We’re lucky to have so many hiking options in and around San José. As a lifelong resident of the South Bay, growing up near so many parks and preserves has planted in me a deep love for nature and an appreciation for this place that is my home. These days, I’m excited to share that passion with my daughter and watch her explore the open spaces that inspire me everyday.
Video footage of Alum Rock Park, courtesy of DeerLakor
Fortunately, living in even the middle of San José doesn’t mean we can’t connect to nature on a daily basis and take advantage of all the mental and physical health benefits of being outdoors. Whether you’re new to the area or a lifelong resident, you may not know that San José is actually full of great parks and open spaces!
It was tough to narrow down my list of best hikes in San José — leaving out some locations feels like betraying old friends — but here are my top five I’d like to share with you. And because I couldn’t resist, I’ve also included two bonus options that are outside of city limits, but completely worth the slightly longer drive!
I think many would call Alum Rock Park the Gem of the East Side and a must visit for San José residents. It’s also one of California’s oldest municipal parks! The park sits in a valley in the Diablo Range foothills (on the east side of San José) and connects with the Sierra Vista Open Space Preserve via the Todd Quick trail. It’s a great place to go for an easy family walk in shadier areas along the creek or a more strenuous, exposed hike with gorgeous views of the South Bay.
P.S. If you’re willing to take a bit longer of a drive and continue to build your relationship with the hills above East Side, I’d recommend you check out Joseph D. Grant Ranch County Park for a day hike or even a camping trip. You have a great chance of seeing a whole lot of wildlife out there.
Hellyer County Park just has it all! The multi-use paved path is great for bikes, skateboards, strollers or wheelchairs. For cyclists, runners or long-distance walkers, you can park here and ride your bike south as far as Morgan Hill on the Coyote Creek Trail. Coyote Creek meanders through the center of the park making it great for birdwatching. Aside from the paved path, there is an easy nature trail that provides a nice opportunity to see local wildlife.
Hellyer has a long list of available activities including disc golf, horseshoes, volleyball and even an Olympic sized bicycle racing track! There’s also a huge playground making it a great option for families. I do think it’s one of our area’s more under-appreciated parks, and very much worth a visit.
You may not really think of Kelly Park as a “hike” location, but it’s one of my favorite spots to get out for quick dose of nature when I have limited time, and I thought it was worth including it here. Kelley Park, located in the central part of San José, might just be the best option if you have little ones in need of some outside time. Within the park there is the Happy Hollow Zoo, which is an institution for generations of San José families. And if your kids are anything like my daughter, they’ll enjoy visiting the koi pond in the Japanese Friendship Garden.
For an experience that feels more like a hike and brings you closer to nature, my pro tip is that there is a disc-golf course located along Coyote Creek at the back of the park, and the dirt path surrounding the course is a great walk that feels somewhat rural without needing to leave the city center. Coyote Creek flows through the park, and here I’ve seen all sorts of animals including skunks, racoons, possums and a good variety of birds. Consider taking a walk around the park compound, and maybe picnic on the grass or in the amphitheater. You might feel farther away from the city than you expect!
If you drive south from San José on Highway 101 or 85, the houses and developments will soon taper off and you’ll find yourself in Coyote Valley, the last undeveloped stretch of the Santa Clara Valley floor that is recognized as a critical location for the future of all our region’s biodiversity. Generations of citizens have worked hard to make sure this area would be preserved for the sake of wildlife and our watersheds as well for recreation, and in recent years we’ve made great progress towards that goal. One of the best places to go where you can enjoy this area, connect with nature and reflect on the layers of history in our region is Coyote Valley Open Space Preserve.
Managed by the Santa Clara Valley Open Space Authority, Coyote Valley OSP offers an excellent, 3.9-mile hike along the Arrowhead Loop Trail. This hike is manageable for a whole range of people, including many kids, though be prepared for a bit of climbing with 629 feet of elevation gain. This park can become extremely busy during weekend mornings and afternoons, so you might consider showing up later in the day when visitation is a bit lighter. During the summer months with longer days, this a perfect hike to get in before sunset when the valley is cooling down. Just make sure to be off the trail well before sunset to help our friendly neighborhood park rangers close up shop on time!
Once a mining hub that was home to over 1,800 miners and their families, Almaden Quicksilver is another must-visit park. Located in South San José in the town of New Almaden, this park offers stunning views of downtown San José to the north and Guadalupe Reservoir to the west. During the spring, wildflowers dot the green hillside and the well-groomed paths make it an accessible option for many skill levels. You can also see some of the abandoned mines and get a feel for the rich history of the area.
Speaking of history, whenever you are hiking, consider reserving some space in your mind to reflect on the original inhabitants of this place. I’m talking about the native people who have lived here since time immemorial, and whose descendants are still here with us in San José today. While these thoughts are with me wherever I go in the South Bay, Almaden Quicksilver is one of the places that is easy to reflect on this indigenous history. Long before the site became the location of a quicksilver mine, native South Bay people came here to gather cinnabar, which was used as a pigment and traded as far as the border of Canada! This little piece of history reminds me of how incredibly complex and sophisticated society was here pre-colonization, and there are many stories like it for every area of San José. Personally, as I listen to the stories of native people and educate myself about this history, I gain new levels of appreciation for the landscapes and ecosystems that I am passing through.
We have so many beautiful open spaces in San José that offer us all much-needed time in nature. But if you have a little more time and can drive a little further outside of city limits, these two bonus hikes are really worth the experience!
Nestled in the foothills of the Santa Cruz Mountains and not far from Almaden Quicksilver is Calero County Park. The park is situated around Calero Reservoir, making it a great location for water-based activities like boating and fishing, as well as bird watching with great populations of raptors in this area. During the spring, Calero is one of the top locations in the area to see wildflowers and to take in views of the Sierra Azul range as well as Coyote Valley. The Rancho San Vicente entrance will take you through the newest section of Calero County Park, which POST protected back in 2009.
Although it might be a 30 to 45-minute drive from San José, Henry W. Coe State Park is absolutely worth the trip, assuming you have the better part of the day. It’s the largest state park in northern California and provides a fully immersive experience in nature that you won’t get at a municipal park. You can also camp at the Coe Ranch campground, as well as mountain bike or backpack all across the park. It’s especially beautiful in the spring when wildflowers bloom and Henry Coe’s oak savannas, woodlands and chaparral habitats comes to life. However, like with all the other parks in the South Bay, you will come to appreciate the beauty and cycles of each season the more time you spend in them.
I hope I’ve given you some ideas of new places to explore in the South Bay! As someone who grew up in the area and loves to spend time outdoors, it’s been fun taking a virtual trek around the area and it’s a great reminder of why I love San José as much as I do.
Peninsula Open Space Trust (POST) protects open space on the Peninsula and in the South Bay for the benefit of all. Since its founding in 1977, POST has been responsible for saving more than 87,000 acres as permanently protected land in San Mateo, Santa Clara and Santa Cruz counties. Learn more