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101. Mine Hill Loop (01/09/99)

Hikers (5): Beth, Eugene, Steve, Wenchao, Wendell
Distance: 15 miles
Rating: 3 difficulty, 7 beauty
Park info: Almaden Quicksilver County Park in south San Jose

Write-up by Steve -- Pictures by Steve

Not only does Almaden Quicksilver County Park have decent hiking, but it also has large sections labeled Hazardous Area; Closed to the Public. It's hard not to love a park like this. The hazard is mercury, which was mined at Almaden for 135 years (until 1976). How important was this place? It made as much money selling mercury (refined from Cinnabar (HgS2)) as any gold mine in California. Now, though, the only traces of the history are abandoned mines and polluted water.

I lied about this hike when I sent the hike notice. I said it was close, and I said it would be easy. It took about 1.5 hr to get there, and after the hike was over, we were all pretty worn out. However, it was not without adventure, including trespassing, alien encounters, and getting the shaft several times.

The hike started on the Hacienda trail at the NE entrance. We headed down the Mine Hill trail and, as usual, went off course. We were hiking up a fairly steep trail for a while and eventually crested to the top of a mountain. But this wasn't any ordinary mountain: it was Mine Hill, the highest point in the park and smack dab in the center of the hazardous area zone.

From the ether appeared a mysterious man to explain to us why we should not be there. I thought he was pretty normal (except for the ether part), but others in our party suggested he was a little too well-scripted. That's when we realized that he might a government agent hiding some top-secret project, or maybe he was an alien, or perhaps both (a la X-files). It made a lot of sense: telling the public the area was hazardous when there was clearly nothing wrong. As if that weren't enough, there was some sort of construction (alien autopsy lab?) going on, and we were passed by a concrete truck on the way up. The guy gave some lip service about cleaning up the place for public use, but he wasn't wearing any protective gear, so it wasn't all THAT hazardous. I have a suspicion we could have torn off his face (like on Scooby Doo) and there'd be some bad guy underneath saying "I'd have gotten away with it, too, if it hadn't been for those meddling kids and their dog!")

Anyway, we turned around and chatted about conspiracy theories until we found Mine Hill Trail. This took us by our first mine, San Cristobal. This was the best mine of them all since we were able to walk in about 30 meters until reaching a locked grill. It was every bit as exciting as you might expect a mine tunnel to be.

Many miles later we found a picnic bench along a stream where we could enjoy our tasty lunches. This was a little after passing by the Guadalupe Reservoir, which one has to assume is teeming with grossly mis-shapen, mercury-laden fish.

Can't you just TASTE the mercury?

Afterwards, we looped around and took the Randol Trail back to the car. Everyone was tired on the way back, so no one wanted to join me for a short detour to visit the Buena Vista Shaft, a very large covered 'ruins' of a former mining operation. Before taking the detour, however, I climbed up a tree to restore a fallen cross in some sort of Catholic Mary-altar thingy. Unfortunately, Eugene was out of film and couldn't capture this bizarre event for posterity, but I'm sure God saw, so I figure we're set for a while.

The remaining trail was uneventful, with the final tunnel (Day Tunnel) being no more than a roof with a rock-filled entrance. We hopped in our cars and headed home, tired and happy about the hike. That is, we thought we were happy, but it might just have been mercury poisoning.

Wenchao's 1st leaf

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