The Santa Cruz Mountains are awash in microclimates. Too warm? Too damp? Too cloudy? An alternative is nearby. If hiking a sun-baked hillside and a shady live oak woodland sounds nice, visit Monte Bello Preserve. But beware of angry squirrels!
Skyline Boulevard (aka California 35) runs along the crest of the low-slung coastal range. Three types of trail terrains predominate to the west: Windswept ocean bluffs, scrubby hillsides with spectacular views, and redwood groves in fern-carpeted canyons. Trails to the east, on the bay side of the mountains, trend warmer and drier. And that’s what we found at Monte Bello Open Space Preserve in Los Gatos.
What we didn’t find on a sunny weekday afternoon on the Stevens Creek Nature Trail to White Oak loop was a crowd. And the loop was marked for one-way rambling. Perfect conditions for a hike during a pandemic.
The trail head opened with a series of switchbacks across acres of tall, dry grass rattling in the breeze. Occasional clumps of stubborn California poppies blazed orange in the dry grass, the last remnants of spring color in the meadow. Western fence lizards sunned themselves on the trail as it wound toward a forest of live oaks and the headwaters of Stevens Creek.
Just when we’d decided the sunshine was a bit too toasty, we reached the woods. The air was cooler and smelled unseasonably of fall as we walked along the dusty trail littered with well-trampled dried leaves. Turns out live oaks, which are nearly evergreen, lose their leaves over a period of several weeks each spring as new ones emerge. Who knew?
Even the lichens and fungi that grow in the winter damp are dry this time of year. It was very still …
… until the chatter of an agitated squirrel abruptly broke the calm. It wasn’t the standard kuk or quaa. MontaraManDan insists it was a moan. But it was clearly unhappy, “flagging” its tail sharply as it scolded and scampered up and down a tree trunk about 30 feet off the trail. (Find a great article from Wired magazine on squirrel talk here.) Unsure if we were the problem or if the squirrel had spotted an unmasked hiker on our heels, we soldiered on, leaving the tree rodent to its chuntering.
The creek was nearly dry, with a dribble of moving water here and there among the puddles in the creek bed. All was peaceful for about 1,000 feet … until another squirrel went ballistic, scolding manically from a nearby tree. Perhaps it thought we should be at home, sheltering in place.
The trail crisscrosses the creek before beginning to rise. We heard a bicycle bell ring-a-ling behind us, and we ducked to one side as an unmasked bicyclist zipped by. As the rise became a grade, we were happy to be trudging up the hill on foot rather than climbing it on a mountain bike.
The hike isn’t long – about 3.6 miles – but the temperature when we finished was 20 degrees warmer than when we’d left the house. We sure could have used a pub at the end of the trail for a bit of refreshment. In pre-pandemic days we would have stopped for a cold beverage and a bite at Alice’s Restaurant in Woodside.
Alice’s was open but we’re still not comfortable with dining out, so we settled for a soft drink from the cooler in the trunk of the car. It refreshed, but we’re looking forward to a time when the pandemic has passed and a pub sounds like a place to be.