From across the Bay Area, nature lovers are attracted to Rancho San Antonio Open Space Preserve for all manner of reasons, including the views, the wildlife and the idyllic atmosphere of Deer Hollow Farm.
But the stewards for Midpeninsula Regional Open Space District lands, like those for many local outdoor spaces, are struggling to keep up with the preserve’s ever-increasing popularity and its spillover effects on parking, including within nearby Los Altos Hills neighborhoods.
“Rancho San Antonio County Park and Open Space Preserve has been seeing very high levels of visitation during COVID, along with many of our other preserves,” said Cydney Bieber, Midpen public affairs specialist. “And parking has always been at a premium there, but you’ll have cars that are circulating and looking for a spot.”
Even before the COVID-19 pandemic started, Rancho amassed nearly 700,000 visitors each year, making it Midpen’s most in-demand preserve by far. To address the infrastructure strain, the district recently hired a consultant to complete a “multimodal access strategies report” for identifying alternatives to driving to and parking at the preserve. Members of the Midpen Board of Directors April 28 will review 27 potential strategies outlined in a draft report, including shuttle services, which ranked within a “tier 1” category (potentially most effective if implemented), and congestion-initiated parking fees, which ranked within a “tier 4” category (potentially as effective or less effective than doing nothing at all).
Rancho’s main entrance and its five adjacent parking lots are located in Cupertino, at 22500 Cristo Rey Drive, but much of the 3,988-acre preserve borders Los Altos Hills. When all 327 official parking spaces within the lots become full, some determined visitors leave their vehicles near Los Altos Hills trailheads.
One of the most impacted areas is the Mora Drive neighborhood. “No Parking” signs are posted on that road, but some drivers ignore them and others elect to park on arteries such as Rolly Road, Kenbar Road and West Loyola Drive, where signage is spotty.
“It’s like squeezing a balloon where it has taken some of the traffic over to West Loyola and the other streets thereabouts,” said Hills resident Hal Feeney.
Feeney has lived on Mora Drive for 45 years and has observed parking problems persist on and near his street for some time. Just as pandemic distancing protocols have unintentionally widened Rancho’s trails, they’ve contributed to traffic hazards in the neighborhood.
“There’s a walkway on the side of Mora Drive, but people, to maintain appropriate physical distancing, are walking on both sides of the street, up and down,” he said. “And so people on both sides of the street plus cars is a very definite safety issue.”
Weekends, naturally, are the busiest times at the preserve. Hills resident Bridget Morgan lives and often walks in the area. She said she’s counted as many as 40 vehicles parked on the shoulders of roads near Mora Drive and notes that some online trail reviewers even recommend the dead-end of Mora as a “back door” entrance to Rancho.
“I don’t want to see my neighborhood become an adjunct parking lot,” Morgan said, adding, however, that Midpen seems to be a “cooperative partner” committed to working with Hills staff and residents to mitigate negative impacts.
Los Altos Hills planning and building director Zach Dahl has been overseeing the town’s monitoring of the parking situation. He described it as a “moving target” but mentioned the town is contemplating installing more “No Parking” signs on some streets.
“It’s a little bit challenging because that area is a mix of unincorporated county area, which we don’t have authority over, and Los Altos Hills areas, which we do,” Dahl said. “So not all of the streets where the parking occurs we have authority to regulate it.”
Dahl briefed city council members at their February meeting, mentioning residents have complained about illegal parking in the area. A report from Yoriko Kishimoto, a Midpen Board of Directors member who represents Los Altos, Los Altos Hills and nearby cities, followed at the council’s March meeting.
The transportation management strategies outlined in the draft multimodal report include some applicable to Los Altos Hills residents, Kishimoto hinted.
“Since almost a quarter of our visitors live within easy walking or biking distance,” she told the council, “we hope to make it as easy as possible for our close-in visitors to walk and bike if they can and leave the parking spaces as much available as much as possible for people who have no choice but to drive in from places like East Palo Alto.”
On a recent Sunday, Morgan counted 22 vehicles parked on nearby side streets without “No Parking” signs. She said she asked one woman, parked on Kenbar Road, why she chose that spot over one within an official Rancho parking lot. Are the lots exhausted?
No, the woman replied. She doesn’t like the Cristo Rey lots because she has to hike farther to take in the vista view of the Bay Area, the one that’s readily available near the Mora Drive trailhead.
“If that’s a motivator, there’s nothing Midpen can do in the Cristo Rey parking area that’s going to address that problem,” Morgan said.
The Midpen Board of Directors meeting is scheduled 7 p.m. April 28. When posted, the meeting agenda and information about participating will be available at openspace.org/about-us/board-meetings.
Midpen reps recommend visitors to their preserves consult their “Know-Before-You-Go” guide before venturing out. Visit openspace.org/hikes/trail-less-traveled-tips.