Grizzly Flat: Why so much Open Space?

The hills right before the Jikoji Zen Center and the former home of the alternative Pacific High School.
The hills right before the Jikoji Zen Center and the former home of the alternative Pacific High School. Photo © Mobile Ranger.

Located in the Santa Cruz Mountains of California, Skyline Boulevard (Highway 35), is a great place within the San Francisco Bay area to access a vast array of open space districts. If you drive along this scenic route with stunning vistas west towards the ocean and east to the Santa Clara Valley, you cannot help but wonder why there is so much parkland so close to a hugely urban area.

Grizzly Flat Trailhead area, about 2 miles north of the intersection with Highway 9, is a great example of open space galore. It has an entrance to the Upper Stevens Creek (Santa Clara) County Park where trails connect to the Montebello Open Space Preserve to the north and the Saratoga Gap Open Space Preserve to the south. On the west side of Skyline Boulevard is an entrance to the Long Ridge Open Space Preserve which is close to the point where three counties of San Mateo, Santa Cruz, and Santa Clara converge.

The entrance area to the Stevens Creek Open Space Preserve.
The entrance area to the Stevens Creek Open Space Preserve. Photo © Mobile Ranger.

Grizzly Flat itself is located about a mile east of the trailhead near the headwaters of Stevens Creek. The creek is named in honor of Elisha Stephens — despite the difference in spelling. Stephens was the captain of the first successful wagon train to cross the Sierra Nevada over Donner Pass in 1844. He settled down on a farm lower down on the creek in what is now Cupertino. He is said to have entertained a succession of visitors whom he enjoyed feeding such local delicacies as rattlesnakes and frogs.

On the west side of Skyline Boulevard is an entrance to the Long Ridge Open Space Preserve and its network of trails. A short distance down this trail will take you to picturesque Peters Creek, a cool haven in the summer heat.

Elisha Stephens 1804 - 1887 led a wagon train over Donner Pass in 1884 and settled what is now Stevens creek in Cupertino. Photo courtesy of Janet Schwind
Elisha Stephens. Photo from the collection of Janet Schwind.

Named for the Grizzly Bear

According to local lore, Grizzly Flat was named in honor of a bear whose scratches were noted on a bay tree near the creek. The grizzly bear was both feared and revered by the indigenous tribes who inhabited the area, but they presented a special problem to the Spanish and Mexican settlers. In the late 18th Century grizzly bears thrived in the Santa Cruz Mountains, feeding on the rancheros’ plentiful herds of cattle. Extensive hunting by European settlers eventually wiped out the population in California.

Why the Open Space is Here

Welcome to Palo Alto. Elevation 58 feet? Not right here. Photo © Janet Schwind.
Welcome to Palo Alto. Elevation 58 feet? Not right here. Photo © Janet Schwind.

There is a sign at the south end of the parking area welcoming you to the City of Palo Alto with a population of 57,000 people and an elevation of 58 feet. Uhm, where are all those people, and the elevation right here is actually 2300 feet?

In 1959, the city of Palo Alto, annexed the western foothills. The idea was to provide more residences for the people employed in the city’s burgeoning industries. The city then hired a planning firm from Los Angeles (groan) to make recommendations for the “development” of the foothills. The planners did just that, and in 1961 came up with four scenarios, all of which would have radically changed the character of the area.

The entrance to OPEN SPACE PRESERVE X??
Long Ridge Open Space Preserve. Photo © Mobile Ranger.

Instead of open space full of trails, oak woodlands and grass, what was planned was very different. A wide expressway was to wind its way toward Grizzly Flat and over to Montebello Ridge to a community of large residential lots served by neighborhood schools and a shopping center. Down near Grizzly Flat a dam was going to be built to create a mile-long recreational lake. Up on the meadows of Montebello Ridge, the residents of high rise townhouses were to enjoy a view of the entire San Francisco Bay Area. This was the proposal that called for most intense development, but all of the alternatives submitted by this planner would have transformed the foothills into suburbia.

Conservationists Spawn Open Space District

A backlash to this plan helped spawn the conservation movement in Palo Alto. Another firm was hired to plan for the “development” of the foothills. The new study reflected the mood of the citizenry, as well as the city’s economics, when it concluded that it would be less expensive to purchase the land outright than to develop it. Residential development in remote, difficult terrain does not generate sufficient tax revenue to cover necessary city services, in contrast to downtown industrial areas. With this conclusion, the environmental and fiscal conservatives were on the same page. The solution of the conservationists was to form the Midpeninsula Regional Open Space District (MidPen) in 1972. The district now owns much of this foothill land and surrounding open space up and down the San Francisco Peninsula.

Alternative Education on the Ridge

Along Skyline Boulevard is the Jikoji Zen Center. This property was home to the experimental Pacific High School founded in 1961 by a group of parents on the San Francisco peninsula whose teenagers were languishing in public school. It was based on the ideals of freedom, democracy, love of learning, compassion, and social accountability. In 1966 the group moved to this site, and parents, students, and staff began building classrooms. In a few years students and staff began living on site, and Pacific became a boarding school. LLoyd Kahn moved in and oversaw the building of geodesic domes as living spaces. Based on his experiments at Pacific, Kahn and crew published Domebook One and Domebook Two.

The entrance to Jikoji Zen Center on Skyline Boulevard, 2013. Photo © Janet Schwind.
Teachers and students erect the Egg Dome at Pacific High School, circa 1969. Photo courtesy of Nanette Biers.

From the beginning the school struggled with the ideal of freedom. When grades are not given and class attendance is voluntary, some students bloom and others get lost. Many were inspired by teachers who led construction, art, and gardening projects and field trips to Canada and Mexico. Others used their freedom to do very little at all, except experiment with drugs. The school attracted teenagers who were already disaffected with society during the Vietnam War. Gradually, classes were suspended, and the site morphed into a commune, attracting more counter culture types. Looking back, the former students most valued their time at Pacific by the personal relations developed among students and staff.

The sign at the entrance to the Jikoji Zen Center.
The sign at the entrance to the Jikoji Zen Center. Photo © Mobile Ranger.

A local Buddhist group purchased the land from the former Pacific High School in 1979. Jikoji was named after the Temple of Compassionate Light in Japan. Please respect the peace and quiet of the meditators who visit this retreat, and do not enter the driveway.

Demarcation of the Santa Cruz County Line. Don't worry there are California poppies in Santa Cruz!.
Demarcation of the end of the scenic highway designation close to the Santa Cruz County line. Don’t worry there are California poppies in Santa Cruz too! Photo © Mobile Ranger.

Take the Self-Guided Mobile Tour

This piece is part of the South Skyline Boulevard (Highway 35) Tour by the Skyline Historical Society. Download the free app with many tours of the Santa Cruz area and beyond.


Go to Mobile Ranger Guides in the Apple App Store
Go to Mobile Ranger Guides in the Google Play Store

Much of the information in this tour comes from a book called The South Skyline Story by Janet Schwind and the Skyline Historical Society, 2014. It is a well written, fun and informative read from the Native Americans, through the early loggers and ranchers, commune dwellers, wine makers, conservationists and homebuilders. You can get a copy at Alice’s Restaurant in Skylonda (the junction of Highways 35 and 84) or by contacting Skyline History President Chuck Schoppe, email: or phone: 408-867-9229.

  1. Sources Used

About The Author

Julia Gaudinski & Janet Schwind

This post is a collaboration between Julia Gaudinski and Janet Schwind. Schwind is an author and member of the the South Skyline Association. They are a not-for-profit organization created to provide benefits for the residents and property owners along Skyline Boulevard (Highway 35) from Los Gatos to Skylonda within the greater San Francisco Bay area of California.

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  1. Thomas Mathew James

    It didn’t escape anything, it is nothing more than a pile of mud and it is just to exspensive to build on. Takes four times the cost of construcyion to stablize the soil. Just watch this winter and you will see why we can’t build there


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