How magical is this Woodside park? You might just see the tiniest horse ever born.

All this rootin’ tootin’ cowgirl needs is a white hat to wave! This is one of the normal-sized horses, by the way. Photo by Jaqueline Wein.

by Jennifer Christgau-Aquino

The midsummer heat at Wunderlich Park was making it hard to function after a long hike despite the shade of towering redwood trees. My son wallowed on a bed of rocks shirtless at the hike’s terminus. My daughter stood staring at the same spot with her tongue hanging out of her mouth. I sought water, but was having a hard time focusing to fill my bottle.

So when a tiny horse, barely larger than my 6-year-old son, trotted down the path, no one blinked. Then it neighed and shook its long mane and forelock, revealing big brown eyes.

“Mom, it’s a …” my daughter said, struggling for words.

Like Li’l Sebastian on ‘Parks & Rec,’ Lightning makes friends wherever he goes. Just don’t call him a pony. Photo by Jennifer Christgau-Aquino.

I turned my gaze to the path and immediately understood. It looked just like a My Little Pony, except instead of cotton candy pink it was a rich, reddish brown with a blond mane and tail.

I poked my son with my foot and pointed wildly. “Look, look!” He crept to an upright position and gaped at the creature plodding down the path past the horse stables and ring.

Herein lies the beauty of Wunderlich Park: you just never know what you are going to find. In this case, a 17-year-old miniature horse — not “pony,” as we were corrected — named Lightning made our day. But there’s a lot to discover in this 942-acre park that’s become wildly popular in the past several years following a slew of improvements to trails, bathrooms, picnic facilities and the equestrian program. A key component is the trail rides. Nowadays horses are not only boarded at Wunderlich, they also trot past hikers on the pathways.

“I think there’s a huge draw to see horses here. It’s different seeing them up close than when you are driving along the road and you see them in a pasture,” says Stephen Kraemer, a San Mateo County park ranger who works at Wunderlich. “It’s that connection to nature.”

Horses, great and small; fairy-tale redwood trees; magically inexpensive shuttle rides. Here’s an inside look at what we’ve uncovered along the park’s 17 miles of hiking, horseback riding and running trails (sorry, no bikes or dogs). If you make a discovery, let us know. We’d understand, though, if you kept it to yourself.

A shuttle with a wine pit stop

The best-kept secret about Wunderlich is the free shuttle departing Winslow Avenue in Redwood City at the CalTrain Station Saturdays and Sundays every 90 minutes between 9am and 5pm. The county started the Menlo Park–Wunderlich shuttle because parking is so tight on weekends that cars overflow onto Woodside Road, clogging the already-narrow thoroughfare. The shuttle is cool, clean, fast (sometimes scary fast) and quiet. The bonus: Upon your return to Redwood City, it drops you right in front of the wine bar Cru. After exploring the park, it just feels right to sit outside and sip rose with visions of tiny horses and tree houses dancing in your head.

A reservoir of newts — literally

It’s hard to imagine now that this land was once a working ranch full of grapes and olive and fruit trees. In the 300 years since it was a farm, subsequent owners have let it return to its natural state. Yet there are still vestiges of an agro-industrial past hidden in the thick groves of redwood trees and madrones. Look for skid rows, tracks and paths in the forest that denote where ox carts hauled out felled trees. There are also olive and fruit trees in spots, though they are very hard to pick out. Perhaps the most interesting landmark, though, is about 1.2 miles into the park at Salamander Flat, where the county has turned the old ranch’s gravity-fed reservoir into a breeding habitat for rough-skinned newts. They lie like sticks just underneath the water’s surface and are best seen in late winter and early summer, when they meet up to procreate in orgiastic, slow-moving newt balls. Wild group sex underwater: invented right here in California, folks!

Free coffee and history

On Saturdays you’ll find a pot of hot coffee just outside the Carriage Room Museum, which is housed inside a stunning stable resembling something out of the English countryside. It’s Folger’s, not Philz, but hey, did we mention that a) it’s free; and b) the museum’s full name is the Folger Stable Carriage Room Museum? Yes, Wunderlich was once owned by the coffee mogul, who purchased it as a working ranch in the late 1800s and converted it to a private family retreat. The museum, run by The Friends of Huddart and Wunderlich Parks, has thoughtfully curated exhibits on the park’s history, with emphasis on the importance of horses in Western culture. It’s open Saturdays from 10am to 4pm. Don’t miss a chance to watch a working stable in action after touring the small museum.

House of redwood. Photo by Jennifer Christgau-Aquino.

Tree houses

On hot days, Wunderlich’s lower trails stay nice and cool, shaded by the canopy of towering redwoods. About half a mile up the Alambique Trail, just above the stables, you’ll come across a massive two-story portion of an old-growth redwood trunk clinging to the edge of an overhang. There’s a small path with root-like steps that lead into the barrel of the tree, which features two windows onto the path. Up another section of the Bear Gulch Trail there are several clearings with massive redwood trees in clusters forming caves and alcoves for climbing or hiding. There are also piles of loose tree limbs that enterprising children or adults can mold into structures.

Did we mention the horses?

I started coming here when my daughter was 3, not to hike, but to see horses. You can’t get much closer to them than you do at Wunderlich. Dozens of horses are boarded on the property, and there’s a large riding ring and corral behind the parking lot. Petting and feeding them are banned, but you can stand alongside their enclosures and admire their massive suede heads and brawny bodies. If you are really nice and really, really curious, you might find a kind caretaker to answer questions. If you want to saddle up, Chaparral Ranch offers camps, trail rides and lessons for adults and kids 8 years and older. Trail rides cost about $40 for half an hour and can be as tame as riding around the ring or as aggressive as heading into the hills. You can even ride your stallion all the way to Alice’s Restaurant for lunch ($300). A least the shuttle and parking are free.

Views for miles

About a mile up the Alambique Trail you’ll find peek-a-boo views of the East Bay Hills. On a clear day the mountains’ sun-parched backs hover above the crisp blue bay. There are other places to hike that offer more dramatic vistas, but they don’t provide the shade or the redwood tree canopy or the opportunity to see horses up close or the free coffee. Just sayin’.

GETTING TO WUNDERLICH PARK

Where: 4040 Woodside Rd, Woodside

Time: Open 8am-dusk. Busiest times are early morning to mid-afternoon on weekends. Very quiet on weekdays.

What you’ll find: 17 miles of hiking, horseback riding and running trails (no bikes or dogs) through lush canopies of second growth redwood trees, madrones and, up top, a meadow. All this amid renovated historic buildings and a bustling equestrian boarding and riding program.

Shuttle info: Free SamTrans shuttle runs between Menlo Park and Wunderlich 9am-5pm on Saturdays and Sundays. Limited parking available at the park.

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THE SIX FIFTY staff

Sometimes our work is a collaborative effort, hence the "staff" byline. The best of what to eat, see and do on the SF Peninsula.

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