Calero County Park
Featuring the Bald Hills Loop
Calero County Park doesn't look all that inviting from the main entrance: a big dirt parking lot filled with horse trailers, a dusty horse corral and, beyond, grassy hills mostly devoid of trees, seem to promise a dull, sun-blasted hike.
Within the first mile of hiking, though, the landscape changes. Calero has some of the region's most attractive woodlands, plus grassy hilltops with outstanding views of the surounding hills, the Almaden Valley, and the Morgan Hill area. Compared to the parks even a short distance to the north, Calero has a much more remote feel; the views of suburbs have been replaced with views of farmland and unpopulated hills.
Calero has much different scenery than most other parks in the Santa Cruz Mountains — the rolling grassy hills studded with oaks look more like the East Bay than the peninsula. It's a nice change. Among the park's rolling hills are lots of interesting little valleys — each turn of the trail seems to bring a new environment and a new vista. The scenery comes with a price, though, as most of the trails are old ranch roads with lots of up-and-down, much of it a little on the steep side.
The Bald Hills Loop is the best way to see all of Calero's varied environments: with grassy rolling hills dotted with oaks, open woodland, dense forests, and a ridge with sweeping panoramic views, this feels like an epic hike although it's not actually that long.
Calero gets really hot during the summer. If the day's forecast high is above 85°, the park will be too hot for hiking and should be avoided. Even under the best conditions this loop is surprisingly exhausting.
In winter, some of the trails, especially the Sepenteine Loop Trail, have patches of mud.
The trails near the parking lot are quite popular, but after the first mile or so there's hardly anyone on the trails.
Click here to see the trailhead location in Google Maps.
Start at the Calero parking lot. Take the one trail that leaves the lot, which is actually a dirt road. Stay to the right at the first intersection. The trail climbs a small hill, passes tiny Los Cerritos Pond, then descends again. Take the Peña Trail at the next intersection, staying to the left. The trail climbs steeply, offering some views over the rolling grasslands that surround the park. After intersections with the Vallecito Trail to the left and the Los Cerritos Trail to the right, the trail tops out and begins to descend. Although there's still some traffic and boat noise for the next mile or so, the trail begins to feel progressively more remote, especially as the views of the sparsely-populated valley to the east are replaced by some very scenic views of the unpopulated hills to the north.
Turn right at the next road. After just a few steps there's a three-way intersection with the Serpentine Loop. The road to your left and the road that's straight ahead re-join in a few yards and climb to a very attractive little pond. Overall though, the road to the right is more scenic, not to mention shorter and less hilly, passing through some very nice oak woodland.
Descend to the Cottle Trail and turn left. The Cottle Trail ascends through woodland along the side of a ravine. After briefly breaking out into a meadow at the Cottle Rest Site, where a homestead used to stand, the dirt road ends and the singletrack Chisnantuck Peak Trail begins. This trail immediately dives into dense woodland, and after an initial flat section begins to switchback steeply up the hillside, repeatedly crossing an old fence. Watch out for poison oak in this area.
The trail leads through a picturesque meadow before a final steep climb past a bench that offers a panoramic view of the valley below. The bench is a great lunch spot, although it seems like it's always occupied. Shortly afterward, the trail ends at Bald Hills Road.
Bald Hills Road offers the best scenery of the hike, with impressive views in all directions. The road rises and falls with the ridgeline and the sight of the road ahead climbing up faraway knolls can be a little daunting if you're getting tired, but in fact the gradients aren't that steep.
After a long stretch on Bald Hills Road, the Cañada del Oro Trail drops off to the left through dense forest. Over the past six miles of hiking it seems like the trail has become progressively more remote, so it's surprising to realize that there are only about two and a half miles left in the hike.
A singletrack bypass trail has been built around a steep section of the Cañada del Oro Trail; however, the bypass trail is little-used and has become overgrown with poison oak. The road is in better condition.
After a steep descent on the Cañada del Oro Trail, the Vallecito Trail then takes you through scenic meadows, back to the Peña Trail. Turn right to return to the trailhead.
© 2011, 2017 David Baselt