The PG&E Trail
Rancho San Antonio County Park
Length 8.8 mi · Climbing 1600 ft
Rancho San Antonio is one of the Bay Area's most popular parks. Most weekends there's a continuous stream of people on the main road to Deer Hollow Farm, and even on the challenging 8-mile PG&E Trail there's a group of hikers or joggers every 1 or 2 minutes. It's often said that the park is overcrowded, but the activity (along with the wide, well-maintained trails) also help to make the park feel safer and more family-oriented than the more remote parks.
It's easy to see why the park is so popular: it's just a few minutes' drive from most of Silicon Valley and it's quite an enjoyable place to hike, with a mixture of woodland, open grassland, and some very nice panoramic views of the Bay Area. The park is also large and well isolated from the nearby suburban neighborhoods, so it offers a real escape from the city without a long drive.
Even though it's partly wooded, Rancho San Antonio, like most of the parks in the area, can get really hot and unpleasant when the forecast high for the day is above 85 degrees.
The PG&E Trail loop is a good workout with some great scenic views and is one of Rancho San Antonio's most enjoyable hikes.
Click here to see the trailhead location in Google Maps.
Although the park has three large parking lots, parking is difficult to find on weekends. Usually it's a little easier to find parking in the dirt trailhead lot, since it's the furthest from the very popular farm. To park there, drive in through the main park entrance on Cristo Rey Drive, stay to the left, and continue to the dirt equestrian parking lot at the end of the road. The Coyote Trail begins from this lot at a footbridge.
The Coyote Trail immediately begins to climb a grassy, oak-studded hillside, offering a few views of the nearby suburban developments before entering a pleasantly wooded canyon. Arriving at a 5-way intersection near a water tank, turn left onto the PG&E Trail.
The PG&E Trail was presumably built by PG&E to service the electrical towers that are found every few hundred yards along the trail. The (sometimes) buzzing electrical towers can be annoying but can also be kind of scenic, marching off into the distance over the green hills. At least since the trail is mostly wooded, you can't see them most of the time.
The trail descends to the intersection with a crossover trail, then begins a long and fairly steep climb. There are increasingly scenic views of the Santa Clara Valley along the way. As it winds through a series of gulleys, the trail repeatedly dives into shady bay laurel woods and then breaks out into sunny chaparral. This part of the loop isn't nearly as busy as the lower-elevation trails.
The trail finally tops out at a bench next to an electrical tower, then begins a steep descent. Having switched from the south to the north side of the canyon, the trail has much less tree cover on the descent.
Turn right onto the Upper Wildcat Canyon Trail, which descends into a cool, shady canyon. The woods, which become increasingly dense and lush as the trail descends through the canyon, mostly consist of bay trees, and the slight perfumey smell of bay leaves sometimes fills the canyon. The woods are lush enough that there's a sparse groundcover of ferns, and in winter a little creek flows alongside the trail.
The Wildcat Canyon Trail turns into the Wildcat Loop Trail, which continues through the same canyon. The loop is one of the more popular trails in the park; on a nice day there's a group of hikers or joggers every 10 or 15 seconds on this part of the trail.
The descent ends and the trail exits the canyon just before reaching Deer Hollow Farm. The farm is a bit of a disappointment; high fences keep visitors well away from the animals and there really isn't much to see, although you can sometimes get fresh eggs at the stand inside the farm. There's a similar farm a few miles away at Hidden Villa that's a lot more fun — but Hidden Villa charges $5 for parking, while Rancho San Antonio is free.
The remaining mile or so of road is the most crowded in the park; it feels more like an urban park than an open space preserve. It's still quite scenic, though.
© 2010, 2012, 2013, 2017 David Baselt