Former mountain-top military base opens to the public

It was once known as Almaden Air Force Station, a mountain-top radar station that operated during the Cold War

Former mountain-top military base opens to the public

Mount Umunhum from Almaden Valley, San Jose, California. The building at the summit is the remnant of a radar installation, once part of Almaden Air Force Station. The photo was taken from the Los Alamitos Creek Trail. (Photo/Wikimedia Commons)

Paul Rogers
The Mercury News

Thirty-seven years after the U.S. Air Force shut down a mountain-top radar station in the hills south of San Jose that scanned the skies for Soviet bombers during the Cold War, the summit of Mount Umunhum is finally opening to the public this week as a new park, with stunning views of San Francisco Bay, Silicon Valley and Monterey Bay.

The Midpeninsula Regional Open Space District, a public agency that owns the 3,486-foot peak in the Santa Cruz Mountains east of Los Gatos, spent $25 million over eight years on the project.

Supporters say the new summit, which visitors will be able to drive to free of charge, could instantly become a must-experience landmark — the South Bay’s version of Mount Diablo in Contra Costa County or Mount Tamalpais in Marin County.

“I’m so pleased we got to do this,” said Steve Abbors, general manager of the district. “When the public gets up there, they can enjoy the views, breathe the clean air, walk on some interesting trails and learn about the history of the mountain, which goes back 10,000 years.”

More recently, the drama over Mount Umunhum has centered on the fate of its five-story concrete radar building, known as the Cube, as veterans and preservation groups successfully fought the district’s earlier plans to demolish it.

The summit will open to the general public starting Monday morning, Sept. 18, at sunrise. It is reachable by driving up Mount Umunhum Road, off Hicks Road in Los Gatos.

Two days earlier, on Saturday, an invitation-only VIP event will feature political leaders, along with Maj. Charles Skinner, the last commander of the Air Force station from 1978 to 1980. And on Sunday, about 900 people will get a first chance to visit at a reservation-only event that is now full. 

“I hope that as our Bay Area gets busier, people can say this is a place to get away,” Abbors said, looking out over the Santa Clara Valley on Monday. “It’s much quieter than the city.”

The new facilities, built by D-Line Constructors of Oakland, include a freshly paved road with new guard rails and culverts up the 5-mile drive to the summit, replacing a cracked, potholed route that dated back to the 1970s. There also are restrooms, a parking lot for 53 cars, hiking trails, and two shelters with interpretive panels featuring information about the Air Force, Ohlone Indians, other peaks in the Bay Area, and plants and animals that live on the mountain. The peak will be the highest point on the Bay Area Ridge Trail, a 550-mile loop that runs across the hills and ridges of the nine Bay Area counties.

Dogs are not allowed at the summit, and visitors must bring their own water.

The mountain’s name, pronounced “Um-un-um,” comes from the Ohlone Indian word for hummingbird. Although an archaeological study the district commissioned in 2010 found no artifacts or Indian remains on the summit, the site is prominent in Ohlone stories, and the district constructed a Native American ceremonial ring as part of the upgrades.

Once a quiet site for cattle grazing and olive growing, from 1957 to 1980 the summit was the site of the former Almaden Air Force Station. At its peak, 120 Air Force personnel and their families lived at the station, which included homes, a gym, a swimming pool, garages and even a bowling alley. The base was part of an early warning radar system watching for Soviet bombers that could have attacked the West Coast.

“They were doing a job that was vital to the welfare of this area,” said Basim Jaber, a San Jose historian who has studied Mount Umunhum’s history for years. “We were a sitting target. When we dropped two atomic bombs on Japan, we realized that could happen to us. These stations were our first line of defense.”

After the station’s technology was made obsolete by satellites, the federal government sold the property to the open space district in 1986 for $260,000.

San Jose State University studied the site as a potential retreat center, but the rebirth stalled. The open space district insisted that the Defense Department pay to demolish and haul away the old buildings, but the Pentagon did little. As a result, the summit remained padlocked and off limits for 31 years. Its 88 buildings became a crumbling ghost town contaminated with asbestos and lead paint.

In the 1980s and 1990s, bicyclists were regularly chased off Mount Umunhum Road by angry locals, occasionally brandishing shotguns.

The district, which is based in Los Altos, steadily bought up land around the mountain. It now owns roughly 18,000 acres in an area it calls Sierra Azul Open Space Preserve. But the summit remained closed, in part due to a feud between former open space General Manager Craig Britton and Loren “Mac” McQueen, whose family owns several hundred acres near the summit. But Britton retired in 2008 and McQueen died in 2007.

When Abbors became general manager of the district, he made cleaning up the site a priority. Former U.S. Rep. Mike Honda, D-Campbell, and Rep. Zoe Lofgren, D-San Jose, secured $3.2 million from Congress in 2009, which paid for the hazardous materials to be removed and the buildings demolished.

The district’s original estimate to clean and restore the summit was $11 million in 2009. But high bids during the Bay Area construction boom, soaking winter weather last year and other factors caused the price tag to rise to $25 million. Most of the money, about $17 million, came from Measure AA, a $300 million bond that voters passed in 2014 to fund the Mount Umunhum work and 24 other projects around the district.

As the grand opening looms, the excitement is coupled with some concern about crowds, vandalism and fire risk. Neighbors want the district, which has hired two extra rangers and two maintenance people, to patrol regularly and securely lock down access at night.

“It’s amazing how much they’ve done,” said neighboring property owner Scott McQueen. “I think people will really enjoy it. Let’s see how the park can be opened and how safety is maintained. It would be wonderful if the sheriff never has to go up there.”



©2017 the San Jose Mercury News (San Jose, Calif.)

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