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Black Mountain Backpack Camp

Day 1 of 2

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Saturday, October 11th
Trailhead to Black Mountain Backpack Camp (w/ detour)
2.6 miles
740 vertical feet (ascent)
240 vertical feet (descent)

This was our first backpacking trip in over 5 years. Not coincidentally, Nathan had just recently turned 5. This would of course be his first backpacking trip, as well as the first for Jared (only 2 1/2). Joining us were Marisa and Brian and their two young children (slightly older than ours).

Since this was our first foray into family backpacking, we picked a short, 1-night trip to start off with. Black Mountain Backpack Camp is the only backpack camp administered by the Midpeninsula Open Space District. The trailhead is perhaps 30 minutes away from downtown Palo Alto, so as you might expect it's a fairly popular trail. Even though the weather had recently turned cool, the camp would be nearly full.

It's very hard to find 4-person backpacking tents. And those you do find probably don't fit 4 people comfortably. I spent some time searching before getting the Big Agnes Pine Island 4. It's technically not a backpacking tent, weighing in at 10.5 pounds (plus another pound for the ground cover). It also doesn't come with a stuff sack, so I had to scrounge up an old sack to stuff it in the day before. Because of the big tent and extra sleeping pads and bags, one of my main concessions was not bringing my 3 pound tripod. In any case, at the final weigh-in my pack was 55 pounds and Jean's was 30 pounds. The kids didn't carry anything other than water (and their stuffed animals that they can't sleep without). See what's in our packs.

A cold wind blew while we prepped at the parking lot, but it was bright and sunny, not a cloud in the sky. We started off on the hike a bit past 1pm. We started off on the main trail out of the parking lot, the Stevens Creek Nature Trail. It didn't take long for us to make a wrong turn, as we turned right and started heading downhill. It took us a few minutes before we decided this was the wrong way, and headed back uphill. This little detour added about 0.6 miles (0.3 miles down, and 0.3 up) to the hike.

Starting out on the the wrong direction

We returned to the intersection and turned right to continue toward Canyon Trail. Along this section of trail we had nice views of the surrounding brown hillsides, and glimpses of cars along Skyline Boulevard. Three-tenths of a mile later, we turned right onto the wide shaded dirt road which is Canyon Trail.

View looking south; Mount Umunhum in the distance

After following the Canyon Trail for 0.2 miles, we stopped for a snack break before taking the left fork, up onto the Bella Vista Trail. This trail again provides views of the hills below Skyline Boulevard. We encountered a lot of mountain bikers on this (and the other trails), all of whom were very courteous. The Bella Vista Trail is not wide enough for a cyclist and hiker to pass, so one of you will have to stop while the other passes.

Jared and Christopher on the trail

After 0.8 miles, we turned right onto the Old Ranch Trail. At this point you can see the gravel of Monte Bello Road, which is unpaved but good enough for mountain bikers and the brave road cyclist (I've actually taken my road bike on it once and hated doing so). If you wanted, you could hike on the road, but the trail provides better views.

Jean and Jared on the trail

View of the bay

Somewhere along the Old Ranch Trail, we were passed by a large group of backpackers -- about 5 dads and 15 kids who were on their way to the group camp. It occurred to me that when I made the reservation I was asked if I wanted the group camp (since we had 8 people, and the group site fits 20), but I had said no and gotten two 4-person sites instead. In retrospect, we could have had a bit more privacy if I had opted for the group camp instead, but to be honest, we would hardly notice the group camp was there.

After 0.5 miles, we reached the final intersection, where we took the right fork and shortly came to the backpack camp on our left. There are 4 individual sites (for 4 people each), and the 20-person group site, separated by some trees and a fair amount of distance. The 4 individual sites are fairly close together. We took sites 1 and 3, and another group later came and took site 4. Site 2 remained unused. Each site has a triangular set of logs used for seating around a small wooden stump table. Unfortunately (much to the kids' disappointment), campfires are not allowed, only backpacking stoves. There is water available through a pump, but it needs to be purified. There's also a bathroom with a pit toilet with toilet paper and an interior light.

Playing in the fields next to the backpack camp

Black Mountain backpack camp

We set up our tents, then prepared an early dinner. I should have anticipated this, but to my surprise all the kids wanted to help me filter water. They each took a turn pushing the crank on my water filter. Who needs toys when you have a water filter? (They did have a few toys, too.)

Playing in the fields

View looking south from near the backpack camp

Nathan and Madeline on a moonlit stroll

After dinner and hot chocolate, we took a short walk toward the summit of Black Mountain itself, which is about a half mile away. We didn't quite make it, but that was ok. We had a nice little sunset walk, enjoying the views, as well as seeing a few deer. When we stopped we could still see some people at the top of Black Mountain. A ranger came by and verified that we were heading back to our camp, as the preserve was now closed (it's closed 30 minutes after sunset). We headed back as he continued up to the summit to deal with the people at the top.

Tying shoes under the moon

Sunset from above Black Mountain backpack camp

Another view of the sunset

We returned to our camp. A few minutes later, we saw a group of about 8-10 day hikers stopped next to the backpack camp, lining up to use the bathroom. I'm guessing they were the ones we'd seen at the summit. They either didn't know the preserve would be closed just after sunset, or chose to ignore that fact. Not a lot of places are open for post-sunset hiking, and I'm not exactly sure why.

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