Rancho San Antonio County Park: Rhus Ridge to Black Mountain

See my photo album from this hike.

Rancho San Antonio is the nearest “hiking” park to my house, but I’ve never been a fan of it. I don’t like the crowds or the fight for parking, but more than anything, I find the hikes there boring. It take 15+ minutes to get into the hills, and even after that investment, many of the trails are repetitive and visually uninteresting.

Recently, I tried a new trailhead in Rancho San Antonio, and it totally changed my attitude about the park. This time, I started at the Rhus Ridge parking lot and hiked to Black Mountain via the Rhus Ridge Trail and the Black Mountain Trail, a RT of about 9 miles and 2300 feet of elevation gain. In contrast to starting from the main Rancho San Antonio parking lot, the hike starts strong and keeps getting better. In fact, I think this is the nicest mid-range/half-day hike within a 20 (or even 30) minute radius of Mountain View.

Unlike many other trails in the Santa Cruz Mountains facing the Bay, where vegetation often obscures the view, the trail offers frequent panoramic vistas of the Bay from San Jose to Palo Alto, with Mt. Diablo and Mt. Tam poking up over the haze. Personally, I think the views along the way are better than the views from the top of Black Mountain. The trail goes through ecosystems ranging from moist and shaded ridgesides to fully exposed semi-arid chaparral. There was only one uninteresting spot when the trail goes along the power line easement for a bit (a number of Rancho San Antonio trails suffer from this defect), but it’s brief. The first and last mile are quite steep, so it’s a tough workout, but it’s manageable for hikers that pace themselves, and the rest of the trail is nicely graded. Signage is excellent. I saw plenty of people but it wasn’t “crowded” (the parking, discussed below, helps limit the crowds). All of Rancho San Antonio (and most parks in the Santa Cruz Mountains) gets frequent airplane noise. Refreshingly, the trail was mostly free of horse poop.

Two crucial downsides of this hike:

1) Like other Rancho San Antonio hikes, don’t do this hike on warm days. I went when temperatures were in the 50s, and it was pleasant. Indeed, the perfect time to go is on a cool but sunny Winter day after a storm, when temperatures are comfortable but the storm has cleaned up the haze. In contrast, when the temperatures get into the high 60s or warmer, this hike will become miserable or even unbearable. On warm days (up into the 70s), I prefer hiking Wunderlich County Park because its trails are mostly shaded.

2) The parking lot is TINY! It holds maybe a dozen cars max. The local residents have done a good job making street parking illegal for a mile in every direction too, and I sense they take a perverse delight in towing illegally parked cars. The result is that finding a parking spot feels a little like winning the lottery. As usual, go early. The good news: if you can snag a spot, parking is free.