Saturday, August 29, 2020

Borel Hill Loop

Russian Ridge wildflowers rising above the Pescadero Creek redwood forests
5 miles loop, 850 feet elevation gain
Difficulty: Easy-moderate
Access: Paved but very windy road to trailhead, no parking fee

There are sweeping views of the San Francisco Bay Area from the meadow-covered summit of Borel Hill, the high point of Russian Ridge in California's Santa Cruz Mountains. This is an enjoyable hike year-round for the constant open views from Russian Ridge but the area is particularly beautiful each spring when the meadows of the preserve puts on the most spectacular wildflower show in the Bay Area. The wildflowers typically peak in May, when blooms of California poppies and dandelions carpet the slopes of the ridge; the grassy slopes here are attractively green in winter and spring before the blooms, as well. This is a relatively easy hike that combines a ridge walk with a meander through meadow-covered slopes and oak forests. Come early or on a weekend as the preserve is a popular hike for Silicon Valley residents.

I've visited Russian Ridge a number of times now; the most memorable of those visits was a mid-May hike to see the incredible wildflower blooms. Russian Ridge Open Space Preserve is just outside Palo Alto and is most easily accessed from other parts of the Bay Area via I-280. Unfortunately, the drive up Page Mill Road to reach this trailhead is one of the windiest roads in the Bay Area, packing over 100 turns in a little over 5 miles. To reach the trailhead, exit I-280 onto Page Mill Road in Palo Alto and then follow Page Mill Road south into the Santa Cruz Mountains. The road becomes progressively more windy and narrow as it climbs up a ridge of Black Mountain until it finally intersects with Skyline Blvd; at the junction, continue straight, with Page Mill Road becoming Alpine Road here. The main parking area for Russian Ridge Open Space Preserve is on the north (right) side of Alpine Road immediately past the intersection with Skyline Blvd. If parking is full here, there is an alternate access point for the midway point of the hike a mile north along Skyline Blvd.

Leaving the north side of the parking lot, the Ridge Trail began by paralleling Skyline Blvd before peeling to the left as it ascended through open grasslands to the spine of Russian Ridge. On the ridge, the trail widened as it followed the path of a former service road. The Ridge Trail is part of the Bay Area Ridge Trail, an ambitious long-distance trail currently still being developed that will run 550 miles along the crest of the ranges surrounding San Francisco Bay when complete. The trail passed underneath some power lines as it gradually ascended along the ridge, coming to a junction with a connector trail to the Ancient Oaks Trail after a half mile.

Wildflowers started near the trailhead but the most impressive show during my May visit was along the top of Russian Ridge just east of Borel Hill itself. At this trail junction a half mile from the parking area, the grassy slopes of the ridge were completely coated in blooming California poppies and dandelions. As I continued east along the Ridge Trail towards Borel Hill, the show only improved, mixing in lupine and other purple flowers into the already showy displays of yellow and orange.

Poppies bloom at Russian Ridge
Russian Ridge wildflowers
Grand views began opening up as I ascended the ridge: nearby views of Black Mountain across the Stevens Creek watershed and farther views to the south of Mount Umunhum and Loma Prieta, the tallest peaks of the Santa Cruz Mountains, would have kept me entertained even absent the wildflowers. At 0.7 miles from the trailhead, I came to a second junction: the service road kept going straight towards the summit of Borel Hill, while the Ridge Trail became a single-track path that peeled off to the left. I decided to summit Borel Hill first, taking the service road straight and then quickly heading off to the right on an unmarked but well-trod trail that ascended a bit more to reach the top of Borel Hill, the high point of Russian Ridge.

View from Borel Hill to Umunhum and Loma Prieta
Standing at the top of Borel Hill, there was a sweeping view of the Santa Cruz Mountains and the San Francisco Bay Area. On a clear day, there are views north along the length of the Peninsula to the San Francisco skyline, which is capped with the new Salesforce Tower. Mount Tamalpais rises above San Francisco to the west, while on very clear days the multi-humped summit of Mount St. Helena can be seen rising far to the north of the Bay at the head of Napa Valley. The Dumbarton, San Mateo, and Bay Bridges cross San Franicsco Bay below, while local landmarks like Palo Alto's University Ave business district, the Stanford campus, the hills of the Stanford Dish, and the NASA Ames Research Center are easily identifiable. Mount Diablo rises to the north and Mission Peak rises to the east, the start of a high ridge in the Diablo Range that culminates in tall Mount Hamilton, which is capped by the white domes of the Lick Observatory. On rare, extremely clear winter days, I've been able to see out the gap between Mission Peak and Pleasanton Ridge to Brushy Peak near Livermore and the snowy Sierra Nevada across Central Valley, over 150 miles away.

Mission Peak and the Bay from Russian Ridge
Mount Tam rises above the San Francisco skyline and the Peninsula
Stanford campus and Palo Alto behind the hills at the Stanford Dish
It's possible to just do a 1.5-mile round trip hike to the summit of Borel Hill, but it's far more interesting to continue onward for a longer loop on Russian Ridge, which packs in more ridge walking while escaping the more crowded parts of the preserve. It's possible to continue east along the ridge either on the service road that led to Borel Hill's summit or on the single-track Ridge Trail; both are scenic, with views of the Bay Area from the service road and views of Mindego Hill and the forested valley of Pescadero Creek from the single-track Ridge Trail. Ultimately, I prefer the Ridge Trail as it is a bit quieter and has a wilder feel.

Backtracking to the point where the Ridge Trail split off, I took the single-track option at the fork this time and ignored the split for the Bo Gimbal Trail. The Ridge Trail contoured the slopes of Russian Ridge just slightly below the ridgeline itself, providing beautiful views of grassy Mindego Hill to the east and the rolling landscape of grassy hills and forest near La Honda.

Mindego Hill
After a half mile, the Ridge Trail dropped down to a saddle near a second access point on Skyline Blvd, about 1.3 miles from the trailhead. I continued on the Ridge Trail past the junction with the Charquin Trail: here, the trail returned to the old service road, following it along the south side of the open ridge with continued open views of the grassy hills in the area and the Pacific Ocean in the distance. Two miles from the trailhead, I came to another junction: the Ridge Trail headed off to the right, the Hawk Ridge Trail began dropping downhill to the left, and the trail straight ahead led to a dead-end viewpoint with a bench. I visited the viewpoint briefly, which complemented the views of the La Honda hills that I had been enjoying for the last mile of the hike with a glimpse of the San Francisco skyline to the north.

Returning to the four-way junction, I took the Hawk Ridge Trail, which began descending gradually while traversing the slopes on the southern side of Russian Ridge. The single track trail through green, grassy hillsides here with views of redwood-covered Butano Ridge in the distance and Mindego Hill nearby were very enjoyable, especially as there were few hikers in this corner of the preserve.

Hawks Ridge Trail
The Hawks Ridge Trail descended about 300 feet in 0.6 miles before joining up with the Alder Spring Trail, a dirt road that dead-ended to the right. I headed left at this junction to continue hiking east along the lower slopes of Russian Ridge. While hiking at the base of this grassy slope, I spotted a number of turkey vultures congregating on a rocky outcrop up the hill, an interesting sight.

Turkey vultures
I came to a junction with the Charquin Trail at the three-mile mark of the hike. Here, I took the right fork, which continued to contour along the lower slopes of the ridge. Soon, the trail entered an oak forest and then came to a junction with the Ancient Oaks Trail at 3.3 miles. I left the Charquin Trail, taking the left fork and following the Ancient Oaks Trail as it began ascending along a ridge. The trail swung out onto a clearing on a ridge and then followed the ridge through an attractive forest of impressive oaks as it packed in one of the longest sustained ascents of the hike, climbing over 250 feet between the Charquin Trail and the junction with the Bo Gimbal Trail a half mile later. I stayed to the right on the Ancient Oaks Trail at the Bo Gimbal intersection; the following 0.3 miles of trail returned to the open grassy slopes for which Russian Ridge is known.

Ancient Oaks Trail
At 4.2 miles, the Ancient Oaks Trail intersected with a dirt service road; while the Ancient Oaks Trail headed off to the right to descend to the Mindego Hill Trailhead, I took the service road to the left. This dirt road followed the contours of the hill, with forest to the right of the trail and open grassy slopes to the left. After passing a bench with views of Umunhum and Loma Prieta to the southeast, the trail crossed a wildflower-strewn slope to rejoin with the Ridge Trail, just a half mile from the trailhead. I followed the Ridge Trail downhill to conclude my thoroughly enjoyable half day at Russian Ridge.

In season, this is a remarkable wildflower hike with blooms carpeting the grasslands that line the spine of Russian Ridge. All Bay Area hikers should try to see these gorgeous flower blooms, when Russian Ridge is at its best. At other times of year, the wide-reaching views still make this an enjoyable hike just a short- albeit windy- drive from Silicon Valley.

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