Wednesday, August 5, 2020

Mindego Hill

Poppies blooming at Mindego Hill
5 miles round trip, 1000 feet elevation gain
Difficulty: Easy-moderate
Access: Paved but windy road to trailhead, no fee required

Mindego Hill is a grassy hilltop with pretty ocean views and nice spring wildflowers in the Russian Ridge Open Space Preserve of California's San Francisco Bay Area. The summit can reached by a descent down a fire road and then an ascent along a single track trail through pastures frequented by grazing cows. This hike is comparatively quieter than nearby destinations like Windy Hill or Borel Hill, even though it's just a slightly farther drive from the population centers of Silicon Valley. This hike is best in the spring when the hills are green and the wildflowers are blooming; during summer and fall the hills of California are usually brown.

I hiked Mindego Hill on an early May day. 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. Follow Alpine Road for another windy mile and reach the small parking lot for the Mindego Hill Trailhead on the right side of the road.

From the trailhead, a short, paved walkway leads to a viewpoint of Mindego Hill and Butano Ridge commemorating Audrey Rust, a former president of the Peninsula Open Space Trust, the organization that works to acquire lands for preservation and public recreation as open space preserves on the San Francisco Peninsula. The main trail departs to the left (south) of the parking lot, briefly paralleling Alpine Road before reaching the trail to Mindego Hill, a fire road.

Here, I turned right onto the fire road, which began to descend steeply. In the next half mile, the trail dropped 400 feet along a ridge. Oak forests to the right of the trail and occasional views of grassy Mindego Hill ahead provided some distraction from the descent. It's important to note that you'll have to ascend this hill at the end of your hike if you descend it now.

At the end of the descent, the trail came to a junction with the Charquin Trail at a saddle. Leading to the right, the Charquin Trail connected with the main trail system of Russian Ridge Open Space. I stayed on the Mindego Hill Trail, continuing to follow the fire road straight ahead along the ridge.

The next stretch of trail was extremely enjoyable, following the open ridge linking Mindego Hill to Russian Ridge. Over the next mile of fire road, I enjoyed views of green Mindego Hill rising ahead, Borel Hill and the other bumps along Russian Ridge to the north, and the redwood forests below Butano Ridge in the Pescadero Creek basin to the south. 

Mindego Hill
The California poppy, the small orange flower that is the state flower of California, was blooming in copious patches along the trail. Some scattered owl's clover was blooming as well. While enjoyable, the flower show here at Mindego Hill was not nearly impressive as the one on neighboring Borel Hill in May.

California poppies
At 1.7 miles from the trailhead, the trail passed a cattle pen and then passed through a cattle gate to arrive at a junction at the base of Mindego Hill. The fire road continued straight and became the Council Trail; the Mindego Hill Trail split off to the left, heading uphill. I took the left fork, passing through another gate and beginning the final ascent. The trail quickly transitioned from a fire road to a single track leading through beautiful grassy meadows with blooming wildflowers. As the trail wrapped around a small ridge, nice westerly views of tiny Mindego Lake below and grassy Langley Hill nearby emerged.

Mindego Lake and Langley Hill
The next stretch of ascent was a sheer joy to hike as the trail cut across lush, open meadows. At times, cows graze on these slopes, so if you're unlucky you may have to deal with cow manure on or near the trail; this problem is compounded in the winter when rains turn the trail here into a muddy mess. But during my springtime visit, the grass was green, the trail was dry, and there was little cow poop in sight, making my hike very enjoyable. Views improved as I ascended: the grassy hills of Russian Ridge to the north were especially scenic.

Russian Ridge
The trail briefly left the open meadows with a switchback climb through lovely oak forests on the north slopes of the peak. The woods here included a number of massive old oaks that were quite impressive; beware the presence of poison oak here as well. 

Old oaks on Mindego Hill
Emerging from the woods, the trail did a final victory lap around the summit, circling the meadow-crowned peak for views in all directions. Repeat views of grassy Russian Ridge and redwood-coated Butano Ridge were joined by views of the shimmering blue Pacific Ocean in the distance.

Butano Ridge and the Pacific Ocean
The trail ended 2.5 miles from the trailhead at the hill's high point, which delivered a lovely view east to the green rolling hills of La Honda reaching down to the Pacific. Mindego Hill's views of the Pacific are particularly nice on this part of the Peninsula as it juts out a bit farther to the west than many of the other high grassy hilltops.

Green hills of La Honda and the Pacific Ocean
The light green of the meadows contrasted with the dark green of the extensive forests in the Pescadero Creek Valley between here and Butano Ridge. Along with Big Basin further to the south, the Pescadero Creek area holds some of the largest tracts of old growth redwoods in the Bay Area, although past logging in the area means that much of what you see today from above is actually second growth.

Redwood forests of Pescadero Creek from Mindego Hill
On a weekday morning, I had the summit all to myself; I didn't see other hikers until I was returning to the trailhead. On weekends, this hike is a bit more popular but you can often still find parking at the Mindego Hill lot even after the main Russian Ridge parking lot fills. While not exceptional, the views and wildflowers of Mindego Hill make it an enjoyable place to spend time outdoors during spring.

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