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The Trail Companion

Winter 2000

Discovering the Textured Lands with a Hike up Black Mountain

by Richard Allsop

You can discover an infinite variety of textures on several different scales in the Santa Cruz. The fine-scale textures are obvious-the smoothness of madrone bark, the crunch of dry leaves underfoot, the softness of a larkspur blossom, and the coarseness of wild grass. The mosaic of grasslands, forests, and chaparral that you walk through form a middle range of textures, while the ridges and canyons themselves fit together to form textures at the largest, geographic or geologic, scale. You can experience all of these textures by climbing up Rhus Ridge to Black Mountain from the Rhus Road trailhead in Rancho San Antonio Open Space Preserve.

Rhus Ridge and the Rhus Ridge Trail--click for full size image
Rhus Ridge and the Rhus Ridge Trail
Photo by Rich Allsop

     The Rhus Ridge Trail (actually a dirt road at this point) leaves the paved road and climbs up the canyon, past a modular home and corral, then through another gate. After a short, relatively level passage through a bay forest, the trail climbs steeply up the side of a canyon, passing a little knob that gives you the first of many fine views of the San Francisco Bay and surrounding hills. Although the hillsides are covered with the poison oak (Rhus diversilobum, also known as Toxidendron diverilobum) that lends its name to the trail, you can easily avoid contact with this plant by staying toward the middle of the wide fire road.
     At the top of the ridge, the Rhus Ridge Trail comes to a four-way junction. To the left, the Chamise Trail goes east into Rancho San Antonio proper, with the trail to Windmill Pasture dropping down the hill immediately in front of you. Go right on the Black Mountain Trail. This trail runs nearly level for a mile or so as it swings around the head of a canyon that drains into Permanente Creek. Bear left at the junction with the Grapevine Trail, which leads into Hidden Villa.
View north from halfway up Black Mountain--click for full size image
View north from halfway up Black Mountain
Photo by Rich Allsop
     The trail continues through a patchwork of oaks, chaparral and grasslands as it swings to the south. Go left again at the Ewing Hill trail junction, and begin a switchbacking climb, through sections of oaks, laurels, chaparral, and grasslands. I've found both the yellow and the cream-colored butterfly Mariposa lilies (Colochortus venustus and C. luteus, respectively) in the open areas in late spring. Further up the hill, in the wooded sections, I've seen masses of green California larkspur (Delphinium californicum) and spotted coral root orchid (Corallorrhiza maculata) under the bay laurel trees.
     You come out of the forest near a high-tension tower and climb a fire road along a finger of the ridge leading up to Black Mountain. This part of the trail provides an opportunity to feel the geographic texture of the mountains in your lungs and legs. In other words, it's a grunt-steep, and in warm weather, hot and dusty, with little shade. Still, I'm rewarded by a feeling of satisfaction in the accomplishment, and by fine views of Permanente Creek canyon and the Kaiser quarry to the east, and Adobe Creek to the west. I've found golden eardrops (Dicentra chrysantha) in bloom along the trail early in the summer. The trail climbs up on a little knob and descends before making a final (and somewhat demoralizing) climb to another gate.
View south toward Rancho San Antonio--click for full size image
View south toward Rancho San Antonio.
Photo by Rich Allsop
     Just beyond the gate you'll find a junction with another fire road. Bear right and take this road right a short distance to Monte Bello Road, passing near a radio site on your left. I usually go right on Monte Bello Road and walk to the Black Mountain Trail Camp, where I eat lunch in the shade of some big pine trees while enjoying a fine view of Stevens Creek Canyon, Skyline Ridge, and, on very clear days, the Pacific. I typically turn around and walk back down the same way after lunch, but with two vehicles you could arrange shuttles and through-hike to the Open Space District lots along Page Mill Road or Skyline Boulevard (Hwy 35).
Map of Rhus Ridge and Black Mountain--click for full size image
Rhus Ridge and Black Mountain - click for full-size image.

     Getting to the trailhead:The Rhus Road trailhead is only a short distance from I-280 in Los Altos Hills. From the freeway, take the El Monte exit and go west, toward Foothill College. Continue past the second light to a four-way stop; turn right and enter the Foothill College parking area. On Saturday mornings, you may have to park some distance from the entrance, but at other times, parking is usually available close by (please note that there is a small fee for parking and the lots are patrolled at all times).
     Return by foot to the entrance and either take the trail west alongside Moody Rd. or head left to the sharp bend in the road and look for the Los Altos Hills Town Trail sign. Either path will take you to Rhus Ridge Road, 1/4 mile away. Although there is a small Open Space parking lot two-tenths of a mile up Rhus Ridge Road from Moody, MRSOD requests that you park elsewhere due to its small size and the impact of traffic on neighbors (no parking permitted along Moody or Rhus Ridge).
     You can also park in Hidden Villa for a small fee and hike up to the Black Mountain Trail via the Grapevine Trail or the Ewing Hill Trail. Hidden Villa is closed in the summer, when it is used for a youth camp, but available the rest of the year. For a third alternative (and a rather longer hike), you may park at the Rancho San Antonio County Park lot of Cristo Rey Drive in Cupertino (off Foothill, 1/4 mile west of 280).

Total distance (round trip): 10 miles (from Foothill College)
Time: 5-6 hours (with lunch stop)
Elevation gain: 2380 ft.
Maps: Trail Center's Trail Map of the Southern Peninsula or USGS 7.5 minute quad. Mindego Hill. Trail maps for Rancho San Antonio Open Space Preserve are available at the entrance kiosk.

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