Search the Archive:

April 20, 2005

Back to the Table of Contents Page

Back to The Almanac Home Page


Publication Date: Wednesday, April 20, 2005

Cover story: Stately nature -- A haven for wildlife and a sylvan site for hikers, the Phleger Estate in Woodside is a hidden gem Cover story: Stately nature -- A haven for wildlife and a sylvan site for hikers, the Phleger Estate in Woodside is a hidden gem (April 20, 2005)

By Andrea Gemmet

Almanac Staff Writer

George Durgerian's enthusiasm for the woodsy terrain of the Phleger Estate is infectious. An interpretive ranger for the Golden Gate National Recreation Area, his fondness for the 1,200-acre national park, from its dense redwoods to its dramatic history, is practically palpable.

"It's in really good shape," he says as he strides along a muddy trail near the burbling waters of McGarvey Gulch Creek. "It is as close to pristine as any place in the Golden Gate National Recreation Area."

He stoops to check the back of a gold dust fern for the yellow powder that leaves an imprint of the fern when you pat it on your jeans, but it's too early in the season.

Mr. Durgerian, who's led hikes and programs at the Phleger Estate for the 10 years it's been in the national park system, is leading his last hike through the park on April 30. Budget cuts have "redeployed" park rangers to other locations, and as of this spring, there will be no rangers assigned to San Mateo County.

Mr. Durgerian is now working at Alcatraz, but he's managed to schedule one more guided tour through his old stomping grounds.

Sandwiched between Huddart County Park in Woodside and the San Francisco Watershed land to the north, the Phleger Estate is part of a 55-square-mile wildlife corridor that stretches from Sweeney Ridge in San Bruno to Teague Hill, just south of Huddart Park.

The former site of sawmills, it contains second-growth redwood forests, oak woodlands, serpentine grasslands, and a host of wildlife, including eagles, bobcats, newts, steelhead trout and red-legged frogs.

Mr. Durgerian has a story, anecdote or clever mnemonic for just about everything he finds along the path.

"Hairy Hazelnut" has fine whiskers covering her leaves. The horsetails growing along the creek are among the earth's oldest plant species, with fossil specimens as tall as trees found in Australia, he says. The ruddy madrone trees' unique bark makes them cool to the touch. Whimsically named fairy rings are circles of redwood tree clones that have sprung up around the stump of a felled tree, he says.

Fishing a tan oak's acorn cap from the leaf litter along the trail, Mr. Durgerian recounts a Native American tale about the very first tan oak's refusal to tidy herself up before the Great Spirit sent her to earth, resulting in the wildly ungroomed appearance of her acorns.

One of Mr. Durgerian's favorite stories about the park recounts how it became a national park in the first place. The Phleger Estate could have ended up as a subdivision of luxury homes, if not for a herculean effort by the Peninsula Open Space Trust to preserve the land its staff dubbed "the heart of the Peninsula forest."

Originally the site of a Native American settlement, the land became part of the Rancho Canada de Raymundo, a 12,000-acre Mexican land grant.

The property was the site of sawmills and a great deal of logging during the 1800s, according to Mari Zachary, historical research intern for the National Park Service.

A portion of the property eventually passed into the hands of the Spring Valley Water Co. and two country estates were commissioned by its president William Bourn -- Filoli to the north, where the Bourns lived, and Summerholm, with a mansion designed by architect Gardner Daily, for Spring Valley's vice president George Eastman.

In 1935, the 1,232-acre Summerholm estate was bought by powerful San Francisco attorney Herman Phleger and his wife Mary Elena, and renamed Mountain Meadow, Ms. Zachary said.

Peninsula Open Space Trust (POST) staff were interested in preserving the Phleger Estate for years, says POST president Audrey Rust.

"The very first thing in our files is a memo about Herman Phleger saying, 'How do we find out about his property?'" she says.

Its location is key to its importance, Ms. Rust says.

"This property is completely surrounded by protected land. It's right in the heart of our hills, it's the backdrop for this part of the Peninsula," she says.

So in the late 1980s, when POST heard that the now-widowed Mary Elena Phleger was interested in finding a use for the land that would pay for the estate taxes after her death, POST competed with other conservation groups as well as for-profit interests to determine the future of the land, says Ms. Rust.

"There was a lot of drama, there was a lot of risk-taking," she says.

Ms. Phleger agreed to take a risk on a small open space organization that had never tackled such a big project. POST committed to paying $25 million for the land when the largest project it had done up until that time was a $6 million purchase, Ms. Rust says. POST officials anticipated having several years to work on fundraising, but in 1990, just after concluding months of negotiations, Ms. Phleger died before the agreement could be signed.

The financial package included an anonymous POST donor putting up his company's stock as loan collateral, proceeds from the sale of the 1927 Gardner Daily house and 24 acres of land to Gordon and Betty Moore, a huge community fundraising effort and contributions from the Midpeninsula Regional Open Space District and Save the Redwoods League.

POST essentially staked its future on the entire deal going through.

"I personally was working six days a week, 14 hours a day," Ms. Rust recalls. "My husband was bringing me dinner at work. We were a very small organization at the time."

Putting the money together on short notice was enough of a challenge, but extending the boundaries of the Golden Gate National Recreation Area to include the Phleger Estate, enabling it to be transferred over to the National Park Service, was something of a minor miracle. It took the intercession and sustained efforts of several politicians, including Rep. Tom Lantos, Sen. Alan Cranston, Sen. Dianne Feinstein, and Rep. Anna Eshoo, Ms. Rust says.

Everyone in conservation circles felt sorry for her, she says, since she was relying on a freshman congresswoman to secure the necessary legislation.

"Anna Eshoo was a dream," says Ms. Rust. "I was the first person to walk into her office. I said, 'Anna, I have your project.' She pulled in all the resources, she networked, she really did it for us."

The Phleger Estate officially opened to the public as part of the Golden Gate National Recreation Area in 1995.

These days, traces of its history are still visible on the Phleger Estate.

Imprints of old skid roads and the crumbling remnants of a sawmill from its logging days remain, though few people looking at the dense redwood canopy realize that the trees are not original old-growth, "an unintentional advertisement for sustainable logging," says Mr. Durgerian.

While the official trail signs are so unobtrusive that they're easy to overlook, there are still fanciful trail signs in the shape of a Sioux Indian on horseback that mark where the Phlegers used to ride their horses.

The San Andreas fault, which runs through the property, delineates the history of the land on a much grander, geological scale.

As for natural attributes, the Phleger Estate has plenty. Dramatic vistas may be in short supply, but there are fern-lined creek banks, towering trees, and quiet, meandering trails a-plenty. In spring, wildflowers dot the forest's undergrowth, including iris, milkmaids, Trillium, hound's tooth and redwood sorrel, says Mr. Durgerian.

The Phleger Estate is a bit hard to find. The easiest way to gain access is to start at Huddart Park's Zwierlein picnic area, and hike along the Crystal Springs Trail to Richards Road, where a fork in the path leads into the park. The Phleger Estate's location raises its status from a merely pretty swath of forest to a vital link in a huge wildlife corridor surrounded by increasingly developed Peninsula communities.

For POST, its success with the Phleger Estate enabled it to tackle its next big project -- Bair Island, home to numerous birds and now part of the Don Edwards San Francisco Bay National Wildlife Refuge, says Ms. Rust.

In fact, you can see the Phleger Estate from Bair Island, she says. The estate forms part of a trail that will one day lead from Bair Island in the Bay across the Peninsula, all the way to the Pacific ocean, she says.

"We were able to achieve financial success with it that allowed us to move forward," says Ms. Rust. "Now we had good donors, and not just the confidence, but the resources that allowed us to grow."

She confesses that back when she was busy showing the estate to prospective donors, she was on the Phleger Estate so often that there were times when she thought that she'd be happy to never go walking on the property again. That's no longer the case, though.

"I just love it. It is wonderful," Ms. Rust says with a contented sigh. "I'm so glad I've gotten over that feeling."

To hike Phleger Estate

The 1,200-acre Phleger Estate can be entered via Huddart County Park in Woodside, located off Kings Mountain Road about 1.5 miles from its intersection with Woodside Road. Access is from Richards Road. Maps are available at Huddart Park, which has a $5 entrance fee.

To take a guided hike on the Phleger Estate with Ranger George Durgerian on Saturday, April 30, call for reservations: (415) 561-4323. The somewhat-strenuous 6-mile hike through the redwoods meets at Huddart Park. Bring a lunch and water, and wear sturdy hiking shoes.

The Golden State National Recreation Area has information about the Phleger Estate on its Web page:

Two hikes on the Phleger Estate are recommended in Peninsula Trails by Ladera resident Jean Rusmore. The newly updated fourth edition of the book was recently published by Wilderness Press,

A detailed trail map of the Phleger Estate and Huddart Park can be downloaded for a 49-cent fee at Click on "maps."

E-mail a friend a link to this story.

Copyright © 2005 Embarcadero Publishing Company. All rights reserved.
Reproduction or online links to anything other than the home page
without permission is strictly prohibited.