Tuesday, February 15, 2011

Quicksilver "Cemetary Loop" at Almaden Quicksilver County Park

This blog refers to trails and sites found on The Almaden Quicksilver County Park PDF Map.

As my first post for Stones and Bones, I'll share with you my favorite hike.  Why is it my favorite?  It's a sure bet, enjoyable hike that I always go on with friends.  Some other time I will provide a post about Almaden Quicksilver County Park (I'll call it "Quicksilver" from here on out, as a lot of south bay locals refer to it).

Hacienda Entrance - the Rattleshake on a foggy January morning
After having hiked and explored Quicksilver countless times since I was a kid, I've developed this loop, which I'll call the "Cemetery Loop" after the Hidalgo Cemetery which this loop crosses through.  The Cemetery Loop is about 3.5 miles round trip - and if hiked straight through should take about 2 hours at a light pace. You can start and end at the same entrance, the Hacienda Entrance.

Start: Start at the Hacienda Entrance to Almaden Quicksilver.  This is probably the most popular and commonly known entrance to Quicksilver.  Reach it by taking Almaden Road from Almaden Expressway.  At about 3 miles, after passing through old New Almaden, you will see a dirt parking lot.  Across Almaden Road is a memorial to Pat Tillman, and also a historical market laying "claim" to the first mining in California.  As much history as there is here, I will save that for another more in depth post on Quicksilver.  At the back of the dirt parking lot is a information board, and a gate over a dirt road that goes up the side of the mountain (Capitancillos Ridge).  Make sure to grab one of the free maps at the information board.  Take the dirt road gate, which is "Mine Hill Trail". 
View of Almaden Reservoir, looking South from Quicksilver

Start to English Camp:  Continue on Mine Hill Trail, making a left at the first junction onto English Camp Trail, staying on this until you reach English Camp.  The trail itself, a dirt road, passes through nice views of New Almaden, Almaden Reservoir, and up to Loma Prieta (Above the site of the 1989 Earthquake).  It's a decent little climb of about 600 feet in just over a mile, and on a sunny afternoon you can get cooking pretty well surprisingly.  Reward?  At the end is English Camp, site of one of the original mining towns.
View of the clearing at English Camp

English Camp: Great place for lunch or a break.  English Camp is located in a gap in Capitancilanos Ridge.  You will notice several non-indigenous trees and plants originating from the 1800s inhabitants that worked the nearby mines.  Several structures remain - a large barn/shop likely built in the early 1900s, a few of the original shacks here and there, a stone chimney (follow Church Hill trail East - it's short), and also the partially restored "Chart House" I believe it's called, which used to house maps.  Theres picnic tables, a memorial to the Civilian Conservation Corps, a horse trough, and some decent views both North towards San Jose and South towards Almaden Reservoir. 

Yellow Kid and Castillero Trails: Take either of these West.  Yellow Kid Trail (named after an old comic book character that was painted yellow) is more of a real trail, being only single track and more windy. Yellow Kid will pass you along one of the most heavily mined areas.  As you hike it, observe the mine tailings and rugged terrain remaining from the former mines. (Mine tailings, which you will see plenty of in Quicksilver, are the rocks and dirt remains that came out of a mine as it was being dug, sort of like an ant hill.  Even after the mine is sealed, tailings usually remain.). 

Rotary Furnace and Spanish Town: Not much remains of Spanish Town unfortunately, but one of the largest structures in the park - the Rotary Furnace - is there.  This furnace in particular was built a bit later, but is opened up and allows you to see how cinnabar (The orange rock that contains mercury) was broken apart and smelted down to remove the mercury.  Also nearby, a large section of earth to the north that is slightly terraced and clearly man made - this is where probably the largest mine in the park was located at the bottom of Mine Hill.  It is still being worked on to contain the mercury waste.  Here is where one of my favorite parts of the parks is - If you are standing in front of the Rotary Furnace and turn around to point at Mt. Umunhun (The highest mountain in the Sierra Azul range, with the large rectangular building on it), you will see an Oak tree not far away at the edge of a trail heading out, right above a long, treeless slope.  This tree was the "Hanging Tree", which was used on multiple occasions in the 1800s to hang criminals.  Criminals would be noosed to the tree while sitting on a horse, and then the horse would be prodded away quickly so the criminal would fall.  As Oaks live a very long time, it's no surprise that this one still stands!  Around the rotary furnace you will also find a picnic bench, some eucalyptus trees and a gas pump (seems random).  Take the Hidalgo Cemetery Trail!

Old Cypress Trees (I'm next to the third one)
Hildalgo Cemetery Trail: This trail, which heads South, passes through what was once "Spanish Town" - where Mexican and Spanish workers lived and worked (The camps were very segregated - there was also a Cornish Camp and a Chinese Camp I believe.)  Very little evidence remains of this, but along the trail before reaching Hidalgo Cemetery (the cemetery that the Mexicans and Spanish used) you will pass a few large cactus plans.  These plants are one of the signs of the former inhabitants.  The cactus are not indigenous to North California, and were actually brought from Mexico and planted during the 1800s, and still survive today.

Soon you will come to Hidalgo Cemetery.  What remains is the white fence around the cemetery, depressions where remains once were and a row of beautiful old cypress trees (uncommon to see cypress older than a few decades in this area - they're much more beautiful when they have been growing for so long).  This is also a nice spot for a break, with great views West towards Mt. Umunhun, and also at the end the cemetery looking south over Almaden Reservoir. 

From here, take the trail at the back called "Donotenternotatrail".

Chimney looking East.
The Chimney: Donotenternotatrail can be very steep, so use a lot of caution.  From Hidalgo Cemetery, it heads almost directly East, and straight down towards the Chimney.  The chimney was used as part of the smelting process to extract Mercury from Cinnabar.  This chimney is very old and clearly not safe to climb on, so I recommend nothing more than viewing it!  It's pretty impressive that it has stood for so long.  From here you are almost done with Cemetery Loop.  When looking at the chimney from the trail that you came to it on, the trail continues to the left and down into the gulch ahead.  Follow this.  By this point, if it's later in the day, it can be dark since you are East facing and under a lot of trees so be careful.  Not long and you reach a dirt road, which is Deep Gulch Trail.  Deep Gulch Trail parallels English Camp Trail back to the Hacienda Entrance.  Take this out and it will bring you right into the overfill parking lot at the Hacienda Entrance to Quicksilver.

Conclusion and Notes: If you are fast, you can complete this loop in about under 2 hours.  Unfortunately, I didn't design the loop to be a race.  It's intent is to give the hiker a taste of everything that Quicksilver has to offer.  This includes history, views, some brief climbs and drops, different hiking terrain and plant life.  I recommend planning 3 hours so that you can take your time and enjoy some of the spots (English Camp, Rotary Furnace, Hidalgo Cemetery and The Chimney).