For more than 50 years, Foothills Park was open only to Palo Alto residents, employees and their guests. The city reversed course in December and opened the park to the general public. Last week, we decided to give it a hike. The 1,400-acre park is a gem.
Foothills Park is popular and still has number-based visitor restrictions, so we arrived at 9 a.m. to hike the Los Trancos Trail. We needn’t have worried. We saw perhaps a dozen cars in the park and passed fewer than 10 people on the 7.5-mile loop beneath partly sunny skies.
The city purchased most of the acreage in 1958 from Dr. Russel Lee and his wife, Dorothy, with the condition that it be preserved as open space. Dr. Lee studied medicine at Stanford and founded one of the nation’s first group practice clinics in Palo Alto. In addition to being a healthcare delivery innovator, Dr. Lee apparently was quite a character. Check out his profile compiled by PaloAltoHistory.org here and his New York Times obituary here.
Palo Alto put the $1.2 million purchase to a vote in 1959, and 62 percent of voters approved. The city opened the park in 1965 and implemented the residency requirement in 1969. Violators faced a misdemeanor charge. Time passed. (Cue Final Jeopardy music.) The Parks and Recreation Commission first floated a plan to reopen the park to the general public in 2018. The City Council finally took action late last year after the ACLU filed a lawsuit. The residency restriction lifted on Dec. 17, 2020.
The Los Trancos Trail loop begins with a one-mile climb into a moss-covered oak grove that was just beginning to sport spring foliage on our visit. A newt, who probably would have been more at home in the shade of a redwood forest, crept to the side of the trail as we passed. Cresting the hill, we passed a trio of visitors on a park bench enjoying a picnic brunch. They waved. We waved. We wouldn’t see another human for five miles.
After winding through a hilltop patch of coastal scrub thick with chamise, the trail twists along a ridge with views of multi-million-dollar homes at Portola Valley Ranch. One hillside property was listed on Zillow at $53.6 million. We waved. No one waved back.
The trail eventually leaves the ridge and dips into a grove of bay laurels lining the canyon along Los Trancos Creek, moving within shouting distance of the Los Trancos Woods neighborhood. No one shouted, but we did hear a leaf blower.
The boulders lining the creek almost look staged. But the nearby San Andreas fault is likely most responsible for the layout of the stream bed. Rising from the creek bed via a series of switchbacks, we took a five-minute break on a strategically placed bench about half way up the ascent. We sipped some water but our own brunch would have to wait.
Eventually we reached a series of meadows and enjoyed the first breath of spring flowers emerging amid the grass before striding once again into the hilltop coastal scrub.
Before turning off the Los Trancos Trail and winding back to the car on the Coastanoan and Fern Loop trails, we enjoyed the 270-degree view of the Santa Cruz Mountains to the west and north, and then south along San Francisco Bay from San Mateo to Mountain View.
And in a day full of nice surprises on the trail, the best might have been finding a deserted picnic ground near the car where we could enjoy a bite to eat in socially distant comfort before heading home.
Foothills Park, which has been renamed Foothills Nature Preserve, effective April 8, still has a lot of rules and fees. They vary depending on who you are and when you visit. Pandemic restrictions also are in place. The Los Trancos Trail is marked as one way, for example.
We arrived expecting to pay $6 for admission but found no attendant at the entrance kiosk. A sign over a lock box suggested a $5 contribution, and we gladly tossed in a five. And please, If you visit and find a guard at the gate, be sure to wave!