I have been interested in exploring Briones Regional Park, a 6,000-acre park in the East Bay hills near the cities of Martinez, Concord, Pleasant Hill, Walnut Creek, and Lafayette. There are 5 staging areas around the perimeter of the park. After some online research, I decided to start at the Lafayette Ridge staging area at the southeast corner, on Pleasant Hill Rd. The deciding factor was a comment in a write-up of the Lafayette Ridge Trail: “Although this trail is not part of the Bay Area Ridge Trail system, I find it the archetypal ridge trail.”
I planned to hike the entire Lafayette Ridge Trail, then take a short side trip to Russell Peak and explore the southernmost portion of the Briones Crest Trail. The day of my hike the temperature was in the low 80’s with intermittent clouds and a pleasant breeze. On a warmer day this trail can be pretty toasty, as it is almost entirely exposed.
In the first 1.3 miles the trail gains 650 feet in elevation getting up to the ridge. There are a couple of unmarked junctions, and the choice is simple: go up. The junction at 1.3 miles is also not well marked, but there are multiple trails in sight and the correct way to go is right, then quickly (in less than 100 feet or so) left. This can all be viewed from the junction. After this the way-finding is both straightforward and well-marked.
Near the multi-junction there is a nice view of Lafayette Reservoir, tucked between the hills.
The trail climbs some more, but on an almost continuous roller-coaster of climbs and descents, some of them fairly steep.
Several nice regional views can be seen from multiple locations along the trail. One of the views is to the north across Suisun Bay, with Martinez in the foreground.
This view of Mt Tamalpais was about 2.1 miles from the trailhead at 1100 feet elevation. Mt Tam is about 25 miles away, almost directly west.
To the southeast is the distinctive skyline of Las Trampas Regional Wilderness, less than 10 miles away.
The star, however, is Mt Diablo, which is barely 10 miles away to the east. It dominates the view from many places along the trail.
Although the trail is mostly sunny, there are a few trees, including this magnificent oak, along the way. This tree seemed to have a great view of Mt Diablo!
The northwest end of the Lafayette Ridge Trail is nearly 3.5 miles from the trailhead, past junctions with the Springhill and Buckeye Ranch Trails. In this area I saw several different types of wildflower, which was almost a surprise given the time of year (early September). I particularly enjoyed this poppy.
At the Tee junction at the end of the Lafayette Ridge Trail I first turned left to go to Russell Peak. It’s only about ¼ mile from the junction, and I almost always try to summit a peak that’s that close. Although the actual peak was mostly covered in chaparral, with a nice picnic table for a break, a few steps away I had a wonderful view of the Lafayette Ridge Trail from above. From this vantage point it appears that the trail goes along a razor-sharp ridge-top, but from the trail itself the ridge-top is more gradual. It does resemble a roller coaster, though!
After returning to the Tee junction I continued straight onto the Briones Crest Trail and followed it for about 0.9 mile, past the Seaborg and Crescent Ridge Trails to a junction with Sunrise Trail. The first part of Briones Crest Trail passes through a grove of trees, which provide some real shade that would be quite welcome on most summer days. Briones Peak, the highest point in the park, was not much more than a mile past Sunrise Trail, but I decided to save it for another day.
From the highest elevation of this hike, along the Briones Crest Trail near the Crescent Ridge Trail, I was again treated to wonderful views of Mt Tamalpais and Mt Diablo.
After turning around at the Sunrise Trail junction, I returned to the trailhead down Lafayette Ridge. About a mile from the trailhead I noticed a hiker crouched in the oat grass 10 yards or so off the trail, apparently looking intently at something on the ground. I walked closer to see what had captured his interest. It turned out to be a young kingsnake, perhaps 18” long and distinctively striped.
As it turns out I’m not real fond of snakes, even non-venomous ones, so I only stayed a couple of minutes watching the hiker “play” with the snake, and then continued to the trailhead.
I’ll look forward to return to this park another time to explore more of the many trails that wind and climb through the hills. From the Lafayette Ridge staging area there is also access to the Las Trampas-to-Briones Regional Trail and the Briones-to-Mt Diablo Regional Trail.