Handley Rock: Redwood City’s gift to rock climbers

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Handley Rock, a rare geological formation in the Emerald Lake area of Redwood City, has cleaned up its act – with a little help from its friends.

Featuring a series of caves, the rock, the centerpiece of a privately owned park, was for decades the target of vandals and graffiti attacks. A 1992 letter to the editor from someone living near the huge boulder complained that the rock and its beckoning caves were “a 24-hour-a-day, 365-day-a-year hangout for largely underage drinkers, dopers, trashers and partiers.”

Arrests were few until 2017 when 10 vandals were identified and paid hundreds of dollars in fines. There were three incidents of swastikas being sprayed on the rock. Advances in technology get much of the credit for the arrests. As one online poster asked: “What part of ‘security cameras in use’ don’t people understand?”

Bill Vinci, current chair of the Handley Rock Park Association, doesn’t want to focus on the negative. “By and large the park is a treasured respite of open space,” he said. “It’s also deeply valued in the rock-climbing community.” For example, he pointed to the Bay Area Climbing Coalition whose members cleaned up the park in April, calling the work by volunteers “a real blessing.”

The sandstone monolith, about 50-feet tall at its highest point, is located on Handley Trail Way in the center of Emerald Hills. The only such rock in an urban area in San Mateo County, it resembles “skull rock,” the jungle home of the title character in “The Phantom” cartoon strip. Scientists say the caves were formed by water percolating through the sand and dissolving the cement holding the sand grains together.

The association, a private group of local residents and rock-climbing enthusiasts, operates the park. Not just rock climbers use the park. It also is a favorite of bike riders, walkers and picnickers. The area was so appealing, that 25 years ago owners Bev and Bill Oldfield wanted to preserve it as open space, which led to the formation of the association. Bill tried to donate it to the county but was rebuffed because of the small acreage involved. The association was thus born, thanks to help from the Access Fund, an open space group.

In a 1980 interview, Oldfield reported having problems with undesirable visitors. “Three years back a tough crowd got in there,” he told the Times Tribune newspaper. “I was hauling hundreds of bottle away. But with the sheriff’s help, I finally got the problem under control.”

Times Tribune reporter Janet Reinka wrote “rocks don’t change much but the people who visit them do.” She noted that the rock “was once a beehive of young children” who gradually had been replaced by mostly young adults. The lowest of the rock’s caves was known as “The Devil’s Cave,” which was big enough for three or four children to sit in and picnic or pretend to be Tom Sawyer. “For many who grew up in Redwood City, Handley Rock was one of the best secret places a child could find,” Reinka continued. “Former Sheriff Earl Whitmore and his brother Bob used to hike there from Birch Street to camp in the caves.”

So who was the Handley in Handley Rock? According to researchers at the history room of the Redwood City library, John Handley owned farming land in the area. He was also a deputy assessor. A son became a San Francisco police officer, while several girls in the family were teachers.

“The Handley family is identified with the early history of this city,” said a 1929 newspaper article about the retirement of Richard Handley from the police force. “The old timers will recall the boyhood of the retiring policeman and his sturdy father, who assisted in the upbuilding of Redwood City.”  The article described Richard Handley as nearly seven feet tall and 275 pounds, a man with “squared shoulders, without an ounce of superfluous flesh, a perfect giant.”  In hindsight, that sounds like the job qualifications for a guard who could scare away troublemakers at Handley Rock.

This story was originally published in the September print edition of Climate Magazine. 

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