I decided to write my next Mercury News column on Rancho San Antonio County Park and Open Space Preserve, so I stopped by the park yesterday to refresh my memory of the trails out that way. Hadn’t been there since November 2006, when I bypassed most of the popular trails in favor of the 14-miler up to Black Mountain and back.

The column’s running on Valentine’s Day, so I’m advancing a theory that Rancho is a great place to test whether your current squeeze is a real hiker or somebody who swaps walks in the woods for cuddle time in the great indoors.

The weekend crowds, parking aggravations and lack of signature attractions make Rancho seem like a third-rate hiking locale at first glance. Rancho’s charms are subtle, like breezes carrying a whiff of bay leaf, and notable to perceptive veteran hikers. Most of the trails are wide enough for walking and talking; the hills are steep enough for a good warm-up without inducing cardiac arrest. Prime terrain for compatibility testing.

If things work out, you’ve got dozens more superior hiking options around here; and if they don’t, you haven’t spoiled a perfectly good hike at one of your favorite places.

I did take my camera along; let’s look at some pictures:

Morning at Rancho San Antonio County Park

There are always people at Rancho, even on a Monday morning. It was an excellent day for hiking … chilly at first but warming up as the sun rose higher in the sky.

Wildcat Canyon Trail

Rancho’s throngs evaporate once you get past Deer Hollow Farm. I headed for Wildcat Canyon Trail, which is always nice. I skipped the loop and headed to Upper Wildcat Canyon. Didn’t spot a wildcat, but I did see a coyote (the picture didn’t come out, alas). The sound of water running in the canyons at Rancho makes winter one of the best times to visit. The mud was mildly annoying, but I’ve hiked in much worse.

Vistas galore

It was vistas galore once I got up out of the canyon.

Still a bit of snow

Mount Hamilton still had a bit of snow up there.

San Francisco in the far distance

Not enough smog to block the view of San Francisco, 40 miles to the north.

Runner dashes past

I headed back down on the Upper Rogue Valley Trail — I suspect this one doesn’t get much traffic, which is just as well. It’s a nice, mostly shady walk.

Pond along the Rogue Valley Trail

If you’ve done the Black Mountain hike you’ve no doubt passed the site of this pond and wondered where the water is. Seems it fills up only after many days rain. Not sure how long it lasts, but it must not be long because I saw only one duck (they have an amazing knack for finding permanent bodies of water, no matter how remote).

Scarecrow tends his crops

I stopped back by the farm on my way back. It’s closed on Mondays, otherwise I’d have gotten some swell pix of the roosters crowing.

Nice day for a walk

Nice day for a walk, if I do say so.

Map to the park:
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