To be honest, I might not have visited Windy Hill if not for this trip. It’s a one-hour drive to get there, and it’s small—at 1,312 acres, it isn’t much larger than Central Park in New York City. But now I know that it would have been a mistake. It’s a great park. And the surrounding hills and open space make it feel much larger than it really is.
We got to the preserve parking lot at 8:40, 10 minutes after the hike’s scheduled start. A group was leaving as we parked. Was that the Loma Prieta Sierra Club? We tossed our backpacks on and hurried up the trail, slowly gaining on them. Some of the group members looked back at us suspiciously. Meanwhile, I was scanning the backs of heads to see if I recognized anyone.
When the group stopped at an intersection a few minutes into the hike, Elizabeth and I caught up with them. We introduced ourselves. I was happy to see some familiar faces: Debbie, Chris, Rosemary, and Barry from a Peak Climbing Section trip up Mount Silliman in 2008 were there. So was Sassan, from last year’s trip up University Peak.
Elizabeth and I started walking again, this time as part of the group. We passed old, majestic valley oaks (Quercus lobata), heard bird song from every branch and bush, and watched the low morning clouds burn off. I was becoming impressed with little Windy Hill Open Space Preserve.
We climbed up through the old, deep forest of Hamms Gulch. Shafts of sunlight filtered through the misty air from the tops of giant trees. The furrowed trunks of the Douglas-firs (Pseudotsuga menziesii var. menziesii) were covered in deep green feather moss on one side and lichen the color of the Statue of Liberty on the other. Below the Douglas-firs were coast live oaks (Quercus agrifolia), much shorter trees with curving gray trunks and twisted, tangled branches draped with lichen.
The lush understory, filled with ferns, grasses, and flowers, brought as much joy as the trees. Little white and pink milkmaids (Cardamine californica) bloomed everywhere. Hound’s tongue (Cynoglossum grande), with clusters of blue and white flowers on foot-tall stalks, poked out above everything else. We even saw some blooming western leatherwood (Dirca occidentalis), a Bay Area endemic.
At the top of the gulch, we turned left on the Bay Area Ridge Trail and followed it along Skyline Boulevard and into Russian Ridge Open Space Preserve. We were on top of the Santa Cruz Mountains, a landscape of meadows dotted with big oaks and coyote brush (Baccharis pilularis). We stopped for lunch on a wooden platform overlooking hills that rolled off toward the Pacific Ocean covered in a patchwork of emerald grass and dark redwood forests.
I checked my altimeter. We’d climbed 1,800 feet from our car to the crest of the Santa Cruz Mountains, traveling through oak woodlands, Douglas-fir forest, and chaparral onto a mountaintop meadow with a beautiful view. Not a bad hike!
From the overlook, we turned back on the Bay Area Ridge Trail and followed it north to Windy Hill, the peak for which the preserve is named. Windy Hill was actually two small, grassy bumps next to Skyline Boulevard. I knew I wouldn’t be happy tagging only the highest, so I hiked up both of them.
From the higher summit, I had a clear view to the east. We weren’t far from Stanford’s campus, and its Hoover Tower was conspicuous. Farther away were the hangars at Moffett Field. Below, a coyote (Canis latrans) sat on the hillside, watching us go by.
We took the Spring Ridge Trail back to our cars. It’s really just an easy dirt road, and it made a pleasant finish to our hike. A white-tailed kite (Elanus leucurus) hovered over the grasslands, looking for dinner. To our south was Black Mountain, covered in dark groves of Douglas-fir.
We finished at 4:30 and had drinks and snacks that the leaders had brought for everyone.