St. Joseph’s Hill Preserve

Los Gatos, CA 95030, United States

By Ben Loomis – DSC_9441.jpg, CC BY 2.0,

One of the distinctive scenic landscapes of the City of Los Gatos is the 270-acre St. Joseph ‘s Hill Open Space Reserve, which offers a fast escape from the surrounding urban areas of the southern peninsula. Steep trails pass through grassland, chaparral and oak forest, providing an interesting range of habitats. The purchase of St. Joseph ‘s Hill in 1982 was a joint effort between the District and the City of Los Gatos.

A preserve that combines the view of the Santa Clara Valley with the remains of the Jesuit sanctuary and the gun range, St. Joseph ‘s Hill Open Space Preserve is popular with local dog-walkers, runners and cyclists. Los Gatos is nestled just north of the reserve, and from the town of Novitiate Park you can walk to St. Joseph’s. The Lexington Reservoir, a popular fishing location, lies to the south: the reservoir and the southwestern part of St. Joseph’s is governed by Santa Clara County. St. Joseph ‘s western boundary is CA 17, and traffic noise (especially downshifting grade trucks) is a companion on some trails. Directly east (through Lexington County Park) is the vast and rugged Sierra Azul Open Space Preserve of MROSD, dominated by 3,486 feet of Mount Umunhum.

St. Joseph’s is small, but features a few short steep trails and a few loop options. All hikes starting at Lexington Reservoir will climb Jones Trail, but once in MROSD territory, you can choose 3 loops for 3 miles. Whatever trails you pick, make sure to wear comfortable shoes because the trails are rocky.

Start at the Lexington Reservoir parking lot for the featured hike. Cross the Alma Bridge Road and start walking uphill on the Jones Trail, marked by the SJ03 entrance. This old, crumbly once-paved path, open to hikers, cyclists and equestrians, is straight uphill, lined with eucalyptus, broom and sagebrush. The steepest bit is over after 0.15 mile, and the grade tapes off (as well as the pavement) near the MROSD information sign, where you can check your progress on the map. As Jones Trail skirts along a hillside parallel to CA 17, look for cercocarpus, scrub oak, toyon, holly leaf plum, black sage, sticky monkey vine, pitcher sage, and chamise. Puffy-winged seed pods on clematis vines are noticeable in summer.

The curve of the trail gives a lovely view back to the Lexington Reservoir and the forested slopes of the Santa Cruz Mountains. California bays thrive on a bend in the trail, providing a nice shaded stretch, but then Jones Trail returns to the sunny (and hot) chaparral. Two opposing signs mark the transition from land owned by Santa Clara County to MROSD. You will see the silktassel, a shrubby plant with rare catkins and evergreen wavy leaves; it grows abundantly in St. Joseph’s. At 0.5 mile, Jones Trail meets the Novitiate Trail at the signposted junction. Jones Trail continues north to Los Gatos Novitiate Park.

The ascent picks up a little, as the multi-purpose trail climbs along the ugly chain-link fence at the boundary of the preserve. Thick stands of tall manzanita shrubs crowd the trail that snakes uphill and reaches a signposted junction at 0.7 mile. Turn right on the Manzanita Trail.

This well-named trail climbs along the contour of a hillside, initially across California bays, a buckeye or two, and some of the coast’s live oaks. Soon you will reach a landscape dominated by manzanita, with some black sage, silk tassel, toyon, chamise and scrub oak retaining the company of manzanitas. At 1,10 miles, the Serpentine Trail departs to the left. Keep going straight.

The broad path provides a spectacular view of the reservoir, and an unfortunate sight of the ugly quarry to the view north from the hilltop south. This eyesore, which certainly takes away the charm of the Sierra Azul, makes me think of an example of anatomy; the “skin” stripped from the mountain exposes bare rock that resembles a bundle of muscles. Traveling away from CA 17, traffic noise is going down, and your hike is going to get some peace and quiet. You can note serpentine rocks give a greenish color to the sides of the trail. At a distance of 1.4 miles, the Manzanita Trail crosses the Range Trail at a marked junction. The flat, clear spot to the left, backed by a berm, is the old range of handguns. This treeless patch has been invaded by the yellow star thistle. Keep right to continue on the Manzanita Trail.

As the trail begins to wind slowly uphill, the oaks, and then the grasslands overtake the chaparral group. At 1.6 miles, the shortcut trail begins to the left at the undersigned intersection. Hang on the Manzanita Trail to the right.

After a straight stretch, then a sharp curve to the left, Manzanita Trail sweeps up to the top of St. Joseph ‘s Hill. When it’s clear, expect to see Mount Hamilton to the east and the Valley of Santa Clara. There is also an unobstructed view of Mount Umunhum, but I think this close-up view is pale in comparison to other south bay parks such as Calero and Almaden Quicksilver. The Jesuits first stayed on this hill in 1888; they cultivated grapes and made wine, in addition to spiritual devotion. Once past the summit, the trail leads downhill through the coyote brush, toyon, poison oak and broom. Look for buckwheat in bloom at the end of summer. At 2.1 miles, the unsigned route leads uphill to the left. Keep going straight.

The trail turns right and goes down a little steeply. Ignore a route that doubles to the right at 2.2 miles. In comparison to the chaparral on the dry exposed hillsides on the south side of the hill, the vegetation is mainly made up of shades of loving plants, including madrone, live oak shore, California Bay and blackberry. You’re going to hit a multiple junction at 2.3 miles. Novitiate Path to the right, it’s not a trail, and it’s going uphill for 0.5 miles until the end. Keep going straight.

Once again, a chain-link fence defines the boundary to the right, and manzanitas, eucalyptus, live oak shore, some young Douglas fir, and toyon line the trail. You can enter the junction with Manzanita Trail at 2.5 miles. Go straight ahead, and follow your steps back to the trail.

This amazing town of Los Gatos, California prides itself to have many must-see landmarks you don’t want to miss:

  • New Museum Los Gatos
  • Vasona Lake County Park
  • Los Gatos Creek Trail Urban
  • Oak Meadow Park
  • Testarossa Winery
  • Billy Jones Wildcat Railroad
  • Fantasy Of Lights
  • Venture Christian Church

All of these wonderful landmarks are located just a short distance from our location located at 3880 South Bascom Avenue in San Jose, California! Stop by for a visit anytime!