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February 8, 2011

Jacks Peak County Park

"I don't want the world to see me -
'Cause I don't think that they'd understand -
When everything's made to be broken -
I just want you to know who I am."

- Goo Goo Dolls, "Iris" (video after post)

Perched on a hilltop overlooking the Monterey Peninsula, Jacks Peak County Park is something of a hidden gem for trail runners. At merely 500 acres, the park is really too small to do any high-mileage training – but the trails it does have are beautiful, and the park boundary also contains the highest point in the Monterey Peninsula.

My preferred running route is a perimeter tour that provides a great sampling of all the park has to offer, and is the easiest way to rack up 6 or 7 miles without having to backtrack. And on a day last week when most of the rest of the country was bracing for heavy February snowfall, Jacks Peak seemed like a great place to celebrate being a Californian.

Before we get rolling with the tour, a brief note about the name of the place: Scotsman David Jacks arrived in California during the Gold Rush and settled in the pueblo of Monterey just prior to California statehood in 1850. In the aftermath of the statehood movement and the Mexican-American war, he progressively – and quite controversially – became one of the wealthiest land owners in the state, at one point owning more than 100,000 acres in Monterey County, including most of the Peninsula.

Over the years his property was parceled out and changed hands several times, but the Jacks influence is still prominent in Monterey. Landmarks and roads bear his name, and one of his dairy farms was the origin of perhaps his best-known contribution to society: Monterey Jack cheese, which was first produced near the banks of the Salinas River. And then there’s the namesake peak, standing over the city as a monument to the guy who once owned nearly all of it.

The funny thing is, as far as peaks go, Jacks is rather unimpressive: it stands only 1068’ above sea level – by comparison, my favorite ridgeline in Carmel Valley (which technically isn’t part of the Peninsula) is more than 2000’ - and for the most part lacks the wide sweeping vistas that you hope for when climbing to the highest point in any given area. However, none of that changes the fact that it’s a cool little place to run, so I’ll stop the history lesson here and just get to the tour.

Despite its proximity to neighboring cities, the park has a very remote feel to it. To get there, you have to drive away from the city limits, climbing through pine and cypress forests until you’ve reached a small parking lot in a hilltop hideaway. It takes less than 10 minutes to get there, but it feels like you’re leaving the whole world behind.

Incidentally - see that city above? That’s not Monterey; it’s actually the neighboring town of Seaside, adjacent just to the north. The route I take for this run doesn’t offer a direct Monterey view until the very end, but it’s always worth the wait to get there.

I park outside the main entrance, and jog past this sign that consistently befuddles me. For the remainder of this report, let’s pretend that trail running isn’t a sport, OK? Otherwise I might get in big trouble.

Entering the park is like stepping into another world. The first stretch of trail reminds me of running in the Sierras, with its tall evergreen trees, soft pine needles underfoot …

… and cool vistas that periodically open up before you. In this shot, my route will eventually take me down the left side of the far valley and back up the other side, towards the Peak that is out of the frame to the right.

There are a few family picnic areas in the park, such as this one at the trailhead to the Earl Moser trail, named after one of the early trail benefactors at the time the park was established.

I’m thinking that Earl must have liked single track, because his trail contains a lot of it …

… as well as a few small meadows that almost take you by surprise when you encounter them. For the vast majority of time you spend on this side of the park, you’re completely enveloped in the tall pines, almost making you forget that you’re anywhere near the ocean …

… except for periodic glimpses of the coastline jutting into the ocean from a distance.

After a long gentle downhill into the valley, there’s a trail junction that always does two things to me: 1) gets me excited that I’m approaching the final climb to Jacks Peak, and 2) irrevocably plants the intro song into my head for the rest of the run. It’s happened enough times that I know not to try changing it: there’s simply no way I can run on the Iris Trail and not carry the Goo Goo Dolls’ "Iris" along with me.

Although it’s plainly a love song, the chorus is still somewhat appropriate: I don’t want the world to see me. It’s extremely rare that I encounter anyone else on this trail, which is exactly the way I like it when I’m looking to escape the day for a while. That kind of feeling in that kind of setting is simply the most wonderful experience I can ask for – and the Iris Trail never fails to deliver. I just want you to know who I am.

After a roller coaster climb, the trail finally emerges from the tree cover to offer views of coastal hills in the distance …

… before rewarding you with a wide-open look at Carmel Bay and Point Lobos at the southern end of the Monterey Peninsula. Remember how I said that Jacks Peak itself is rather unimpressive? Climbing up it is somewhat anticlimactic as well. This vista is seen from the lower shoulder of the peak on the south side; from here, the trail switches back and forth up toward the top …

… with the killer view fading into the trees the whole way. From a scenic standpoint, this section of trail is definitely a prospect of diminishing returns …

… because by the time you reach the actual top of Jacks Peak, your view has all but vanished. On the plus side, there’s a nice little bench to sit on, and a patch of grass to throw a ball around in … if sports were legal here, that is.

It’s not until you descend down the opposite side of the peak that you get your only direct view of the city of Monterey. The wait is rewarding, though, as the sight of Monterey gently sloping down to meet the sea always fills me with joy.

At the observation point, I decided to goof around a little bit and show off the new shoes I was wearing, but the lighting for this picture was terrible. I’m still including it, though, because here’s what I had to do to get this shot: 1) balance my camera on a small rock on top of a larger rock on top of a sloped bench seat, 2) hop up from the log on the ground to the 4”-wide railing without injuring myself, and 3) stand up without losing my balance and pitching over the 50’ drop on the other side ... all within 10 seconds. I just hate to have an effort like that go wasted.

Nevertheless, I did recognize that the shot of my shoes was pretty bad, so …

… I sat down on a log to take another one. It’s a prototype of something that should come to market later this year. Unfortunately, at this point I think that’s just about all I’m allowed to say.

Continuing along the trail, you turn away from Monterey and soon see the city of Seaside through the trees again, meaning that you’re close to the main park entrance and the end of the run. I usually linger at the car and take in the view while stretching for a few minutes before heading back to rejoin the rest of the world below.

Finally, here’s one more shot of my footwear, the style of which should be a dead giveaway for anyone who’s followed this blog for a while. Rest assured I’ll post more information about them as soon as I can.


As for the song, I have one more connection to it that is completely unrelated to running. Back when I was a baby blogger, one of the first writers I discovered was a remarkable girl who was dealing with more hardships at a very young age than most people have to face in their entire lives. She poured her heart into her writing, revealing both stark vulnerability and an admirably strong spirit. One day she used this song to conclude a particularly memorable post – her blog is private now, otherwise I’d link to it – that immediately hooked me, and commenced what became my favorite “blogger relationship” (yes, there are such things) over the years.

And in case you’re wondering … yes, my wife knows about all this, and she happens to love the girl too. So there’s nothing sneaky going on, aside from a song that simply gives me a lot of happiness.

Goo Goo Dolls, "Iris" (click to play):

*See other photo tours under tab at top of page.

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wayne 2/9/11, 4:22 AM  

Looks like the elves have been busy :).

JimDog 2/9/11, 6:05 AM  

"if sports were legal here" LOL!!!

My kids just watched "City of Angels" for the first time last weekend!!! My oldest cried at the end just like I thought she would :-)

Oh and I second what wayne said.

Donald 2/9/11, 7:30 AM  

Wayne, JimDog: Yeah, I didn't think the mystery would be very tough to crack ... well done.

Elizabeth 2/9/11, 9:23 AM  

That look so beautiful, all my trails are covered with the white fluffy stuff and grey skies, so it was nice to see that.

Jen 2/9/11, 9:32 AM  

Beautiful! It's nice to see there's good weather somewhere!

Stephen Boulet 2/9/11, 10:06 AM  

Interesting design. It looks like the sole is composed of separate sections. This is what goes on in Santa's workshop in the off-season.

Sylvia 2/9/11, 12:02 PM  

I love Monterey Bay.. have you had a chance to visit Big Sur?..Has some of my favorite trails & scenery. Definitely worth checking out just like Jacks Peak :)

Andy 2/10/11, 7:06 AM  

tabi, podded outsole for additional flexibility (and thin-ness)... as if the elves could get any more funky. and perhaps in time for spring?

John Nguyen 2/10/11, 9:38 AM  

That does sound like a nice little park to run in! I've been in Monterey before wondering where to run. Now I know of one! Thanks!

mclight81 2/10/11, 9:40 AM  

not really a mystery. I'm excited for those to come out.

Carrie 2/10/11, 11:32 AM  

Love you both ;)

Darrell 2/13/11, 8:37 PM  

Although it is not nearly as scenic as your Jack's Park, getting away from the world is exactly why I love to run in Bonelli.

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