“Nifty Ninety Peak” challenge takes us to Almaden Quicksilver County Park

Discovering Almaden Quicksilver County Park

At the end of June, Ralph and I and our good friend Patricia Schaffarczyk headed for Almaden Quicksilver (mercury) County Park, part of Santa Clara County Parks. We wanted to climb Mines Hill (1,728 ft.) and Church Hill (1,400 ft.) both easy summits that are part of the Nifty Ninety Peaks challenge. 

As it turned out, the choice of Almaden Quicksilver as our day’s destination was a good one; we had temperatures in the 70s with clear skies and the trails were almost deserted. 


We found the Almaden Quicksilver park well maintained with clean restrooms and water at the entrance and well-maintained trails throughout. The parks department and the Boy Scouts of America have done a great job putting up informational signboards. The park does get a demerit, however, for not putting trail markers to the peaks.  

There are three park entrances: Mockingbird, Wood, and Hacienda–no entrance or parking fees are charged. We came in on the Hacienda entrance passing the Casa Grande and Almaden Quicksilver Mining Museum along the way. It was closed this date, but  we had visited it previously and can recommend a visit. Call (408) 323-1107). 
Our route: Our loop from the parking lot climbed gradually on the Mines Hill Trail. At the first intersection, we continued on the Mines Hill Trail (which was now marked as part of the Bay Area Ridge Trail) heading south.
At the next intersection, we turned left (SE) toward the English Camp on the Castillero Trail. (Alternately, one could follow the Yellow Kid Trail and see Spanish Town, Rotary Furnace and the Hidalgo Cemetery, but that was a longer route.)
The cemetery is a grassy area with a line of cypress and surrounded by a picket fence, but no grave marker) From the Castillero/Yellow Kid Trail intersection, we used Maps.me to locate the unmarked Mine Hill.
After the short climb to the summit (with a bit steep and with loose rock), we retraced our steps back on the Castillero, went again through English camp, and climbed the narrow, dirt, unmarked trail up to Church Hill. From an open area near the summit, we had good expansive views over the park.
Rather than retrace our steps back to the parking lot, we followed the wide, dirt Deep Gulch Trail about a mile downhill. The deeply shaded passage was a perfect contrast to the exposed trails we had been following. Depending on the season, the creek below the trail can be running hard, but in late June, there was little water.
At the bottom on the incline, we made a left to follow our narrow trail through a field, which took us alongside the former site of the Hacienda Reduction Area (where mercury was extracted from cinnabar ore and made liquid). Here we found an interesting collection of old mining equipment.  
Note: Check the weather report before you go. Temperatures during the summer can easily hit 90s or more. Take plenty of water, wear sunscreen, a hat, and even a hiking umbrella. Springtime usually brings an abundance of wildflowers. In June and July you will see the bright, colorful, broom shown here.  
Almaden Quicksilver County Park is 3,977 acres. The historic park was the site of over 135 years of mining activities and former home to more than 1,800 miners and their families. All of the former mines have been sealed, but the San Cristobal mine can be viewed from behind a locked gate.
Five miles,  Rated: Moderate.

More history: There is much more to the park history, click here
More extensive route: Bay Area Hiker, click here.  

Hiked June 28, 2018. Peaks 43 and 44 for Ralph and me.

Hazardous hike and bees ahead in Sunol Regional

Flag Hill and Vista Grande and a few hazards 

On Tuesday, Ralph and I headed out for Sunol Regional Wilderness in Alameda County —eagerly looking forward to climbing to two peaks in the park — Flag Hill and Vista Grande. These would be #41 and #42 for us on the ‘Nifty Ninety’ Peaks challenge that we have been pursuing since the Sierra Club Bay Chapter issued their challenge back in December 2017.

Ralph at the Flag Hill signpost 

Sunol Regional is a popular destination on the weekends, but rather  quiet on weekdays. In fact, we saw no one else on our trails during our 7+-mile hike.

The  S.F. Bay Area weather has been quite varied the last couple of weeks. Sunol can easily climb into the 90s and even 100s during hot spells, but on this particular day, it stayed comfortable. It was 70s during most of our hike with a cooling breeze while we were on the peaks. As we came back down from the hills, the temperature rose, but by that time we were done with our explorations.

Our route: The climb to Flag Hill (1,360 ft) is described as steep and strenuous. The Flag Hill Trail (which starts just behind the Visitor Center on a small wooden bridge) climbs about 900 feet in 1.26 miles. We reached the marker, then walked to the top of the hill right behind it — and in the process picked up dozens of stickers in our socks!

The rewards were several however — the workout itself, of course, but also views of the park and Calaveras Reservoir. The occasional giant Oak trees provided welcome shade as we switch-backed through grassland on a narrow, dirt trail (with a few rocky sections).

From Flag Hill, we followed a more moderate route going north and then east onto Flag Hill Road for .78 miles where we reached an intersection and went straight onto the Vista Grande Road (another wide dirt road). I enjoyed looking over to the Northeast and seeing the challenging Maguire Peaks that we had hiked a couple of months back.

Finding the peak of Vista Grande, at 1840′, was a bit more difficult than finding Flag Hill had been. There wasn’t a signpost or survey marker to show the point, but our GPS located the spot we wanted—the highpoint in the middle of a grassy mound.

The hazards: Our two peaks located, we doubled back on Vista Grande, and stopped to eat lunch with views and a bench at the intersection with Eagle View.

As we proceeded down onto Eagle View, we were startled to find a sign that urged care. The “No Bicycles or Equestrians” wasn’t unusual to see, but the  “Steep and Hazardous Terrain, Use Extreme Caution in This Area” was a bit ominous. As we rounded a curve and saw what lay ahead, I considered turning back, but I didn’t want to climb back up the hill and figured that if we were careful, we would be ok.

As I led the way, I had two concerns. The first was that the hillside was very steep and a fall would lead to a tumble a couple hundred feet down the slope. Secondly, we were in prime rattlesnake and tick territory. As I proceeded, I used my hiking poles to keep me steady and I scanned the grassy slopes to spot any snakes. I kept telling myself that if I were to see a one, I should not jump or lose my balance.
Bee nest ahead: I was very happy, and relieved, when we finished that section of the trail and descended to cross a small creek. We continued our descent on the Rocks Trail and Indian Joe trail. We’d planned to continue on Indian Joe, but a hand-lettered sign, “BEE NEST AHEAD” convinced us to turn onto the wide Hayfield Road the rest of the way down the hill where we crossed on the wooden bridge again and returned to our car.

This was a wonderful and exhilarating hike with enough challenge to leave me feeling I had worked to complete these peaks! Grateful for a break in the hot spell; generally this hike is best done in the spring or fall. (You’ll enjoy more wildflowers in the spring.)

Additional resource: General overview of Sunol hikes.

Date hiked: June 26, 2018. (Our 41, 42)