You know those people who always come back from fabulous vacations bragging about how they “had the whole place” to themselves? Next time, summon a smirk of your own and direct them to your Instagram feed, where they’ll see you cavorting in a beautiful park right here at home with NO CROWDS AT ALL, because you got a permit or arranged a special tour to get there. “We could have hiked naked if we wanted,” you can tell them. Take that, traveling friends!
3.7 miles of trails; hiking and horseback riding only
Midpeninsula Regional Open Space District has big plans for this picture-perfect amalgam of redwood forest and working ranchland that tumbles down the windward side of the Santa Cruz Mountains toward the Pacific. Someday it will sport 16 miles of hiking/equestrian trails and 9 miles of multi-use (read: mountain biking) trails, but for now La Honda Creek is closed to the public except by permit. The Allen Road entrance, near Skyline, lies less than a mile from a 14-foot-diameter old-growth redwood named (wait for it) Big Tree. Take in the ocean view at Vista Point, explore a shady redwood path and thank the conservationist impulses that made this place possible.
Mark The Calendar: By the end of 2017, the new six-mile Harrington Creek Trail will open at the southern end of the preserve, with entrance via the Sears Ranch Road off La Honda Road/Hwy 84. Stay tuned for exact dates.
Permit — and planning — required. Permits from Midpen are free but require 2 business days to process.
10.3 miles of trails; hiking and horseback riding only
Another Midpen property awaiting its coming-out party is Bear Creek Redwoods, off Bear Creek Road just outside Los Gatos. As with La Honda Creek, Bear Creek Redwoods is currently closed to the public but accessible via permit. Near the parking lot lie the intriguing ruins of the Jesuit-run Alma College (Gov. Jerry Brown went there), shuttered in 1969; the 1400-acre preserve’s 10 miles of trail pass ponds, wells and other structures that lend an air of wonder to this history-steeped site.
Follow the fire road under the cool canopy of second-growth redwoods and Doug firs up to the chaparral plateau with its breathtaking view of Sierra Azul OSP and an enchanting thicket of California wild roses.
Permit required. Same restrictions as above. Apply here.
The permit-only Waterwheel Creek Trail Parking Lot connects to 15 miles of hiking, equestrian and mountain biking trails
Monte Bello’s 15 miles of trail, and the fact that it rubs up against multiple other Midpen-run open spaces, means it’s a great starting point for a big adventure with big climbs, big views and big rewards. Parking at the high-elevation Waterwheel Creek Trail lot means getting remote, fast. Though all trails in Monte Bello are public, the Waterwheel Creek parking lot is permit-only, meaning you’ll start out in a corner of this huge 3500-acre park that’s anything but overrun.
On the way to the lot, you’ll pass Ridge Vineyards (tasting room open 11am-5pm Sat-Sun, by appointment Mon-Fri; it’s a great place to picnic). To the left and right of the road lie Ridge’s famous Monte Bello vineyards, the ones that produced the cabernet, merlot and petit verdot grapes that took the world by surprise in the 1976 Judgment of Paris (and won last year’s 40th anniversary repeat tasting).
Permit required. This is another Midpen joint; apply here, allowing 2 business days for processing.
Montebello Road closed for repair weekdays throughout August 2017. Atmospheric river strikes again.
10 miles; hiking, horseback riding, mountain biking
Lots of people want the San Francisco Public Utilities Commission to open the 23,000 acres surrounding picturesque Crystal Springs Reservoir for recreation. SFPUC seems uninterested in a free-for-all, but it has given The People the Fifield-Cahill Ridge Trail. Open three days a week for docent-led tours ranging from 2 to 13 miles in length, the FCRT is open to hikers, bikers and equestrians (not at the same time). Its 10-mile length leads from Highway 92 to Sweeney Ridge, above Pacifica; expect Monterey cypress, mixed evergreen forest, Douglas fir forest and coastal scrub.
Watch this space: A 6-mile southern extension of the Fifield-Cahill Ridge Trail linking to the Phleger Estate is in the works.
Carry water! Parts of the trail are hot and exposed, and there are no water sources along the trail (though there are toilets).
Reservations required. Info and tour reservations here. Tours fill up a couple weeks in advance, so plan accordingly.
Docent-led tours by appointment October–May
If you can get it together two weeks ahead of time, and you have a group of at least two (but no more than eight) people, and it’s between Oct. 1 and May 31, you can tour Stanford’s natural history research preserve with a volunteer docent. Like butterflies? You can order up a butterfly tour. Freaky for flowers? Make the request and you’ll probably get a docent who’s knowledgeable about the local flora. Tours usually last 2–2.5 hours. No tours during summer.
Reservations required; allow 14-day lead time. Request a tour here or call (650) 851–6813. Please wait until October; they’re largely staffed by volunteers and are easily overwhelmed.
Limited guided hikes at remote Woodside artist colony March–September (2017 hikes full)
The gorgeous SMIP Ranch, home of the Djerassi Resident Artists Program, is only 582 acres, but you’d swear it was the entire Peninsula when you’re standing at the top looking down toward the ocean. Twice a year — early in the spring (like March 1) and later in the season (this year it was May 16) — the reservation line opens for the coveted Djerassi Sculpture Hikes series. Visit large-scale sculptures in an unparalleled setting and explore the countryside. The price ranges from free (for the 2-mile hikes) to $6 for longer, more involved hikes.
Reservations required; see schedule and info here. Summer 2017 hikes are full, so check back in early spring to get a space.