Dan's Outside

I go, I see, I do, I walk, I think, I like…

Almaden-Los Gatos Grand Traverse

Almaden Quicksilver County Park and Sierra Azul Open Space Preserve – This long traverse travels 16+ miles from New Almaden over 2999′ El Sombroso to downtown Los Gatos

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Description – As I write this (December 20, 2004) I have just completed my first hike of this full route, so I don’t have all the details clearly in mind yet – and I don’t take notes on the trail! I know the portions within Almaden Quicksilver Park quite well, while my previous experience on the other portions ranges from some to none.

The following is based on the description of this hike I posted on my web site the day after I completed it for the first time. See: Almaden to Los Gatos Grand Winter Traverse, posted December 20, 2004.

When the Wood Road trail was officially opened at Almaden Quicksilver Park recently (rather, the parking lot at that entrance was opened) I realized that the trails in that park connect to trails in the Sierra Azul Open Space Preserve high in the Santa Cruz Mountains, and that it would be possible to do a long hike from Almaden to downtown Los Gatos. I suggested it to my backpacking friends Owen and Caroline a few weeks ago and we began to make plans.

This hike pretty much requires a car shuttle since the start and end points are so far apart. (It may be possible to access both ends via public transit, at least on weekdays.) We left my car in a free lot near the Los Gatos Creek Trail near downtown Los Gatos and then took Owen’s car up to the Hicks Road entrance to Sierra Azul. (We actually were planning to start here, serveral miles into the trip, due to limited time.) The signs there suggested that the gated parking might be closed at sunset, which is sooner than we would likely get back up there this time of year. We decided to drive on down to the un-gated Hacienda entrance parking lot at Almaden Quicksilver and start there instead. This had the disadvantage of adding several miles and 1000′ feet of climbing along with ensuring an arrival in Los Gatos after sunset. However, it did mean that we would have a chance at the full route afterall.

We started up the Deep Gulch Trail at about 10:30 a.m. This is the slightly shorter and a bit steeper approach to English Camp. From here we followed the Castillero Trail to the ridge and then turned left onto Wood Road and headed towards Hicks Road, arriving there about one hour and twenty minutes after we started. (This is the place where we were going to start until we discovered the gated parking and sunset park closing.)

We took a 5 minute break at this point and then headed into the Sierra Azul Open Space Preserve. The first part of this hike is mostly gentle up and down terrain on a wide dirt road, traversing beneath the old radar station on Mt. Umunhum and crossing frequent small creeks. Eventually the route begins the rather steep and exposed climb to the summit of 2999′ El Sombroso, about 6 miles from the Hicks Road entrance to the Open Space Preserve. (Thankfully, the first part hugs the canyon wall and is somewhat protected from the sun.) This looks like it could be a pretty miserably hot section during the summer months.

There are some pretty decent views from El Sombroso, but you need to look for them. At the high point on the trail a lateral takes off to the right towards power line tower. By following it to the second tower we found an overlook with a great view to the south and took a ten-minute lunch before heading back to the main trail.

From here the trail follows the top of the ridge, with the advantage of good views and the disadvantage of contant up and down to follow the ridgetop terrain. Soon there is a trail junction. The Bay Area Ridge Trail goes to the right and follows the ridge. Eventually this meets up with a trail that descends to intersect our route. We took the left fork onto the Limekiln trail which first descends fairly gently and then ascends a bit before arriving at a trail junction three miles later. Three trails converge here: the steep trail from the ridge arrives from the right, straight ahead is the Limekiln Trail, and another route goes left to Alma Bridge Road. We stuck to Limekiln since it also comes out on Alma Bridge Road, but closer to the dam thus reducing the distance that we would need to walk on the road.

Much of this section of the Limekiln Trail is essentially a wide single-track and under tree cover, with the notable exception of a very unsettling view into a quarry that is removing large parts of the hillside to the right. The trail eventually comes out on Alma Bridge Road, and a few minutes of road-walking brought us to Lexington Dam.

Here we picked up the jogging/cycling trail to downtown Los Gatos, arriving in near darkness at about 5:20 p.m. We were probably quite a site striding though downtown Los Gatos in our hiking gear, especially Owen who was using ski poles.

Statistics: The whole route is at least 16 miles long and perhaps a bit further. It starts at about 500′ of elevation. High points are about 1100′ higher on the ridge where we pick up the Wood Road trail and then about 7-8 miles later at 2999′ El Sombroso. The descent from here to Los Gatos drops perhaps 2700′-2800′ and is about 7+ miles long. By doing the trip in the oppposite direction, one could make it a “Breakfast to Dinner” hike. There are many places to get breakfast in Los Gatos and La Foret serves dinner in New Almaden literally steps from the end of the trail.

Highlights – This trail has several special attractions.

  • It is a very long hike that only crosses one little-used road.
  • In a word, “food.” If you go from Almaden to Los Gatos you can end your trip at any number of excellent restaurants in downtown Los Gatos while you rest your weary feet. Done in the reverse direction you could start with breakfast in Los Gatos and end with dinner at La Foret in Almaden, only a few steps from the trailhead.
  • Access is easy at both ends. Public transit access is possible.
  • There is plenty of climbing on this climb and great views from several ridgetop vantage points.
  • You probably will not see too many people in the middle section of this hike.

Downsides – There really aren’t too many.

  • Well, it is steep in places and long – but I regard this as an advantage.
  • Some mountain bike traffic, but this is generally not a major problem on these wide trails. You might encounter a few yahoos as you get close to Los Gatos.
  • This could be fairly miserable during summer in midday heat. Some sections facing directly into the full blast of midday sun. In particular, the climb to El Sombroso could be very nasty on a hot day.
  • You’ll need to walk for perhaps 10 minutes on Alma Bridge Road between the end of Limekiln Trail and Lexington Dam.
  • There is one very ugly open strip mine next to Limekiln Trail near the end. Avert your eyes.
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