At Home on Sierra Azul’s Priest Rock Trail

The Priest Rock Trail to the 3,000-foot summit of Mt. El Sombroso in the Sierra Azul Open Space Reserve leads to great views of Los Gatos and the South Bay Area.

Goat Trails

Story and photos by Ryan Masters

Feb. 5, 2015—It’s been a season of extremes. Following the wettest December in generations, not a drop in January. But that’s Northern California for you—boom and bust. The bipolar weather has made a mess of the trail I am hiking. Deep, storm-carved fissures have been baked into a treacherous hardpan. In places, it’s like hiking up a steep, ceramic sculpture.

The Priest Rock Trail is actually a service road cut from Lexington Reservoir to the 3,000-foot summit of Mt. El Sombroso. Its trailhead at Alma Bridge Road is one of four points of departure into the Sierra Azul Open Space Reserve—18,000 acres of steep, chaparral-choked terrain overlooking Los Gatos and the South Bay.

I have been slowly picking my way up this deeply rutted road for an hour or so. Below me, the dam-end of Lexington Reservoir glimmers in the afternoon light. It looks better than half full. On the far side of Lexington, weekend traffic creeps down Highway 17. Beyond that, a warm winter sun burns high above Montevina Ridge. It’s a familiar view. The house I grew up in is just over the other side of that ridge.

I hear a wasp-like hum and step to the shoulder as another mountain biker bombs down the steep trail. These are mostly incredibly fit and tanned men gracefully maneuvering the back half of middle age. They ride gleaming machines rigged with NASA-engineered suspension systems which appear to handle the storm-and-sun-ravaged terrain effortlessly.

He disappears in a cloud of dust and I continue plodding up the road.

Hometown Hills
When I was a kid, downtown Los Gatos had a trippy little aquarium, a head shop, a corner drug store and various other normal, small-town businesses. The mountains were primarily inhabited by slightly shady but good-natured types—lots of aging hippies and weed growers, but also some recluses who did not invite intrusions into their weird, redwood-canopied universes. There were some famous people—the guy who invented the Pet Rock was a neighbor of ours and the Doobie Brothers used to rehearse a few doors down from my best friend’s house.

Then somewhere there in the 1980s, Los Gatos evolved—pastel stucco became a prevalent theme; art galleries, fine dining and boutiques moved on to the strip; garish McMansions and vanity project vineyards cut huge swaths into the mountaintops; Vietnam-era helicopters funded by the elder Bush’s War on Drugs patrolled the canyons for grow operations; and Michael McDonald left the Doobies to pursue a solo career in the adult contemporary aisle.

During my senior year in high school, the Loma Prieta Earthquake completed the makeover, nearly destroying my parents’ house in the process. When I returned years later, much of the Los Gatos I’d grown up in had disappeared forever. Time waits for no man in its inexorable march and all that.

Of course, in a literal sense, you can always go home again. And from time to time I do. What’s more, the area inside the Sierra Azul Open Preserve remains more or less the same as when I was a kid. Its 24 miles of trail crisscross the country from Lexington Reservoir, east to the New Almaden Quicksilver Mine. In fact, the ghost town of Alma, which the construction of Lexington dam erased from maps in 1952, is thought to be named after the mine (either that or it’s named after a popular local prostitute; historians remain divided on the issue.)

Regardless, the Priest Rock Trail was once an early route between the timber mills of Los Gatos Creek and the New Almaden mine. The latter half of the 19th Century was a wild time for the region. No less than 12 saloons lined the road from Lexington to Alma. In those days, it was a good place to get rich, get drunk or get yourself killed—maybe all three if you worked hard enough.

Monster’s Ink
The enormous wealth generated by the relatively short-lived quicksilver and redwood lumber industries helped develop the region into a destination for affluent San Franciscans as early as the 1870s. It didn’t hurt that the place was also Arcadian gorgeous and supposedly possessed of a climate agreeable to bronchial ailments. So, from a historical perspective, my hometown’s evolution is just the most recent step in a long progression. It’s attracted the moneyed, drunk and famous for well over a century.

Perhaps the most drunken and famous resident at the turn of the century was Ambrose Bierce—vitriolic author of The Devil’s Dictionary and “An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge.” Bierce spent three years holding court at Los Gatos’ El Monte Hotel and later at the Jeffries Hotel up in Wrights—a few miles further into the mountains from Lexington. After serving as William Randolph Hearst’s poison-penned bulldog in the Great Railroad War—which his muckraking invective significantly influenced—he retreated here to ease his asthma.

Bierce was a misanthropic pain in the ass of the highest order. He loathed and publically debased everyone from the most powerful robber barons to the meekest struggling poets. He hated women. He was vehemently racist. He was a monstrous father. And his acquaintances had a tendency to meet really macabre and horrible ends.

Of course, he had his reasons for generally despising the human race. As a young man, he was one of the few to survive the Civil War killing fields of Shiloh, Chickamauga, Missionary Ridge, and Kennesaw Mountain—among others. His groundbreaking short stories of that war deeply influenced generations of American writers—among them Stephen Crane, John Dos Passos, Ernest Hemingway and Norman Mailer.

While in the area, Bierce went for long, drunken hikes in these mountains and held al fresco literary salons to seduce women among the ticks and poison oak. During this time, he also took a neurotic young poet named Herman Scheffauer under his wing. Instead of supporting the poor fellow’s career, Bierce thought it would be a lark to take one of Sheffauer’s poems and pass it off as a lost work by Edgar Allen Poe. The hoax failed miserably and deeply embarrassed them both. Years later, Scheffauer would fatally stab his wife and leap to his death from a hotel window.

As for Bierce, at the age of 71, he simply disappeared into Mexico and was never heard from again. His death is still something of a mystery. One credible theory involves dinner with Pancho Villa. According to this account, the writer pissed off the notoriously hot-headed Mexican revolutionary so thoroughly that he had Bierce marched into the desert, shot and buried. To this day, the dates affixed to Bierce’s name read: “1842-1913?”

Hummingbird’s Lair
If I was Ambrose Bierce, today would be perfect for drunkenly harassing some poor girl or ruining a lesser writer’s life out here on the Priest Rock Trail. Despite the season, the temperature is in the mid-60s and a relaxing breeze ruffles the chaparral and live oak. On the ridge to my south, Soda Springs Road winds up towards Mt. Thayer (3,479 feet). A mile to Thayer’s east is Mt. Umunhum (3,489 feet). Umunhum is an Ohlone word which means “resting place of the hummingbirds”—arguably the most poetic name in California. I hear the sound of their wings every time I say it: Umunhum.

Mt. Umunhum is capped by a six-story concrete blockhouse that we call “the cube.” When I was a kid, there were men in that cube actively scanning the Pacific Ocean day and night for Soviet bombers hell bent on destroying my elementary school in a holocaust of radioactive fire. Now it’s a ghost town—abandoned living quarters, an officers’ club, a two-lane bowling alley, even a swimming pool.

But don’t even think about it. Although there’s a movement afoot to renovate the old air force installations and open them to the public, Umunhum and Thayer are currently off limits. What’s more, you would have to cross private property to reach them. I know some of the people who own property around these peaks. They are weird. And they have weapons.

Today I have chosen to summit the third highest peak in the Sierra Azul—Mt. El Sombroso, which means The Shadowy Mountain. Priest Rock Trail was originally a service road for the giant electrical towers that dominate the canyon, which means it was built with the shortest distance between two points in mind. As a result, it’s a steep, exposed, five-mile ascent.

This is the north/south divide of the Santa Cruz Mountains. Botanically, it’s a unique region—although most people simply dismiss it as “a bunch of scrub.” Granted, chaparral doesn’t impress in quite the same way a redwood forest does, but having grown up tunneling through the stuff, it’s always been near and dear to my heart. Yes, it will scratch your skin and infect you with poison. And yes, it is full of bloodthirsty ticks who want nothing more than to burrow deep into your warmest, moistest, darkest parts. But chaparral is also subtly beautiful—especially in the winter.

The big berry manzanita is blooming—its delicate white flowers aren’t found any farther west or north in the Santa Cruz Mountains. At this time of year, you can sometimes find territorial hummingbirds defending these stands of blooming manzanita—it’s an entertaining little war that plays like a hyperactive Battle of Britain. Beneath the manzanita, I find maroon Indian warrior flowering. The vampiric bloom is a hemi-parasite sucking life from the host manzanita’s roots. It glistens bloodily in the shade of its victim.

As the Priest Rock Trail gains altitude, it crosses Limekiln Trail, an alternate route into the preserve from Lexington Reservoir County Park. Just to the north, the violent, terraced gash in the earth you see is the Lexington Quarry. It looks like they’re about a third of the way through the entire hillside. After another mile and a half, Priest Rock joins with the Kennedy Trail, which originates in the East Los Gatos neighborhood of the same name. From up here, the Bay Area stretches out in all of its hectic glory to the north.

Good and Weird
At the summit of El Sombroso I find a kindred spirit—a shirtless, bearded old man in a beaten up wizard’s hat. A necklace of boar tusks is strung around his neck. We do not speak, but instead silently take in the view together. As the sun begins to set, a nearly full moon rises over Mt. Hamilton to the east of San Jose. Without a word, Boar Man disappears back down the trail. He was the only other person I saw on the trail who did not look like they were training for some kind of elite endurance event. He makes me a little nostalgic for the weird old days.

Rumor has it a cult once operated in these parts—heroin freaks who slung black tar and practiced questionable magic. Initiates into their dark league mutilated themselves by cutting off the middle fingers on their right hands. A tribute, so the story goes, to guitar god Jerry Garcia. The source of this particular tale is a little hazy. It’s possible I made that one up.

After giving Boar Man a respectful head start, I follow him back down the trail into the honeyed evening light. The way down takes far less time and before I know it I’m nearly back to the trail head. As the light fades, I rest at a picnic table set in a little clearing. Above me, an enormous old eucalyptus tree sheds folds of peeling bark like piles of foreskin. The picnic table is fairly new but some derelict has already been at it with a knife.

It warms my heart to see the letters “SCMB” carved into the wood. Nice to know some things don’t change.

More Goat Trails by Ryan Masters:
Hiking Through Quicksilver and ‘The Legend of New Almaden’
Jade Cove and the Conscious Unconscious
Bodysurfing: The Ecstatic Motion