For years, the inscrutable gray monolith had loomed over us from the summit of the forbidden mountain. Now the curse has been lifted, the prohibition ended – how could we not hurry to visit the newly opened summit of Mount Umunhum?
When I moved to the Peninsula, Mount Umunhum was an off-limits Air Force base, directing the surveillance of the wasp-tailed submarine chasers flying out of Moffett Field. With the end of the Cold War, the Midpeninsula Regional Open Space District purchased the summit and its surroundings, but it was still off-limits, poisoned by toxic waste left from its radar and other installations. The Loma Prieta earthquake in 1989 damaged the radar tower, making the location still more hazardous.
Then a controversy prompted action. In 2009, Midpen obtained federal funding to clean up the site, and one of its first ideas was to tear down the remains of the radar tower and restore the site to its pristine pre-Cold War state. Santa Clara Valley residents erupted with letters and meetings – the tower was ugly and dilapidated, but it was an icon nonetheless, part of the valley’s landscape and history for 60 years, and we didn’t want it to disappear without ever having had the chance to visit it.
Midpen back-pedaled, but residents were now energized. We passed a bond measure that enabled the site to become a destination, with paved access roads, parking, restrooms and all of the other amenities expected of a public park. And last month, the gates were opened.
Exalted personages were there on the first day to cut ribbons and make speeches. But on a weekday of the following week, we made the trip, feeling like pioneers as we drove up and down Hicks Road into an area of San Jose we had never visited before. Finally we reached a stop sign, and on the right, the gate to the newly opened park, now christened Sierra Azul Preserve.
The wiggly black arrows on the yellow signs are not to be ignored; this is a seriously winding and steep road, requiring downshifting to second gear both coming and going. But as we ascended, our conversation went roughly like this, as views of the valley, mountains and ocean began to come in sight:
Me: “Oh, wow!
Him, driving: “I can’t look!”
At the top, the view expands from a misty Mount Tamalpais to the north well past Morgan Hill to the south, from Mount Diablo and Mount Hamilton to the east to the gleaming ocean west of Santa Cruz. Far below are the toy skyscrapers of downtown San Jose, the parquet of rooftops carpeting the suburbs, the tiny white pyramids of Shoreline Amphitheatre, the blue Lexington and Almaden reservoirs, and miles and miles of woodland and pasture and empty air. Everything human-made looks extremely small and insignificant.
Everything, that is, except the tower, looming now right next to us, still inscrutable, and still closed to public access.
Some pointers if you go (and I hope you do):
• It takes approximately an hour from Los Altos to reach the summit parking lot.
• Dress in layers; at the summit, it was 15 degrees cooler than in the valley.
• The road is good but narrow, turnouts rare, guard rails incomplete and lots of blind curves. Take it slow.
• Watch out for bicyclists coming and going. This new mountain road is a biker magnet, and the shoulders are narrow to nonexistent.
• Parking at the very top is reserved for disabled patrons. There is a circle to drop people off, but unless you have a blue tag, you park below the summit at the restrooms (pit toilets).
• There are 159 steps, with railings on both sides, to the summit, punctuated by frequent landings with benches where you can sit, admire the view and catch your breath.
• There are two picnic tables under a shelter just below the parking lot. Bring water.