I’d like to recognize a true achievement by the state and counties of California, namely, their commitment to state parklands and open space preserves set aside for everyone’s enjoyment. On my recent visit to family and friends who live in Santa Clara County, home of Silicon Valley and over one million residents, I visited one of the newest open spaces–the 348-acre Coyote Valley Open Space Preserve in the rolling hills just west of US101. And what could be better than taking his hike with a good friend, so into the mountains we go!
It is December so we are walking in shades of brown and green with red berries gracing some of the trees we pass. A winter time stroll through the savannah of blue oak leads us up the hillsides of the Santa Cruz Mountains.
There are about 20 different types of oaks in California, but on our walk we will see only a few. The deciduous Blue Oak, Valley Oak, and Califonia Black Oak. I never knew this, but there are also evergreen oaks, called live oaks, in our case Coast Live Oaks and Interior Live Oaks. Sooooo . . . which is which? Well, we are not spending time checking formation of leaves, types of acorns, and specifics of bark, so we will just enjoy their massive beauty and assume the ones with few leave in December are deciduous, probably Blue Oak in this park, and the rest are live oaks, probably Coast Live Oaks. Are you OK with that? We’ll figure it all out on another trip.
It is a cool morning with the high clouds muting the sun, giving a golden hue to the landscape. Every now and then we get the full warmth of the sun streaking shadows through the trees.
As we head up, we come to a number of serpentine rock outcrops. Serpentine is California’s State Rock found in northern and central CA. Geoscientists believe that serpentine is the morphed remains of magnesium-rich igneous rocks, most commonly the rock peridotite, from the earth’s mantle. You know geology is fascinating, but I always need a dictionary handy to understand what geologist are talking about. Scientifically speaking 😉 I just think the rocks are cool.
As we meander into the more wooded area we find this unusual tree trunk. This is a California Bay or Bay Laurel. Yes, the leaves smell like the bay leaves you buy at the grocery, but stronger and it is delightful! The base of the the bays often grow such formations. They are burls that look considerably different tree to tree, but are treasured by woodworkers for the beautiful bowls and other turned crafts that can be made from this wood.
Inspecting closer on the dead branches scattered we find Turkey Tail mushrooms. They look a little worse for wear, not showing the many colored strips that are often visible, but still a fascinating fungi.
Not to mention more rocks but this time in the shade being home to a community of moss, lichen and ferns. Ah, love seeing the green when home in Montana we are looking at mostly white.
This stumped me because they look like chestnuts, but is that possible? Well, they are not really chestnuts, they are the nuts from the California Buckeye (Aesculu californica) trees scattered across the hills among the bays. Careful, these Buckeye trees are not user friendly. The spring flowers are poisonous to bees and these nuts are toxic as well. Ground squirrels are the only animals that eat them and they only eat certain parts. We’ll just be amazed at the pods and nuts within without touching.
So walking back to the sunlight, we will head to the highest point of the trail, about 800 feet above the valley floor.
Up top we have to spend some time just enjoying the view! Looking southwest we see Morgan Hill and the Diablo Range to the east. The Diablo Range covers about 600 square miles, much of it protected open space and home to recovering populations of tule elk. These elk derive their name from their food source, the tule, a giant species of sedge native to freshwater marshes. Tule elk are the smallest subspecies of elk or wapiti. Wapiti is from the Shawnee and Cree word waapiti meaning “white rump”. The name wapiti is used in particular for Asian elk subspecies because in Eurasia the name elk is used for the moose.
Turning around we see the trail we just walked. That was a pretty good climb.
Ahh, Mount Hamilton across the valley. Mount Hamilton sits at 4,196 feet, the tallest mountain overlooking Silicon Valley and the home of Lick Observatory, the first permanently occupied mountain-top observatory. The asteroid 452 Hamiltonia, discovered in 1899, is named after the mountain. Joseph D. Grant County Park occupies over 9,000 acres below the peak and the road to the top is an adventure of tight twists and turns that definitely warrants 10MPH travel. An adventure for another day.
Beginning our descent, we walk through a “grove” of Toyon (Heteromeles arbutifolia) commonly called Christmas berry and California holly. The massive number of red berries mature in the fall and persist well into winter and are a food source for many birds as well as coyotes and bears. Oops, don’t have bear spray here. Well, we will be noisy and they have never seen bears in the area. And why would bears be here when they have miles and miles of land to occupy that don’t have annoying people around.
We’ve walked over six bridge now, looking back at the one we just crossed. Of course there is no water under the bridges. This time of year is the rainy season, but the severe drought has the ground sucking up the water as it hits the ground.
So here we are on the flats heading back to the parking lot. Look! Aside from the soaring hawks and Kestrels we saw at mountain top, this is our only wildlife encounter. Mule deer mom with this year’s young. She looks a little round–expecting this spring perhaps.
What a glorious morning in the mountains above Morgan Hill and thanks to the Santa Clara Valley Open Space Authority for setting aside this beautiful area for us to relish. Heading back to Montana soon, so I’ll see you again with winter coat, warm boots, and snowy landscapes, but for now, let’s go have lunch!