Written by 2019 Ambassador Blake Ferguson
The San Francisco Bay area is widely known as a trail running destination. Most people, however, only think of the iconic trails in Marin north of the city and are never exposed to some of the fantastic trail systems that the peninsula and south bay has to offer. Trails up and down the peninsula have a little bit of everything: you can find rocky exposed ridgelines, deep redwood forests, sweeping views of the Pacific Ocean and the San Francisco Bay, many with incredible accessibility.
There are countless gems I would love to share; cutting this into a manageable list was a challenge. Living right in San Jose, I decided to focus on the trails that I run the most. Each one is a twenty-minute drive or less from downtown San Jose, making it easy to get away from the hustle of Silicon Valley.
Trail #1: Black Mountain Trail
High above Mountain View and deep within Rancho San Antonio Open Space is the fantastic Black Mountain Trail. The trail is about four miles long and climbs all the way to the top of Black Mountain at about 2,800 feet. The most direct approach is from the Rhus Ridge trailhead, but from the main trailheads, there are multiple approaches to reach the Black Mountain trail, all involving long, strenuous (but very worth it) climbs.
The smooth single-track winds up the mountain through oak forest, chaparral and rolling grass hilltops along with steep ravines and narrow ridgelines. As you get closer to the top of Black Mountain, make sure to take in the views of the whole south bay. On a clear day, you will be able to see San Jose, Oakland, and even parts of San Francisco way off to the north.
The last two miles heading to the top, the trail turns from single track into a rocky fire road, and it gets steep! The top of Black Mountain has some really spectacular views, although there is a large antenna array that uglies it up a bit. On a good day, it is worth spending a few extra minutes to take it all in before bombing back down the trail.
My favorite part of the trail is the descent. After the steep downhill on the fire road, the trail turns into the sweetest smooth single track that California has to offer. Runners can zip down switchbacks with some spectacular views of the rest of Rancho San Antonio spread out below. I love when you get to see the trails you worked so hard to come up play out below you as you work your way down.
Rancho San Antonio is a gem and a runners paradise, and in my opinion, the Black Mountain trail is the crown jewel of the park.
Trail #2: Priest Rock Trail (aka Dogmeat)
Located in Sierra Azul Open Space is an absolute beast of a trail: the Priest Rock trail. If you are looking for a nice enjoyable run, this is not the trail for you. If you are looking for a punishing training run with steep, steady climbing and lots of elevation, this might be your animal. Priest Rock is a rocky fire road with a bit over 2,000 feet of elevation gain in about 4 miles. Pleasant it isn’t.
Starting from the Alma Bridge road trailhead, you can expect to start climbing right away. The bottom part of the trail has some lovely shade from large oaks and towering eucalyptus trees, but don’t expect to be hiding from the sun for long. You will soon leave the large trees behind, and the trail will be lined with bushes as it moves up the mountain.
About three miles into the run, you will intersect with the Limekiln Trail. From this trail intersection, there are great views of the south bay, along with the Lexington Reservoir and Highway 17, running from Santa Cruz to San Jose moving below. On a clear day, the views of the bay are spectacular. If you keep looking up the Priest Rock Trail, you can see your destiny winding up the mountain.
The next section of the trail is affectionately known to local trail runners as ‘dogmeat’ because your legs will feel like dogmeat after. The trail somehow gets rockier, and you will fight loose rock and elevation as you move deeper into the Santa Cruz mountains. Luckily, this challenging section only lasts for a mile and a half before the trail ends at the top, where it intersects with the Kennedy Trail.
I like to combine this run with the Kennedy Trail and the Limekiln Trail to make a really challenging figure eight-shaped training run. On your way up the best views are behind you; now that you’re coming down, you get to enjoy them as a reward for all your hard work. Runners of the annual Quicksilver 100k get treated to the entirety of the figure eight as part of the course.
It isn’t an easy run, but you will feel like you accomplished something when you’re finished. As a bonus, all of these trails are dog-friendly, which means you don’t have to suffer alone.
Trail #3: New Almaden Trail
Almaden Quicksilver county park is genuinely a south bay gem. Located in south San Jose the park gets its name from the mercury mining history of the area. In fact, remnants of the mines and mining equipment are scattered throughout the park. The park is giant with 37 miles of trails winding through it, so runs of almost any length are possible. If you really want to go long, you can connect the trails in Almaden with the adjacent Sierra Azul Open space. Go ahead and bring your four-legged trail buddies as the park is dog friendly!
Running almost the entire length of the north side of the park is the New Almaden Trail. While most of the trails in the park are fire roads, the New Almaden trail is a beautiful single track with woods, grasslands, chaparral and amazing views of the south Santa Clara Valley and downtown San Jose. There are no severe elevation changes; the trail rolls along for about seven miles weaving its way in and out of the woods.
While the park is actually located in San Jose City limits, it feels much more remote. I routinely see bobcats, deer, skunks, and even coyotes along the way. Also, like much of the area, there are a strange amount of wild turkeys out there. I really love that even though this is the prettiest trail in the park, it usually is lightly trafficked, so you often have the trail and the woods all to yourself.
I spend quite a bit of time running in Almaden but always find myself on the New Almaden Trail. In a pretty widely used park, the solitude and the views never fail to disappoint.
Trail #4: Tony Look Trail
Right in the hills above Cupertino is Stevens Creek County Park and Fremont Older Open Space Preserve. The two parks blend together, and it is next to impossible to distinguish when you have left one and entered the other. Fremont Older Open Space gets its name from the former landowner, Fremont Older a San Francisco newspaperman who originally purchased the property in 1910. Combined the parks offer about 20 miles of trail combined, mostly fire roads with a few really nice single tracks. There are a few challenging climbs in the park leading up to the high point Maisie’s Peak which has excellent views of Cupertino including the Apple Infinity loop campus.
While the eastern side of the park is mostly rolling grassland with a few sections of towing eucalyptus, the western side of the park has dense forests and offers much more shade as it moves deeper into Stevens Canyon. It’s on this backside of the park that one of my favorite trails is located, the Tony Look Trail. The trail is a mostly shaded single track running along the Stevens Creek reservoir moving deeper into the canyon. The trail is winding and has some just spectacular switchback sections with views of the canyon and the reservoir.
You will move quickly up some switchbacks through the forest above the central part of the reservoir before the trail opens out into some scrub along the backside of the park above Stevens Canyon road. This section has some pretty rocky switchbacks descending, and you can expect to dodge lizards who seem to be everywhere on this part of the trail. Just past this, you will have some super narrow path hugging the canyon wall with a fairly steep drop to the creek on the other side. Once you cross a feeder creek or two that are coming down from the ridgeline the trail ends at the also fabulous Lookout Trail. The Lookout Trail will steeply wind its way up to the ridgeline and give you access to all the trails in the front section of the park.
Overall, I feel that this park is a bit of a hidden gem. It is tucked pretty close to an urban area, but for whatever reason isn’t the most popular destination for hikers. Pretty often I will hit this park up for a weekday evening run and not see another person. The Tony Look trail is even less utilized making it perfect for a close to town piece of solitude. All of the trails are dog-friendly as well, which always makes it more fun for me.
Bonus points are that adjacent to the park, and accessible from the trails, is a really laid back winery Garrod Farms. While I have personally never followed up a run with a wine tasting, but have seen hikers taking advantage of this unique feature.
I love living here, amid a trail running mecca. These are just a small sampling of what the area has to offer. If you are in the area and are looking to hit up one of these trails I’ve included links to Strava activities featuring these trails. Follow the loops that I did or use them as a base to create your own. If you are coming to the bay area and looking for recommendations find me on social media, I am always happy to share some trail knowledge or some miles.
This is Blake Ferguson’s first article for DBR.
Looking for more to do in California? Check out our ambassador’s guide to all the best SoCal races!