Seeing as mercury is one of the most toxic naturally occurring elements you can come in contact with, traipsing through old Mercury mines is probably not something one would immediately think of doing for health. But the site of some of the largest Mercury mines in the Americas just happens now to be one of San Jose’s larger parks, Almaden Quicksilver County Park. I was promised spectacular views and wildflowers. Various guidebooks assured me that extensive testing had determined the park was safe to the average hiker — that is as long as you don’t eat any fish you catch in park streams. Or lick the rocks, presumably. So when my hiking group scheduled a Monday afternoon six and a half miler at the park, I said “I’ll be there with wings on my sandals!”
There seem to be three main entrances to the park and at least two minor ones. We chose the Hicks Road/Wood Road entrance, which has the advantage of being at one of the higher points of the park, so you can enjoy spectacular views without too much of a climb. It also offers views of Mount Umunhum, one of the four largest peaks in the Santa Cruz Mountains. Mount Um was beloved by the Native Ohlones as “The Resting Place of the Hummingbird” and marred by the U.S. Air Force with a five story concrete radar tower smack on the top. I’m told that obsolete structure is slated for removal soon, which should improve the view immensely. But we were there for the history that happened between the Ohlone and the Cold War — mainly the mining operations that started up with the Gold Rush. Mercury is used in the process of extracting gold from ore and some 37,388 metric tons were pulled out of these mines. But before that, the De Anza Exploration marched through on its way from Mexico to eventually founding the Presidio of San Francisco. So, history galore here.
There was also terrain for all tastes.
Not that we were avoiding the mines. Our fearless leader, Todd, had specifically organized the hike to take us by some of the abandoned mine shafts and buildings. Apparently in the day, Almaden mines were rigorously segregated. There were Hispanic camps, Chinese camps and, where we hiked, a large population of Cornish miners who formed English Camp. This wasn’t exactly the Mark Twain wild unwashed bachelor mining camp experience. Over a thousand men, women and children lived here. There was housing, a school and a church. That would put a damper on the usual miner hijinks.
Frankly, I was less worried by the mercury and cinnabar than I was by the notices that Hantavirus has been discovered in some of the old mine buildings. Clearly Nature is not always restorative.
Now about those views. Depending on which way you wind around the ridge. You either see a view not unlike what De Anza would have seen:
Like I said, a little something for everyone. Including the frisson of danger from mercury and mice.
The Trails: Loop hike to Rotary Furnace, English Camp, Great Eastern Trail, April Tunnel Trail and Powder House, San Cristobal Mine and Catherine Tunnel.
Best: Varied trails from open to shady, a good number of wildflowers even after this dry winter
Worst: Fear of mercury poisoning and Hantavirus
Facilities: Pit toilet at the Sierra Azul parking lot across from Hicks Road entrance. Otherwise there are “bush opportunities”. I did notice water troughs for horses, though.
Why I’ll Go Back: Lots of history and great views from this end of the park.