Villa Montalvo has a unique vibe, perhaps resulting from the seamless combination of the arts and the natural beauty of the surrounding parklands. It checks multiple boxes: family friendly hike, cultural excursion, local adventure. If you are interested in sharing the arts and the outdoors with your family, make sure a hike, or even a stroll around the grounds, makes it onto your list of things to do in the South Bay.
- Main Entrance: 15400 Montalvo Rd Saratoga, CA 95070 (Park in Parking Lot 4)
- Parking: Currently no entry or parking fees
- Hours: 8am – Sunset
- Trail Map
- Dog Friendly: Yes, dogs welcome on trails but not the gardens.
- Stroller Friendly: Not recommended.
- Park Features: Hiking Trails, Gardens, and Contemporary Art Installations. All performances and art education programs are currently on hold due to Covid-19 Guidance. The Villa Montalvo Association is offering virtual classes.
- Trails We Visited: Lookout Trail, Nature Trail, Redwood Trail (About 1.2 Miles)
- Our Visit Elevation: 402 feet.
- Our Time: A little over an hour with stops.
- Remember to check Santa Clara County Park Site for the latest updates related to Covid-19 safety guidance.
In my early 20’s, I had an odd recurring daydream that someday I would get married at Villa Montalvo. The strange thing about this fantasy is that I had never even stepped foot on the property. I can’t recall how this arts and nature center seeped into my consciousness, but when I finally arrived some 20 years later, what I experienced resonated with my 40+ year old self just as much as it had captured the attention of the wedding-obsessed earlier version of me that I remember. This doesn’t happen often without a strong dose of nostalgia.
I’m grateful for that graying impression and the Saturday morning a couple of weeks ago when I was scrolling through recommendations for hikes near me and noticed a post about hiking behind the Villa. I didn’t want that Saturday to turn into another endless stream of cartoons, so we grabbed our masks and the dog leash, said goodbye to the Wild Kratts, and herded the family into the car for another local adventure.
I hadn’t yet thought about the Santa Clara County Parks Project, but if I had, this is what the map would have looked like. The County Parks we’d visited at that point are in green, with parks yet to visit in blue. Villa Montalvo is in red.
Montalvo Trails: Day 1
This was one of our first hikes in the Santa Clara County Park System, and in my rush to get out of the house that morning, I honestly didn’t do very much research. I knew to go to parking Lot 4 (check!) and had glanced at an online map, but I didn’t pay a lot of attention to details. Everything looked simple online, so I thought we’d just figure it out when we arrived.
We were all smiles as we set off from the parking lot. My intention was to do the Lookout Trail around to the N. Orchard Trail, but just a few hundred feet in, it was clear that that wasn’t going to happen. The trail was not stroller friendly, at least not for our wide Double Bob, and John was already giving me the grumpy “are you kidding me?” glare as we approached the Belvedere Temple 0.1 mile into the trail.
So, here’s the thing with John. He will complain and complain about all of my ideas and outings, until he’s in the middle of them and starts enjoying himself. So I take the grumpy phase in stride. I did a quick calculation and suggested that we turn off onto the Nature Trail another 0.1 mile into the hike instead. It helped. The Nature Trail was easier with the stroller, and soon he was having fun with the rest of us. And he really liked this rock.
The Redwood Trail
By the time we connected to the Redwood Trail both boys were ready to explore on their own. PJ Masks-obsessed Bug jumped out and joined his brother in imagining the perfect site for their next “HQ.”
I couldn’t help but think back to the trails next to our old home in Virginia, which was on a lovely wooded lot. I’ve often missed our neighborhood, and the fact that we didn’t even have to walk a full block before jumping onto the closest trailhead at the end of the street. But today was a reminder that few places can compare to hiking through a redwood grove as sunshine filters through. As a second time around Californian, I hope I never take that for granted again.
The crowds seemed to be picking up as it got closer to noon, so after re-connecting with the Lookout Trail at a junction with the Redwood Trail we made our way back to the Villa via Poet’s Walk. We made up stories as the landscape transitioned from the woods back to the arts center. The boys imagined abandoned civilizations as we tucked into a few little nooks off the trail. Further down, as the boys explored the Villa balconies, I made a note to check out their art education programs when they’re available again. It doesn’t take much imagination to see how Montalvo serves as an inspiring setting for artistic creation.
Contemporary art, art education, and lovely hiking trails…seriously, how could it have taken me 40 years to get here?
As we reached The Great Lawn of The Arboretum we decided to stretch out for a few minutes so the boys could have their apple sauce and gummy snacks. They immediately fell in love with the space, and ran back and forth between some of the nearby trees. I showed them how to properly roll down the small hillside and let myself enjoy the moment. Sunshine and giggles are reliable stress relievers.
John and I shared a laugh as our pup Brody also seemed to enjoy shimmying down the hill on his back as the boys ran around in the distance. It was a rewarding little escape from reality, and it made me wonder about all of the other parks near home that we hadn’t discovered yet.
Tadpoles and Contemporary Art
Given that the boys have spent a lot of time in and around museums, they can get pretty excited about artistic discoveries. To me, outdoor installations feel more immediate and relatable. There’s just something refreshing about finding art in a context far removed from gallery alarms.
Our favorite work that day was Cameron Hockenson’s “Control Tower.” We all found an angle of interest, and it made me curious to know more about other works by the artist who explores themes such as dwellings and memory.
Crossing the walk toward the parking lot, we had to stop by Mermaid Pond. Low and behold, the boys spotted some tadpoles, a subject of fascination for both of them this season. It was the perfect conclusion to our little excursion, and left us looking forward to a return visit.
Montalvo Trails: Day 2
Since we weren’t able to check out Lookout Point on our first visit with the stroller, we decided to head back out again the following Friday afternoon. I was relieved to see few cars in the parking lot, but it didn’t take long to realize why. It seemed a bit windy as we drove in, but our concern grew as we moved deeper into the trails and watched the branches sway above our heads. We scuttled up to Lookout Point, only to see a fire in the distance. It seemed to echo our discomfort that day.
We hurried down as quickly as possible, with one branch falling behind Bug and I as we passed by. It was all too close for comfort. We did our best to put on a show of adventure for the kiddos, but we were all relieved when we reached the Villa again.
JJ misunderstood our pace, and thought we were trying to get to the car before the trail closed. He had imagined being in the woods overnight with no camping equipment. As we buckled him up in the car, he told us how excited he was to get home and see his favorite stuffed animal. Talk about guilt!
In short, our first couple trips out were lessons in preparation, or rather, lack thereof. Going forward we’ll be doing much more research on trails and weather conditions before heading out, and we’ll happily share it all with you!
Villa Montalvo County Park Features
- Santa Clara County Parks manages the hiking trails on the park grounds south of the Villa. The Villa Montalvo Association manages all other areas of the park, including the Arboretum and Gardens. Both the trails and gardens are open for visitors to walk through during Covid-19 restrictions, though dogs are not allowed in the garden areas.
- The Arts on the Grounds program installs works by contemporary artists throughout the grounds and hiking trails. This site provides more information about the works that are currently on display, as well as as works that have been displayed previously.
- Due to Covid-19 restrictions, Villa Montalvo’s on site performing arts and art education programs are currently closed. The Arts Center is offering a wide range of virtual classes until programming resumes.
Next Up on Our Villa Montalvo County Park List:
On our first visit, my attention was more focused on hiking than the arts. Now that I’ve learned more about Montalvo’s art programs, I’d like our to turn our attention toward the installations. I think JJ would love to discover The Fieldwork Collaborative’s “Curiosity Fieldstation.” I’m also personally interested in listening to Howard Hersh’s, “Four Bridges,” though I think it might be best for a day I can explore on my own.
As always, check the official park website before heading over to learn the latest Covid-19 updates and recommendations.
Who Lived at Villa Montalvo Before It Was a Park and Arts Center?
Built in 1912, Villa Montalvo is a national historic landmark that was once the country home of San Francisco Mayor and California Senator James Phelan (1861-1930). Phelan named the Villa for the 16th century Spanish writer, Garci Ordonez de Montalvo, who first imagined a utopian land called California in his novel Las Sergas de Esplandián. During Phelan’s era, the Villa was known as a center of artistic and social life where California artists and writers were able to visit and work on projects with the gorgeous setting as creative inspiration. In his politcal career, Phalen was also known to promote racist and nativist politics, eventually leading to the Immigration Act of 1924 which banned Japanese immigration to the United States. In 1930, Phalen died and deeded the property to the San Francisco Art Association to be maintained as a public park with the grounds to be used by artists and art students. Today, the Montalvo Arts Center recognizes its complex history and looks to be a community catalyst for discourse and cultural dialogue. It is home to the Lucas Artists Residency, which supports emerging artists, and offers a multifaceted arts program that explores the intersections between the arts and natural beauty.
Thanks for joining us on our first Villa Montalvo Adventures! Please share your own thoughts, ideas, or Montalvo photos in the comments. We hope you’ll join us on the next trail as we continue exploring our local parks!