GETTING OUT: Challenge yourself, or take it easy, at Windy Hill

Ron Erskine

Windy Hill is another in the collection of open space preserves
that the Midpeninsula Regional Open Space District manages in the
Santa Cruz Mountains west of Highway 280.
Windy Hill is another in the collection of open space preserves that the Midpeninsula Regional Open Space District manages in the Santa Cruz Mountains west of Highway 280. The preserve rises 1,000 feet from Portola Valley to the crest of the Santa Cruz Mountains along Skyline Boulevard. I went there looking for views, variety and a great walk. I can’t remember a day I have enjoyed more.

I was in the mood for a fairly ambitious hike; one that would cover the complete perimeter of this 1,335-acre preserve. If you choose to duplicate this hike, go to the MROSD website – www.Openspace.org – and download a map of Windy Hill. I did not begin at a preserve parking lot where maps are available, and things are just tricky enough that you will want a map for reference.

The main entrance to Windy Hill is up on Skyline Boulevard at the very top of the property, but since I prefer to climb in the cool morning air when I am fresh, I began my hike down in Portola Valley. Four miles out Alpine Road off of Highway 280 near Palo Alto, I parked along the street near the corner of Willowbrook Drive.

The beginning of this hike is the tricky part. Just past Willowbrook Drive on Alpine Road is the entrance to the preserve. You will exit here, but don’t enter here. Continue to walk along this quiet portion of Alpine Road as it follows Corte Madera Creek through a lovely riparian setting of alders and maples. On a couple of occasions, Eagle Trail drops down to the creekside, then rises back to the road again. After a mile, you will reach the base of Razorback Ridge Trail where the hike really begins.

It is a 1,000-foot climb, but I have rarely enjoyed an uphill stretch of trail as much as I did walking up Razorback Ridge Trail. I zigged and zagged up a succession of gently graded switchbacks through a cool forest of oaks, bays, and Douglas firs that grew in size and number as I went. All along the way, the crease cut by Damiani Creek grew steeper and deeper on my left. The sun was glowing behind a thin but persistent layer of morning fog that backlit the forest cover including the occasional maple tree showing the first blush of fall color.

At the signed trail junction, I turned right onto Lost Trail and began a long flat stretch that contoured across the top of the preserve. Soon, I emerged from the forest into chaparral dominated by coyote brush and further north, toward Windy Hill itself, bald grassy knobs rose above Douglas firs bunched in the creases below. On this day, an inversion layer trapped the atmospheric gunk in the bay basin and blocked my view, but on a clear day the entire Bay Area, from Mount Tamalpais to Mount Hamilton, is visible along this trail.

Spring Ridge Trail, a dirt road, took me back down the slope through oaks and open grassland. At the junction, the Meadow Trail completed the descent and took me back to Alpine Road near my car. I was grateful that I climbed the preserve along the gentle and shaded Razorback Ridge Trail and not the steep and exposed path of Spring Ridge Trail.

On this day, I felt like a long hike and this 8-mile loop fit the bill perfectly. The variety – creeks, forests, chaparral, oak woodland, heart-stopping views – were all there and assembled in a great package. If your appetite is for something shorter, go to the Skyline Boulevard parking lot (2.3 miles south of La Honda Road/Highway 84) where the top of Windy Hill and great views toward the coast as well as the bay are within easy reach.

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