At Home off the Range
A Cattle Baron's Refuge at Mount Madonna
At Mount Madonna County Park you'll find plenty of shady, second-growth redwood forest, but the park's varied terrain also includes chaparral and blue oak woodland, an unusual habitat so close to the coast.
Photo by Rob Lehman.
Of all the choice locales within his 1.8-million acre empire, the most powerful landowner in 19th-century California picked a green peak above Gilroy—now Mount Madonna County Park—as the place to call “home.” Henry Miller, an ambitious Gold Rush—era immigrant whose fortune grew from a few dollars to $40 million during a remarkable 70-year career, is credited with almost single-handedly creating the West’s cattle and sheep industry by consolidating huge tracts of pasture, building irrigation canals, and stringing fences. Given Miller’s wealth, you might come here expecting San Simeon, but the marks this tireless entrepreneur left on his mountaintop are surprisingly light.
“The old Miller estate is the heart of our park,” notes John Heenan, senior ranger of Mount Madonna. The estate straddles an undulating ridge between Coyote Creek Valley to the east and Pajaro Valley to the west. “Although he died long before it was created,” Heenan says, “[the park] possibly wouldn’t exist if not for this man.” From his aerie, Miller looked down on a landscape that he controlled almost in its entirety, from San Francisco Bay to the Pacific.
- Cattle baron Henry Miller, who came to California in 1850,controlled an empire that covered nearly two million acres inCalifornia, Oregon, and Nevada. Photo courtesy Gilroy Museum.
The park remains home to those expansive views and a stunning array of habitats, from damp redwood forests to dry blue oak woodlands. But signs of Miller’s half-century on Mount Madonna—purportedly named by the Italian stonecutters he hired to help build his family compound—have faded considerably during the nine decades since his death. Rock walls and cement walkways at the overgrown homesite only hint at the bold character of an imposing but now largely forgotten man.
“People nowadays confuse our guy with the writer of the same name,” concedes Heenan, referring to the 20th-century novelist who once lived at Big Sur. The other Henry Miller was a rancher who oversaw so much real estate it was said he could travel by horseback from the Mexican border to Washington State and stay at one of his own properties each night. Yet when it was time to relax, the multimillionaire headed for the cattle-free forest surrounding what is, at 1,857 feet, the highest point of the southern Santa Cruz Mountains.
“Miller called Mount Madonna home . . . because it was not connected with business,” suggests Patricia Snar Simon in Henry Miller: His Life and Times, published by the Gilroy Historical Society. He “came [here] to enjoy a change of climate and the cool breezes from the Pacific side.” Barbecues at the compound were a weekend tradition for Miller, his family, and friends. “No matter where he was [on weekdays],” wrote Edward F. Treadwell in The Cattle King, Miller “would aim to get home [to Mount Madonna] for Sunday.”
The scope of the estate remains impressive. Occupying a gentle slope lined with planted evergreens, multiple foundation footings and masonry partitions outline the five structures built between 1890 and 1902. Miller and his family occupied three dwellings; the others were a foreman’s home and a guesthouse. The main residence, with seven bedrooms and a 3,600-square-foot ballroom, was built for $250,000 in 1901. This mansion and a bungalow next to it burned down after Miller’s death; a third house was moved to Watsonville.
Over the years, the county has taken various approaches to the remaining foundations and steps. “We once were content to let nature eat up [the ruins],” Heenan told me. “Then, there was talk of restoring the buildings to what they once looked like, but now we are committed only to maintaining the estate as it is.”
- Henry Miller’s mountain home, which cost a quarter milliondollars in 1901, had seven bedrooms and a large ballroom. Today, allthat remains are a few stairways, foundations, and sections of stonewall, built largely from rock quarried on site. Photo by Ronald Horii.
I sat among the relics of Miller’s estate—penetrated by tanoaks, buckeyes, and big-leaf maples—while contemplating the rags-to-riches story of Henry Miller, who was born Heinrich Alfred Kreiser in Germany in 1827. He arrived in San Francisco at age 23 in 1850 and used his meat-cutting skills to start a Jackson Street butcher shop.
By 1860 Miller was buying and leasing land with fellow German (and onetime rival) Charles Lux in a partnership that ultimately controlled over a million cattle and 100,000 sheep on nearly two million acres throughout the West. Much of the Santa Clara and San Joaquin valleys came under the pair’s dominion in the 1860s and 1870s.
The empire did not survive long after Miller’s death in 1916; much of it was sold off to become smaller cattle ranches, orchards, and housing developments. Small parts of his vast holdings continue to be managed by his descendants today as ranches and farms near Bakersfield and Los Banos. Only Mount Madonna became a park, though Miller earned a few conservation points by protecting what were believed to be the state’s last herd of tule elk, from which all of California’s living tule elk descend.
In 1927 the state—at the family’s urging—began purchasing and protecting parts of the property, which had fallen into a state of disrepair and neglect. In the 1930s, workers from the Civilian Conservation Corps put in campsites and trails. The property officially became a Santa Clara County park in 1952 and people have been coming here in droves ever since. “Local folks love the place,” Heenan says.
No doubt this is true, yet the mountain is far from overrun. During my weekday hikes I encountered not a soul on any of the trails. Hiking routes here tend to follow grades carved by loggers in the 1850s and Miller’s construction crews in the 1890s. Pole Line Road anchors the park’s central developed area, but Mount Madonna’s upper reaches have longer trails and less-disturbed forest. As part of the Bay Area Ridge Trail network, Madonna is a link for trekking—no bikes are allowed here—northwest to Uvas Canyon and the Forest of Nisene Marks.
Hiking through Miller’s overgrown sanctuary, I found the moss-covered remains eerily reminiscent—on a less lavish scale—of newspaper magnate William Randolph Hearst’s castle-like San Simeon. The echo grew louder when I came upon a large pen holding white fallow deer descended from two pair that Hearst donated to the park in 1935. Native to Mediterranean Europe and Asia Minor, the shaggy, cream-colored ungulates were a popular import among well-heeled landowners a century ago. “There were 53 when I started working at the park [15 years ago],” says Heenan. “Now only 19 are left. They don’t reproduce well because they’re so inbred.”
I wondered how the resident black-tailed deer regard these interlopers. I spooked enough of the black-tails, almost tame in their nonchalance, to make an ample prey base and justify the mountain lion warning signs posted here. One of the big cats jumped an eight-foot-high fence and killed several of the fallow deer in 2005. Barbed wire and electrification now discourage attacks. Park rangers believe the offender was killed last year when a marksman took out a lion that had been killing local dogs.
Redwoods dominate the core of the park, but most old-growth specimens were removed in the decades before Miller began acquiring land here in 1859. Many of the trees today form irregular “fairy rings” around massive stumps, chinked at intervals where wedges were inserted. These held “spring-boards” that lumberjacks stood on to maneuver two-man saws. Some bear scars from fires that burned piles of slash. The Giant Twins Trail, near Madonna’s southern border, leads to two of only four known old-growth redwoods remaining in the park. (The other two are off-trail and unmarked.) Struck and hollowed by lightning years ago, the Twins mirror each other in a splendid stand.
The last timbering occurred here after the San Francisco earthquake of 1906, to supply lumber for rebuilding the city. Mount Madonna lies roughly 10 miles from the epicenter of the devastating 1989 Loma Prieta quake, but there are no visible signs of either major seismic event.
- On the park’s drier eastern side, as here south of theMerry-Go-Round Trail, lone oaks tower over both native wildflowers andnonnative annual grasses. Photo by .
This is young and restless terrain, wedged between the active San Andreas and smaller Sargent faults. The park’s dynamic geology is an important contributor to its unusual melange of plants and animals. Vegetation types covering the slopes of Mount Madonna change in a matter of yards from redwood forest to mixed oak woodland to grassy meadow to chaparral thicket.
“Differences in moisture and sun exposure certainly contribute to the plant diversity found here,” Heenan allows, “but varied geological composition is probably a bigger factor.” Madonna is a part of a “transpression” zone where movement and pressure along irregularities in underlying faults have pushed up the Santa Cruz and other coastal ranges over the past three to four million years—and continue to do so. Uplifts of mainly sedimentary rock are evident here in the occasional crumbling shale cliff face, resistant sandstone boulders, marine limestone deposits, or pebbled conglomerate outcrops.
“The Santa Cruz Mountains are very young, geologically speaking,” says Phil Stoffer, a geologist with the U.S. Geological Survey. “As little as four million years ago they were under the ocean. Looking closely, a lucky visitor may find fossils betraying this marine history.”
- Several trails open up to views across Gilroy and the SantaClara Valley to the hills of the Diablo Range. Photo by Ronald Horii.
According to Stoffer, the park’s sandstone and conglomerate-derived soils encourage an abundance of redwoods and Douglas firs. “They thrive in sandy topsoil,” he says. Beneath this canopy are California bay laurels, madrones, tanoaks, sycamores, and big-leaf maples. As in other regional parks, tanoaks at Mount Madonna are monitored closely for signs of the sudden oak death pathogen. Acorn-laden trees were examined last fall and all appeared healthy.
Stoffer points out that serpentinite, a rock that contains an unusual mix of minerals, often occurs at tectonic plate boundaries, and that is the case here as well. The resulting soil is particularly favored by certain native flora adapted to high levels of certain toxic elements—such as nickel, cobalt, and chromium—and poor water retention. Because nonnatives are not adapted to serpentine soils, they are less prevalent in areas where it occurs.
“At Mount Madonna,” says Kevin Bryant of the California Native Plant Society, “we have the rare Santa Cruz Mountains manzanita (Arctostaphylos andersonii) [and] locally uncommon hoary manzanita (A. canescens). These grow near and on the serpentine soils … [as do] leather oak, the rare smooth lessingia, and California common goldfields. The great attraction of the serpentine at Madonna is the stark contrast between these sparsely vegetated areas and the surrounding lush redwood forest.”
While geology shapes topography and influences plant communities, Stoffer says, rainfall and the way it erodes the landscape play a crucial role in the park’s multiple microclimates: shady canyons, sunny crags, and grassy savannas. These factors combine to yield such oddities as blue oaks occurring in close proximity to moisture-loving redwoods. These drought- and heat-tolerant oaks, which generally occur in savanna or chaparral habitats that receive no more than 20 to 30 inches of rain annually, are unexpected here, where rainfall runs about 50 to 60 inches per year. “Partly because of the relatively high annual rainfall,” says the Native Plant Society’s Ken Himes, “the less fertile soils at Mount Madonna can support unusual plants such as gray pines that otherwise might not find a niche.” Eastern slopes beneath the range’s rainshadow, particularly along Redwood Retreat Road, are the best places to find more unusual chaparral species.
All this botanical variety translates into a good bit of wildlife diversity as well: California red-legged frogs and ensatina salamanders thrive in the damp redwood forests and creeks, while the chaparral and oak woodlands host western rattlesnakes and fence lizards, along with brush rabbits and coyotes.
“When I first drove up the winding road to Mount Madonna, I was amazed at the variety of habitats I passed through,” recalls ranger Heenan. “The diversity still blows me away.” All this, and the faint traces of a cattle baron’s hideaway, awaits visitors midway between Silicon Valley and Monterey Bay.
From the north or east, take Highway 101 to Gilroy; exit at Highway 152 west. About 10 miles west of Highway 101, turn right at the county park sign, which marks Pole Line Road, the park’s main road. From the Watsonville (west) side, take Highway 152 to the Hecker Pass summit. Admission is $6 per car. Closed at night to noncampers. Learn more at www.parkhere.org or (408)842-2341.