The Montalvo Arts Center, also known as Villa Montalvo, is an estate-turned-public park in the Saratoga foothills, with beautiful gardens, hiking trails through a redwood forest, and sculptures scattered throughout the grounds. This 2.5-mile hike loops through the best of it, visiting gardens, artwork, and hiking trails that lead to a vista of Santa Clara Valley. The grounds and hiking trails are free and picnics are welcome on the wide, sloping Great Lawn in front of the villa.
The Montalvo Arts Center is the former country estate of James Duval Phelan, a former mayor of San Francisco and U.S. Senator with a complicated history. Santa Clara County Parks maintains the hiking trails, and the Montalvo Association manages the grounds and gardens. Leashed dogs are allowed on hiking trails but not on the Montalvo Arts Center grounds.
Origin of Montalvo
The name “Montalvo” is an honorable nod to Garci Ordóñez de Montalvo, a Spanish author credited with creating the name “California.” In the 16th century, Montalvo wrote a famous novel set on a mythical, treasure-laden island called “California.” Spanish explorers, who were familiar with the novel, bestowed the name during their expeditions and it stuck. Phelan named his estate “Villa Montalvo” to honor the author Montalvo for the origin of the state’s name and link his estate to California’s past.
Throughout the Montalvo Arts Center are images of griffins, a mythic cross between a lion and an eagle. Griffins were the pets and protectors of strong women rulers in Montalvo’s novel. Incorporating them into Villa Montalvo was a way for Phelan to further tie his estate to Montalvo’s story, watching over his country estate. Two griffins on pedestals mark the entrance to Montalvo Road, and if you look carefully you’ll find more griffins throughout your hike.
Begin your hike in Parking Lot 4, following the yellow-line pedestrian way west across Piedmont Road. Up a couple of flights of stairs, arrive at the Mermaid Pond and a blue sculpture called Fountain of Life. The sculpture was created by Los Angeles-based artist Kenny Scharf, who combines elements of nature with cartoon-like designs.
Follow the sidewalk northeast through a garden to 19th-century marble statues called the Four Seasons. The bronze statue among them is called One Legged Woman Standing by Bay Area artist Stephen De Staebler. It replaced the Winter statue destroyed in the 1989 Loma Prieta Earthquake. The standing leg under the unfinished torso may be interpreted as fighting for balance and persevering amid the sadness, contortion, and trauma the human body experiences.
Down a stairway, pass through the Italianate Garden gates onto a brick walkway lined with tall Italian cypress trees. The walkway leads directly to the Love Temple, a gazebo with satyrs grabbing hold of a basin. There used to be a statue of Venus above them; however, it was vandalized and then destroyed as well in the 1989 earthquake.
Continue through the temple and down to the Phelan Cactus Garden. The four eucalyptus benches sitting in a circle are a user-friendly artwork called Twisted Heart and the Eucalyptus Muse by Christopher Loomis. The work is a reference to the promise of eucalyptus trees as a source of lumber in the Bay Area; however, unlike redwood trees, they cracked and warped easily, and so the dream was thwarted. The bronze artwork in the center of the garden is called Broken Wing by David Middlebrook and is a meditation on everyday objects, like wingnuts, that we rely on but may take for granted.
Retrace your steps back up through the temple, enjoying the citrus trees on both sides of the walkway and the villa in the distance.
The Great Lawn
Retracing your steps back through the garden gate, continue southwest on the sidewalk beside the Great Lawn, a welcome spot for picnics. Benches line the lawn and grounds, inviting a chance to sit and take in the beauty of the place. Concerts and public events are often held on the Great Lawn in the spring and summer months.
Past colorful daffodils, look up to spot a large group of birdhouses wrapped around a cedar tree. This artwork is called Control Tower by Cameron Hockenson, an alumnus of the Lucas Artist Residency Program at Montalvo Arts Center. The artwork is made of repurposed redwood from a San Jose home, and it honors the loss of songbirds.
Just past Control Tower, turn right through a yellow-lined pathway onto the gravel path in front of Villa Montalvo. The estate, built in 1912, was the country retreat of James Duval Phelan, mayor of San Francisco from 1897 – 1902 and U.S. Senator from 1915 – 1921.
Phelan was attracted to the sunnier weather in Saratoga versus his cooler San Francisco, as well as the idea of a countryside retreat where he could unwind and host guests. Among his visitors were author Gertrude Atherton, actress Ethyl Barrymore, Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt, and the Notre Dame football team.
The design elements of his villa, like the red-tiled roof, are a reflection of European architectural styles he enjoyed on his travels, as well as Spanish and Mexican styles he wanted to incorporate as a nod to California’s past.
Swiveling around to face the Great Lawn, a sculpture called Winged Figure Ascending by Stephan De Staebler graces the terrace. The angel figure may be interpreted is as a kind of optimism and transcendence in the face of a pessimistic, fragmented self. It faces his other sculpture, One Legged Woman Standing, at the far end of the Great Lawn.
Rounding the northern side of the Villa, notice the stained glass window and the large entrance doors beneath it. The window is a replica of the San Salvador, Juan Rodríguez Cabrillo’s ship that explored the California coast in 1542. The carved entry doors also date back to the 16th century and were imported from Spain. These touches were deliberate decisions by Phelan to again link his villa to California’s past.
The Spanish Courtyard and Oval Garden
Beyond the stained glass window, it is worth a spin around the villa’s backside, where there is an oval garden surrounded by colonnaded pergolas and a beautiful Spanish courtyard. The oval shape in the middle of the pergolas used to be a sixty-foot-long swimming pool that Phelan and his guests enjoyed.
The Spanish courtyard, with beautiful red tiling, is just down a flight of stairs. A specially commissioned fountain by Carmel artist J.J. Mora honors Montalvo’s novel. There is a griffin at the center of the fountain as well as a poem written by Phelan. The poem honors Montalvo’s creation of “California” and ties it romantically to the “Paradise” the State of California turned out to be in Phelan’s eyes.
To the Trails
When ready, cross through Parking Lot 2. Then, pick up the Access Trail, heading into the forest for the remainder of your hike. The narrow dirt trail descends west into a redwood forest with arching bay trees and hillsides covered in moss and ferns.
Merge onto the Creek Trail and cross a wide wooden bridge over Wildcat Creek. After rain storms, the creek flows generously beneath the bridge. Ascend into an airy ravine on the Creek Trail along the seasonal creek.
At the 1.0-mile mark, merge onto the South Orchard Trail. Then, turn left at the next two junctions. The forest is dryer and lined with madrone in the Orchard Trails, but soon returns to the redwood forest.
Heading south on the North Orchard Trail, cross through Wildcat Creek, which may be high after significant rain storms. Follow signs onto the Lookout Trail, climbing through a mostly shady forest of Douglas fir, redwoods, ferns, and brambles.
Continue straight at a junction with the Redwood Trail, gaining 200 feet over the next 0.4 miles to Lookout Point. You may see signs with text on them like “Hear You Leave Your Worries.” The signs are part of an art installation by artist Susan O’Malley called A Healing Walk. It was first installed in 2013, and it aims to help us think about the healing effects of the forest and encourage thoughtful and intentional hiking.
Reach Lookout Point at 1120 feet elevation. Two benches overlook the Santa Clara Valley and the southern San Francisco Bay. Manzanita and chamise surround the bare dirt lookout, with hummingbirds floating around the manzanita.
The Diablo Range stretches northeast to southeast, with prominent peaks like Mount Diablo visible on a clear day. The ring-shaped Apple building is just below it in the same line of sight. To the south is a divide in the foothills where Highway 17 cuts through. The narrow opening beyond it is the start of the Almaden Valley.
After your rest break, retrace your steps 0.3 miles. Pick up the northbound section of the Lookout Trail towards Parking Lot Four. The partially exposed trail descends through redwoods, maidenhair fern, buckeye, and vistas of the South Bay. Pass the Belvedere Temple, a circular colonnade, and finish your hike at Parking Lot Four.