Pride in our parks

Mountain bike riders cross a creek along a path in Henry Coe

Condors are soaring above the peaks at Pinnacles National
Monument. A dozen of the endangered birds have been released since
December 2003 as part of an effort to replenish dwindling
populations.
Condors are soaring above the peaks at Pinnacles National Monument. A dozen of the endangered birds have been released since December 2003 as part of an effort to replenish dwindling populations.

“The best place to see them up close is High Peaks Trail,” said park superintendent Cicely Muldoon, referring to a three-hour loop that takes hikers 3,000 feet above sea level. The park released a set of birds in October, and plans on a third release in June.

The endangered birds are just one of the recent major additions to the region’s park system.

Pinnacles park, a half-hour drive south of Hollister, also made headlines last month after it emerged from a decade-long battle to prevent development on the neighboring 2,000-acre Pinnacles Ranch.

The Nature Conservancy purchased the land for $5.3 million with the intention of turning it over to Pinnacles National Monument, bringing the park to a combined 26,000 acres. The sale will add 700 acres of oak woodlands and extensive grass and riparian, or creekside, habitat. The purchase will also help ensure the future of the condor release program, which requires park staff to use a service road to access the birds’ release site.

Bird lovers who are not into heights can catch a glimpse of the rare birds from a 120-acre campground included in the ranch sale.

“You often see them flying above the ridge behind the campground,” Muldoon said.

The campgrounds will remain open to the public while the land is under the Nature Conservancy’s stewardship, she added. Visitors can expect a number of new trails in the next few years, Muldoon said. She predicted the park would take full control of the ranch within two years.

In the meantime, she encouraged people to make use of the park’s caves, 1,000 rock climbs and 35 miles of trails. She predicted an especially good season for one of the park’s perennial attractions: “It’s going to be a great wildflower year because there’s been so much rain. It’s getting better each week.”

Further north in Santa Clara County, park officials are set to unveil new offerings at Harvey Bear and Mendoza ranches — the latest additions to Coyote Lake County Park. The May opening is the first phase of a 10-year improvement plan.

Harvey Bear Ranch will open 13 miles of multi-use trails to hikers, bikers and horse riders, with trail heads at Mendoza Ranch, Coyote Dam, Coyote Lake campground and in San Martin. When it opens, the park will be known as the Coyote Lake/Harvey Bear Ranch County Park.

Also in the works are new equestrian staging areas at Mendoza Ranch and Bear Ranch, scheduled to open this spring and summer, respectively. Also, new shower facilities at reconfigured campgrounds, scheduled to open in 2006, will offer significantly more room for campers.

“It’s very exciting,” Senior Park Ranger Christopher Crockett said recently. “We’re basically getting a whole new park. There’s a whole new set of challenges for park rangers and staff to address, but it’s going to be beautiful.”

Crockett said that the road-size trails will be liberally marked with trail-etiquette signs and will be closed in especially wet weather.

The first phase is expected to cost about $1.5 million. More dramatic improvements are planned for the second phase, including most projects on the 300-acre Western Flat, the most easily accessible and developed portion of the parkland that sits north of San Martin Avenue on the park’s far-western edge.

That phase would include features such as an 18-hole golf course and events center, a facility for equestrian and agricultural education, and a bike park.

The idea is to complete those improvements — probably in stages — within a decade, but the timeline depends on funding availability. Projects in this phase are expected to cost between $23 million and $30 million.

New campgrounds near Coyote Lake and an environmental education center are among improvements in a third phase that would cost between $1.1 million and $2.4 million.

The county purchased the former Harvey Bear and Mendoza ranches adjacent to Coyote Lake County Park in 1998 for about $11 million.

In the next few years, Henry Coe State Park will open up the Gilroy Hot Springs to the public, said Ron Erskine, a Morgan Hill resident and volunteer at Coe. In the meantime, he said there is plenty left to discover inside the 87,000 acre park.

“I do love Coe just because it’s so incredibly large and so totally wild, yet so close to a major metropolitan area,” Erskine said. “I’ve done backpacking in the Sierras and in the Rockies and I don’t think I’ve ever felt so far from people.”

The region’s other parks continue to offer a multitude of options, whether you bike, fish, hike or ride.

Anderson Lake and Coyote Lake Park number among the best fishing spots, according to County Supervisor Don Gage. Bass are natural to both lakes, and the county stocks trout in the spring.

“For all around recreation, I like Coyote, because you can camp there and fish there, but Mt. Madonna is the best for hiking,” Gage said. “We have held our family reunion up there for years. They have horse trails, hiking, a baseball diamond, archery.”

He also likes taking his grandchildren to Mt. Madonna in the Santa Cruz Mountains, just off Highway 152 West, where they can feed a rare herd of white fallow deer.

Alex Kennet, a Morgan Hill resident and South County representative to the Open Space Authority, gravitates to Mt. Madonna for a different reason.

“You get up there and can see the whole Bay Area,” he said. “It’s a visual masterpiece.”

While the area’s parks are working to improve from within, individual cities and organizations such as the Open Space Authority are looking for ways to improve connections to the park system.

Gilroy officials last month released a draft copy of their Trails Master Plan, which will one day connect hiking trails to the outlying Bay Area Ridgeline, which extends all the way to San Francisco.

Kennet said the Open Space Authority buys easement rights and makes outright purchases of land in an effort to preserve green space around Gilroy and other cities in Santa Clara County. Much of that land will one day help connect hikers with the ridgeline and area parks.

“Everything we do,” Kennet said, “we do with recreation in mind.”

Local Parks

For updated information on park fees, offerings, trail maps and other info, visit the following sites:

• Fremont State Park www.mtycounty.com/pgs-parks/parks-st/fremont-peak.html

• Henry Coe State Park www.coepark.org

• Hollister Hills (offroad ATV) trailbusters.tripod.com/hollister_hills

.htm

• Pinnacles National Monument www.nps.gov/pinn

• San Benito County Parks System www.sanbenito.ca.us/departments/dpw/county_parks.htm

• Santa Clara County Parks system www.parkhere.org

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