Tuesday, May 4, 2010

Santa Teresa County Park: Coyote Peak

Last few feet before the Coyote Peak Summit.

Coyote Peak, the high point of the Santa Teresa hills, the only barrier between the Santa Cruz mountains and the Diablo range, provides an extremely unique way to view the south bay. From the summit views extend as far south as Gilroy and encompass the entire Silicon Valey. I set out to reach the summit from the Stile Ranch trailhead via the Fortini trail in the early evening trying to reach the summit around sunset. On the way in I lamented the sounds of riding mowers on the ranches lining the first quarter mile of the trail but on the return those same homes would be more of a comfort than I could have ever imagined them being.

Fortini Trail just before the Mine trail.

The trail begins at the Stile Ranch trailhead, instead of following the Stile Ranch trail up the hill I began my hike by taking the The Fortini trail to the right, which runs flat and level. The first half mile almost feels like a walk through a residential neighborhood with dogs barking, lawn mowers running, children screaming. After awhile the trail moves up a long valley into the heart of the park leaving the residential homes behind and becomes the Mine trail. The light was already low in the valley on the way up and I knew I would have to make great time if I was to get to the top of Coyote peak by sunset. After about a mile the trail skirts the Pueblo Day Use area which is a great alternative starting point for this hike (except my car would have been locked in, and there is a fee to park here). On the far side of the Pueblo Parking lot shortly after the bathrooms the Hidden Springs trail hooks to the right.

Ithuriel's Spear grow plentifully in the park.

The Hidden Springs trail starts the first real climbing involved in the hike, nothing thigh burning but enough to get the heart rate up anyway as the trail climbs a hundred feet or so up towards Coyote peak. Near the junction with the Ridge trail I started to hear the squeals of what could only be Wild Boar, vicious and destructive creatures that I was keen to avoid. Rather than take the more direct trail and stay on the Hidden Springs trail (with the boar) I made a left on to the Ridge trail which looked to have some fantastic views of Santa Teresa and San Jose anyway.

Tidytips and Owls Clover along the Ridge trail.

The ridge trail ungulates up and down for awhile, climbing for a half mile, then loosing that elevation in a couple quick descents. The trail passes through some nice shady wooded areas equipped with picnic tables. The trail offers consistent fabulous views of the south bay nearly the entire time. The previous days storm was still clearing out over the Diablo range leaving a ominous black mass hanging over Santa Teresa. The sun however was beginning to set and I was still at least a mile from the summit of Coyote Peak.

Storm passing over the Diablo Range to the east.

Shortly after the Laurel Springs picnic area the Ridge trail dead ends in to the Coyote Peak trail, confusingly the trail actually runs away from the peak to the left and towards it to the right. After fumbling with the map for a minute or two I finally decided to make a right, uphill, on the Coyote Peak trail. After a quarter mile the Coyote Peak trail keeps to the right through another intersection and then a third passing the Hidden Springs trail. The trail begins climbing steeply through these last few stretches right towards the radio tower at the top of Coyote Peak. My heart was pounding in my chest and sweat building up inside my jacket as I continued to push relentlessly uphill through a short by very steep segment. Just as the peak seems within striking distance, and just as the sun was beginning to fade, the trail throws a curveball and wraps around the hill for another small but very unwelcome distance.

Coyote Peak trail nearing the summit. San Jose in the background.

The last few hundred feet are fairly flat and have open views of the land around that rival the summit. The trail finally wraps around the side of the radio tower, flashing views of the Morgan Hill and Gilroy to the south, before leading up to a small landing on a knob just above the radio tower itself. Finally on the summit I snapped a few quick pictures and chugged down water from my Nalgene before pushing on.

 Sunset on Coyote Peak

Instead of heading back the way I came I concluded I could save a short amount of leg work, and have less of a chance of running into any Wild Boar, if I followed the Rocky Ridge trail back. Walking back to the Coyote Peak trail, but this time heading off along the bald ridge to the left of the summit and not wraping around the summit again, I headed for the Rocky Ridge trail. The trail entrance is easy to miss, its marked by a trail small monument sign and a speed limit sign for bicyclists. A right on the the Rocky Ridge trail however was a magnificent way to view the fading sun. Serpentine outcroppings and low grasses are all that cover this otherwise bald ridge. The trail descends for roughly two miles down into a small drainage with a creek crossing over a bridge.

Fading light heading to the rocky ridge trail.

The descent seemed exceptionally long as each remaining minute was treasured for the light it still gave me. By the time I reached the bridge the last light of the sun had faded and the moon had begun to rise and I still had another mile and a half at least in the dark. I scanned the hillsides around me with my headlamp looking for signs of creatures that might be on the prowl. Just past the bridge my lamp caught two glowing bulbs, the eyes of a deer which blinked twice at me, looked me over and then bounded away up the hillside unsure of my intentions. By the time I returned to the Mine trail I was ecstatic, no longer traversing over any new ground in the dark, I felt home free.

The Mine trail again turned into the Fortini trail and I knew the sounds of the residential area would begin again soon. I continued scanning the hillside. Again my lamp caught the eyes of a creature this time low in the grass, looking right back at me. We each stood there motionless, until the eyes dropped a little with the dipping of the creatures head lower into the grass. I waved my hiking poles above my head and yelled loudly, illiciting only a blink from the creature. It was clear to me this was some kind of predatory animal. I started walking quickly away and began to get nervous as the high shrubs closed in on the trail preventing me from seeing whatever might be hiding on the other side.

The sun descending below the hills.

I spun my headlamp around to the back of my head to give whatever might be following me the impression I was not turning from it (even though, I was very much retreating!). My heart lifted finally when the sharp bark of a very aggressive sounding dog cut through the otherwise still evening. I had returned to civilization! On the last few hundred feet of the trail, the parking lot now within sight, I turned my headlamp out to the hills, catching the eyes again watching me from a distance once again. I stripped off my pack, threw my camera in the back seat and drove out of the parking lot as quickly as possible my heart still racing happy to make it out of the park and happy to be away from those eyes.

Long exposure of Coyote peak at night (taken moments before I saw the eyes).

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