When people think of Silicon Valley, sights that come to mind are self-driving cars, boxy tech firms and endless traffic. Not the peaceful view from above it all, reached by hiking trails nestled on a flank of mountains offering stunning vistas of the Pacific and the San Francisco Bay. For me, summit hikes are the best way to experience the Valley.
One of these hiking gems is Black Mountain Trail, which takes you on a three-mile jaunt to the top of Black Mountain. The summit provides unfettered 360 degree views of the iconic bodies of water and an inviting picnic spot to rest your weary legs after the climb.
To get to Black Mountain Trail, you start with Rhus Ridge Trail, which begins as a welcoming path under the shade. When I went, a pale winter sun gently dipped through the trees to greet visitors. Fortunately, as the climb intensifies, you’re under that protective canopy to help keep you cool as the internal heat turns up.
I’d read Rhus Ridge was steep, and it is, but it’s only the first mile. I know – small blessings, silver linings – and yes, I’ll take them. Luckily, it’s a mix of fire road with a feeling of switchback. Add in a few views of the Bay, and it’s a lovely slog (though still a slog!).
Once you’ve made it to the top of Rhus Ridge, you reach a juncture boasting a panorama of the mountains that you’ll tackle while an idyllic prairie grassland at the base beckons you to take the easy way out – and boy is it tempting.
But the summit is a treasure not to be missed and for those going for it, you’ll follow the sign for Black Mountain Trail and head right.
For the next 1.5 miles you’ll cruise through a single track with a gradual uphill climb that hugs the edges of the hills as you cross over to the mountains. Enjoy this part, it is to be enjoyed! The El Nino rains have left the path and its denizens beaming in green: vibrant lichen, moss and grasses line the way as if to say an enthusiastic, “Hi!” When I went, a few spring wildflowers had sprung, adding to the Wonderland-esque feel of the trail.
But the stunners are the views of the Bay, once again, as you go up, up, up the mountainside. Pull over at a few lookout points and take it in. This is part of what it’s all about. You’re less than 10 miles from Mountain View and the Silicon Valley, yet a world away. You see the Bay, the long Chamise Trail below loyally following the curves of the hillside, and the proud peaks in the East and South Bay. We truly live in a special place.
Use the energy you absorb from the views to push you up the trail to the next key juncture at the 2.5-mile mark. You’ll round a bend, see a large rock on the left side of the path, and then, a utility tower. A sign tells you it’s 1.5 miles to Monte Bello Road, your destination. And this is where the going gets tough.
I took a five-minute break to drink some water, eat a granola bar and come up with a game plan. All of the reviews I’d read about this part were hardly encouraging: it’s not shaded – mostly right – and the incline was hard on a fire road – it is (Map My Hike shows I climbed from about 1,640 feet to 2,791 – or 1,150 feet – in this stretch).
But one of the reviews gave me a nugget of wisdom that I called upon as I re-fired up: walk backwards up the hill. Funny, silly, what? Yeah. As I climbed up a path that seemed more suited for downhill skiing or BMX biking than simple foot traffic, I did it facing backwards.
And guess what? It shifted my perspective from hunching over and trying to scale the hostile trail to catching even more stunning views of the Bay. I laughed at how silly I looked to other hikers (they chuckled and nodded as we passed), but the view helped to lift my spirits (and my slouching back) as I plodded along at a fairly healthy clip.
The nature here is less remarkable – still clinging to that arid, drought feel we know too well – so the views do replace them in their stead. And it’s more than enough.
It was still tough. But as I clambered hill over hill, I kept telling myself, “You can do it.” And since this was the hike in which I’d log my 500th mile, I had a little extra fuel in my willpower tank.
You’ll keep rounding bends until finally – finally – you’ll see a gate, some more utility towers and a sign signaling you’re there. Well almost.
Reaching the summit requires you to head out onto the road, turn right and walk a short distance to a grassy area on your left. You’ll see an outcropping of rocks, the mountains to the west and the Pacific in the distance. Congratulations, you’ve made it!
The summit’s sparse landscape – a grassy knoll with these other-worldly rocks – makes it seem like you’re walking on the moon. Some hike reviewers had pooh-poohed the summit welcome. To me, it was inspiring. There were families having a picnic, cyclists rolling up, a group of seniors talking about getting back on the trails despite the creaks and aches of age, and some youth who sat for a long time, their backs resting against the rocks, as they took in the view. A bird gracefully skirted the summit as I sat down to drink in the moment.
After a little hot tea, some writing in my journal, picture taking, chatting with fellow adventurers and exploring the top, I made my way back down. And yes, it was a breeze, especially as I jubilantly sang The Proclaimers’ anthem, “I’m Gonna Be (500 Miles).”
As I hurriedly and excitedly descended the trail at dusk, I paused to let a final memento of the day etch into my mind’s eye: the sky was a sea of pink, a hue reflected in the waters of the Bay, shimmering in the nighttime adieu.
Plan your hike: The 411
Rancho San Antonio County Park map
Route: Rhus Ridge Trail – Black Mountain Trail – Rhus Ridge Trail
Distance: 10 miles
Difficulty: Moderate to strenuous (6 for the middle stretch; 8-9 for Rhus Ridge and the final climb)
Duration: 4 hours
Elevation gain: 2,300 ft.
Signage/Trail markers: Excellent
When to go: Summers are hot in the Valley so best times to appreciate this hike are fall through spring
Good for: Trail running, hiking, interval sprints up tough hills and general meandering
What to bring: Water (!), snacks, a hat/sunscreen, hiking poles and a whole lot of determination!
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