Russian Ridge Open Space Preserve is a 3,137-acre preserve next to the Skyline Ridge Preserve in San Mateo County. Its wide-open grasslands roll like a flying carpet over a 2,000-foot ridge with 360-degree views of the Pacific Ocean, San Francisco Bay, and East Bay peaks from Borel Hill. Russian Ridge is one of the best spots in the San Francisco Bay Area to see spring wildflowers … and feel like you’re on top of the world.
Begin your hike at the Russian Ridge Preserve parking lot, heading northwest on the Ridge Trail towards Borel Hill. The gravelly single-track passes through grasslands surrounded by coyote brush, the occasional canyon live oak, and California buckeye as it switchbacks beneath power lines. Traffic on Skyline Boulevard is a bit startling at first as it parallels the trail in the beginning, but soon fades as the trail carries you above it.
To the east, Black Mountain, Mount Diablo, and East Bay peaks rise into view, along with the fog-shrouded woodlands, Mindego Hill, and the San Gregorio Creek Watershed to the west. Families, mountain bikers, and equestrians love Russian Ridge, named for Mr. Paskey, a Russian immigrant who ran a dairy farm here from 1920 to 1950. Mr. Paskey initially leased the land from James Rolph, Jr., the former mayor of San Francisco and Governor of California from 1931-1934. Bright orange poppies, lupine, purple owl’s clover, and tidy tips pop next to the trail in springtime.
Pass the Ancient Oaks Trail at 0.5 miles, and at the next junction, turn right to ascend Borel Hill. At the top of the 2,572-foot peak — the highest named point in San Mateo County — are views of Mount Tamalpais, San Francisco, Mount Diablo, the Diablo Range, and the San Francisco Bay. To the west are the Pacific Ocean, Mindego Hill, elevation 2,134 feet, and the western foothills of the Santa Cruz Mountains. The hike to Borel Hill and back is a great way to shorten this hike for kids, coming in at roughly 1.8 miles round-trip.
Borel Hill is named for Antoine Borel, a Swiss banker lived in San Mateo County between 1885 and 1910. Mindego Hill, to the west, is named for Juan Mendico, who established a cattle ranch there in 1859. Midpen began acquiring the property that would eventually become Russian Ridge Preserve in 1978. More recently, in 2008, Midpen acquired neighboring Mindego Ranch and Hill and integrated it into the preserve. The Mindego Gateway parking lot, the Mindego Hill Trail to the summit, and a new trail extension were added in 2014, 2015, and 2016 respectively. Today, cattle still graze on grassland surrounding Mindego Hill.
Retrace your steps to the Ridge Trail junction and continue northwest on the Ridge Trail towards the Vista Point parking lot. While you could take an alternate trail to the north, I like the Ridge Trail route because it literally feels like you are hiking on the side of a canyon, looking down into a green valley and the Pacific Ocean with a mixture of riparian woodlands, ridges, and grasslands in between. It is a fill-your-heart-till-it-bursts kind of vista, and always tugs on my heartstrings. Reach a 3-way junction at the 1.6-mile mark and turn left onto the Charquin Trail. Straight ahead the Ridge Trail continues, and to your right is a spur for the Vista Point parking lot. For a longer loop, stay straight onto the Ridge Trail and then swing back southeast via the Hawk Ridge Trail and Alder Spring Trail to reconnect with the Charquin Trail.
On the Charquin Trail, descend south for 0.6 miles towards the Mindego Hill Trail. Pass a junction on your right with the Alder Spring Trail, heading into a forest of toyon, buckeye, and bigleaf maple. Creeks flow through culverts underneath the trail. Blackberry, thimbleberry, and the occasional red-flowering currant grow along the forest floor.
At 2.2 miles, turn left onto the Ancient Oaks Trail, heading uphill into a denser forest. Mossy oak and Douglas-fir arch over the trail, a break from the sun. Keep your eyes open for trillium and checker lily, with sword fern, coastal wood fern, and California polypody sprouting in the understory. As you climb Ancient Oaks, views open to the west of grassy knolls and ridges. Russian Ridge is an excellent place to spot raptors like hawks, falcons, vultures, and eagles, and is home to coyotes, deer, and mountain lions.
In a half mile, turn left onto the Bo Gimbal Trail, heading north towards the Ridge Trail. This shady trail runs beside a tributary of Mindego Creek. Bigleaf maple and canyon live oak offer just a little bit more shade and wind protection before you head back into the open. This is a good spot to look for pacific hound’s tongue, giant wakerobin, globe lillies, and wacky looking fungus.
Climbing out of the streamside forest, you are now back in the sunny grasslands. Turn right onto the Ridge Trail and right again at the next junction to stay on the Ridge Trail back towards the Skyline-Alpine Road parking lot.
Trails are well signed and are mostly gently rolling wide single track through grasslands. Russian Ridge is exposed, windy, and chilly, especially at Borel Hill. Pack a jacket and sun protection. A portion of the loop runs through shady woodland with creeks.
In Los Altos Hills, take exit 16 off I-280 for El Monte Road west. Merge onto El Monte Road and drive 0.5 miles. Turn left onto Moody Road at the fire station. In 0.2 miles, turn left again to stay on Moody Road towards Hidden Villa. Drive 2.5 miles, and then turn left onto Page Mill Road. Drive 5.8 miles on Page Mill Road to Skyline Boulevard. Cross Skyline Boulevard onto Alpine Road and in 125 feet, turn right into the Russian Ridge Open Space Preserve parking lot.