Short hikes to the majestic alpine lakes of northern California’s Trinity Alps Wilderness are relatively difficult to come by, as distance and elevation gain puts many of them out of reach to day hikers. Even rarer are trails accessible by way of only paved roads – the vast majority require braving gravel tracks of questionable condition, easy for jeeps and SUVs but dicey for your average sedan. That’s what makes the 5-mile hike to and from the South Fork Lakes in the northern Trinities special: a beautiful spot that feels remote and off-the-beaten path, yet—due to its location off paved Cecilville Road (Route 93)—reasonably accessible to travelers. But driving there is the easy part, as the hike itself requires a grueling climb of more than 900 feet in less than 1.5 miles. Hikers are rewarded with majestic solitude at the two alpine lakes, however, increasingly rare as the Trinities—once one of California’s best-kept secrets—sees more and more crowds. (Note: There are also some previously disturbed camping spots at the upper lake for those who seek a short, overnight backpacking trip.)
Although reasonably associated with the Trinity Alps, the South Fork Lakes are technically situated in the western Scott Mountains, a scenic range that extends more than 20 miles between the Trinities and Shasta Valley. (Note: The Salmon Mountains, which span the Russian Wilderness, are also located just north of here.) Most day hikers will reach the lakes by way of the Carter Meadows Summit Trailhead, situated atop a high pass between the Salmons and Scotts in Klamath National Forest, 12 miles southwest of the sleepy town of Callahan on Cecilville Road (Route 93). (Note: Through-hikers on the Pacific Crest Trail, however, may also visit South Fork Lakes as a short detour.) Park at the small lot at the trailhead at about 6,150 feet in elevation.
Carter Meadows Summit is a waypoint on the 2,650-mile Pacific Crest Trail (PCT), which passes through the trailhead and serves as the initial thoroughfare for day hikers heading to the South Fork Lakes. From the trailhead, head south into the conifers, staying left as the Hidden Lake Trail bears right. (Note: The 2-mile round-trip trip to Hidden Lake is even shorter but less rewarding than South Fork Lakes. It has been described as “the easiest trail in all of the Trinity Alps.”) From here the PCT begins to descend at a modest clip, hugging a hillside as it enters the Trinity Alps Wilderness, a more than 500,000-acre wonderland of granite crags, thick forests, and remote alpine lakes.
From here the descending trail approaches the upper reaches of the Scott River watershed. Briefly emerging out of the trees, hikers get a glimpse of the stony divide to the south. The prominent knob in the middle is an unnamed peak at 7,166 feet, low compared to the Sierra Nevada but high enough to be surrounded by snow until late spring. The high notch that contains the South Fork Lakes remains just out of view to the right, behind a towering crag of 7,450 feet.
At about 4/10 mile, hikers reach the first of several stream crossings. In late spring or early summer, expect water levels to be high enough to get your feet wet – so plan to bring hiking sandals or waterproof boots. Just beyond the tumbling creek, the incline eases, but the trail continues to shed elevation—a loss that will be made up in earnest in the steep ascent to come.
Just short of the one-mile mark, the trail crosses a second stream—this is the South Fork of the Scott River, which is fed by the South Fork Lakes and nearby snowmelt and flows all the way down to Callahan and the Scott Valley. High volume brings rushing cascades, beautiful and picturesque in late spring. This crossing is arguably easier than the first, although, again, be prepared for wet feet.
Beyond, the PCT begins to gradually climb, abruptly reaching a junction with the South Fork Lakes Trail at around 1.1 miles. The spur trail is not marked, but a sign on the opposite side of the trail—which indicates distances on the PCT to Carter Meadows and Scott Mountain—marks the junction.
Bear right on the South Fork Lakes Trail, which almost immediately starts to climb amid thick woods. Hikers will cover about 900 feet in elevation gain in the next 1.4 miles. After a reasonably mellow ascent through the forest, the canopy opens up into a beautiful meadow, about 1.4 miles from the trailhead. The grassy patch is rather boggy, especially after recent snowmelt.
It is at first unclear which way the trail goes from here, but hikers should eventually catch sight of the tread heading off to the right, crossing two forks of the river that both require some modest rock-hopping. An imposing granite slope stands between you and the lakes, ushering in a brutal climb for the next half-mile that is one of the toughest in the Trinities.
The ascent begins by switchbacking up a pine-studded pitch, then traverses a relatively level willow patch that is fed by numerous springs. Here hikers are briefly distracted by the open views down the South Fork valley toward Callahan before the trail exits the brush and resumes its steep climb. The next section features loose rock and some decent exposure as the South Fork Lakes Trail approaches a scenic outcrop at about 1.8 miles. Here there may still be some snow early in the summer season.
The final ascent is the steepest, abandoning switchbacks in favor of a straightaway pitch that is likely to leave even experienced hikers huffing and puffing. But, at last, at about two miles, the path levels off and crests a high saddle, revealing another wooded basin ahead. From here it is a quarter-mile of relatively level and easy walking to the first of the two lakes—Lower South Fork Lake.
The first lake is smaller and less scenic than the second, but it is worth stopping to admire the beautiful stillness or try to spot fish swimming along the shallow shores.
Technically the ongoing trail skirts the western shore of the lake, then bears left and eastward, climbing again to the crest of the mountains. However, after clearing the lower lake, hikers will want to divert off to the south, traversing off-trail through relatively brush-free woods for 1/10 mile to reach the ultimate destination: Upper South Fork Lake.
The upper lake, situated in a glacial cirque flanked by stunning granite hillsides, is far more scenic than its lower and smaller cousin. In late spring, snowmelt produces rushing waterfalls that plummet into the chilly waters. The lake is quintessential Trinity Alps: beautiful, serene, and quiet, surrounded by intimidating walls of stone. Brave souls can take a dip in the glacial water—but expect something akin to a polar bear plunge.
Upper South Fork Lake is a nice spot to spend an afternoon—after all, staying awhile makes the steep ascent worth it. But once you are ready to go, return the way you came, tackling the challenging incline in reverse. Once back on the PCT, hikers will suddenly remember the initial descent from the trailhead—which now turns into a nearly 400-foot gain.
Despite the relatively short distance of five miles round-trip, expect this strenuous hike to take upwards of 3-5 hours.
While Kangaroo Lake is a fairly popular spot in northern California’s Klamath National Forest, the trails that take off from this camping and fishing destination see far less traffic than the lake itself. The switchbacking Fen Trail provides access from Kangaroo Lake with the Pacific Crest Trail (PCT), but the 1.25-mile path is more than a mere connector trail: along the way, hikers enjoy excellent views across the various ranges of the Klamath Mountains, as well as a bird’s eye view of the lake and close encounters with Darlingtonia californica—the California pitcher plant—a carnivorous plant shaped like a cobra. Onward hikers can follow the PCT to nearby destinations, such as Scott Mountain, Cory Peak, and Bull Lake.
Kangaroo Lake is nestled amid the northern slopes of the Scott Mountains, a more than 20-mile stretch of the Klamaths that runs east-west through north-central California. Though remote, the lake is relatively easily accessible—one can take paved roads all the way (a stark contrast with the nearby Trinity Alps). About halfway along the Gazelle-Callahan Road, which connects Highway 3 with Old Highway 99, look for a signed turnoff to Kangaroo Lake Campground in Klamath National Forest. From here, the spur road winds seven miles up into the mountains, topping off at a large parking area with access to the shores of the lake.
While the Kangaroo Lake Trail is partly paved and takes off right from the parking area, reaching the Fen Trail requires backtracking down the access road about 400-500 feet and crossing Rail Creek. (Note: There is also a gravel pull-off here that provides access specifically for the Fen Trail.) A prominent trail sign on the south side of the road signals the start of the Fen Trail (alternatively known as Kangaroo Fen Trail or Fen Nature Trail).
The short but steep trail begins to ascend from the start, albeit at a mild incline. Pines, firs, and hemlocks blanket the craggy slopes, and the trail quickly passes clear indicators that one has entered the trail’s namesake environment: grassy wetlands fed by mineral-rich stream water. Unlike bogs, characterized by the presence of standing water, fens tend to be located on slopes and are fed by flowing streams.
Minutes into the hike, the easily-discernable path crosses an old road bed, then bears left up a switchback, the first of many on the hike. An interpretive sign on the left direct hikers to look down the hill toward a sea of Darlingtonia californica, or California pitcher plants. These cobra-shaped bulbs are carnivorous, using smelly secretions and their bright-colored spots to attract and trap insects, which are later digested. This is the best spot on the trail to spot the pitcher plants, although they are scattered in patches elsewhere in the area.
After rock-hopping across Rail Creek, hikers will reach an attractive rock outcrop on the left, offering the hike’s first unobstructed views of the surrounding landscape. To the north, one can see across the Little Scott Mountains and the Mineral Range to the Siskiyou Range, which crosses into Oregon. On clear days, one can spot Oregon’s Mount McLoughlin (9,493’), an impressive volcanic peak in the Cascade Range to the northeast. Off to the west are the Salmon Mountains, Marble Mountains, and Russian Wilderness, also sub-ranges of the Klamath Mountains. The highest peak in the foreground, off to the right, is nearby China Mountain (8,551’), the tallest of the Scott Mountains.
While it is tempting to stay at the outcrop, the views get even better as one continues up the Fen Trail. At 4/10 mile, a short detour to the left leads to the Kangaroo Lake Overlook, situated above 200 feet above its namesake waters. The lake sits in a glacial cirque, bounded to the east by towering Cory Peak (7,737’), which comes into view for the first time.
Beyond the viewpoint, the Fen Trail continues upward amid scrub of manzanita, mountain mahogany, and huckleberry oak and crosses Rail Creek again at about ½ mile. Stay left at the trail junction minutes later. (Note: Heading right leads to Forest Road 40N62 and Cooper Meadow.) Cross the stream a third time at 0.65 miles, then climb to a well-worn wooden trail sign (barely readable) on the left. A short spur trail heads right to an old-growth forest, featuring Shasta red fir, Jeffrey pine, mountain hemlock, and white fir. The main track continues straight, toward the reddish ridgeline ahead.
Climbing to the ridge is the steepest part of the hike and, in late spring or early summer, the slopes may have patches of snow. The views from the ultramafic ridge, however, are worth it. (Note: High concentrations of iron give the periodite rock here its reddish color.) In addition to sweeping northward vistas, views open up to Cory Peak and the Scott Mountains to the east. (Note: Heading down the trail on the other side of the ridge, one can eventually see southward to the Trinity Divide and Trinity Alps.)
Some may be content to turn around here, but hikers bound for the Pacific Crest Trail (PCT) can continue onward as the Fen Trail descends a rocky slope, then passes again through a conifer forest with manzanita undergrowth. It is about 1/3 mile from the top of the ridge down the junction with the PCT, the end of the Fen Trail. (Note: Beyond the ridge, hikers pass into Shasta-Trinity National Forest.)
Hikers can continue left for a nice day hike to Robbers Meadow, Bull Lake and/or Cory Peak. Otherwise, trekkers should turn around here, retracing your steps back to Kangaroo Lake. Allot about 1.5-2 hours for the 2.5-mile round-trip walk to the PCT and back.
Despite being located on the Ring of Fire, it is easy to forget California’s volcanic past. Beginning roughly 8-10 million years ago, what are now the Berkeley Hills of the East Bay were the epicenter of a series of volcanic eruptions that flooded the area with lava and eventually hardened into basaltic formations visible today. Perhaps the best place to discover this violent geological past in the East Bay is Sibley Volcanic Regional Preserve, situated high above Oakland, a half-hour’s drive from San Francisco. The below loop hike covers the highlights of the preserve, following the self-guided tour of the Round Top Volcanoes at Sibley, a relatively easy, four-mile jaunt around the park.
Around 10 million years ago, when California was mostly submerged in a shallow sea, two centers of volcanic activity emerged in what is now known as the East Bay: one of the large volcanoes blew its top, leaving a massive caldera on which parts of the city of Berkeley now sit. The second, at Round Top, eventually became dormant, but new volcanic vents emerged about 8.5 million years ago. Tectonic movements led to the formation of the surrounding hills as we know them today, and Round Top volcano was partly eroded and literally pushed by the compressing faults on its side. The result of all this activity is the rugged milieu of basaltic knobs, bluffs, and crags that occupy Robert Sibley Regional Preserve in Oakland today.
Named for the founding director of the East Bay Regional Park District, Sibley Preserve covers more than 900 acres in the Berkeley Hills and has become a popular destination for hikers, bicyclists, and dog-walkers. There are two primary staging areas: the main trailhead begins along Skyline Drive near the crest of the Oakland hillsides, while the second—Old Tunnel Road Staging Area—is situated off Fish Ranch Road in Orinda.
The hike featured here begins and ends at the former—labeled on maps as Sibley Staging Area—and forms a roughly four-mile loop, including several short spurs.
Begin by parking at Sibley Staging Area and checking out the many interpretive panels at the visitor center for a short lesson in the geological and natural history of the area. Also pick up a park brochure, which includes a map and description of 11 sites that form a self-guided tour. The loop hike hits each of these sites in turn, then drops into the Round Top Creek drainage before returning to the start.
Begin by following the paved path—Round Top Road—leading eastward from the staging area (to the right of the visitor center). This is a very popular spot for casual dog walkers, but the crowds will gradually dissipate as one continues onward. After 250 yards, the road forks: bear left and then pull right, climbing a steep slope to the first of the 11 sites, a viewpoint and a dark basaltic dike, the latter hidden behind a massive EBMUD water tank. This dike, mixed in with grayish brown breccia, is a clear marker of Round Top’s (1,763’) volcanic past.
Better than the dike is the view from the water tank. An interpretive wayside points out the peaks of interest: Mount Tamalpais (2,456’) off to the west, and—on this side of the Bay—Grizzly Peak (1,759’) and Vollmer Peak (1,905’), the most prominent summits in nearby Tilden Regional Park. (Note: The high peak with the radio towers is Vollmer.) In the foreground, the Round Top Creek drainage unfolds below, with the volcanic ridges of Sibley off to the right.
From here, return back down the steep hill to the main road and this time bear right on the mulched, then graveled, Round Top Loop Trail. This wide track skirts the western flank of Round Top and climbs mildly through chaparral scrub to a north-south ridgeline. At ¾ mile, bear right at the junction, then follow the track for 200 yards to the second site: an overlook that peers down on a hillside quarry pit. From the 1940s onward, this area was heavily quarried, leaving a ridge that remains scarred and barren-looking today. At the overlook, there is a picnic table and a steep cliff; as is commoninnorthern California, there is a man-made labyrinth in the hole of the former quarry. A window through the hills reveals distant views of Mount Diablo (3,848’) and Mulholland Ridge (1,157’).
Ambitious hikers can continue onward, down a steep slope to the foot of the quarry (and the labyrinth). But most will move on to the next site by retracing their steps back to the junction and continuing straight on the Volcanic Trail.
This scenic track follows the high, scruffy ridges of Sibley. Sign 3 on the right points out the exposure of the Orinda Formation, a bed of alluvial deposits laid in the Pliocene epoch. The rocks are splotched with pangs of red, signs of iron oxidation. At 1.15 miles, bear right to explore a minor side ravine, where (as sign 4 indicates) there is a wall of basalt and Orinda mudstones.
Back on the main trail, stay right at the junction with the Quarry Trail, then bear straight at the subsequent fork, following a short spur to sign 5 and another basalt quarry pit. Here the charcoal-colored rock almost forms neat vertical pillars, analogous to Devil’s Postpile in the Sierra Nevada. Return the way you came, then head right at the four-way junction.
As the Volcanic Trail gradually climbs, the path offers excellent views of the densely vegetated drainage to the left, a stark contrast with the windswept and relatively sparse hillsides on the right. The trail passes signs 6 and 7 in quick succession—more on the basalt formations visible at the park. At 1.8 miles, the path passes through a gate and skirts a scenic amphitheater of reddish-brown rock with a single picnic table.
By now, on the left, one can see the paved Quarry Road below. Loop hikers will be there soon, but first one should take the final spur at 1.95 miles to a series of nice overlooks. The route to the overlooks passes through a narrow cut in the hillside, revealing high walls of basaltic breccia and eroded tuff.
The spur, which covers signs 8-11, ends with a split into two forks: heading left leads to a pair of overlooks to the west, peering across Highway 24 to Siesta Valley, Vollmer Peak, and Tilden Park. To the right, one can peer through a window eastward to Mount Diablo. Benches offer an opportunity to stop for a snack and contemplate the volcanic awesomeness of this place.
Finally, return back to the Volcanic Trail and bear right. The stops on the scenic tour are done, but technically the loop is only half complete. After following the Volcanic Trail to its end, hikers will spend about ¾ mile descending the wide and paved Quarry Road. (Note: At one point, a chunk of the road curiously vanishes, crumbling with the eroded hillside—it will be awhile until this is fixed.) Stay on the winding road as it passes another junction with the Quarry Trail then bends south and westward, reaching the Old Tunnel Road Staging Area at 3.25 miles. This small parking lot is enormously popular (again, dog-walkers).
Once clear of the parking lot, bear left on Old Tunnel Road and follow it across Round Top Creek to connect to the Skyline/Bay Area Ridge Trail. This woody single-track will be your thoroughfare for the rest of the hike.
After roughly following the Round Top Creek drainage for 2/10 mile, the trail crosses the stream at 3.4 miles begins to gradually climb. Passing over a wooden bridge at 3.6 miles, the incline steepens, gaining more than 300 feet in the next half-mile. The ascent does not feel overwhelming, however, and it is entirely in the shade of the oak-bay woodlands. At 4.1 miles, the Skyline Trail reaches a familiar spot: Sibley Staging Area and the end of the loop hike.
All told, this 2- to 3-hour loop is mostly easy, save for the relatively steady ascent at the very end. It’s a must-see for geology lovers—if one can contend with the regulars who frequent the place with their canine friends…
Arguably the premier backpacking route in the East Bay, the 28-mile Ohlone Wilderness Trail connects Del Valle Regional Park in Livermore with Mission Peak Regional Preserve in Fremont. The punishing up-and-down of the hike is good practice for backpacking in the Sierras, and hikers are rewarded with terrific vistas of hidden valleys, rolling ridges, and scrubby peaks in the central Diablo Range. There are occasional reminders that one has not quite escaped the bustling metropolis of the Bay Area—distant views of suburban sprawl, planes buzzing above, the low hum of Interstate 680—but Ohlone offers perhaps the closest thing to remote wilderness in the East Bay.
Preparation and logistics
As with any backpacking trip, some advance planning is required to tackle the Ohlone Wilderness Trail. First and foremost, one should check the excellent East Bay Parks website for details on logistics: the two required items are (1) permits for all hikers ($2/person) and (2) camping reservations. Permits are easy to obtain online, by mail, or in person and come with an excellent map of the entire trail that is sufficient for navigation. Camping reservations should be made at least two days in advance of your trip (or significantly earlier if planning to hike on a busy weekend) and can be made by calling 1-888-327-2757, Option 2 (Monday-Friday). Camping is allowed at designated campsites only, more reason to plan ahead.
So, what to plan for? Since the hike is a one-way point-to-point with no good loop options, one needs to decide whether to start at Del Valle or Mission Peak and then plan for a pick-up or two-car shuttle. I highly recommend starting at Del Valle Regional Park, as ending at Mission Peak makes for a more rewarding end to the 2- to 3-day hike (although the trail permit/map describes the route starting at Mission Peak). Finishing at the quiet shores of Lake Del Valle, while nice, would be rather underwhelming. So park one car (or get dropped off) at the Rocky Ridge Visitor Center parking lot at Del Valle in Livermore and park a second vehicle (or schedule a pick-up) at the popular Stanford Avenue Staging Area at Mission Peak. (Note: The Stanford Avenue Staging Area is an extremely popular spot for day hikers heading to Mission Peak, receiving upwards of thousands of visitors on weekends. So if you plan to drop a car at Stanford Avenue, arrive very, very early.) Moreover, if planning to leave a car overnight at one of the parking areas, you also need a separate permit, which can be ordered when making camping reservations.
Next, hikers need to decide how long to take. For all but the heartiest hikers, the likely answer is three days. Yes, 28 miles can be completed in two long days—or even a brutal, one-day endurance run—but keep in mind that this is no walk in the park. The trail, which starts at 750 feet above sea level, climbs steeply to more than 3,800’ at Rose Peak, drops back to 390’ at Sunol, then ascends again to more than 2,000 feet at Mission Peak. Taking three days also allows for more side trips, including Murietta Falls or the summit of Mission Peak (2,517’).
If doing two days, plan to spend the night at Sunol Backpack Camp, about 16 miles from the trailhead at Del Valle. If taking three, there is more flexibility: most will camp at either Stewart’s Camp (7 miles from the start) or Maggie’s Half Acre (10 miles) in Ohlone on night one (both involve detours from the main trail), then stay at Sunol or Eagle Spring on night two. Yours truly aimed conservatively, staying at Stewart’s Camp and then Sunol, making for one 7-mile day, followed by 10- and 13-milers. (Note: Plan to bring a water filter, as water at the campsites is untreated. Check here for updates on seasonable water availability.)
All told, with detours to campsites and the summit of Mission Peak, the 3-day trip—staying at Stewart’s Camp and Sunol Backpack Camp—clocks in at about 30 miles.
Finally, a note on timing: the Ohlone Wilderness Trail is by far the prettiest in spring, when winter rains have turned the otherwise khaki-colored slopes into lush, green hillsides (especially in Sunol and Mission Peak Regional Preserves). However, it can still be chilly in spring, with a decent chance of clouds, fog, and storms, so hiking in springtime can be risky. Summer and fall offer more reliability—but the hills can be brutally hot (with temperatures exceeding 100 degrees F) and dry. Unlike the snow-socked Sierras, it’s possible to reasonably hike here in winter, but, like neighboring Mount Diablo, temperatures in the heights of Ohlone occasionally dip below freezing, producing sporadic snow showers.
Having settled logistics, the following narrative describes the 30-mile route as I found it during a three-day backpack with two friends in late February/early March 2020. Starting on a Friday and ending on a Sunday, we saw very few people in the first day and a half—but crowds picked up as we passed Rose Peak—the highest point in the area—and dropped into Sunol Valley. After more quiet on the long slog to Mission Peak, we encountered the masses again at the final approach to the summit, then blended in with the runners, bikers, day hikers, and dog-walkers on the steady descent to Stanford Avenue Staging Area.
DAY 1: Del Valle Regional Park to Stewart’s Camp (7.1 mi.)
The three-day journey begins at Del Valle Regional Park, a 4,000+ acre preserve south of Livermore, California. The centerpiece of the park is Lake Del Valle, a pearly blue reservoir surrounded by oak-studded hills of the Diablo Range. While boating is a primary activity at Del Valle, there are also dozens of miles of trails, including, of course, the opening stretches of the Ohlone Wilderness Trail. To reach the trailhead, drive south from Livermore on Mines Road, then bear left on Del Valle Road, which snakes over a ridge then descends into the lake-filled valley. Follow the signs to the Rocky Ridge Visitor Center, which is situated on the southwest shores of Lake Del Valle. Park in the northernmost parking lot, near the Ardilla Group Camp and Lichen Bark Picnic Area.
The lake may be tempting, but the Ohlone Wilderness Trail begins by heading in the opposite direction, southward from the parking area, into the forest of oaks and bay. From the northwest corner of the parking lot (with your back to the lake and the restrooms and Ardilla Group Camp on the right), follow the grassy Ohlone Trail—which doubles here as the Sailor Camp Trail—as it enters a highly vegetated ravine. Stay straight at the first trail fork, heading into the hills.
Starting at 750 feet in elevation, the Ohlone Wilderness Trail climbs to a height of 3,450 feet on the first day, and the ascent begins effectively right away. Most of the 29-mile hike follows dusty fire roads, former farm routes used today by hikers, park employees, and cattle-herders (who are still active in corralling the area’s many bovine grazers). The beginning is no exception: the partly graveled-track climbs up through the initial ravine, then bobs and weaves over two low ridges. The hike’s first views extend northward and eastward to Cedar Mountain Ridge (3,675’), the heights of which are located outside the park.
At about the one-mile mark, the trail descends to a junction with the Vallecitos Trail in a shady ravine. Here lies the Ohlone Trail Sign-In Panel, where hikers should register with their itinerary (signing out at Mission Peak two days later). Continuing straight on the ascending road, the trail rounds another bend and the incline begins to steepen, the first tough climb of the multi-day hike.
As the path gains elevation, the vegetation lessens, revealing wider vistas toward Lake Del Valle and Livermore Valley beyond. Even in spring, these hills do not grow as verdant as their cousins slightly farther west, suggesting a drier environment as one gets farther from San Francisco Bay. What vegetation remains, however, becomes more diverse, as pines, toyon, and manzanitas enter the mix.
As the trail approaches the heights of Rocky Ridge (2,426’), hikers pass through a metal gate, marking official passage into Ohlone Regional Wilderness, leaving Del Valle behind. By now hikers have gained 1,120 feet in about 1.7 miles.
Stay left at the junction with Stromer Spring Road, which leads westward to a water source, at 1.8 miles. Vistas improve greatly as the main track weaves out into the open: the town of Livermore, with Mount Diablo (3,848’) beyond, is visible to the north. A rocky outcrop at about the two-mile mark offers a nice place to stop for a snack and short rest. There’s no shame in taking more than an hour and a half to get to this point: the blistering ascent is one of the most demanding in the area, especially with a pack full of gear.
From the outcrop, the trail descends briefly to an open pasture; stay left at the fork. Now bearing southeast, the route passes signs of civilization: a pit toilet and the Boyd Camp (2,240’). Too early to camp for through-hikers, this spot is meant for those seeking a shorter overnight adventure from Del Valle.
Beyond Boyd Camp, the trail ascends modestly to crest Rocky Ridge, revealing a new landscape to the south and west. The valley below is Williams Gulch, the next obstacle on the first day of the hike. Through the aperture to the east, one can see for miles down the Diablo Range, which extends for more than a hundred miles into central California.
Atop the high pass, stay left at the junction with the Rocky Ridge Trail. Hikers are now at 2,380 feet but will descend to 1,890’ in the next half-mile to clear Williams Gulch. The descent begins gradually, following a grassy, sun-soaked finger to Sycamore Flat (2,000’). Stray oaks, which lose their leaves in winter, dot the landscape. Stay right at the junction with the Jackson Grade Trail at 2.75 miles. From here the Ohlone Wilderness Trail begins a steeper descent, eventually becoming a narrower single-track.
Dropping into Williams Gulch feels a world away from the dry, sunny hills above. The riparian landscape here is rich with lush vegetation and, in spring, a modest stream flow. The moss-covered bay trees bend sharply, dangling over the creek, while the high oaks provide much-appreciated shade. Cross the stream at around 3.25 miles.
Beyond, the trail begins the most gnarly ascent of the whole trip, gaining a crushing 1,400 feet in just over a mile and a half. The notoriously uphill section has a name—the Big Burn—as the feeling your lungs and legs will have when you’re steadily climbing the steep slope. One consolation is that the climb is almost entirely in partial shade, especially in late afternoon. The single-track switches back and forth up the hill more than a half-dozen times before skirting westward toward a side ravine with occasional views across Rocky Ridge to Mount Diablo.
After a brief easement, the ascent continues in a steep scramble up to Schlieper Rock (3,080’), a nice viewpoint with northward and eastward vistas. Take a rest here (perhaps a late lunch?) before continuing. Alas, there is another quarter-mile of steep climbing to go before the next respite.
At last, at a junction with Springboard Road (4.9 miles from the start), the gradient levels off. A much more modest climb leads over a set of grassy peaks. This high ridgeline is called Rowell Ridge, named for Henry Rowell, the rancher who previously owned much of what is now the Ohlone Regional Wilderness. At 5.4 miles, the trail reaches a pair of junctions and Johnny’s Pond, a modest puddle frequented by cattle that was named for John Fernandes, who worked for Rowell. Stay left at the first fork, then hiker’s face a choice at the second: heading right leads down to Murietta Falls and is the quickest way to Stewart’s Camp (3,160’), the destination for the night. However, heading this way takes one away from Ohlone Wilderness Trail. Those determined to walk every inch of the Ohlone Trail should bear left, taking the slightly-longer route to Stewart’s Camp. (Note: Being the determined kind, we headed left. Day hikers headed for Murietta Falls, however, should bear right at the fork.)
The trail heading left marks the start of a four-mile stretch that is the most remote of the entire hike. Losing the day hikers headed for Murietta Falls, the Ohlone Wilderness Trail between here and Rose Peak is largely traversed only by determined backpackers. (Note: We saw only one solo hiker in this stretch.)
Heading southeast along the ridgetop, the trail passes through a cattle fence atop the first of a series of minor hills and then traverses open pastures for a half mile to the next junction at Shafer Flat. Hikers are now 6.2 miles from the trailhead, and—at 3,458 feet—this is the highest point on day one of the trek. In the bowl-shaped ravine below, one can spot Shafer Pond, a man-made reservoir and another watering hole for local cows.
Bear right at the junction, gradually descending and entering a curiously pine-studded forest. At 6.5 miles, head right on Greenside Road, leaving the Ohlone Wilderness Trail for the first time. This spur road provides access to Stewart’s Camp. Reaching the lone campsite requires dropping 330 feet, part way into the drainage for La Costa Creek. At last, 7.1 miles from the start, the shady campsite and pit toilet are found on the left.
After setting up camp for the night, consider taking a walk back up the road about 1/10 mile to a rock outcrop on the left, which provides a nice spot to watch the sunset. Now out of sight of signs of civilization, one can truly experience the wilderness.
DAY 2: Stewart’s Camp to Sunol Backpack Camp via Rose Peak (10.2 mi.)
Rise and shine. The second day begins after what is hopefully a restful night at Stewart’s Camp, ushering in what is arguably the easiest and most beautiful of the three-day trek. After packing up camp, retread your way back up Greenside Road, gaining 330 feet in elevation, to return to the Ohlone Wilderness Trail. Bearing right (south), the trail traverses largely level terrain that is dotted with towering pines. Stay right at the junction at 1.1 miles (Mile 7 on the Ohlone Trail from Del Valle)—the route heading left leads into an East Bay Regional Park District land bank (off-limits).
Now bearing west, the trail descends into a shallow gully and then, after rounding a mucky pond, climbs steeply to clear a notch on Wauhab Ridge (3,547’). The next stretch, which traverses the ridgeline before dropping to the North Fork of Indian Creek drainage, is particularly scenic. The rolling hills of Apperson Ridge and Wauhab Ridge unfold to the west, while Valpe Ridge (which hosts Rose Peak, the local high point) dominates the scene to the south.
After proceeding northward along the ridge for ¼ mile, stay left at the junction, where the trail drops abruptly, beginning the 300-foot descent to the North Fork of Indian Creek. Hikers cross the stream at about mile 2.6 for the day then proceed on to an Ohlone favorite: a steep ascent up the road, gaining almost 400 feet in 1/3 mile. Stay right at trail post #30, continuing along Valpe Ridge en route to Rose Peak (3,817’), the highest mountaintop in the area.
The subsequent section climbs much more modestly, traversing high oak grasslands. At trail post #29 (mile 3.3 for the day), stay left. (Note: Heading right leads down to the Maggie’s Half Acre campsites, which some will use as their destination for Day 1.) By now one can spot the hulking mass of Rose Peak ahead; this remote mountain is the highest publicly accessible peak in Alameda County. After cresting a false summit, a spur trail leads off to the right, heading for the true peak, at about 3.6 miles. The short but steep ascent is a worthwhile diversion from the Ohlone Trail…after all, you came all this way.
Though 32 feet shorter than nearby Mount Diablo, Rose Peak offers views of comparable quality without the crowds and noisy parking lots that mar the summit of Diablo. Like before, one can see north across Wauhab Ridge and Livermore Valley to Mount Diablo, but now additional vistas to the south and west are added to the mix: backpackers can spot Sunol Valley, Mission Peak (2,517’), and San Francisco Bay for the first time. (Note: On the Saturday morning that we reached Rose Peak, we also spotted a curious sight: day hikers. Yes, some hearty hikers make the nearly 20-mile round-trip hike to Rose Peak from Sunol Valley (or, in some cases, from Del Valle).)
While the summit makes for a nice rest spot, even better scenery lies ahead as the Ohlone Wilderness Trail begins its lengthy, 10-mile descent to Sunol Valley. From the peak, return to the main track, which heads west along Valpe Ridge. The mostly-descending trail bobs and weaves amid oak grasslands and passes another spur to Maggie’s Half Acre campsite at 4.1 miles. Now doubling as the Buckboard Trail, the fire road bears right at another fork minutes later.
At 4.6 miles, the most absurdly sloping trail bears off to the right, providing access to the Doe Canyon Horse Camp (poor horses). While most hikers can skip this detour, those in need of hydration can get untreated water at the spigot at the horse camp.
Eventually the Buckboard Trail settles on the left flank of the ridge, providing scintillating views down the next drainage—South Fork of Indian Creek—toward Mission Peak and Pleasanton Ridge on the horizon. After descending to the creek, the trail climbs steeply out the other side of the valley, cresting another hill.
The large canyon ahead is the deep Jacob’s Valley, which feeds into broader Sunol Valley. The Ohlone Trail will skirt the hillsides above this drainage for the rest of the day. And what a sight it is! Oak Ridge (outside the park) rises more than 1,500 feet from the valley floor, while the Mission Peak complex is visible off to the west. Hikers soon become acquainted with Goat Rock (2,038’), a protruding butte amid otherwise smooth-sloping hillsides, visible to the southwest. As the fire road weaves in and out of side ravines, it gradually draws closer to the massive rock.
At trail post 22 (now 7.7 miles from Stewart’s Camp), hikers encounter another junction. Stay straight on the main path and continue through the gate separating park jurisdictions: you have now passed beyond the reaches of Ohlone Regional Wilderness and into a small bloc of land owned by the San Francisco Water Department. Hikers are required during the next two miles to stay on the trail.
The rolling green hillsides (at least in spring) appear like a scene straight of out of Scotland or Ireland (a feeling that is strengthened by the cool breeze and chilling clouds we encountered on our hike in late February). Again the trail stays relatively high, at over 2,000 feet, although it does drop more than 200 feet along a grassy ridge encountered within a half-mile of entering the Water Department territory.
By now, despite the excellent scenery, hikers will likely be ready to call it a day, so the entry gate for Sunol Regional Wilderness at 10.2 miles is a welcome sight. Just beyond, the trail crests a windswept ridge and enters the Sunol Backpack Camp area. There are seven campsites, each well spread out and (mostly) off the trail. Most have excellent views of Mission Peak and Jacob’s Valley, especially those at the highest elevations (e.g., Hawk’s Nest, Eagle’s Eyrie, and Sky Camp). It’s no wonder then that one of these spots—Eagle’s Eyrie—is the most popular backcountry campsite in the East Bay. There is also water (untreated) and a decent pit toilet at the camping area.
DAY 3: Sunol Backpack Camp to Stanford Avenue Staging Area via Mission Peak (12.8 mi.)
Day 3 is the final but longest day of hiking and begins with sunrise over Jacob’s Valley. The first few miles of the day complete the lengthy descent into Sunol Valley by way of the McCorkle and Canyon View Trails. From the upper tier of tent sites (Star’s Rest, Hawk’s Nest, Eagle’s Eyrie, Sky Camp) at the campground, the fire road drops precipitously to the lower tier (Cathedral, Oak View, Sycamore) then passes through a gate. Though the more obvious path appears to continue downhill to the left on Backpack Road, hikers should continue right on the McCorkle Trail, which doubles as the Ohlone Trail in this section.
The McCorkle Trail is highly scenic, weaving in and out of rocky ravines and staying relatively high above the valley floor. After about ¾ of hiking on the day (from the center of the backpack camp at Hawk’s Nest), the route crosses a drainage curiously dubbed the “W” Tree Rock Scramble. Then the route climbs steeply to clear a grassy hilltop, in the shadow of higher peaks to the north. Traversing elevations at about 1,400 feet, hikers get their first views of Calaveras Reservoir, situated just south of the park.
At about 1.6 miles, the trail merges with Cerro Este Road, which climbs steeply to an overlook to the right, but the Ohlone Trail continuation bears left, descending an open slope. A little over a third of a mile later, the trail forks again and the Ohlone/McCorkle Trail leaves Cerro Este Road to the right. After descending into an oak-studded ravine, the trail splits without explanation; this is an easy place to get lost: be sure to stay right, staying on the path that ascends back up to another scrubby hillside. Stay left at the junction at post #16, then crest a bushy ridge with fine views down Sunol Valley.
At last, the McCorkle Trail descends into Sunol Valley, with the Visitor Center area now visible to the northwest. At the foot of a rolling hillside, the Ohlone track splits off to the right, following the Canyon View Trail, at about 2.9 miles on the day. (Note: There are actually a pair of junctions in quick succession; stay right at both.)
From here the route descends through a pleasant oak grove, passing the turnoff for the Indian Joe Creek Trail on the right. As you approach the Sunol Visitor Center, Alameda Creek—the highest-volume stream encountered on the hike—appears on the left, and the trail levels off. Follow streamside for about 250 yards, and then bear left on the wide bridge across Alameda Creek. Here the trail spills out into a parking lot, the first since Del Valle. Off to the right, across a grassy meadow surrounded by trees, is the Sunol Visitor Center. There are also decent restrooms, quite the luxury after 2 ½ days in the backcountry. Picnic tables offer a chance to sit down for a snack or an early lunch after about 3.5 miles of hiking in the morning. Enjoy the break while you can, as there is plenty of climbing still ahead.
Sunol Valley marks the lowest elevation on the hike—a mere 390 feet above sea level—roughly 2,100 feet lower than Mission Peak (2,517’) and 3,400 feet below Rose Peak (3,817’). The rest of the day involves a climb up and over the former, one of the iconic mountains of the East Bay. (Note: In fact, tackling Mission Peak from Sunol makes for a pleasant day hike, much less crowded than the route from Stanford Avenue.)
The trek to Mission Peak begins at the parking area just down the road from the Visitor Center, next to a small horse pen. Follow the track around the left side of the pen, then pass through the gate, following the single-track Ohlone Trail. The path begins to ascend immediately, traversing a series of long bends, gaining nearly 300 feet in about ¾ mile. At trail marker #11, the path crosses paved but quiet Calaveras Road.
On the other side, pass through the gate and enter more San Francisco Water Department land, leaving Sunol Regional Wilderness behind. The route returns to wide double-track as it rounds a bend and bears westward, ascending an oak-spotted ridge. Compared to the rest of the route, the tree cover in this section is relatively dense—maples and buckeyes are added to the bay and oak mix—although there are occasional views to the north, down Sunol Valley toward Pleasanton and Interstate 680.
The ascent is relatively gradual but relentless, gaining more than 1,100 feet over the course of three miles. About two miles from Sunol, the trail rounds an old stone ruin known as the Old Homestead, which is much upstaged by the lovely, more modern home in the distance off to the right (on private property). After rounding a hairpin bend, the trail ascends out into the open for a brief moment, offering excellent views eastward across Sunol Valley to Maguire Peaks, Cerro Este, and Apperson Ridge.
It is roughly 1.5 miles of steady climbing from here to the entry gate for Mission Peak Regional Preserve, situated about 3.75 miles from Sunol Valley and 7.4 miles from Sunol Backpack Camp. Sign out at the trail kiosk here. While the official “recorded” hike is over, there is still several miles of trekking to cover. Fortunately, the views from the remote eastern flanks of the Mission Peak area are excellent, some of the best of the hike. As the route ascends past the entry gate, one can look back at much of the territory traversed to this point: Sunol Valley, Valpe Ridge, and Rose Peak in the distance. Mount Diablo still dominates the horizon to the northeast, but Pleasanton Ridge comes into the foreground.
After cresting a pair of grassy ridges, the trail drops into lovely Laurel Canyon, a small but lush ravine that is inviting to explore. Stay left at the junction with the Laurel Canyon Trail, however, continuing toward Mission Peak. At trail marker #7, the Eagle Trail continues left to Eagle Spring Backpack Camp, an option for another overnight but most likely skipped in favor of completing the traverse of Mission Peak by the end of the day.
Instead, bear right, heading north. (Note: There is both a single-track and the main fire road that heads right; both are fine as they end up in the same place.) One can begin to spot day hikers climbing Mission Peak, tiny dots huffing and puffing through the grueling final ascent to the summit. For now, the Ohlone Trail stays relatively level, and vast views open up on the right: Pleasanton Ridge, Livermore Valley, Mount Diablo, and beyond. One also gets the hike’s first views of Oakland and the Bay Bridge to the northwest.
At trail marker 5, all the sense of remoteness enjoyed during the past three days evaporates as one encounters the sea of masses, day hikers ascending Mission Peak. Yet the crowds should not deter hikers from taking the brief detour to the summit.
Covering 400 feet in elevation gain in about ½ mile, this final ascent to Mission Peak is steep, rocky, and—on many days—extremely windy, making for an interesting adventure. Fortunately, the wind dissipates a bit near the summit, and hikers can spread out to enjoy the aerial views of San Francisco Bay, the Santa Cruz Mountains, and the Peninsula.
Mission Peak is a perfect capstone for a lengthy, three-day trip. But don’t pop the champagne yet: it’s still another three miles from the summit to the end of the trek. From the summit, retrace your steps, back down the half-mile descent to marker #5. Then bear left on the Peak Trail, rounding to the west side of Mission Peak. From here, follow the crowds: the masses will largely be following the Hidden Valley Trail, a wide and gravel track that cuts past a pit toilet, then drops down the western face of Mission Peak.
Stay left at post #3, and left again at post #2 about 2/3 mile later. There are open views all the way down, across Fremont and Hayward to the Bay and beyond. Yet the descent seems to never end: despite spotting the staging area from above, it is still 1.5 miles away from the junction with the Peak Meadow Trail.
After seemingly endless tread, the Ohlone Trail drops into Hidden Valley and levels off, spitting out at Stanford Avenue Staging Area. The end, at last!
All told, the entire, three-day hike, including diversions to Stewart’s Camp and Mission Peak, covers roughly 30 miles, with more than 2,000 feet in elevation gain/loss each of the three days.
Steep Ravine Trail, Mount Tamalpais State Park, February 2020
The Steep Ravine – Matt Davis Trail Loop in California’s Mount Tamalpais State Park is a longer and more popular variant of the Steep Ravine – Dipsea Trail Loop (described in an April 2015 post). Though not as expansive as the views along the upper reaches of Dipsea, the sunny seaside vistas from the Matt Davis Trail are a main draw of the hike. Combined with a climb through redwood-studded Steep Ravine, this makes for a 6.6-mile, or roughly half-day, loop.
One can start this moderately strenuous hike at either the Pantoll Ranger Station in Mount Tamalpais State Park or down in the seaside town of Stinson Beach. However, the latter is much preferred, as one gets to start with the climbing before ending with a long and steady downhill and an oceanside meal or snack in town.
Park on the streets in town or, if you prefer, at the Stinson Beach parking area, and walk to the trailhead. The preferred route begins with a short stretch on the Dipsea Trail before ascending the Steep Ravine Trail to Pantoll before returning via the Matt Davis Trail. The Dipsea Trailhead is situated at the junction of Shoreline Highway (Highway 1) and Willow Camp Way (see here), marked with one of the Mount Tamalpais State Park’s excellent signs.
Dipsea Trail to Steep Ravine Trail (1.25 miles)
After ascending a set of wooden steps, the Dipsea Trail briefly levels off amid thick coastal scrub, with a grove of pine trees just ahead. Views of the Pacific Ocean are limited for now, but they improve after crossing Panoramic Highway in 1/10 mile. The steadily climbing path weaves amid grasslands, then wily oak-bay woodlands where the soil is blanketed with ferns. Climb a series of stone staircases before emerging out into the open again at about 4/10 mile.
Stinson Beach and Bolinas from Dipsea Trail
Follow the sandy path, lined with coyote brush, as it continues to ascend, providing ever-better vistas of Stinson Beach, with the Point Reyes area beyond. At about ¾ mile, the trail crests a sunny hill then dips to clear a small gully before switchbacking uphill again. At the one-mile mark, the trail crosses a dirt road and then, keeping a patch of pines on the right, heads northeast toward the start of the Steep Ravine Trail.
Dipsea Trail, heading toward Steep Ravine
Stay right at the junction at 1.1 miles, then left at the next, as the route descends into Steep Ravine. (Note: Turning right at the second junction leads ½ mile to Highway 1 and the Rocky Point Campground.) The riparian landscape is choked with trees and shrubs, including Douglas firs, tanoaks, and canyon/coast live oaks. At 1.25 miles, the Dipsea Trail skirts the banks of Webb Creek, the primary sculptor of Steep Ravine. Just beyond, hikers reach another junction: the Dipsea Trail continues right, across a wooden bridge, while the Steep Ravine Trail heads left. Take the latter option, leaving the Dipsea Loop for another day (see here).
Steep Ravine Trail to Pantoll (1.5 miles)
As the Steep Ravine Trail gradually climbs, the scenery becomes more and more grand. Trickling waters become steady flows, and the primarily oak-bay woodlands add iconic California redwoods to the mix. Two bridges at around 1.3 miles cross the stream in quick succession, followed by a third about 100 yards later. On the right bank, the trail ascends two sets of stony stairs, entering one of the best redwood groves on the hike.
Steep Ravine Trail
Weekend crowds at Steep Ravine
Here the trail briefly levels off, then traverses two more bridges, leaving one back on the right side. After climbing again, the Steep Ravine Trail reaches the iconic ladder: a 15-rung wooden structure that abuts one of the most beautiful cascades on the Marin Peninsula. If you’re lucky to have the place to yourself, this is one of the natural wonders of the Bay Area. Well…at least the falls, but the man-made ladder is nice to have in order to surmount the massive greywacke boulder wedged in the stream.
Steep Ravine ladder
Having cleared the ladder, the trail continues along the southern banks of Webb Creek, passing small but impressive groves of second-growth redwoods and crossing to the left side. At 2.4 miles, the Steep Ravine Trail switches again to the right side, then eventually climbs out of the canyon. After a series of switchbacks, a final ascent leads to Pantoll Ranger Station and parking area, 2.8 miles—and more than 1,300 feet in elevation gain—from the start.
Redwood trees along the Steep Ravine Trail
Redwoods at Steep Ravine
Matt Davis Trail to Stinson Beach (3.8 miles)
Take a restroom or snack break at Pantoll, a bustling parking area on weekends. Then head out of the parking lot and cross Panoramic Highway to the west side, where one can catch the Matt Davis Trail, your return route to Stinson Beach. This trail is much longer than Steep Ravine but stays high for the first mile and a half.
The first stretch is largely uneventful, with views largely blocked by thick woods. Stay left at the first junction at 2.9 miles, then follow the well-trodden single-track for over a mile. Weaving in and out of woody ravines, the trail stays at around 1,500-1,600 feet, making for easy and level walking.
Finally, at about mile four of the hike, the Matt Davis Trail bursts out into the open, revealing excellent views of the Pacific Ocean. Here the path follows the scenic slopes of Bolinas Ridge, cresting a high notch at 4.2 miles, then pops in and out of an oak-lined ravine called Silva Gulch. Out in the open again, the trail forks: the Coastal Trail continues right, while the Matt Davis Trail heads off to the left. Stay left, beginning a long, switchbacking descent to Stinson Beach.
Matt Davis Trail, with views of the Pacific Ocean
Matt Davis Trail and Bolinas Ridge
While the Matt Davis Trail remains high for the next ¼ mile, it begins to drop sharply at about 4.75 miles, entering a heavy woodland that does not let up until the end of the hike. The ever-descending trail roughly follows an intermittent stream–Table Rock Creek–which forms a steep-sloping ravine. Dropping amid the oaks, pines, bay trees, and ferns, the Matt Davis Trail briefly emerges from the woods at Table Rock, a nice outcrop at 5.8 miles, but then continues to descend again through the shady gully. At 5.9 miles, there is a nice seasonal cascade on the right.
Matt Davis Trail below Table Rock
At the six-mile mark, the trail briefly levels and crosses a wooden bridge and then pokes back out into the sun, revealing closer views of Stinson Beach and the endless ocean beyond. Descend a set of switchbacks, then stay left at the trail fork at 6.3 miles. Minutes later, stay right at the next junction. From here it is a short, downhill jaunt back to Stinson Beach. Around 6.6 miles from the start, hikers are back on pavement on residential Belvedere Avenue.
Stinson Beach from the Matt Davis Trail
From here, it is a short walk (south, or downhill) back to Shoreline Highway and central Stinson Beach. The loop hike clocks in at 6.6 miles, a roughly 3-5 hour stint, depending on fitness levels.
Falls Trail, Mount Diablo State Park, January 2020
The East Bay, for all of its wonderful hiking, is not known for its waterfalls. Flowing streams, let alone tumbling cascades, are scarce amid the largely scrubby, chaparral hills that separate San Francisco Bay from California’s vast Central Valley. After springtime rains, however, there a handful of seasonal streams that come alive. One of the best-known spots is the lush, shady landscape of northeastern Mount Diablo State Park, where a moderately-difficult loop hike leads to a series of modest but beautiful waterfalls. Of course, the waterfalls largely disappear by summer, but the towering cliffs and diversity of plant life in Donner Canyon may be enough to entertain hikers year-around.
There are a few options for starting this 5.5-mile loop hike, although the choices may be narrowing as the city of Clayton begins to place restrictions on parking in the area. The ideal place to start is at the end of Rialto Drive, a residential street in Clayton that abuts the edge of Mount Diablo State Park (see directions here). But the neighbors are onto this, and non-resident parking is now barred on weekends. If it’s Monday through Friday, you’re in the clear (at least as of January 2020), but weekend hikers should look elsewhere—nearby access along Regency Drive (which is also rumored to have restrictions) or, further west, at Mitchell Canyon Staging Area ($6 park entry fee required). Note: Starting at Mitchell Canyon adds at least two miles round-trip to the loop described below. The Regency Drive Trailhead adds around ½ mile.
Assuming one starts at the Rialto Drive staging area, hikers should pass through the entry gate to enter Mount Diablo State Park, the East Bay’s largest. With the namesake peak visible ahead, the route splits just steps beyond the start. While possible to go either way, the route as described heads right, following the Falls Loop in a counterclockwise direction.
Heading into Mount Diablo State Park
The westward route quickly climbs out of the grassy ravine and crests a low ridge before reaching a second fork within 250 yards. Stay left here, continuing as the old road drops into Donner Canyon, laced with the East Bay’s ubiquitous oak-bay woodlands. After crossing Donner Creek, the path weaves around a pair of bends, climbing to Donner Canyon Road, about 1/3 mile from the trailhead. (Note: Here the entry path from Regency Drive and Mitchell Canyon comes in from the right.) Bear left at the fork, following the dusty Donner Canyon Road for the next 1 ¼ miles.
As you proceed, the diversity of plant life increases, with lovely manzanita and toyon beginning to appear amid the oak-bay mix. Ahead, one can the high mountain tops of (from left to right) Mount Olympia (2,946’), North Peak (3,557’), Mount Diablo (3,849’), and Eagle Peak(2,369’), the titans of this scenic stretch of the Diablo Range.
Following the creek on the left, the fire road ascends gradually, passing a string of junctions at about the one-mile mark. First, a spur trail heads left to Donner Cabin, then the Donner Cabin Trail bears off to the right up ahead. Finally, stay straight on the fire road as the Hetherington Loop Trail bears left toward the creek bed. Just beyond, Donner Canyon Road begins to ascend more rapidly, the first heavy-breather of the hike. The track rises well above the creek, providing wider vistas up and down the canyon.
At 1.3 miles, pass the junction with the Tick Wood Trail on the right, then come to a junction with the Hetherington Loop Trail again on the left. Stay straight on the double-track; finally, at 1.6 miles, deviate from the main route by heading right (uphill) on Meridian Ridge Road. The westward turn is only temporary, as hikers should head south again on the Middle Trail, which begins 100 yards up the road on the left.
Middle Trail, with Wild Oat Canyon ahead
Now, for the first time, the path turns to single-track, a pleasant, narrow, and winding trail that weaves through dense patches of toyon, chamise, manzanita, oak, and bay. The Middle Trail provides access to Wild Oat Canyon, the heart of the falls area.
Climbing uphill through the thicket, the Middle Trail reaches a fork at 2.2 miles. Bear left on the Falls Trail, the highlight of the hike. In the shadow of Mount Diablo, this scenic track skirts the eastern flank of the canyon, then switchbacks down to the first of several stream crossings, 2.3 miles from the start. The cascades here are modest, but better waterfalls are ahead.
After crossing the first stream, the Falls Trail crests a hill topped by a gnarly juniper, then traverses a second creek. Beyond, the single-track climbs steeply to an excellent viewpoint in which one can see down-canyon to Clayton, with the Concord Hills and Suisun Bay beyond.
Views across Donner Canyon to the town of Clayton and North Bay
Rounding the next scrubby slope, the first “real” waterfall comes into view, firing off a mossy cliff and plunging into Donner Canyon below. The water flow here rarely becomes a torrent, but the sight of flowing waters is welcome nonetheless. The Falls Trail descends steeply to cross the stream above the flume, then proceeds to climb again on the other side.
Viewing the first falls
Another view down-canyon
After this third stream, the trail approaches a rock outcrop with a nice view back at a 15-foot falls. Then the rocky path descends again to cross a fourth creek, this one sporting a trailside cascade that is relatively modest; the stream below, however, drops more precipitously, a sight only realized after the trail pulls away from the creek on the other side.
Waterfall along the Falls Trail
After crossing a fifth and final stream, the route hugs a scrubby hillside and descends a set of switchbacks, offering views back at the highest and most impressive of the falls, a multi-tiered chute. The waterfalls are not easy to access, however, leading most visitors only to admire from afar.
Waterfall in Wild Oat Canyon
By now the trail is situated high up on the scarred western slope of Wild Oat Canyon. The brownish Franciscan chert forms high, impressive walls, and the grade drops sharply—roughly 300 feet—off to the left. This is the end of the falls section; hikers are now heading back north toward the trailhead, although by way of a different route than the approach.
Heading down the Falls Trail back toward Donner Canyon
At 3.4 miles, the Falls Trail ends, merging with the wide Cardinet Oaks Road, another double-track fire road. Bear right (uphill), then turn left at the next fork on the Wasserman Trail. This scenic path meanders through very dense thickets of toyon and manzanita. Stay left at an unofficial junction at the park boundary at 3.6 miles, then descend a mild slope, partway down into Donner Canyon.
At 4.1 miles, the trail emerges into a pretty clearing and bounds down to another junction; bear right on the Donner Trail. Amid grassy, oak-studded slopes, this path heads northwest for 250 yards. Bear right on the Bruce Lee Spring Trail, which climbs again to clear a low ridge, then skirts a long ravine before ending at Clayton Oaks Road, now 4.6 miles around the loop.
Looking back toward the Falls Area from Donner Trail
Follow the fire road left as it passes two junctions (stay left) and gradually descends a beautiful ridge dotted with oaks. Eventually the strip mine of Mount Zion (1,635’) becomes visible ahead. At last, after a steady descent with open views, Clayton Oaks Road returns to the familiar starting point: the initial trailhead at Rialto Drive.
Descending Clayton Oaks Road
The entire loop clocks in at about 5.5 miles and, despite some occasionally steep ascents, is a moderately-strenuous circuit. Allot roughly 3-4 hours for the hike, or more if you plan to explore some of the many interlocking trails along the way.
Cesar E. Chavez National Monument in Keene, California is a small National Park Service site dedicated to the life and memory of the most famous leader of the California farm workers movement in the 1960s and 1970s. Nestled in a picturesque valley in the southern Sierra Nevada, the national monument features several exhibits on the United Farm Workers of America (UFW), as well as beautiful gardens and the gravesite of Chavez and his wife. Cesar Chavez is a relatively new park, designated by President Obama in 2012, but includes a series of interlocking paths around the property, with nice views of the surrounding, rock-hewn hills. The park is easily accessible off Highway 58 (the route over Tehachapi pass), an easy stopover for visitors heading from central California to Death Valley, Las Vegas, and beyond.
Exhibits at the Visitor Center
Cesar E. Chavez Memorial Garden
Five fountains dedicated to the five activists who were killed in UFW protests
Gravesite for Chavez and his wife
Villa La Paz from atop a hillside in the middle of the park
Sonoran garden, intended to reflect the flora of southern Arizona, where Chavez grew up
Hole-in-the-Wall Nature Trail, Mojave National Preserve, January 2020
The Hole-in-the-Wall Nature Trail in California’s Mojave National Preserve is a boon for those looking to identify some desert plants: the short jaunt, which connects the Hole-in-the-Wall Information Center to the nearby campground, includes more than a dozen identifiers. Who knew there were so many variants on desert sagebrush? The highlights are the large Mojave yucca and two species of cholla (buckhorn and pencil).
Most come to the Hole-in-the-Wall area to camp or hike the nearby Rings Loop Trail. Overnighters and day visitors, however, can also stretch their legs—and test their knowledge of the local flora—on the Hole-in-the-Wall Nature Trail.
Nature Trail to the campground
Starting at the Hole-in-the-Wall Information Center, cross the road and follow the path heading toward the campground through the sandy desert. Immediately the identifiers appear: squawbush, Mojave yucca, blue yucca, blackbrush. The many varieties of shrubby plants are eye-opening for those—like me, previously—who are quick to dismiss all desert scrub as “sagebrush.” As hikers pass the various plants, the sandy path ever so modestly climbs, featuring expansive views across the sun-soaked flats: the Woods Mountains to the east; Barber Peak to the northwest.
Hole-in-the-Wall Nature Trail, with lots of yuccas
At 2/10 miles, the trail forks. A longer path leads westward to the Rings Loop Trailhead. The hike described here continues right for less than a hundred yards before ending at the Hole-in-the-Wall Campground. Return the way you came for a roughly 20-30 minute out-and-back hike.
Looking back toward the Banshee Canyon area
After this short introduction, try the harder but still short Rings Loop Trail, which winds through bizarrely beautiful Banshee Canyon.
Rings Loop Trail, Mojave National Preserve, January 2020
The Rings Loop Trail at Mojave National Preserve’s Hole-in-the-Wall area meanders through Banshee Canyon, a wild, narrow notch named by early settlers for its howling desert winds. Though only 1.4 miles, this brief circuit packs a punch, passing through desert scrub to a set of ancient petroglyphs before ascending a pair of ring ladders, bolted into the rock, to exit Banshee Canyon. Dotted with hundreds of tafoni, the weathered canyon walls are a spectacular sight, making this hike one of the best in the area. (Note: It does take a bit of physical strength to ascend the ring loops; those not up for it can turn back at the first ladder, making this an out-and-back.)
Map of Rings Loop Trail, Mojave National Preserve
The Hole-in-the-Wall area is situated in the heart of southern California’s Mojave National Preserve and, sporting a visitor center and campground, is one of the most popular destinations in the park. Park at the Hole-in-the-Wall Information Center, a modest building in the shadow of a high butte, roughly 20 miles north of the Needles Freeway (I-40). (Note: Hole-in-the-Wall is around 40 miles from Kelso Dunes, the other major destination in Mojave.)
Begin by walking east to the end of the parking lot, where the Rings Loop Trail takes off into the desert. (Note: One can also start at the official Rings Loop Trailhead farther up the road, but its best to start at the Info Center, leaving the best part (Banshee Canyon) for last.) With a steep proclivity on your right, the wide path quickly drops into a sandy wash. After 150 yards, the path leaves the wash on the right and cuts through a break in a barbed wire fence. Across the flat desert to the east is Woods Mountain, a hulking mass that rises to more than 5,000 feet, while the stairstep mountain to the northwest is Barber Peak, which climbs still higher to 5,505 feet.
As the trail hugs the scrubby hillside on the right, it curves southward, and then west, to reveal another wide basin, the mouth of Wild Horse Canyon. The Wild Horse Canyon Road provides access to a handful of private residences in this remote and desolate environment.
Petroglyphs along the Rings Loop Trail
At about 1/3 mile, an interpretive wayside invites hikers to pause and scour the jumble of chestnut-colored boulders on the right for ancient petroglyphs. The rock art is not necessarily easy to find: it took yours truly at least 10 minutes to spot the tiny bighorn sheep etched on an outward-facing stone that is highlighted in the wayside’s photo. There are also scrawlings that resemble snakes in a couple of places, but overall the petroglyphs are not particularly special.
Moving on, the trail continues westward, highlighted by buckhorn cholla, an attractive species of cacti that sticks out amid the otherwise scrubby brush. Ahead is the orange-hued thumb of Horse Mesa, which towers over the desert floor.
Buckhorn cholla, with Wild Horse Canyon beyond
At 2/3 mile, the trail cuts through another fence then briefly follows a sandy wash. At 8/10 mile, leave the dry bed and trace the narrow path as it comes to the base of a honeycombed wall. Just beyond, the Barber Peak Trail bears off to the left; stay right on the Rings Loop Trail, entering Banshee Canyon.
Monolith near the junction with the Barber Peak Trail
The landscape ahead is terrifically weird: weathered openings in the rock (called tafoni) give the canyon walls an appearance of swiss cheese, while the uneven heights of the rock transform the walls into ghost-like figures. It’s easy to let the imagination run wild as the trail edges deeper into the canyon.
Entering Banshee Canyon
After the fork, the route climbs a chalky white surface and then approaches a fork in the canyon: the wash to the right ends at an impassable pouroff, while the trail continues left. Traverse a boulder jumble as the walls tighten, reaching the first of the two ring climbs at just over the one-mile mark.
First set of rings
A half dozen rings, bolted into the right wall, assist with the ascent through the crevice: hikers may not need to use all of the iron rings, but the last three are particularly helpful to get up and over the smooth dryfall.
From here, the route rounds a corner and then leads to the second set of rings: this time there are only four, but they are likely to be essential for most climbers.
Second set of rings
After ascending, follow the narrow, winding wash as it emerges back into the sunlight. A final climb leads to a shelf with a nice view back at the short but scenic canyon. Steps later, the trail ends at the Rings Loop parking area. (Note: There is also a short spur trail that leads to an overlook of another part of the canyon off to the right.) Interpretive signs at the trailhead provide a brief geological and human history of the area.
Narrow path through Banshee Canyon
View from the overlook spur
Having exited at a different point, a ¼ mile walk along the paved road is required to return to the Hole-in-the-Wall Information Center. All in all, the hike clocks in at 1.4 miles, which can be done in under an hour.
After exiting Banshee Canyon
Extend your time at the Hole-in-the-Rock area by trying one of the area’s three other hikes, including the short Nature Trail, which leads to the campground.
Kelso Dunes Trail, Mojave National Preserve, January 2020
Mojave National Preserve in southern California boasts a wide array of desert ecosystems, from pinyon-juniper woodlands, to Joshua tree forests, to cactus-yucca scrub, but there is perhaps none more iconic than the massive desert dunes scattered across the 1.6-million acre park. The primary show-stopper is Kelso Dunes, the largest dune field in the Mojave Desert and a relatively popular destination in an otherwise remote preserve. A trip at sunset reveals stunning colors on the wispy dunes, and hearty hikers can climb more than 500 feet in elevation to summit the highest of the bunch, offering panoramic views of the quiet desert and surrounding mountains.
Kelso Dunes is located in a broad desert basin in the southwest portion of Mojave National Preserve, roughly a 100-mile drive from either Barstow, California or Las Vegas, Nevada. While still remote, Kelso Dunes is a major draw of visitors to the park, and the Kelso Dunes Trailhead is located just 12 miles southwest of the Kelso Depot Visitor Center. From the visitor center, drive south on Kelbaker Road for eight miles, then bear right on the unpaved Kelso Dunes Road (passable to 2WD but often heavily washboarded) and follow it for roughly three miles to the trailhead. There is a pit toilet and several parking spots at the trailhead. (Note: The road continues on from here, providing access to some decent dispersed camping spots.)
The destination—the highest of the dunes, at 3,113 feet above sea level—is easily seen from the Kelso Dunes Trailhead. Although the trailhead serves as a common entry point, there is no official “trail” to the top. After an initial sandy track, the route quickly goes haywire amid a series of crisscrossing potential paths. There is, however, a recommended route—which minimizes time spent on steep inclines—described below.
Kelso Dunes from near the trailhead
The route begins on a well-worn, sandy track through a sea of creosote bush, seemingly the predominant plant at this altitude in the park. (Note: At about 2,600 feet, it’s generally too low for Joshua trees.) After a few minutes, the creosote and sagebrush give way to clumps of bunchgrass, seemingly the only living plant in the thick dunes.
Looking southeast toward the Providence Mountains and Granite Pass
At about ¼ mile, the “choose your own adventure” begins as footprints diverge in several directions. It is generally easier to stay to the right, below the escarpment that emerges on the left. The various paths, however, effectively converge as they head toward a high saddle to the right of the highest dune visible ahead. The initially level landscape begins to gain texture and height as the hike proceeds. At about 8/10 mile, the “main” route crests a hillside, then another, and continues to stairstep up the dunes ahead of the saddle approach.
Approaching the high dunes
At about 1.2 miles, the now steadily-climbing route splits into two ridges; take either approach, skirting a series of interlocking bowls that form a set of figure-eights. (Note: In general, stay high on the ridges to avoid steep descents and ascents out of the bowls; if you’re still descending to clear sandy basins at this point, you’re doing it wrong.)
Sun sets on Kelso Dunes
At 1.3 miles, there is no avoiding the monstrously steep ascent to the saddle, which is best taken by switchbacking to the best degree possible in order to avoid a crushing incline. It is at this point that first-time dune hikers will be yearning for flat land—ascending aeolian sand is considerably more difficult than “normal” terrain.
Heading up the steep ascent
The ascent to the saddle
Finally, at about 1.5 miles, the route crests the saddle, revealing views of the broader dune field to the north. Views at sunset can be simply spectacular, as the evening light flashes color on an otherwise greyish-white landscape.
Granite Mountains from Kelso Dunes
Kelso Dunes and views to the west
Heading left from the saddle, the ensuing route first ascend a false summit, then it’s a final, short but steep push to the actual summit of the highest dune, the capstone of the hike. While hopes of spending an extended period of time at the top are likely to be dashed by frequent winds, the views from atop the peak are simply stunning.
Kelso Dunes and Providence Mountains beyond
Kelso Dunes summit view
Northwesterly views across Kelso Dunes and Devil’s Playground
To the north, the dunes of Devil’s Playground extend off into the distance, with the Kelso Mountains and Soda Mountains beyond. To the east, the desert basin comes to an abrupt end as the Providence Mountains rise to nearly 7,000 feet. To the south are the craggy Granite Mountains and Old Dad Mountains. The dunes themselves were a product of these mountain boundaries, which blocked passage of the prevailing winds that carried the sands that now make up Kelso Dunes all the way from the Mojave River, dozens of miles to the west.
Sun setting on Kelso Dunes and Granite Mountains
Kelso Dunes after sunset
Finally, to the west, the setting sun. That way to Los Angeles and the Bay Area, bustling metropolises that feel like a world away.
Descending Kelso Dunes
Once you’ve had enough—or the winds force you to descend—make your way back the way you came, or, for the adventurous, try traversing the steep-sloping ridge that bears southwest from the summit. Below your feet, the sounds of shifting sands create small “booming” sounds, the effect of the hot surface crashing over the colder sands below. This way is definitely a steeper descent than the original route—and some route-finding is required—but is generally good fun as hikers skate down the shifting sands. Be sure to eventually edge leftward, however, as the trailhead lies slightly to the east.
Dusk at Kelso Dunes
It’s possible to spend at least a half-day on the dunes, but allot at least 2-3 hours for the round-trip hike to the summit and back. If doing a sunset hike, bring a headlamp or, with a full moon or starlight sky, let your night-vision kick in to experience the beautiful desert after the sun sets. Consider pairing the hike with a visit to the nearby Teutonia Peak Trail or various hikes in the Hole-in-the-Wall area.