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Palo Alto considers relaxed rules for Foothills Nature Preserve entry

As early problems diminish, city looks to change visitor cap, abandon planned reservation system

Hikers walk towards Wild Horse Valley in Foothills Park, the upstream area of Buckeye Creek. Embarcadero Media file photo by Veronica Weber.

When Palo Alto opened the once exclusive Foothills Park to the broader public at the end of 2020, the number of visitors instantly spiked and one City Council member described a weekend visit to the normally serene nature preserve as "Disneyland."

With rangers reporting damaged trails and nearby residents complaining about parking and traffic problems, the council reacted by lowering the cap on the number of people who can be at the newly christened Foothills Nature Preserve, by instituting a $6 vehicle fee and by exploring new policies, such as a reservation system for people wishing to book a visit.

A year later, the hype has diminished and so have most of the problems. According to Community Services Department staff, the number of visitors hasn't reached the capacity limit of 500 since early April. There hadn't been any parking problems at the preserve and the early problems with visitors wandering off path have been alleviated through signage and, in some cases, rope barriers.

The number of visitors remains far higher than it had been historically, when only Palo Alto residents and their visitors were allowed to visit the preserve. But it has also dipped substantially since the early days. According to Community Services Department data, there were about 42,000 visitors to Foothills in January 2021, just before the city implemented its entrance fee. This is 321% higher than the city's historical average for January, according to Daren Anderson, assistant director at Community Services Department.

In March and April, there were about 27,000 visitors per month, which was about 125% higher than historical average. By August and September, the number of visitors fell to 18,847 and 18,450, respectively.

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Overall, the number of people at the park has roughly doubled with the resident-only provision eliminated. Visitation in 2021 had an increase of 107.5% from the three-year average of about 127,387 between 2017 and 2019.

That has not had a noticeable effect on the preserve, he said. Anderson said in a report to the Parks and Recreation Commission earlier this month that the lowering of the visitor cap from the traditional level of 1,000 to 500 has helped eliminate problems in the park. The new fee, which is only being collected on the weekends, also helped, he said. About 59% of the visits to the nature preserve occur on the weekends.

'Previously observed issues with visitors going off trail and increased parking and traffic issues have greatly diminished.'

-Daren Anderson, assistant director, Community Services Department

"When the visitor limit was reduced to 500 and the and weekend entry fee was implemented, the preservation and capacity have been noticeably more manageable," Anderson said. "Previously observed issues with visitors going off trail and increased parking and traffic issues have greatly diminished."

While the council gave city staff the discretion to lower the visitor capacity to 300, the city had not had any reasons to do so, he said.

Given the latest trends, the city is now taking a fresh look at its rules for the preserve — in many cases to make it easier for visitors to enjoy the preserve. The Parks and Recreation Commission recommended on Dec. 14 that the city raise the lower limit of the visitor cap from 300 to 400 (though under most circumstances it would remain at 500). It also suggested that the city halt exploration of a reservation system, which is now deemed unnecessary, and that it loosen the rules for students wishing to visit the park. Currently, students who drive to the park get free entry. Under the new rules, students would get a 50% discount on annual passes. However, they would only have to be present in the car and not actually driving.

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Anderson said the existing student policy has created confusion for visitors over the past year.

"It's led to a number of arguments at the entrance station, which sometimes contributes to vehicles backing up and having to wait to get in," Anderson said.

The commission also recommended new policies that provide free annual passes to members of the military, veterans and individuals with disabilities, as defined by the California State Parks system (this includes developmental, hearing, speech, visual, mental and physical disabilities).

While most of the revisions are designed to make visitation to the park easier, the commission balked at removing one existing rule that many in the bicycling community want to see gone: a prohibition on bicycling through Gate D, which serves as an access point between Arastradero Preserve and the Foothills Nature Preserve. Palo Alto adopted this law to comply with a 2005 agreement with Santa Clara County that required the city to provide pedestrian (though not bicycle) access to the Bay-to-Foothills trail.

Now, with Foothills Nature Preserve open to the broader public, the city's leading bike advocates are arguing that the prohibition is no longer necessary. Paul Goldstein, a member of the Palo Alto Pedestrian and Bicycle Commission, was one of several residents who urged the commission to abolish the rule. He noted that both nature preserves allow bicycling.

"The current prohibition makes no sense, since bicycles are permitted on the approaches at both sides," Goldstein told the commission. "The prohibition is a relic of the time that Foothlls was open to Palo Alto residents only and the gate was made accessible to hikers to the Bay-to-Reach as a condition to get grant money."

Robert Neff, who also serves on the bike commission, argued that there is "no intrinsic reason for the gate to be closed to bicycles anymore." Palo Alto resident Cedric de la Beaujardiere concurred and said that opening the gate would make conditions safer because it would obviate the need for bicyclists to rely on Page Mill Road to get to Foothills Nature Preserve.

"The logic of saying, 'No we don't want people who do dangerous things,' doesn't make sense because it's much safer to be coming in that way than coming up the road," de la Beaujardiere said.

'The current rules just penalize people who follow the rules.'

-Keith Reckdahl, member, Palo Alto Parks and Recreation Commission

The parks commission agreed that opening the gate to bicyclists would improve connections in the city's trail network and increase recreational opportunities for bicyclists. Commissioners remained concerned, however, that opening the gate would spur an increase in bicyclists riding the wrong way on the one-way road and the city does not have enough staffing in place to enforce compliance with trail rules.

Four commissioners supported keeping the existing rules in place, with only Commissioner Keith Reckdahl voting to allow bicycle access at Gate D and Commissioner David Moss abstaining.

Reckdahl argued that the upsides in expanding access outweigh the downsides. He also noted that some bicyclists already ignore the existing prohibition.

"The current rules just penalize people who follow the rules," Reckdahl said. "The people who don't follow the rules are already going through that gate and are already in Foothills preserve. Right now, we're not penalizing the right people."

Most of his colleagues favored a more cautious approach, with Commissioner Many Brown recommending opening bike access for guided tours on certain days. The majority ultimately decided not to move ahead with any changes at this time. Commissioner Jeff Greenfield suggested that "the timing just isn't right to be pursuing this," given all the other recent policy changes.

Commission Chair Anne Cribbs agreed and said she supports keeping the prohibition in place for at least the next few years so that the city has a chance to better assess the impacts of its other policies in the nature preserve.

"I'd like to keep it closed until we have a bit of a rest, acknowledging that we're in favor of connecting things," Cribbs said.

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Gennady Sheyner
 
Gennady Sheyner covers the City Hall beat in Palo Alto as well as regional politics, with a special focus on housing and transportation. Before joining the Palo Alto Weekly/PaloAltoOnline.com in 2008, he covered breaking news and local politics for the Waterbury Republican-American, a daily newspaper in Connecticut. Read more >>

Follow Palo Alto Online and the Palo Alto Weekly on Twitter @paloaltoweekly, Facebook and on Instagram @paloaltoonline for breaking news, local events, photos, videos and more.

Palo Alto considers relaxed rules for Foothills Nature Preserve entry

As early problems diminish, city looks to change visitor cap, abandon planned reservation system

by / Palo Alto Weekly

Uploaded: Thu, Dec 30, 2021, 9:39 am

When Palo Alto opened the once exclusive Foothills Park to the broader public at the end of 2020, the number of visitors instantly spiked and one City Council member described a weekend visit to the normally serene nature preserve as "Disneyland."

With rangers reporting damaged trails and nearby residents complaining about parking and traffic problems, the council reacted by lowering the cap on the number of people who can be at the newly christened Foothills Nature Preserve, by instituting a $6 vehicle fee and by exploring new policies, such as a reservation system for people wishing to book a visit.

A year later, the hype has diminished and so have most of the problems. According to Community Services Department staff, the number of visitors hasn't reached the capacity limit of 500 since early April. There hadn't been any parking problems at the preserve and the early problems with visitors wandering off path have been alleviated through signage and, in some cases, rope barriers.

The number of visitors remains far higher than it had been historically, when only Palo Alto residents and their visitors were allowed to visit the preserve. But it has also dipped substantially since the early days. According to Community Services Department data, there were about 42,000 visitors to Foothills in January 2021, just before the city implemented its entrance fee. This is 321% higher than the city's historical average for January, according to Daren Anderson, assistant director at Community Services Department.

In March and April, there were about 27,000 visitors per month, which was about 125% higher than historical average. By August and September, the number of visitors fell to 18,847 and 18,450, respectively.

Overall, the number of people at the park has roughly doubled with the resident-only provision eliminated. Visitation in 2021 had an increase of 107.5% from the three-year average of about 127,387 between 2017 and 2019.

That has not had a noticeable effect on the preserve, he said. Anderson said in a report to the Parks and Recreation Commission earlier this month that the lowering of the visitor cap from the traditional level of 1,000 to 500 has helped eliminate problems in the park. The new fee, which is only being collected on the weekends, also helped, he said. About 59% of the visits to the nature preserve occur on the weekends.

"When the visitor limit was reduced to 500 and the and weekend entry fee was implemented, the preservation and capacity have been noticeably more manageable," Anderson said. "Previously observed issues with visitors going off trail and increased parking and traffic issues have greatly diminished."

While the council gave city staff the discretion to lower the visitor capacity to 300, the city had not had any reasons to do so, he said.

Given the latest trends, the city is now taking a fresh look at its rules for the preserve — in many cases to make it easier for visitors to enjoy the preserve. The Parks and Recreation Commission recommended on Dec. 14 that the city raise the lower limit of the visitor cap from 300 to 400 (though under most circumstances it would remain at 500). It also suggested that the city halt exploration of a reservation system, which is now deemed unnecessary, and that it loosen the rules for students wishing to visit the park. Currently, students who drive to the park get free entry. Under the new rules, students would get a 50% discount on annual passes. However, they would only have to be present in the car and not actually driving.

Anderson said the existing student policy has created confusion for visitors over the past year.

"It's led to a number of arguments at the entrance station, which sometimes contributes to vehicles backing up and having to wait to get in," Anderson said.

The commission also recommended new policies that provide free annual passes to members of the military, veterans and individuals with disabilities, as defined by the California State Parks system (this includes developmental, hearing, speech, visual, mental and physical disabilities).

While most of the revisions are designed to make visitation to the park easier, the commission balked at removing one existing rule that many in the bicycling community want to see gone: a prohibition on bicycling through Gate D, which serves as an access point between Arastradero Preserve and the Foothills Nature Preserve. Palo Alto adopted this law to comply with a 2005 agreement with Santa Clara County that required the city to provide pedestrian (though not bicycle) access to the Bay-to-Foothills trail.

Now, with Foothills Nature Preserve open to the broader public, the city's leading bike advocates are arguing that the prohibition is no longer necessary. Paul Goldstein, a member of the Palo Alto Pedestrian and Bicycle Commission, was one of several residents who urged the commission to abolish the rule. He noted that both nature preserves allow bicycling.

"The current prohibition makes no sense, since bicycles are permitted on the approaches at both sides," Goldstein told the commission. "The prohibition is a relic of the time that Foothlls was open to Palo Alto residents only and the gate was made accessible to hikers to the Bay-to-Reach as a condition to get grant money."

Robert Neff, who also serves on the bike commission, argued that there is "no intrinsic reason for the gate to be closed to bicycles anymore." Palo Alto resident Cedric de la Beaujardiere concurred and said that opening the gate would make conditions safer because it would obviate the need for bicyclists to rely on Page Mill Road to get to Foothills Nature Preserve.

"The logic of saying, 'No we don't want people who do dangerous things,' doesn't make sense because it's much safer to be coming in that way than coming up the road," de la Beaujardiere said.

The parks commission agreed that opening the gate to bicyclists would improve connections in the city's trail network and increase recreational opportunities for bicyclists. Commissioners remained concerned, however, that opening the gate would spur an increase in bicyclists riding the wrong way on the one-way road and the city does not have enough staffing in place to enforce compliance with trail rules.

Four commissioners supported keeping the existing rules in place, with only Commissioner Keith Reckdahl voting to allow bicycle access at Gate D and Commissioner David Moss abstaining.

Reckdahl argued that the upsides in expanding access outweigh the downsides. He also noted that some bicyclists already ignore the existing prohibition.

"The current rules just penalize people who follow the rules," Reckdahl said. "The people who don't follow the rules are already going through that gate and are already in Foothills preserve. Right now, we're not penalizing the right people."

Most of his colleagues favored a more cautious approach, with Commissioner Many Brown recommending opening bike access for guided tours on certain days. The majority ultimately decided not to move ahead with any changes at this time. Commissioner Jeff Greenfield suggested that "the timing just isn't right to be pursuing this," given all the other recent policy changes.

Commission Chair Anne Cribbs agreed and said she supports keeping the prohibition in place for at least the next few years so that the city has a chance to better assess the impacts of its other policies in the nature preserve.

"I'd like to keep it closed until we have a bit of a rest, acknowledging that we're in favor of connecting things," Cribbs said.

Comments

TR
Registered user
Menlo Park
on Dec 30, 2021 at 11:45 am
TR, Menlo Park
Registered user
on Dec 30, 2021 at 11:45 am

Are they kidding with this argument over bike access?

- Obsolete rule based on prior access restriction
- Alternative is dangerous and problematic
- They don't want it because people might ride the wrong way IN the park? Seriously? But ignoring the fact that people who ignore one way streets probably ignore the sign anyway.
- They don't have the staff to enforce the one way road but they think they a) have the staff to enforce the passage and b) could give GUIDED TOURS? What the heck is that idea. Oh, right Palo Alto City Council idea to prevent DOING something.

Conclusion:
- Opening the park worked out fine after some BRIEF adjustment time. (duh, Forbidden Park was opened and more people wanted to see it. That should have been expected for a while)
- Now more people are enjoying a lovely park and they aren't causing trouble
- We are arguing over ANOTHER dumb rule that is a legacy rather than being sensible and simply allowing bikes to cross the threshold. NOTE: Bikes ARE ALLOWED on both sides of the gate. The ban is on crossing the imaginary line.


TimR
Registered user
Downtown North
on Dec 30, 2021 at 12:45 pm
TimR, Downtown North
Registered user
on Dec 30, 2021 at 12:45 pm

A main thing that keeps the trails in Foothills NP so wonderful is the ban on bikes on the trails (same goes for Los Trancos Park). Bikes basically ruin them for pedestrians, and require monitoring and closure when it's wet, so the bikes to totally destroy them.

And in my opinion, opening Gate D to bikes would only temp more people used to riding on Arastradero trails to continue onto the trails at Foothills. Maybe a very big sign would help, but Arastradero is so popular with cyclists, I don't see how temptation wouldn't be there. And with no enforcement capability, it would be hard to stop (and no one wants to end up being a "Karen" these days). As it is, I do see tire marks on the trails in Foothills occasionally, but I suspect they're from local kids riding "after hours."

As for Los Transcos not having a problem with cyclists breaking the rules, it's not a very popular park, and anyone heading up there just goes to the much more popular Montebello. So it's not a Foothills NP situation up there.

Any decision about allowing easier bicycle access MUST first and foremost consider potential impact on the condition of the trails. It's Foothills NP greatest feature, and must be carefully protected.


Bystander
Registered user
Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Dec 30, 2021 at 1:00 pm
Bystander, Another Palo Alto neighborhood
Registered user
on Dec 30, 2021 at 1:00 pm

I was hoping for more information.

What about the numbers of people who are buying season passes? How much money has been generated by the gate fee? How much has the work to change the name, put up signs, etc. cost against the revenue from gate fees and season passes? Who are buying the season passes, are they from Palo Alto or non-residents? How many senior passes compared to general passes?

As for the bikes, there are obviously many bikes using the trails. The biggest problem is if you encounter a bike and need to move out of the way, you might end up with a steep cliff either side which makes moving aside impossible or you might end up wandering into poison oak. I think there are also many mtv strollers which have big wheels and are also a problem on narrow trails for similar reasons. A mtv stroller, hiking stroller, can be loaded quite heavy and is likely to do as much damage as someone on a bike. They are wide and very difficult to pass.

I think a better article covering the costs/revenue is necessary.


Donald
Registered user
South of Midtown
on Dec 30, 2021 at 3:49 pm
Donald, South of Midtown
Registered user
on Dec 30, 2021 at 3:49 pm

'The current rules just penalize people who follow the rules.'

I would say that the CURRENT LACK OF ENFORCEMENT of the rules is what penalizes those who are obedient. It is not the rules themselves that are the problem. Rules without enforcement are always difficult.


Deborah
Registered user
Evergreen Park
on Dec 30, 2021 at 3:57 pm
Deborah, Evergreen Park
Registered user
on Dec 30, 2021 at 3:57 pm

It seems there is some confusion. The commission is in no way considering allowing bikes on trails. Bikes on trails are not allowed. If you encounter one, please alert a ranger.

Changing the rules to allow bikes to legally travel from Arastradero Preserve to Foothills means allowing bikes to go from a 25' wide compacted, gravel/rocked road to the paved one way road that connects the valley to the vista/overlook. That's all.


Deborah
Registered user
Evergreen Park
on Dec 30, 2021 at 4:00 pm
Deborah, Evergreen Park
Registered user
on Dec 30, 2021 at 4:00 pm

Seems to me the commission has taken to route familiar to almost all council and commission decisions, that being the most cowardly possible.


TimR
Registered user
Downtown North
on Dec 30, 2021 at 4:39 pm
TimR, Downtown North
Registered user
on Dec 30, 2021 at 4:39 pm

Deborah, but to ride up the gravel Arastradero park road to Gate D basically requires a bike with some kind of "off road" capabilities (I've tried it on a road bike, and had to walk both up and down the steep part--and I have extremely good bike handling skills). And someone with that kind of bike is out there for, well, off road/trail stuff. Foothills doesn't offer any of that. What it does offer for cyclists is paved roads, which is why road cyclists who are already on Page Mill often stop by Foothills for the views. I just don't see how offering mountain bikers (and others with similar bikes) a pass into Foothills gives anyone very much. And it would certainly temp some to break the rules and bomb down the Coyote Trail, for example, when no one's looking.


Jonathan Brown
Registered user
Ventura
on Dec 30, 2021 at 5:48 pm
Jonathan Brown, Ventura
Registered user
on Dec 30, 2021 at 5:48 pm

Palo Alto City Council needs to also consider opening access to Tierra Arboles/Los Trancos Road. That would substantially increase connectivity to other trail networks and alleviate bicyclist frustration by offering more loop and access opportunities. Right now there's just a fence separating the end of the trail beyond Oak Grove and the connecting road.

Opening Gate D to bikes makes sense. Many people have bikes that can handle dirt and road. I have been in this quandary many times encountering the gate after sweating up Arastradero Creek Trail on my bike (I've even biked up to Foothills to go on a run, then biked home). Clearer, more prominent signage and increased enforcement are already needed given the number of bikes and e-bikes in the preserve. I have encountered bikes on the "no bikes allowed" trails, and there's not much recourse when you're 25 minutes' or more away from the entrance station and/or there are no rangers in the hut.

Other access points should also be considered at Madera Point, Alexis Drive, and Ramona Road.


Jeremy Erman
Registered user
Midtown
on Dec 31, 2021 at 7:55 pm
Jeremy Erman, Midtown
Registered user
on Dec 31, 2021 at 7:55 pm

Despite the hoopla over non-residents historically not being allowed into the park, the city for years only staffed the main entrance on weekends and holidays, so the prohibition was essentially only in effect on weekends. But without regular staffing, how can the city claim to know how many people visited the park before it was opened to everyone? Are there cameras or sensors at the main gate? Did someone count cars in the parking lot and guess how many people came in each one? Did anyone ever do a survey to find out if non-residents were visiting the park on the five days a week when no one checked IDs?


Serg
Registered user
Evergreen Park
on Jan 1, 2022 at 6:56 pm
Serg, Evergreen Park
Registered user
on Jan 1, 2022 at 6:56 pm

What most people don't know is that, most of the employees that works at Foothill Nature Preserve are part-time employees and don't get pay more than $20 dollars per Hr. The CSD manager should think about that and recognize that to live in this area on $20 bucks per Hr is painful. I know couple part-time employees that I see at the kiosk working from 8 am till the park closes. I spoke with them and they told me that manager don't care a thing for them. I am an union guy and I think it is not right for a city like PA to don't realize that. I see all the Palo Altans driving up there in their Teslas without thinking about how the city is compensating those employees.


It.is.what.it.is
Registered user
Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Jan 2, 2022 at 11:35 pm
It.is.what.it.is, Another Palo Alto neighborhood
Registered user
on Jan 2, 2022 at 11:35 pm

What about ditching the fee for Palo Altans since we pay for the park when we pay our taxes?! Why should we have to pay twice?


Robert Neff
Registered user
Midtown
on Jan 3, 2022 at 6:20 pm
Robert Neff, Midtown
Registered user
on Jan 3, 2022 at 6:20 pm

@Jonathan Brown - I think there is private property between Los Trancos Road and the gate leaving the Park. Unfortunate. A connection to Los Trancos Road would be terrific.

There are all kinds of bicyclists. There are cyclists who really want to see all single track accessible. The proposed change does not serve them. There are mixed-terrain cyclists who are looking for more possibilities, on a mountain bike, gravel bike, hybrid, or just a road bike with 25 mm tires (Good luck!). I'm one of those. I don't mind the limitation of staying off the single track, because the connection would let me string together rides on pavement, gravel, and dirt in loops connecting the preserves, Palo Alto, and Los Altos Hills. Commissioner Reckdahl's description that this rule only penalizes the rule followers is spot on, and I am disheartened by Chair Cribbs' assertion that it would be fine to just keep this rule for at least the next few years.


S. Underwood
Registered user
Crescent Park
on Jan 3, 2022 at 6:36 pm
S. Underwood, Crescent Park
Registered user
on Jan 3, 2022 at 6:36 pm

@Serg -- CSD Management is a disaster indeed. That's known to folks paying attention, so don't feel like you are alone.


Hanky
Registered user
Southgate
on Jan 3, 2022 at 7:01 pm
Hanky, Southgate
Registered user
on Jan 3, 2022 at 7:01 pm

CAMELOT-Get-Real!--The-FHP-controversy-seems-pretty-petty;-poison-oak-and-all.--Perhaps-it's-time-to-stroll-the-Apple-campus?--"Who's-John-Galt"?


Serg
Registered user
Evergreen Park
on Jan 4, 2022 at 10:12 pm
Serg, Evergreen Park
Registered user
on Jan 4, 2022 at 10:12 pm

Indeed Underwood. Shame on Palo Alto CSD. Also not forgetting to mention that those part time employees have no work benefits at all.


Reid
Registered user
another community
on Feb 26, 2022 at 12:30 pm
Reid, another community
Registered user
on Feb 26, 2022 at 12:30 pm

Wait, they don't have enough staff to enforce one-way-cycling-only, but somehow have enough staff to keep bicycles off the fire road? I'm looking at a huge map of the trails in the Bay Area, and it's insane that every park is an island and silly rules are preventing people riding from park to park or connecting through heavily trafficked roads. I can see why hikers don't want people on mountain bikes bombing down trails, but I can't understand why we can't use a fire road to connect to other parks.


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