Tired of hiking "The Dish"? Here's a few alternatives
Whether you're a longtime resident or a Stanford student, you've probably hiked "the Dish" more times than you can count. While its an okay hike, its an appetizer to the real adventures further up in the mountains. Here's a few of my favorites within 10 miles of campus and downtown Palo Alto
Foothills Park and Pearson-Arastradero Preserve
This massive swath of open spaces is practically the size of a State Park and about as immaculately managed. Foothills Park and Pearson-Arastradero preserve are similar in size and trails but only Pearson-Arastradero is fully open to the public. You either have to be a Palo Alto resident or a guest of one to get into Foothills Preserve. Either way, the views and nature are expansive.
To get to the public lot at Pearson-Arastradero Prseserve, set your GPS to
1530 Arastradero Rd, Palo Alto, CA 94304 which is a dirt lot. There you find an interpretive center and staging area for hikers and mountain bikers. Just to the North of the Parking Lot is the Redtail Loop which is 1.5 miles of easy hiking or thrilling mountain biking. Another short, easy hike is the walk to Arastradero Lake which is a half a mile on the Juan Bautista de Anza Trail. My favorite hike of the park is to Vista Point which rises 732ft above the Bay and has phenomenal views. A direct out-and-back is about 3.2 miles but you can make a loop out of it for up to 6 miles. The park is well marked with signs and free trail maps at the Interpretive Center.
The sneaky way into Foothills Park
The Bay-to-Ridge trail has a sneaky entrance into Foothills Park if you don't mind hiking 1.9 miles to get to the entrance. This includes taking the Juan Bautista Trail for 0.5 miles from the parking lot, then veering left on the Arastradero Creek Trail. This ascends for 1.4 miles until reaching the park's boundaries and dropping you on the Coyote Trail of Foothills Park.
As long as you've hiked this far, might as well continue another 0.6 miles to Vista Hill which is nearly 1,000' in altitude and has views for 50 miles on a clear day.
Windy Hill Open Space Preserve
Windy Hill Open Space is the crown jewel of the Palo Alto area, sporting a prominent summit on skyline drive and hikes ranging from an hour to all day. Its also a great spot any time of year but spring in particular brings out lush fields of wildflowers on the pathway to the summit.
The favorite hike of the park is the 8 mile Windy Hill Loop which starts at the parking area off Portola Road in Portola Valley. Start on the Spring Ridge Trail which takes you to the summit of Windy Hill in about 3 miles. It starts relatively level in the first 0.7 miles before ascending 1,300 ft in 2.3 miles to the summit. The effort is well rewarded, even if you don't make it to the summit. Panoramas of the South Bay quickly come into view with minimal elevation gain.
After achieving the summit, walk along the Anniversary and Lost Trails for another 1.1 miles before intersecting with the Hamms Gulch Trail. This trail descends 3.2 miles down to the intersection with the flat section of the Spring Ridge Trail and returning to the parking lot. Most people take all day to make this loop. It is dog friendly!
Lost Trail and Razorback Ridge Trail: no crowds!
The main loop of Windy Hill is frequently crowded but if you don't mind making a 10 mile loop out of the hike, consider ditching the Hamms Gulch Trail and continuing on the Lost Trail for another 1.7 miles until intersecting with the Razorback Ridge Trail. Similar to Hamms Gulch, the Razorback Ridge Trail has a switchbacked descent for 2.3 miles before intersecting with Alpine Road and the Eagle Trail. These trails dump you back on the Hamms Gulch Trail.
I prefer this route for its heavily forested areas and absence of crowds. I've never seen anyone on the Razorback Ridge Trail, even on weekends.
Wunderlich County Park
Of all the parks near Palo Alto, I've hiked this one the most. Wunderlich Park is just 15 minutes from the Stanford Campus and features excellent opportunities to immerse yourself in redwood forests. There's no admission fee either!
My favorite hike here is a loop that takes you through several of the legendary redwood groves. Starting at the parking area off Woodside Road, follow the Alambique Trail 1.8 miles to the Alambique Flat turnoff. This is a steady, 725 foot gain in elevation but the trail is well marked and not too strenuous. Alambique Flat is a "fairy ring" of redwoods; Fairy rings are offspring trees that form a rough circle around a clearing that was once a looming parent tree.
From Alambique Flat, continue on the Alambique trail another 0.3 miles, past the intersection of the Oak Trail. You'll encounter a fork with the Bear Gulch trail, take a right and continue another 0.3 miles to the Meadows, pictured above. A survey of the meadows makes you feel far from the hustle of Silicon Valley!
From the Meadows, the Bear Gulch Trail winds its way back down to the parking area in about 2.2 miles. It passes several intersections but as long as you follow signs for Bear Gulch Trail, you'll come back to the place you started. Along the way, you'll pass Redwood Flat, another curious "fairy ring" of especially tall redwoods.
Huddart County Park
Huddart County Park is the sister park to Wunderlich County Park and similarly has great opportunities to wander among redwoods. Its located on the winding Kings Mountain Road in Woodside. There is a 6 dollar entry fee for cars.
The map of the park shows a hive-like network of trails that's a bit difficult to navigate. Fortunately there's good signage and well-maintained trails throughout the park. My favorite trails exhibiting the diversity of madrone, oak and redwood forests are the Dean Trail, the Chinquapin Trail and Crystal Springs Trails. Note that distances vary depending on which parking lot you leave from. You can't go wrong with any trail selection in this park but bring a map and GPS as its easy to get lost!
Portola Valley Trails
I previously wrote about Portola Valley Trails in a separate post but I'd be re-missed if I didn't mention them here. This network is maintained by the city and is nestled between Windy Hill Open Space and Foothills Park. Access is best from the the Alpine Trailhead off Alpine Road.
Like Huddart Park, a glance at a map reveals a tight network of trails allowing for simple, mile long hikes and all day affairs. Its a "chose your own adventure" kind of a place but I recommend incorporating the Toyon Trail and Coal Mine Ridge trails for the best mix of views and wilderness. The Toyon Trail in particular is sheltered from civilization, making it feel much further from Silicon Valley than it actually is.
Silicon Valley is a pretty congested place but I'm grateful of its proximity to many parks and open spaces. After a few years of hiking around Stanford and Palo Alto, I've found that even during rush hour traffic, none of these hikes are more than 30 minutes away. Thank goodness!