Silicon Valley isn’t just the heart of the Bay Area’s technology industry; it also happens to be one of the best regions in all of Northern California for hiking. All told, there are more than four dozen trails within a 30-minute drive of San Jose, making this growing city a great destination for travelers who like to mix sightseeing with outdoor activity.
I’ve lived in the Bay Area for more than 15 years and have spent quite a number of sunny days tromping around San Jose and the rest of Silicon Valley. Here, in no particular order, are three of my favorite hiking spots.
Almaden Quicksilver County Park
History is on full display at Almaden Quicksilver County Park, located on the outskirts of San Jose. The park is the site of the first mining enterprise in California—a spot that at one time was the richest mercury mine in North America. That means that between the 1840s and the 1920s, the land here was a vast work site, and served as home to more than 1,800 miners and their families. All told, the park encompasses more than 4,100 acres, including more than 30 miles of trails. Some of the trails bring you past remnants of the mining heyday—shafts, old buildings, tailing piles, and more.
I have a few favorite trails in the park. No. 1 on my list: the strenuous Mine Hill Trail. It was a road in the olden days, and vestiges of that era include a couple of old rusted cars off to one side. The trail winds past the entrance to the San Cristobal Mine, an original mining pit which you can see from behind a locked gate. On a clear day, the panoramic view of the Bay Area from the top of the trail is spectacular.
Another Almaden Quicksilver trail I like is English Camp. As the name suggests, this trail goes straight through an old worker settlement. Signage indicates rent in this ramshackle village was dirt cheap—US$5 to US$10 per month for a house and US$10 per year for a campsite. Also according to signs, people who used to live here either transacted with cash or a credit-based currency system known as boletos. If you believe in ghosts, you’ll feel them here.
This 654-acre property was a private estate until 1975, when the owners—their name was Filoli—donated part of it to the National Register of Historic Places. Today the entire facility is operated by Filoli Center, and the mansion, gardens, and surrounding trails are open to the public for exploration. And there’s certainly plenty to explore—in spring, the estate practically explodes with wildflowers (see image at the top of this post). This is when I like to go.
The catch with Filoli is that in order to get in and hike around, you have to sign up for a guided hike (US$20 for non-member adults; US$10 for non-member kids). These tromps, available on Saturdays between February and October, are led by nature education docents and last about two hours. Depending on the hike you select, you will pass through a variety of ecosystems, from redwoods, riparian habitat, and chaparral to a broadleaf community and grasslands. There’s even a pond on the property, where docents lead separate newt- and salamander-oriented workshops throughout the year as well.
No visit to Filoli is complete without a stroll through the gardens. Once you’re through the front gates, you can stroll through these beautifully landscaped grounds on your own or take a self-guided tour. Personally, however, I prefer guided walks here, too—the docents on these tours give a host of wonderful inside knowledge about flowers and the critters that call them home, and their passion for the flora is contagious.
(Note: Filoli is open Tuesday-Sunday, so whatever you do, don’t go on a Monday!)
Viewfinder Tip: Weather in the Bay Area can change dramatically in an hour. Whenever you hit the trails, be sure to wear layers and bring lots of water.
Don Edwards San Francisco Bay Wildlife Refuge
The nation’s first urban National Wildlife Refuge (it was created in 1974) offers a one-of-a-kind perspective of San Francisco Bay. All told, the protected space comprises 30,000 acres of open bay, salt pond, salt marsh, mudflat, upland, and vernal pool habitats. The trail system brings you face to face with hundreds of different bird species, and allows you to get up close and personal with salt ponds in the process of being turned back into wetlands.
My favorite section of trail in this park is near Alviso, just a short drive from downtown San Jose. (For the record, there’s another section of the Don Edwards San Francisco Bay Wildlife Refuge on the other side of the bay in Fremont.) Starting at the Alviso Environmental Education Center, a seven-mile loop follows a number of trails that parallel local sloughs and wind along boardwalks that sit atop the marsh. From these tracks, you’re able to pass through a butterfly garden and look out on any birds that happen to be resting in the wetlands around you. If you look back toward San Jose, you also can see a handful of buildings—it’s almost too small to be a “skyline”—glimmering in the distance.
More than anything, what sticks out about this area is its flatness; there is no incline whatsoever in this part of the Bay. This makes the trail system perfect for outings with young kids. Perhaps the only downside: the smell. Sometimes, particularly at low tide, the sea stench can be overwhelming. Be sure to allow sensitive noses time to adjust.
Where are your favorite cities to hike and explore on foot?