Early spring is an ideal time to visit Almaden Quicksilver County Park and the adjacent village of New Almaden, for the wildflowers and a reminder of the region’s 19th century history. The 4,000-acre park is set against the mountains that mark San Jose’s southern edge between Los Gatos and Almaden Valley.
Starting in the mid 19th century, the area was home to mines that extracted mercury, aka quicksilver, a key ingredient for processing gold and silver. Many old buildings are still standing, and visitors to the park can learn more about the history from signs and pictures on its trails.
Mercury is toxic, of course, and at least one sign warns visitors not to eat fish in surging Alamitos Creek.
New Almaden, which was once home to several thousand residents, today is much smaller in size. It contains many wood houses and buildings from the mining era, including a church and a former hotel that now houses a top-rated restaurant.
If you follow Almaden Road 11 miles north, you’ll end up in downtown San Jose, where high rises house such tech companies as Adobe and Zoom.
New Almaden, in contrast, is a world away. It’s a quiet national historic district, and signs encourage traffic to slow down to 25 miles per hour. It’s a tight-knit small community.
Despite the traffic calming signs, there isn’t a lot of space for pedestrians to walk along Almaden Road to view the history of New Almaden. It’s much easier to walk inside the park.
On Almaden Road, check out five cottages from the 19th century, including some from the 1840s, which are still inhabited today. The cottages all have plaques in front, telling a little of the history. One plaque, for the Hauck House, explains that the red brick sidewalk in front of the cottages “was constructed so that children could walk to Hacienda School without muddying their shoes.”
The mining district’s history is preserved in the two-story Casa Grande mansion, home to the New Almaden Quicksilver Mining Museum at 21350 Almaden Road. The building dates from 1854 and was home to mine superintendents and their guests. The building is currently closed while power and HVAC upgrades are being made. It should reopen by mid-April.
Visitors to New Almaden can also see an old Catholic church, walk on one-lane bridges and dine on French cuisine at the creekside La Foret Restaurant. It’s open for dinner and Sunday brunch, and has a menu featuring such items as escargot, quail and elk. The restaurant is located at 21747 Bertram Road.
Outdoor enthusiasts can park at the Hacienda lot for the Almaden Quicksilver County Park. The parking lot was full on a recent Saturday morning at 10 a.m., but half-empty a few hours later. It’s surrounded by plaques with more information about the area’s history. One plaque and marker honors New Almaden’s most famous son, NFL player Patrick Tillman, who died serving his country in Afghanistan in 2004.
The county park has over 37 miles of hiking trails, as well as bike and equestrian trails. Expect to see wild turkeys and deer. Leashed dogs are allowed on some trails. Parking is available at three lots including Hacienda in New Almaden, Mockingbird Hill and Wood Road. There are numerous picnic tables scattered throughout Almaden Quicksilver County Park.
For more information on the park, go to parkhere.org. A three- to four-mile guided hike of the park begins at 9 a.m. March 25 at the Wood Road, with reservations encouraged.