El Sereno Open Space Preserve,
Midpeninsula Regional Open Space District,
Santa Clara County
In brief:
6 mile out and back on a remote ridge above Lexington Reservoir. Scarce parking.

Distance, category, and difficulty:
This 6 mile out and back hike is moderate, with about 1300 feet in elevation change. Trailhead elevation is about 2330 feet. The preserve's highest point is about 2520 feet, the lowest elevation is about 1200 feet. The featured hike climbs from the trailhead to 2520 feet, descends to about 1570 feet, then climbs back to the trailhead.

Almost totally exposed.

Trail traffic:

Trail surfaces:
Dirt fire roads.

Hiking time:
3 hours.

Not a good choice in hot weather, but otherwise nice anytime.

Getting there:
From Interstate 280 in Santa Clara County, exit CA 17 south. Drive south to the Alma Bridge/Bear Creek Road exit. At the base of the exit ramp, follow the signs for Montevina Road: drive about 0.5 mile on the road parallel to 17, past Black Road, then follow Montevina uphill. Drive carefully on narrow and winding Montevina, about 3.5 miles to a small pullout at the end of the road.

Get driving or public transit directions from Transit and Trails:

GPS Coordinates* for Trailhead:
Latitude 3712'48.59"N
122 1'25.46"W
(* based on Google Earth data, shown as degrees, minutes, seconds)

Gas, food, and lodging:
Gas, pay phones, restaurants and stores about 6 miles away in Los Gatos. No camping.

Trailhead details:
A rough and rutted dirt pullout provides parking for 2 or 3 vehicles at the edge of a residential neighborhood. No entrance or parking fees. No toilet facilities, maps, or water in the preserve; be sure to bring plenty of water. There is no designated handicapped parking, and trail access for wheelchairs is obstructed by a step-over. Note: as there is very limited parking at this preserve, you may want to have an option in mind if the pullout is full. Four other nearby places to hike are St. Joseph's Hill Open Space Preserve, Sanborn-Skyline County Park, Sierra Azul Open Space Preserve, and Castle Rock State Park. St. Joseph's and Sierra Azul are just across CA 17, and Sanborn-Skyline and Castle Rock are closer than you might think; just take Black Road to Skyline Boulevard and drive a few miles north. There is no direct public transportation to this trailhead.

All trails but one are multi-use. One is hiking only. No dogs in this part of the preserve, but they are allowed on Overlook Trail (check the map for details). Preserve is open from dawn to one half hour after sunset.

The Official Story:
MROSD's El Sereno page.
MROSD field office 650-691-1200

Map Choices:
• Use AAA's San Francisco Bay Region map to get there.
Map from MROSD (download pdf)
• Order the Saratoga to Big Basin map from Redwood Hikes.
Peninsula Tales and Trails, by David Weintraub (order this book from Amazon.com) has an overview of the preserve, a description of a hike, and a simple map.
South Bay Trails, by Jean Rusmore, Betsy Crowder, and Frances Spangle (order this book from Amazon.com) has a simple map and trail descriptions.
• Tom Taber's The Santa Cruz Mountains Trail Book has a simple map and preserve descriptions (order this book from Amazon.com).

View photos from this hike.

Go to Bay Area Hiker Home page

El Sereno translates from Spanish to English as night watchman.Pullout at the end of Montevina RoadWhy would the term be attached to such a hot, dry, primitive, and steep south bay mountain? It stands a short distance from San Jose's ever-reaching urban sprawl, although whomever named El Sereno could never have predicted such south bay growth. I suppose a night watchman keeps an eye on things, and guards the neighborhood. Regardless, the protector has become the protected, as El Sereno is now public parkland, destined to stand forever, austere and naked, patient and watchful.Climbing through chaparral
      The preserve is a bit underdeveloped, with parking for only two or three cars, and no maps, restrooms, or trail signs. Be sure to bring plenty of water and a map. El Sereno is well-suited to horseback and bicycle riding, as the trails are steep, and there are no possible loop trips. It'll probably take an average hiker several visits to explore El Sereno, which has one long trail and several spur trails, all extending out to dead-ends. However, you don't need to hike far into the preserve; from El Sereno's boundary at the open space gate, on non-smoggy days you'll be treated to spectacular views to the south and east. View south
     El Sereno is not a good choice on a hot day. On one January hike the temperature on the south-facing shadeless slopes soared to nearly 70 degrees. Spring is probably the best time to visit, particularly if the weather is cool, for that's when you'll find wildflowers in the meadow and throughout the chaparral. If by luck or good planning you hike when chaparral pea is in bloom (generally May, around the same time chamise blooms), you'll witness a riotous display of hot pink blossoms on the thorny-looking shrubs. Manzanitas and a variety of ceanothus blossom in winter, when the views are usually as clear as they get in the south bay. View downhill from the trail, revealing the descent
      From the pullout at the end of Montevina Road, walk uphill about 200 feet to the open space gate. As you start climbing on Montevina Ridge Trail, a wide fire road open to hikers, equestrians, and cyclists, look back over your shoulder for fantastic views south and west. On clear days you should be able to see the ocean and the Monterey peninsula. Trailside vegetation is an eclectic mix of chaparral plants, including a variety of ceanothus, as well as manzanita, silk-tassel, yerba santa, poison oak, California coffeeberry, coyote brush, pitcher sage, shrubby oaks, and toyon, but chamise is the dominant plant. After 0.29 mile of easy climbing, you'll reach a junction. Montevina Ridge Trail to the left ends 0.4 mile further at Bohlman Road. Bear right.A sharp corner
      While adopting just a slight uphill grade, Aquinas Trail, a wide dirt fire road, cuts through dense chaparral, then crests and drops down to a viewpoint. The spot is marked with a metal state marker sunk into the ground. From here, there are views of Lexington Reservoir, Mount Umunhum, and Mount Hamilton. Sit still for a few moments, and you might get a good look at the small shy birds skittering about in the low branches of chamise shrubs. When you're ready to start the descent, continue down the fire road on a short steep grade. The trail ascends and then levels out. If you stand near the edge of the brush on the right and look downhill, you can see the trail's continuing course, and the meadow at this hike's turnaround point. (If the elevation drop seems too much for you, best to turnaround now.) Meadow at the lower reaches of the preserveThe trail curves left, and crosses over to the mountain's northern face. California bays, tanoak, and madrones provide some unexpected and welcome shade. You might also notice a few young California nutmeg. When I hiked here in February 2002, a full week after a snow storm, there were still large patches of icy snow on the trail. The trail turns back on itself at a switchback, and you'll recross the hill at a lower elevation, and then reemerge into sunny chaparral. At a moderate grade, the trail descends, taking a sharp turn at another switchback, and continuing to lose elevation. Heavy bicycle usage is evident; you may notice that tires have cut tracks into the sides of the hill in some spots. A few live oaks and madrone provide sporadic shade, but chamise and other chaparral plants continue to reign over the dry hillsides. Traffic noise from CA 17 and views of newly built mansions remind you of the explosive south bay growth. (Note: thanks to an easement, you can continue through a short stretch of private property and back into the preserve. There are no signs along the trail.) At 2.13 miles, you'll reach a junction with deadend Loma VistaTrail. Continue straight.Returning to the trailhead
     There's a brief nearly level stretch, then the rocky trail continues downhill at a moderately steep grade. Look for black sage and broom mixed through chamise, buckbrush, blueblossom ceanothus, manzanita, silk-tassel, sticky monkeyflower, chaparral pea, and California sagebrush. At 2.63 miles, you'll reach another junction. Bear left, continuing on Aquinas Trail.
     The descent eases up as the trail winds through chaparral and brief shaded stretches under California bay. Look to the left for a handful of currant shrubs, typically blooming in February. There's a luxuriant swath of chaparral pea on the left as well. Abruptly, the trail curves right at 2.98 miles and emerges in a pretty, level meadow. Grass stretches toward the chaparral on both sides of the trail. A stately blue oak stands on the left. This is the turnaround point of the hike, and a great place for lunch. Although traffic noise from surrounding highways is still audible, it most resembles a faint roar, like the ocean. You can continue downhill on the trail, but according to the map you'll reach a dead end in less than a mile. When you're ready, retrace your steps back to the trailhead.

Total distance: 5.96 miles
Last hiked: Wednesday, February 6, 2002