How Green Is My Valley

December 18, 1997

I love winter in the Bay Area--everything turns green! I bet if my friends and relatives back east read this, they'll think, "Are you out of your mind! It's all white and brown outside our window!" The seasons are backwards up here. In the long, sunny, rainless summer, the grass-covered hills turn an ashen brown. In the winter, however, the rains begin, and the dormant seedlings wake up. As the blades of newborn grass push up past the dead grass from the previous winter, the hills gradually change color from a pale green-gray to a rich, glowing green. Combined with the brisk, freshly-scrubbed air after the rains, they make a verdant frame to a gorgeous view of the Bay Area.



View of south end of Silicon Valley, with Mount Hamilton in the background, August, 1997.


Same area from Coyote Peak, Santa Teresa County Park, San Jose, December 10, 1997.

The greening of the hills started a few weeks ago. They should reach their peak in February-March, depending on how much rain we get in the interim. After the rains stop, the shallow-rooted grasses dry up quickly. The rains stop in the spring, and re-browning starts in April-May. We get almost no rain from June-September, with occasional rain in October-November. December is the real start of the rainy season. Last year, we got drenched around Christmas time, with widespread flooding. Fortunately, all the reservoirs filled up, since we got almost no rain from January through October. California relies on a handful of major storms for most of its water for the year. That's why there are so many reservoirs and canals in the state and very few natural lakes in the southern and central parts of the state.

This winter rebirth of the hills in the Bay Area is something special. Where I grew up in the South Bay of LA, I really didn't notice this change. Where I lived was too far away from the hills to see them clearly through the smog. All the land nearby was paved or developed. The only green was in lawns and parks, and they stayed green all year round. When I moved to Santa Barbara, I didn't notice it much either, since the Santa Ynez range above the city is covered with evergreen oaks and chapparal that stay the same color all year round, much like the Santa Cruz Mountains up here. The east foothills of the Diablo range and the Santa Teresa Hills at the south end of San Jose are mostly grass-covered, with scattered oak trees and brush. The grass dries and dies quickly in the springtime, dropping their seeds, which await the cooler weather and sustained rains of winter.

View of Coyote Valley from Coyote Peak, 12/10/97

People in the southern states are probably thinking, "Big deal! It's green all year round down here." That's true. I've been to Kentucky and Tennessee. What struck me at first was how many small forested parks they had. Then I realized they were actually vacant lots. The frequent rains and warm, humid weather promoted constant plant growth, turning vacant lots into dense jungles. Up here, however, the short rainy season allows only limited plant growth, so greenery is short, like lawns. This makes for easier walking and unobstructed views.

I love hiking in Santa Teresa County Park. (See my essay on open space.) It's easy biking distance from my house, and has great views of the Santa Clara, Almaden, and Coyote Valleys. It's a big park with 1,688 acres of steep rolling hills. Though the lower western slopes are shaded and forested, most of the hills are open grasslands with scattered oaks and rocks. This results in clear panoramic views, particularly from Coyote Peak, the park's high point. I hiked here many times in the summer and fall, and though the distant views were spectacular, the local views of the dry hills were less so. However, with the coming of the rains, the hills are starting to turn green. Ironically, the greenest hills are the ones that were blackened by fire in the summer. The fire burned off all the tall dead grass, so the shoots of new grass are visible immediately.

Santa Teresa Hills from Coyote Peak, 12/10/97

Today (December 18) I fooled Mother Nature. For weeks, the sunny, clear days had mostly been during mid-week, when I had to work. Nature was taunting me. The weekends were mostly wet and gloomy, forcing me to do such horribly unpleasant indoor activities like Christmas shopping or cleaning up the house. Today was a clear and beautiful Thursday, but little did Mother Nature know--I had the day off.

Almaden Quicksilver County Park, near McAbee Road entrance, 12/18/97

Around noon I went to Almaden Quicksilver County Park in San Jose's Almaden Valley. The rugged hills here used to be the richest source of mercury in the US. The mercury mined here was used for extracting gold from ore in the Sierran Motherlode. In this way, the mineral wealth of these hills played an important role in the birth and growth of California. Mining started here in 1845 and continued up until 1976. Now the mines are closed. Ghostly ruins are scattered about, as are huge piles of mine tailings. All the tunnels have been sealed except for one, the San Cristobal, which is fenced off so you can look down into its receding darkness. It must have been scary descending thousands of feet into the earth, especially since the San Andreas Fault is only a few miles away.

Guadalupe Dam, hills of Almaden Quicksilver, South Santa Clara Valley and Bay Area from Mine Hill Trail, 12/18/97

Almaden Quicksilver is a huge park, covering almost 4000 acres, reaching over 1700 feet at Mine Hill, and containing almost 30 miles of trails. It runs for 6 miles along the Capitancillos Ridge, which forms the western border of the Almaden Valley, with wealthy subdivisions and horse ranches right at its edges. The western side of the park is virtually uninhabited, with Guadalupe Creek and Reservoir near its western edge. It abuts the even bigger, steeper, and more densely-vegetated Sierra Azul Open Space Preserve, which contains the towering peak of 3486-foot Mt. Umunhum. It's humbling to make the long unrelenting climb up the Mine Hill Trail to the summit and then look up at Mt. Umunhum, which is more than twice as high.

I saw a hawk circling in the sky. At first it was just above my head. Then, with hardly any effort, it rode the updrafts hundreds of feet above me, then cried out. After trudging and struggling to reach 1500 feet, I envied the hawk and wished I could be like him. Then I realized that if I were a hawk, I'd have a brain the size of a grape and a diet consisting of raw mice. "I guess being human has its advantages," I thought while munching on a low-fat vanilla wafer.

View of Guadalupe Reservoir, Sierra Azul range, from Mine Hill Trail, 12/18/97

The deer were out in force today. I probably saw 12 times as many deer as people in the park during my 7 1/4 mile, 3 1/2 hour hike. Actually, I only saw 1 person inside the park itself. Of course, it was a Thursday in December, so not many people were likely to be there, but even in the summer, I usually only encounter a handful of people on the trails deep within the park. Even though this is a huge park, there are only 3 entrances, so it's a long hike to the middle of the park. It's closed to mountain bikers, which is good news unless you're a mountain biker. (I'm not, yet.) It's open to equestrians, so you have to watch your step. Even though you're rarely out of sight of the homes and businesses of millions of people in the Bay Area, it's easy to get away from the noise and the crowds here.

Deer on hill, Almaden Quicksilver, 12/18/97

Guadalupe Reservoir is relatively small, and it was still way down. It's one of the first of the county reservoirs to fill up, so it means the brunt of the rainy season is still to come. Still, it doesn't take a lot of water to stimulate the grass growth. The blades of grass on the hills were a few inches high, enough to make a nice green carpet. The wide trails, former mine roads, were mostly firm and dry. It's still too early for the wildflowers to come out. I'm looking forwards to seeing them early next year.

Field east of Hwy 101 along Piercy Road, looking toward Santa Teresa Hills and Santa Cruz Mountains, 12/19/97

Return to Bay Area Back Pages Home Page

Created 12/18/97, last modified 12/28/97