Windy Hill OSP to Horseshoe Lake Loop
August 8, 2018
Distance: 21.5 miles Time: 7.36 hours Pace: 2.92 mph Elevation Gain: 3540 feet
Parking at the easily accessible parking lot on Skyline Boulevard, I began my hike with the quick jaunt up to Windy Hill summit (1905 ft.), which is the only non-forested section of the Peninsula range. From the top there were spectacular views of the Peninsula and South Bay in all directions and a group of 11 hawks took turns swooping low over the golden topped hillside, apparently searching out rodents though I never saw any of them touch the ground. From the summit the Anniversary Trail runs southeast for about a mile before a short road-walk on Skyline Blvd past Fogarty Winery and to the Ridge Trail.
The countless trails running adjacent to Skyline Blvd are famous for their dense forests and spectacular giant Redwoods, but it was refreshing hiking the backbone of Russian Ridge, which is naked for miles with lush golden grasses carpeting both slopes. This area is exposed for long stretches, but luckily the frequent cool breeze kept me going strong through the 90-degree heat.
Making the climb and hiking past Borel Hill (2572 ft.) gave more spectacular views of the Bay, but for the first time hiking the Skyline trail system all signs of civilization were beyond view. I have always been of the opinion that the Bay Area is facing an overpopulation problem, and although that may be the case I was struck by just how much open space remains here. Other than the three secluded mansions that I passed through this stretch, there were no neighborhoods or towns visible from the ridge line and hiking soon felt like navigating new, untouched lands.
Set atop Russian Ridge and perfectly shaded by a small grove of trees was a beautifully constructed observation deck, which was built as an Eagle Scout project according to the placard. I took a short break here and enjoyed the solitude of the surrounding golden hills and lush valleys.
One of my new favorite views of all time is the Gene Sheehan Overlook, a spectacular rock outcropping that overlooks the Portola Redwoods State Park nestled in the deep valley. This spot is located on the Ipwa trail, and after a little digging on Google I learned that this particular rock outcropping was originally named Rattlesnake point because of its popular use by reptilian sun-bathers. Gene Sheehan was the District Trail Builder responsible for some of the most popular trail systems in the Bay Area, and continued to mentor staff in "the art of trail building" after his retirement. After his death in 2012 his favorite spot in the entire Bay Area was renamed in his honor and outfitted with a plaque of dedication.
I was also pleasantly surprised by the abundance of educational opportunities on what I thought was a very remote trail. The David C. Daniels Nature Center features a boardwalk encircling Alpine Pond, a large visitors center, many side-trails, and self guided nature tours. Unfortunately the nature center is only open on Saturdays and Sundays.
I reached the midway point of my hike at Horseshoe Lake. Before reaching the lake itself I had to walk through a massive parking lot that was ominously empty for its size. Not a single vehicle or person to be found, and I soon found out why. The moment the lake came into view I saw the black swarm of flies rise up and congregate. I hadn't taken three steps before I was brutally attacked, hands smacking at my ears and nostrils threatening to inhale hundreds with each breath. I circled the entirety of the lake in about three minutes, maintaining something between a jog and a sprint before I made the climb back out of the valley and toward more friendly wildlife.
Somewhere along the path one tree in particular caught my eye, and on further investigation it ended up being the secret hiding place of a GeoCache. I don't know much about these, but from what I've heard it's basically a treasure hunting system that makes people hike and climb and swim to secret and well-hidden locations. I marked myself down as one of the victors and began the hike home, back along Russian Ridge.