Devil’s Kitchen Trail (Lassen Volcanic National Park, CA)

Devil’s Kitchen Trail, Lassen Volcanic National Park, June 2020

Devil’s Kitchen, the second-largest hydrothermal area in California’s Lassen Volcanic National Park, is a quieter—but no less smelly—alternative to the popular Bumpass Hell. The area owes its relative solitude to its location in remote Warner Valley: despite being a few miles from the main highway through the park, the trailhead is a full 1 ½ hour drive from the Kohm Yah-mah-nee Visitor Center. Yet the hike itself is reasonably short and easy, with a modest 450-foot elevation gain the course of over two miles. The acidic fumaroles at Devil’s Kitchen may smell like rotten eggs, but they are an awesome peek into the volcanic underbelly of Lassen Peak, one of only two volcanoes in the contiguous US to blow its top since 1900. The route to Devil’s Kitchen follows part of the Pacific Crest Trail and traverses splendid meadows and thick coniferous forest before reaching the hydrothermal site. (Note: Visitors can add a detour to nearby Drake Lake for a roughly 7-mile stem-and-loop, or trek over to Boiling Springs Lake and Terminal Geyser on the south side of the valley.)

Map of Devil’s Kitchen Trail, Lassen Volcanic National Park; created using alltrails.com (Check out the PDF version and interactive map)

The hike

To reach the Warner Valley Trailhead, head west on Feather River Drive in the town of Chester, California, then stay left on Warner Valley Road and follow it for 15.5 miles. The last three miles are dirt/gravel but usually passable to 2WD vehicles. Pull into the trailhead on the left—or, if you’re staying at the Warner Valley Campground or Drakesbad Guest Ranch, continue down the road.

From the trailhead, look for the sign marking the route to Boiling Springs Lake. This is the main gateway for a series of trails in Warner Valley. After 150 yards, the route joins with the Pacific Crest Trail (PCT), which comes in from the right. Now on the PCT, the trail descends gradually to a broad meadow chock-full of corn lilies. After a brief boardwalk section, the path bears left and works its way to the banks of Hot Springs Creek, a perennial waterway that is fed in part by Devil’s Kitchen up-stream.

At 4/10 mile, the trail crosses a sturdy bridge over the stream and begins a mild climb. Now bearing westward, the PCT skirts an open hillside at 6/10 mile with views down the valley to Drakesbad Guest Ranch. Notice the tributary stream just off to the right: while at first glance it appears normal, a closer look reveals a tin-colored sheen and rising steam. This is no ordinary creek—the water is fed by an underground hot spring, one of several in the area.

Steaming creek with Drakesbad beyond

Moving on from this initial geothermal feature, the trail drops to a junction at the base of a giant incense cedar tree. Bear right here, following the sign for Drakesbad and Devil’s Kitchen, leaving the PCT. (Note: The routes to Drake Lake and Boiling Springs Lake/Terminal Geyser continue left.) From here the path sheds the initial elevation that it gained, dropping amid a small boulder field to a subsequent fork at 8/10 mile. A spur trail leads left to the remains of Dream Lake (now a boggy meadow), which—after a dam breach in 2011—is today a relatively underwhelming sight. (Note: Head up the short trail to Dream Lake Meadow if you wish, but then return to the junction.) At the junction, head north across a bridge over Hot Springs Creek. Within seconds, the trail reaches a T-junction again. This time bear left.

Remains of Dream Lake

The next section is a highlight of the hike: after briefly skirting the stream, the trail crosses a minor tributary at about the one-mile mark. Beyond is an expansive meadow with fantastic views. Ahead one can see the western reaches of Warner Valley, with Sifford Mountain (7,409’) and an unnamed mountain (7,139’) on the left. Looking back eastward, hikers can spot Drakesbad and Mount Harkness (8,046’), the highest point in the park’s southeast. The meadow itself is often teeming with wildflowers, and tall grasses rustle gracefully in the wind.

Mount Harkness from the meadow

Part boardwalk, part dirt, the trail cuts through the middle of the meadow, briefly traverses a wooded section, then soaks up the sun one more time before a long stretch in the woods. At 1.3 miles, the Devil’s Kitchen Trail enters a dense forest of pines, firs, and cedars.

Meadow with Sifford Mountain beyond

The onward path traverses mildly uphill for 2/10 mile to another trail junction, as the Drake Lake route comes in from the left. (Note: This route has an unavoidable creek crossing, so be prepared to get your feet wet if you go that way. There are no obstacles on the main route (right) to Devil’s Kitchen, however.) Staying right at the fork, the Devil’s Kitchen Trail gradually begins to climb at a steadier incline. At about the 2-mile mark, the trail overtakes a ridgeline then descends to a grassy gulch. After crossing a minor stream, the path ascends more steeply, cresting a higher ridge at 2.3 miles. For horse-riders, there is a hitchrail on the right. Only human traffic is allowed beyond this point.

Dense woods on the Devil’s Kitchen Trail

The warning signs begin right away: you are entering an active geothermal area. Don’t even think about going off trail unless you want some serious burns—or worse. (Note: The soil around geothermal areas is notoriously unstable.) The path drops sharply down a set of bends, emerging out into the sun again, and crosses another bridge over Hot Springs Creek. Steam rising from the chalky hillside off to the left gives off a not-so-subtle, sulfuric scent.

Hot Springs Creek and the Devil’s Kitchen area

What produces this peculiar occurrence? Rain and snowmelt in the Lassen area seeps deep into the ground, feeding into a boiling reservoir of hot water before returning through fractures in the earth back to the surface as condensed steam. This steam in turn heats water near the surface level, generating mud pots and steam vents. The steam bears hydrochloric acid and sulfur, producing the acidic—and smelly—nature of the fumaroles.

After crossing the stream, the well-worn route climbs a chalky-white knoll and then splits. This is the start (and end) of a short loop section around Devil’s Kitchen. Heading left first, the narrow path traverses a wooden bridge over a milky froth – stream water combined with the acidic output of the fumaroles – then climbs to a crest with steaming springs on the left and gurgling vents on the right.

Boiling pool and striking colors

The distinct smell of rotten eggs combines with the overbearing heat of the steam to make the descent from the crest one of the more unpleasant—but wild—stretches of the hike. Beyond, the geothermal area opens up into a largely flat wonderland of boiling pools, milky stream, and odorous fumes. In the distance to the east, one can hear (but cannot see) the thundering cascades of Devil’s Kitchen Falls—tempting but thoroughly off-limits due to its location well off trail.

Gurgling hot springs
Broad flat at Devil’s Kitchen

As the route bears northward, skirting the hellish basin on the left, there is a brief spur to a viewpoint at about 2.6 miles. The spur ends abruptly at a fenced cul-de-sac; turn around here and head back to the main route. Bearing left, follow the trail as it flanks juniper bushes interspersed with mud pots, then carefully cross a tiny wooden plank over a milky stream. (Note: Clearly the water must not be too warm here or the park service would not allow one to get so close. In any case, don’t push your luck.) From here the path returns to the initial start of the loop.

Crossing the milky froth

Having completed the circuit, head back the way you came, toward Drakesbad and Warner Valley Trailhead. After the initial ascent back to the horse hitchrail, the rest of the way is larger downhill; stop in the meadow area for a snack/picnic, then make your way back to the trailhead to complete this entertaining half-day hike. All told, the out-and-back (plus the short loop at Devil’s Kitchen) clocks in at about five miles.

Extra credit

With the second half of your day, take the 3-mile round-trip hike to Boiling Springs Lake or extend it with a trip to nearby Terminal Geyser (6 miles round trip), the two other hydrothermal sites in the Warner Valley area of Lassen Volcanic National Park.

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Terminal Geyser, Little Willow Lake, & Boiling Springs Lake (Lassen Volcanic National Park, CA)

Terminal Geyser, Lassen Volcanic National Park, June 2020

Outside of Yellowstone, there are relatively few spots on the US mainland to see active volcanic features, such as bubbling mudpots, boiling lakes, and smelly fumaroles. Yet Lassen Volcanic National Park in northern California boasts all of the above—reminders of the subterranean hydrothermal system linked to Lassen Peak, one of only two volcanoes in the contiguous United States that have erupted since 1900. (Note: The other one, of course, is much better-known.) There are eight hydrothermal areas in the park, three of which are located in the remote Warner Valley, a quieter and lesser-visited alternative to the popular Bumpass Hell area in the main section of the park.

The narrative below describes a stem-and-loop hike—on the Pacific Crest Trail and neighboring tracks—to two of the three hydrothermal areas in Warner Valley: Terminal Geyser and Boiling Springs Lake. It is also includes an out-and-back to nearby Little Willow Lake, an extension that adds about two miles to the trip but can be skipped if short on time or energy. There are some limited views of Saddle Mountain, Reading Peak, and Lassen Peak, in addition to a wonderful traverse of verdant meadows in a remote corner of the national park.

Map of Pacific Crest Trail and hike to Terminal Geyser, Little Willow Lake, and Boiling Springs Lake, Lassen Volcanic National Park; created using alltrails.com (Check out the PDF version, interactive map, and MapMyHike track)

The hike

While most visitors to Lassen Volcanic National Park stick to the main highway in the park’s western reaches, the Warner Valley Road enters from the southeast and is accessed by way of the town of Chester, California. (Note: Chester is the gateway to Lake Almanor, a popular boating destination, and situated roughly at the junction of the Sierra Nevada and Cascades Range.) From Chester, follow Feather River Drive west out of town, then bear left on Warner Valley Road and follow it for 15.5 miles. The final three miles are unpaved but should be passable to two-wheel drive vehicles. (Note: There is one steep hill that could be tough on an RV.) Pull into the Warner Valley Trailhead on the left. (Note: Across the street to the north is the Warner Valley Campground, a quiet and relatively pleasant spot with 16 sites.)

Warner Valley Trailhead to Terminal Geyser (3.0 mi.)

An added bonus of the Warner Valley area is its location on the 2,650-mile Pacific Crest Trail (PCT). In fact, Drakesbad Guest Ranch (situated another a mile down the road) is a prominent stop—roughly the halfway point—on the PCT.

From the trailhead, the route to Terminal Geyser, Little Willow Lake, and Boiling Springs Lake follows the southbound PCT as it cuts westward between the road on the right and Hot Springs Creek down to the left. As a set of rushing cascades appear down in the drainage below, the trail reaches a fork; stay left on the PCT, which proceeds to drop down through the woody ravine to a sunny boardwalk that traverses a grassy meadow. Attractive corn lilies are the most prominent plant of interest; these perennials can grow to six feet and are commonly found at areas above 5,000 feet in California.

Traversing meadow near Warner Valley Trailhead

After a short open section, the trail hugs the southern flank of the meadow and returns streamside at about ¼ mile. Minutes later, the PCT bears south and crosses a wooden bridge over Hot Springs Creek. The trail beyond begins to climb a wooded hillside. At 6/10 mile, the trail skirts a minor stream with open views down to Drakesbad Guest Ranch. At first glance, it appears to be a normal creek; but with a closer look, one begins to notice the bronze sheen of the water and—in certain lights—hot steam rising from the water. This is no normal stream after all; rather, it is a hydrothermal spring emerging out of the earth below.

Looking down across Warner Valley to Drakesbad Guest Ranch

Beyond the hot spring, the narrow path descends mildly to the trunk of a massive incense cedar and the hike’s second trail junction. Stay left, following the signs for the PCT and Terminal Geyser. The trail beyond climbs mildly to a third fork at 7/10 mile; bear left again as the route to Drake Lake bears right over a relatively freshly-cut wooden bridge.

By now, one of the most notable features of the mixed conifer forest is the smattering of fallen branches and trees that litter the ground. While some conifers in the area have been burned or killed in some other way, much of the debris is owed to cladoptosis, the regular shedding of branches to conserve the trees’ resources and build drought resistance.

The PCT bears uphill at a mild incline and reaches another junction at 9/10 mile. Here hikers can bear right toward Boiling Springs Lake, but the route described here stays left on the PCT, saving the boiling lake for the return journey. Another ¼ mile up the trail, there is a second right-hand turn heading to the geothermal lake, which is now partly visible through the forest cover. Stay left again, continuing on the PCT as it gradually climbs a woody ridgeline.

Manzanita bushes become more ubiquitous as the trail ascends a rocky hillock. By mile two, hikers start to gain broad views of Warner Valley, with Flatiron Ridge, Pilot Mountain, and Saddle Mountain beyond. A couple of spurs on the left offer a nice spot to rest and soak in the vistas. At the right angle, one can also make out Lassen Peak (10,457’), the mainstay of the park, off to the northwest.

Views of Pilot Mountain and Saddle Mountain from the Pacific Crest Trail

At 2.25 miles, the PCT begins to descend, crossing eventually into a splendid, remote meadow dotted with (what I think are) arnica flowers. A window through the trees to the southeast provides views of Lake Almanor in the distance. The wooded summit of Kelly Mountain also comes into sight, and the trail begins to descend down a steeper slope as the sea of flowers continues on the left. At 2.65 miles, the trail forks again at a double junction: stay straight at the first, then bear left at the second: this is the 1/3-mile spur to Terminal Geyser.

Beautiful meadow; Lake Almanor in the distance

This spur trail is the steepest section of the hike. While the steam of Terminal Geyser comes into view to the left, it is inaccessible from this level; the trail first drops precipitously to a lower shelf and then sharply bends to the left, wrapping around to the western flanks of the Willow Creek drainage. At 3.0 miles, the spur ends at a small notch in the hillside, where the bubbling hot vents of Terminal Geyser spew a concoction of earthly odors and blistering steam. Despite its name, it’s not technically a geyser – rather, it’s a steam vent – but one can hear and see the bubbling waters spilling out from underground.

Terminal Geyser
Steam from the boiling pools of Terminal Geyser

Terminal Geyser to Little Willow Lake (1.5 mi.)

Terminal Geyser is a worthy turn-around point on its own, so hikers can return to the trailhead from here for a respectable 6-mile round-trip. But the determined can continue onward down the PCT to the southern park boundary and Little Willow Lake, an even more remote destination.

On the route to Little Willow Lake

From the geyser, retrace your steps—up the steep hillside—back to the trail junction, then bear left this time as the PCT treads westward across a woody gully and then climbs mildly to another low crest. The hike reaches its highest point—about 6,250’—at about mile 4, then the southbound track descends a pine-studded ridge. At 4.25 miles, what appears as a vast, verdant meadow appears on the right—but upon closer look, one begins to spot water: the ubiquitous grasses cloak Little Willow Lake below.

Little Willow Lake

Like many lakes in Lassen, Little Willow lacks a dramatic backdrop (unlike, say, here), yet it is a pleasant enough sight. The predominant peak to the west, though entirely forested, is Sifford Mountain (7,409’). (Note: Beware mosquitoes and other buggy pests in the summertime.) At 4.3 miles, the trail crosses narrow Willow Creek and immediately forks, with the PCT continuing left. Bear right on the Little Willow Lake Trail, which traces another ¼ mile to the park boundary.

After a couple minutes, the trail leaves the lakeside and bears sharply left up a small ridge to a crest at 4.5 miles. Beyond, the path ends at a spot just outside the park, where a remote forest road comes to its terminus in Lassen National Forest. Wander up the slope on the right for modest views to the southwest, toward the Domingo Springs area and Willow Creek drainage, with the northern Sierras on the horizon.

Some limited views from the park boundary

Little Willow Lake to Boiling Springs Lake (2.6 mi.)

Turn around at this point and head back to the lake, then retrace your steps on the PCT up and over the short ridge back to the junction with the spur to Terminal Geyser. Bear left at this first junction, then left again at the second: instead of following the PCT back toward Boiling Springs Lake and Warner Valley, take the Terminal Geyser Trail. This long and narrow track is impeccably maintained (like the others) and gradually climbs to crest a ridge at 6.3 miles.

There is another partial view of Lassen Peak as the Terminal Geyser Trail descends toward Boiling Springs Lake, eventually dropping down a set of wooden steps at about mile 7. Turn left at the junction at 7.1 miles, bearing onto the Boiling Springs Lake Loop. This short trail drops to clear a wood-choked ravine and then ascends to a high rim overlooking Boiling Springs Lake below.

Boiling Springs Lake

This hidden tarn is not your usual lake: an underground heat source produces hydrochloric acid and sulfurous fumes that combine with water to form a milky froth—and uninviting but beautiful sight. Along the shores there are a series of mud pots: boiling pools that ooze smelly hydrogen sulfide gases.

Rim of Boiling Springs Lake

Boiling Springs Lake to Warner Valley Trailhead (1.3 mi.)

From here the trail skirts the western rim of the lake, never getting too close. Signs strongly discourage—even prohibit—going down to the lake proper…unless you have a potential death wish. The soil around hydrothermal sites is notoriously unstable, so please stay on the main path, demarcated with worn tread and neatly-placed rocks.

As the path approaches the northern end of the lake, it crosses a pinkish-white chalky hilltop then leads down a set of steps away from the lake and across a dry gulch. Follow the winding path for another 1/10 mile to its junction back with the PCT—a familiar sight encountered many miles (and hours) ago.

From here it is less than a mile back to the trailhead, across a wooded area of cedars, pines, and firs. The PCT descends gradually to the junction with the Drake Lake Trail and fork at the foot of the giant cedar. Bear right at both points, then traverse the meadow and Hot Springs Creek back to the start. Pulling into the trailhead, hikers will clock in just under 8.5 miles, a good half-day hike in Warner Valley.

Posted in California, Lassen National Park, Moderate Hikes | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , | 7 Comments

Snow Mountain Loop via Deafy Glade Trail (Snow Mountain Wilderness, CA)

Snow Mountain, Snow Mountain Wilderness, June 2020

At 7,056 feet, Snow Mountain is, as the crow flies, the closest peak above 7,000 feet to the San Francisco Bay Area and one of the tallest in California’s Mendocino Range. Relative proximity to northern California’s major population centers, however, has hardly spoiled this peaceful wilderness, still unknown to many despite its recent inclusion in the Bureau of Land Management’s Berryessa Snow Mountain National Monument. What has partly spoiled the area are wildfires: in 2018, the Ranch Fire ripped through the Mendocino Range, devastating much of the 60,000-acre Snow Mountain Wilderness. (Note: As of mid-2020, many trailheads, recreation sites, and campgrounds in the area remain closed because of fire damage.) While some stretches of forests were burned, many pockets of life remain, and the burned areas are gradually healing as wildflowers blanket the ground and new growth begins to emerge.

While visitors can bag the summit of Snow Mountain in one long, very strenuous day hike, the ascent is much more enjoyable as a 2- to 3-day backpack. Below I describe such a trip, starting and ending at Deafy Glade Trailhead in Mendocino National Forest, which forms an 18-mile lasso-loop that traverses forest, streams, spring-fed meadows, and high slopes with panoramic vistas of one of California’s forgotten landscapes. Unlike existing descriptions on the web, this post includes a loop option that continues past the summit to Milk Ranch Meadow and the Bear Creek area, an extension that sports expansive views and hidden glades that are well worth a few additional miles. (Note: Snow Mountain technically has two summits—a west and east peak. This description hits the east (taller) peak, but the west is easily accessible.)

The entire trek gains nearly 4,000 feet in elevation, most of it in the first six miles, making this no easy walk in the park. The loop portion is far milder in terms of elevation gain; experience with reading topo maps and route-finding, however, is a must. (Note: Do print out and bring this excellent map from the Snow Mountain Hiking Association!)

(A few notes: (1) No wilderness permits are required for overnight trips in Snow Mountain Wildnerness. (2) This is bear country! Bear canisters are suggested though not required. (3) One challenge for overnighters can be finding a reliable water supply along the way—unless it is very late in the season (e.g., September-October), however, there should be several places to treat/filter water; I have marked several options, with varying flows, on an interactive map here. See also the helpful topo map here, which includes marked water sources. (4) Finally, it is not called Snow Mountain without reason, but the white, fluffy stuff is generally clear by late spring/early summer. Check the USFS site for latest conditions.)

Map of Snow Mountain Loop via Deafy Glade Trail, Snow Mountain Wilderness, Mendocino National Forest; created using alltrails.com (Check out the PDF version and interactive map)

The hike

Deafy Glade Trailhead is a mere two-hour drive from Sacramento and three hours from the East Bay, although it certainly feels longer. For all but the heartiest dirt road drivers (who may approach from the west), visitors will enter Mendocino National Forest from the east. From Interstate 5 in the Central Valley, take Exit 586 for Maxwell, then continue for 31 miles westward to Stonyford, a small town nestled in a minor valley at the foot of the Mendocino Range, a section of the broader Coast Range.

Just north of town, take a left on Route M10/Fouts Springs Road and follow the slow and winding track for 13 miles to the trailhead. Passing numerous pull-offs and campgrounds primarily used for off-road vehicles, the road eventually enters thick forest along the north flank of Potato Hill. At 13 miles, the pavement abruptly ends, turning to dirt. This is your cue; park along the small pull-on the right. Although not signed (there is a wooden information board that is blank), this is Deafy Glade Trailhead. (Note: On weekends, expect there to be a handful of cars at the trailhead; on weekdays, it is not unlikely to have the place to yourself.)

(Note: It is possible also to continue further, onto the dirt track, to start the hike at Summit Springs Trailhead. Starting here cuts about 3.5 miles each way off the stem-and-loop. However, as of mid-2020, the Summit Springs parking area was closed, and, even in good times, the route is not recommended for standard, two-wheel drive vehicles.)

From the trailhead, one can see the hulking mass of the Snow Mountain complex, although the summit is out of view. The high outcrop visible from the trailhead is High Rock (6,329’), a prominent waypoint on the hike—but a full 700 feet lower than the actual summit.

Deafy Glade Trailhead

Deafy Glade Trail to Summit Springs Junction (4.3 mi.)

At the trailhead, be sure to sign at the trail register, and pack plenty of water and supplies for the hike, which enters remote wilderness quite quickly. The hike begins with relatively little fanfare, gradually descending an old logging track, contouring westward. The valley below was carved by the South Fork of Stony Creek, a perennial waterway that you will encounter soon. This area appears to have been partly spared by the recent fires—a variety of conifers grow tall and deep. About 250 yards from the start, follow a short single-track around a stony ravine, then continue on the old road again. Technically there is a junction at about 0.35 miles, but the trail coming in from the right is largely indiscernible.

Around a mile into the hike, the gradual descent turns abruptly steep. With obscured views of the behemoth of Deafy Rock off to the right, the Deafy Glade Trail drops to a crossing of the South Fork of Stony Creek. This lush and beautiful area is situated at the confluence of the main creek with a prominent tributary, which tumbles down a nice set of cascades.

Crossing the South Fork of Stony Creek

There is no bridge at the crossing, so prepare for either some masterful rock-hopping or a brief foot bath. In spring or after storms, water levels can rise to as high as waist-deep. (Note: As of June 2020, however, the depth was about 1-1.5 feet, just short of knee height on yours truly.) While there are several spur trails, the key to avoid getting disoriented is to cross immediately as the trail drops to creek level. The Deafy Glade Trail continues along the north bank.

Minor cascades

Enjoy the stream while it lasts—this is the last steady flow one will encounter for a while. It also marks the start of the 3,300-foot climb to Cedar Camp, the toughest stretch of the entire hike. The ascent begins immediately, climbing steeply to an overlook of the cascading tributary, then jerking left. As the single-track path exits a side ravine and skirts the hillside, views briefly open up to the south and west. The tree-covered hulk to the south is Letts Ridge, a relatively rarely visited area in Mendocino National Forest.

As the trail curves north, the incline steepens to a crushing 25 percent—which does not sound like a lot until one experiences it in person. The woods beyond were hit hard by the Ranch Fire, as attested by the charred remains of small manzanitas along the trail. Some pines and manzanitas, however, have survived, offering continued shade on a hot, sunny day. After briefly levelling off at 1.25 miles, the trail comes into view of its namesake Deafy Glade, a beautiful grassy meadow on the right, then climbs again to a point where it crosses the open clearing. These pretty meadows are one of the touchstones of the hike; hikers will encounter several nice glades in the Snow Mountain area. (Note: There a couple of nice, previously-used campsites at Deafy Glade; backpackers seeking to complete the entire 18-mile loop, however, should continue onward.)

As the trail bears north, it follows a deep ravine on the right, which culminates in a crusty drop-off at about 1.5 miles. Hugging the rim on the left, the path approaches a signed junction. The largely-defunct Smokehouse Trail continues straight, while the Deafy Glade Trail bears left toward Snow Mountain. Take the left turn.

The subsequent section gains about 2,000 feet in elevation in less than three miles. The initial climb from Deafy Glade will feel relatively mild for day hikers—but those carrying heavy packs will start to feel the burn as the grade steadily ascends amid spotty patches of pines, manzanitas, and oaks. Around two miles from the trailhead, the gradient steepens, and the trail enters a more densely wooded area. After a brief clearing offers some southward views, the track climbs to a relatively flat area, where the trail becomes more difficult to follow: generally head west through the gut of the wooded plateau, after which the path becomes more visible again.

Meadow along ascent of Deafy Glade Trail

At 2.5 miles, hikers reach the base of the lovingly-named Morale-Buster Hill, where grades again exceed 25 percent for a brief period. Take it slow and easy, as the loose, finely-grained rocks can precipitate nasty falls. Finally, at 2.75 miles, hikers reach the end of the 25% section and greet a welcome sight: a left-bending switchback. While the trail continues to climb, more frequent switchbacks from here on out make for an easier ascent. After coursing southward for 250 yards, the trail bends right, inaugurating a relatively mild section that begins to offer some limited views down the South Fork drainage.

After skirting a grassy ravine at 3.3 miles, the trail climbs to an outcrop that offers the best vistas yet. One can begin to make out the Stonyford area and Indian Valley to the east, with Clark Ridge and the broad Central Valley, the breadbasket of California, beyond.

The views improve as one approaches the Summit Springs Trail

At 3.5 miles, the trail skirts another ravine that offers the best opportunity for treatable water since crossing Stony Creek. Backpackers who are tired of carrying packs can set up camp around here if they’d like, allowing for the option to visit Snow Mountain on the next day with a much lighter load. Most, however, will continue on, setting their sights on Cedar Camp—another 2.5 miles up the mountain.

After crossing the ravine, hikers officially enter the Snow Mountain Wilderness, a road-less tract of 60,000 acres, one of the larger wilderness areas in northern California. At 3.7 miles, the trail begins to ascend a set of switchbacks. At 4.1 miles, the trail passes through an open section with hundreds of scorched manzanita bushes, a preview of the desolate landscapes to come. Finally, at 4.3 miles, the trail crests a high ridge and reaches a junction with the Summit Springs Trail. (Note: The route to Summit Springs Trailhead comes in from the left.) Hikers are dazzled with westward views across Rice Valley and the Mendocino Range, as well as unobstructed vistas to the south and west.

View down the ridge toward Summit Springs

Summit Springs Trail to Cedar Camp (1.6 mi.)

By now the climb to Cedar Camp is more than two-thirds finished, but the best section is just ahead. Ditching the woods below, the onward Summit Springs Trail stays high and sports excellent views westward toward the Pacific Ocean. The behemoth of Snow Mountain extends westward, eventually giving way to Potato Hill (4,405’), with Rice Valley beyond. At the junction, bear right, following the obvious track as it follows the spine of the ridge, then bears left along a steep hillside dotted with scrub oak and brushy manzanitas. While there is significant undergrowth, virtually nothing more than 8 feet tall has survived the latest fires.

Potato Hill and Rice Valley beyond from Summit Springs Trail

At 4.6 mile, the trail passes a rock outcrop and an alluring (though likely windswept) campsite on the left. Sunset from this spot is likely to be excellent. At 4.75 miles, the path rounds a rightward bend and enters a nameless and ghostly ravine. Despite previously passing through burned areas, this is the spookiest thus far: an entire sea of pines, tucked away in a spring-fed gully, reduced to crisp. The eerie feeling is partly soothed by the sight of wildflowers and rushing water, which pours out of a hidden spring.

Fine views west from a high ridgeline, en route to Cedar Camp

After a relatively level period, the climb resumes in earnest around mile 5. Having now surpassed 6,000 feet in elevation, a bald hillside offers views back southeast by which you came. Then the onward path traverses a high ridge, weaving between several craggy knobs. At 5.7 miles, the trail enters the densest and strangest stand of devastated pines yet. The charred trees are strangely beautiful in their own way, and spring wildflowers—including blankets of pink-and-green pussypaws. (Note: Around here an unmarked trail heads east toward High Rock, but I was unable to find it.)

Spooky forest of burned pines and firs

From here it is a short northward tread to Cedar Camp, an inviting oasis of green amid the hellish landscape. Off to the left is Cedar Pond, a mucky pool that is nonetheless surrounded by a ring of charming corn lilies. Just north of the pond is a popular campsite—if it’s available, take it. (Note: While Cedar Pond is not a great water source, there is a much nicer creek flowing downstream to the west.)

Cedar Pond

Cedar Camp to Snow Mountain East Peak (2.2 mi.)

After spending the night around Cedar Camp (there are additional sites just west and north of the pond in the woods), prepare to tackle the remainder of the hike to the summit the next morning. Back at the southern fringe of the clearing, there is a junction—it’s not at all obvious at first, but this is the start of the six-mile circuit. Head right (northeast) to take the loop in a counterclockwise direction—after skirting the fringe of Cedar Camp, a better-defined path continues northward through a minor gully. About ¼ mile from the start of the loop, the path begins to ascend through a low gap, then bears left and climbs to a higher saddle at about 7/10 mile.

First views of the Snow Mountain summit (East Peak)

From here, hikers get their first glimpse of the summit of Snow Mountain—still relatively distant, but only about 400 feet higher than the ridge on which you are standing. The remainder of the route to the summit is highly scenic: after briefly descending from the ridge, the path skirts a beautifully verdant meadow, fed by Dark Hollow Creek. This area, called Summit Basin, is widely exposed to the sun and, in spring, teeming with wildflowers.

Snow Mountain and Summit Basin

Of course, the climbing is not yet done, and the path begins to ascend steadily again through the pines at around 1.5 miles. After a quarter-mile, the route crests the high saddle between the two peaks of Snow Mountain—bear left to head to the West Peak (7,038’) or right to top the East Peak (7,056’). If one has to choose, pick the East—it is higher, after all, and, on clear days, offers expansive views across the Central Valley as far as Lassen Peak and Mount Shasta.

The final approach to Snow Mountain East

After flanking a rocky ridge, the path to the East Peak tackles a barren traverse, devoid of all but fine-grained, black-gray rock, offering views in both directions. Down to the left are Signal Peak (6,684’) and North Ridge (6,540’), still part of the Snow Mountain complex. To the right, one can see down the Dark Hollow Creek drainage toward Indian Valley. From here it is a steep and rocky but relatively brief ascent to the broad summit, which offers several nice places to sit and admire the panoramic vistas.

There’s plenty to see—at least if you’re lucky to have clear skies. To the east, the Mendocino Range gives way to the smaller Black Diamond Ridge, followed by Indian Valley and the Stonyford area. Beyond is the modest Clark Ridge and vast Central Valley, which spans all the way to the Cascades and Sierra Nevada on the eastern horizon. The body of water visible roughly due east is East Park Reservoir, a popular boating destination in Indian Valley.

Eastward toward Indian Valley and East Park Reservoir

The views to the south are largely blocked by the Snow Mountain behemoth, including the high West Peak, largely free of trees. To the north, the Mendocino Range continues for dozens of miles, through to the Yolly Bollys and Trinity Alps. Westward, a series of ranges and valleys extend all the way to the Pacific, although the ocean itself is just out of view. Down in Gravelly Valley, the sparkling blue waters denote another reservoir, this one called Lake Pillsbury, on the Eel River. (Note: From the West Peak, one can see south toward Mount Saint Helena and Mount Diablo, as well as Clear Lake.)

Signal Peak from the Snow Mountain summit

Snow Mountain East Peak to Cedar Camp via Milk Ranch Loop (4.4 mi.)

Once satisfied, return back down to the saddle to a four-way junction. Weary hikers can head back left, retracing your steps back to Cedar Camp. Those seeking to also bag West Peak can continue straight to reach the summit. But the adventurous who want to take an alternative, highly scenic route back to Cedar Camp should bear right, following the sign for “Milk Ranch.” This is the rest of the loop option.

Descending the East Peak summit

From the ridge between the West and East Peaks, the narrow route drops steadily to North Creek Meadow, which hosts a small spring and thin stream. After crossing the brook, the trail becomes fainter, but one can generally discern the onward path as it skirts a rock outcrop on the right and reveals open views of Signal Peak to the north.

Hugging the hillside on the left, the trail gradually ascends a gravelly ridge, cresting it at about 3.05 miles (from Cedar Camp, including the East Peak spur). Now on the west side of the ridge, the trail slowly descends. Stay alert for a subtle bend in the trail at 3.35 miles; the trail switchbacks to the left and the pace of the descent quickens as it drops toward Milk Ranch Meadow. The beautiful meadow comes into view at about 3.6 miles; follow the slope (the faint path comes in and out here) down to the north flank of a sea of corn lilies. Here a clear route traverses a small but well-flowing stream, then climbs to the edge of the woods again, where another junction awaits.

Crossing the stream at Milk Ranch

Follow the sign indicating the Crooked Tree Trail, which bears left and skirts the west side of Milk Ranch Meadow. An abandoned outpost of some sort, complete with a small wood stove and large water tank, appears on the left. The trail around here is faint and difficult to follow; but as long as you follow the meadow on the left, you will find another trail marker again at 3.9 miles. (Note: The sign indicates “Bear Creek” and “Summit Springs” – the correct way!)

Onward traverse beyond Milk Ranch

Leaving the pretty glen behind, the trail skirts a modest ravine on the left that bears Gully Spring, the ultimate water source for Milk Ranch Meadow. At about 4.1 miles, the route levels off and crosses another open glen; off to the right, one can see down Middle Fork Meadow, itself fed by a set of springs. Walk through the meadow, then pay close attention as the trail in the next stretch is easy to lose: after a short climb, the trail bears left across more modest flats.

Middle Fork Meadow

At 4.35 miles, there is another leftward bend in the trail that is very subtle. Look for a patch of grasses/wildflowers; instead of continuing through the trees southward, the path bears eastward (left) through this patch. You are on the right track if you spot a small meadow on the left after about 150 yards from the subtle left turn. From here the track ascends to a woody pass at 4.5 miles.

Beyond the saddle, the Bear Creek drainage unfolds below. Although you are not likely to spot a flowing stream yet, a shady ravine begins to drop southward. Here the trail is again easy to lose: generally stay left, resisting the temptation to descend to the wash. The path hugs the hillside on the left and becomes considerably more discernable again as it tracks through an open patch of scrubby vegetation.

Dropping into the Bear Creek drainage

The woods beyond were heavily affected by the recent fires. But the sound of flowing water and lush undergrowth suggests the area is experiencing a slow regrowth. At 4.8 miles, the route passes Upper Bear Creek Springs on the right, continuing to skirt the Snow Mountain hillside. As the trail bears south, the bottom drops out of the Bear Creek drainage, creating a steep canyon sporting tall pines, many of which appeared to survive the fires. At 5.2 miles, the trail crosses a broader wash, with Lower Bear Creek Springs (the main source of Bear Creek) downstream to the right.

Western wallflowers and Indian paintbrush along the trail

By now one has already spotted the onward route – a sudden and sharp ascent out of the shady drainage to a high pass. The ascent begins as a series of switchbacks, emerging out of the trees after 2/10 mile. While the views from the saddle at 5.7 miles are terrific, the scenery around is haunting: what once was a partly wooded slope has been reduced to ashes; scarcely a stump rises more than eight feet above the ground.

Onward view to the south, en route back to Cedar Camp

The terrain to the south looks just as eerie: an entire valley of tall conifers, virtually all reduced to skeletons. The saving grace as the trail descends into this forbidding landscape is the lush bloom of stunning orange wallflowers in late spring/early summer. As the Milk Ranch Loop Trail drops into the Grassy Spring area, the route becomes fainter but generally skirts the left side of a broad meadow of corn lilies. (Note: Route-finding in the opposite direction would be particularly challenging.) At 6.1 miles, most of the way around the loop, the trail skirts the drainage that leads down to Grassy Spring, then suddenly ascends again. (Note: There are some decent campsites and viewpoints across the wash to the south; these are possible alternatives to Cedar Camp.)

From here it is a short and mild walk back to Cedar Camp. Skirt around the west side of Cedar Pond, hop across a small stream, and then return to the Cedar Camp junction. This marks the end of the Snow Mountain/Milk Ranch circuit, which clocks in at about 6.6 miles.

Cedar Camp to Deafy Glade Trailhead (5.9 mi.)

If you camped at Cedar Camp the previous night, welcome back home! Hikers on a 3-day journey can call it a day here and spend another night. But those on a 2-day trek should pick up their belongings and prepare for the nearly six-mile return back to the trailhead. The route retraces one’s steps from the first day, although the 3,000-foot descent is largely preferred to the grueling uphill of the initial approach.

Summit Springs Trail

Do be careful, however, as one drops down Morale-Buster Hill and into the Stony Creek drainage. The 25-percent grade is steep and slippery, necessitating a slow and careful descent. After crossing Stony Creek again, a steep but short uphill turns into a mild ascent along the initial logging road. After 2-3 days and more than 18 miles of hiking, the Deafy Glade Trailhead is a welcome sight. Be sure to check out at the trail register.

Back at Deafy Glade Trailhead after a long second day (views of High Rock ahead)

All told, this strenuous but rewarding hike is best done as an overnight backpack, making it a possible weekend trip from Sacramento or Bay Area.

(Note: Wildflowers spotted on my mid-June 2020 hike: Indian paintbrush, mugwort, fringed Indian pink, lupine, pussypaws, scarlet larkspur, western wallflower, southwestern pricklypoppy.)

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Phleger Estate – Huddart Park Loop (Golden Gate National Recreation Area, CA)

Miramontes Trail, Phleger Estate, Golden Gate National Recreation Area, June 2020

Phleger Estate, the southernmost unit of Golden Gate National Recreation Area, is a quiet, serene tract of land on the eastern slopes of the Santa Cruz Mountains that boasts one of the closest redwood groves to San Francisco. Although not as stunning as nearby Purisima Creek Redwoods, this once heavily-logged area has recovered nicely, filling the valleys and hillsides with second-growth California redwoods of decent size. While its eastern neighbor—Huddart County Park—is a popular destination for residents of San Mateo County, Phleger Estate is relatively untraveled. The featured hike below covers the estate from end-to-end, combined with a multi-mile descent through Huddart Park to form a nearly 8-mile loop. The highlight is a lush, streamside walk along the Miramontes Trail, which hosts the largest and most impressive groves in the two parks. Save for passing under a few power lines, the entire hike is wooded, making this a good foggy-day option on the San Francisco Peninsula.

Map of Phleger Estate – Huddart Park Loop, Golden Gate National Recreation Area/Huddart County Park (Check out the PDF version, interactive map, and MapMyHike track)

The hike

Once a vast, privately-owned tract of more than 1,000 acres, Phleger Estate passed into the hands of the National Park Service in 1993, thanks to the efforts of the Peninsula Open Space Trust, Save the Redwoods League, and matching funds from U.S. Congress. It is one of the few units of Golden Gate National Recreation Area with no active roads running through it, although it is relatively easily accessed from Skyline Boulevard (Route 35) and Huddart County Park in the Mid-Peninsula.

There are thus a variety of options for where to start a hike into the estate. Most choose to enter through Huddart County Park, a roughly four-mile drive from Interstate 280 in suburban Woodside. However, the drive is considerably more scenic if one starts along Skyline Boulevard. Heading south from San Mateo or San Francisco, take Route 35 toward Half Moon Bay, then bear left as Skyline Boulevard bears southward and climbs Kings Mountain in the northern reaches of the Santa Cruz Mountains. While there are open views of the Bay and Pacific Ocean from the drive, the road enters dense forest as it climbs higher.

There is an access point at the Kings Mountain Fire Brigade building, 5.8 miles south of the intersection of San Mateo Road (Route 92) and Skyline Boulevard (Route 35), but this is often hard to find. Even though it makes the hike slightly longer, I recommend continuing onward to the south parking lot for Purisima Creek Redwoods Open Space Preserve, 6.5 miles down Skyline Boulevard. (Note: See Google Maps here.) There are a handful of parking spots on the west side of the road.

Huddart County Park section (3.6 miles)

While this is a popular trailhead for hikes into Purisima Creek Redwoods to the west, hikers headed for Huddart County Park and Phleger Estate should cross Skyline Boulevard and then bear south for 50 yards to catch a fire road that enters Huddart on the left. Pass through the gate and immediately come upon the first of many, many junctions—(almost) all impeccably signed. This first junction is a four-way fork. Since you want to make your northward toward Phleger Estate, bear left…but which left? Both the Skyline Trail and Summit Springs Trail head north from the junction. Taking either is fine for now, as they meet up again at a second junction after about 1/10 mile. This time, bear right on Summit Springs Trail for sure, as it provides access down into the heart of Huddart Park. (Note: Hikers will return, hours later, on the Skyline Trail.)

Summit Springs Trail, Huddart County Park

Thus begins the main loop portion: hikers should proceed counterclockwise, dropping first down through Huddart Park, then saving the more interesting ascent through Phleger Estate for the second half. The Summit Springs Trail is a wide, gradually descending track that immediately passes several batches of towering redwoods. These trees are a lesson in resilience: while the largest members of the old growth forests were heavily logged starting in the latter half of the 19th century, these second-growth redwoods have survived as a result of preservation efforts: some were small and forgotten during the logging period; others have sprouted and grown in the past several decades. Redwoods are also famously resistant to wildfires, boasting chemical tannins and thick barks that retard the fire’s progress.

The Summit Springs Trail hugs the wooded hillside, then traverses the upper reaches of McGarvey Gulch and approaches another junction at 6/10 mile. Bear right here, ditching the wide Summit Springs path for the narrower Crystal Springs Trail, a main thoroughfare through Huddart County Park. (Note: It is technically shorter, though less interesting, to proceed straight and then follow Richards Road down to the Miramontes Trail.)

The Crystal Springs Trail begins as a relatively uninteresting, though pleasant, walk through a mix of bay, oak, and chestnut trees. Beautiful reddish-bark madrones, a cousin of manzanita, become increasingly common as the trail gradually descends a wooded hillside. At 9/10 mile, the woods are interrupted abruptly as the trail passes under power lines.

Wild madrone along the Crystal Springs Trail in Huddart Park

Reentering the woods, the descent continues, dropping down a set of switchbacks, then the trail bears northeast. Passing under the cover of wily madrone, the Dean Trail enters from the right at 1.4 miles. Stay left on the Crystal Springs Trail, entering the prettiest stretch yet, a shaded gully with nice stands of second-growth redwoods, mixed with leaning bay trees and madrone, with limited underbrush.

Modest redwoods along the Crystal Springs Trail in Huddart Park

After clearing the ravine, the trail descends a series of winding bends with more frequent redwoods and firs. At 1.9 miles, the track passes again under power lines, this time allowing for some distant views of the San Francisco Bay, with the East Bay hills and Mount Diablo beyond. From light to dark, the onward trail returns back to dense redwood cover, then drops down a pair of switchbacks to cross the Campground Trail, a wide, old road. By now the crowds are likely to be more apparent—you are within striking distance of the Toyon Group Camp at Huddart, and within a couple miles of the main parking areas for the county park.

Crystal Springs Trail

Continue straight on the Crystal Springs Trail, which drops through another nice grove of redwoods. Stay right at the next two junctions (signs #8 and #9). By now hikers are used to the gradual, winding path with seemingly endless, though mild, switchbacks. The trail descends into the lower reaches of McGarvey Gulch, passing two more junctions (#14 and #15), crossing under more power lines, and culminating at a series of three wooden bridges. Here the Crystal Springs Trail crosses a seasonal creek, followed by another fork, 3.4 miles from the trailhead.

Up close with redwoods

This time, at post #13, bear left on the Spur Trail, leaving the Crystal Springs Trail behind. This track follows the right flank of McGarvey Gulch, then ends at another junction at 3.5 miles (signpost #12). Follow the wide Richards Road left, across the creek. Thereafter the route does something it hasn’t done all hike to date: it ascends (!), though mildly, for 1/10 mile. At 3.6 miles, look for a turnoff on the right—this is the start of the Miramontes Trail, the highlight of the walk, which leaves Huddart Park and enters the jurisdiction of the National Park Service.

Phleger Estate section (3.7 miles)

It’s hard to believe, but the hike is not yet half done. The improved scenery of the following section, however, makes the wait worthwhile. After the Miramontes Trail makes a hard left around a bend, it drops to the banks of West Union Creek, a seasonal but oft-flowing stream that feeds an impressive clutch of redwoods. The landscape here feels considerably lusher and greener than the hilly descent through Huddart Park, with clover and ferns blanketing the riparian slopes.

At 3.9 miles, hikers pass a towering sign for the Miramontes Trail, with a metal plaque on the right that briefly tells the story of the estate’s acquisition. The shady walk beyond is the best part of the hike—the redwoods are taller and denser, inviting passersby to stop, reflect, and gaze up at the hearty trees.

Dense thicket

One also notices, after passing into Phleger Estate, the impressive trail work: the route is neatly manicured, with impeccably-built stone steps, bridges, and rock walls. The signs, of course, are also a standout: the trail markers rise to more than 8 feet and resemble old lampposts, topped by a carveout of a rider on horseback.

Redwoods and stream along Miramontes Trail in Phleger Estate

At 4.1 miles, the trail crosses a bridge over a tributary stream. Even as the redwoods in this section are impressive, there are also less savory signs of the old logging days: large stumps are visible in several areas, a reminder of the massive giants that once dotted this landscape, growing for centuries before being felled by human settlers in the quest for a quick buck in the late 1800s and early 1900s.

At 4.3 miles, West Union Creek enters private property, and the Miramontes Trail abruptly cuts left around a switchback, bearing southeast from the park boundary. The mild uphill climbs through batches of redwoods, then the trail levels off again as it renews its westward course. The redwoods briefly dissipate before reappearing again as one skirts a series of minor ravines.

A junction at 4.9 miles—again nicely adorned with fantastic signage—marks the end of the Miramontes Trail. Both the Raymundo Trail (which bears right) and Mount Redondo Trail (which bears left) end up in the same place, but the latter is slightly shorter.

Elaborate trail signs at Phleger Estate

Head left as the Mount Redondo Trail climbs steadily, following the left flank of a broad gulch, dotted with small redwoods nearly all the way. At 5.5 miles, the trail crosses to the west side of the ravine, then switchbacks up a slope. While not particularly steep, the ascent is persistent, making up for the significant loss of elevation during the first few miles of the loop.

Mount Redondo Trail in Phleger Estate

At 5.7 miles, there is another fork, as the Raymundo Trail rejoins from the right. Head left on the curious-but-aptly-named Lonely Trail, a quiet and pleasant single-track that climbs back to Skyline Boulevard and the top of Kings Mountain. After an initial ascent, the path levels off briefly as it bears south, passing a series of redwood-filled ravines. There is a minor clearing with a bench at 6.2 miles, followed by a steady ascent to larger ravine at 6.5 miles with another bench.

The subsequent section is the steepest of the hike, gaining steadily until topping off at about 2,000 feet at 6.9 miles. Stay left as an unmarked spur bears off to the right. By now one can hear the road traffic on Skyline Boulevard. At mile 7, stay left at an unmarked junction—heading right leads back to Skyline but about a mile north of the parking area. The onward trail briefly descends, then climbs again, passing another spur at 7.1 miles. Stay left again, coming within sight of Skyline Boulevard. There is a spur here to a small parking area. But the route back to the loop’s start continues onward. At 7.3 miles, exit Phleger Estate and return to Huddart Park, greeted with another junction.

Leaving Phleger Estate

Return to Trailhead through Huddart Park (0.6 miles)

At the junction, stay right on the Skyline Trail as it passes through a nice redwood grove, flanked on the left by a modest meadow of scrubby underbrush. There is another junction at 7.7 miles; you have been here before—the Summit Springs Trail bears off to the left. Stay straight this time on the Skyline Trail, wedged between Summit Springs and the road. Stay right again at the next junction, then return to the initial four-way intersection. Heading right, pass back through the entrance gate and cross Skyline Boulevard to return to the parking area.

Skyline Trail in Huddart Park

This 7.9-mile trek, almost entirely wooded, covers more than 1,400 in elevation gain, but—lacking any truly daunting ascents—can be considered moderately difficult. Hikers looking for a truly inspiring experience should venture west into the more impressive Purisima Creek Redwoods, but the Phleger Estate – Huddart Park Loop isn’t half bad.

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Diablo Foothills Loop (Diablo Foothills Regional Park, CA)

Shell Ridge Loop Trail, Diablo Foothills Regional Park, March 2020

Despite being overshadowed—almost literally—by Mount Diablo (3,848’), Diablo Foothills Regional Park covers a surprisingly beautiful but low-elevation landscape in northern California’s East Bay. There is but one knoll in the park that rises above 1,000 feet, yet the oak-studded ravines, hidden valleys, and verdant hillsides—particularly alluring in spring—are beautiful nonetheless. A short drive from downtown Walnut Creek, parts of the park can be overrun on weekends, but the crowds thin as hikers venture into the hilly expanse. The below hike covers a nearly six-mile circuit, dipping briefly into neighboring Mount Diablo State Park and traversing canyons, oak-bay woodlands, and open pastures with several fine vistas throughout.

Map of Diablo Foothills Loop, Diablo Foothills Regional Park; created using alltrails.com (Check out the PDF version, interactive map, and MapMyHike track)

The hike

The loop hike begins and ends at Castle Rock Regional Recreation Area, an almost park-within-a-park and the most popular staging point for walks into Diablo Foothills Regional Park. (Note: See Google map here.) From Walnut Creek, follow Castle Rock Road to its end. Arrive early to get a parking spot at the small lot at Castle Rock; otherwise backtrack about ¼ mile to the much larger Orchard Staging Area. (Note: If parked at Orchard, follow the roadside trail to Castle Rock.) While most visitors come to Castle Rock for the picnicking, softball/volleyball, or the pool, there are also several hiking trails taking off from the parking lot.

From the Castle Rock parking area, find the marked single-track heading up the western slope. After 50 yards, this merges with a wider track—the Castle Rock Trail—which bears southward for the next half-mile. Follow this broad path as it hugs the hillside, a couple dozen feet above the crowded valley below. The hills on both the near and far side are part of the broader Shell Ridge, composed of rock that was thrust upward as part of the Mount Diablo uplift a mere five million years ago.

Setting off down the Castle Rock Trail

As the Castle Rock Trail proceeds, Pine Canyon narrows ahead, and the open hillsides give way to denser vegetation. After passing through a gate at 3/10 mile and a trail fork at ½ mile (stay left), hikers should bear straight on the Stage Road Trail as it passes through another gate and briefly leaves the confines of the park. As the once-rolling hillsides evolve into jagged canyon walls, another track comes in from the right, and then the Stage Road Trail intersects with the Buckeye Ravine Trail at 7/10 mile. Stay left again.

Having now reentered Diablo Foothills Regional Park, the trail passes a dry reservoir along Pine Creek on the left, and hikers can begin to spot the towering outcrops ahead—these are the official Castle Rocks, a popular climbing area situated just within the boundaries of Mount Diablo State Park.

Castle Rocks from Pine Canyon

At 1.1 miles, the Stage Road Trail intersects with the Buckeye Ravine Trail again. Stay left and follow the wide track as it passes a series of pleasant meadows and oak groves. The trail twice crosses Pine Creek, which is usually very low volume. Finally, at 1.45 miles, just before another oak-studded grassland, look for a well-worn single-track that bears off to the right and skirts the edge of the thicker woodland to the south. This is the Little Yosemite Trail, your cue to exit Pine Canyon.

Follow the Little Yosemite Trail as it passes into Mount Diablo State Park and skirts a craggy ravine on the left. The path eventually crosses a small creek, and the scenery briefly opens up into a quiet, narrow valley. At 1.9 miles, the trail veers away from the creek and climbs a rocky ridge. From here the woods eventually fade away, and the Little Yosemite Trail mounts a grassy slope, revealing views back toward Pine Canyon, east to Mount Diablo, and west across Shell Ridge. This is a particularly scenic stretch of the hike, and the views continue as hikers bear right on the Briones-to-Mount-Diablo Regional Trail at 2.25 miles.

Little Yosemite Trail in Mount Diablo State Park

From here it is westward ho! Traverse relatively level terrain, surrounded by hillsides that appear to be straight out of Scotland or Ireland. You are likely to spot animals grazing—at least the resident cattle population, the park’s natural lawnmowers.

Looking back at Mount Diablo

At 2.6 miles, a spur trail leads south to the base of what is called the China Wall—a peculiar line of jagged stones that I suppose sort of resembles the not-so-natural Great Wall of China—for which I assume it was named.

Stay on the main track as it climbs to clear a grassy hillside, revealing northward views beyond. After passing through a cattle guard, the route drops to a low saddle, where a connector trail bears off to the left. Then the Briones-to-Mount-Diablo Trail climbs again to a high gap with excellent views of Mount Diablo, the massive behemoth that is, though not the tallest, perhaps the most famous peak in the East Bay.

Mount Diablo from Diablo Foothills

The onward path then descends gradually into a splendid, nearly tree-less valley, a true gem of the Diablo Foothills. After passing a popular watering hole for cows on the left, the valley opens up into a wide basin, and a series of intersecting trails come into view. Stay right on the main track, which wraps around to the northeast of the basin, leaving the valley behind after a short stay.

Descending into the hidden valley
Diablo Foothills

As the trail climbs mildly to a low gap between hills, stay right at the first junction, then left at the second, now following the Buckeye Ravine Trail back toward Castle Rock. At the fork at 4.1 miles, the shortest way is to continue right on the Buckeye Ravine Trail, but this involves an unnecessary descent and climb. Instead stay left on the Mokelumne Coast-to-Crest Trail, which is relatively level. The trail approaches a gate and the western boundary of the park, but stay right just before the gate, following the Fairy Lantern Trail eastward along the base of a tall hillside.

The wide track gradually drops into a shady ravine, with stony protrusions visible off to the left. Stay left at the next fork, then one faces a choice: continue right on the Fairy Lantern Trail for a mild descent back to the Castle Rock Trail, or head left for an added adventure—the scenic route back to the start. I highly encourage heading left, as the roundabout route is worth it for the fantastic views of Mount Diablo, Walnut Creek, and surrounding landscape.

Hikers visible down below, from the Shell Ridge Trail

Bearing left on the Shell Ridge Trail, one faces an option again roughly 250 yards later. Both trails leading from this fork end up in the same place, but heading right on the Shell Ridge Loop Trail is slightly shorter and more scenic. Climb the oak-studded hillside, steeply in places, before cresting the ridge at 5.1 miles, where the Shell Ridge Trail reenters from the left.

From here, bear right—northward—on the Shell Ridge Trail, which drops, then climbs again along a scenic ridgeline. To the south and east, one can spot the neatly parallel outcrops at Castle Rocks, with the long arms of Mount Diablo beyond. Westward, hikers can see across Walnut Creek to the Briones Hills. And northward, peer across the valley toward Suisun Bay and the Carquinez Strait, with the high peaks of the Mayacamas Mountains visible on the horizon.

Climbing the Shell Ridge Loop Trail
Northerly views from the Shell Ridge Trail

At 5.25 miles, the climbing is done, and the only way back is down. Bear right on the sharply descending Diablo Scenic Trail, a wide but brutally steep track that sheds 300 feet in just over 1/3 mile. After a dogleg left, the incline eases, and hikers approach another junction. Bear right, then right again at the penultimate fork, situated behind the Park Office, a stone’s throw from the staging area. Bear left at the final junction—which was the initial approach from the parking area hours ago—and return to the trailhead.

Descending Diablo Scenic Trail

All in all, this loop hike clocks in at 5.8 miles, with about 500 feet in absolute elevation gain (but more if one includes the ups and down). Of course, in a park with a maze of interlocking trails, several variants of the route described here are possible. In any case, hikers are likely to leave impressed with the diversity of the terrain and majestic landscapes—despite never topping more than 900 feet above sea level.

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Trail Gulch Lake (Trinity Alps Wilderness, CA)

Trail Gulch Lake, Trinity Alps Wilderness, May 2020

Nestled at the base of stunning granite cliffs, Trail Gulch Lake is a jewel of northern California’s Trinity Alps yet remains rather sparsely visited. This is all the more surprising since the short and relatively easy hike to the serene lake is easily accessible from the Carter Meadows area, situated just off paved Route 93 between Cecilville and Callahan. Some will climb to Trail Gulch Lake as part of a more difficult, nine-mile loop that combines Trail Gulch with its westerly cousin Long Gulch. But for those seeking a more modest walk, the out-and-back to Trail Gulch Lake is a worthy trip on its own. (Note: On many maps—including Google—Long Gulch Lake and Trail Gulch Lake are incorrectly switched; Trail Gulch is the easternmost of the two.)

Map of Trail Gulch Trail, Trinity Alps Wilderness, Klamath National Forest; created using alltrails.com (Check out the PDF version, interactive map, and MapMyHike track)

The hike

To reach the trailhead in Klamath National Forest, follow Route 93 (Cecilville Road) southwest from Callahan, California, cresting Carter Meadows Summit at about mile 12. (Note: A number of excellent hikes begin from the trailhead at the summit, including a strenuous jaunt to South Fork Lakes.) About a half-mile beyond the summit, take the next left, following a wide gravel track toward Carter Meadows Campground. Instead of pulling into the campground, however, stay left on Forest Road 39N08, which wraps around Carter Meadows to the northern flank of the Trinity Alps. (Note: Technically this area is situated at the confluence of three ranges—the Trinity Alps, Scott Mountains, and Salmon Mountains.) Follow the dusty road for 1.5 miles to the Trail Gulch Trailhead, on the left. There is a large information board and orientation map at the trailhead.

The Trail Gulch Trail begins as a wide and easy stroll, climbing gently through a stand of Douglas firs. The old road-bed keeps its distance from Trail Gulch Creek off to the left, but the lovely stream occasionally comes into view. At ½ mile, there is a small open patch, but the trail quickly reenters the dense forest. Minutes later, the hike enters the Trinity Alps Wilderness, more than 500,000 acres of pure mountain bliss, the “hipster” of California wilderness, the Sierra Nevada with far fewer crowds.

Entering Trinity Alps Wilderness

After ¾ mile under a dense canopy of conifers, the trail abruptly enters an open and beautiful meadow, marred only by the boggy mud after recent rains or snowmelt. After passing a marshy area on the right, hikers will catch views of the craggy mountaintops to the west and east, the highest being an unnamed peak ahead that reaches 7,794 feet.

Meadow along Trail Gulch Trail
View eastward from the meadow

From here the trail traverses the sunny meadow and crosses Trail Gulch Creek, which, though not too challenging to traverse, can be above ankle deep during the spring snowmelt. Beyond the creek, the Trail Gulch Trail continues its southward tread, climbing more sharply through a red-fir forest. While not yet visible, a tributary creek can eventually be heard off to the left, while the main Trail Gulch Creek also remains temporarily shrouded from view. At about 1.25 miles, the trail crosses the tributary stream and then climbs a rocky traverse with window views to the south, down the valley toward the Salmon Mountains and Russian Wilderness area.

View of Russian Wilderness from the Trail Gulch Trail

At this point, listen for the roar of Trail Gulch Creek and divert off to the right across an open meadow for a short detour to the hike’s best cascades, which, at least in spring, are thundering down the willow-choked hillside. Southward views to the Russian Wilderness from this spot are also excellent.

Cascading Trail Gulch Creek

Returning to the trail, the single-track path continues to climb, switchbacking up a stony hillside. At 1.6 miles, the ascent eases and a marked track bears off to the right. This is the 4/10-mile spur trail to Trail Gulch Lake. (Note: The route to the high pass between Trail Gulch and Long Gulch continues off to the left.) Head right on this spur, which climbs mildly before leveling off, passing a tangle of creekside willows on the right.

Spur to Trail Gulch Lake

At 1.8 miles, the trail crosses Trail Gulch Creek again—this time the stream is narrower and thus easier to avoid wet feet. From here it is a short and easy trek to the northern banks of Trail Gulch Lake.

Trail Gulch Lake

The splendid, 14-acre lake is nestled in a glacial cirque at the base of near-vertical granite cliffs. Late into spring and early summer, snowbanks dot the southern flanks of the lake. On the near side, there are a couple nice potential campsites, while a smattering of logs and rocks offer a place to dip your feet in the chilly waters.

Trail Gulch Lake

From here, adventurous hikers can hike back to the junction and bear right to continue on to Long Gulch Lake, but more casual day hikers should return the way they came, returning to the meadow and initial Douglas-fir forest before ending back at the trailhead. The round-trip out-and-back hike clocks in at just under four miles round-trip, enough to occupy a morning or afternoon in this beautiful corner of northern California.

The author at Trail Gulch Lake
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South Fork Lakes (Trinity Alps Wilderness, CA)

Upper South Fork Lake, South Fork Lakes Trail, Trinity Alps Wilderness, May 2020

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.)

Map of South Fork Lakes hike, Trinity Alps Wilderness (Klamath National Forest); created using alltrails.com (Check out the PDF version, interactive map, and MapMyHike track)

The hike

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.

On the PCT, heading toward South Fork Lakes

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.

Cascades along the South Fork of Scott River

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.

Beautifil meadow along the South Fork Lakes Trail in Trinity Alps Wilderness

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.

View down the South Fork of Scott River watershed

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.

View from the rock outcrop, near the top of the climb

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.

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.

First of the two South Fork Lakes

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.

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.

Beautiful Upper South Fork Lake

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.

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Fen Trail to Pacific Crest Trail (Klamath National Forest, CA)

Fen Trail, Klamath National Forest, May 2020

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.

Map of Kangaroo Fen Trail, Klamath National Forest, created using alltrails.com (Check out the interactive map and PDF version)

The hike

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.

View north from the rock outcrop along the Fen Trail

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.

Kangaroo Lake from the overlook on Fen Trail

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.

View northeast down Scott Valley from the Fen Trail

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.)

Cory Peak and the Scott Mountains

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.)

Pacific Crest Trail in the Scott Mountains

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.

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Sibley Volcanic Loop (Sibley Volcanic Regional Preserve, CA)

Sibley Volcanic Loop, Sibley Volcanic Regional Preserve, March 2020

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.

Map of Sibley Volcanic Loop, Sibley Volcanic Regional Preserve, created using alltrails.com (Check out the PDF version, interactive map, and MapMyHike track)

The hike

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.

Volcanic dike, behind the water tank

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.

Overlook across Sibley Volcanic toward Grizzly Peak and Vollmer Peak

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 common in northern 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.

Side ravine along Volcanic Trail

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.

Second quarry pit

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.

Volcanic Trail, with Quarry Road and the Round Top Creek drainage on the left
Springtime at Sibley

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.

Streaks of red breccia along the spur to the overlooks

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.

Fine vista of Siesta Valley, Vollmer Peak, and the Berkeley Hills to the north
Eastward view to Mount Diablo

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.

Dangling bay trees along the Skyline Trail

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…

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Ohlone Wilderness Trail (Ohlone Regional Wilderness, CA)

Ohlone Wilderness Trail, Ohlone Regional Wilderness, February 2020

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.

The hike

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.)

Map of Ohlone Wilderness Trail (Day 1) – Del Valle to Stewart’s Camp; created using alltrails.com (Check out the PDF version and interactive map)

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.

Cedar Mountain Ridge (3,675′) from the Ohlone Wilderness Trail in Del Valle Regional Park

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.

Approaching the sign-in panel and Ohlone Wilderness

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.

View northeast from the Ohlone Wilderness Trail in Del Valle

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.

Views of Livermore Valley and Mount Diablo in the distance

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.

Rolling hills of Rowell Ridge

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.

Approaching Schlieper Rock at the top of the Big Burn

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.)

Passing Johnny’s Pond along the Ohlone Wilderness Trail

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.

Westward views from the Ohlone Wilderness Trail

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.

Stewart’s Camp

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.

Sunset from a rock outcrop above Stewart’s Camp

DAY 2: Stewart’s Camp to Sunol Backpack Camp via Rose Peak (10.2 mi.)

Map of Ohlone Wilderness Trail (Day 2) – Stewart’s Camp to Sunol Backpack Camp, created using alltrails.com (Check out the PDF version and interactive map)

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).

Ridgeline above North Fork Indian Creek

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.

View from Wauhab Ridge

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.

Approaching Rose Peak (3,817′)

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.

View north from Rose Peak toward Mount Diablo and Livermore Valley

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).)

Views west toward the Bay and Mission Peak
The crew atop Rose Peak!

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.

Buckboard Trail along Valpe Ridge

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.

Descending to the South Fork Indian Creek drainage

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.

Jacob’s Valley from Valpe Ridge along the Ohlone Wilderness Trail
Goat Rock (2,038′) with Jacob’s Valley beyond

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.

Looking back at Goat Rock and Jacob’s Valley

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.)

Map of Ohlone Wilderness Trail (Day 3) – Sunol Backpack Camp to Mission Peak, created using alltrails.com (Check out the PDF version and interactive map)

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.

McCorkle Trail in the morning

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.

Descending the Ohlone Trail into Sunol Valley, with Calaveras Reservoir visible beyond

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.

Dropping into 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.)

Looking down Sunol Valley toward the Visitor Center and parking area

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.)

Sunol Regional Wilderness from the Ohlone Trail

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.

Approaching Calaveras Road and the start of San Francisco Water Department land

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.

Look back down an oak-dotted ridge toward Sunol

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.

Approaching the beautiful eastern flanks of Mission Peak

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.

Ohlone Trail, wrapping around to the north side of Mission Peak. Pleasanton Ridge and Mount Diablo in the background

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.

Spur trail to the summit of Mission Peak

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.

Mount Allison and San Jose area from Mission Peak
View east from Mission Peak, toward Mount Diablo, Pleasantion, Livermore, and the Central Valley

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.

Descending 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.

Hidden Valley Trail as it winds and bends down to Fremont

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.

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