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Arts + CultureCulturePHOTOS: Palo Alto's 1400-acre Foothills Park at last opens...

PHOTOS: Palo Alto’s 1400-acre Foothills Park at last opens for all

After half a century, a beautiful public space joins the options for Bay Area fitness and fresh air.

Editor’s Note: Recent Shelter in Place guidelines discourage non-essential travel within Bay Area counties and strongly recommend a 10-day quarantine if you are traveling to the Bay Area from other places. Exercise and fresh air are also recommended, however. The latest guidelines have been extended indefinitely. We wanted to show the beauty of the newly available Foothills Park, and remind readers near Palo Alto that they can utilize the facility. Once the guidelines have been relaxed, we definitely plan to head down!

The pandemic that has consumed nearly the entire year has shrunk the average Bay Arean’s world—museums, venues, bars, and restaurants all closed. Parks are among the few public institutions that remain open, however, and citizens have gratefully flocked to them. There’s no shortage of open spaces in which to healthily socially distance ourselves. And in December, that limitless supply grew by one, with the opening of the 1400-acre Foothills Park.

Actually, Foothills Park in Palo Alto has been here all along. The city bought the land from a wealthy resident in 1959, with the park officially debuting in 1965. The reason the park has remained obscure is that from 1969 until last week, the expansive nature preserve was restricted to just Palo Alto residents and guests. In a city with a history of discriminatory exclusion, many saw that policy as being essentially racist. After decades of controversy, it was a summer of civil rights protests and the threat of an ACLU lawsuit that finally brought the law down

Now everyone can enjoy its beauty, which I documented over the weekend.

The park is not easy to find. It’s away from the highway, tucked into the slopes of the Santa Cruz Mountains, the range that runs down the Peninsula. The single entrance lies at a bend in the winding Page Mill Road, intermittently lined by sheltered residences and trees. The first day of the new opening, on a December Thursday with no particular significance, came with no fanfare, although the scout at the gate did seem excited at the prospect of out-of-towners.

The early morning gray and drizzle eventually faded but the bitter cold did not. On Saturday, the weather had much improved and word seemed to have gotten out, as groups from across the Peninsula were scattered around the park – families picnicking by the lake or playing football near the currently closed interpretive center. 

At its size, Foothills Park can’t be easily done in a day. It can be divided roughly into three sections. From the entrance, the first thing one notices is the artificial Boronda Lake. A paved road and many footpaths cut through the mixed oak forest and chaparral that typifies the flora of the park. The road terminates at the twin Las Trampas and Wildhorse Valleys, where a vast lawn and a series of picnic areas lie at the foot of a steep, verdant mountain.

The Los Trancos Trail makes a 7.7-mile loop around and up the mountain, which makes up a majority of the park. The path mostly cuts through a cool, dense forest, feeling almost otherworldly at times. It’s a punishing journey that is a separate trip by itself. Most of the other paths in the park–Toyon, Chamise, Steep Hollow–are relatively easy to traverse.

It’s a great place for lovers of wildlife – birds abound, and there’s a very good chance of sighting a herd of deer (the writer saw six in two days). Foothills Park is simultaneously cozy and expansive–the inaccessibility of most of it creates a neat ring of interconnected areas, and yet even these feel massive and at times exhausting. It’s both a highly social place, and one where you could disappear into the trees and not see another soul for hours. 

San Francisco health guidelines officially endorse the outdoors and exercise, and allow for activities with your household. While the city itself has no shortage of options, sometimes you just need to change it up. (The one bummer is the lack of public transportation options, but maybe that will come with demand.) In a year where we simply haven’t been able to do much, Foothills Park opening in such a dark winter is a welcome escape. 

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