On the morning of Monday, April 29, 1957, Howard W. Campen, the Santa Clara County executive, told the county Board of Supervisors that he had selected Beuford V. “Bob” Amyx to be the first director of the newly formed Santa Clara Parks and Recreation Department. Amyx, 44 years old and a graduate of San Jose State College, had spent the previous 11 years at the Salinas Park and Recreation Department, the last seven as its director. Under Amyx’s leadership, Salinas developed “one of the best diversified park and recreation programs in the country,” according to then city manager Ted Adsit.
This program enabled Salinas residents to enjoy 11 neighborhood parks, an indoor-outdoor swimming pool, a public golf course, and a lighted baseball field. At the time he left Salinas, Amyx was managing a budget of $300,000 and overseeing a staff of 25 full-time workers. His annual salary was $8,500. Coming to Santa Clara County, Amyx could look forward to a mountain of new challenges and a pay raise of $1,800.
In the Beginning, Two Parks
At the time Amyx was hired, Santa Clara County’s parks and recreation department consisted of two operating parks, Stevens Creek and Mount Madonna. The core 400 acres of Stevens Creek Park, northwest of Saratoga, were acquired by the county in 1924 for $27,500. The 3,000 acres that became Mount Madonna County Park was sold to the county in 1927 for $60,000 by the cash-strapped heirs of California cattle baron Henry Miller, who used to enjoy his summers in an estate perched on the forested slopes of the Santa Cruz Mountains between Gilroy and Watsonville.
Visitors to Mount Madonna County Park paid 25 cents per car to picnic or 50 cents per car to camp overnight beneath the towering redwoods. Three park rangers and two maintenance men oversaw the park, which included a pen of miniature white deer. The facilities at Mount Madonna included 52 picnic tables, 20 barbecue pits, and a few unconnected trails.
At Stevens Creek Park, where picnicking also cost 25 cents per car, visitors would find one ranger and one maintenance man overseeing 55 barbecue pits, 60 picnic tables, two small day camps (used mainly by Girl Scouts), a camp site leased to the Crippled Children’s Society, and some short hiking trails.
In short, only a bare-bones parks and recreation program existed for Santa Clara County residents. In fact, many residents preferred Alum Rock Park, operated by the City of San Jose, to either of the county’s venues.
The County’s Role
Debate about the county’s role in developing parks and recreation opportunities for its residents surfaced after World War II, as the area’s population boomed. Local communities began to feel their resources being stretched thin. A 1946 report by the Santa Clara County Grand Jury found the existing park facilities “inadequate to provide recreation for the county’s growing population.” The grand jury recommended creation of “a comprehensive recreation program supervised by a full-time and trained recreation director and well-paid assistants.”
In March 1955, the five Santa Clara County supervisors, responding to the grand-jury report, voted to establish a parks and recreation commission, which would act solely in an advisory capacity. However, they stopped short of approving a proposal to create an actual department to oversee the acquisition, maintenance, and development of county parks.
By July 1956, however, the political landscape had changed. Supervisor Walter S. Gaspar apparently had a change of heart, because he seconded a motion by his colleague, Ed R. Levin, to create a county parks and recreation department. The motion passed. The supervisors also voted to pay the Palo Alto planning company Harold F. Wise Associates $7,700 to assess the county’s needs in terms of parks and recreation.
Although at the time the county ranked number 31 among California’s 58 counties in terms of spending per person on recreation, the county’s potential to develop a first-class system of parks was enormous, given its twin blessings of geographical location and available open space.
On April 4, 1957, Ralph Shaw, superintendent of parks and recreation for neighboring San Mateo County, addressed the Inter-City Council in Sunnyvale, Santa Clara County. Santa Clara County is a large county with a solid industrial base and people eager to enjoy outdoor recreation, he said. “I’m sure you’ll fill your parks as fast as they are constructed.” In other words, if you build it, they will come.
The Daunting Challenge
Two days before Amyx was named as the new parks chief, the Palo Alto Times ran an editorial under the headline “SC County wants recreational areas,” which summed up the daunting challenge awaiting the county’s newest employee. “People want more than just to promenade on city streets or to be confined to their own back yards. There are times when they want to get away from the houses and other buildings, get out into freer space and breathe deeply,” the editorial stated.
Accommodating the recreational aspirations of the county’s burgeoning population would obviously cost money—which, the writer pointed out, the county had up to now been “miserly” in spending: “What we’ve put into parks and recreation has been peanuts.” Fortunately, the county had picked the right man for the job of parks and recreation director. Getting money, it turned out, was something at which Amyx was a master.
Amyx hit the ground running. He showed up for work two weeks early, leaving his wife Marjorie and his two sons, Dick, 14, and Don, 9, in Salinas so they could finish the school year. By June he had already reviewed the department’s nearly $300,000 proposed budget, one third of which was designated for acquisition of new parklands.
Amyx also understood that it wasn’t enough to buy more parklands; you had to be prepared to develop and maintain each new county park that came into the system. “Once we get started, we’d better be ready to spend. The demands will increase rapidly the minute an area is opened up,” he said. And in September, Pacific Planning and Research, formerly Harold F. Wise Associates, had projected a countywide need of 23,000 acres of open space, 10,000 of which should be devoted to “usable recreation.”
Holiday Cheer, then Ups and Downs
By the time the 1957 holiday season rolled around, Amyx had gift-wrapped a handful of lovely presents and put them under the county’s tree. In December, he won approval from the board of supervisors to turn the Fitzgerald Ranch, purchased in 1956 by the county as a jail farm, into what would become Santa Teresa County Park.
Amyx also squeezed another $40,000 from the board to buy an additional 85 acres for the park. Finally, the parks and recreation chief began bargaining for a new park in the northern part of the county, in what would become over the years a continuing struggle to satisfy the ever-growing demands of county residents for parks to call their own.
1958 was a year of ups and downs for the fledgling parks and recreation department and its new director. A June bond measure to provide just over $2 million in funding for county parks narrowly failed. But by September, Amyx, who was already looking ahead to next year’s balloting, had melded the advice gleaned from various plans, reports, and surveys into an ambitious and comprehensive $10-million “Proposed Program of Park Acquisition and Development for Santa Clara County.” On the evening of September 17, Amyx presented his program to a well-attended meeting of the county parks and recreation commission.
In addition to acquisitions and improvements at the county’s two operating parks—Mount Madonna and Stevens Creek—the program also called for money to develop the recently acquired Fitzgerald Ranch property for Santa Teresa County Park. Amyx said the Santa Clara Valley Water Conservation District’s reservoirs, including Anderson, Calero, Lexington, and Vasona, could be turned into recreational facilities for boating, fishing, hiking, and picnicking. Campsites could dot the shores of Coyote Lake.
Hillside and valley-floor parklands could serve residents in the northern and eastern parts of the county. Hiking trails could thread their way through the rugged Mt. Hamilton area, where families could camp under the stars. Coyote and Guadalupe creeks could provide the backbone of a linear-trail system for walking and bicycling. Even the muddy and marshy shoreline of San Francisco Bay could provide opportunities for recreation and nature study.
A Truly Regional Park System
All in all, Amyx’s program envisioned a truly regional park system, similar to what could then be found in Alameda, Contra Costa, and San Mateo counties. And he sounded a warning in his typed, doubled-spaced document that the time to act was now:
Long time residents of Santa Clara County have always been boastful in expressions related to the beauty and the desirable living conditions of their home area. They have pointed to the climate, the hills and the blooming orchards as features which could not be matched elsewhere. Even today the hill areas are more and more posted with no trespassing signs. The orchard with row after row of beautiful trees offering relief from the city streets, noise, buildings and congestion are rapidly being removed – row after row, making room for city streets, noise, buildings and congestion….The mode of living in Santa Clara County fifty or one hundred years from now, or even into perpetuity, will be affected by the action taken to provide a proper park system at this time.
Funding for the program would come from a bond measure in the spring of 1959, to be repaid with sales-tax revenue, and also a five cents per $100 property-tax increase. For those who bemoaned the county’s seeming lack of interest in parks and recreation, the program must have been a welcome harbinger of better days. And for those who were not park supporters, the program must have seemed like a gauntlet thrown down.
Amyx himself knew his proposal would be controversial. “I’ll be disappointed if my program doesn’t kick up the biggest hassle in a long time,” he said. “I want people to get all wrought up over it, to talk about it, to discuss it with their neighbors. Maybe out of all of it we’ll get off the dime and do something.”
Planning for the Future
At the time, parks planning was handled by the county planning department, headed by Karl J. Belser. In February 1959, the department issued “A Plan for Parks, Recreation, and Open Space” as an element of the county’s general plan. The report provided a long-range look at the future of Santa Clara County and its land-preservation needs, including those to be handled by the county parks and recreation department.
The planners predicted a tripling of the county’s population before 1985, leading to a steadily growing demand for parks. The plan mapped four areas of interest: agricultural open space, parks, watershed preserves, and the county’s nine urban communities—Palo Alto–Stanford, Los Altos–Los Altos Hills, Mountain View, Sunnyvale, San Jose–Santa Clara, Los Gatos–Saratoga, Milpitas, Morgan Hill, and Gilroy.
The plan discussed three “spaces” of concern: agricultural spaces, functional spaces (watersheds, cultural and educational institutions), and park and recreation spaces. These the plan divided into mountain parks, valley-floor parks, marine and reservoir parks, streamside preserves, and recreation roads and railways. The plan envisioned increasing the county’s park and recreation spaces from 17,000 acres to 60,000 acres over the next 25 years.
High on the plan’s list for acquisition were a mountain park for Palo Alto, Frank and Josephine Duveneck’s Hidden Villa property in Los Gatos Hills, Lake Ranch on Sanborn Creek (later Sanborn County Park), and Halls Valley in the Mt. Hamilton range (later Joseph D. Grant County Park).
Bond Measure Passes
Passage of the parks and recreation bond measure on March 10, 1959, provided nearly $3 million to get the ball rolling. Amyx told the Santa Clara County Parks and Recreation Commission how his department planned to spend the money. Topping the list, Amyx said, were three prime areas: Vasona Reservoir, near the town of Los Gatos; the land bordering Coyote Creek from San Jose southward toward Anderson Dam; and the Duveneck’s Hidden Villa property.
The county already owned 100 acres adjacent to Vasona Reservoir and had plans to buy another 71 acres. Along Coyote Creek, Amyx envisioned gradual acquisition of 10- to 20-acre parcels which could eventually be linked to form a continuous open-space buffer along part of the county’s longest creek.
The Hidden Villa property had been purchased by the Duvenecks in 1924 as a summer residence and became their full-time family home in 1930. Environmentalists and social activists, the Duvenecks later used the property to create a youth hostel and multiracial summer camp. The county hoped to acquire title to all of the Duveneck’s 1,800 acres while setting aside for the family a small parcel as a lifetime estate.
Ultimately, however, Hidden Villa Ranch did not become a county park; instead, the Duvenecks in 1977 gifted 430 acres to the Midpeninsula Regional Open Space District adjacent to its Rancho San Antonio Open Space Preserve.
A few months after the planning department issued “A Plan for Parks, Recreation, and Open Space,” 25 county officials went to visit six of the existing or proposed parklands to see for themselves what Amyx and the county planners had in mind. In addition to Amyx and Belser, the party included county supervisors Wesley L. Hubbard, Ed R. Levin, Oran L. Slaght, and Howard Weichert.
A Palo Alto Times reporter caught the spirit of the 8-hour escapade. He wrote “They gazed at hefty pigs on the leafy Los Altos Hills property of Francis Duveneck, longingly viewed fish-packed Stevens Creek Reservoir, turned binoculars on pretty girls water skiing and sunbathing at Calero Dam, huffed and puffed up two Mount Madonna hills which stymied the loaded bus, boated at Anderson Dam, and envisioned golf courses and play areas at Santa Teresa park.”
Lack of time kept the group from visiting other potential park sites, such as the San Francisco Bay shoreline between the Palo Alto Yacht Harbor and Guadalupe Slough. The fact that there were more parks on the drawing board than the group could possibly visit in a single day is testimony to the significant advances made by Amyx and the Santa Clara County Parks and Recreation Department in a few short years.
The new decade dawned with good news. On June 22, 1960, the board of supervisors added 23 new parks and recreation department employees to the county payroll. The board approved nearly all of Amyx’s budget requests, upping the 1959–1960 allocation of nearly $198,928 to $330,718 for fiscal year 1960–1961. County parks receiving additional staffing were Anderson Lake, Coyote Creek, Montalvo Arboretum, Santa Teresa, Stevens Creek, and Vasona.
By 1962, county residents could enjoy recreational opportunities at five county parks and seven reservoirs. Mount Madonna was still the jewel in the crown, a 3,033-acre haven in the Santa Cruz Mountains for those wishing to escape the valley’s summer heat. Camping fees at Mount Madonna had doubled, to $1 per night, but amenities now included an archery range, a children’s playground, and a fishing pond for youngsters under 12. The county’s oldest park, Stevens Creek, boasted nearly 500 acres for picnicking, hiking, and archery, and Stevens Creek Reservoir offered calm waters for nonmotorized boating.
Those looking for “a good walk spoiled” could try their luck smacking a small white sphere from one end of the fairway to another at Santa Teresa County Park, where shooting guns (adults) and slaying fish (children) were also featured. Those wanting the complete aquatic experience could head to Anderson Lake, whose 1,600 acres provided ample room for fishing, swimming, boating, and water skiing.
Other reservoirs open for recreation included Calero, Chesbro, Coyote, Lexington, and Vasona. For a backcountry experience, hardy hikers and campers could head to Uvas Canyon County Park near Morgan Hill, whose steep canyons, fragrant California bay trees, and tumbling waterfalls must have seemed a world away from urban life.
Santa Clara County was experiencing growing pangs as it was slowly being transformed from the Valley of Heart’s Delight into the heart of Silicon Valley, and the county’s parks and reservoirs were providing a much-needed recreational respite for its residents. But whether the county’s total parkland acreage could be increased rapidly enough to satisfy the demands of its swelling population remained to be seen.
A Call to Action
On December 3, 1960, Wallace Stegner, author and director of Stanford’s Creative Writing Center, sent what came to be called the “Wilderness Letter” to David E. Pesonen at the Wildland Research Center, University of California Berkeley. Pesonen was working on the wilderness section of a report for the Outdoor Recreation Resources Review Commission, a national organization charged with analyzing recreational opportunities in the United State and planning for future needs.
The commission’s report has been credited with promoting landmark conservation legislation in the 1960s, including the Wilderness Act (1964), the Land and Water Conservation Fund (1965), and the Wild and Scenic Rivers Act (1968).
Stegner’s “Wilderness Letter” is often cited by Bay Area advocates of open space as a timely call to action. In it, Stegner drew a distinction between “wilderness uses,” such as hiking, camping, hunting, and fishing, and “the wilderness idea,” a much more abstract concept.
“I want to speak for the wilderness idea as something that has helped form our character and that has certainly shaped our history as a people,” Stegner wrote. “Something will have gone out of us as a people if we ever let the remaining wilderness be destroyed….The reminder and the reassurance that it is still there is good for our spiritual health even if we never once in ten years set foot in it.”
Stable Funding for Parks Needed
A revised version of the county planning department’s “A Plan for Parks, Recreation, and Open Space,” was issued in February 1962, with one new park—Santa Teresa—set to open in that summer, and four new properties—Uvas Canyon, Vasona Lake, Sanborn, and Villa Montalvo county parks—listed as existing but undeveloped. Apparently one group of citizens—the parks and recreation committee of the county grand jury—did not think enough was being done to acquire parklands.
In its report to the board of supervisors, the grand jury in February 1963 accepted the committee’s conclusions and recommended “a plan whereby a definite specified amount of money will be available annually for continued acquisition of land for recreational uses.”
This recommendation appears to contain the seed of the Parks Charter Fund, which in 1972 finally provided the kind of stable funding for parks envisioned by the grand jury. Money was on everyone’s mind, because the nearly $3 million in bond funding approved by voters in 1959 had almost all been spent.
The report also referred to the beginnings of a philosophical split, in this case among the board of supervisors, that still echoes today, namely between acquisition and development. Specifically, parks and recreation director Amyx had been repeatedly criticized by some members of the board of supervisors for not moving rapidly enough on the development front.
County Supervisors Tour the Parks
To alleviate their concerns, Amyx had in January 1963 arranged another parks tour for the supervisors. During this outing the supervisors discovered that land in Stevens Creek County Park they had been urging Amyx to turn into picnic sites was either too steep to hold picnic tables or, in fact, not owned by the county at all.
At Saratoga Park (later Sanborn County Park), three of the supervisors—Ed R. Levin, Ralph Mehrkens, and Sig Sanchez—said they wanted to buy more land to add to a 1962 purchase. But Sam Della Maggiore, no friend of the parks and recreation department, and fellow supervisor Martin J. Spangler said there wasn’t enough developable land to justify the $186,000 price tag.
The supervisors were pleased by what they saw at Vasona and Mount Madonna county parks, but eyebrows were raised at the cost of Della Maggiore’s pet project, a velodrome—a racing oval for bicyclists. Its price tag could go as high as $80,000. Overall, the grand-jury report praised Amyx and his policies, but looked askance at those who would spend public dollars “attempting to provide recreation facilities for special interest groups,” such as bicyclists.
On June 17, 1963, county executive Campen sent to the board of supervisors a document called “Building and Parks Program/Santa Clara County.” The document sorted the county’s existing and planned parks into six categories—mountain parks, valley floor parks, marine facilities, reservoir parks, streamside preserves, and special–cultural. It recommended a program of acquisition and development totaling more than $10 million through 1970.
“We must continue to acquire lands for this purpose. The next few years may be our last chance because of rising land values and the growing scarcity of suitable undeveloped properties,” the document stated. As for the period after 1970, it projected a spending shift away from acquisition and toward development.
Although the decade had started on an upbeat note, progress on the acquisition front soon became bumpy. The Santa Clara County Board of Supervisors controlled the purse strings when it came to purchasing land for new parks. In secret, the board set out to determine the sales price of various land parcels of interest.
What members found was that prices had soared while the board delayed. For example, a parcel of 153 acres northwest of Stevens Creek County Park, originally purchased by its owner for about $75,000, was offered to the county for $765,000.
More Recreational Opportunities
Meanwhile, the public was beginning to agitate for more recreational opportunities. Voices from all corners of the county were heard at a February 18, 1964, board of supervisors meeting. Wesley Hubbard, a Palo Alto resident and chair of the Citizens Review Committee—a 128-member body in favor of spending nearly $10 million for new county parklands—reminded the supervisors that, in an election year, “the voters are going to watch you very carefully on this park development program.”
Walter Hays of San Jose spoke in favor of purchasing the so-called Airpoint Park site, which was between Milpitas and Calaveras Reservoir near the border with Alameda County, in part because the Spring Valley Golf Club would be included in the deal. Supervisor Levin, in whose memory Airpoint Park would eventually be renamed, lead the charge for east-county residents, who up to now had nothing to show, in terms of a county park, for their tax dollars. “I’m getting a little tired of this playing around with the east side,” he said.
With the passage of a nearly $32 million countywide bond measure on June 2, 1964, the parks and recreation department was able to refill its depleted coffers. Funds earmarked for parks totaled $6,750,000, with $5,250,000 to be spent on land acquisition, and the remaining $1.5 million going for development.
The June election also allowed voters to speak out on the controversial Airpoint Park. In 1957, the state had taken over 578 acres in Laguna Valley, including the Spring Valley Golf Club, to one day build a reservoir. Soil tests some five years later nixed the project, and the state approached the county with a $1-million-plus lease-purchase offer of the land for a park. The board of supervisors turned thumbs down on the deal by a three-to-two vote but yielded to public pressure and agreed to place a measure on the June 2 ballot. It was no contest—the people wanted a park.
By the end of July 1964, Amyx announced 11 acquisition projects, including the following: Airpoint Park, outright purchase from the state instead of a lease-purchase over six years; Mt. Hamilton range, acquisition of park sites; Calero County Park, expansion by more than 900 acres; Alviso Marina County Park, enlargement of the county yacht harbor; and Hidden Villa Ranch, purchase of 400 acres.
The list revealed another philosophical fault-line that produced occasional tremors wherever and whenever it came to the surface. This was the division of the county into spheres of influence, including north county, south county, and the eastern foothills. Each wanted its share of parks, but so far the north county had come up short, with most interest in acquisition being directed south and east.
While still promising to search for a suitable north-county site, Amyx in August 1964 proposed a moratorium on buying new parklands not on the department’s top 11 list. This would allow him to concentrate on negotiating for prime real estate, including the Duveneck’s Hidden Valley Ranch, and not waste time “looking at 16-acre parcels on the sides of hills.”
Developers Eye the Hills
The New Year’s celebrations had barely ended when the League of Women Voters for Los Altos and Los Altos Hills at its January 7, 1965, meeting heard a dire warning from Assemblyman George W. Milias from Gilroy. The Santa Cruz Mountains, whose western slopes formed the verdant landscape beloved by many of the Peninsula’s residents, were under attack by developers, Milias said. And unless large parcels of open space were purchased and preserved as soon as possible, land prices would skyrocket and there would be nothing left to protect.
In March 1965, the board of supervisors approved an unprecedented expansion of county parks, with an addition of almost 1,000 acres in upper Stevens Creek Canyon, 920 acres at Calero Reservoir, 300 acres at Anderson Lake, 255 acres at Santa Teresa County Park, 40 acres at Coyote Park in San Jose, and 14 acres at the Alviso Marina.
In June 1965, the Santa Clara County Grand Jury weighed in on planning for parks in general and in finding a north-county issue in particular, with the jury’s committee on parks and recreation criticizing the “confusion, controversy, wasted effort and expense” of some deliberations over land acquisition and calling for decisive action to find a suitable site for north-county residents to call their own.
About three months after the grand jury report, the cities of Mountain View and Sunnyvale came before the county parks and recreation commission to offer their proposals for parks along the shore of San Francisco Bay, which would provide north-county residents with lakes, a golf course, a zoo, sports fields and children’s play areas. (In fact, it would take another eight years before the county began making purchases for what would eventually become Sunnyvale Baylands Park, which is operated by the City of Sunnyvale.)
Regional Parks a County Responsibility
The county grand jury in 1965 had more to say on parks. Its final report slammed the north county’s “go it alone” attitude—singling out Palo Alto in particular—and called the county’s haphazard planning for a park chain along Stevens Creek “an example of utter confusion and indecision.” The report took note of the fact that regional parks and recreation should be county, not city, issues, affecting as they do “the physical, cultural and esthetic wellbeing of all county citizens, regardless of work or home address.”
The grand jury’s parks and recreation committee also called for a countywide parks master plan to clarify the county’s parkland acquisition program for the taxpayer.
With $1.5 million in funds reserved for a north-county park, the report said, a precise definition of the north county’s boundaries was needed, because the City of Santa Clara had recently joined Mountain View and Sunnyvale in claiming to qualify for a share of the north-county cash. The report had praise, however, for the “effective city–county collaboration” that led to the inception of a park chain along Coyote Creek southward from San Jose.
Finally, as in previous reports, the committee commended the parks and recreation department, especially for its effective use of federal grants.
By the end of summer 1966, about half of the money for land acquisitions okayed by the June 1964 ballot—a total of about $6.7 million—had been spent. This represented 1,837 acres of the 3,322 targeted. In addition to county funds, the parks and recreation department had obtained nearly $3 million in grants from the federal government.
Amyx ticked off a list of county parks that benefitted from the spending, including Alviso Marina, Anderson Lake, Calero, Coyote Creek, the new Ed R. Levin County Park (formerly Airpoint Park), Los Gatos Creek, and Stevens Creek. Of the $1.5 million reserved for a north-county park, Mountain View was promised $600,000 for its Shoreline Park, with the remaining $900,000 to pay for another long-hoped-for north-county park.
In April 1967, the county parks and recreation commission recommended that Mountain View get its share of the $1.5 million, and that the rest go toward another unspecified baylands project in Palo Alto. Since the creation of the county parks and recreation department, funding for parkland acquisition had come from voter-approved bond measures, with money for operating the parks coming from a portion of the property tax, four cents per $100 assessed valuation.
Parks that Grew and Stories of Establishment
Stevens Creek, 1924
The county’s first park was Stevens Creek, with an initial 400 acres purchased in 1924 in the upper canyon near Mt. Eden Road. Prior to the creation of the Santa Clara County Parks and Recreation Department in 1956, county parks were administered by the county’s public works department.
To meet the growing demand for aquifer replenishment, the Santa Clara Valley Water Conservation District acquired 171.5 acres of land to construct a dam and develop a 93-acre reservoir northwest of the county park. Stevens Creek Dam, completed in 1935, became one of the first six reservoirs in the county. In 1956, the new county parks and recreation department began administering Stevens Creek County Park.
In 1985, the dam was raised 10 feet for additional storage capacity, which now is 3,138 acre-feet, with a surface area of 92 acres. Visitors today can enjoy a wide variety of activities in the 1,077-acre park, including archery, nonpower boating, fishing, visiting historic sites, horseshoe tossing, interpretive programs, picnicking, and trails for hiking, bicycling, horseback riding, and nature study.
Located northwest of Saratoga along Mt. Eden and Stevens Canyon roads, Stevens Creek County Park is adjacent to Fremont Older and Picchetti Ranch open space preserves, both owned by the Midpeninsula Regional Open Space District. The reservoir’s waters tempt anglers with black bass, catfish, crappie, largemouth bass, and rainbow trout. Stevens Creek Reservoir is one of four county reservoirs open to boating, but boats must pass an inspection designed to help control quagga and zebra mussels, both invasive nonnative species.
The park is a favorite among Peninsula and South Bay birders, who come hoping to spot some of the 125 or so species on record. Equestrians can rent horses at Garrod Farms on Garrod Road, near the park’s south entrance. The ranger station, located at park’s the north entrance, offers visitors maps and displays.
The park’s geology is typical of the Santa Cruz Mountains, which are part of the Coast Range, featuring steep ridges and stream-cut valleys. Plant communities within the park include riparian forest, mixed-evergreen forest, chaparral, and freshwater marsh.
Mammals seen here include mule deer, bobcat, gray fox, brush rabbit, opossum, raccoon, and mountain lion. The park is named for Captain Elisha Stephens, a South Carolinian who helped lead the first wagon train across the Sierra Nevada to California in 1844.
Mount Madonna, 1927
If you want to wander amid towering redwoods in Santa Clara County, head up Hecker Pass Highway. Near the highway’s summit, turn right on Pole Line Road and enter beautiful Mount Madonna County Park, high atop the spine of the Santa Cruz Mountains.
Once the summer retreat of California cattle baron Henry Miller and his family, the four houses Miller built under the redwoods were abandoned after his death in 1916 and became a hideout for smugglers during Prohibition.
Recognizing the recreational value of the property, county supervisors Henry Hecker and C.P. Cooley arranged to have the county buy part of the Miller estate from Miller’s heirs in 1927. Two of the homes were destroyed by fire after the county made its first purchase. Between 1930 and 1961, the Miller family sold the county about 1,000 more acres, solidifying the core of what became one of the area’s best-loved parks, which now has 3,677 acres. In the 1930s, the park was the site of a Civilian Conservation Corps camp, and many of the roads, trails, picnic tables and barbeque pits were built by the CCC boys, as they were called.
Today, visitors wandering the park’s often fog-shrouded slopes and meadows can enjoy archery, camping, fishing, exploring historic sites, interpretive programs, picnicking, and trails for hiking, horseback riding, and nature study. The park also has a pen of white fallow deer, descendants of a pair given to Miller by press magnate William Randolph Hearst.
The park’s signature tree, the coast redwood (Sequoia sempervirens) is the world’s tallest tree and among the fastest growing: some specimens in northern California reach skyward more than 360 feet and have trunks 16 feet in diameter.
Many plants and animals are associated with redwoods, and especially old-growth redwoods, including several species federally listed as threatened or endangered, such as the northern spotted owl and the marbled murrelet. In addition to coast redwoods, Mount Madonna County Park contains stands of madrone, which also has a reddish bark, coast live oak, canyon live oak, valley oak, and tanbark oak. Acorns from these oaks were an important food source for the area’s Native Americans, and they also provide sustenance to the park’s animals.
Visitors will probably see and hear gray squirrels, which give a plaintive barking call in summer. Mule deer, bobcat, raccoon, coyote, and fox also are at home here. Game and acorns probably attracted Native Americans to the area, and archeologists have unearthed remnants of Ohlone culture dating back several thousand years. The 1,897-foot Mount Madonna itself is said to have been named by poet Hiram Wentworth, who visited or perhaps lived nearby in the late 19th century.
Henry Miller is one of the larger-than-life characters who seem frequently to grace California’s stage. Rancher and cattle king, Miller eventually came to own 13,000 acres of the former Rancho Las Animas, which he rechristened Bloomfield Ranch, headquartered just south of present-day Gilroy. How Miller became a prosperous citizen of a still-young state is a true rags-to-riches saga.
Born Heinrich Alfred Kreiser on July 21, 1827, Henry Miller left his hometown of Brackenheim in southern Germany and eventually landed in New York City. The 19-year-old Kreiser plied his trade as a butcher in the bustling city, but he was unable to resist the siren call of the California Gold Rush.
Buying a ship ticket from a shoe salesman who, at the last minute, got cold feet about the risky voyage via Panama, Kreiser learned as he was about to embark that the $350 ticket was stamped “Not Transferable,” and that the name on the ticket was Henry Miller. When asked his name by the purser, Kreiser told a little lie that stayed with him for the rest of his life.
In 1858—after Kreiser had parlayed the $6 in his pocket when he landed in San Francisco into the foundation of a land and cattle empire that eventually would encompass about 22,000 square miles in California, Oregon, and Nevada—a special act of the California state legislature changed Kreiser’s legal name to Henry Miller.
One year later, in 1859, Miller bought 200 acres of Rancho Las Animas—ranch of the souls, or All Souls’ Day—the first of several purchases that soon added up to 13,000 acres. Tragically, his wife, Nancy Sheldon, died in childbirth that same year, along with their newborn son.
Most of Miller’s holdings at that time were in California’s San Joaquin Valley, and Miller was savvy about buying land, betting that the current open-range policies of the West would soon become a thing of the past. In the late 1860s, the California state legislature handed the land-rich Miller another gift to go along with his new name—it legalized the fencing of what previously had been grazing lands for free-ranging beef on the hoof.
By this time, Miller’s holdings were about half a million acres, and he started building fences—first of wood, then of barbed wire. In a never-ending quest to acquire more and more land, Miller resorted to a variety of tactics. He dabbled in buying U.S. government land script, a form of currency in California, at a discount and using it to buy land for as cheap as 55 cents an acre. He loaned money using farmland as collateral and then foreclosed on the mortgages. Miller paid the heirs of Spanish land grants to acquire grazing rights to their property, and then used the leverage he had acquired to force the remaining heirs to sell.
In one bizarre escapade, he took advantage of a section in an 1850 federal law for the reclamation of “Swamp Lands” to seize a large swath of land in central California. Although the land was bone dry, Miller fulfilled the requirements of the law by mapping the parcel while sitting in a boat—but in this case, a rowboat strapped to horse-drawn buckboard. Ironically, the next winter was a wet one, the land flooded, and Miller did, in fact, have a reclamation project on his hands.
In 1860, Miller married Sarah Wilmarth Sheldon, his late wife’s niece. The couple had three children—Nellie, Henry Jr., and Sarah Alice. When she was 12, Sarah Alice was killed in a riding accident, the second family tragedy to befall a man who seemed otherwise to have all the luck in the world.
Taking refuge from the summer heat and the pressures of business, Miller and his family began vacationing on the property he had purchased high in the Santa Cruz Mountains. Their first “camping” trip to the cool redwood groves, in 1879, included brightly striped tents on platforms, complete with carpets and furniture.
By the early 1890s, the Millers could enjoy relaxing in a two-story redwood cabin which had five or six rooms. A few years later, a larger house was built for Nellie and her husband, J. Leroy Nickel. It featured amenities such as a living room with a large fireplace, a veranda, two bedrooms, and a bath. A similar home was built in 1898 for Henry Jr. Not to be outdone by her children, Sarah Miller was rewarded in 1901 with a grand estate of seven bedrooms, baths, a veranda that stretched around three sides of the living room, and a 3,600-square-foot ballroom—price tag, $250,000.
Enjoying views of the Santa Clara Valley, the Miller family enjoyed dining al fresco, taking their meals under the redwoods beside a massive fireplace made of stone. Miller planted prune trees, apple trees, and grape vines on his property, where he also kept sheep. At the time of his death, in 1916, Miller, who apparently never quite lost his German accent, was worth $40 million, not bad for the young Heinrich Alfred Kreiser, who landed in San Francisco will $6 in his pocket.
Santa Teresa, 1956
From the open highlands above Big Oak Valley in Santa Teresa County Park, you have a fine views of the Diablo Range to the east, and the Santa Cruz Mountains, topped by twin-humped Loma Prieta, to the west. The park is nestled in the Santa Teresa Hills, wedged between IBM’s Almaden Research Center and the streaming traffic corridors of Monterey Road and U.S. 101. Atop Coyote Peak, near the park’s southwest edge, you can almost read the markings on the jetliners about to land at San Jose International Airport.
The park offers many attractions for visitors, including archery, horseshoe pits, interpretive programs, picnicking, and more than 14 miles of unpaved trails for hiking, bicycling, and equestrian use. The park is served by mass transit and is one of only two county parks featuring golf—in this case an 18-hole championship course and a 9-hole/par-three course. Historic sites here include the Bernal-Gulnac-Joice Ranch and Santa Teresa Springs.
Mule deer, coyotes, bobcats, and skunks inhabit the park, along with various snakes, newts, and salamanders. The park’s serpentine soils give rise in spring to a showy display of wildflowers, including blue-eyed grass, checkerbloom, California buttercup, Ithuriel’s spear, yarrow, California poppy, bluedicks, fiddleneck, shooting stars, tidytips, goldfields, popcorn flower, owl’s-clover, linanthus, red maids, and Chinese houses.
Coast live oak, blue oak, valley oak, California buckeye, and California bay provide much appreciated shade on a warm day. Black sage, coyote brush, and bush monkeyflower form thickets of chaparral on the park’s steep, sunny slopes. Cottonwoods and willows line the park’s stream beds and spring-fed areas, which also provide habitat for the Mt. Hamilton thistle, an endangered species.
Acquisition as a county park began in 1956 with the 466-acre Fitzgerald Ranch, where the present golf course is located. More land was added in 1960—56 acres from the Goss family—and this allowed construction of the 18-hole course to begin. The 196-acre Martin property was purchased in 1961 by the county to construct the Muriel Wright Girls Ranch, now the Muriel Wright Residential Center, a rehabilitation facility for juvenile offenders. The golf course opened to the public in 1962.
In 1986, the county and IBM reached an agreement that included ownership of a historic property called the Joice Bernal Ranch, the right to extend Bernal Road through the park, and 30-acre recreational easement, and an additional easement for the Stile Ranch Trail on the southwest edge of the park. Additional purchases in the 1990s increased the park’s size to its current 1,646 acres.
The park’s springs and abundant wildlife attracted Native Americans to this area for thousands of years prior to European settlement. Archeologists have found evidence of a large village inhabited by the Muwekma Ohlone dating back more than 3,000 years. The Anza expedition passed through here in 1776, and one of its members was Juan Francisco Bernal, a mining engineer and assayer sent from Spain by Carlos III to gauge the prospective mineral wealth of Alta California.
In 1826, Bernal’s son, Jose Joaquin Bernal, who had accompanied his father on the De Anza expedition and eventually became a soldier, retired from military life and chose a site near a plentiful spring south of San Jose to establish a rancho, which he named Rancho de Santa Teresa. The Ohlone told Jose Joaquin that a spirit clothed in black robes caused the water to flow from the ground and also rid a neighboring village of disease. From the description given him by the Native Americans, Jose Joaquin assumed the spirit was Santa Teresa de Avila, Carmelite nun and patron saint of the sick.
In July 1834, Jose Figueroa, the Mexican governor of Alta California, granted Jose Joaquin Bernal 9,647 acres for his rancho, which included grazing lands for vast herds of cattle and four adobe buildings graced by vineyards and flowering orchards. Jose Joaquin Bernal died in 1837, and his property passed to his wife and numerous children.
In 1844, the rancho gained a place in history when the Treaty of Santa Teresa was signed there. The treaty brought to an end a conflict between Manuel Micheltorena, governor of Alta California, and Juan Bautista Alvarado, its former governor, which threatened to plunge the territory, then ruled by Mexico, into civil war.
After California achieved statehood on September 9, 1850, all Spanish and Mexican land grants were scrutinized by U.S. courts to determine their validity—the start of a process that deprived many new state’s citizens of their property.
In 1853, one of Jose Joaquin Bernal’s sons, Agostin (1797–1872), filed a claim for the original rancho’s property, but his grant was cut in half by a U.S. District Court, and various other legal actions kept whittling away at the Bernal holdings until in the 1870s they reached a meager 400 acres, or about 4 percent of the rancho’s original size. These 400 acres now belonged to Bruno Bernal (1799–1863), another of Jose Joaquin’s sons. Bruno had moved to Monterey County in 1855, leaving his three sons—Ygnacio, Francisco, and Antonio—in charge of Rancho de Santa Teresa, or what was left of it.
After being educated at Santa Clara College in the 1850s, Ygnacio (1841–1906) came back to the place of his birth and, with his brother Francisco, helped manage the dwindling property. Ygnacio concentrated on agriculture rather than livestock, raising fruit and vegetables, and was able to buy back some of the original rancho that previously had been sold off. He also built a 35,000-gallon reservoir to water the family’s orchards and fields. Ygnacio’s sister, Rufina Bernal, married Carlos Maria Gulnac, and in 1858 they built a home on the original rancho lands, known today as the Joice Bernal Ranch.
Ygnacio’s son Pedro was an entrepreneur, and around 1910 he capitalized on the purity of the family’s spring through his Santa Teresa Springs Water Company, which sold bottled water from shop on Market Street in San Jose and also made deliveries to homes and businesses. In addition, Pedro prospected for cinnabar, the ore from which mercury is made, and sank several mineshafts on the property.
Cinnabar was in short supply in the locations Pedro chose, but he found enough marl, an earthy deposit containing calcium carbonate, to start a fertilizer business and offer the product for sale as a soil amendment and pH neutralizer. Although prolific as a businessman, Pedro left no heirs, and when he and his sister Jocoba Fisher died in the 1930s, the cattle-ranching operations were handled by the Joice family.
After the death of James Carlos Joice, son of Patrick and Susan, the land was sold off piecemeal for housing subdivisions. In 1980, the Joice family sold the last of the original rancho property to IBM for its Almaden Research Center.
Lexington Reservoir, 1958
The parks and recreation department began managing recreational access to Lexington Reservoir in 1958 and made its first land acquisition there in 1990. The reservoir was part of an ambitious water-conservation effort in the Santa Clara Valley that began in the 1920s with concern by the valley’s farmers and orchardists over falling water tables and land subsidence.
Although planned as one of the district’s Depression-era projects, Lexington Reservoir was not completed until 1952 for two reasons: the state highway department’s construction of Highway 17 through the proposed reservoir site, and the restrictions on nonwar production imposed during World War II. When the reservoir was finally built, it flooded two historic Santa Cruz Mountain towns, Lexington and Alma, both intimately associated with the area’s lumbering past.
Lexington Reservoir is 2.5 miles long and is the second-largest water-district reservoir, with a capacity of 19,044 acre-feet of water and a surface of 412 acres. Long a favored site for nonmotorized boating, the reservoir is currently closed to all boating because of a program to control quagga and zebra mussels, both invasive nonnative species.
Visitors to the 914-acre county park can enjoy fishing from the reservoir’s bank, interpretive programs, and picnicking. Lexington County Park provides important trail access to the Los Gatos Creek Trail, which runs to downtown San Jose and traverses two other county parks, Vasona and Los Gatos Creek.
From Lexington County Park, you can also explore the rugged expanse of the Sierra Azul Open Space Preserve and the gentler slopes of St. Josephs Hill Open Space Preserve, both owned by the Midpeninsula Regional Open Space District. In 1996, Lexington Dam was renamed the Lenihan Dam, to honor James J. Lenihan’s 37 years as the longest-serving director of the Santa Clara Valley Water District.
Vasona Reservoir, formed by damming Los Gatos Creek, was completed in 1935 by the Santa Clara Valley Water Conservation District. Later, the district leased some of its land for quarrying operations. The county parks and recreation department began managing recreational access to the reservoir in 1959, when it opened as a county park, and acquired adjacent lands.
Today, Vasona Lake County Park is prized for its 45 acres of lawn for informal sports, picnic areas, playgrounds, walking and bicycling paths, nature trail, interpretive programs, and access by public transit. Anglers can try their luck from the lakeshore for black bass, crappie, catfish and bluegill. The reservoir capacity is 400 acre-feet, with a surface area of 57 acres.
Of special interest to plant enthusiasts are the more than 40 species of ornamental eucalyptus trees, planted beginning in 1964 by Max Watson to test their adaptation to Northern California’s climate. Santa Clara County residents look forward each holiday season to Vasona’s Fantasy of Lights, a magical, musical wonderland of twinkling lights and animated displays, all of which can be viewed from the comfort of your car.
The 150-acre park is traversed by the Los Gatos Creek Trail. Along the way, the trail passes through the Town of Los Gatos, Vasona Lake and Los Gatos Creek county parks, and the City of Campbell. The multiple-use trail is enjoyed by walkers, joggers, bicyclists, and inline skaters. Dogs on leash are welcome, but owners must clean up after their pets; free disposable scoopers are available.
The Youth Science Institute, located next to the county parks administration building on Garden Hill Drive, offers trips and programs designed to foster an understanding of the natural world among young people. The short Viola Anderson Native Plant Trail goes eastward from the institute, runs behind the administration building, and then descends to meet the Los Gatos Creek trail near the lakeshore.
A “riparian corridor” is the name given to the environment bordering a waterway, generally a freshwater river, creek, or stream. Many riparian corridors in Santa Clara County have been altered by development, but the land immediately bordering Los Gatos Creek retains many of its natural features. Among these is a plant community dominated by trees such as willow and sycamore.
Within Vasona Lake County Park are valley oak, coast live oak, and coast redwood. The variety of habitat provides an opportunity for visitors to spot various mammals, birds, reptiles, and amphibians, including California ground squirrels, muskrats, herons, egrets, ducks, geese, grebes, western scrub jays, red-winged blackbirds, mourning doves, western pond turtles, and bullfrogs.
Today’s park was once part of El Rancho Rinconada de los Gatos, or “Corner of Cats,” established in 1840 by brothers-in-law Jose Hernandez and Sebastian Peralta through a land grant of 6,631 acres from Juan Bautista Alvarado, Mexican governor of Alta California. The rancho’s name refers to the Spanish word for wild cat (mountain lions, bobcats), los gatos, which was also given to the creek flowing through the area, Arroyo de los Gatos, and the high ridge that was its source, Cuesta de los Gatos.
How the name “Vasona” came about is one of those convoluted stories that makes local history so interesting. It all started with a pony named Vasona, which belonged to Albert August Vollmer when he was a young boy. As an adult, Vollmer married, started a family, and in 1887 moved from Michigan to the Santa Clara Valley. The Vollmers bought 46 acres on Pollard Road near Los Gatos, which they used to grow prunes.
Agnes Vollmer, their oldest child, rode the train every day from Los Gatos to her job in San Jose, where she worked for the Sunset Telephone and Telegraph Company. Agnes’s father drove her 3 miles to and from the train station every workday. Because the rail line was only about a mile from their home, Vollmer requested a flag stop on the line, and the Southern Pacific Railroad agreed. They also said Vollmer could name the stop, and he chose Vasona, after his childhood pony.
Uvas and Chesbro Reservoirs, 1960
The parks and recreation department began managing recreational access to Chesbro and Uvas Reservoirs in 1960. Unlike the other reservoirs that are part of the county parks system, which were built by the Santa Clara Valley Water Conservation District, Chesbro and Uvas were constructed by the South Santa Clara Valley Water Conservation District—Chesbro in 1955, and Uvas in 1957.
Chesbro Dam is on Llagas Creek, about 3 miles west of Morgan Hill; Uvas Dam is on Uvas Creek, about 4 miles southwest of Morgan Hill. Both reservoirs are currently closed to boating to control quagga and zebra mussels, both invasive nonnative species.
Visitors to 216-acre Chesbro Reservoir County Park can enjoy fishing from the reservoir’s banks; visitors to 626-acre Uvas Reservoir County Park can fish from the bank and picnic in a designated area on the reservoir’s southwest side. In the 19th century, agriculture thrived in the fertile valley holding Uvas Creek, and at the turn of last century Minnie Kell, or “Ma Kell” as she was known, opened a campground-style resort in the valley, complete with swimming hole, baseball field, and dance floor.
Chesbro Reservoir was named for Elmer J. Chesbro, a local doctor who served as president of the South Santa Clara Valley Water Conservation District when the dam and reservoir were built.
For thousands of years before European exploration and settlement, the Mutsun Ohlone lived in the area in which both reservoirs are located. Under Mexican rule, the area now occupied by Chesbro Reservoir was divided into two large ranchos granted in the 1830s by Jose Figueroa, the Mexican governor of Alta California. Rancho Ojo de Agua de la Coche (Spanish for “Pig Spring”), granted to Juan Maria Hernandez, covered nearly nine thousand acres, and Rancho San Francisco de las Llagas, or “St. Francis of the Wounds,” granted to Carlos Castro, encompassed nearly 23 thousand acres.
The word uvas in Spanish means “grape,” and Uvas Reservoir is part of what was once a Mexican land grant called Rancho Las Uvas, some 11,000 acres granted in 1842 to Lorenzo Pineda by Juan Bautista Alvarado, the new governor of Alta California.
Villa Montalvo, 1960
Once the hillside retreat of James Duval Phelan, a former three-term San Francisco mayor and California’s first popularly elected U.S. senator, Villa Montalvo was established as a county park in 1960. Today, the Villa Montalvo Association operates the historic Mediterranean-style villa and arboretum in trust, while the county parks and recreation department maintains the upland trails that border the estate.
Visitors to the 175-acre park, which is served by public transit, can admire the villa, wander through the arboretum, and enjoy trails for hiking and nature study. Villa Montalvo is on the National Register of Historic Places.
In addition to the ornamental and exotic plants in the gardens and grounds, there are native plant communities in the upland parts of the property, including redwood forest and chaparral, mostly coyote brush, chamise, and toyon. Birds abound, and mammals here include mule deer, bobcat, brush rabbit, opossum, and raccoon. The Montalvo Arts Center, which offers public concerts, has three venues for the performing arts and 10 studios in its artists-in-residence facility.
Phelan (1861–1930) purchased property in the Saratoga foothills, known as the Bonnie Brae Ranch, in 1911. By this time, the former mayor was a well-known civic leader in San Francisco, directing relief and reconstruction efforts following the 1906 earthquake and advocating the creation of the city’s Hetch Hetchy water system.
The ranch consisted of 137 acres of mostly prunes, apricots, and cherries, and Phelan later added more land to the estate. Phelan took the name for his villa from the 16th-century Spanish author, Garci Ordonez de Montalvo. In his novel, Las Sergas de Esplandian, Montalvo wrote of a fantastic island called “California,” peopled by Amazon women and patrolled by griffins, mythical creatures which have the head and wings of an eagle and the body, hind legs, and tail of a lion.
If you visit Villa Montalvo, you may notice the griffin statues standing guard over the estate. Two architects worked with Phelan on his design. The first was William Curlett, noted for his buildings in downtown San Francisco; after his death, his son Alex Curlett and his partner Charles Gottschalk took over the project.
Begun in 1912, the 19-room sandstone villa was completed in 1914, the same year that Phelan was elected to the U.S. senate, where he served from 1915 to 1921. Phelan consulted with John McLaren, who had planned San Francisco’s Golden Gate Park, on how to landscape the grounds, which had been almost completely denuded.
George Doeltz, Phelan’s gardener, was responsible for designing the sloping lawn, framed by English laurel, sweet olive, and holly, and laying out the Italian garden, which contains statues Phelan brought back from his European tours.
Once completed, Villa Montalvo was a magnet for writers, artists, and other celebrities. Phelan’s guest list included Jack London, Ethel Barrymore, Mary Pickford, and Douglass Fairbanks. Phelan never married, although he had a long-term relationship with a woman named Florence Ellon.
Phelan died in August 1930 at his beloved estate, and he left Villa Montalvo to the San Francisco Art Association in trust, with the stipulation that the property be operated as a public park, and that the adjacent buildings and grounds be used for “the development of art, literature, music, and architecture by promising students.”
Unfortunately, the Depression cast a long shadow over Phelan’s vision, and Villa Montalvo stood empty and began to deteriorate. In 1939, however, the artist Anne Bailhache, who served on the art association’s board of directors, was named as resident director of the estate. Bailhache received assistance from the newly formed Montalvo Society, and the Montalvo Foundation was created in 1939 to begin the process of fulfilling Phelan’s vision to educate young artists.
That same year, the villa was opened to the public as an arts center, with a small gallery and an artists-in-residence program. Concerned about a shift in priorities in the San Francisco Art Association, a local group was organized as the Montalvo Association and in 1953 received trusteeship of the estate. An estimated 200,000 visitors each year enjoy the grounds, gardens, trails, artistic performances, and tours of the estate buildings.
Part of today’s county park was once owned by Captain William Warren, who operated one of the area’s first fruit evaporators and dryers. Dr. George Handy, a New York eye specialist, bought a 450-acre grain ranch here in 1883 and used it to grow fruit. His daughter, Una, is the source of the ranch’s name, Glen Una.
Handy continued working his fruit orchard until 1891, when he sold to Maine native George Hume, an owner of the First Pacific Coast Salmon Cannery in Sacramento. Una Handy later married Hume’s son, Frank, and together they expanded the property to 680 acres and won renown for Saratoga as having the world’s largest bearing prune orchard.
Uvas Canyon, 1961
Fragrant California bay trees and tumbling waterfalls are hallmarks of Uvas Canyon County Park, a south-county gem of more than 1,200 acres at the end of Croy Road. Park visitors can enjoy camping, interpretive programs, picnicking, and trails for hiking and nature study.
The park is in the Sargent Fault zone on the east side of the Santa Cruz Mountains. A combination of hot, dry summers and cool, wet winters has created a diverse habitat with a wide variety of plants and animals. A mixed-evergreen forest of Douglas-fir, coast redwood, madrone, California bay, black oak, and canyon live oak dominates the lower elevations and north-facing slopes. Sunny south and east facing slopes support thriving thickets of chaparral, including ceanothus, chamise, and chaparral pea, and also stands of California buckeye and knobcone pine.
Water runs year-round in Uvas Creek and its tributaries, Alec and Swanson creeks. Beside the creeks, in the riparian zone, grow red alder, bigleaf maple, California bay, coast redwood, and sycamore. Prior to construction of Uvas Dam, steelhead migrated from Monterey Bay via Pajaro Creek to the upper reaches of Uvas Creek and its tributaries to spawn. Today, the park’s creeks hold small populations of rainbow trout, sculpin, and three-spined stickleback.
Reptiles and amphibians here include garter snake, gopher snake, kingsnake, rattlesnake, California newt, and Pacific giant salamander. Among the birds that have been spotted in the park are band-tailed pigeon, black-headed grosbeak, black phoebe, Steller’s jay, and thrushes. Mule deer and gray squirrels are common, but bobcats, coyotes gray foxes, mountain lions, raccoons, and skunks are also present at times.
Meaning “grape” in Spanish, the word uvas was applied to a nearby Mexican rancho granted in 1842 to Lorenzo Pineda by Jose Bautista Alvarado, governor of Alta California. Perhaps indicating an abundance of wild grapes, the word also was applied to the creek that sluices through the canyon just north of today’s park. This area was used by the Mutsun Ohlone, and evidence of their inhabitation, probably for seasonal hunting and gathering, has been found in Uvas Canyon.
The park’s main waterway, Swanson Creek, is named for a homesteading family. It was originally called Kirschbaum Creek, after Hyman Kirschbaum, who planted orchards and vineyards nearby, but the name it bears today is that of another pioneer family. Another park waterway, Alec Creek, flowed beside Chateau de Ring, a summer resort owned by P. R. Klein. Knibb’s Knob, at 2,694 feet the park’s highest elevation, is named for Henry Knibb, another late 19th-century homesteader.
Hikers ascending the Knibbs Knob Trail are actually walking on the former Bella Vista Road, established by an 1891 ordinance to provide a shortcut from the town of Coyote to the home of Dr. David Keinborts, a Civil War veteran who lived near today’s Summit Road. It is said that Keinborts built the road himself by hand in order to avoid the much longer horse-and-buggy ride from Los Gatos when bringing in his supplies.
Prospector John Burns, who had fought in the Civil War on the Confederate side, found deposits of copper ore along Uvas Creek around the turn of the 19th century. Although he convinced several local residents to invest in the venture, Burns never struck it rich and soon abandoned his mine. In the early 20th century, fires swept through the area, destroying homes and charring what remained of old logging camps.
Sanborn County Park and Sanborn Road are both named for Kendall Clark Sanborn, a Maine native who owned a modest parcel of property in the area during the 1870s. Visitors to the park can enjoy camping, fishing, learning about area history, tossing horseshoes, attending interpretive programs, picnicking, studying nature, and walking the park’s trails.
For thousands of years before Spanish exploration and settlement, the Guemelento Ohlone used the area for hunting, fishing, and gathering food, including acorns, which they ground in bedrock mortars. One of the park’s features is Lake Ranch Reservoir, a small sag pond that was at one time owned by the San Jose Water Company.
This reservoir is on a crest between the Sanborn Creek and Lyndon Canyon watersheds. Sag ponds are indicative of earthquake faults, and the San Andreas Fault angles lengthwise through the park beneath Lyndon Canyon, Lake Ranch Reservoir, and Sanborn Road.During the 1906 earthquake, Lake Ranch Reservoir was shaken so violently that it lost most of its water.
On the park’s mostly north-facing slopes, moisture deposited by winter rains and summer fog creates a mixed-evergreen forest of coast redwood, Douglas-fir, madrone and oaks. This habitat attracts mammals such as bobcat, brush rabbit, coyote, mule deer, and raccoon, and birds such as American kestrel, jays, hummingbirds, red-tailed hawk, and wrens.
Logging in this part of the Santa Cruz mountains had all but ended by the 1860s, but the Homestead Act of 1862 attracted settlers interested in farming the clear-cut lands, especially winemakers and orchardists of French, Italian, and Swiss descent.
In 1871, Celestin Bernard, who was originally from the French Alps, bought property in the area and eventually came to own about 400 acres, on which the family grew hay, planted vineyards, and harvested timber. In 1873, Bernard sold what is today Lake Ranch Reservoir to the San Jose Water Company, which named it MacKenzie Lake to honor one of the company’s cofounders.
Over the next 10 years, the water company increased the capacity of the pond by erecting earthen dams and also built service roads. In 1922, the water company purchased the remaining property owned by the Bernards and in 1981 sold the land to the county parks and recreation department.
Another Frenchman, Leon Baille, who was Celestin Bernard’s brother-in-law, moved to the area in the 1870s, eventually homesteading with his wife Marie on a 160-acre parcel near today’s visitor center. They built a house beside what is now Peterson Grove. The Bailles’ agricultural pursuits included winemaking, growing prunes, and raising livestock. They sold their property in 1912 to Harold P. Dyer, an engineer who worked in the beet-sugar industry.
The Dyer house, built around 1914 by French stonemasons from local sandstone, is today the Youth Science Institute, located near the park’s ranger station. In the basement, Dyer fashioned a water-powered generator to supply his house and grounds with electricity. Dyer also bought property belonging to the Pourroy and Taudt (Todd) families for a 500-acre estate he called Star of the Hill.
After Dyer’s death in 1928, the property passed to his daughter, and in 1950 she sold to George and Ethna Peterson, for whom Peterson Grove is named. In 1962, the county parks and recreation department acquired part of the former Dyer property and opened Sanborn County Park to the public on a limited basis.
The area’s settlers left their names and imprinted their stories on the land. Bonjetti Creek, which flows through the northwest end of the park, is named for the Bonjetti family. They cleared land and planted apples and grapes on their 160-acre homestead. The McElroys operated a small resort called Hazelwood on Sanborn Road. Today, McElroy Creek winds northward from its source to join Bonjetti Creek. Adrian Bonnet, also from the French Alps, planted grape vines and fruit trees on parts of his 600 acres near today’s Skyline Boulevard.
James R. Welch—who from 1904 until his death in 1931 was a state superior court judge in Santa Clara County—is today best known for supporting the creation during the 1920s of Skyline Drive as a scenic highway. In 1908, Welch built a hunting lodge on property he had acquired in 1902 from the McElroy, Pourroy, and Lotti families, some 800 acres.
The Welch Hurst house, as it came to be known, was built with local materials, which makes it of historic interest. Today the house, which is beside Todd Creek, is used as a youth hostel. After Welch’s death, his daughter inherited the property, which she sold in 1955 to Vernon Pick. An electrician from Minnesota, Pick had become a millionaire by mining uranium in Colorado to feed America’s Cold War appetite for fissionable material. Pick, evidently influenced by Thoreau, named his estate Walden West.
According to Red Bell, an early county park ranger, Pick offered to donate the property to the county if the board of supervisors would name a park there after him. Apparently the board, influenced by supervisor Sam Della Maggiore, quashed the idea. The county purchased the Pick property in 1977 and added it to the already existing acreage that comprised Sanborn County Park. That same year, the park was officially dedicated and fully opened to the public. Subsequent additions of 1,809 acres have made it one of the largest county parks in the county.
Coyote Creek Parkway and Hellyer County Park, 1963
The Coyote Creek Parkway is a 15-mile paved creekside trail favored by walkers, joggers, bicyclists, and inline skaters. Hellyer County Park, located at the parkway’s northern end, is a 223-acre urban park, where visitors can enjoy picnicking, interpretive programs, and letting their dogs romp in the off-leash dog area.
Hellyer is also home to the Santa Clara County Velodrome, an Olympic-sized facility featuring a banked concrete racing oval for professional and amateur cycling. Anglers can try their luck year-round at Hellyer’s Cottonwood Lake and in season along Coyote Creek. When Juan Bautista de Anza’s exploring party came through this area in 1776, they named the waterway Arroyo del Coyote, or “Coyote Creek,” probably because of the animals they spotted in the area.
Hellyer County Park is named for George Washington Hellyer, an Ohio native who in 1850 heeded California’s siren cry of “Gold!” Three years later, Hellyer and his brother settled a few miles south of San Jose in what was then a rural area. Hellyer prospected for cinnabar in the nearby hills, but when nothing panned out he tried farming, the occupation for which he was educated and trained. Hellyer moved away in 1872, and with the southward expansion of San Jose, his former lands saw use as a landfill and a rock quarry.
The velodrome, built in 1962 to train cyclists for that year’s Pan American Games, was a pet project of county supervisor Sam Della Maggiore. With a cost threatening to approach $80,000, and hardly any prospect of generating even a fraction of that in revenue, the velodrome drew raised eyebrows from the county grand jury, which decried spending taxpayers money to provide recreation for special-interest groups.
In 1966, Coyote Hellyer County Park opened to the public, and the old rock quarry was converted into Cottonwood Lake. Since then, the county parks and recreation department has acquired nearly 2,000 acres, representing nearly 100 separate small purchases, along Coyote Creek.
Roughly 60 miles in length, Coyote Creek is Santa Clara County’s longest creek. Getting its start in the highlands north of Henry W. Coe State Park, the creek makes a dramatic U-turn around Palassou and Timber ridges and then flows northward to through San Jose and Milpitas to San Francisco Bay, impeded twice by the dams that form Coyote and Anderson reservoirs.
The riparian corridor along the creek is home to bigleaf maple, coast live oak, Fremont cottonwood, sycamore, and willow. Native Americans used willow bark to treat headaches, and the genus name, Salix, is echoed in name of the pain-relieving compound in aspirin, acetylsalicylic acid.
Acorns were an important food source for the Tamyen and Matalan Ohlone who lived near the creek. Birds are also fond of acorns and often store them for future use in various ways. For example, scrub jays bury acorns underground, whereas acorn woodpeckers hammer them into holes in so-called granary trees, usually large oaks.
The cool, shady creekside environment provides shelter for birds and mammals such as great blue herons, scrub jays, wood ducks, bobcats, coyotes, gray foxes, wild turkeys, and wild pigs, the latter a nuisance species. Open areas of the park provide habitat for blacktail jackrabbits, California ground squirrels, desert cottontails, and opossums.
Anderson Lake, 1964
The parks and recreation department began managing recreational access to Anderson Reservoir, the largest artificial lake in Santa Clara County, in 1964. Visitors to 2,365-acre Anderson Lake County Park can enjoy a variety of land- and water-based activities, including motorized and nonmotorized boating, fishing, tossing horseshoes, interpretive programs, picnicking, horseback riding, hiking, and nature study.
Acorns of the coast live oak, which is found in the park, were a valued food source for the Native Americans who lived in this area. Birds and animals found within the park also use acorns as a food source. Park visitors may spot California ground squirrels, black-tailed jackrabbits, opossums, and deer.
Anderson Reservoir is one of four county reservoirs open to boating, but boats must pass an inspection designed to help control quagga and zebra mussels, both invasive nonnative species. Completed in 1950, the reservoir is named for Leroy Anderson, one of the founders of the Santa Clara Valley Water Conservation District and its first president.
Anderson Reservoir is 7.8 miles long, with a capacity of 90,373 acre-feet of water and a surface of 1,271 acres. With uncertainty over the siting of Lexington Reservoir dragging on into the late 1940s, the water conservation district found an alternate site along Coyote Creek in the hills above Morgan Hill—a 500-acre cattle ranch owned by the estate of John Cochrane and his wife, Aphelia Farmington.
At the time of her death in 1949, Aphelia Farmington was 103 years old and one of Morgan Hill’s more distinguished residents. A year later, her estate received $155,000 for the Coyote Creek site on which Anderson Dam and Reservoir were built. Prior to flooding, the 1914 house, barns, drying sheds, and a bunk house were moved to their present location, on the southeast shore of the reservoir.
This complex is today called the Jackson Ranch Historic Site, named for Gladys Jackson, a granddaughter of Cochrane and Farmington, who lived with her foster sister, Ruth Lowe, in the ranch house until the 1984 Morgan Hill earthquake caused severe damage to the structure. Jackson lived only a short while longer, dying that same year at age 88. Lowe died in 1987 at age 91.
In her will, Jackson left the ranch house to the California Pioneers of Santa Clara County. The Santa Clara County Open Space Authority purchased the 38-acre Jackson Ranch from the Pioneers and then resold it to the county parks and recreation department in 2006. The ranch house has been restored and is part of the county park, but remains closed to the public.
Other department acquisitions at Anderson Lake County Park include the Unger property, purchased from the California Pioneers of Santa Clara County, and the Rosendin property, purchased in the late 1980s and early 1990s, which overlooks Anderson Reservoir and Morgan Hill.
Ed R. Levin, 1964
Ed R. Levin county park is named for the county supervisor who advocated for a park that east-county residents could call their own. Levin, who served on the board of supervisors as District 3 representative from 1952 from until his death on March 12, 1965, was instrumental in getting the county to buy as parkland the former Airpoint Reservoir site near Milpitas.
In 1964, despite opposition from three of Levin’s colleagues on board of supervisors, the parks and recreation department purchased the site, which included the Spring Valley Golf Club, after the public expressed overwhelming support for the acquisition on a June ballot measure. The park was originally called Airpoint Park but was renamed after Levin’s death.
Today, visitors to the 1,539-acre park enjoy a variety of activities and facilities, including youth-group camping, fishing, golf, interpretive programs, an off-leash dog area, picnicking, playgrounds, and 19 miles of trails for hiking, bicycling, and horseback riding.
Sandy Wool lake—named in 1968 for Ernest O “Sandy” Wool, a county supervisor who served from 1937 through 1953—is stocked with fish November through May. Swimming is prohibited, but the lake is used for model-sailboat racing. Three lawn areas accommodate those wishing to fly a kite or toss a Frisbee.
The Wings of Rogallo hang-gliding club, whose members engage in more adventurous airborne pursuits, has a launch site just off the Agua Caliente Trail.
On its north side at Scott Creek, Ed R. Levin County Park borders Mission Peak Regional Preserve, part of the East Bay Regional Park District. In fact, the creek forms part of the Santa Clara–Alameda county line. The Bay Area Ridge Trail runs along the west edge of the park, as the Agua Caliente and Calera Creek trails.
At the park’s south end is its Spring Valley Area, which is named for the free-flowing springs that dot the terrain. This area contains a fishing hole for children and also the Spring Valley Golf Course. The historic Laguna Cemetery is also here. Buried in the cemetery, which has 44 plots, are some of the area’s pioneer families.
The park’s geography, a foothill valley, has been shaped over many millennia by movement along the nearby Hayward and Calaveras faults. Mostly oak woodland, the park’s hilly habitat is home to bobcats, coyotes, gray foxes, opossums, and skunks. Based on the annual Christmas bird count, done by members of the local chapter of the National Audubon Society, more than 60 species of birds have been spotted here.
The park’s high ground is an especially good vantage point to scan the skies for hawks, falcons, kites, eagles, and other airborne hunters. Visitors in fall may also be lucky enough to see a male tarantula spider, normally harmless, wandering from its burrow in search of a mate.
In 1919, Ernest O “Sandy” Wool bought a ranch in the shadow of Monument Peak, at the end of Weller Road, supplying the family cannery in San Jose with tomatoes, growing fruit, and raising cattle. Wool represented District 3 as a county supervisor from 1937 to 1953. In 1948, Al Wool and John Pyle bought land for the Spring Valley Golf Club, which opened in 1956. A year later, the state took over 578 acres in Laguna Valley, including the golf club, for its Airpoint Reservoir project.
After determining the land was not useful for water storage, the state agreed to sell the land to the county for a park. A vote of the people was required to convince a reluctant board of supervisors to approve the purchase, but in 1964 the parks and recreation department bought 488 acres from the state, opening Ed R. Levin County Park in 1969. Part of the 2,585-acre Minnis Ranch, formerly the Downing Ranch, was acquired by the parks and recreation department in 1979.
Upper Stevens Creek, 1965
Upper Stevens Creek is the wilder and more remote cousin of Stevens Creek County Park, the county’s first park. First acquired in 1965, Upper Stevens Creek County Park is a 1,095-acre paradise for hikers, mountain-bike enthusiasts, and equestrians. The park borders Skyline Boulevard and three preserves belonging to the Midpeninsula Regional Open Space District—Long Ridge, Monte Bello , and Saratoga Gap.The department is working with MROSD to expand trail connections in the South Skyline Area.
All trails in Upper Stevens Creek County Park are multiuse, except for the Table Mountain Trail and the lower part of Charcoal Road. On the parts of the Table Mountain Trail and Charcoal Road open to bicycles, they must be ridden only in an uphill direction, toward Skyline Boulevard.
The steep hillsides of the park are dominated by black oak and madrone, mixed with stands of bigleaf maple, California bay, and tanbark oak. North-facing hillsides support a forest of mostly Douglas-fir. Sunny south-facing slopes are cloaked in nonnative grasses and chaparral, mostly black sage, buckbrush, chamise, chaparral pea, manzanita, toyon, and yerba santa. Along Stevens Creek, the riparian zone includes red alder, bigleaf maple, cottonwood, sycamore, and willows.
Some of the mammals that have been spotted in the park are bobcat, brush rabbit, gray fox, mule deer, mountain lion, opossum, and raccoon. Archeological evidence, including the presence of bedrock mortars, shows the area was used by members of the Tamyen, Awaswas, and Ramaytush Ohlone.
Los Gatos Creek, 1966
Los Gatos Creek County Park encompasses 147 acres along Los Gatos Creek in Campbell, between Highway 17 and Winchester Avenue. The Los Gatos Creek trail is a paved multiuse path for walkers, joggers, bicyclists, inline skaters, and nature enthusiasts. The northern terminus of the trail is on Meridian Avenue in San Jose, about 0.2 mile north of Willow Street. The trail’s southern terminus is adjacent to the parking area at Lexington Reservoir, near the dam.
Water from the reservoir is released into Los Gatos Creek, which carries it to percolation ponds. These ponds filter the water and allow it to seep back into the ground, thus purifying the water and recharging the underground aquifer. In Vasona County Park, the dam that formed Vasona Reservoir has a system of gates to control the release of water downstream to percolation ponds at Los Gatos Creek County park and beyond.
The creek merges with the Guadalupe River in San Jose, which then continues its northwest passage to San Francisco Bay. During periods of heavy rain, the creek does double duty as a flood-control basin, funneling runoff into Guadalupe Creek.
Los Gatos Creek formed part of the historic route from the Santa Clara Valley across the Santa Cruz Mountains to the Pacific coast near Santa Cruz, and was used by Spanish missionaries, explorers, loggers, and early settlers. Later, stagecoaches, rail cars, and automobiles traveled the same route.
It is likely that Native Americans used the creek for habitation sites, both because of the water supply and the abundance of game it attracted. Los Gatos is Spanish for “wild cats,” and probably refers to bobcats and mountain lions seen in the area. The creek trail traverses an area that was once part of El Rancho Rinconada de los Gatos, or “Corner of Cats.”
In the mid-1850s, the creek began to take on some of the roles it plays today, with dams and canals used to supply water for irrigation being placed in the upper watershed. From 1857 until the mid-1960s, Kirk Ditch supplied creek water to the community of Willow Glen, which is on the south side of San Jose. In the 1860s, Lake Elsman and Lake Williams were built in the creek’s headwaters by the San Jose Water Company as reservoirs for San Jose and Santa Clara.
After the Santa Clara Valley Water Conservation District was formed in 1929, a series of dams, reservoirs, and percolation ponds were built throughout the county, with Vasona Reservoir completed in 1935 and Lexington Reservoir completed in 1952.
Interest in a creekside trail along Los Gatos Creek developed in the 1960s with a public meeting held in Campbell. In 1966, the county parks department purchased 10.2 acres for a creekside park from the water conservation district. The board of supervisors approved the park master plan in 1966, and the existing park facilities were completed in 1967.
In the years since the Los Gatos Creek Trail was built, the environmental quality of the riparian corridor along the creek has dramatically improved, providing habitat for a wide variety of plants and animals. Willows and sycamores are among the trees found here, giving shade and shelter to waterfowl, wading birds, and songbirds. Visitors may also spot bullfrogs, garter snakes, muskrats, raccoons, toads, and turtles.
Establishment of the Los Gatos Streamside Park Committee provided the impetus for local communities along the creek to develop their sections of trail, eventually creating today’s 9-mile regional trail. The year 1995 saw the completion of the trail section from Old Town Los Gatos to Vasona County Park, made possible by a combination of state and federal grants, along with money from the Town of Los Gatos and the Parks Charter Fund.
Parts of the trail running through Campbell and San Jose were also built with state, federal, and Parks Charter Fund money. The Los Gatos Creek Trail became a model for other creekside trails in the county, including the Penitencia Creek Trail and the San Tomas Aquino/Saratoga Creek Trail.
Coyote Lake-Harvey Bear Ranch, 1969, 1998
The county parks and recreation department began managing recreational access to Coyote Reservoir in 1969, creating Coyote Lake County Park, which is about 8 miles east of Gilroy in the foothills of the Mount Hamilton Range. At that time, the park consisted of property owned by the Santa Clara Valley Water District—the 635-acre reservoir and a narrow 125-acre band of surrounding shoreline—plus 36 acres owned by the county. Facilities included a boat-launch ramp, a campground, picnic tables, and two short trails.
In 1997 the parks and recreation department purchased a small parcel of land to add to the park, and in 1998 the park was greatly expanded when the department bought the Harvey Bear and Mendoza ranches. In 2004, the department completed its master plan for the park, and it was opened to the public in May 2005.
The master plan calls for expansion and improvement of existing facilities, along with construction of an environmental education center, an equestrian–agricultural education center, an events pavilion, a satellite ranger office and maintenance facility, and an 18-hole environmental model golf course with clubhouse.
Coyote Lake–Harvey Bear Ranch now encompasses 4,595 acres, making it the second largest county park in Santa Clara County, after Joseph D. Grant County Park. Visitors today can enjoy motorized and nonmotorized boating, jet skiing, water skiing, camping, fishing, tossing horseshoes, interpretive programs, picnicking, and about 19 miles of trails for hiking, bicycling, horseback riding, and nature study.
The reservoir is home to black bass, bluegill, carp, channel catfish, and crappie, with rainbow trout being stocked in spring. Coyote Reservoir is one of four county reservoirs open to boating, but boats must pass an inspection designed to help control quagga and zebra mussels, both invasive nonnative species. Completed in 1936, Coyote Reservoir is one of two impoundments on Santa Clara County’s longest creek, the other being Anderson Reservoir.
At the site of the reservoir, Coyote Creek runs through a valley formed by the Calaveras Fault, and it was problems associated with construction in an earthquake zone that delayed completion of the dam and reservoir—the five other Santa Clara Valley Water District reservoirs approved by voters in 1934 were completed in 1935.
The reservoir is 3 miles long, has a surface area of 635 acres, and can hold 23,244 acre-feet of water. Because of the variety of terrain within the park, there are six different plant communities here: grassland (both native and nonnative), chaparral, oak woodland, riparian, wetlands, and introduced exotic trees.
Coyote Lake–Harvey Bear Ranch County Park is “a flagship of new techniques for park management and trail development,” said John Falkowski, the department’s geographic information systems technician. Resisting pubic pressure immediately to open the newly acquired areas, Falkowski said, the department instead closed old ranch roads that would have presented safety and erosion problems.
“So we went through and we obliterated those old trails, built them around the contour on the sides of the hills, which are drained better,” Falkowski said. “You have a lot of bonuses that way, and rebuilt the system properly, and that’s a really wonderful place. The users love it out here.”
The Murphys were large landowners in the southern Santa Clara Valley, and several of today’s county parks were owned during the 19th century by one or another of the Murphy clan. Martin Murphy Sr. is remembered with a 2-mile loop trail near the Harvey Bear Ranch entrance to Coyote Lake–Harvey Bear Ranch County Park.
The site of the present county park was once part of Rancho San Isidro, more than 13,000 acres. There is a Rancho San Ysidro Trail (a variant spelling of “Isidro”) in the park, along with trails named in honor of the Bear and Mendoza families.
Harvey Bear bought his ranch in the 1960s, but after his death the family needed to sell to pay the inheritance taxes. Paul Romero was director of the county parks and recreation department at the time of the purchase.
“So it was really a matter of trying to figure out the best deal for them, and it was a long negotiation, and I think it worked out good for all of us,” he said. “It was one of the few large contiguous ranches that we could acquire as one block. It also had some development proposed for it, which would have taken away some of the great resources, the rich resources. The community wanted us to buy it. It was in the south county, but we had need for some parks out there. So I think, all in all, all of the stars were aligned and that was the best piece to buy.”
Harvey Bear’s son, Brent Bear, a photographer, has retained a small holding and runs cattle on his property.
When the county parks and recreation department signed a long-term lease with the water conservation district to manage recreational access to Coyote Reservoir, the area already had a long history of such use. After completion of the reservoir in 1936, the Santa Clara Valley Water Conservation District, as it was then known, leased land along the reservoir’s shoreline to individuals. Within each parcel, leaseholders were granted rights to all land that rose 15 feet above the top of the dam.
In 1944, leaseholders Hall and Ada Harper began subleasing to a concessionaire, who operated an arcade, a grocery store, a restaurant, a public dance hall, and a boat-rental service. None of these enterprises made much money, and the concessionaire did not renew the sublease.
On the northern end of Coyote Reservoir, the Harpers began to sublet individual camp sites, as they were called, and the shoreline soon became studded with small cabins, serviced by a small grocery store and docks for boating. In 1950, the water conservation district transferred the lease to Ken and Rosemary Spencer, and eventually nearly 100 cabins were perched on the edge of the reservoir.
This unregulated development eventually resulted in a degradation of water quality, mostly caused by sewage, and the Spencer’s lease was not renewed after its expiration in 1969. Instead, in that year the parks and recreation department was given a 25-year lease to manage recreational access to the reservoir.
The department continued interim leases to individual cabin owners but worked to convert the area into a publicly accessible park with recreational facilities. By 1979, this conversion had largely taken place, with all of the cabins torn down or moved elsewhere.
Santa Clara Valley Water District: Early Partner, Huge Influence
Recreational access to the water district’s reservoirs is managed by the Santa Clara County Parks and Recreation Department. The department has had a long relationship with the Santa Clara Valley Water District, dating back to when the department was first formed. In fact, Stevens Creek Reservoir was already a popular recreation spot when the county created its parks and recreation department in 1956.
The department later began managing recreational access to Lexington Reservoir in 1958, to Vasona Lake in 1959, to Chesbro and Uvas reservoirs in 1960, to Anderson Reservoir in 1964, to Calero Reservoir in 1968, and to Coyote Lake in 1969. The department also acquired property around many of the water district’s reservoirs to develop trails, picnic areas, campgrounds, and other recreational facilities.
“The Water District controls the water levels in the lakes, and we control the boating on it,” said Red Bell, an early parks and recreation department ranger. “We control the recreation to a point. Some lakes, we don’t allow power boats on, just sailboats, just because of the size of the lakes. But that’s what we control. And that’s our relationship between the two. We had all these lakes here, and the water district didn’t have the power or the funds and what have you to really run the lakes. And so what really helped us was the fact that we were able to buy property around these lakes and make them into parks.”
In addition to performing safety and law-enforcement duties at the water district’s reservoirs, parks and recreation department rangers also conduct boat inspections, looking for evidence of quagga and zebra mussels, which are nonnative invasive species that pose a threat to reservoirs and waterways by clogging pipes and valves.
Currently, only five reservoirs allow private watercraft, which must be inspected before launching: Coyote Lake and Anderson, Calero, Lexington, and Stevens Creek reservoirs.
Recreation on the Reservoirs
Kathryn Berry is an attorney with the City of Sunnyvale, and prior to that she spent 16 years as deputy counsel for Santa Clara County. In that role, she was assigned to the parks and recreation department as its attorney. According to Berry, the department has a master lease agreement with the water district to provide recreational access to the district’s reservoirs.
“As you probably know, there are all these reservoirs that were primarily for providing drinking water and flood control,” Berry said. “There was a lot of friction between those that felt that the water district should open these up for recreation, and those who felt that really they were a dual-purpose agency and they weren’t really interested in providing recreation. And one of the big changes that came along in the 80s was the executive for the water district said, ‘This is an asset of the people. We should open it up for recreation.’ And so there is a very close working relationship between county parks and the water district to provide water activities. And I don’t think any other organization has that mission or type of interest in providing those experiences for kids and boaters.”
Among the legal issues Berry helped sort out were questions of jurisdiction—where did the water district’s responsibilities end and the parks and recreation department’s start?
“One of the trickiest parts from a legal point of view was to define what was going to be the responsibility of the county parks, and what would be the responsibility for the water district,” she said. “What we came up with was the high water mark. So we had to go home and map those out for every single reservoir, so that you could determine where the jurisdictions begin and end. And I think it works pretty well. There have been times when the agencies need to work together. But for the most part, it’s been a fantastic partnership of trails, hikes along the dams.”
Among the issues Berry has had to negotiate are access to Lexington Reservoir for the Santa Clara University rowing club, and whether there should be a ban on jet skis and two-stroke outboard motors. “All these issues come up that are partly policy and partly legal, which just make it such an interesting legal assignment,” she said.
Jane Mark is senior planner with the parks and recreation department and manages the department’s planning and geographic information systems (GIS) unit.
“We have a master reservoir agreement with the Santa Clara Valley Water District, which allows certain types of recreational uses and the understanding that if we develop any types of new recreational uses or improvements, we would confer with the water district, since they have oversight of the reservoirs,” Mark said. “We work very closely with their community reviews and project units for coordination on trail improvement, because if there is a trail that’s adjacent to a creek or a stream, they would like to review any potential impacts it may have on groundwater and creeks and streams and such.”
Paul Romero was director of the Santa Clara Parks and Recreation Department from 1995 to 2002, and then spent two years as chief administrative officer for the Santa Clara Valley Water District. He said recreational use of the district’s reservoirs must be compatible with the district’s primary purpose, which is to prove water to the residents of the Santa Clara Valley. No money changes hands between the water district and the parks and recreation department, Romero said, but the department was allowed to keep all revenues generated from user fees, as long as they did not exceed expenditures, “which was never the case.”
The water district pays no operational expenses for recreational use, said Romero, and the parks and recreation department has no ownership interest in any of the reservoirs proper. “In most cases we bought lands near it,” he said. “In most cases we bought lands adjacent, but we never owned the property per se with the district. Now they had several bonds that they had approved—and in those bonds, there were language that allowed recreational use of the reservoirs. So there was a commitment to their bondholders and the community overall who approved the bonds that there would be access to the reservoirs.”
In fact, Romero said he thinks recreational access was “the carrot” that enticed voters to pass various bond measures put forward by the water district. “They didn’t want to be the operators for those type of activities, so they contracted with the county to do that. It’s a tenant relationship.” Asked what the parks and recreation department gets out of the relationship, Romero said that being able to offer more recreational opportunities to county residents is a plus.
Development of the park and recreation department’s creekside trails also involved the water district, according to Sig Sanchez, who was a county supervisor from 1963 to 1979 and spearheaded the 1968 merger with the county flood control district. After leaving the board of supervisors, Sanchez served on the water district board for 30 years as an at-large director from the south county, chairing the board five times before retiring in 2009.
Speaking of the early days of the relationship between the water district and the parks and recreation department, Sanchez said trails were not even on the district’s radar. “You know, in those days we didn’t even know what trails were. Trails developed over time,” he said. “They have become very, very important because that’s one element that you can put into a urban or a rural park and get some use out of it.”
Sanchez said it is up to the county and the cities to build and maintain trails along waterways, and to make sure the recreational use does not interfere with water quality. The Clean, Safe Creeks and Natural Flood Protection Plan (Measure B), passed by county voters in 2000, provides funds for the water district to protect valuable streamside habitat and also contains money for trails, Sanchez said. “We subsidize the cities and the county in the trail development, and sizable amounts of money. So trails have become a big thing. So even the water district to that extent, we are assisting in park development.”