Once a Native American settlement and later a rancho, Ulistac Natural Area is now a great place for a kid-friendly day hike in the San Francisco Bay Area.
Exploring California’s frontier heritage can mean more than visiting a mission, museum or adobe. There are plenty of places where you can experience the natural world while also getting a taste of the rich past that the Golden State has to offer.
My son and I recently fulfilled a promise we had made to ourselves to visit Ulistac Natural Area in Santa Clara, California. This preserve is a 41 acre parcel of scenic open space along the Guadalupe River, about 45 miles south of San Francisco. Here are some highlights of our trip:
History: From Indian Encampment to Rancho to Preserve
Thanks to its excellent location near running water, the Ohlone Indians used this area as a periodic encampment for at least 1,500 years. Ulistac (pronounced oo-lih-stac) is an indigenous word with means “Place of Uli.” Some people think Uli may be the name of a native chief or leader, but at this point no one knows for certain.
After Hispanic settlement during the 18th century, the area was incorporated into the lands of nearby Mission Santa Clara. In the 19th century the mission system was dismantled during a process called “secularization.” After secularization, a land survey recorded at least three Indian dwellings and one sweat-house on Rancho Ulistac, showing that Native people were still using the land for traditional practices.
In the 1840s, the last Mexican governor of Alta California, Pío Pico, granted 2,217 acres of lowlands between the Guadalupe River and Saratoga Creek to three Indians from Mission Santa Clara named Marcelo, Pío and Cristobal. Although mission lands belonged to Native people, it was unusual for the Mexican government to grant ranchos to Indians.
The rancho eventually wound up in the hands of Jacob Hoppe, an American who became the first postmaster of San José. Over the course of the 19th and 20th centuries the land had many uses, from farming to golfing. In the 1970s the City of Santa Clara bought the property for designation as a nature preserve. Today the land is returning to its natural state.
Oaks, sycamores, manzanita, willows, native grasses, sages and flowers populate the preserve, and they can give you an idea of what the landscape was like for indigenous people and the early settlers who came to the Santa Clara Valley.
In wetter years there is a little creek that flows through the area, with ferns and other shade plants growing along it. If you visit in spring, you will be in time to see plenty of golden California poppies.
The trails through Ulistac have excellent interpretive panels to help you understand the local flora and fauna, since it is home a large variety of animal life.
If you keep your eyes open, you will see a number of species of birds, including doves, woodpeckers, bluejays and hawks. Along the river and the adjoining wetlands you can also see plenty of mallard ducks, heron and others.
There is also a butterfly and hummingbird garden, though we didn’t see any butterflies during our visit, since it was probably too early in the year.
What Will You See?
Ulistac is a great place for a day hike with kids. When we went, my son and I had a wonderful time looking for birds, bugs and lizards. In shady areas we also found salamanders, including the California slender salamander.
If you want to get a view of the area from higher ground, you can take gently rising paths up to the Guadalupe River Trail. This is a level and easy walk that extends several miles between the southern tip of the San Francisco Bay at Alviso all the way south to San José.
As you walk along the Guadalupe River trail, you will see a football stadium in the distance. Levi’s Stadium is home to the San Francisco 49ers. Santa Clara locals are very faithful fans of the 49ers, but recently, when team management wanted to expand parking access and the open space of Ulistac became part of the conversation, residents sent thousands of emails and letters to the city council successfully urging them to protect the park.
How to Get There
If you are traveling south from San Francisco or north from Los Angeles, you can take Highway 101 and exit at Montague Expressway, following it for about six minutes until you come to Lick Mill Blvd. Turn left on Lick Mill Blvd. and go until you see the signs for Ulistac Natural Area. There is plenty of free parking along Lick Mill Blvd.
Address: 4901 Lick Mill Blvd, Santa Clara, CA 95054
Cost of Admission
The preserve is free and open to the public from 7am to sundown, 365 days per year.
Best Time to Visit
Though we visited in March, late spring and early fall are probably ideal times. There is plenty of shade, though, and its proximity to the San Francisco Bay keeps the climate at Ulistac moderate throughout the year.
What to Bring
No matter time of year you visit Ulistac, make sure you dress for the weather. Summers can be hot. I suggest bringing a water bottle, good walking shoes, and a hat. If you have binoculars, bring them along for bird and wildlife watching.
Ulistac Natural Area is great place for a family-friendly day hike – I know my son and I will be going back soon. If there were one suggestion for improvement I could make, it would be for more prominent markers highlighting the area’s Native American heritage to go along with the other signage. But I know the preserve is still a work in progress, so maybe we will see more in the future.
Nevertheless, Ulistac Natural Area is a fine place for an outing in the midst of one of the world’s premier high tech areas. But more importantly, Ulistac is a piece of the Santa Clara Valley’s Native and frontier past, long before it became known as “Silicon Valley.”
Do you know of any great places to experience the California frontier? Drop me a line — I’d love to feature it!