Old Hills, New Economies
A Natural History of the Mount Hamilton Ridgelands
Stream, full from early spring storm, winds through ridgelands near Mount Hamilton.
Photo ©© Gary Crabbe/Enlightened Images
Human dramas often characterize wild places. Everest would be different if famous climbers hadn’t died on it. Less operatic dramas reflect less famous places, like the tangle of ridgelands around Mount Hamilton east of San Jose. An encounter that occurred there three months before the U.S. Declaration of Independence was so fleeting that it barely entered history, but it resonates.
In and Out of Canyons
Fray Pedro Font was the first European to describe the ridgelands, having crossed them with the Juan Bautista de Anza expedition in April 1776. After choosing the site for San Francisco, they had tried to reach the Sierra Nevada via Livermore Valley, but found their way blocked by the San Joaquin marshes. Font wanted to get back to relatively civilized Monterey, so he urged de Anza to take a shortcut across unknown mountains they saw to the south. De Anza led them into the range, expecting to cross in a day. When they camped that night in an arid canyon (Corral Hollow) a few miles south, Font was having second thoughts.
“In all the journey today we did not see a single Indian,” he wrote, “finding only human tracks stamped in the dry mud. It appeared to me that the country is so bad that it could not easily be inhabited by human beings.” Although Central California had one of North America’s densest indigenous populations in 1776, the ridgelands probably stood empty for most of the year. Bay Area Ohlones and San Joaquin Valley Yokuts only came through seasonally to hunt or to gather acorns, bulbs, and pine nuts.
The Spaniards spent the next day climbing in and out of canyons, trying to go southwest, but forced “every which way” by the terrain. “All this country which we crossed this day and the next is very broken, and the haunt of many bears,” Font observed. Finally, they came to some flat land, a “very long valley,” where they encountered—briefly—the ridgelands’ apparent sole human inhabitant. “In the course of the valley,” Font wrote, “we saw some ruinous and abandoned little huts, but the only Indian seen was at a distance and running, for as soon as he saw us he fled for the brush of the sierra like a deer.”
- Sycamore trees along Coyote Creek, with Palassou Ridge behind. Photo by Larry Serpa, The Nature Conservancy.
The encounter probably occurred in what is now San Antonio Valley, a stretch of oak savanna northeast of Mount Hamilton. It remains a lonely place, and when you drive through it on Mines Road you can almost see the running man, a speck of frantic liberty in a landscape that Font’s magisterial prose was already starting to subdue. It is unclear why the man was running, whether simply in terror at the sudden advent of hairy-faced demons or from a rumored fear of being herded into a mission. It is easy to sympathize with him. In a sense, he was fleeing a phenomenon some people still distrust—a new economy. Of course, the new economy the Franciscan Order would start at Mission Santa Clara in 1777 was very different from Silicon Valley’s today, but its power to remake the world around it was no less impressive.
De Anza and his men straggled into Gilroy Valley two days later, and their fumbling canyon-crawl was such an embarrassment—compared to the expedition’s earlier crossing of the California desert—that he named the ridgelands the “Sierra del Chasco,” Mountains of the Joke.
When I began running away into the country east of San Jose in the early 1970s, the qualities that had repelled Font were what attacted me. I liked the emptiness and the way the hills led “every which way,” twisting around and opening up into surprise canyons and sudden vistas.
There was a sense both of comfortable familiarity and adventurous exoticism in the ridgelands, which I got to know as part of the Diablo Range, the inner coast mountains running from San Pablo Bay to San Luis Obispo. The oaks, pines, maples, sycamores, and buckeyes had smells and seasonal changes like the eastern woodland’s—the flowery green of spring, the pungent haze of fall. But there was a new, Mediterranean clarity to the way the trees grew—scattered in savannas, massed in canyon bottoms, gnarled and isolated on ridgetops. The savannas seemed African with their yellow grasses and glimpses of megafauna—a coyote pair chasing a jackrabbit, a bobcat sunning on a log, a golden eagle rising from a knoll. The canyon forest’s aromatic bays and red-barked madrones had a subtropical lushness, while the ridgetops, dotted with shaggy Coulter pines and sprinkled with occasional snowfalls, were like echoes of the ice age.
- Bobcat resting on a rock in Ohlone Regional Wilderness. Photo by Joe DiDonato.
There was always something new in the landscape around the Bay Area’s highest peaks—4209-foot Hamilton, 4230-foot Isabel, and 4372-foot Copernicus. Its roughly 500,000 acres, stretching from Livermore to Pacheco Pass, seemed inexhaustibly expansive. There is a good scientific reason for this impression. At the interface of hot Central Valley, humid coast, and cool highlands, the ridgelands have an exceptional biodiversity, even for diverse California. The effect was magical, anyway. I could walk an hour along an arid plateau haunted by horned lizards and tarantulas, then suddenly drop into a moist basin with a pond full of frogs, newts, and turtles. It was like stepping from Arizona to Oregon. Or I’d scramble up a tangled canyon in spring and find myself looking up a cliff thronged with nesting birds—a pair of downy owlets gawking from a ledge, a prairie falcon screaming at my intrusion, turkey vultures and ravens eyeing me balefully, dizzy swarms of white-throated swifts and swallows.
And that was just the day shift. Other creatures that I might never see lurked in the rocks and ridges—ringtails, spotted skunks, badgers, mountain lions. What I did see after sunset could be startling. Long-eared pallid bats scuttled about the ground hunting for crickets, and sometimes flew up from under my feet. Once I found a large toad with a scorpion clamped in its jaws, the stinger curled around one eye.
A Very Old Place
It was a little like walking into a remnant of the nine-million-year-old world revealed by fossils at East Bay sites such as Blackhawk Ranch. That Miocene epoch landscape was also a mixture of the familiar and strange. The coast was a rolling plain then, with active volcanoes to the east. Oaks already dotted savannas, however, and sycamores and cottonwoods lined streams. Rhinos, mastodons, hyena-like dogs, and three-toed horses inhabited the plain, but so did ground squirrels, rabbits, gray foxes, and pronghorns. California is a very old place.
We don’t understand everything about how that long- vanished coastal plain evolved into today’s ridgelands, but we have a general idea. Current geological theory suggests that the plain began turning into “bad country” about three million years ago, as two crustal plates that underlie the Pacific and North America scraped sideways against each other at an intensified rate. The stress fractured coastal bedrock into many active faults, turning the plain into a jumble of ridges and depressions, and upthrusting the ridges at a rate of .07 inch a year. Rising peaks cast rain shadows, transforming the uniform savanna vegetation of the former plain into a mosaic of wet and dry habitats—woodlands on north- and west-facing slopes; chaparral, oak savanna, and grassland on south- and east-facing ones. Stream erosion carved mazes of canyons.
About 1.8 million years ago, the climatic fluctuations called the Pleistocene ice age began, adding another layer of diversity. Although not high enough for glaciers, Hamilton and its attendant peaks probably supported a conifer forest like that of the Sierra Nevada today. Relict ponderosa pines still occupy high ridgetops. Wildlife became stranger as 18-foot-tall ground sloths and Volkswagen-sized glyptodonts migrated from South America, but it also became more familiar as elk and grizzlies arrived from Eurasia. Fifteen thousand years ago, the modern world emerged rather abruptly as the latest glaciation ended and most large mammals vanished. The ridgelands probably looked like what Font saw when he called them “very tangled and full of brush, pines, live oaks, oaks, spruce, and other trees.”
Civilization And Its Marks
The area hadn’t changed much almost a century after Font, when the new California State Geological Survey explored it. “Back of the treeless hills that lie along the San Joaquin plain,” wrote survey botanist William H. Brewer in his aptly titled Up and Down California, “there rises a labyrinth of ridges, furrowed and separated by deep canyons . . . It is almost terra incognita. No map represents it, no explorers touch it; a few hunters know something of it, and all unite in giving it a hard name.” Exploring “picturesque but desolate” canyons south from Corral Hollow, Brewer and his men encountered pronghorn herds, cottonwood groves full of “squawking and screaming” blue herons, and ridgetops that had been “dug over by bears for roots.”
When Brewer and his crew climbed Mount Hamilton in June 1861, it was the first recorded ascent. The Santa Clara Valley was “enclosed in farms,” but the mountain was so trackless that they underestimated the distance to the summit by six miles. “We had attained an altitude of nearly three thousand feet, when we came upon another deep and steep canyon, cutting us off from the peak,” he recalled. “Here we left our mules and proceeded on foot about three miles, and reached the peak about 4 p.m.” The surveyors noted (a bit peevishly, perhaps) that local Presbyterian minister and amateur naturalist Laurentine Hamilton got to the top first because he wasn’t carrying instruments. They offered to name the peak after survey leader Josiah Whitney, but he declined, so they honored Reverend Hamilton instead, and the name stuck.
Civilization marked the ridgelands during the next century. Vast Mexican land grant ranches disintegrated, and homesteaders moved in, extirpating grizzlies, elk, and pronghorns, and building roads, cabins, and mile after mile of fences. George Thomas Jr., a Morgan Hill attorney whose family has ranched locally since 1877, told me there were once seven or eight homesteads on the 2,000 acres his family now owns, and a school with 35 students. There was so much social activity that people came from the valley to attend dances. Little trace of that time remains. Life was hard, and most people sold out in the 1920s and ’30s.
Civilization’s best known mark on the area is idiosyncratic. In the 1870s, an aging San Francisco bachelor named James Lick felt an urge to commemorate himself, and when friends suggested he endow an astronomical observatory, he liked the idea. A former piano-maker who had prospered in Gold Rush real estate, Lick spent much of his fortune to have a 36-inch refracting telescope installed in a hardwood-paneled dome on 160 acres atop Mount Hamilton. In 1888, it was presented to the University of California. Lick, having died in 1876, was unable to see the results of his largesse, but he was present nonetheless, as friends installed his remains under the telescope.
It might well have been the late 1800s when I hiked the ridgelands in the early 1970s; I could walk for days and not see anybody. The landscape was so empty that abandoned homestead cabins’ contents (enameled dippers like the ones John Wayne drinks from in westerns, for example) remained undisturbed. The solitude was surprising even then, when much of the land along i-880 between Oakland and San Jose was still open fields inhabited by pheasants and burrowing owls.
In recent years, civilization’s marks have become more obtrusive. Corporations and investors had acquired most of the former homesteads by the 1950s, and, although they managed them as ranches or hunting clubs, it was with an eye to future profits. In the 1970s, the development firm Kaiser-Aetna was planning a large subdivision at the Dowdy Ranch north of Highway 152, and investors at the Lakeview Meadows Ranch near Anderson Reservoir hoped to benefit from a 100,000 resident “New Town” planned by Castle and Cooke, developers of Sea Ranch on the Sonoma coast. Although vulnerable to recessions, such schemes grew more feasible as San Jose expanded.
Open space had its supporters too. In 1953, Sada S. Coe gave Santa Clara County a 12,500-acre ranch her father and uncle had worked on Pine Ridge, south of Mount Hamilton. It became the nucleus of Henry W. Coe State Park five years later. In 1972, Josephine Grant willed her father’s 9,250-acre ranch west of the mountain to charities, which then sold it to Santa Clara County as Joseph D. Grant Regional Park. Parks such as these have increased opportunities for temporary escapes from economics. This is especially true at Henry Coe, which has grown to over 81,000 acres, including a 22,000-acre State Wilderness Area, and is now the largest state park in Northern California. Back in 1974, I could walk around most of the park in a day. In April 2000, a day hike didn’t even get me halfway across.
A lesson of the past two decades, though, has been that even big parks are vulnerable to big subdivisions. Urban growth has seemed inexorable in the recent boom years, and I got a sense of this south of San Jose, where Stanford biologist Stuart Weiss is studying one of the last populations of an endangered butterfly, the bay checkerspot. These butterflies mainly survive on a serpentine ridge that rises out of the Santa Clara Valley just east of U.S. 101, across from Castle and Cooke’s Riverside Golf Course. Soils weathered from calcium-poor serpentine bedrock are infertile to the exotic weeds that have overrun most of California, so native plants survive on them in unusual numbers. The bay checkerspot depends on the natives for food, and Weiss’ study area probably is the only place with enough such plants to permanently support a viable population.
I’d driven past the ridge many times, and it had seemed just another expanse of weedy grasses. When Weiss showed me around in April, it was one of the most spectacular native wildflower displays I’d ever seen—acres of yellow goldfields, tidy tips, and cream cups interspersed with pink wild onion, owl clover, and linanthus. Those were just the more common species. Weiss said he’d counted over 200 in all, some of which grow nowhere else. Even big thistles in streambeds—which I’d thought were weedy milk thistles—were rare natives.
It was an extraordinarily vibrant place—the flowers thronging with butterflies and bees, the small creeks full of tadpoles—but a beleaguered one as well. Weiss pointed out a patchwork of pending subdivisions and “hi-tech” parks in the valley below. To the north, the “monster homes” of the new Silver Creek subdivision climbed the hillsides. Even the spring air flowing from the advancing suburbs was a threat. “This place is a funnel for smog,” Weiss said. His studies have shown that nitrogen oxides in polluted air can be deposited in the ridge’s soil in large quantities, as much as 10 pounds per acre per year. Nitrogen is a nutrient, so this fallout can significantly increase serpentine soil’s fertility, allowing exotic grasses to grow in this previously inhospitable habitat.
This serpentine ridge is a first line of defense for the ridgelands, and Weiss is trying to get it preserved. This would make sense even without threatened flora and fauna, because the landslide-prone serpentine is bad for building. A conservation trust agreement with a landfill company on the ridge’s Kirby Canyon area has provided protection for the past decade. It isn’t permanent, however, and protecting land beside a major freeway is tricky. The ridge is outside San Jose’s “greenline” (urban growth boundary) so city services aren’t supposed to extend to it, but subdividers are mounting both legal and political challenges. “There’s a ridiculously small amount of habitat here with long-term protection,” Weiss concluded.
A “Portfolio Site” for Conservation
Yet sprawl may have met its match in the Mount Hamilton ridgelands. The Nature Conservancy is one of the most powerful conservation organizations today, with over a million members and a well-tuned financial machinery for snatching land from the jaws of subdividers. In 1997, the Conservancy applied a new “biological scoping” process to the central California coast region. The Diablo ridgelands came up as a “portfolio site” large enough to “define and contain” the region’s biodiversity, so a Mount Hamilton Project was initiated with the goal of protecting 400,000 acres within seven years. A map of its acquisition priorities resembles a pair of angelic wings outspread to the east and west of Henry Coe, a configuration that would block subdivisions from cozying up to park boundaries. Attorney George Thomas Jr., who wants to maintain his family’s century-old homestead as a ranch, calls the project “a dream come true.”
Project director Mike Sweeney, a former aide to Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt, talked about it on a May 2000 visit to O’Connell Ranch, a new acquisition north of Anderson Reservoir. “The 1990s were among the longest sustained urban expansions in our history,” he said. “Small preserves weren’t protecting biodiversity enough, so in the last five years we’ve been launching big ones. When the project started, this was an area where the subdivision wave hadn’t crested yet. A relatively small number of large ranches existed, and land prices weren’t out of sight. We can move faster than government agencies to acquire land in a market like that.” Sweeney indicated a ridge to the southeast, where the Conservancy had acquired the Lakeview Meadows Ranch from subdividers in 1999. “Lakeview Meadows is an example,” he said. “They were trying to put monster homes in view of Henry Coe headquarters, but it was little early for that, and they saw a chance to cash out with us quickly.”
The Mount Hamilton Project will place some of its acquisitions in public ownership through sale to Santa Clara County and the California Department of Parks. Other properties will be sold back into private hands, with the Conservancy retaining development rights. The Conservancy can’t turn all the ridgelands into parks, and it wants to perpetuate sustainable uses. “The way we design a big project like this is not to say that you can’t develop here,” Sweeney said. “We try to control development so it won’t impair the ecosystem’s ability to function. The main things we’re try- ing to control in the Mount Hamilton area are residential sprawl, overgrazing, and exotic species invasion.”
Walking around the O’Connell Ranch, we saw examples of all three problems. Leapfrog subdivisions sprawled around Anderson Reservoir to the southeast, and invasive weeds covered the ranch’s slopes. It was a beautiful place, though, dotted with oaks, bays, and buckeyes, teeming with songbirds and butterflies. “A problem with these inland areas has been that they’re relatively unknown, so you don’t get as much public support to save things as you do on the coast,” Sweeney said. “What we’re doing with an acquisition like this is trying to improve opportunities for people to get out and see what’s here while preserving habitat for species of special concern, like tiger salamanders, Pacific pond turtles, and red-legged frogs.”
The project is moving fast. Toward the end of 2000, the State purchased the 4,413-acre Stevenson Ranch, which the Conservancy had acquired in July. Once zoned for at least 40 “executive mansions,” the ranch will be added to Coe State Park. Two huge properties east of Coe (Simon Newman and Romero), acquired by the Conservancy in 1998, are being resold to ranchers minus the development rights, which will be transferred to public agencies. The Conservancy continues to work with the ranchers to improve range management and protect riparian areas. “There are beautiful old sycamores out there,” Sweeney said, “but no young ones. They’ve kept getting cropped, along with all kinds of others species. You can’t blame the ranchers; fences are expensive, and they need the water for the cattle. Our role is to allow them to continue without devastating the area. And just in the last couple of years, we’re starting to see rapid recovery in places that have been getting eaten back for a century.”
Wild as Any Place On Earth”
If the Mount Hamilton Project meets its goals, it will go a long way toward keeping the ridgelands looking like they did when Font and Brewer traversed them. This should help not only to preserve extant biodiversity, such as the outstanding golden eagle and mountain lion populations, but also allow for the reintroduction of now-absent species. Grizzlies won’t be back anytime soon, but the Department of Fish and Game has reintroduced tule elk and pronghorns. Sweeney told me there are 200-300 elk and about 40 pronghorns. Park hikers rarely see them because the herds stay in privately-owned valleys, but they will become more visible if their populations grow. Such growth would benefit another potential returnee. Conservancy biologist Larry Serpa told me that the Ventana Wilderness Society plans to establish a California condor pop­ulation near Henry Coe’s south end in a few years.
One thing—like the grizzly—that is unlikely to return to the ridgelands soon is the degree of solitude that prevailed in Font’s and Brewer’s times, or even in the 1970s. I passed dozens of other hikers on my April 2000 visit to Henry Coe, and that was on a weekday. When park ranger Doug Meyers showed me around the backcountry in May of that year, he expressed amazement at how much the park has changed in the time he’s worked there. “When I first came, in 1978, there might have been 10 trail signs in the park,” he said. “Now there are probably about 2,000 signs and over 200 miles of trails. I don’t think we’ve even begun to see the increased visitation that’s going to result from the changes that have taken place in the Bay Area in the past five years. It’ll be in the coming years that we get the full impact.”
Yet the ridgelands’ sense of inexhaustible seclusion and diversity remains. It took us the whole morning to traverse the park from south to north in Meyers’ 4wd patrol vehicle. The temperature that day reached 102 degrees, and the only other sizeable vertebrates we saw were a coyote and a large tom turkey. We got as far as the park’s northeastern boundary, where a cliff formation called Rooster Comb rises above Orestimba Creek. The heat was like a wall, and the creek had already sunk underground except for a few puddles, but they teemed with insect larvae and tadpoles, all rushing to complete their life cycles before summer clamped down. Little blue oaks and gray pines dotted the grass to every horizon. It seemed about as wild as any place on earth.
The ridgelands still have secrets. When I was on Mount Hamilton’s summit in April 2000, I wondered if the observatory had been built on some unique plant species. A few months later, I met a Jepson Herbarium botanist, Barbara Ertter, who had helped to name a carrot family wildflower, Lomatium observatorium, found by chance in 1996 by an observant photographer shooting on the summit. A place where dozens of people walk around every day had yielded a new species. Maybe that’s because most of them are there to look up at the stars. Still, there are chapparal thickets and cliff overhangs in the waves of ridges receding into the distance from this lofty viewpoint where, very likely, nobody has ever been. Who knows what unknown species will be preserved out there? Species that, with any luck, may never have to run in terror from the grasp of today’s and tomorrow’s new economies.