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Mount Umunhum - A Scenic Hill Top with a History

The San Francisco Bay Area is a great area to live if you are stuck with the travel bug. There are umpteen opportunities to sneak out for a day trip if you are looking for a quick getaway. We had been to a number of beaches recently and hence were looking for a change. Our research led us to read about this place called Mount Umunhum which is a hill-peak about half an hour from San Jose.

We were interested in the place from the name itself, which is kind of a tongue-twister of sorts at the start. It is only when we learned the meaning of the name that it came out clearer. Umunhum in resting place of the hummingbird. Let us take you through a trip to this getaway in the Bay Area of California.

Overview and History of Mount Umunhum

Let us start the article with an overview of the mountain peak. This stuff may be boring for some, and we wouldn't mind anyone jumping the section :) However, we believe it is important to understand the story of a site to truly appreciate all that it offers. While Mount Umunhum is a scenic spot, it has a lot more to it too.

What is Mount Umunhum?

Mount Umunhum - The Plaque

Mount Umunhum is a mountain peak located south of San Jose in Santa Clara county. This is part of the Santa Cruz mountain range and is the fourth highest peak of the range with a height of 3,486 feet above sea level. The peak is a part of the Sierra Azul Open Space Preserve which is over 18,000 acres of the open area providing natural habitat to varied flora and fauna. The summit of the mountain provides panoramic views of across the Pacific up to even the Sierra Nevada.

The mountain region, as we know today is the result of millions of years of geological activity. San Andreas fault lines lie close to the area and have impacted the structure of the region. Mount Umunhum has a geological crust which dates back to the late Jurassic era. This is the reason for the rocky summit and slopes and prevalence of rocky outcrops jutting around the region. While this may be true for a large part of Californian mountain ranges, this specific site is the most spectacular display of the phenomena. Scattered patches of plants and water reservoirs along the foothill make it possible for various animals to survive.

A Lesson in History

Mount Umunhum has enjoyed a place of significance since time immemorial. We may remember it for its natural views across the region, it has had a strategic significance for long. The peak earns special importance during native American history including the era of the gold rush and the Cold War. The interesting history makes it one of the great publically accessible parks.

More than 70 tribes of Native Americans were the first settlers of the region. European settlers inhabited the region after the various conditions displaced native Americans. The region also had mining operations for a large part of history. The material used for the operations had mercury which is needed for processing gold. This led the region to earn fame during the gold-rush-era.

The Doppler Radar Makes Mount Umunhum

United States government procured the area in the 1950s to build an Air Force Station. The station housed an early warning radar which was a part of the network across the country to monitor the airspace during the Cold War. The radar station stayed active until the 1980s when the Air Force surrendered the station to the local administration. The presence of hazardous materials prevented opening the area to the public. Authorities opened the peak for the public after a massive cleanup and infrastructure building exercise.

How to Reach Mount Umunhum

Mount Umunhum is open to the public from 7:00 am to half an hour post-sunset. Authorities have closed a number of roads in the area and hence it is possible that GPS may pick one of these roads. We recommend tracking your route in advance and approaching Mt. Umunhum Road via the Hicks Road. The route to the peak is scenic and tempts you to stop for pictures. However, it is best advised to avoid the temptation given the roads are narrow, steep and winding.

There is a parking lot right at the junction of the Hicks Road and Mt. Umunhum road - Jacques Ridge Parking Lot. This is the trail-head for the Woods Trail and a good place to stop for some pictures. There is another parking lot - Bald Mountain Parking Area about 2 miles from the intersection. This is the starting point for Mount Umumhum and Bal Mountain Trails. Further, about 2 miles up, there is the Mount Umunhum Summit Parking Area. While the parking is limited, spots keep getting freed up at a frequent interval. There are a couple of accessible parking spots further at the passenger unloading area beside the Summit Observation Deck.

Guadalupe Dam Reservoir

The Route - Along Mount Umunhum Road

For more details about Mount Umunhum, visit MOUNT UMUNHUM - SIERRA AZUL

Key Points to be Covered

So, what do we do once we have parked the car? We saw great views on the way up and are looking to explore the mountain peak. The journey of exploration begins with the stairs towards the right of the parking lot. Take the first step and immerse yourself in history and natural beauty. Below are some of the sites you would want to cover on your way up.

Ceremonial Circle

As you reach the top of the stairs, you are greeted by wonderful views of the city of Santa Cruz. The views start from the slopes of the Santa Cruz Mountain Range and expand through to the Pacific Ocean at the far end. The thick forestry and the blue water bring out the best of the views. You will also notice a large circular area that looks like a green belt. In honor of the native tribes to whom these mountains were sacred, the authorities allowed them to build a park here and use it for their traditional ceremonies. Hence the name of this place - The Ceremonial Circle. The descendants of the natives still come here to pray and dance to stay connected to the area.

West Summit Views From Ceremony Circle
Summit Shelter and Viewpoint

Another flight of stairs later you are standing facing the Summit Shelter. Summit Shelter is a covered verandah showcasing the history of the region through posters. It is also a great place to relax and take a break after all the stairs. However, what is special about this is the cantilever extension which offers stunning views up to as far as the Golden Gate Bridge on a clear day. The 360-degree views of the Santa Clara valley are enough to make you fall in love with the place. You would like to absorb the scenery for quite some time. At this point, visitors are standing at one of the highest peaks of the Bay Area with a unique climate.

Views from Summit Shelter

The Radar Tower
The Radar Tower

The Radar Tower is the eight-story concrete tower that housed the radar dish. This tower was an important installation during the Cold War but was rendered obsolete once the satellite technology came in. The building is out of reach for the public. However, it is a living testimony to the history that the world was witness to.

East Summit Viewpoint

This is the last view point which provides panoramic views acrpss the region. It is surprising to see plantation even when the the weather could be extreme during winters.

Mount Umunhum Trail
Mount Umunhum Trail

The new 3.7-mile Mt. Umunhum Trail extends from the Bald Mountain parking area to the Summit, crossing through the varied habitats of the mountain and offering incredible views of the valley below, the ridgelines above, and the other great peaks of the Bay Area. This multi-use trail offers moderate terrain for hikers, bicyclists, and horseback riders; and, at the summit, is the highest point on the Bay Area Ridge Trail.

Things to Consider

Mount Umunhum is a great destination to visit however, we would recommend that you understand some aspects of the place. If you are well prepared, it would go a long way in making your visit pleasant and relaxing.

  • Prepare for the strenuous hikes even if you are not taking the trail
  • Carry some layering as it can be pretty breezy even during the summers. Winters are definitely cold and windy.
  • Carry any snacks and water that you may need as there are no water or restaurant facilities up at the site
  • Take care of your kids as there are some points which are accident-prone
  • Be careful while driving up the area as the roads are difficult and cyclists and hikers could appear suddenly
  • Be aware of specific restrictions on fire and smoking and also about the existence of rattlesnakes, ticks and even mountain lions

Around the Stunning Views

The Journey Continues

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