The Old Spanish Trail
The Old Spanish Trail winds up Coal Mine Ridge from the intersection of Willowbrook and Alpine roads in Portola Valley. It follows the crest of the ridge and disappears into Los Trancos Woods and private property. If you listen carefully as you walk the trail, you can hear echoes of all of San Mateo County’s past reverberating from the surrounding hillsides.As the trail climbs the ridge, the lower reaches are intermingled with a series of modern day trails, so the echoes are fainter. Still, you’re walking the path where the Ohlones trekked for thousands of years on their way to the rich shellfish grounds on the Pacific coast. So that’s the first image to carry with you as you walk.
The first written record of the trail to survive is an 1823 account of Spanish soldiers pursuing Pomponio, an escaped mission Indian who was on a crime rampage. Historians believe they rode up the Old Spanish Trail to his hideout, somewhere in Devil’s Canyon, a deep, rocky gorge west of Skyline and south of Alpine Road. Pomponio escaped but was captured the next year in Marin Country and executed in Monterey.
In the 1830s one Antonino Buelna refined the old Indian trail to make a road between the two ranchos he acquired from the Mexican governor. One eventually became the heart of the Stanford campus, and the other was near the Pacific coast. He used the road to transport hides and tallow from his coast ranch to ships waiting in the calm waters of San Francisco Bay. Picture the carettas, rough carts with solid wooden wheels, laden with hides and heavy rawhide bags of tallow, being dragged by a team of oxen over the trail to the embarcaderos on the bay. This road is credited as the first to cross the outer coastal range.
Felix Buelna, famed founder of the Alpine Inn in the 1850s, lived for a time near the intersection of Alpine and Page Mill roads. He used the trail to go to and from his home.
Now the scene shifts to the U. S. government that took over California in 1848. Eager to study their newly acquired territory, in 1851 the U. S. Coast and Geodetic Survey used mules to carry equipment up the trail to Black Mountain for a triangulation station. They reported the road wasn’t a good one but “was not infrequently traveled by ox and horse teams.”
Now visualize thirteen year old Birney Burrell traveling with his family over the trail to gather strawberries near Pescadero Creek. He wrote about the 1853 three day outing in his diary.
In 1855 the famous Dr. Tripp of the now handsomely restored Woodside Store sent supplies by mule train over the trail to the new store in Pescadero.
That same year a low-grade coal mine opened on the ridge, hence its modern-day name, Coal Mine Ridge. (A massive landslide in 1890 buried the mine, which never produced high quality coal.)
In 1863 Josiah Whitney’s Geodetic Survey marked it on their official map and reported “only two trails over the mountains, one leading from Pescadero over to the Corte Madera Ranch [Portola Valley] and one between Santa Cruz and the Santa Clara Valley.”
Gradually other roads began twisting up to the Skyline. In about 1867 William Page built a road from his sawmill on the site of today’s Portola Redwoods State Park to Mayfield. About 1870 KIngs Mountain Road began as the Redwood City-San Gregorio turnpike. In the 1870s a stagecoach began to travel Old La Honda Road.
Several times plans have been laid to use the gentle grade of the Old Spanish Trail for a new major road over the mountains. In the 1860s a group of entrepreneurs started to build a turnpike from Menlo Park to Santa Cruz, hence the name of Menlo Park’s main street. The turnpike only reached today’s Los Trancos Road before the idea was dropped, so travelers continued to use the Old Spanish Trail beyond that point.
In the 1890s a move was launched to turn the trail into a road so that traffic could more easily reach Menlo Park. In those days most of the business went to Mayfield via Page Mill Road. Editorials of the time rage about the loss of revenue to San Mateo County’s economy. The upper portion of Alpine Road was built instead over much more precipitous terrain.
Even in the 1960s talk of a road to connect Portola Valley to Skyline via the Old Spanish Trail started. Officials at the county engineering and road department considered it to be without question the best route. The county engineer projected that 8600 cars per day would travel the proposed two lane road by 1990. It didn’t happen.
In the 1960s the subdividers of Vista Verde turned its portion of the trail into a road named Murieta Way. It was designed to tie into Joaquin Road and commemorate the notorious legendary bandito Joaquin Murieta. Wishing to preserve the countless years of history represented by the trail’s name, residents went through the formal procedure of changing the name back to Old Spanish Trail.
Modern developments have obscured the trail beyond Los Trancos Woods or hidden it on private property. But you can walk a long portion of it and ponder the changes that have come to California during the years people have trekked over it. And perhaps you can believe that it will forever remain a quiet trail up the mountain where a hiker can still touch a last remnant of the past.