This hike was the third, final, and longest stage in my adventure of hiking the Ohlone Wilderness Trail, a regional trail connecting Mission Peak Regional Preserve, Sunol Regional Wilderness, Ohlone Regional Wilderness, and Del Valle Regional Park. All of these parks are in the East Bay Regional Park District system and in southern Alameda County. The idea of the EBRPD regional trails is that they are longer trails that connect important regional parks, sometimes crossing non-park areas. In this case the non-park areas are on San Francisco Water Department land.
The Ohlone Wilderness Trail is 28 miles long. The eastern 19½-mile section featured in this hike is typically accessed via a backpacking through-hike of 2 or 3 days, though I hiked it in a single day with help from friends to achieve the needed car shuttle. A permit is required and is available at two of the trailheads as well as through the EBRPD office. It includes a detailed map, elevation information, and a description of the trail and highlighted landmarks. It’s good for one year and only costs $2.
Earlier this year I covered the western 8½ miles via two out-and-back day hikes. The first was between the Stanford Ave trailhead for Mission Peak Regional Preserve and a mid-way point within a parcel of San Francisco Water Department watershed land. The second was from the visitor center at Sunol Regional Wilderness to the turn-around point for the first hike. In the 19-mile section for this hike there is no intermediate trailhead access, so I set out with a fallback plan: if I had trouble reaching Rose Peak, at about the midway point, I would return to my car and cancel the pickup by my friends. I’m glad I was able to complete the planned point-to-point hike!
There were a couple of important factors that I needed to take into consideration: 1) At nearly a month after the autumn equinox, the time between sunrise and sunset was only about 11 hours and 11 minutes, so I would want to start hiking fairly promptly in the morning. 2) Both Sunol Regional Wilderness and Del Valle Regional Park have specific operating hours, when you can drive past the front gate to the staging areas. As it turns out, Del Valle opens earlier in the morning in October, while both parks close at the same time, so I decided to start my hike in Del Valle and hike west to Sunol, in order to maximize the available daylight hours for the hike. 3) A third consideration was that I wanted to select a date for my hike that would not have typical summer temperatures: often 85-plus degrees for several hours in the afternoon.
On the GPS track, the orange dot at the upper right indicates the parking area at Del Valle, where I started hiking. The Ohlone Wilderness Trail goes generally south for about 8 miles before curving to a westward trajectory.
The elevation profile shows that the trail is somewhat steeper at the Del Valle end. Also, there is a 7-mile section in the middle above 3000 feet elevation with rolling ascents and descents. The total elevation gain for the east-to-west hiking direction is about 5200 feet, with about 300 additional feet of elevation loss due to the lower elevation of the Sunol trailhead compared to the Del Valle trailhead.
Per my plan I arrived at Del Valle and was ready to start hiking within 10 minutes of the nominal sunrise time. The forecast for the day predicted a comfortable afternoon high temperature of about 75 degrees and partly cloudy conditions. As sometimes happens, there was a moderate overnight low cloud layer, with a fair amount of morning mist around the trail as it climbed from the Lake Del Valle reservoir toward Rocky Ridge, the first of several ridges that the Ohlone Wilderness Trail visits.
Morning mist climbing out of Del Valle Regional Park
Along with the many (expected) oak trees on the hillsides surrounding the trail, there were a few unexpected finds. One such find was gray pines (Pinus sabiniana), in at least two sections of the trail. These trees are adapted to long, hot, dry summers, so they are perfect inhabitants of these wilderness areas. The first gray pines I noticed were shortly after cresting Rocky Ridge, about 2.5 miles from the trail head. The long, slender needles and large, nearly geometrical pine cones were quite pretty, and in areas there was a carpet of needles and scattered cones on the ground.
After Rocky Ridge the trail descends 500 feet in 0.8 mile to Williams Gulch. Along the way it passes Sycamore Flat – not actually flat, but where the slope of the trail suddenly becomes steeper. Around Sycamore Flat I noticed several California sycamore (Platanus racemose) trees, also called western sycamore.
California sycamore, near Sycamore Flat
There were also some spectacular bay trees, with many slender trunks radiating from a central base.
After Williams Gulch the trail climbs, again steeply, up Big Burn. I think this designation refers to the roughly 1.7-mile, 1400-foot climb up to nearly 3200 feet elevation (average grade about 15.5%). When hiking a long uphill stretch I tend to spend a lot of time looking at the ground right in front of me, and sometimes I have to remind myself to look out to the sides at the scenery. In any case, along this section I noticed quite a few leaves on the ground covered with small red seed-like objects that I didn’t – and still don’t – recognize. Here is an example.
Leaf covered with small red seed-like objects
Big Burn also passes by Schlieper Rock, named for a local silversmith whose ashes are scattered nearby. I noticed several “candidate” rocks but missed the plaque denoting the correct rock. There is supposed to be a good view of Mt Diablo and the Livermore Valley to the north from the trail near Schlieper Rock. However, I was treated instead to pretty views of mist rising from close-by valleys and canyons.
Mist rising from a nearby canyon
About 5 miles from the trailhead the trail reaches a long section of high country with more moderate elevation changes. For the next couple of hours the mist was more localized and there were some more distant views. This was my first such view, near the junction with Springboard Trail at marker ot36, looking north toward Livermore Valley. From this particular location the Ohlone Wilderness Trail seems to be on top of the world, looking out over foothills of the Diablo Range.
View toward the Livermore Valley
I was a bit surprised to find a few wildflowers that were still in bloom, including this yellow flower. Most wildflower resources seem to focus on spring wildflowers, and I haven’t yet identified this one.
There are a few small ponds, some named and some not, along the trail. About 7½ miles from the trailhead there was one such pond, which was unusual because it had some lily pads at one end.
Lily pads on a small pond
Another unusual wildflower find was a light purple flower with a long slender structure (stamen?) extending upward from the blossom. For this specimen the rest of the plant still had green leaves, but for others the rest of the plant seemed ready to go into fall/winter dormancy.
Light purple flower
I have noted previously that fall colors in the Bay Area are muted compared to other parts of the country. Here is an example, with an entire hillside covered by typical local forest.
Hillside with fall color
About 8 miles from the trailhead the trail descends about 300 feet from Wauhab Ridge to cross the north fork of Indian Creek, which was completely dry. After climbing back up 400 feet or so to Valpe Ridge it was possible to catch views of Rose Peak. Here is a view from near the east junction with Maggie’s Half Acre Rd, at marker ot29, showing the Ohlone Wilderness Trail traversing a small rise on its way to Rose Peak. As is evident from this picture, Rose Peak is the highest point along Valpe Ridge rather than a truly prominent peak. In this respect it is similar to Mt Sizer in Henry Coe State Park.
Approach to Rose Peak
A short ¼ mile, marked side trail summits Rose Peak. I was happy to note that I arrived pretty much on schedule, and I knew that the rest of my hike would be mainly downhill. After successfully leaving a phone message for my ride – I hadn’t been sure I would have cell phone service – I paused for 20 minutes or so for a lunch break. During my break some more clouds came in, rather quickly in fact, and I really didn’t have the distant views I was hoping for from the highest elevation of this hike. I took the time I needed for a break, though, since I was just at the halfway point distance-wise.
West of Rose Peak the trail continues to follow Valpe Ridge, beginning a steady descent. I passed a few cattle grazing and resting under a thick-trunked tree that looked like it had been topped, perhaps by a storm, sometime in the past. There were occasional views to the north toward clusters of windmills. The cloud cover seemed to be hovering around 3500 feet, based on Rose Peak getting clouded in and views of Mt Diablo with its top hidden in clouds. As the trail descended past the 3000-foot elevation I had a nice view to the west toward the Mission Peak – Mt Allison – Monument Peak area near the far end of the Ohlone Wilderness Trail. I would have off-and-on views of Mission Peak for the remainder of the hike.
View of Mission Peak (right), Mt Allison (center), and Monument Peak (left)
The view along the trail previewed a quick descent to, and just as quick ascent from, a crossing of the south fork of Indian Creek.
Preview of upcoming crossing of Indian Creek
During the descent I suddenly noticed a male tarantula strolling across the trail, no doubt on the prowl for a female. A couple of miles further I saw a second one.
Tarantula on the trail
Nearby hills and valleys competed with more distant views for my attention. Here is an interesting row of hilly wrinkles on the south side of Valpe Ridge.
Hilly wrinkles on Valpe Ridge
Here and there I enjoyed views of the sloughs in the Sacramento River Delta, some 30 miles away, or Mt Diablo, with its top still in the clouds. About 13.7 miles from the trailhead the trail passes from Ohlone Wilderness into San Francisco Water Department land. I had pretty views of a canyon to my left, which I believe to be associated with Welch Creek.
Canyon, perhaps related to Welch Creek, in San Francisco Water Department land
The terrain was mostly open, grassy hills, which I imagine could have profuse wildflowers in the spring. In a few places the cloud conditions were right to see sunbeams radiating down from the cloud layer to the lower hills below. I passed remnants of wildflowers, as well as a few more actual flowers, like this pretty pink one.
Pink wildflower in the San Francisco Water Department watershed
Almost immediately past the gate from the San Francisco Water Department into Sunol Regional Wilderness is the Sunol Backpack Camp, where there are several camping sites not far off the trail. From the junction with Backpack Rd, at the west end of the series of camping sites, to the Sunol Visitor Center it is about 3.3 miles. The Ohlone Wilderness Trail mainly follows McCorkle Trail, though the trail changes back and forth between fire road and single-track a couple of times. And, after over 2500 feet of nearly continuous descent, there was one final ascent of about 300 feet. Between 16 and 17 miles from the beginning of the hike, this relatively small climb may have been the most difficult of the day!
Near the top of that climb I could see the Calaveras Reservoir, not far away. In this part of Sunol the hills are rather open, dotted with oak trees. The grass appeared almost yellow in hue, due to some combination of seasonal dryness and afternoon lighting.
Hills along McCorkle Trail in Sunol Regional Wilderness
Perhaps 2 miles from the visitor center I met up with the friends who would provide my ride back to Del Valle. We had been in communication via walkie talkie for about a mile, so we could ensure that we were taking the same trail – there are several alternatives – and would, in fact, meet up. It was nice to walk the last part of this long hike with friends – and to know that I would, indeed, be able to get back to my car before dusk and before Del Valle closed for the day.
The hike from Del Valle Regional Park to Sunol Regional Wilderness is long as well as challenging. While I was very glad to complete the hike in cool weather, I am inspired to try to return in the spring to enjoy the scenery on a clear day when the wildflowers are in season.