Foothills Park is perhaps best known for its exclusivity: until recently, only Palo Alto residents were allowed into the park, and there's a limit of 1000 visitors per day. Out-of-towners still can't drive into the park, but since the 2007 dedication of the Bay to Foothills Trail, they've been allowed to walk in from Arastradero or Los Trancos preserves, making some excellent day hikes possible.
As silly as the exclusivity is, the park really is exceptionally nice, with attractive scenery throughout and a quiet, peaceful atmosphere that's unusual in a suburban park. The grounds and trails are really well-maintained and get relatively few visitors. As a bonus, the 2-mile walk through Arastradero Preserve actually makes visiting Foothills Park more of a special experience for us non-Palo Alto residents.
For a shorter, 5-mile version of this walk, just hike to the Interpretive Center, then take the Chamise Trail to Vista Hill.
Pearson-Arastradero Preserve became dramatically more popular after its trails were upgraded with crushed gravel, making it one of the few parks where the trails don't get muddy in winter and also making the trails a lot more attractive. As a result, the parking lot is now often full. If it is, park along Arastradero Road just east of the park; it doesn't really add any distance to the hike and there's a nice path along the road.
Hike up the de Anza Trail. On a nice weekend there can be nearly a continuous stream of people hiking this trail at the park entrance. Near a fenced-in equipment enclosure, turn left onto the Arastradero Crook Trail. The dirt road climbs gradually but gets increasingly steep as it approaches Foothills Park. The crowds gradually diminish over the first mile or so. Mostly the road is surrounded by tall vegetation, so there isn't much to see — even the two little ponds right next to the trail are hidden, although you may hear the deep sound of bullfrogs croaking. It's a pleasant walk but not particularly interesting. About half the walk is shaded, and it gets pretty hot here in the summer. The trail seems to be popular with equestrians and there's a lot of horse manure to avoid.
The trail crests and descends to a gate at the boundary of Foothills Park. There's an immediate change in the scenery upon entering the park, as the hot, dry, open grasslands of Arastradero give way to wooded hillsides. The dusty dirt road is replaced with a paved road that descends into the isolated little valley at the heart of the park.
Continue down the paved road. Rounding a bend, the distinctive A-frame visitors' center appears. The visitors' center has trail maps and a drinking fountain.
Back on the road, turn left and head toward the Orchard Glen picnic area, the centerpiece of the park. The shady picnic area is in a little valley together with a large, well-manicured lawn. The lawn is surrounded by trees and Skyline Ridge rises above it all in the blue distance. It all feels very isolated from the outside world.
Cut through the picnic area and head for the road into the Wildhorse Valley. Just after a bridge, turn right onto the Steep Hollow Trail. The trail climbs through a cool, wooded, bay leaf-scented ravine. Turn left onto an unmarked dirt road (it's also possible to continue straight on the Los Trancos Trail, but this route is a little dull; the fire road is a lot shorter and makes a nice change from the wooded trail).
The road leaves the woods and climbs over grassy hills (the hilltops are mowed to keep them free of scrub). In the summer this can be a hot, dry climb, but the reward is a series of increasingly broad vistas. The wide, shallow valley behind you is Portola Valley. To the west is Skyline Ridge, which is completely wooded except for the single grassy strip that is Windy Hill. San Francisco is usually visible in the distance.
When you reach a trail crossing next to a bench, turn left. This is the Los Trancos Trail. The trail descends through chaparral and tall scrub, with a few wooded pockets. From time to time motorcycles can be heard roaring along nearby Page Mill Road. At the first trail intersection, turn right onto the Costanoan Trail. This trail descends into attractive woodland, with abundant ferns. In winter a lively creek cascades through the ravine. When the trail splits and becomes the Fern Loop, go either way.
The trail ends at a paved road. Turn left and head back toward Orchard Glen (if you have the time and energy for a side trip, take the Toyon Trail over to Boronda Lake. On the lake are a couple of canoes are tied up by a dock, and apparently anyone can paddle around the little pond).
Cut through the Orchard Glen picnic area again (I like to stop for lunch at this point) and take the Chamise Trail, which climbs through woods, then through sunny chaparral. Stay left to climb up to Vista Hill. Cross the paved road and climb up to the parking area. To your left is a little trail that circles around the hilltop. Mounted in wooden posts around the hilltop are little metal tubes that you look through, each labeled with the name of a Bay Area landmark that the tube points at. It's an interesting and well done exhibit, except over the years the wooden posts have warped so that some tubes aren't that accurate anymore, and trees have blocked a few.
Descend the Panorama Trail into pleasant woodlands and turn left on the Coyote Trail, which leads back to the gate by which you entered the park.
Instead of taking the dirt road all the way back, turn left on the Acorn Trail which, besides offering some variety, is a lot more scenic than the dirt road. The trail first climbs through woods but soon breaks out onto the rolling grassy hills of Arastradero Park.
Turn onto the Meadowlark Trail and descend through the golden grasslands.
© 2010, 2012, 2017 David Baselt