The Camera, the Pack, and the River

February 2019 Experiment Hiking Photo & Video

The tale

The past few months were the wettest I’ve seen in California. Maybe that’s not saying much, but I can only take so much cold, windy, rainy weather.

So when the clouds cleared, I decided to visit out a new local park.

I say “new,” but Alum Rock Park has been around since the late 1800s. It began life as a mineral spa. Today it’s a well-kept city park with ruins.

Alum Rock is a short stretch of forested valley along the Penitencia Creek. It’s also less than half an hour away from downtown San Jose, so if the weather turned unfavorable, at least I’d have a short ride home.

The GoPro experiment

There was one hitch. The day was less about hiking and more about videography.

I borrowed a friend’s GoPro Hero 5, complete with a battery-powered handheld stabilizer, to see if I could capture video while hiking. With some velcro, an elastic band, and a carabiner for extra safety, I strapped the camera to my left shoulder strap. Results were mixed. But it was worth a shot.

GoPro strapped to my pack
The GoPro camera strapped to my daypack’s shoulder strap

Alum Rock Park, named for a supposedly-aluminum-laden mountain, was once an outdoor spa with mineral springs. I couldn’t see evidence of the former restaurant, indoor pool, or dance pavilion, but the park today is well-kept, easy to access, and popular.

Weeks of rain turned the park’s creek into a churning river.

The creek after weeks of rain
The stream was active after weeks of rain.

I left my car in the westernmost parking lot, just outside of the ranger station, to see the most of the park’s few trails. Most of the hiking trails follow the creek, so walking there and back again was the straightforward plan.

At the trailhead I walked around to make sure the camera wouldn’t flop loose. That wasn’t the problem; controlling it was.

Tied to my shoulder, I couldn’t see the camera’s viewfinder. That meant I couldn’t aim it. Most of my videos were either so far left that I recorded sideways, or so far right that my stubbly face and ungainly hat jutted into the shot.

Rains made the creek active

Camera aside, the park and its trails make for a pleasant stroll through native woodlands. After weeks of rain, the trees and ground cover were green. The air was chilly, reaching about 55°F that afternoon. But my windbreaker kept me comfortable throughout the day.

Alum Rock Park trail
The weather was pleasant for an afternoon hike.

The rushing stream was never far from the trail. Brown with sediment, it washed westward through the watershed. Both the paved two-lane road and the muddy track followed it towards the Diablo Range foothills. Yet again I was glad for my trekking poles on stretches of ground that alternated between sticky and slippery.

Muddy trail and pools of water
No surprise here: mud and standing water were common.

Aside from the occasional car, San Jose seemed hours away. Dense undergrowth and twisting oak trees gave way to hillside views between jutting outcrops of granite.

Granite valley walls
Granite outcrops bordered the steep-walled valley.

In the east, the spa’s remains are easy to spot. Some are even worked into the trail — or vice versa — though I wouldn’t want to relax in them now. Most are overgrown, crumbling, or stagnant. But it’s easy to see how this was a popular place to retreat from the city in the late 1800s and early 1900s.

Remains of a spa pool
The mineral spa ruins looked inviting — a hundred years ago.
Bridge in the mineral spa area
A bridge near the spa area connects the paved road and a muddy trail.

I returned to my car the western trailhead after a leisurly stroll. Alum Rock Park is casual, close, and muddy. And the camera’s battery died half-way through it.

For next time

  • Free parking is available at different spots in the park. Might save some time driving further east instead of walking.
  • Check weather conditions.
  • Probably best to avoid crowds on holiday weekends with good weather.
  • Don’t tie a camera to your pack.