Take a Hike. . . with Mike Monroe: Enjoy the ‘coolness’ of the redwoods on a hike at Mt. Madonna County Park
Published in the July 20 – Aug. 2, 2016 issue of Morgan Hill Life
By Mike Monroe
Our group visit to Mt. Madonna County Park over the July 4 weekend was so pleasant that I thought: why not do it again and enjoy the coolness of the redwoods while the valley swelters below our gaze. There are so many wonders to discover at Mt. Madonna. We only hit a few of the highlights during our earlier walk, so let’s do a repeat. I decided to write up this quick checklist of fun facts about the park to pique your interest:
The redwood forest is a mixed forest consisting of tanoaks, madrone, Douglas fir, and coastal scrub. The redwoods do not grow as tall as in northern California due to the much drier conditions. The southern extent of redwoods is located in Big Sur and, to the north, redwoods thrive until they reach just over the Oregon border.
Fog drip provides nearly 40 percent of the moisture needed to sustain the redwood forest. With rainfall patterns changing and temperatures gradually rising, scientists are closely studying the effects climate change has upon the redwoods.
The southern terminus of the Santa Cruz Mountains is the Pajaro Gap where the Pajaro River has cut through the Sargent Hills and the Aromas Hills on its way to the ocean.
The range of mountains south of San Juan Bautista is called the Gabilans.
Henry Miller’s first purchase of Rancho Las Animas lands (1,700 acres) was in 1858. He acquired many other holdings in South County including Rancho Solis which, like Las Animas, extended up the shoulder of Mt. Madonna. Rancho Salsipuedes shares the ridgeline on the Santa Cruz side of Mt. Madonna. The original grant was more than 31,000 acres and “Salsipuedes” roughly translates as “get out while you can,” probably a reference to the rugged canyons and dense vegetation present on the slopes leading to Watsonville.
For many years, officials from both Santa Cruz and Santa Clara counties planned to have Summit Road connect all way across the ridgeline from Mt. Madonna and the Castro Valley Ranch to Skyline Boulevard in San Mateo County.
There are only a few old-growth redwoods remaining in the park as logging throughout the late 1800s and then again after the 1906 earthquake removed almost all of the redwoods. Henry Miller thought that planting the fast-growing eucalyptus from Australia would be a good idea, although he learned that the tree yields a poor grade of lumber and they really generate a mess of leaves on the forest floor, which translates into quite a fire hazard.
Redwood trees were harvested not only for lumber but for grape stakes, railroad ties and fencing. Tanoaks were typically harvested first by stripping the bark off the trees and extracting the tannic acid for leather production. Then the redwoods were felled, removed by oxen teams and finally all of the slash was burned.
Near the water tanks on top of Mt. Madonna are four concrete piers that supported a wooden tower which I once thought was possibly used as a fire lookout or for civil defense. I came across an article which stated that it was constructed by Henry Miller to support a redwood storage tank for fire suppression. It was tall, with a 5,000-gallon capacity, so it could provide a substantial water pressure if needed.
The ranger station/visitor center is located where the Madonna Ranch foreman and his family lived. Behind it would have been the bunkhouses for the hired hands. Frank Schmitt and his family lived at Mt. Madonna for many years taking care of the property and keeping an eye on the Miller family bungalows. A friend told me that his grandmother (Anna Schmitt) used to help with meals for the Millers and their guests, and she would be asked once in a while to take a buckboard wagon into town to gather supplies.
The Sprig Day Use area was known until recently as Sprig Lake. It was named after a game warden who had the idea of blocking the waters of the Blackhawk watershed so that a small pond could be maintained and stocked with fish for young anglers. Many people still park at Sprig and hike, run or horseback ride up the various roads to the top of Mt. Madonna. Blackhawk and Ridge Roads were formally depicted on area maps and today’s Merry Go Round Trail was called Copper Mine Road.
Before Hecker Pass was completed in 1928, the road was called Bodfish Mill and ended at Magic Springs. To make the journey to Watsonville, one have to either travel through the Pajaro Gap or make the difficult up and down trip over the Old Mt. Madonna Road. This passage was also known as the first Watsonville Road and it was originally built as a toll road.
So many stories to tell. Please join with me for an easy-going stroll of Mt. Madonna and we will swap some redwood tales and ghost stories.
Keep on sauntering!
Gilroy resident Mike Monroe is a Morgan Hill business owner and naturalist. He is a docent for Santa Clara County Parks.
What: Mt. Madonna Secrets
When: 10 a.m. July 30
Where: Mt. Madonna Park Visitor Center
Cost: $6 at entry kiosk
Description: Easy walk, open to all ages
Contact: (408) 234-6377