"A Big, Captivating Idea": The Bay Area Ridge Trail

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Sierra Vista Open Space Preserveadds five miles of hiking and biking trails to the Bay Area Ridge Trail. (Photo courtesy of Stephen Joseph)


Sierra Vista Open Space Preserve adds five miles of hiking and biking trails to the Bay Area Ridge Trail. (Photo courtesy of Stephen Joseph)

When it's complete, the Bay Area Ridge Trail will stretch 550 miles around the Bay Area. It'll link the redwood forests of the Santa Cruz Mountains to the Golden Gate Bridge, the vineyards of Napa and Sonoma to the Eucalyptus groves of Tilden Park in Oakland.

And as often as possible, it'll give hikers, mountain bikers, and horseback riders a view of the bay that is the "centralizing feature" of this region, says Janet McBride, executive director of the non-profit Bay Area Ridge Trail Council.

See the full map of the Bay Area Ridge Trail (pdf).

McBride and her staff of six work out of a cluttered office in San Francisco’s Presidio district. It’s an incongruously small operation for such a vast project. So far, it's taken 20 years to complete the first 332 miles of the Bay Ridge trail. McBride predicts it'll be another 20 years before it's complete.

Think of it as an Appalachian Trail for the current crop of two-year olds.


"Toddlers today who are just beginning to walk, when they celebrate their 21st birthday, they could travel continuously along the ridge trail route," says McBride.

A New, Five-Mile Addition

On October 22nd, McBride and others will be at the Sierra Vista Open Space Preserve celebrating the latest addition to the Bay Trail: The Sierra Vista Open Space Preserve. Sierra Vista's five miles of trails constitute the biggest section of Bay Area Ridge trail to open up on four years.

Right now, the trail is reachable from Alum Rock Park -- one of the oldest parks in California -- by a steep climb up grassy slopes and through oak woodlands to an altitude of 2500 feet. The reward is a spectacular view over Silicon Valley, clear across to the Santa Cruz Mountains. You can actually look down at planes taking off from San Jose.

The next step is to build a staging area at the top, with a small parking lot, restrooms and some informational signs, so that people can come here directly, without having to hike all the way up from the valley floor.

Historically, this is ranch land. But today, Sierra Vista's only permanent residents are Corriente cattle, here to do absolutely nothing but munch on grass, to keep the risk of wildfires down and help maintain wildlife habitat.

Dana Litwin, a volunteer coordinator for the Santa Clara Open Space Authority, points out that the peace and quiet up on Sierra Vista are in stark contrast to what's going on below, in the valley.

Santa Clara Open Space Authority's Dana Litwin and Andrea Mackenzie helped secure the latest chunk of the Ridge Trail, overlooking San Jose.

"If you want to get away from a screen for a while, you can come up here and get that break and be reminded that there are things that have value that were here long before any of us."

An Expensive, Time-Consuming Process

Obtaining this land took about five years of negotiations with a handful of landowners, descendants of ranching families. Much – though not all – of the money came from a $12 dollar parcel tax on every home in Santa Clara County. The planned staging area will cost about $400,000. Then, there will be the costs of maintenance.

These kinds of calculations are being carried out in all nine Bay Area counties, as local open space districts try to figure out how to make their respective chunks of the Ridge Trail a reality. The negotiations are often complicated and can last years. Some landowners are willing to put easements on their land that protect the trail in perpetuity; others sell the land outright. Many landowners worry about trespassing, trash, and property values. Sometimes they can be convinced, other times the trail must be re-routed around them.

It all costs money.

In addition to what counties have been able to raise independently, much of the money is from the state: open space bonds approved by California voters. But most of that money runs out in two years.

Janet McBride says in a tight economic climate, it’s hard to know when is the right time to come back to voters to ask for more money. But she's optimistic.

"I’m confident that Californians, and especially residents in the Bay Area are not going to walk away from their parks and open spaces," McBride says. "It’s just too important to our quality of life."

The Sierra Vista trail (photo courtesy of Open Space Authority staff)