This preserve located atop Skyline Ridge has two small ponds: Alpine Pond with its little nature center, and peaceful Horseshoe Lake with its softly quacking ducks. Between the two ponds are some magnificent views of the Santa Cruz Mountains.
A short but pleasant trail connects the two ponds and is one of the most scenic trails atop Skyline Ridge. The first half of the trail, from Alpine Pond to the viewpoint, is shielded from Skyline Boulevard by the ridge and is the most enjoyable part. After coming around the ridge, the second half of the hike, from the viewpoint to Horseshoe Lake, is less scenic and gets traffic noise and sometimes the continuous sound of gunfire from the Los Gatos Rod and Gun Club. For a short hike, you could just turn around at the viewpoint, but if the noise isn't too bad the full hike is a lot more rewarding.
The hike starts from the Russian Ridge parking lot, which puts the best scenery at the beginning and end of the hike. However, on nice weekends when this lot is full, it's better to start from the much less-busy Skyline Ridge parking lot and do the hike in reverse.
Start at the hot, dusty Russian Ridge parking lot and walk through the tunnel under Alpine Road. The trail descends a few yards to the little nature center, tucked in under some trees by the side of Alpine Pond. There's a short trail that loops around the pond.
Staying to the left after the nature center, the Ridge Trail crosses a dirt road and continues through a grove of good-sized oaks. A few rustic shacks stand to your left. Soon the trail breaks out into a grassy meadow that offers the first views of the vast, redwood-filled Peters Creek valley far below. Portola Redwoods State Park occupies the bottom of the valley and it's possible to hike from where you stand to the bottom of the valley without leaving the trail system.
The trail winds along an escarpment, gradually climbing to the Gene Sheehan Overlook, a small, fenced-in rock outcropping. This is the best viewpoint of the hike and it makes a good turn-around spot if you just want a 45 minute (1.6 mile) walk.
For a longer walk, continue to Horseshoe Lake. The trail rounds a corner and begins to descend. If the gun range is open the sound of gunfire becomes louder. Cars and motorcycles roar by on Skyline Boulevard. Antenna-capped Black Mountain is clearly visible directly ahead, while below is the Christmas Tree farm that occupies part of the preserve. Turn right onto the first dirt road, which descends toward Horseshoe Lake.
The dirt road isn't especially scenic, but the quiet little lake (really more of a pond) at the bottom of the hill makes up for that. The path that runs along its wooded eastern shore is especially scenic.
Either return the way you came or continue along the lakeside trail, which becomes the Ipiwa Trail and takes you all the way back to the Russian Ridge parking lot. The lakeside trail is more scenic but also longer.
© 2010, 2012, 2017 David Baselt