Ron Horii's Bay Area Back Pages - Bay Area Biking
Los Gatos Creek Trail in downtown Los Gatos Los Gatos Creek Trail
Part 1: Forbes Mill to Blossom Hill Road
Los Gatos Creek Park main pond

View of Los Gatos Creek area from St. Joseph Hill
View from St. Joseph's Hill OSP of Los Gatos Creek Trail route from lower left near Los Gatos High School, Vasona Lake (left of center), to Los Gatos Creek Park (upper right), Los Gatos in foreground, Campbell in center, San Jose and east foothills in background

In my opinion, the Los Gatos Creek Trail is the most important urban multi-use trail in the South Bay, maybe even the whole Bay Area. In this trail guide, I intend to cover the Los Gatos Creek Trail in great detail, so much so that I had to break it up into 5 parts. I think it deserves this detailed coverage for several reasons. Of all the trails on these Bay Area Biking Web pages, the Los Gatos Creek Trail offers the most variety of environments and surroundings. It runs through several parks and near some major shopping and dining areas, so there's plenty to do along the way. Because it runs through the most densely-populated areas compared to the other trails, it serves the most people, and it is by far the most heavily-used. Even though it's the most urban of the trails covered in these pages, it is a rich haven for wildlife, both avian and aquatic. So many other city waterways are bare, unappealing, and inaccessible to the general public. (I have one like that running behind my back yard.) The Los Gatos Creek Trail, on the other hand, is a superb example of how to turn an urban waterway into a valuable recreational and environmental resource.  It shows what can be done with much volunteer effort, public and private funds, and the cooperation of many governmental agencies. Hopefully, it can serve as a model for cities all over the country. In documenting this trail, I hope I can help this cause.

Los Gatos Creek is part of the Santa Clara Valley Water System. The creek's primary job is to take the water from Lexington Reservoir and deliver it to the percolation ponds downstream. At the percolation ponds, the water filters into the ground to recharge the enormous underground aquifers under the Santa Clara Valley. These aquifers hold millions of acre-feet of water, several higher times greater than the capacity of all the county's above-ground reservoirs put together. Most of the valley's water supply is pumped out of wells and treated before delivering to customers. Because the water is treated before usage, the Santa Clara Valley Water District allows recreational usage of most of its lakes and streams, unlike San Francisco and the Crystal Springs Watershed.

The Los Gatos Creek trail runs through 3 cities, 3 county parks, and several city parks. It follows Los Gatos Creek from Lexington Reservoir south of Los Gatos, runs through Los Gatos and Campbell, and ends just past Leigh Avenue in San Jose. The part of the creek just below Lexington Dam is a cement-lined channel, but it becomes a more natural creek farther downstream. The creek runs by several more reservoirs and percolation ponds before it starts to enter downtown San Jose. Though the trail doesn't follow the creek this far, the creek ends up merging with the Guadalupe River at Confluence Point, just behind the San Jose Arena. Even though the creek trail passes behind suburban and commercial areas and parallels busy Hwy 17, the scenic, tree-lined creekbed makes it a natural experience. The trail is easily accessible from many points along the route and is very popular with walkers, joggers, skaters, and bicyclists. Each section of the trail has its own character, as each city seems to have its own style. Los Gatos goes for the natural look. Campbell blends nature and human development. San Jose and Willow Glen go for the neighborhood garden emphasis. San Jose now has the baton to carry the trail to its completion. I'll describe these characteristics in these pages.

Forbes Mill Museum, Los Gatos
Forbes Mill Museum, Los Gatos

A good place to start along the Los Gatos Creek Trail is at the parking lot at Forbes Mill in Los Gatos. The parking lot is at the end of Church Street, off East Main Street, across the street from the Los Gatos Civic Center and west of Los Gatos High School. The old sandstone mill building, built in 1854 by James Alexander Forbes, is an historical museum. The 2-story grist mill building was originally 4-stories tall. The mill became the center of the town that grew up around it. The town was first called Forbes Mill, then Forbestown, and finally Los Gatos. The name Los Gatos came from "El Rancho Rinconda de Los Gatos," which was the name of a ranch established here in 1839 and named after the once-numerous mountain lions in the surrounding mountains.

Los Gatos is a lovely small town with a long history. It covers 12 square miles and has a population of 27,000. In a way, it's like Alviso, in that it seems like it's from another place and time. It's located at the southwest corner of the Silicon Valley, nestled at the foot of the towering Santa Cruz Mountains. The downtown shopping area, located along Santa Cruz Avenue and Main Street, looks like a classic American small town center, so much so that it's been used as a movie location. There are unique stores and fine restaurants here that draw customers from all over the area. The neighborhoods have immaculately-maintained Victorian homes. But despite its appearance as a Midwestern small town, it's an up-scale area, with sky-housing prices, one of the most expensive in the Silicon Valley, which makes it one of the most expensive in the United States. Even if you can't afford to live there, it's a well-maintained and safe place to visit.

Los Gatos Creek Flume Trail
Flume Trail along Los Gatos Creek

If you have a mountain bike, you can head south along the creek from Forbes Mill to Lexington Reservoir. The dirt trail runs under Main Street, then splits into 2 trails. The unpaved paths run on both sides of the creek on the 1.5 mile stretch from Forbes Mill to Lexington Reservoir. The west side trail is a wider and more open gravel path.  You can technically ride a road bike on it, but it's a bit bumpy and gravelly, so it's more suited for mountain bikes. It's a popular jogging trail. The trail is mostly flat, following along the concrete creek channel, with occasional shade. It has some gradual climbs, then rises steeply as it approaches and climbs up the face of Lexington Dam. On the east side of the creek is the narrow Flume Trail footpath (no bikes), which follows the path of an old water flume. It winds and climbs through lush, shady, more densely wooded areas and is much more scenic (see picture). The Flume Trail is probably the most scenic section along the entire creek. In places it allows access to the creek banks, which are more natural-looking on the east side. The section in the picture above has ivy and blackberry-covered banks, shaded by maples, oaks, and laurels. The Flume Trail passes through Novitiate Park and joins the Jones Trail to St. Joseph's Hill Open Space District. Bikes are allowed on the Jones Trail from Novitiate Park, which is at the end of Jones Road in Los Gatos. The Jones Trail follows the route of the historic Jones Road, which linked Los Gatos and the towns of Lexington and Alma, whose townsites now lie under the waters of Lexington Reservoir. Steep, wide, rocky multi-use trails lead up the hills at St. Joseph's Hill Open Space Preserve. The top of St. Joseph's Hill is at 1253 feet and offers spectacular panoramic views of the South Valley and the Santa Cruz Mountains. Both the Jones Trail and Los Gatos Creek Trail reach Alma Bridge Road in Lexington Reservoir County Park. From there, it's a short distance along Alma Bridge Road to even more challenging mountain bike trails: the Limekiln and Priest Rock Trails through the Sierra Azul Open Space Preserve. The Sierra Azuls are a soaring ridge of mountains, part of the Santa Cruz Mountain range, but east of the San Andreas Fault. The Priest Rock Trail is an incredibly steep, grueling, sun-baked climb to the ridge of the Sierra Azuls, where it joins the Kennedy Trail. The Limekiln Trail is a shadier trail that runs along a creek and near a limestone quarry and eventually climbs steeply to join the Priest Rock Trail.

Forbes Mill Bridge murals Los Gatos Creek Boardwalk
Forbes Mill Footbridge murals Los Gatos Creek Trail Boardwalk

To get to the longer (almost 8 miles), easier, paved part of the Los Gatos Creek Trail from Forbes Mill, cross over Hwy 17 and Los Gatos Creek via the Forbes Mill Footbridge. The bridge is decorated with paintings on local history by school children. The other end of the bridge leads to the back side of Old Town Mall, currently under reconstruction. An elevated wooden boardwalk path follows along the creek above its west bank and crosses over it on a steel bridge.

Note: I'm including mileage counters, based on my bicycle's odometer, starting at Forbes Mill. It's the distance for the shortest route down the trail and doesn't include side-trips. I'll mention businesses, restaurants, and shopping centers along the way for convenience, but I'm not necessarily endorsing them. Keep in mind that these businesses may change.

Los Gatos Creek near Miles Ave. Los Gatos Creek Trail looking north from Miles Ave.
Los Gatos Creek Channel, looking downstream towards Miles Avenue Bridge Los Gatos Creek, looking upstream from Miles Avenue at trail and creek bridge 

The trail becomes a paved path above the concrete creek channel. At 0.2 miles, it crosses over Miles Avenue, the only street-level crossing on the trail. Fortunately, Miles Avenue is not a busy street. The street leads east to the R. J. Bryant Service Center of Los Gatos, which has trail parking. Part of the service center includes a 2-story clapboard former farmhouse with a tall red wooden water tower. Also here is a baseball diamond with a restroom and concession building. The trail continues straight down the creek after Miles Avenue, then goes under Los Gatos-Saratoga Road (Hwy 9) at 0.4 miles.

Shady section of trail near downtown Los Gatos Creek Causeway
Shady section of trail near downtown Los Gatos Los Gatos Creek near causeway south of Roberts Road Causeway on Los Gatos Creek Trail south of Roberts Road

The creek becomes liberated from its concrete confines after it passes under the Los Gatos-Saratoga Road Bridge and flows down a more natural creekbed. Here begins the shadiest, coolest, and one of the most scenic segments of the trail, even though it runs next to downtown Los Gatos. The speed limit drops to 7 mph as the path curves through the shady woodland. Trees and shrubs obscure views of the creek and Hwy 17, which runs only a few yards away. There are benches for resting along the way. The creek again comes into view near the entrance to an elevated platform perched above the edge of the creek. On the platform, high concrete sound walls shield the trail from Hwy 17, while a fence encloses the creekside of the trail. This was a challenging part of the trail for the town of Los Gatos to build. The platform and creek curve to the left. The trail opens up behind some new Victorian-style houses on Ohlone Court. The creek has some noisy stretches of fast water here. Tall sycamores and eucalyptus trees shade the trail. The creek and trail turn to the right and run under the old one-lane Roberts Road concrete bridge at 1.0 miles.

Los Gatos Creek from Roberts Road Bridge Los Gatos Creek Trail from Roberts Road bridge
Los Gatos Creek from Roberts Road Bridge Los Gatos Creek Trail from Roberts Road Bridge
Los Gatos Creek Trail near Ohlone Court Los Gatos Creek Trail near Blossom Hill Road bridge
Los Gatos Creek Trail near Ohlone Court Los Gatos Creek Trail near Blossom Hill Road Bridge

Past the bridge, a small path leads up to Roberts Road, which itself crosses Blossom Hill Road to the main entrance of Vasona Lake County Park. There's no parking on Roberts Road, but you can park along Ohlone Court, which intersects Roberts Road. The trail winds through tall shade trees and runs under the wide bridge at Blossom Hill Road at 1.1 miles. The creek drops down in a stretch of fast water as it leaves the channel under the bridge and enters Oak Meadow Park and Vasona Lake County Park.

Continue to the rest of the Los Gatos Creek Trail:

Part 2 - Vasona Lake, Oak Meadow Park to Lark Avenue

Part 3 - Lark Avenue to Los Gatos Creek Park

Part 4 - Camden Avenue to Leigh Avenue

Part 5 - Leigh Avenue to Confluence Point

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Ron Horii, San Jose
Created 12/30/98