Fernandez Ranch and Pinole Watershed

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For a Memorial Day hike I planned to hike on a relatively new segment of the Bay Area Ridge Trail and an adjoining segment in northern Contra Costa County.  The newer segment, dedicated in 2010, is in Fernandez Ranch, which is owned by the Muir Heritage Land Trust.  The adjoining segment is through Pinole Valley Watershed lands managed by EBMUD, where a permit is required for hiking.

I actually did the hike as part of my return trip to the Bay Area from Truckee.  Some light rain had been forecast for the day, and indeed I drove through intermittent sprinkles starting well before I reached Sacramento.  As I drove I made several backup plans for my hike in case it got too wet to be enjoyable.  Fortunately there were just a few minor sprinkles while I was on the trail, and I think the cloud cover made some of my pictures more interesting!  I started at the main entrance area for Fernandez Ranch, at the top right of the GPS track.

GPS track

GPS track

Before I even left the parking area I got a good preview of the terrain: golden hills with oak and other trees both individually and in clusters, with a few remaining tinges of green in the open grassy areas.  For the hills, summer is arriving earlier than usual this year due to below-average winter rainfall.

image of golden hills in Fernandez Ranch

Golden hills in Fernandez Ranch

The Ridge Trail route follows the Windmill Trail for about 0.5 mile.  Along the way there is a lovely windmill – the old-fashioned kind!

picture of windmill along Windmill Trail

Windmill along Windmill Trail

The Ridge Trail route diverges from the Windmill Trail to take the Whipsnake and Woodrat Trails.  This pretty trail goes through a more densely forested area: the only significant shade along my route, so worth noting for a sunnier day.

photo of Woodrat Trail in Fernandez Ranch

Woodrat Trail in Fernandez Ranch

Shortly before the gate to EBMUD lands I noticed quite a few lupines by the trail.

image of lupine


The Pinole Valley Watershed is a beautiful open grassland area that spreads across rolling hills between CA-4 and Alhambra Valley Rd in northern Contra Costa County.  It’s worth noting that there is prominent signage at the trailheads indicating that the Ridge Trail has recently been rerouted.  I found that the signage was clear, so I simply followed the signs.  In this picture the string of trees denotes the stream bed of a tributary of the Pinole Creek.

picture of rolling hills in Pinole Valley Watershed

Rolling hills in Pinole Valley Watershed

Throughout my hike I encountered very intermittent sprinkles – not enough to really be an annoyance, even, except that I got a few drops on my camera lens that I didn’t always notice and wipe away before taking pictures.  Here are some poppies that were next to the trail.  I’m not sure if they were curled up like this due to the absence of sun, but if you look closely you can see raindrops on the petals.

photo of poppies sporting raindrops on their petals

Poppies sporting raindrops on their petals

I saw this pair of distinctive peaks ahead of me and was amused to note that they reminded me of Twin Peaks in San Francisco, where I had recently hiked.  When I first saw them I didn’t realize that the trail goes up and over both peaks.

image of “Twin Peaks” of Pinole Valley Watershed

“Twin Peaks” of Pinole Valley Watershed

These peaks are the highest points of this hike and they stand out clearly on the elevation profile.  Note that they appear twice (at about 2.7 miles and 6.5 miles) because, as usual, my route was out-and-back.  The trail section over the peaks is also quite steep: about 660 feet of gain and loss in 2/3 of a mile, for an average grade of 19%.  I was glad that the trail condition was such that my footing was secure!

Elevation profile

Elevation profile

About 1.3 miles past the junction at Fernandez Ranch I noticed a Ridge Trail way-finding sign off to the right in the oat grass.  Although I knew from the map posted on the web site that the route would change from Goat Road to Bar-X Road, there are no road or trail name signs in the Watershed and I was expecting a more distinct trail.

picture: the Ridge Trail really does go this way!

The Ridge Trail really does go this way!

I kind of crossed my fingers and followed a very faint trail through the grass in the direction indicated by the sign.  After a short distance, and beyond where I could see from the junction, the trail indeed became more distinct and eventually went to the expected trailhead.  Route uncertainties like this one are one reason why I always make sure to have fresh batteries in my GPS, so that I have a breadcrumb trail in case I need to backtrack.

Right after the trail became more distinct I noticed a beautiful feather on it.  Though I’m not experienced in identifying feathers, I surmise that it might have come from a red-tailed hawk.

photo of red-tailed hawk(?) feather

Red-tailed hawk(?) feather

There were several kinds of wildflowers along the trail.  I particularly enjoyed the combination of bright yellow mustard grass and purple thistle against the oat grass background.  There were also some thistle plants close to the trail.  I’ve been experimenting with the super macro setting on my camera and managed to get this close-up shot of a blossom, complete with visiting bugs.  I presume the fuzzy-looking light stuff is pollen, which the visitors acquire and then deposit when they visit another plant.

image of thistle with bug visitors

Thistle with bug visitors

Almost exactly 3 miles from the Fernandez Ranch junction I arrived at the eastern trailhead for the Watershed trail, near the intersection of Bear Creek Rd (Pereira Rd) and Alhambra Valley Rd.  Here there is additional signage advising of the Ridge Trail reroute, and a little kiosk with a visitor sign-in sheet where you are supposed to enter your EBMUD Trail Use Permit number.  Available parking is along the shoulder of Pereira Rd.

I turned around and headed back toward the Fernandez Ranch junction.  As often happens, walking the other direction on a trail provides a different set of views.  After about 350 feet of climbing from the trailhead, I had a nice glimpse of San Pablo Bay, which had been behind me on my outbound trip.

picture of oak with a great view of San Pablo Bay

Oak with a great view of San Pablo Bay

About 30 minutes later I was another 300 feet higher, on top of the taller of the “Twin Peaks,” and had a birds-eye view of San Pablo Bay.  The distinctive curve in the shoreline identifies Mare Island Naval Shipyard.

photo of San Pablo Bay and Mare Island

San Pablo Bay and Mare Island

By the time I had returned to the Fernandez Ranch junction I had decided to continue hiking in the Watershed for another mile or so, hopefully finding a good landmark to turn around.  I found a gate almost directly under a significant power line crossing, so I used the gate as a turnaround point.  From there I returned to the Fernandez Ranch junction and back down to the original trailhead.  A short distance from the trailhead I heard some distinctive bird sounds nearby.  It turned out that I had been noticed by a pair of quails.  They flew into some brush next to the trail and proceeded to make noise at each other or at me, I couldn’t be sure which.  The two sounded very different from each other, but they continued to have a “conversation” for several minutes as they changed positions and I snapped pictures.  The whole experience was quite amazing.

image of pair of quails

Pair of quails

This turned out to be a very enjoyable hike, probably assisted by the moderate temperatures and lack of sun.  About the only down side was that there were quite a few flies:  a cloud seemed to follow me throughout the hike and never really went away.  I want to note that the restroom at the Fernandez Ranch trailhead was very clean.  Also, after walking through the oat grass for most of 3 miles I did notice one tick on my shorts leg so I checked carefully for any others both when I arrived at my car and again after I got home.  I look forward to return to the area to hike the western leg of the Pinole Watershed trail.

This entry was posted in Bay Area Ridge Trail, Contra Costa County, East Bay and tagged , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

3 Responses to Fernandez Ranch and Pinole Watershed

  1. Pingback: Crockett Hills Regional Park | trailhiker

  2. Pingback: Pinole Valley Watershed (EBMUD) – west | trailhiker

  3. Adrian D says:

    That there is a wild turkey feather. 😉

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