The East Bay’s Briones Regional Park is a hiker’s paradise, with dozens of interlocking trails traversing a scenic stretch of hills between the suburban centers of Lafayette, Orinda, and Pleasant Hill. Lafayette Ridge—a lengthy spine that stretches southeast from the Briones Hills—is especially beautiful in spring, when rains turn the usually brown slopes to an attractive green. At all times of year, the roughly three-mile Lafayette Ridge Trail is very popular—but the steady elevation gain tends to thin the crowds after the first mile, leaving hikers relatively alone amid the iconic dips and dives of the ridgetop. A nice, 7-mile out-and-back day hike terminates at Russell Peak, which—at 1,357 feet—offers excellent views of the surrounding area.
Lafayette Ridge Staging Area in the East Bay town of Lafayette is the trailhead for this easily accessible but strenuous hike in Briones Regional Park. Situated just off busy Pleasant Hill Road, the parking area fills up quickly on weekends, so arrive early or plan for a weekday hike to avoid the masses. What starts at first as a single gravel track heading up the slopes toward Lafayette Ridge quickly splits—and splits again—into a constellation of paths that can be difficult to follow. In general, follow the signs for the Lafayette Ridge Trail, beginning with an initial right-hand bend, then a sharp left on the ascending fire road. Follow this track as it passes under the shade of an oak tree, then cuts almost due south before rounding a sharp right-hand turn, bringing one to the top of a grassy knoll. At ½ mile, the trail returns to a gravel tread; bear left at the junction, continuing as the trail gradually snakes uphill along the south-facing slope.
The set of grassy knolls to the east is Acalanes Ridge in Walnut Creek, while the hulking peak to the southeast usually needs no introduction: Mount Diablo (3,849’), the highest and most famous peak in the area. Follow the trail until it reaches a large but long-abandoned ranch with stables on the left. Many hikers turn around here or continue down the access road situated at the next junction. But onward travelers can continue left, rising to greater heights and another junction at 9/10 mile (the Las Trampas-to-Briones Regional Trail bears left). Stay right, climbing again along one of the steeper stretches of the hike.
The trail begins to level off after having gained around 450 feet since the trailhead, with the open slopes offering excellent vistas of Mount Diablo, Las Trampas Ridge, Lafayette Reservoir, and the Berkeley Hills to the south and west. Pass through a gate at 1.3 miles, then stay left as the Lafayette Ridge Trail hugs the south-facing hillside. After briefly traversing the first real extended shade of the hike, the track pops out again at a junction with the Petar Jakovina Trail at 1.6 miles. (Note: Petar Jakovina is an absurdly steep trail leading south to Sessions Road in Lafayette.) Some more shade here offers a nice spot to stop for a breather and a snack before continuing onward.
Stay left at the next two junctions, the first with an unmarked path leading up to Vista Bella Drive and the second being the narrow John Kiefer Trail, which (like the Petar Jakovina Trail) is managed by the City of Lafayette. Stay on the main fire road, continuing to climb but at a much milder clip than before.
From here the trail traverses a series of ups and downs that extend for two miles. By now the crowds are likely to have largely dissipated, leaving only hearty hikers, trail runners, and mountain bikers. Ahead one can start to see the oak-lined Briones Crest, a beautiful stretch of hills that wraps around the park.
At 2.5 miles, stay right as a more faded path enters from the left, then continue along the natural roller coaster as the hills appear to get larger and larger. After passing a junction with the Springhill Trail at 2.7 miles, the main track crests the namesake point—Spring Hill (1,206’). Continue as the trail drops and then ascends two additional hills in turn, followed by a final, very steep climb to the end of the Lafayette Ridge Trail. (Note: Stay left at the junction with the Buckeye Ranch Trail.) After merging with the Briones Crest and Russell Peak Trails, there are excellent views looking back at Lafayette Ridge, where the winding path that unfolds along the hills below makes for a picturesque sight.
Now 3.3 miles from the start, bear left on the Russell Peak Trail, following it westward into the woods. About 400 yards from the junction, look for a thin but well-trodden path leading up the hill to the left. This is the short spur to Russell Peak, ending at the shaded summit (complete with a picnic table and fine views). From here, hikers can peer out at Lafayette Ridge, with Las Trampas Ridge, Mount Diablo, and the Berkeley Hills on the horizon.
After resting at Russell Peak, return the way you came—doing most of the elevation change in reverse. All told, this 7.2 mile out-and-back is challenging enough to be considered strenuous, especially so in the hot, sunny summer months. I recommend taking your time, allotting at least 3-5 hours for the entire round-trip journey.