|Parks, parks, and more parks grace this rugged region of the Santa Cruz Mountains. To the south, dazzling views of the Pacific Ocean and the Monterey Bay with elevations reaching 3000 feet. To the north, the San Francisco Peninsula and the bay as a backdrop provides impressive daylight views that glitter lights at night. This area was logged in the mid-1800s for the building of San Francisco, inspiring preservationists to take action and put land aside for public use. Hence, Castle Rock and Portola Redwoods State Parks, San Mateo County and Santa Clara County Parks, and 11,340 acres of Midpeninsula Regional Open Space District are available for a variety of uses by the public. You can climb gigantic rocks in Castle Rock State Park and/or head over to Portola Redwoods State Park and enjoy the redwood forest. Open space preserves connect all of the parks together, making it possible to traverse from one to another without trespassing on private land. Highway 35, known as Skyline Boulevard, is the main artery that runs through the Skyline area. A paved, two lane country road running along the ridge of the mountains from Highway 17 at Summit Road to Highway 1 in San Francisco, the road reaches its highest elevation at Sanborn County Park. The portion of the road from Bear Creek Road to Black Road is only one lane, however it is paved. Vineyards dot the countryside, along with the Christmas Tree Farms that have been a fixture since the mid-1900s. Coast Redwoods and Douglas Fir are prominent in the lower elevations, with Oak and Madrone along the ridge. Homes are sprinkled here and there among the trees with no streetlights to interfere with midnight stargazing. Most of the area is preserved in its natural state for everyone to enjoy. Quiet permeates the air and if you listen closely, you might hear a wild animal.
In 1776, Juan Bautista de Anza, Father Pedro Font, and a party of twelve left the Monterey Mission, exploring north to find an inland route to the San Francisco Bay that had been discovered by the Portola Expedition seven years prior. The European settlers were moving west and the Russians were moving south, claiming land as they progressed, so the Spanish paved their way north to claim as much land as they could. They encountered the native people whom they called the Costanoans, “people of the coast.” We now know them as the Ohlone Indians, who respected and maintained the land, unlike the people who were to follow. The native peoples were moved to the missions, where their numbers dwindled from the breakdown of their culture and exposure to disease.
California Land Grants were made by the Spanish from 1784 to 1810 and by the Mexicans from 1819 to 1846 for the purpose of establishing residency, claiming the land for the Spanish and later, the Mexicans. The Mexican-American War followed and in 1848 the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo had a provision to continue honoring the land grants. However, in 1848, gold was discovered in California setting forth a migration of 300,000 people, half coming overland and half by sea. California was admitted as a state in 1850 making it an official part part of the United States, and the Transcontinental Railroad joined California with the east coast in 1869. The railroad served as a vital link for trade, commerce, and travel, opening California for settlement. A week-long trip in a sleeping car for $65 replaced a six month dangerous adventure in a stagecoach or wagon train. With its mild weather and new found possibilities California grew quickly, and the emigrants found what the Spanish referred to as El Pino (The Pine Tree). By the 1860s, some newspapers were calling the area “Alpine” possibly in reference to the Italian-Swiss heritage of some of the first families who settled in the area. The lumber barons moved in and changed the landscape forever. Large tracks of land were logged, milled and sent to San Francisco, an area that was growing rapidly.
One of the first European settlers was a Danish Pony Express rider named Christian Iverson. A colorful character, he also worked as a bodyguard and stage coach shotgun guard. He settled in the mountains, built himself a cabin in the 1860s and did odd jobs for local ranchers. His cabin, located on Pescadero Creek in the southern part of what is now Portola Redwoods State Park, had been preserved until it collapsed in the 1989 Loma Prieta Earthquake, however a replica is on display in the Visitors Center.
Iverson sold his holdings in 1867 to William Page, a lumberman who built a mill and logged the land, for both redwood trees and the bark of the tan oak. Page lived in Searsville, where he operated a general store and served as postmaster. He constructed Page Mill Road as a haul road to transport his lumber from his mill to the Embarcadero, in what is now modern day Palo Alto, where the lumber was placed on railroad cars and shipped throughout the country.
Page lost his holding by government foreclosure. He was accused of unlawfully cutting two redwood trees on government land, worth $10 each. Some of his holdings were actioned off to cover the debt. Horace Templeton, a San Mateo County Judge purchased the land at auction.
Farmers, ranchers, and homesteaders moved into the mountains purchasing small lots, compared to the lumber baron’s massive holdings. Some came for short periods of time and left having found the conditions harsh, while others stayed for the rest of their lives. They built houses and barns. They raised livestock and grew crops. They organized and built schools for their children to receive an education. The land was recovering. It had been striped clean, except for a tree here and there that was too tall for the equipment of that era. The ground was covered with debris left from the logging operations and the earth was scared by the earth moving equipment used. Burned stumps were everywhere with new fresh shoots popping up among the charred remains.
In 1924, the Masonic Lodge’s Islam Shrine acquired the property that had at one time been owned by William Page. Cabins and tent cabins were built. A meeting hall was erected, bridges built, and Evan’s creek was dammed to supply drinking water. They even had telephone service, however it did require an operator to connect. Thousands of masons and their families came to enjoy the mountains. They made plans to build 250 cabin sites and even a 500 acre golf course, but by 1954, membership had dropped so the lodge made a decision to sell the property to the State of California to create a new state park. The deed from the Shriners to the State of California was dated December 6, 1944 and described the sale as 1,660 acres, one hundred cottages, a recreation hall accommodating 200 people, a two-story administration building, and a two-story custodian’s lodge. It was recorded the following March 5, 1945 with a sales price of $112,500. The state changed the name of the last three miles of Upper Page Mill Road, from Skyline Boulevard to the entrance of the park, to Portola State Park Road and established Portola Redwoods State Park.
Time marched on and living in the mountains became easier. Cars were improved and the roads were paved. Most homes had electricity and telephone. The summer residents started to live on the mountain year-round. As houses popped up here and there, the residents began to realize preservation was more and more important. Setting aside land for permanent public access gained more momentum.
Today, the land has recovered from the logging of the late 1800s and has become a forested basin with Coast Redwoods, Douglas Firs, Laurel Bay and Live Oaks in abundance. Eighteen miles of trails crisscross the forest in Portola Redwood State Park, with a 53 site campground and four group campsites. Pescadero Creek and Peter’s Creek, meander through the park and the Sequoia Nature Trail, which leads to the Pescadero Creek, introduces visitors to the natural history of the area.
Castle Rock State Park wasn’t established until 1968. After the logging of the late 1800s, the land endured one hundred years of agricultural pursuits. Orchards of apples, pears, walnuts and grapes blanketed the hillsides. In the early 1900s, Judge Joseph Welch of Santa Clara County owned a 60 acre parcel on Castle Rock Ridge. He set a precedent by opening his land for public enjoyment. Later, Dr. Russell Varian known as a pioneer of x-ray and radar technology, who had spent much of his youth exploring and hiking the canyons near Castle Rock, began making plans to purchase the land in order to donate it to the state for a park. He died abruptly of a heart attack and his wife continued to pursue his dream through her association with The Sierra Club and Sempervirens Fund. In July, of 1968, 5,242 acres were designated as Castle Rock State Park. Known for the unique sandstone outcroppings surrounded by lush forests and steep canyons it is popular with rock climbers, hikers and equestrians. Centrally located on Skyline Boulevard, with easy access, and parking is supposed to be improved in the next couple of years. Encompassing over 5500 acres, the park expands into three counties, Santa Cruz, Santa Clara, and San Mateo. 32 miles of hiking and horseback riding trails meander through the park connecting it with adjoining county parks and open space. Primitive campsites for backpackers are the only overnight facilities.
San Mateo County has 8,020 acres of forest linked together into three parks and a Heritage Grove of old growth coast redwoods that are 1000 years old. Memorial Park was acquired by the county in 1924 and named in honor of the men of the county who died in World War I. Camping and picnic facilities are available, with creek swimming and eight miles of hiking trails. Stop by the visitors center and camp store for supplies.
Sam (Emanuel) McDonald purchased his first lot in the mountains in 1917, with the purchase of a two-room cabin on Alpine Creek in the northern portion of the property. He continued to buy lots until he had amassed 400+ acres. Born in Louisiana in 1884, he was a descendent of slaves. A long time employee of Stanford, he donated his land to the University upon his death in 1957 with instructions to use the property as a park. San Mateo County acquired the land in 1958 for $67,000 and opened the park in 1970. An additional 450 acres were acquired in 1976 from Kendall B. Towne, bringing the total acreage of the park to 867 acres.
Pascadero Creek Park is by far the largest chunk of land at 5,700 acres, and the link that attaches all of the parks together. The property owned by the Santa Cruz Lumber Company was logged out and sold to the county of San Mateo in 1971. Pescadero, Spanish for “fishing place” was named by Mexican land grant holders; John Gilroy stated “The Castros, I, and an Indian gave it that name in 1814, being a place where we used to catch salmon.” According to the San Mateo County Parks website “Pescadero Creek Park sits atop a deposit of natural gas and oil. Natural gas occasionally bubbles up through seams near Hoffman Creek producing a strong gas odor. Crude oil pools up in the channel of Tarwater Creek, and seeps into Jones Gulch Creek staining the rocks. Oil exploration was attempted in the 1970’s but failed to hit the pool.”
Heritage Grove was added on the east-side of McDonald Park. In 1974. A determined local resident fought to save this 37 acre grove from the loggers’ saw in 1971. The tallest tree is 250 feet tall, considered to be the tallest tree in the Santa Cruz Mountains.
Two of the parks in Santa Clara County are in the Skyline region. Sanborn Park starts in Saratoga, ending on Skyline Boulevard. Several entrances on Highway 35 and on Black Road are accessible, offering hiking, camping, RV camping and picnicking opportunities year round in the lush wooded 3,688 acre park.
Upper Stevens Creek Park begins at Stevens Creek Dam, ending on Skyline Boulevard in Palo Alto. Douglas fir and redwoods dominate this 1,095 acre mountain park offering 11 miles of hiking trails with valley vistas attracting hikers and mountain bicyclists.
Open Space join all of the parks together. Nine of Midpeninsula Regional Open Space District’s preserves join the state parks and the county parks together: Coal Creek (508 acres), Foothills (212 acres), Long Ridge (2023 acres), Los Trancos (274), Russian Ridge (3137 acres), Saratoga Gap (1542 acres), Skyline Ridge (2143 acres), Thornewood (167 acres), and Windy Hill (1335 acres). The San Andres Fault crosses Los Trancos Preserve, providing a geology lesson, while grasslands of wild flowers blanket Russian Ridge Preserve. Some preserves allow equestrian use, some allow dogs, some allow mountain bikes, and some even allow hang gliding. They are all open to the public, daily from sunrise to one half-hour after sunset.