Ron Horii's Bay Area Back Pages - Bay Area Biking
San Francisco Bay National Wildlife Refuge, Alviso

Town of Alviso across Chicago Marsh
Looking across New Chicago Marsh towards Alviso

"You're going to Alviso? Are you nuts!" That might a typical reaction by long-time San Joseans to a proposed bike trip to Alviso. Alviso isn't exactly known as the garden spot of San Jose. It's mainly known for being the home of the city dump and sewage plant. It's far from being the richest or fanciest part of town. Why would anyone want to go there voluntarily? The reason is that it has miles of trails that allow you to get away from crowds and get close to nature. This area has thousands of acres of marshes, salt ponds, mud flats, sloughs, freshwater creeks, and bay shallows. It's incredibly rich in wildlife, especially in bird species. There are some 250 species of resident and migratory birds here. It's a bird-watchers paradise and a good place for wildlife studies. The wetlands here are part of the San Francisco Bay National Wildlife Refuge.

Tank in Alviso junkyard1 Victorian house in Alviso
M5A1 Tank in Alviso Junkyard Old Tilden-Laine house in Alviso

Besides its natural attractions, Alviso has historical interest. The 130-year old town is listed in the National Register of Historic Places. The tiny, quiet community of Alviso seems like an anachronism. Located in the middle of the high-tech industrial Silicon Valley, its wide empty streets and aging, historical buildings make it seem like it's from another place and time. With its old buildings, junkyards with rusting vehicles and equipment, large Hispanic presence, and surrounding open fields, it seems like a Central Valley farming town, rather than a piece of the "Capital of Silicon Valley." Alviso used to be an independent community. Now it's a part of the city of San Jose, and because of it, San Jose can claim to be a Bay city, as Alviso is the only part of San Jose that has a waterfront on San Francisco Bay. It's located at the southernmost arm of San Francisco Bay, between the drainages of Coyote Creek and the Guadalupe River. Groundwater extraction by the surrounding cities have caused the town to sink below sealevel. Levees prevent the town from being flooded - most of the time. Heavy winter rains have resulted in flooding.

Alviso Marina and derelict boats boats in Alviso Slough
The "ghost marina" of Alviso The Alviso Slough: San Jose's only waterfront

Alviso used to have a marina, but it has long since been silted in. Reeds and mud surround the old docks and a few ghostly derelict boats. Alviso still has a waterfront, however, on the Alviso Slough, which used to be called Steamboat Slough. The slough, which is the drainage for the Guadalupe River, runs along the edge of town, surrounded by levees. The South Bay Yacht Club, which has a long and colorful history, is located next to the boat docks on the slough. The slough winds towards the Bay, surrounded by salt ponds. It eventually flows into the Coyote Creek arm of the Bay. Small boats can navigate down the slough during high tide, and if they don't get stuck in the mud, can make it into San Francisco Bay and out into the Pacific Ocean. It looks a lot like some of the small old towns in the Sacramento River Delta. This area has been dubbed with the honor and title of the "Old Port of Alviso National Historic District." It's hard to believe, but at one time, this was the busiest port on San Francisco Bay. It was the major shipping point for the South Bay until 1865, when railroads bypassed the town and crushed the town's dream of becoming a major city. Now, the main reasons visitors come to Alviso are to eat at its famous restaurants, see its historical buildings, and visit the wildlife refuge.

The main attraction of the Alviso area for bike riders are the miles of trails on the levees in the area. The huge salt ponds here are part of the San Francisco National Wildlife Refuge, administered by the US Dept. of Fish and Wildlife. The ponds are surrounded by levees that are open to bikers and walkers. The levees are dirt-surfaced, but they are flat, smooth, and easy to ride on, when they're dry, that is. They are made from bay mud, which makes for a smoother ride than gravel roads. However, they don't dry very fast after a rain and can get muddy. You don't want to come here during the rainy season. I rode on the levees on a sunny day, the day after we got only a half inch of rain, one of the first rains of the fall. All the paved and gravel trails were dry, but the levee trails were still soft. Most of trails were ridable, though requiring pedaling extra effort.  One spot, however, was so muddy, I had to carry my bike, while being careful not to slip and fall in the slippery, sticky mud. Another challenge is the wind. Mountain bikers might disdain these trails because they're so flat, but riding straight into the stiff afternoon bay winds is like riding up a mountain. On the other hand, riding back downwind is almost like riding downhill. You can really fly.

Alviso Enrvironmental Educ. Ctr.
Looking east across New Chicago Marsh to the Environmental Education Center Inside the Environmental Education Center Boardwalk across New Chicago Marsh, view from top floor of EEC

There are two main access points to the trails. One is by the Environmental Education Center, which is an impressive 3-story wooden structure used for educating the public, especially schoolchildren, about the bay environment. It's located east of Alviso at the end of Grand Blvd. It overlooks the huge New Chicago Marsh. Mallard Slough, which runs into Coyote Creek, lies to the west of the EEC. There are exhibits here at the center for visitors, as well as classes and guided tours of the natural areas.The center is a good place to get information and maps about the area. On the top floor of the building is an enclosed observation tower where you can get panoramic views of the area. A wooden boardwalk behind the EEC leads over marsh. Next to the center is a butterfly garden with native plants, benches, and picnic tables. Trails lead out over the salt pond levees from the EEC, along the edge of Mallard Slough. These trails close during the fall/winter hunting season, however. For more information, call the center at 408-262-5513.

Alviso levee Near mouth of Alviso Slough
Levee trail along salt pond near Alviso Slough Near mouth of Alviso Slough

The largest network of trails is accessible from the Alviso Marina, located at the end of Gold Street, which can be reached by taking Lafayette Street north from Santa Clara or 1st Street northwest from San Jose. The trails follow along levees that ring the salt ponds. The ponds belong to the San Francisco Bay National Wildlife Refuge, but the Cargill Salt Company has salt evaporation rights to them. The trail around the salt ponds is officially part of the Bay Trail. You can take the trail clockwise starting at the Marina, following along the levee above the Alviso Slough, with the salt ponds on your right. This part of the trail follows the winding path of the slough, which gets wider as it approaches the bay. This direction is into the wind, so it's best taken early in the day, when the winds are calmer. Several small levees branch off from the trail, dividing up the salt ponds. Most of these are closed, however. The loop around the salt ponds is 10 miles long, so it's a little long for walking, but great for biking. There may be some walkers on the trail near the Marina, but the farther out you go, the more likely you'll be alone. Keep in mind there are no restrooms out here and no bushes or trees for cover, so don't drink too much before starting out. As the Alviso Slough approaches the Bay, you can see the huge power towers and power lines crossing the Bay, with the narrow catwalks below them. In the distance, you can see the Dumbarton Bridge crossing the Bay a few miles north.

Before the Alviso Slough hits the Bay at Coyote Creek, the trail turns to the right and follows along the banks of the wide Coyote Creek. You may see some boats in this part of the Bay, including some half-sunk abandoned ones. This part of the trail is fairly straight. It's also downwind, so you can really zip along this section. After awhile, the trail turns south. A levee trail branches off to the left to continue following Coyote Creek. It turns south below Triangle Marsh. You can also take a shorter route by taking a levee trail to the south around a salt pond below Coyote Creek. This shorter route is part of the Bay Trail. Both routes end up at the Southern Pacific Railroad Tracks. According to the signs, you're not supposed to cross the railroad tracks. You're also not supposed to follow the railroad tracks north. If you could, you would cross Coyote Creek to the site of Drawbridge (see below). Instead, follow the trail south as it parallels the railroad tracks. The tracks make a beeline for Alviso. About halfway down, the trail jogs to the right around a small segment of marshland between the levee and the railroad tracks. It jogs to the left just before it reaches the end of the Alviso Marina.  The closer you come to the Marina, the more likely you are to encounter foot traffic, so watch your speed.

Alviso may seem like a ghost town in places, but nearby is a real ghost town, the former town of Drawbridge.  It's located on a small island in the South Bay, about 3 miles north of Alviso, between Coyote Creek and Mud Slough. Starting in the late 1870's, people started coming here for fishing and hunting. They built houses here on stilts near the railroad tracks. It eventually developed into a community of 400. The community declined as sewage and pollution from the developing South Bay cities ruined the habitat. Eventually, the town was abondoned. Now it's a ghost town.  It's closed to the public except for docent-guided tours. For information on tours, contact the San Francisco Bay National Wildlife Refuge in Fremont at (510) 792-0222.

Alviso Slough north of Tasman Drive

After leaving Alviso, you can continue to follow the Alviso Slough south as it approaches the Guadalupe River. It requires a short ride along surface streets. (Here is a map of the area.) The easiest way is to take Gold Street south. Just after it runs under Hwy 237 and turns into Lafayette Street, there's a bike path entrance on the left, next to the highway. Take the bike path past a small reservoir to the channel of the Alviso Slough. There are two open gates allowing access to either side of the slough. The other route is to take N. 1st Street southeast. After it crosses over Hwy 237, there's an entrance to a bike path running along the south side of 237. Take this path west to the slough. The slough here is a tamed flood control channel surrounded by high levees. The banks of the slough are straight, wide, flat, and gravel-surfaced. The south bank runs next to the Santa Clara Golf Club. The north bank runs by a trailer park with a lovely lake, then behind some new luxury townhouses. Both bank trails lead up to the Tasman Drive bridge. You can easily walk around the fences to reach Tasman Drive. This is a good place to pick up the Light Rail at the Lick Mill Station, to the west of the slough. The Alviso Slough turns into the Guadalupe River around the Tasman overcrossing. You can continue along banks of the Guadalupe River south of Tasman, however, by the time it reaches Montague Expressway, there are locked gates and no-trespassing signs restricting access from Montague. However according to the bike map from the Valley Transportation Agency, there's a bike path along the east bank of the river all the way to Trimble Road. The river continues south as it forms the northeastern border between San Jose and Santa Clara. It runs next to the Guadalupe Parkway by the San Jose Airport, then into downtown San Jose, where the banks of the river are being developed into the Guadalupe River Park. Short paved segments of the trail run along the river in downtown San Jose. Someday, trails and paths along the river bank may lead from downtown to the Bay, but they're not there yet. Perhaps someday there will be trails leading all the way to the sources of the Guadalupe River: Alamitos Creek in the Almaden Valley, Guadalupe Reservoir next to Almaden Quicksilver Park, and Lexington Dam, which is the source of Los Gatos Creek. Los Gatos Creek joins the Guadalupe River near the San Jose Arena. Though it's a highly tamed, channeled, and dammed up waterway, the Guadalupe River still has a certain natural appeal, especially as it runs through such a highly urbanized environment. What's amazing is that fish still live in the river. There are even runs of salmon through downtown San Jose!

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Ron Horii, San Jose
Created 11/27/98