount Umunhum itself. This changed quickly on the Umunhum Trail, popular with hikers, and deservedly so. Unlike the rest of the trail system in Sierra Azul, which is just old dirt roads that have been handed over to hikers, the trail to Mount Umunhum is the longest newly built trail in the Midpeninsula Regional Open Space system, graded for people rather than trucks.

Bridge over Guadalupe Creek on Mount Umunhum Trail. The flow was nothing more than a trickle at this point, but the creek was covered in moss.

The Umunhum Trail climbs gently, but persistently, through the rich and varied flora, the grasses still wet from morning dew. A mile up the trail a short detour leads to Guadalupe Overlook which has a great view out across the steep-sided valley and over to the valley below. Just up from the overlook the trail crosses over Guadalupe Creek a couple more times as it switchbacks up towards the summit.

On the final ascent the cube, visible since the very start, is starting to loom, standing on top of jagged rock outcropping. Shortly before the top the trail splits to loop around to the summit from the east or to join the road and approach from the west.

Woods Trail meandering up to Mount El Sombroso, San Jose and the San Francisco Bay off in the distance.

On the day of my hike however the east approach and the area immediately around the cube is closed. When the peak was reopened it involved a lot of cleanup of hazardous materials from the old army base, which was a big part of the cost and duration of the project. The cube, always white, was repainted to seal in the asbestos and lead paint covering it. However, when it rained in the winter the paint started to run, exposing the contaminants below, so its being worked on again to clean it up. In all my photos the cube has had the paint stripped revealing the raw concrete below, it’s much more prominent in its usual white.

The radar tower at the summit of Mount Umunhum. It’s usually painted white but as it’s being cleaned of contaminants it’s currently stripped and the concrete below is visible.

Between the parking lot near the summit the top is 159 concrete steps, so perhaps I should take it back, this is the steepest section. At the top the summit itself has been restored to a rock garden and “ceremonial circle”, but the real treat are the views, which are fantastic. The 3 other peaks surrounding the bay area are all visible; Mount Tam, Mount Diablo, and Mount Hamilton, as well as the steep valleys and vast valley below.

Because of the car access the summit it thronging with people, so after spending a short period taking in the view I turn around and head back down. On the way down I see more people coming up Barlow Road and Woods Trail, although now later in the day it’s much hotter and less pleasant. In the late spring the early morning is definitely the best time to start this hike, I’m already back at home and resting before the more intense heat of late afternoon hits.

Black Mountain from Rhus Ridge

I was in the mood for a climb, this out and back hike is just shy of 8 miles and climbs to the peak of Black Mountain from the bottom of the foothills, ascending 2,100 feet. Expansive views over the green ridges of the preserve and Silicon Valley below reward the climb.

Rancho San Antonio is a very popular park and the main entrance has multiple parking lots, but there’s a smaller “back” entrance at Rhus Ridge Trailhead, a smallish parking lot that also filled up quickly on the weekend I went.

Nestled at the base of the hills the trail follows a dirt road, immediately climbing quite steeply. The steepness, though, rewards with views over Silicon Valley. At first, the dish, perched on top of the Stanford foothills, is visible in the distance, and the vista continues to widen to present the peninsula from Palo Alto to Mountain View.

As Rhus Ridge Trail tops out at the top of, well, what I assume is Rhus Ridge, the views behind vanish and the park opens up in front, the rolling green ridges and valleys, Black Mountain shrouded in mist in the distance, as the clouds start to open up to blue skies overhead. From here Black Mountain Trail continues the climb.

Black Mountain Trail is a single track trail that gently slopes, contouring the ridges, switchbacking up and up. Views open up across the park and over towards Cupertino. I’ve never actually seen Apple’s spaceship campus, and at first I couldn’t figure out what the giant circle next to highway 280 was.

Switchbacks along Black Mountain Trail climbing up the ridge.

Black Mountain Trail meanders through wooded oak, eventually opening out to the gentle humming of a power transmission tower, and turns into a dirt track, presumably built to service the power lines (a short way up the trail branches to a the recently renamed to Stephen E. Abbors Trail, previously called the PG&E Trail).

The track climbs the final span to the edge of the preserve, just short of Black Mountain, more steeply now. Both times I’ve been to Black Mountain from Rancho San Antonio the peak disappears into the mist, the heat from the sun replaced by a cold wet wind blowing over the ridgeline. It’s not always so, I visited from the Monte Bello side under blue skies.

Rancho San Antonio ends at a radio tower installation, and shortly past is the flat peak of Black Mountain in Monte Bello Open Space Preserve. I walked up to the summit, but the wind was blowing, my hair was wet, and nothing was visible through the thick mist. I didn’t linger long before turning around and retracing my steps. Before long the mist is gone again and the clouds have parted to the blue skies of California.

Kennedy Trail at Sierra Azul

A great trail for views across south Silicon Valley and hill climbing, although be warned it’s scorching hot in the summer, early mornings are best.

Sierra Azul Open Space Preserve is a rugged and steep park on the edge of Santa Cruz mountains. The trail system is mostly old fire roads which were not designed for hikers and are persistently steep, but partly it comes with the terrain.

The trail system is actually pretty extensive, especially now that the trail to Mount Umunhum has opened, but you have to be a glutton for hill climbing to do any very long hikes.

Kennedy Trail starts at the base of the mountains near Los Gatos and follows a fire road as it climbs up to reach Mount El Sombroso. It’s mostly surrounded by people height brush, but due to its steep dry slopes there aren’t many tall trees so views over the valley open up.

The lack of overgrowth also means limited shade, and in the summer the trail is hot. So hot that, along with the usual mountain lions, ticks, and rattlesnakes, the trail signage has warnings about signs of dog dehydration for dog walkers.

Trail Junction where Priest Rock Trail meets Kennedy Trail

The trail is popular with dog walkers, mountain bikers, trail runners, and hikers alike, and is despite its heat and steep slopes, or maybe because of those steep slopes, on a weekend you’ll likely to see all of the above.

When I arrived at the trail junction, my turn around point for a total hike of just under 8 miles with 2,000 feet of elevation change, I was greeted with the fog rolling in from the Pacific and burning off as it hugged the crest of the Santa Cruz mountains. I guess that’s why this end of range is so hot and dry and the other side of the range is lush redwood groves.

Windy Hill Loop

An 8 mile loop in Windy Hill Open Space Preserve starting at the base of the Santa Cruz Mountains and climbing up to the top and back down again. The undergrowth and hills are glowing green following the winter and early spring rains.

It’s springtime in the bay area and the temperatures are starting to climb, the skies are turning blue, memories of rain are receding, and the foothills are flush with green. In a few months they’ll be scorching hot and golden brown as the moisture evaporates into dust.

I have had a late start to the hiking season this year, not getting out until this past weekend for the first time. I’m hoping to spend a lot more time backpacking in the Sierras again this summer. I kicked off the season with a gentle 8 mile loop in the Windy Hill Open Space Preserve.

The trailhead I started from is at the last intersection of Alpine Road, which is also a trailhead for Coal Mine Ridge trail system. On the weekends the Santa Cruz mountains are teaming with lycra clad cyclists, both cycling and hiking are very popular in the Bay Area, and for good reason. A steady stream of cyclists zips past climbing up Alpine Road.

A sign post along Eagle Hill Trail; “Constructed 1973 as an Eagle Scout Project”

The loop I did takes a connector trail to Hamms Gulch Trail and then follows to Eagle Trail. Hamms Gulch is a very popular trail but I’ve taken Eagle Trail to Razorback Ridge Trail twice now and both times its been much quieter, usually only seeing a couple of trail runners.

Eagle Trail follows alongside Alpine Road, but at this point Alpine Road has turned into a dead-end so there’s no traffic on it, save for the cyclists. The trail connects back to the road in a couple of places to cross bridges before branching away and turning into Razorback Ridge.

Springtime wildflowers along Lost Trali

Razorback Ridge zig zags up the side of the mountain. It’s a very well-built trail and is a very gentle climb up to the top of the ridge. The whole loop is shaded, even early on a spring morning the exposed sun would heat you up so the shade is welcome. As the trail nears the top of the ridge, stopping just short of Skyline Road, some views across the preserve and bay open up. The sound of motorcycles whining along Skyline grows.

Razorback Ridge becomes Lost Trail and continues to zig zag, this time contouring the ridge. This early in the year there are little streams down some of the gullies, and this early in the morning the ground is wet from the morning mist. Along the way I passed two Open Space Preserve rangers cutting a tree out of the trail.

Lost Trail meets with Hamms Gulch, and continues on to the exposed windy hills for which the preserve gets its name (which this morning were not windy at all, although last time I was here were very windy). I take the branch and follow Hamms Gulch down to close the loop. Hamms Gulch is a much busier trail, and maybe it’s also just a little later in the day.

All in all this is a pretty springtime hike, and thanks to the mostly shaded route I imagine would be pleasant in the summertime too, especially early in the morning. From the top there are glimpses across the bay from Palo Alto up to San Mateo. My first hike of the season under my belt I’m looking forward to more to come.

Backpacking North Rim Yosemite Valley

A 3 day backpacking trip up Yosemite Falls Trail to North Dome, over to Mount Watkins, and finally down Snow Creek Trail, down the side of Tenaya Canyon, back to Yosemite Valley. Doing this in the early season before Tioga Pass is open means relative solitude, with unbeatable views of the valley and Half Dome.

The weekend after memorial weekend I headed to Yosemite Valley for 4 nights, a 3 night backpacking trip along the north rim of the valley followed by a long day hike along the south rim. Due to the huge amount of snowfall at high elevations in the Sierra the rivers and waterfalls were all charged and the park service was expecting record visitors over memorial weekend. As Tioga Pass is still closed for the season, as it’s being ploughed, I hoped the north rim would be relatively quiet for backpacking, with the only trailheads coming from the valley.

I’ve got a routine for heading to the Sierra for quick weekend trips that involves packing everything up the night before, heading to bed early, getting up and leaving the house between 3:30 and 4am, pulling into Ryderz in Oakdale at opening time at 5:30, grabbing a big breakfast, and then riding into the sunrise to get to the mountains between 8 and 9, as the wilderness offices are opening for the morning.

I got to Yosemite Valley Wilderness Center shortly after 9 as it had just opened to pick up a permit for the Yosemite Falls trailhead. The day I arrived was the first day of the season that the park had put up the cables for Half Dome and was issuing Half Dome permits, and so there were a lot of people heading to Little Yosemite Valley. I parked my bike, got my gear in order, and hit the trail shortly before 10.

Upper Yosemite Falls from Yosemite Falls trail. As the trail continues to climb mist from the supercharged falls sprayed the trail.

Day 1

From the base of Yosemite Falls there’s a great view of both the lower and upper falls. At 2,425 ft Yosemite Falls is one of the tallest waterfalls in the world, and the tallest in Yosemite. The trail is a short way west of the base and the switchbacks start right away, climbing all 2,425 of those feet, up the side of Yosemite valley. On the way up there are glimpses down the valley which continue to get more impressive as the trail climbs. The waterfall doesn’t become visible until the trail is already clear of the lower falls, and the curve in the trail first opens up to views of Half Dome.

Looking down at Yosemite Valley and Yosemite Falls from Yosemite Point which is just above the falls.

From here there’s more and more switchbacks until, finally, the trail curves around to a granite ledge on the west side of the falls. The trail continues slightly down the granite, where the park service has put up steel railings, to overlook the mouth of the falls. There are panoramic views down to the valley floor. Up to here there are a lot of day hikers, and even though it’s only a relatively short walk up to Yosemite Point on the east side of the river most of the hikers turned around without coming here, and after Yosemite Point the day hikers disappeared, and I had the trail completely to myself.

There’s a little more climbing from here, but the steep switchbacks have finished, and it’s mostly flat over to North Dome. The trail follows through forested areas, wades through two stream crossings, through a burn area, and up a short climb to just over 7,600 ft at the end of Indian Ridge, and the trail junction. From here North Dome is visible, jutting out into the valley, with Half Dome looming tall behind. The trail drops down over clean granite, a small wooded area, and out to climb to the top of the dome.

I had the entire dome to myself, since leaving Yosemite Point I’d only seen a single pair of hikers heading in the other direction. When 120 opens I expect this is a popular day hike, but from the valley floor this is a strenuous trip. It was late afternoon so I found a campsite, set up my tent, filtered water, and rested my legs. I thought I’d managed to avoid the worst of the bugs, but by early evening I was proved wrong, and escaped to my tent to get away from the cloud of mosquitos and had an early night.

Day 2

On the second day I headed from North Dome back to Indian Ridge and along the granite ridgeline. As I got over 8,000 feet I started to hit snow. Around a mile and a half along there’s a junction and a small side trail to a natural arch, perched on the top of a large piece of rock. It was too steep and snowy on the north slope behind the arch to go around, but there was a great view from the south side.

From here the trail starts to drop down to the divide between two creeks and another trail junction. Taking Snow Creek Trail, which true to its name was covered in snow, there were a couple of sets of footprints already in the snow. The trail follows Snow Creek down, as it continues to grow in size, eventually to a footbridge, and over to the other side. Right as the snow started to peter out the trail butted up to the creek, and it was really flowing. At the steeper sections, as trail switched back, the water roared as it cascaded down small waterfalls and rapids.

Water cascading down Snow Creek, there were multiple mini rapids in the steeper sections.

The footbridge is a little way down the trail and as it crosses over, the trail heads back up the other side. I was originally considering aiming towards Olmsted Point, but was playing it by ear; Olmsted Point is a known avalanche hotspot and I didn’t want anything to do with potential avalanche zones, so I was going to play it cautious and see what the conditions looked like when I got there. As I was heading up I ran into another backpacker going the same direction who had started from the valley that day and was spending multiple days in the backcountry. She was heading up to Mount Watkins on the first night, and I decided to change my plans and hike up alongside, and stay here instead, and when I arrived I was glad to have made that decision.

Snow Creek Cabin, a winter cabin that was still surrounded by snow.

As we got up to the creek crossing we decided not to cross, the creek was running quite quickly and the trail along the other side was covered in snow anyway, so there was no reason to do so. It wasn’t long until we came across the snow cabin, originally built in the 1920s with the idea for being the start of a ski resort, the resort was never built, but the cabin survives, and the park service fixed it up a few years ago for winter use for backcountry hikers. By May it was already closed for the season.

The hike up to Mount Watkins is easiest to first follow the trail/creek up to the ridge, and then along the ridge to the peak. As we neared the top the sun had already melted all the snow on the south side and walking again on granite instead of sun cupped snow was a relief. From the top there were amazing views up Tenaya Canyon and across the snow-capped peaks of the high country, as well as over to Half Dome and up Yosemite Valley. Every 20 minutes or so sounds echoed around Tenaya Canyon of falls, either rock or snow, each time we tried to look for the source but couldn’t quite discern it. It wasn’t until later, in the early evening, that I finally caught sight of snow sliding off a ridge and crashing down into the canyon, exploding over the rocks below.

Day 3

The first section of the last day is retracing the steps back down to the footbridge over Snow Creek, and from here the trail starts to rapidly lose all the height gained on the first day, with an equally large number of switchbacks. All the way down there are great views of Half Dome and down into Tenaya Canyon. In contrast to the path up to Yosemite Falls though this trail was deserted, I passed a couple of backpackers and a lone day hiker. The views were just as impressive, but there’s no great payoff at the destination, as with the falls.

The trail eventually drops into the canyon floor and joins up with Yosemite Valley Loop Trail. Around a mile from the junction it arrives at Mirror Lake. By this point we’re basically back to civilisation again, and the trail is abound with day hikers. Mirror Lake is a popular destination, but after the scenery I experienced in the backcountry it just seemed overwhelmingly crowded.

From Mirror Lake the Yosemite Loop Trail leads all the way back around to the start, to complete the loop. I have never been on the loop trail before and it sounds quite magical, but it’s anything but, there’s not really great views from along it, it’s just a way of getting from A to B, it’s mostly just long and flat.

This was the end of my backpacking trip, but I stayed overnight at the backpackers’ campsite to do the south rim hike the following day. The campsite is north of Tenaya Creek from North Pines Campground, and normally there’s a footbridge over the creek to get to the site, but the large amount of water caused the creek to overflow its banks and spill out on the campsites on both sides. It was only a few feet over the banks so only a few campsites were closed but the detour around was not welcome after a long day hiking.

A family of deer crossed over the flooded Tenaya Creek at the Backpackers campsite in Yosemite Valley just as I was leaving in the morning.

The next morning as I packed up I decided to just wade over to the bridge, which itself wasn’t submerged, and then wade across the other side. Just as I was about to step in a large family of deer came ambling through the campsite in single file and crossed the bridge ahead of me. Usually deer flee before you get anywhere near but the deer in Yosemite have little fear of humans, and mostly ignore park visitors, as they carry on their way. The water across was frigid, my feet hurt by the time I got to the other side, but I saved a mile detour, as I headed out for the day.