This moderate 7.2-mile loop, with 1,400 feet elevation gain, starts in Portola Valley and climbs to the crest of the Santa Cruz Mountains, then drops sharply back through grassland. Very pretty and cool in summer fog.
From Interstate 280 in San Mateo County, exit Alpine Road (exit 22). Drive west about 3 miles, and turn right at the first stop sign, onto Portola. Drive about 0.8 mile, and turn left into the parking lot.
Meeting place: the information signboard
Large parking lot. No entrance or parking fees. Pit toilet at edge of lot. Maps available at the information signboard. No drinking water.
A few trails are multi-use. Most are open to equestrians and hikers only, but seasonally closed to horses. Two trails are designated hiking only. Leashed dogs are permitted on the hike described below; they are not allowed on every Windy Hill trail.
Hiking time: 3-4 hours.
Exposure: The climb to the ridge is mostly shaded and the descent is mostly exposed.
Trail traffic: Moderate.
Trail surfaces: Dirt trails and fire roads.
Season: Nice any time, but best in early spring.
Get driving or public transit directions from Transit and Trails:
GPS coordinates* for trailhead:
(* based on Google Earth data, shown as degrees, minutes, seconds)
Gas, food, and lodging:
Pay phone, deli, and gas station near the junction of Portola and Alpine Road. More stores, gas stations, and restaurants back toward 280 on Alpine Road. SamTrans bus #282 runs along Portola, right past the trailhead. There is no camping in this preserve. Nearby parks with camping include Pescadero Creek County Park and Portola Redwoods State Park.
The Official Story:
MROSD's Windy Hill page
MROSD field office:[masked]
• Map from MROSD (download Windy Hill pdf).
This hike is described and mapped in 60 Hikes within 60 Miles: San Francisco, by Jane Huber . Order this book from Amazon.com.
• Peninsula Tales and Trails, by David Weintraub (order this book from Amazon.com) has an overview of the preserve, descriptions of hikes, and simple maps.
• Afoot and Afield: San Francisco Bay Area, by David Weintraub (order this book from Amazon.com) has a great map and descriptions of this hike.
• Peninsula Trails, by Jean Rusmore, has a simple map and descriptions of this hike (order this book from Amazon.com).
• Tom Taber's Santa Cruz Mountains Trail Book has a simple map and preserve descriptions (order this book from Amazon.com).
Spring Ridge/Hamms Gulch in a nutshell -- a printable, text only guide to the featured hike.
• View photos from this hike.
(Text above and below quoted from Jane Huber's Bay Area Hiker Web site.)
"Trails at some bay area parks and preserves are seasonally closed to cyclists and equestrians when winter rains create muddy conditions. Trudging through mud is generally not fun, but by late winter, unless it's been raining heavily, the trails are just a bit damp, and although still closed to bikes and horses, perfectly passable. A seasonal closure is a perfect opportunity to hike through a preserve normally heavily used by equestrians and cyclists, such as Windy Hill.
The Spring Ridge/Hamms Gulch Loop at Windy Hill is stunning during wildflower season. There are often so many hound's tongue and trillium along Hamms Gulch Trail that I found myself bored with them after a few miles. On Lost Trail, Anniversary Trail, and Spring Ridge Trail, mule ear sunflowers, fiddlenecks, California poppy, checkerbloom, blue-eyed grass, redmaids, lupines, and popcorn flowers are at their peak in spring. Spring and early summer, when the temperatures are warm but not too hot, are good seasons to visit. In autumn the maples and oaks at Windy Hill are lovely, and in the doldrums of winter the berries on hawthorn, snowberry, and madrone are cheerful. If you hike Windy Hill on a cool day, dress warmly. Winds can really whip down Spring Ridge Trail, and you'll learn why Windy Hill got its name. I really prefer hiking the Spring Ridge/Hamms Gulch Loop so that I ascend on Hamms Gulch, rather than Spring Ridge Trail. Hamms Gulch is an easier climb, but then again when you hike up Spring Ridge you'll have nice views of Windy Hill, rather than east into the valley.
Start at the information signboard. Walk west on a flat path through valley oaks and coyote brush. After about 250 feet, you'll reach a junction. Turn left (toward Alpine Road). The broad level path, open to hikers, cyclists, and equestrians, skirts the shore of Sausal Pond. On the left a retirement complex is visible. Once past the pond, the trail begins a slight climb. Valley and coast live oaks tower overhead, with willow, snowberry and coyote brush in the understory. As the trail crests, at 0.50 mile, you'll reach the signed junction with Spring Ridge Trail. Continue straight, toward Alpine Road.
The trail ducks beneath the shade of oaks. You may see buttercups and hound's tongue in late winter. At 0.65 mile, beneath some huge old oaks, you'll arrive at a two-part junction. A path to Alpine Road departs to the left. A private driveway is on the right. A few steps later, to the right, Meadow Trail sets off uphill on the right, and Hamms Gulch continues to the left. So bear right, then turn left onto on Hamms Gulch Trail, a trail open to hikers and equestrians (seasonally closed to horses during wet winter months).
In late winter, I saw some bluedicks, blue-eyed grass, and one ripe woodland strawberry, peeking out of the grass, heralding spring. Sporadic black oaks and coast live oaks give way to thick stands of California bay, bigleaf maple, and buckeye as Hamms Gulch Trail heads into the woods, following along Corte Madera Creek. Traffic noise from Alpine Road is audible. Poison oak is common, along with snowberry. In spring, look for the dramatic giant trillium, milkmaids, forget-me-not, and hound's tongue. You might catch fading currant and gooseberry blossoms as well. Hamms Gulch Trail dips down to cross the creek, then begins to climb. At 0.98 mile, Eagle Trail departs on the left, on the way to Razorback Ridge Trail. Continue straight on Hamms Gulch Trail.
There are only two steepish grades on Hamms Gulch Trail, which ascends mostly on broad switchbacks. After a short moderate climb (still easier than almost any fire road), the narrow trail eases up. A few redwoods and Douglas firs can be spotted, but mostly you'll see creambush, California bay, coast live oak, maple, madrone, poison oak,and hazelnut. Shooting stars, gooseberry, and currant blossom in the winter, while hound's tongue, milkmaids, solomon's seal, and trillium put forth flowers in early spring. You'll be climbing along the south bank of Hamms Gulch, and as you ascend, where vegetation permits you'll have views north across the gulch, to grassy Spring Ridge. The trail takes a turn to the left and briefly steps out into chaparral. Coyote brush dominates, but if you're hiking in winter, look on the left side of the trail for the yellow flowers of leatherwood, a rare shrub. Hamms Gulch Trail returns to the woods, but soon steps out again to a clear spot with the best views uphill to Windy Hill. A bench just before a sharp switchback is a good location for a scenic rest break. The trail resumes a climb through woodland. Hamms Gulch Trail creeps through the lower reaches of a sloping grassy meadow. You'll catch a glimpse of the preserve's forested slopes to the left. But the bucolic sojourn is short lived, and Hamms Gulch Trail darts back into the woods. You'll pass a rustic wooden bench next to a seasonal creek,then climb through cool woods, where tanoaks make an appearance. Two large maples, lovely in autumn, sprawl over the trail at a switchback. Currant and thimbleberry are common trailside plants. The trail passes a couple of huge Douglas firs, some of their branches as large as full-size trees. At 3.36 miles, Hamms Gulch Trail ends at a signed junction with Lost Trail. Turn right on Lost Trail, heading toward Spring Ridge Trail.
Douglas firs perch downhill on the right, but the trail, open to hikers and equestrians only (seasonally closed to horses) levelly sweeps through chaparral. You may see more flowering currant in late winter, and creambush in bloom in early summer. Coyote brush begins to fade away, and you'll enter grassland. Look for mule ear sunflowers, fiddlenecks, and California poppies in early spring. Bob's bench offers views to the east. After a brief foray through some California bay, tanoak, coast live oak, and Douglas fir, Lost Trail cuts through chaparral, and then ends at a signed junction near the Skyline Boulevard trailhead, at 3.92 miles. Picnic tables and a pit toilet make this a logical lunch break location. When you're ready, resume hiking on Anniversary Trail, which begins where Lost Trail leaves off.
Part of the Bay Area Ridge Trail's Windy Hill segment, Anniversary Trail is narrow, but open to cyclists, equestrians, and hikers.Just before the trail begins a slight climb, there's a junction at about 4 miles. Hikers continue to the right, while equestrians and cyclists skirt the hill on a trail to the left. Stay to the right.
California poppy and checkerbloom dot the grassland in early spring. There are nice views back down Spring Ridge toward Portola Valley and beyond, to Mount Hamilton, the Santa Clara Valley, Mount Diablo, and Mission Peak. Anniversary Trail climbs gently across the hill's eastern face. Two side trails head off to the left, while some benches content those happy to soak in the view. If you walk uphill to the summit (there's no sign, but it's obvious), you'll have grand vistas of western San Mateo County's rolling hills, and the ocean. Anniversary Trail starts to descend, and ends at a signed junction near a Skyline Boulevard pullout and the start of Spring Ridge Trail, at 4.45 miles. Turn right on Spring Ridge Trail.
The broad multi-use trail almost immediately plummets through grassland. Spring Ridge Trail can be muddy in winter, and rutted as it dries out. There are sweeping views as you descend, past the forested hillsides of Hamms Gulch and Jones Gulch, to Black Mountain. Coyote brush dots the grassland, and Monterey cypress sit off the trail to the left. Coast live oaks provide shade on a brief stretch. A few feet of level trail is followed by another straight steep section. In early spring, you might see California buttercups, blue-eyed grass, scarlet pimpernel, redmaids, lupines, and popcorn flowers. Just past some madrones, maples, and coast live oaks, Spring Ridge Trail reaches a signed junction, at 6.13 miles. Meadow Trail, on the right, descends to meet a junction you will have encountered earlier, at the start of Hamms Gulch Trail. Stay to the left on Spring Ridge Trail.
There's some substantial shade at last, from coast live oaks and madrones. You'll pass a large patch of blackberry on the left. Spring Ridge Trail curves downhill, meeting Betsy Crowder Trail at the edge of a meadow at 6.41 miles. Turn left on Betsy Crowder Trail.
The somewhat narrow trail is hiking-only during wet months, although equestrians are welcome in summer and autumn. Betsy Crowder Trail descends slightly at the edge of the meadow, then turns and heads toward Sausal Pond. Poison oak, toyon, and coyote brush accompany oaks, madrone, and buckeye. Poison hemlock (a dangerous plant that is shockingly common in the bay area) crowds the trail in spring, when you might see milkmaids, hound's tongue, and trillium in the woods. Sausal Pond is audible but barely visible through the trees. The trail drops down, turns away from a creek and the preserve boundary, and ...