Remembering Sanborn Park Hostel: For 30 Years a Place for Travelers, Backpackers and Families

The Sanborn Park Hostel is a beautiful historic log house hidden among the coastal redwoods of Sanborn Park County Park near Saratoga, California. Sadly, after a 30 year run, the hostel recently closed its doors. Shown above is how it appeared at the time of the closing in 2010. Below is how it appeared in its heyday – in the late 1980s and early 90s.

Sanborn Park Hostel
Sanborn Park Hostel – a view from its heyday in the late 1980’s and early 90’s.

This hostel was a friendly place to stay for backpackers, international travelers, bicyclists, Scout troops, church groups, students on field trips and families who needed a weekend away from the frantic place of Silicon Valley.

Visitors could explore miles of trails in the 3,688 acre park, discover a nearby section of the San Andreas Fault, enjoy a short hike to a Nature Center, take a picnic to a nearby winery or enjoy a cookout under a grove of redwood trees.

The Hostel always provided programs and trips to help ‘tell the story’ of the local area for those who were curious. Like the park and the redwoods around the building, the hostel also has a story.

For hundreds of years the local area was visited by native Ohlone people. Signs of their acorn grinding mortors can be found on monolithic rocks that now form an entry to Hostel grounds. The Grizzly Bear once lived in this park. Forests of old growth redwood trees blanketed the hillsides; several large redwood stumps eight feet in diameter are still in the woods if you know where to look.

In 1908 the Honorable Judge Welch built a large log style summer cottage. He named it, “Welch-Hurst.” The name was derived from his name and the word Hurst, meaning woods or a grove. The Judge planted several orchards in the area. He also had a vineyard. He turned a nearby sag pond (sag ponds are natural pools found along the path of the San Andreas Fault) into a picturesque pond with a small island, footbridge, waterfalls and large lily pads. The pond was home to fish, frogs and an assortment of ducks and geese.

In the 1950s a man named Pick lived in the log style house. Mr. Pick had discovered Uranium in the west (Wyoming or Colorado) and sold his claim to the U.S. military earning several million dollars at the time. With part of his fortune he bought “Welch-Hurst” and he renamed it “Walden West.” The name was derived from the book, “Walden,” by author, philosopher, and naturalist, Henry David Thoreau.

Pick added a number of buildings in the area including a small complex of buildings that housed early IBM employees and possibly helped to incubate some thinking that led to modern Silicon Valley. Today, the buildings of Walden West provide outdoor education programs for students.

In the 1960s and 70s the house rapidly passed between several owners and the structure was in serious decline. In the 1970’s Sanborn Park was being expanded and the old house was purchased by Santa Clara County. Estimates at the time to renovate the deteriorating Welch-Hurst house was estimated at half-a-million dollars, too much for county coffers, and the house was scheduled for demolition.

Sanborn Park Hostel
Sanborn Park Hostel’s Madrone and Redwood Staircase.

In 1979, as destruction seemed imminent, the volunteers of the Santa Clara Valley hostelling club stepped forward with a box of hand tools and $460 in the bank to finance their reconstruction project. They were given the go-ahead. Year-after-year volunteers completely rebuilt and refurbished the Judge’s old home. In the main house they preserved the original rock fireplace and the beautiful madrone and redwood staircase (shown). They also reconstructed the old carriage house turning it into a modern building with beautiful pine ceilings and wooden floors – all the time using as much wood from the original structure as possible. Tax dollars were never used to restore Hostel. This effort was entirely self-funded.

The hostel’s ‘Golden Age’ was in the late 1980s and the early 1990’s when the Hostel’s 39 beds were completely booked.

After the horrible events of 9/11 in 2001 international travel plummeted. Seeing a backpacker from Europe was a rare sight. American travel also declined during this time as a strained U.S. economy, lessening vacation time for families, increasing insurance costs and a host of other reasons impacted travel and the Hostel. These forces slowly took their toll and Sanborn Park Hostel closed in 2010.

When the hostel closed the price to stay for one person was $14, the lowest overnight fee at any hostel in the United States.

The County has no plans for the historic Welch-Hurst building which the Hostel rented from the Parks Department. The refurbished one-hundred year old house will likely be boarded up and forgotten. The building is on the Registry of National Historic Places.

I have many fond memories of the hostel. While in college I worked as a ‘Houseparent’ at Sanborn Park Hostel. At the time I wanted to travel, but could not; working at the Hostel provided an opportunity for the travelers to come to me. The Hostel provided me with rich opportunities to learn about different cultures and to meet a wide variety of people. During this time I met thousands of people and some special travelers from Australia, New Zealand and Austria became life-long friends. One wonderful woman traveling from overseas eventually became my wife.

At times the hostel had a ‘magic.’ One such time involved an evening sitting in front of the large stone fireplace in the living room. A small but bright fire burned. About fifteen people, of all ages, some from overseas, sat on the sofas. We talked about the world. At one point someone brought out some sweet crackers, then someone else made tea for the group. We all talked late into the evening about ideas, places to travel and shared stories. It was an evening that fed the soul. This might sound odd, but if you find yourself in such a setting ask how people sing ‘Happy Birthday’ in their native language. It is a great way to make friends and end an evening with a smile.

In the 30 years as a Hostel 157,460 people stayed as overnight guests. This number included visitors from 99 foreign countries and all 50 states. Foreign travelers accounted for 20 percent of the total visitorship; that is roughly 31,500 visitors who chose to explore and experience America.

Four points are especially noteworthy about Sanborn Park Hostel’s 30+ year run.

  • The work to refurbish this historic 100 year old building was done entirely by volunteers.
  • Not one penny of public money was ever used to refurbish or operate the building – it was entirely self funded.
  • During the hostel’s entire history, it had the lowest overnight fee of all US hostels, only $3 in 1979 to $14 when it closed.
  • In the 30 years of being a Hostel that 157,460 overnight visitors stayed here; with visitors from 99 foreign countries and all 50 states.

The organization who started Sanborn Park Hostel will continue their famous monthly pot-luck and slide show dinners on the last Thursday of the month at the Saratoga Community Center. Plus, some of the resources from Sanborn Park Hostel have been used to further Hostelling along California’s Central Coast. So in a sense, although the Hostel is gone it will continue in spirit.

It is sad to see the Hostel go, but the Hostel’s newsletter said it with dignity, “Closing the Sanborn Park Hostel is bitter-sweet, but birth and death are both nature’s ways.”

To learn more about hostelling visit these sites:
http://www.hihostels.com
http://www.hiusa.org

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