Wednesday, December 21, 2022

Antler Point

View of Halls Valley from the Canada de Pala Trail
9 miles round trip, 1300 feet elevation gain
Difficulty: Easy-moderate
Access: Paved but windy road to trailhead, no fee required

The miles of grassy ridges in Santa Clara County’s Joseph D. Grant County Park culminate in the rounded summit of Antler Point, a nearly 3000-foot-high summit that delivers panoramic views of the southern end of California’s San Francisco Bay Area. Although the Twin Gates Trailhead is just minutes from California’s second largest urban agglomeration, the hike to Antler Point has a remote feel as it’s bordered by the oak woods and grasslands of Halls Valley to the west and mighty Mount Hamilton to the east. The open ridgeline walk along the Canada de Pala and Pala Seca Trails to reach Antler Point from the Twin Gates Trailhead is spectacular along the entire course of the hike and best of all, this hike is far quieter than the loved-to-death parks at Mission Peak and Rancho San Antonio. The trail is completely out in the open, making it a nicer hike in the cooler months and a poor fit for hot, dry summer days.

There are two approaches to Antler Point: one is to hike up from the Grant Lake and connect with the Canada de Pala Trail, while the second is to start at the Twin Gates Trailhead and follow the Canada de Pala Trail along a ridgeline for most of the way. I chose to hike to Antler Point from the Twin Gates Trailhead, as the ridgeline route provides sweeping panoramas over the complete course of the hike and has slightly less elevation gain.

I hiked to Antler Point on a sunny late December day, after a recent storm had dropped a dusting of snow atop Mount Hamilton. From San Jose, I took Alum Rock Ave (Highway 130) east into the Diablo Range. Highway 130 became extremely windy as it entered the mountains but straightened out as it entered Halls Valley. After passing the main entrance to Grant County Park, the road became extremely windy again; just over 3 miles past the park entrance, the road came to a saddle and the Twin Gates Trailhead lay on the left (north) side of the road here. There was a small parking lot here with room for about 10 cars and a porta-potty; the $6 Grant County Park entrance fee is not collected at this trailhead.

I passed through a gate to get started on the Canada de Pala Trail, a wide dirt road trace that ascended past an initial grove of oaks onto the grassy crest of a ridge. The trail ascended steadily over the first __ miles along the top of the ridge, passing underneath a set of power lines and passing by a junction with the Yerba Buena Trail at 0.5 miles. Views quickly opened up, with lovely southerly and westerly panoramas covering Halls Valley and the distant Gabilan and Santa Lucia Ranges. El Toro, a small but distinctive peak near Morgan Hill, was easily recognizable from here. Mount Tam made its only appearance of the hike here, appearing far to the north; on the day of my hike, the Bay itself was shrouded in fog all morning even though the higher elevations were clear, so I had a lovely view of Mount Tam rising above a sea of fog.

View over the hills of Grant Park, Mount Tam in the distance
Santa Lucia Range from Canada de Pala Trail
Mount Hamilton soon came into view to the east, rising on the other side of Smith Creek’s canyon. Stormy and cold weather during the days preceding my hike had dusted Mount Hamilton’s summit in snow; the mountain’s fresh white coat matched the domes of the Lick Observatory that cap its summit. Mount Hamilton is the tallest mountain on the southern end of the Bay, reaching 4265 feet, so it receives snow more often than any other South Bay peak.

The Lick Observatory atop snowy Mount Hamilton
At 0.7 miles, the Canada de Pala Trail leveled out as it arrived on the crest of the ridge. The trail undulated with the ups and downs of the ridge over the next mile, with lovely views throughout. The trail stayed to the left of an initial high point along the ridge, passing a small pond to the left; benches placed every mile or so along the trail made for nice stopping points to enjoy the views.

The ridge along the Canada de Pala Trail
After a long stint on the ridge, the Canada de Pala Trail descended towards a saddle, passing a junction with Los Huecos Trail at 1.8 miles. At 2.2 miles, the trail passed a junction with the Halls Valley Trail coming up from the Grant Lake from the left and shortly afterward arrived at the low point along the ridge. From here, the trail followed the ridge as it began rising towards Antler Point to the north, starting the most sustained ascent of the hike with over 400 feet of elevation gain over the next mile. Views down into Halls Valley were especially scenic in this section, with Grant Lake visible beneath the grassy hills bounding the valley to the west and pretty oak woodlands covering the north-facing aspects of the tributary ridges. I was very taken by the wildness of this view, which was accentuated by a bobcat crossing the trail in front of me.

Bobcat in the ridgetop grasslands
At 2.7 miles into the hike, I came to a junction where the Canada de Pala Trail split from the Pala Seca Trail. Here, the Canada de Pala Trail headed off to the left and departed from its ridgetop perch; the Pala Seca Trail took over the ridgetop route instead, branching off to the right. I took the Pala Seca Trail, which made a sustained ascent over the next half mile to reach the undulating crest of the ridge at 3.2 miles. As we emerged onto this crest, we could see Antler Point rising at the far end of the grassy ridge.

The Pala Seca Trail winds through grasslands towards Antler Point
I followed the Pala Seca Trail along the flat top of the grassy ridge, enjoying some views of Mount Hamilton, Smith Creek’s deep canyon, and the many layers of ridges of the Diablo Range to the east. At 4 miles from the trailhead, the Antler Point Trail branched off to the right from the Pala Seca Trail next to a bench with a view of San Jose. Here, the dirt road hiking ended: the Antler Point Trail was a single-track path traveling through tall grass.

San Jose in a shroud of haze
I followed the Antler Point Trail for a final 0.4 miles to the end of the ridge, arriving at Antler Point itself at just under 4.5 miles from the trailhead. The end of the trail here was not actually at the highest point on the ridge, a 2999-foot local maxima that lay just to the east; however, this slightly lower peak rose like the prow of a ship above Santa Clara Valley and thus provided the best views. From the summit, I could see the skyline of downtown San Jose, the long strip of San Jose International Airport, and San Francisco Bay itself to the north; the Santa Cruz Mountains, including Loma Prieta, Mount Umunhum, and Black Mountain, rose on the other side of the valley, forming the western bound of a valley that has driven a global technological revolution over the past half-century. The views south along the grassy ridges that I had hiked along to get to Antler Point was lovely as well, the afternoon light turning the mix of green and grey vegetation into a silvery sheen.

El Toro and Fremont Peak to the south
Rolling grassy ridges of Grant County Park
The Pala Seca Trail in the shadow of Mount Hamilton
Santa Clara Valley and the Santa Cruz Mountains from Antler Point
After eating a light lunch and enjoying the views, I retraced my steps to the trailhead. Except for the area directly around the Twin Gates Trailhead, I saw just five other hikers all day on this trail, so this is a far quieter hike than some of the too-well-loved hikes that are a bit closer to the Bay Area. The road to get to Twin Gates is a bit twisty, but otherwise there’s little reason for Bay Area hikers looking for a quiet and scenic outing to skip the hike to Antler Point. Bring water, avoid hot days, and hike during winter or spring when the hills are greener.

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