Last September, Midpeninsula Regional Open Space District opened the restored summit of Mount Umunhum, site of the iconic radar tower that has overlooked the Santa Clara Valley since 1957. The five-mile serpentine drive up Mount Umunhum Road will take you to a 3,486-foot perch and a view that includes Santa Cruz, Mount Tamalpais, Mount Diablo, and Mount Hamilton—a good chunk of territory.
Part of the improvements MidPen made to the mountain is a brand new trail that zigzags 3.7 miles to the mountaintop. A drive to a scenic overlook is fine, but it is no match for the more intimate experience of an unhurried stroll up the mountain.
Six of us exchanged excited chatter and shouldered daypacks at the Bald Mountain Parking Area two miles up Mount Umunhum Road. It was a crystalline day with a promise of clear and expanding views as we climbed. Across the road, we snagged a trail map and set out on a long reach that edged gently up the slope.
Quickly, it was clear that MidPen took no half measures in building this trail. It accommodates bikers and equestrians and is cut plenty wide enough for hikers to walk two abreast. While we gained elevation with every step, the 10 percent gradient was so gentle that it almost kept the ascent a secret.
The first stretch of trail traverses a forest that includes many California nutmeg trees, a species endemic to California, and an unusual treat to see. Look for saplings with very stiff-needled branches similar in appearance to a redwood tree. A little over a mile out, Guadalupe Creek Overlook, a fenced perch on a rock outcrop gave us our first wide view of the Santa Clara Valley and the impressive hulk of the mountain below and above. Here, Guadalupe Creek begins a journey that leads through downtown San Jose (where it is promoted to the Guadalupe River) and ends at Alviso Slough.
Above the overlook, the trail switches back and forth a dozen times, edging up the crease cut by the creek. A forest of madrones, coast live oaks, gray pines, and bay trees shaded much of the trail while blossoming manzanita bushes (hints of spring) and red-berried toyon (vestiges of fall) decorated the bright open portions of the trail. Each view up the slope revealed a slightly larger radar tower.
On top, we lunched in the sunny leeward side of summit structures protected from the gentle but cool mountain breeze. Fog down below had melted and the Mount Umunhum view was at its finest stretching from the wide open Pacific over the Santa Cruz Mountains and across San Francisco Bay. Homeward bound, gravity now our friend, we effortlessly slid down the 1,150 feet we had ascended.
While the view from the summit of Mount Umunhum is the same whether you walk there or drive there, the experiences are very different. I recommend the walk.