I hadn’t hiked a Bay Area Ridge Trail segment in Sonoma County since last September, and I was looking forward to returning to the area known as the Valley of the Moon for a new (for me) hike. I had selected Hood Mountain Regional Park and Open Space Preserve, which is the location of the northernmost segment of the Bay Area Ridge Trail. Coincidentally, just a few days earlier I had hiked the southernmost segment in Mt Madonna County Park.
Since it is a relatively long drive to Hood Mountain, I decided to do this hike as a “drive-by” hike on my way from the Bay Area to Lake Tahoe. The weather report indicated that it would be a warm day, and I was expecting the mid-80’s during the hike. Afterward, while driving past Sacramento on I-80, my car’s outdoor thermometer registered 102 degrees. Almost exactly a year ago, when I hiked in nearby Sugarloaf Ridge State Park, I had had a near encounter with a presumed rattlesnake, so I decided to wear long hiking pants regardless of the warm temperatures – and be very watchful of my surroundings.
The drive to the Valley of the Moon area passes through the heart of the Sonoma Valley past vineyards that one can practically reach out and touch from the highway. The annual growing season is in full swing and the vines look healthy and beautiful in their neat rows.
The directions for the hike indicate a 0.75-mile drive up Pythian Rd from CA-12 to the main parking area for the park. From there the Bay Area Ridge Trail climbs steadily, with only a short descent, to the top of Hood Mountain. The route is slightly complicated, in that several different trails are used in the route: Lower Johnson Ridge Trail, Pond Trail, Valley View Trail, Pond Trail (again), Upper Johnson Ridge Trail, and finally Hood Mountain Trail. However, except for one or two junctions that are not marked at all, the Bay Area Ridge Trail signage is easy to find. Due to the unmarked junctions, though, I did take a couple of detours that added about 0.9 mile to my hike.
The first detour was early in the hike. The Lower Johnson Ridge Trail follows the park road for a steep 0.3 mile near the parking area, and I missed the place where the trail leaves the road, then mis-interpreted some trail-finding directions in the Bay Area Ridge Trail official guide. After correcting this navigational error I continued up the trail, which mainly passes through forested areas.
Because of the temperatures, it was a good day not to be hiking in full sun. The Pond Trail connects Merganser Pond and Blue Heron Pond. Near Merganser Pond is another junction that is not well-marked, and I spent 10 minutes or so exploring the camp sites around the pond before finding a well-marked junction with Valley View Trail barely 100 feet further along.
The Bay Area Ridge Trail takes the longer Valley View Trail route instead of Pond Trail to Blue Heron Pond. It is well worth the extra distance, as there were two or three places along the trail with wonderful views of the Sonoma Valley about 1500 feet below. On a clear day it’s possible to see San Francisco from this trail, across San Pablo Bay and north San Francisco Bay.
Along the Valley View Trail I also encountered what appeared to be a young snake. Only after I studied my pictures on my computer I noticed the legs – so this snake encounter turned out to be a lizard. It remained very still as I passed, and then of course was long gone by the time I made my return trip.
After turning onto Upper Johnson Ridge Trail, at 3.7 miles on my trip odometer, the climb began in earnest.
The final 1.1 mile to the top of Hood Mountain climbs 800 feet, roughly a 14% grade. The final section, on Hood Mountain Trail, rises 260 feet in 0.25 mile for a 20% grade. Several park personnel were doing some trail maintenance on the Hood Mountain Trail, and it was encouraging to hear them tell me that I was nearly at the top. Although there was too much vegetation to call the view a 360-degree panorama, nevertheless there were lovely views of nearby peaks and parks – worth the climb!
After enjoying the views from the top of Hood Mountain, I returned to my car. There is a sign at the parking area indicating that Hood Mountain is 3.1 miles away, but it is worth noting that that distance is achieved only by skipping the Pond and Valley View Trails and taking a shorter route. By the official Bay Area Ridge Trail route, the distance from the parking area to the top is about 4 miles.