Most beloved landmarks have an air of aesthetic elegance that endears them to us. Most, but not all. The massive radar tower atop Mt. Umunhum that has looked out over the Santa Clara Valley since 1957 gets no style points, but this sterile concrete obelisk is loved nonetheless. When the Midpeninsula Regional Open Space District’s initial plans for restoring the mountaintop included removal of the tower, the enormous public outcry turned the tide. The tower would stay.
Until recently, Santa Clara Valley residents have had a strange relationship with Mt. Umunhum, so familiar yet beyond reach. The iconic radar tower is always with us, visible from nearly everywhere in the valley, but for 200 years the 3,486-foot mountaintop has been off limits to us. No longer. Restoration completed, in September the Midpeninsula Regional Open Space District opened Mt. Umunhum to the public.
Whether you come from San Jose or through New Almaden, Hicks Road eventually meets Mt. Umunhum Road. Hang on tight. It is a steep and winding 5 ½-mile, 2,000-foot climb to the summit. About a mile before the peak, the road levels out as it traverses the summit ridge. The views of Santa Cruz and Monterey Bay are stunning. Oddly, the radar tower, so close, remains hidden behind an intervening ridge.
Even at the visitor parking area, the mountain’s last looming bulge conceals the radar tower. After a 150-stair step climb, suddenly, there it all is. The tower and the amazing views across the entire bay area compete for your attention. The first signpost on the west summit guided me through the sights below: Santa Cruz, the San Francisco skyline, Silicon Valley, and all three of the high mountains that surround the bay: Mt. Tamalpais, Mt. Diablo and Mt. Hamilton. In perfect conditions, one can see the Sierra Nevada.
A short distance farther down the path is a ceremonial circle built by MidPen at the request of the local Ohlone people. Umunhum is the root word for hummingbird in five Ohlone languages. The mountain is sacred to Native Americans and is the site of the creation story for the Amah Mutsun people. Here they can dance and pray close to their creator.
Over to the cantilever deck and the East Summit, the views are vast and ever-changing. From every angle, we touched and inspected the radar tower that had always been so far away. It is the last remnant of Almaden Air Force Station that protected us from Cold War threats from 1957 to 1980.
Halfway down Mt. Umunhum Road, across from the Bald Mountain parking area, is the trailhead for the Mt. Umunhum Trail, a 3.5-mile multi-use trail that climbs 1,150 feet through chaparral and a cool canopy of trees and to the summit.
Wait for one of those crystalline days to visit this unsurpassed perch. Be sure to download MidPen’s free Mt. Umunhum audio tour app before you go for a better understanding of the mountain’s natural and human history.