Full Review: Almaden Quicksilver Park Trip

This review covers a four-mile, moderately hilly and mostly exposed to the sun hike with ten BAO’ers on October 17, 2012. The plan was to take a leisurely walk to English camp (2.5 hours), stop to eat lunch and return by 1 PM.  We met at the parking lot by the Woods Road trailhead, at the intersection of Woods Road and Hicks Road at 9 AM.  There are no restrooms at this entrance or along the way, but there is an outhouse across the street from the parking lot by the intersection of Mt Umunhum Rd and Woods road which is part of the Sierra Azul Open Space. If you are coming from 85 and Camden Road, you will be on Hicks Road for about six (seemingly long because they are windy) miles. About halfway, you will see the Guadalupe reservoir on your left.  There is a stop sign at the intersection of Hicks Rd and Woods Rd and a sign on your left that says Woods Rd entrance to Almaden Park.  Make a left and proceed uphill to the parking lot.



                  Group photo 



            Parking lot meeting


Our hike was led by Heidi McFarland, an experienced and knowledgeable Santa Clara County Park Interpreter, who educated us about mining, the local history and culture from the oldest and most productive quicksilver (mercury) mine in the U.S. Mercury in nature exists as a compound bound to sulfur in a 1:1 ratio forming a rock called "cinnabar."  The Ohlone Indians originally found cinnabar in the area and used it for face paint because of its red color.  In 1820, a Mexican settler named Antonio Sunol discovered the ore deposits and Mexican Army officer Andreas Castillero identified them as mercury in 1845.  Soon after, the mining operations began. This was perfect timing to supply the California Gold Rush (1849) with the mercury it needed to extract gold and silver.  The mine was named after the famous Almaden mercury-producing mines in New Almaden, Spain.  The mine ran intermittently after 1927 and eventually closed. It was purchased by Santa Clara County in 1976 and is now part of Almaden Quicksilver County Park. 


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               On the wood trail                          Sanstone quarry view


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     Heidi’s photos from the 1800s       Learning about mercury clean up


The park covers a total of 4,152 acres with over 34 miles of hiking trails and still has remnants of mining structures used during the mining years. The hills in the park are honeycombed with tunnels that run for thousands of feet.  We started on the wide, multi-use Wood Rd Trail uphill to Mine Hill Rotary Furnace.  We saw some mountain bikers on the way up.  The beginning of the trail is shady and cool.  Woods Rd was used to haul wood (redwood) from the Sierra Azuls to the mines of New Almaden.   Redwood was used to brace the mines and for creating heat for the rotary furnace. 


Mt. Loma Prieta and the Sierra Azul Range is visible to the southwest of the trail.    Look out for poison oak along the trail.  There is a clear view of Mt Umunhum (meaning: hummingbird) to the right. It is home to a cement radar tower that was used during the cold war.  Families lived there, so kids were bused down the mountain to school.


Heidi brought with her some photos from the 1800s so we could see what the landscape and buildings looked like back then.  On the right, we passed some wooden posts, beyond which is a sandstone quarry.   



        Remnants of blasted rock


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                                            Woods trail


At top of hill, you can see Almaden Reservoir, an artificial lake formed by Almaden Dam, built in 1936 across Los Alamitos Creek.  The creek reaches the San Francisco Bay by way of the Guadalupe River.  Toxic waste from mercury production seeped into Los Alamitos Creek and reservoir, so it is not safe to eat any fish caught here.


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              View of the furnace                             Mine hill signage


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                                   Inside the gates at the furnace



                 Rotary furnace


When we reached the rotary furnace at the top of the hill, we learned about how mercury is extracted from cinnabar.  Heidi unlocked the gate and let us view the furnace.  The rotary furnace was the most modern and most efficient method of mercury extraction used in the area at that time. It was invented in 1939 by engineer H.W. Gould.  Cinnabar was crushed and fed into a huge rotating pipe. The pipe was heated to 1,700 degrees. As the pipe rotated, the ore was tumbled and turned, exposing all sides of the rocks to heat. The heat produced mercury and sulfur vapors. The sulfur gas was vented into the air forming sulfur dioxide. The mercury vapor was condensed in a series of towers. Then, the liquid mercury collected in troughs at the bottom. The furnace remained operating until 1976, when the area became a county park. 


For many years, the section of the park south of Mine Hill was off-limits due to hazardous structures and mercury contamination.  Before the area was opened as a county park, they excavated the contamination.  Across from the furnace is a house on the hill where the supervisor of rotary furnace used to live.



             Viewing old photos



                                      Heading down Yellow Kid Trail



           View down deep gulch


From the furnace, we traveled along the Mine Trail to the narrower Yellow Kid Trail that is for hikers only.  At the intersection of Mine Trail and Yellow Kid Trail are hard to see remnants of Spanish camp.  This settlement of Spanish, Mexican, and Chilean miners and their families grew up around the site in the 1850's. We traveled the Yellow Kid Trail down to English Camp. Along the way we saw the Main Tunnel which is now covered with foliage but you can spot it by the nearby serpentine, our greenish blue state rock.  The Main Tunnel was the site of the first mining activity in New Almaden and the primary entrance to the New Almaden Mine.  The Yellow Kid Tunnel Trail winds around a hill surrounded by high vegetation, including broom plants.  


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                                    Main tunnel and serpentine


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     Yellow Kid history signage                 Historic photo viewing


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             Garage and barn                         English camp school history



           Hill up to school ruins


As you come down the hill to English camp, you see the garage and barn below that are nearby the picnic tables.  We took the short hike up to the English Camp schoolhouse ruins.  There is signage explaining its history.


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                                                  Picnic lunch


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                       Rest stop                       On our way back to the parking lot


We stopped for lunch and to socialize with our fellow hikers at about 11:30 AM.  There are a few picnic tables, one under a tree and the other two are in part shade and sun.  At the end of lunch, Heidi showed us more old photos of the area.  Heading back, we took the Castillero Trail back up to Wood Rd Trail and back to parking lot.  The Castillero Trail goes around Mine Hill with views of Jacques Ridge and the Sierra Azuls. At the intersection of Castillero Trail and Woods Rd, we took a short stop in the shade at the picnic table since we were walking at the peak heat of the sun.  The rest of the way back was on Woods Rd, the same trail we used on our way to the furnace.


A special thank you to J.T. for the wide angle photo of the group going down Yellow Kid Trail.