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.
Since 2017, Calero has been transformed into a popular mountain biking destination with the addition of about 12 miles of “flow” trails specifically designed for biking: the Lisa Killough and Cottle Trails in 2017; the Chisnantuck Peak Trail reroute in 2018; and the Oak Cove Trail in 2020. Electrically assisted bikes are allowed, and the soft whine of their motors has become a common sound. The northern half of Calero now feels mainly like a mountain biking park and isn’t really well suited to hiking. However, mountain bikes are prohibited on all other trails in the park, and these areas retain their quiet character. This strategy seems to have been successful, since the park is drawing more hikers than ever.
The Bald Peaks 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 within about a mile of the parking lot are quite popular with hikers. There's also a long stretch in the middle of this hike that gets a lot of mountain bikers. The remaining 4 miles or so of the hike are pretty quiet and don’t get a lot of visitors.
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. Here the trail joins a popular mountain biking route, and for the next three and a half miles, expect to be passed by a group of mountain bikers every 1‐2 minutes.
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.
The Chisnantuck Peak Trail is one of the park’s mountain biking trails; it’s rather wide, with a consistent and very shallow 4% gradient; 12% is more typical for hiking trails. The well-worn trail is mostly wooded and has a few nice views of the reservoir, making a pleasant if somewhat long climb.
Reaching the top of the trail, turn left onto the Bald Peaks Trail. A sign announces that bikes are not allowed on this trail, and in fact the trail is much less worn and much quieter. The Bald Peaks Trail is the highlight of the hike, with impressive views in all directions. It 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 Peaks Trail, the Cañada del Oro Trail drops off to the left through dense forest. Over the past seven miles of hiking it seems like the trail has become more and more remote. As a result it doesn’t feel, at this point, like you’re anywhere near the end of the hike. So it’s surprising to realize that there are only about two and a half miles left.
A singletrack bypass trail has been built around a steep section of the Cañada del Oro Trail, but the bypass trail is little-used and has become overgrown with poison oak. I usually take the road even though it’s uncomfortably steep and gravelly.
The Cañada del Oro Trail ends at the Figueroa Trail. To return on the most scenic route, turn left and take the Vallecito Trail through scenic meadows to the Pe˜a Trail. If you’d prefer the easiest route instead, turn right onto the Figueroa Trail, which descends gently through woods before running past some houses.
Here are a few more photos of this hike.
© 2008, 2009, 2011, 2017, 2018, 2022 David Baselt