Art by Isabel Toteda

The best local hikes

Looking for somewhere to hike and enjoy nature, tire your dog out, or safely hang out with friends? Here’s a list of my favorite hyper-local hikes within 15 miles of Paly campus. 

 

Hamms Gulch to Spring Ridge:

Located in the Windy Hill Open Space Preserve, this popular 7.5 mile loop provides beautiful views of Palo Alto, Stanford campus, the Bay and surrounding areas. 

The hike starts with four winding miles upward in a shady, wooded environment with slight inclines and frequent gaps in the trees for charming vistas; near the top, there is a small cliff with flat rocks and a long log perfect for pictures and a water break. 

Halfway through the hike, at the end of Hamms Gulch, there is a quick summit to the top of Windy Hill with amazing views and a well-maintained bathroom, then a languid and exposed three miles of downward trekking under the sun. 

Both trails are dog-friendly, but the downhill part of the trail is wide, steep and gravelly in places — perfect for mountain bikers, who you’ll have to look out for. This is a mild but lengthy hike: make sure to bring plenty of water.

 

Windy Hill’s 12-Miler:

 

My favorite hike in Windy Hill, the so-called 12-miler, is a less-trafficked, more challenging trail loop for the adventurous. Starting at WHO5, the trail cuts across segments of the Spring Ridge, Sequoias and Hamms Gulch Trails to reach Eagle Trail, a flat and narrow mile-long path adjacent to a creek. 

There, you can hop from stone-to-stone and take in a creek hike with your dog or walk alongside the picturesque stream. Once you reach the end of the trail, you will follow signs along a residential road for Razorback Ridge Trail, which will entail three miles of wooded, steep switchbacks on the edge of the mountain. 

Keep an eye out, because mountain lions have been seen around this trail. I’ve only ever seen snakes, though. 

After Razorback Ridge, the trail loops onto the Lost Trail, a beautiful segment with chest-high grasses and bushes. Watch for stinging nettle in this section. It’s nasty if you get caught up in it. 

Finally, at an intersection that marks the end of the Lost Trail, head down Hamms Gulch and then back across Sequoias Trail and Spring Ridge Trail to get back to WHO5.

The majority of the trails on this hike are dog-friendly, and pups love the creek and all the curious smells and along this trail. I have, however, seen multiple garter snakes and one larger snake on the Lost Trail, so I would recommend watching your dog more carefully in that section.

For this more challenging trek, wear sturdy hiking shoes or thick sneakers and bring bug repellent, plenty of water and a snack.

 

Coal Mine Ridge Swing Hike:

 

Adjacent to Windy Hill Open Space Preserve, Coal Mine Ridge is a small park dedicated to equestrians and hikers. The trailhead, which is located at the crossing of Willowbrook Road and Alpine Road, leads upward to an intersection between Toyon Trail and Old Spanish Trail and into the beginning of this 3.5 mile hike.

Turning onto either the Toyon or Old Spanish trail will bring you on a lovely loop with narrow, isolated trails replete with wildlife. While moderate and low-elevation, the trails in Coal Mine Ridge are special in their own right, with breathtakingly large, mossy trees interspersed with dusty, beaten down trails and horseshoe imprints.

Also along the switchbacks of Toyon and Old Spanish Trail rustic benches scatter along the side of the mountain with great views, and rudimentary rope bridges crisscross the preserve. Another highlight of the trail is a rope swing tied to a massive tree off Toyon Trail. 

With a rope long enough to dangle you momentarily over the cliff, the swing is above the beautiful valleys of Portola Valley are in full view as you swing back and forth. It is a fantastic location for pictures too.

This easy hike is perfect for a big group and will take under an hour to complete. It is not dog friendly or accessible by mountain bike.

 

Horseshoe Lake – Alpine Pond – Borel Hill:

 

This hike, which is located in Skyline Ridge Preserve, is a 6.3-mile combination of a there-and-back hike and a loop that features breathtaking views. 

Starting in the main parking lot, the trail heads off toward Horseshoe Lake along a shaded, wooded path and opens into a plain-like grassy plateau with plenty of deer trails and areas for exploration. 

Alpine Pond is less visible and accessible than Horseshoe Lake, but it is still beautiful from above; the trail leads toward steeper inclines, madrono trees and a rocky path. As you pass juniper bushes, the side of the mountain drops away quickly and stunning views of the nearby mountaintops and range surrounding the preserve stretch as far as the eye can see.

If you’re feeling particularly energetic, take the mile-long detour to Gene Sheehan Overlook, which loops around to a rocky cliff with cables across the edges and a short, climbable rock wall behind. It’s well worth the extra time — standing next to the cables provides one of the best forest views in the Bay Area, and scaling the rock wall extends that view of the verdant valleys and ridges almost all the way to the sea.

The summit of Borel Hill is the hardest part of the hike but offers a gorgeous view of Silicon Valley which rivals that of Windy Hill Summit. It also offers a panoramic view of the gently rolling hillside opposite the overlook. 

This lengthy hike is dog-friendly and partially accessible for mountain biking. While not particularly long, the second part of the hike is challenging, especially the summits. I recommend bringing plenty of water and sturdy hiking shoes.