Within an Hour: Take a Hike

Break out of the bubble, slow your mind and escape the grind with stories of unique and relaxing places to adventure within an hour’s drive from campus.

Have you ever found yourself sitting at your computer, posture of an uncooked prawn, surrendering hours to loyally chipping away at a 10-page essay about a long-dead white guy? If you answered yes, follow me. If not, well, you probably have an essay to start.

A couple of weeks ago, this was me. With blue-light blocking glasses perched on my nose and lo-fi girl as my only company, I numbingly churned out a few thousand words. Suddenly, I just couldn’t do it anymore. I stood up and, channeling my inner Thoreau, googled “nature parks near me.” It turns out there is actually a lot around Stanford, but I needed a good one, so I looked for the biggest green blob I could find on my cellular treasure map and marked an “X.” “El Corte de Madera” it is.

I am lucky enough to have a car. I pay my ever-increasing bill for a pass each month to park it. I spend ten minutes driving in circles, searching for a spot every time I come back. You bet I’m going to use it when I can. Key in ignition, windows down, I took Campus Drive and headed east for about half an hour. I had a fever, and the only prescription was more wilderness.

The dull silver clouds lazily clung to the tops of the hills, masking the upper third of the widespread peaks. The noise of the world fades. The colors of roadside grass and trees slowly separate and intensify. Cars start to disperse. As you approach from the east on Sand Hill Road, the wooded hills rise quickly, and the dense green coverage offers the promise of nature and solitude within. A right turn, then a left, followed by a zig-zag climb between the forests of stick-straight coastal redwoods and under the lazily outstretched arms of maples. Gas pedal past the popular hillside hideout intersection belonging to Skywood Trading Post and Alice’s Restaurant, and you’ve come upon El Corte de Madera Creek Open Space Preserve.

The Stanford campus, viewable from the cliffed peak near the natural preserve, sits idyllic and beautiful. Despite this beauty, it can also provide a tangibly suffocating feeling from the outside world. Students, faculty, tourists, all move about hurriedly, ants performing their tasks for the hive. It’s important to remember to break from these arthropodal habits every once in a while. Forget about deadlines, PSETs and RSVPs. The presence and immensity of El Corte de Madera sever these psychological ties with an axe. The 34 miles of well-maintained trails wind through 2,900 acres of solitary freedom provided within the preserve.

A sign that reads "help keep streams clean" and "thank you for staying on trials" with trees and bushes in the background.
Stay on the trails and out of your head. (MACKENZIE COBB/The Stanford Daily)

El Corte de Madera (rough translation: wood cutting) is a Spanish nod to the logging work done in the area in the mid-19th century. After the gold rush boom in San Francisco, the hills around the area were logged to supply the growing demand for wood in the bay.

You wouldn’t know it, though. After parking at any of the several lots flanking the preserve, take 10 steps on the trail and lose yourself. The thick forested balconies and steep drop-offs erase the existence of the low-lying bay to the East. As I walked into the wooded parthenon, the clouds above the canopy slowly burned off, allowing sunbeams to shoot between the pillars.

I spent hours wandering about the trails, wondering if I was heading in the right direction. I relaxed as I realized there wasn’t a right direction, because there also wasn’t a wrong one. I returned to my car, sweaty and tired. This afternoon wasn’t a profound experience. It didn’t shift any philosophical paradigms in my life. But it did allow me to breathe. My brain felt like an old dry sponge, finally again soaked in clean, cold water.

Just get there, and the solution will find you. Bring a bike, boots, friends or nothing at all. The intention of finding a space in nature to feel something sincere within is the goal, and trust me, you’ll achieve it. One of my favorite little-known naturalists and philosophers by the name of John Muir once said, “In every walk with nature one receives far more than they seek.”