The Los Altos Hills pathway system has been under development for over 14,000 years

Les Earnest <les at>



The Los Altos Hills pathway system substantially predates the Town. Some paths in use today were started by early settlers who arrived at least 14,000 years ago and possibly much earlier. Depending on whose theories you accept, they came either by boat from Siberia to Alaska and down the coast or over a land bridge that existed between Siberia and Alaska when sea levels were lower during the last ice age until about 12,000 years ago. Based on linguistic and DNA evidence, at least three waves of immigrants evidently came to populate all of the Americas.


Trails developed by early settlers undoubtedly followed still earlier trails created by deer, mountain lions, bears and other animals. The early settlers’ trails frequently followed creeks, to provide access to water and game, and to link villages that were generally built along creeks that flowed year-around. One such place was next to Adobe Creek in the Normandy Lane area. Other trails went over the mountains to the ocean and down to the bay and still others went along the Peninsula to connect with neighboring tribal groups.


Those trails were used by early Spanish explorers such as the group led by Juan Bautista de Anza, who initiated European settlement of Northern California in 1776 and who brought cattle and horses with them. Horses had originally evolved in North America millions of years ago, then migrated across the land bridge to Asia and diversified there. However the horse population in North America then disappeared for some reason until Europeans brought them back to their ancestral home.


In the early 1800s two Spanish ranchos were created in the area now occupied by Los Altos Hills and the trail system was further developed for cattle ranching. Because of the height of mounted horsemen, trails going through wooded areas had to be reworked to provide greater overhead clearance.


There were few roads in the Los Altos Hills area until after the 1849 gold rush. By the 1890s there was some rural development, especially of summer homes owned by wealthy San Franciscans. Increasingly, trails were converted to roads to serve various horse-drawn vehicles. Pedestrians, horsemen and bicyclists also used the roads but often found it more convenient to use more direct trails.


Trains began running through what is now called Los Altos in the early 1900s, bringing more development, and cars and trucks began appearing on roads. However the hills remained largely undeveloped aside from increasing numbers of apricot orchards and the like. People continued to use the trails to get around on foot, by bicycle or by horse. There were almost no fences or gates aside from those around corrals and residents generally had no objections if neighbors took shortcuts through their property.


Many residents kept horses and there were a number of stables around the area where hills residents and flatlanders could board horses. Morgan Manor, an early mansion off Stonebrook Drive, had a colorful history and was used for a time as a brothel. It could be accessed either by road or by pathway, which allowed horsemen and hikers to access their services discreetly.


In response to a post-war building boom the City of Los Altos was incorporated in 1952. The name “Los Altos” (“The Heights”) had originally appeared on maps and in general use referring to the hills above that town but inasmuch as they were the first to apply for that name they got away with this identity theft.


Hills residents, fearing that they might be gobbled up piecemeal by Los Altos and wishing to be able to control growth and settlement density, incorporated in 1956. Unfortunately they chose the Spanglish name “Los Altos Hills”, which has led to endless confusion. The media and general public generally seem to think that Los Altos Hills is the hilly part of Los Altos rather than a different city. The decision to incorporate reportedly was helped along by a rumor that a black religious sect headed by Father Devine, based in Philadelphia, was interested in buying Morgan Manor. As it turned out, Father Devine went elsewhere and Morgan Manor later became a private elementary school called Ford Country Day School.

Los Altos Hills thus was founded as a mostly white, upper middle class, horse-oriented culture. Stated objectives of the Los Altos Hills founders were to maintain a rural atmosphere, prohibit commercial enterprises and sustain the pathway system. However some of that changed over time as the apricot and prune orchards of the Santa Clara Valley, then called The Valley of Hearts’ Delight, fairly rapidly changed into the world-leading technology entrepreneurship called Silicon Valley.


Along the way, Los Altos Hills became more gentrified and the pathway system, which had been the lifeblood of the region for thousands of years, got politicized. For a discussion of later pathway developments go to the blog at Voices of Los Altos Hills and read “Where did the pathway system come from?”


Other postings on Los Altos Hills by Les Earnest