Adventure in the 'Valley of Hearts Delight': Silicon Valley for the Outdoor Enthusiast

By Amy Beth Wright

Regional History

In 1971, Don Hoefler, a columnist for a widely read industry weekly called Electronic News, titled an article on the history of the semi-conductor industry in San Jose, “Silicon Valley U.S.A..” A 1981 article from the San Jose Mercury News later quotes Hoefler, “The rationale was simple enough: These revolutionary semiconductors are made in a valley, from silicon – not silicone, please – the second most-abundant chemical element (after oxygen) on Earth. How was I to know that the term would quickly be adopted industry-wide, and finally become generic worldwide?” William Shockley first discovered that silicon was a more suitable material for semi-conductors than geranium; Robert Noyce and Gordon Moore, formerly of Shockley Semiconductor Laboratory, formed Intel in 1968, which first successfully printed circuits on single silicon microchips.

  Henry Cowell Redwoods State Park ,  photo  by browniesundae / CC 2.0

Henry Cowell Redwoods State Park, photo by browniesundae / CC 2.0

The region’s identity as a hub for innovation was bolstered by Stanford engineering professor Fred Terman, who encouraged his students in the 1930s and 1940s to remain local; Terman developed a 660-acre industrial park on campus and leased it long term to burgeoning electronics and technology companies, like Hewlett-Parkard and Varian Brothers. Much earlier in the 20th century, writes Thayer Watkins of San Jose State University, advances in audio in the region had informed the development of radio, radar, television, tape recorders, and computers.  

Before its association with cutting edge technological innovation, the Santa Clara Valley was known as the “Valley of Heart’s Delight,” due to its abundance of wheat and produce, particularly pears, apricots, French plums (prunes), tomatoes, flowers, and grapes. The region is both agriculturally robust and scenic, home to a wealth of state parks that protect ancient old growth redwoods, and municipal parks with steep, rocky chaparral and riparian corridors. San Jose is an hour from Pinnacles National Park and Monterey, and 45 minutes from the Santa Cruz Mountains. The Don Edwards San Francisco Bay Wildlife Refuge, where millions of migrating birds pass through annually along the Pacific Flyway, is one half hour north. East San Jose overlooks the foothills of the Diablo Range and is home to the first municipal park in the state of California, Alum Rock Park. At Big Basin State Park, find the largest continuous stand of ancient coastal redwoods south of San Francisco.

Our guide to Silicon Valley Parks

Alum Rock Park, established in 1872 as the first municipal park in California, is just northeast of San Jose, in the foothills of the Diablo Range, in Alum Rock Canyon. Between 1890 and 1932, the park was known for its 27 mineral springs, indoor swimming pool, tea garden, restaurant, and dance pavilion. The Alum Rock Steam Railroad traveled to and from downtown San Jose. Per SanJoseCa.gov, “Today, remnants of the railroad bridges can be seen, some of the stone grottos that contain mineral springs are still accessible, but now the charms of the park focus on nature, wildlife, and hiking.” Within the park’s thirteen miles of trails are six miles of horse trails and three miles of bicycle trails. Hikers are welcome on all trails. The trails at Alum Rock also connect to Santa Clara County Open Space Authority Trails—visit Santa Clara County Open Space Authority for a schedule of free walking tours that begin in Alum Rock Park.

 Alum Rock Park,  photo  by  Dawn Ellner  / CC 2.0

Alum Rock Park, photo by Dawn Ellner / CC 2.0

 Sempervirens Falls, Big Basin Redwoods State Park,  photo  by H. Grimes / CC 2.0

Sempervirens Falls, Big Basin Redwoods State Park, photo by H. Grimes / CC 2.0

Big Basin Redwoods State Park
From downtown San Jose, travel thirty miles west toward the Pacific coast into the heart of the Santa Cruz Mountains, to find the largest grove of ancient coast redwoods south of San Francisco. Big Basin Redwoods consists of old-growth and recovering second-growth redwood forest, with mixed conifer, oaks, chaparral, and riparian habitats, per California Parks and Recreation. Stunning views of the Pacific Ocean, and the many waterfalls ensconced in forested landscape, are picturesque and idyllic. Some trees date as old as 2,000 years, and measure fifty feet in girth. Eighty miles of trails connect Big Basin to Castle Rock State Park and the eastern end of the Santa Cruz range. The park has ample camping amenities for overnight excursions and offers a range of options for scenic day hikes.

Thirty minutes north of San Jose, in the southern end of San Francisco Bay, is Don Edwards San Francisco Bay Wildlife Refuge, part of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife National Wildlife Refuge system. Per USFWS, “The refuge, created in 1974, was largely the result of grassroots efforts by the local community to protect the San Francisco Bay ecosystem.” Congressman Don Edwards worked with locals to protect the land around the bay, acres of salt marsh that date from the post Gold Rush 19th century, when the new salt industry “converted tens of thousands of acres of salt marsh into commercial salt ponds.” There are fifteen distinct habitats within the 30,000-acre refuge, within subcategories of marsh, pond, mudflat, vernal pool, and uplands. The largest estuary on the west coast, millions of waterfowl, shorebirds, wading birds, and raptors pass through during migration season; 280 different species have been spied year round. The largest mammals are harbor seals, California gray foxes, voles, and ground squirrels. Reptiles and amphibians include the Gopher snake, fairy shrimp, and sturgeon.

 Don Edwards San Francisco Bay Wildlife Refuge,  photo  by Helen Gordon / CC 2.0

Don Edwards San Francisco Bay Wildlife Refuge, photo by Helen Gordon / CC 2.0

Henry W. Coe State Park
California Parks and Recreation describes the largest state park in northern California, Coe Park, eloquently: “The terrain is rugged, varied and beautiful, with lofty ridges and steep canyons. Once the home of Ohlone Indians, the park is now home to a fascinating variety of plants and animals, including the elusive mountain lion. Within Coe Park are the headwaters of Coyote Creek, long stretches of Pacheco and Orestimba creeks and a wilderness area.” Activities include hiking, mountain biking, backpacking, horseback riding, car camping, and picnicking. Coe Park is located an hour southeast of downtown San Jose.

 Henry W. Coe State Park,  photo  by Allie_Caulfield / CC 2.0

Henry W. Coe State Park, photo by Allie_Caulfield / CC 2.0

Henry Cowell Redwoods State Park is 35 minutes south of San Jose, en route to the Monterey Bay, and nine miles outside of Santa Cruz. The park’s 4.650 acres include a 40-acre grove of old growth redwood trees, as well as grassland, forest and riparian habitats in the watershed of the San Lorenzo River. The park’s tallest tree stands at 277 feet, and is estimated to be approximately 1,500 years old. The Fall Creek Unit,  (day use only) is a second-growth redwood forest “with a fern-lined river canyon and remnants of a successful lime-processing industry,” per California Parks and Recreation. Swim in the San Lorenzo River via the Garden of Eden swimming hole, in addition to hiking, horseback riding, and cycling within the park’s twenty miles of trails. Overnight camping and RV access are available. The campground is near the Santa Cruz Sandhills habitat – and connects with the day-use area. 

Monterey Bay Aquarium and Monterey
South of Santa Cruz, the Monterey Bay Aquarium is part of the Monterey Bay National Marine Sanctuary. In addition to the scenic coastline that is abundant with opportunities for swimming, hiking, cycling, and road tripping, also consider visiting the Elkhorn Slough Coastal Wetland, Point Lobos State Reserve, the California Sea Otter Refuge, and Monterey Area Beaches.

 Pinnacles National Park,  photo  by Daniel Hartwig/ CC 2.0

Pinnacles National Park, photo by Daniel Hartwig/ CC 2.0

Pinnacles National Park
Further inland and an hour and twenty minutes from downtown San Jose, Pinnacles National Park, a relatively recent addition to the National Park System in 2013, is a satellite site for the California Condor Recovery program, where birds who have been bred in captivity are released back into the wild. The park features many talus caves (formed when boulders lodge in ravines and subsequent erosion follows) and spires of rock formed from the concurrent effects of volcanic uplift, lava flow, landslides, and the resettlement of land post eruption. You can read Margaret Young’s informative account of Pinnacles here.  The western side of Pinnacles, where the eruptive volcanic field was split by the San Andreas Fault, traveled 195 miles north at a rate of 3-6 centimeters each year, as simultaneous weathering and chemical erosion carved the namesake pinnacles and other dramatic formations. 

San Jose Municipal Rose Garden, once an eleven-acre prune orchard, is a five and a half acre enclave three miles west of downtown San Jose, and home to 4,000 rose shrubs with 189 varieties; 75% of those are hybrid tea roses.  The All-American Rose Selections, a national independent rating organization, sends new varieties to the garden for testing before release to the general public. The garden was dedicated in April of 1937.

Sierra Azul Open Space Preserve
In Los Gatos, a charming suburb of San Jose, Sierra Azul Open Space Preserve encompasses 18,000 acres of open space and wilderness, divided into four areas: Kennedy Limekiln, Mount Umunhum, Cathedral Oaks, and Rancho do Guadalupe. Habitats include grasslands, steep chaparral, dense stands of bay trees, or quiet, shaded oak woodland forests. Deep ravines and riparian corridors provide fro satisfying exploration. The preserve is a mountain lion habitat and also home to deer, bobcats, coyotes. Activities include hiking, with a few challenging trails to choose from, cycling, and horseback riding.