Wednesday, February 17, 2016

Windy Hill

Windy Hill
6.8 miles loop, 1350 feet elevation gain
Difficulty: Moderate
Access: No pass required; paved road to trailhead, limited trailhead parking

Windy Hill is one of the many open space preserves along the Peninsula in the California's Bay Area. The meadows high on the hill provide sweeping views of the Bay, the Peninsula, and the Pacific; come during spring for the hillside blooms of California poppies. This is an enjoyable hike in Silicon Valley's backyard that makes for a pleasant half-day out.

A friend of mine at Stanford recommended the hike when I visited him in Palo Alto, so we decided to head to the open space preserve and check it out on a clear weekday morning in April. From the Stanford campus, we took Juniperro Serra Drive west to its terminus at Alpine Road, then turned left onto Alpine Road and followed it south past I-280 and the junction with Portola Road. Near the junction with Willowbrook Road, as the road narrowed and just before it wound its way into ravine, we parked on the side of the road and walked a short distance along the road to a gate that marked the start of the hike. If there's no room to park at the trailhead I've described, I've read that there's more ample parking from the access point for the preserve on Portola Road.

We followed the fire road a fifth of a mile into the park, crossing a stream along a way, to its junction with the Meadow Trail, then turned right to follow the Meadow Trail uphill. The aptly named Meadow Trail meandered through a mixture of oak forest and open fields while steadily working its way uphill to the junction with the Spring Ridge Trail. At that junction, we began following the wide Spring Ridge Trail uphill into the open meadows of Windy Hill.

The Spring Ridge Trail was full of beautiful surprises. The trail made its way uphill through green, grassy meadows with the two peaks of Windy Hill itself in full view up ahead. After rounding one corner on the trail, we noticed a herd of deer grazing on the meadows on a hillslope across a small gully.

Deer on Windy Hill
As the trail made its way progressively upward, incredible views began unfolding behind us. The mountains in East Bay rose above the thin sliver of the Bay that we could see, with peak of Mount Diablo prominently displayed. Closer in, we could see the Hoover Tower at Stanford as well as the spread-out, tree-lined suburbs of Silicon Valley.

Spring Ridge Trail
The uphill climb along the Spring Ridge Trail eventually brought us to Skyline Boulevard, about 1.6 miles and 1000 feet uphill from the junction with the Meadow Trail. From here, we switched to taking the Anniversary Trail, which followed the east side of the high open slopes of Windy Hill. A couple hundred yards after starting on the Anniversary Trail, we came to a spur trail on the right that led to the summit of Windy Hill. This spur wrapped around the summit, yielding our first and only views of the blue waters of the Pacific before reaching the summit.

The summit featured a 360-degree view of the South Bay, Mount Diablo across the Bay, the Stanford campus, the Pacific, and the backbone of the Santa Cruz Mountains running down the peninsula. We could see Skyline Boulevard's winding route as it made its way along the crest of the Santa Cruz Mountains. The open hillsides dotted with occasional forest were verdant in the spring, though it was only a matter of time before they turned yellow and brown for the summer.

Pacific Ocean from Windy Hill
After spending a short time at the summit, we returned to the Anniversary Trail. The views from the Anniversary Trail were constantly good: as the trail followed an open slope, we had many views of the grassy hill itself as well as the many peaks across the Bay. Along the way, we passed Bob's Bench, a memorial trailside seat that featured a stunning vista.

South Bay view
Equally impressive were the wildflowers along the Anniversary Trail. In early April, the California poppies were blooming all along the trail, adding dashes of orange to the green meadows. Other spring wildflowers were also in bloom, creating streaks of purple on the grassy slopes.

California poppies
At the end of the Anniversary Trail, we arrived back at a trailhead along Skyline Boulevard. From here, we took the Lost Trail and continued south. The Lost Trail started out by cutting through the meadows as well, but after a few turns it founds its way into the more forested slopes of the Santa Cruz Mountains. Four-tenths of a mile past the junction with the Anniversary Trail, the Lost Trail met up with the Hamms Gulch Trail. We took the left fork onto the Hamms Gulch Trail and began a beautiful descent through a forest of great oaks.

Hamms Gulch Trail
Part of the way through the descent, the trail came to a clearing with a good view of the Windy Hill and Spring Ridge, which we had followed on our way up to the peak.

Windy Hill from Hamms Gulch Trail
The Hamms Gulch Trail made a steady but relatively gentle descent all the way back down the hill. The trail actually stayed fairly high above its namesake gulch, generally following a nearby ridge until near the end of the descent, when the trail dropped into the ravine and passed by a few giant coastal redwoods. Finally, after following the Hamms Gulch Trail for 2.5 miles, I arrived at a junction where the right fork led back to Alpine Road. We followed the left fork instead, which returned to the initial junction with the Meadow Spring Trail in another two-fifths of a mile, thus closing the loop. From here, we took the right fork and followed the fire road we had taken to come in the final 0.2 miles back to the gate on Alpine Road where we had parked.

Redwoods on Hamms Gulch
This hike was most remarkable in that it is so close to a major populated area: the sweeping views of the Peninsula, the Bay, and the Pacific were accessible by just a 15-minute drive from Stanford and could easily be reached within an hour from any point in Silicon Valley. The scenery itself was very enjoyable and was easily equal to more popular hikes such as Castle Rock. This is a good hike for Bay Area residents and a decent introduction to South Bay hiking for visitors looking for a nearby but scenic half-day.

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