Bay Area Trail Builder’s Legacy Shines at Skyline Ridge Preserve

If you hike regularly on Mid Peninsula Open Space District land in the Santa Cruz Mountains, you likely have enjoyed trails brought to you by the late trail architect Gene Sheehan. You can find his favorite Midpen trail and vista at the Skyline Ridge Preserve.

And if the grandeur of the Ipiwa Trail and The Gene Sheehan Overlook (formerly Rattlesnake Point) are not enough, the five-mile loop we enjoyed includes strolls around two ponds and a heart-pumping uphill trek into a spectacular forest of canyon live oaks. It was quite a day.

View from Ipiwa Trail, Skyline Ridge Preserve, San Mateo County, CA. Dawn Page/CoastsideSlacking

The late James “Sunny Jim” Rolph Jr., a California govenor and the longest serving mayor in San Francisco history, once owned the land now protected as the Skyline Ridge Preserve. The preserve’s Sunny Jim Trail is a nod to that legacy.

Skyline Ridge Preserve, San Mateo County, CA. Dawn Page/CoastsideSlacking

Mid-Pen notes that John Rickey, owner of the historic Rickey’s Hyatt House in Palo Alto, later raised hogs on the land. He installed the two ponds in the 1950s to support ranch operations. The Wasserman Family used the land to raise horses and cattle, and also planted a Christmas tree farm, which still operates under a lease arrangement.

Skyline Ridge Preserve, San Mateo County, CA. Dawn Page/CoastsideSlacking

The ponds caught MontaraManDan’s eye as he and The Geek scanned a map of Santa Cruz Mountain open spaces while considering their next hike. Named bodies of water are rare in the Santa Cruz Mountains, and a quaint pond would satisfy The Geek’s thirst for fresh landscape subjects on and near The Coastside. We began with the loop around Horseshoe Pond, just a short walk from the main parking area and a large lot dedicated to visitors with disabilities.

Horseshoe Pond, Skyline Ridge Preserve, San Mateo County, CA. Dawn Page/CoastsideSlacking

We particularly enjoyed the coots grunting and diving contentedly in the water and the entitled geese jockeying with The Geek for position on the dam. The bend in the horseshoe gives the pond character. The trail narrows and steepens shortly after the dam, rising above the pond for an overhead view. More character!

Sunny Jim Trail, Skyline Ridge Preserve, San Mateo County, CA. Dawn Page/CoastsideSlacking

After completing the loop back to the parking lot, we spun off onto the Sunny Jim Trail, which rises steadily for at least a half mile into a mixed evergreen forest that includes Douglas fir, madrone, bay laurel and canyon oak.

Sunny Jim Trail, Skyline Ridge Preserve, San Mateo County, CA. Dawn Page/CoastsideSlacking

As we crested the hill, a large grove of oaks predominated, with heavy, hydra-like limbs spreading in all directions to create a cooling canopy. MontaraManDan had often dreamed of hiking one of the oak groves that dot the hillsides of California’s coastal range – and suddenly he realized he was living the dream!

Sunny Jim Trail, Skyline Ridge Preserve, San Mateo County, CA. Dawn Page/CoastsideSlacking

We followed the Sunny Jim trail down from the oak grove, past the Midpeninsula Regional Open Space District Skyline Field Office – nothing to see here, move along – and looped around Aspen Pond before picking up the Ipiwa Trail.

Aspen Pond, Skyline Ridge Preserve, San Mateo County, CA. Dawn Page/CoastsideSlacking

The Ipiwa Trail, Gene’s favorite, undulates up from the pond, nothing too tricky. But rather than winding around ponds and through groves, Ipiwa hugs the ridge, with magnificent views looking west into the mountains and toward the ocean.

Ipiwa Trail, Skyline Ridge Preserve, San Mateo County, CA. Dawn Page/CoastsideSlacking

Initially the trail, reminded us a whole lot of the Ridge Trail at the adjacent Russian Ridge Preserve, which we hiked last summer. But the higher we climbed the deeper and broader the view until we reached the overlook named for the trail builder. We pulled the water bottle from our shared back pack and drank deeply, savoring the view.

View from Gene Sheehan Overlook, Skyline Ridge Preserve, San Mateo County, CA. Dawn Page/CoastsideSlacking

Gene served as a trail builder and consultant for Midpen from 1976-1999. He worked on a lot of trails for a long time, and we have to agree that the Ipiwa Trail and the view that now bears his name are pretty special.

And apparently so was Gene, who not only designed and built some great trails but also is credited with sharing his knowledge for the benefit of future generations by mentoring Midpen staff in the art of trail building. A nice legacy, indeed.

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