Mount Um

Mt. Umunhum reopens to hikers and historians alike

CHALLENGE ACCEPTED One of the fourth tallest peaks in the Santa Cruz mountains, Mt. Umunhum presents a 3.7-mile hike each way. Photo: Ron Erskine

By Aaron Carnes

Mt. Umunhum. Most south county residents know the name. Many have seen the large rectangular building at the top of the mountain peak—it’s one of the South Bay’s most recognizable landmarks. Few people have ever been up there. That changed on Sept. 18, the first official date the park was open to the public.

Now people can drive right up to the top of the peak and touch the mysterious building, or for the more adventurous, there is a 3.7-mile one-way hike to get there. Whatever method they choose, there are incredible views and a whole lot of local history up there.

Before Umunhum opened, there already was plenty of hiking up in the Santa Cruz mountains. But the new Mt. Umunhum Trail has all the makings of a new local favorite. It’s an evenly graded ascent up the mountain, passing many picturesque views of San Jose and the greater Bay Area. Vegetation is varied, and folks are sure to enjoy the amount of shade covering the trail, something oddly uncommon in many of the trails in the area.

The trail was built over the last few years. Every measure was taken to make it as enjoyable as possible. As folks climb up the trail, they can see exactly where they’re hiking to much of the time. The most obviously unique characteristic, that you can see your destination in clear view for the duration of your hike, is a special treat. The building on the summit stares down at you like an eye in the sky.

“You’ll be able to drive all the way to the summit and park there,” says Brian Malone, the Land and Services Manager at Midpeninsula Regional Open Space District (the public agency that owns this land). “So that I think will be the main attraction. But open space is known for trails, so for people looking for that trail experience, this will be the way to actually earn your summit.”

The land was acquired by the district in 1986 with the intention of public access, but there were some snags along the way, namely transforming it from its prior usage as a military base into a recreational destination for residents.

“This may look like a regular park,” Malone says. “But for us this is way more developing than we typically do. The intention always was to eventually open it up to public access. But the cleanup was such a huge job, and really well beyond the financial resources of the open space district.”

The large building on Mt. Umunhum might look like something that would prompt alien conspiracy theories, but it’s the last remnant of the Almaden Air Force Station, a general surveillance radar station built to detect a possible Soviet attack. The base opened in 1957 and went operational in 1958. It was part of a network of similar structures along the coast with the same purpose. The Almaden Air Force Station closed in 1980. The Soviet attack, thankfully, never came.

At one point, there were 86 structures up there: housing, a pool, a bowling alley, a movie theater, stores. The commute was too cumbersome for base employees to get to San Jose, so they had their own community of sorts. The one remaining building is the radar tower, a five-story structure that housed the antennae. Today it’s empty—and closed to the public.

For the last few years, as the district made plans to finish the trail and get the park ready for the public, there was much debate over whether they should keep the radar tower. They opened the discussion to the public.      

“Some people wanted to tear it down,” Malone says. “Some people wanted to preserve it. Santa Clara County designated it as historically significant. Our board, in response to that, made the decision to restore the building. It was an important decision that the district had to make.”

Even though the radar tower is empty and closed to the public, its presence adds to the unique experience for folks visiting Mt. Umunhum. As you hike up the trail, it eggs you on. Your reward is not just spectacular views, but that you can touch this historic building with your own two hands once you’ve made it.

There was never debate over what should be done with the rest of the buildings. They needed to be removed. Since the purpose of the organization is preserving open spaces, they weren’t equipped to maintain an entire military base. Besides, maintenance would have been expensive.

Much of what held up the opening of the park for so many years was the need to secure funding to remove the buildings from the summit. It was a long process, which they finished in 2014 with much needed federal funding.

“All those buildings needed to be removed,” says Malone. “That included standard hazard materials that you find in older buildings. Asbestos and lead had to all be mitigated. Even the radar tower itself, making that safe for people to be around it, for a building that had been unmaintained for a while.”

That was only the tip of the iceberg in terms of what needed to happen to get the park ready for the public. The district also completely redid the road that takes you to the summit, built a parking lot, designed and built the trail, and built a staircase—roughly .5 miles—from the parking lot to the summit. There are also picnic benches and educational materials up there.

“We patched it annually, but it hadn’t been done—fully maintained—in many years,” says Malone. “So that had to be totally ground up, recompacted, then repaved from top to bottom. That was a huge part of the project.”

Today when folks drive up to the top, if they are unable climb up the half-mile staircase to the summit, they can be dropped off. Plus, there are 88 handicapped parking spots up available at the top.

There was initially some discussion about whether there should be a parking lot at the top, or if the trail would be the only way people could access the summit. The district considered the popularity of Mt. Umunhum, and wanted encourage visitation by everyone, making it accessible to all.

“We ended up deciding that the diversity of people with different abilities—we wanted them all to be able to experience it—was more important,” Malone says.

The district worked directly with veterans when constructing the details in the parks, making sure that the posted educational materials and photos were accurate.

The military’s presence isn’t the only important piece of local history. This area held a spiritual significance for the native Ohlone people, who believe it to be the site of creation in indigenous lore. (“Umhunhum” means “resting place of the hummingbirds.”)

Midpen wanted to ensure that they paid it proper respect, and worked with the Amah Mutsun tribe to do so. They designed and built a ceremonial circle at the summit, and agreed to allow ceremonies there.

“We really we want to respect their history and we want to respect the military’s history,” Malone says. “We want to respect the restoration of the natural environment. That was a really big effort to plan all of that, to try and encourage people to give all that input before we even broke ground.”

Folks that choose to hike up to the summit, will find lots of little treasures along the way. There are three bridges that the district installed. The bridges, Malone says, were installed via helicopter, since there weren’t exactly roads to get them up there.

Near the top there are also remnants of a mining cabin. It might bring to mind nearby Quicksilver Mines Park to frequent south bay hikers. The building is fractured and has an incomplete story posted in front, giving some insight into a whole other era and its history.

The wildlife is vast and diverse. Since it’s higher than most of the other trails in the area, folks will see a greater variety of plants, trees and animals. Madrones, bay, nutmeg and manzanitas are commonplace.

Perhaps the greatest spot along the hike up—aside from the summit itself—is about a third of the way up at the Guadalupe Creek Overlook. This spot on the trail is called the Guadalupe Overlook. It surveys the Guadalupe Creek watershed. The crew even built a special off-trail viewing area. Someone in the crew apparently stumbled in this direction when they were working on the trail and found the hidden spot. They decided to add a side trail with a deck and rails.

“The Guadalupe overlook is definitely a great overlook place,” says Malone. “If you’re planning on getting to the summit and you make it here and someone in the family’s not feeling it, you can go out and see the view there, and head back.”

There has been so much excitement around the opening of Mt. Umunhum for so many years, that when the district announced its opening, they created a free, ticketed event the day before. Within five minutes, 800 people had signed up. That alone shows just how important the park is to nearby residents.

Malone says this spot is so unique to area residents for many reasons.

“One of the things is access to peaks in the Bay Area is fairly limited,” he says. “It’s just that ability to get to the top of a mountain that overlooks the Bay Area. There are a few of them—Mount Tam, Mount Hamilton and Mount Diablo. A lot of the peaks in the area are on private property. Also the history of the area adds to its allure.”