El Toro P750
Nob Hill

Sat, Mar 21, 2009

With: Ryan Burd

Story Photos / Slideshow Map Profile

El Toro is the name of the 1,400-foot peak just west of downtown Morgan Hill in southern Santa Clara County. For a short peak it stands out prominently, away from the main crest of the Santa Cruz Mtns. I had seen the peak for years, but knew nothing of it, not its name, whether it was accessible, whether it was on private or public lands. One of my hiking friends told me it was called Morgan Hill after the town, which seemed plausible. The 7.5' maps shows it as El Toro, and from the nearby street names and businesses, I think this is more likely the name in use. The excuse to visit it was a volleyball tournament my daughter was playing in the town one Saturday. Son Ryan and I would spend a few hours exploring some of the local peaks, then join Mom and daughter at the tournament.

The only thing we were armed with was the 7.5' map I'd printed an hour earlier. We spent the better part of an hour exploring the roads around El Toro in a counter-clockwise manner starting with Llaga Rd. We drove by many fine homes and plenty of street dead-ends, but could find no accessible route beyond the homes that seem to ring the lower reaches of the mountain. It wasn't until we had gone nearly full circle, when driving on DeWitt Ave (the SE side of El Toro), that we came across the West Hills Community Church. The church is perched on a low hillside on the flanks of El Toro. A chain across the gate barred vehicle traffic except on Sundays when services were held. We parked the car on DeWitt and started up the road, just as two ladies were coming back down. I asked them if they had been to the summit to which they replied, "Yes!" and then gave a somewhat rambling narrative of the dangers they encountered along the way, pointing to their soiled pants as proof of the risky venture. We thanked them for their help and promised to proceed safely.

At the far end of the spacious church parking lot we found a trail heading down into a small creek labeled, "God's Canyon." Interesting, but we were looking for something in the way of "God's Mountain." We found no such accompanying sign, but there was a dirt road heading up right next to God's Canyon and we followed this road. At a fork we took the steeper choice to the right, Ryan beginning to groan and moan at the effort. I laughed at him. He looked at me with those offended eyes as if to say, "How could you ridicule me in such a trying moment?" I poo-poohed his look with, "Hey, you've done a whole lot worse than this - it isn't even a mile to the summit!" "But it's STEEP!" he cried out. Getting no sympathy whatsoever, he resigned himself to the task and finished the small slope with no further grunts or groans.

Atop a small knoll, I could see an alternative route just north of ours, a paved road leading to a water tank halfway up the hill. The paved road was one of those we had explored earlier, but had been put off by the No Tresspassing sign we encountered further down, around a bend. I think that sign was misleading, as two others nearing the tank via that route gave testimony. There was a short stroll over nearly flat ground to the base of the final climb, about 400ft of steep, loose dirt. We watched a party of three slowly descending, wondering why it was taking them so long - we had not yet found out how treacherous it was, though we'd been warned.

The slope we found was hardpacked dirt with a thin layer of sand which made it slippery. Rough steps looked to have been cut in the slope at one time, and though they were still moderately helpful, one had to be slow and careful going up. Ryan was clawing the ground with his hands as his feet would slip out from under him. I tried to convince him that standing upright was the best practice, to give his feet more traction and friction to hold him to the slope. He seemed to understand the idea in his head, but in practice it wasn't workable and he kept on all fours for much of the way. The last 50ft to the top had an old fixed rope to assist the unnerved. Ryan thought this was sheer brilliance on the part of whoever installed it, while I laughed to myself that it was the first time I'd seen a fixed rope on class 2 terrain. A trail led off from the bottom of the fixed rope to the east, and looked to wind it's way in a less direct, but more manageable fashion back to the water tank. It would have made a better descent route, but we had left Ryan's jeans at the base of the steeper route and would have to go back that way.

The top was a rounded, brushy affair, though trails had been cut in many places descending off various directions. Some of these looked to go nowhere, but the one heading off the west side looked to take advantage of grassy slopes all the way down. There was a good deal of poison oak at the summit and I was very cautious to avoid contact with it, still recovering from my bout with the stuff a few weeks earlier. The mostly overcast skies obscured much of the surrounding views to the Santa Cruz Mtns, but it was still pleasant, with views west to Chesbro Reservoir, northeast to Morgan Hill, and south to the Gilroy area.

After descending the fixed rope section, I led Ryan through a barbed-wire fence to a grassy slope adjacent to the treacherous dirt track. Though we slipped a few times each here, it was much better and safer than the dirt would have been. Back at the bottom we ducked back under the fence and then retraced the steps we had taken on the ascent. I think Ryan was silently happy to see the female member of another party struggling on that first steep hill even more than he had done himself. She would sit down every ten steps or so, her boyfriend smiling as we went by, in that knowing look of, "Yes, this is the first exercise she's had in a month."

Once we were back at the car (having spent just over an hour on the hike), Ryan thought we were done and headed for lunch. "Not so fast," I cautioned, "we still have to hit up one more, Nob Hill. I thought I had picked out this unassuming knoll during our descent from El Toro, but had it confused with the higher, but unnamed Pt. 681ft. We went so far as to find a place to park, hopped a fence and walked up to the water tank at the base of the hill before I checked my map to realize my error. Back to the car, fifteen minutes wasted. Nob Hill it turns out is just north of East Dunne Ave, right next to downtown Morgan Hill. We parked off Noble Ct., just west of the hill and climbed up from there. Another person was coming down as we headed up. It took five minutes to climb to the top on a well-used dirt path, but a barbed-wire fence stopped us about 20ft short of the highpoint. Undeterred, and using our newly honed fence-breaching skills, we were quickly through the fence and standing at the grassy summit. Not much to see from the top, Ryan's wide yawn indicative that he'd had about enough of this silliness. Down we went. I had several other nearby Morgan Hill peaks to visit, but they would have to wait for another time.

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