Astride the Crest of the Santa Cruz Mountains at Russian Ridge

There’s more to the Santa Cruz Mountains than redwoods, fence lizards and banana slugs. We hiked the Russian Ridge Open Space Preserve for views that stretch from the Pacific Ocean to San Francisco Bay.

The Santa Cruz Mountains run south along the Coastside of the San Francisco Peninsula, stretching from our slacking headquarters in Montara all the way to the Salinas Valley.

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Santa Cruz Mountains from Russian Ridge Preserve. Dawn Page/Coastside Slacking

We approached Russian Ridge from the north along Skyline Boulevard (California 35), enjoying alternating stretches of warm sunshine and cool shade beneath roadside redwoods, the winding highway still wet in spots from overnight fog that lingered in valleys to the west. A veil of morning haze obscured The Bay to the east. Low clouds – aka fog – hovered in narrow valleys to the west.

We stepped off on our five-mile hike from the parking lot just west of Skyline on Alpine Road at about 9:30 a.m. (Not bad for a couple who likes to linger at length over their morning coffee.) And the first thing we spotted was … a fence lizard – proving that views and fence lizards are not mutually exclusive. We also found redwoods along the trail but, alas, no banana slugs.

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Sudden Oak Death at Russian Ridge, Santa Cruz Mountains. Dawn Page/Coastside Slacking

A row of dead oaks lined the first several hundred feet of the trail, victims of Sudden Oak Death. We’ll call that an inauspicious start. SOD is caused by a water mold pathogen and viewed with increasing worry as a threat to the region’s forests.

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Russian Ridge Preserve, Santa Cruz Mountains, CA. Dawn Page/Coastside Slacking

We clocked the first third of the hike’s 900 feet of elevation gain in the first mile, finding ourselves on a broad, hard-packed trail that rolled gently with the contour of the mountain.

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Russian Ridge Preserve, Santa Cruz Mountains, CA. Dawn Page/Coastside Slacking

A nice breeze kept us cool in the sunshine and rustled the dry grass to either side. Hidden insects droned. Dragon flies – neither droning nor hidden – hovered above the grass and crisscrossed the trail.

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Sharp-tailed snake, Russian Ridge Trail, Santa Cruz Mountains, CA. Dawn Page/Coastside Slacking

A snake – perhaps the forest sharp-tailed variety – slithered by.

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San Francisco Bay from Russian Ridge Preserve. Dawn Page/Coastside Slacking

To the east, we could see Mission Peak on the far side of The Bay, jutting above morning haze that still veiled Palo Alto, Redwood City and Mountain View. We could see rolling hills and occasional glimpses of the ocean to the west.

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Turkey Vulture at Russian Ridge Preserve, Santa Cruz Mountains. Dawn Page/Coastside Slacking

At one spot we watched the gestation of a lightweight tumbleweed as the wind added and subtracted feathery nettles into a lightweight interconnected structure that looked not quite road-worthy. We found it mesmerizing. A little further up the trail, turkey vultures circled. On a hotter morning, we might have found it worrisome.

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Russian Ridge Preserve, Santa Cruz Mountains, CA. Dawn Page/Coastside Slacking

Our path – find it here – covered about half of the preserve’s 10-ish miles of intersecting trails. Promising intersections and glimpses of trails in the valley to the west provided MontaraManDan with plenty of fodder for speculating about where our trail might lead. The Geek – the woman with All Trails loaded on her phone – kept him from darting like a fence lizard down the wrong path.

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Russian Ridge Preserve, Santa Cruz Mountains, CA. Dawn Page/Coastside Slacking

Traffic noise from Skyline Boulevard, which paralleled our trek not far below the trail, disappeared as the trail made a 180 degree turn and descended the west-facing hillside. The trail eventually drops below the grassland and into a series of groves populated by a mix of redwood, live oak, madrone, bay laurel and other tree varieties.

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Russian Ridge Preserve, Santa Cruz Mountains, CA. Dawn Page/Coastside Slacking

Raptors usually flee when The Geek pulls out her camera, but one hawk was uncharacteristically accommodating as it circled closer and closer until it was right overhead. Click.

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Russian Ridge Preserve, Santa Cruz Mountains, CA. Dawn Page/Coastside Slacking

Shade from the groves was welcome as the trail ascended. The steep-ish return path takes hikers up a piece of the preserve’s Ancient Oaks Trail. Fortunately, SOD does not seem to have found this beautiful grove of gnarled oaks.

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Santa Cruz Mountains from Russian Ridge Preserve. Dawn Page/Coastside Slacking

As we climbed out of the trees and back onto the ridge line for our home stretch, we found the morning haze had lifted from The Bay, the fog had disappeared from the valleys, and traffic near the trail head had increased. It was getting hot. Time to go.

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