Wildcat Canyon and Tilden Regional Parks: East Bay Skyline National Trail

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This was a group hike to celebrate the first day of Spring by hiking the northern 10 miles of the East Bay Skyline National Trail in the East Bay hills of Contra Costa County, starting in Wildcat Canyon Regional Park and passing through Tilden Nature Area and Tilden Regional Park. Though the day was partly cloudy we were treated to spectacular Bay and inland views and enjoyed numerous wildflowers and beautiful green hills.

The GPS track shows an overview of the route, beginning at the orange dot at the McBryde Ave trailhead for Wildcat Canyon Regional Park.

GPS track

GPS track

Before we even left the parking area we encountered our first wildflowers of the day, several dense patches of winter vetch (Vicia villosa) at the edge of the pavement.

picture of winter vetch

Winter vetch

The first part of the trail climbs up about 800 feet to San Pablo Ridge, with beautiful green hillsides all around us.

image of beautiful green hills on the way up to San Pablo Ridge

Beautiful green hills on the way up to San Pablo Ridge

After reaching the ridge top the trail levels off, with more gentle ups and downs for 5 miles until there is more climbing. A few hikers noted that it seemed like we were always climbing. The elevation profile shows that we did climb nearly 2500 feet, and the climbs were more sustained compared to rolling ups and downs along the ridge-top.

Elevation profile

Elevation profile

About 1.5 miles from the trailhead we had an impressive view of the trail ahead, which winds around the small hill in the right foreground and then snakes up the bigger hill.

photo of San Pablo Ridge Trail winding up to the ridge top

San Pablo Ridge Trail winding up to the ridge top

With the open hillsides it should be no surprise that, as we gained elevation, we started to have wonderful views across San Francisco Bay. Here is Mt Tamalpais, about 20 miles away to the west, with Richmond in the foreground.

picture of Mt Tamalpais

Mt Tamalpais

As we neared the ridge top we could also see across San Pablo Bay and the Carquinez Strait into Solano County. On the east side of the ridge is San Pablo Reservoir, as well as Mt Diablo, about 21 miles to the east.

image of San Pablo Reservoir and Mt Diablo from San Pablo Ridge

San Pablo Reservoir and Mt Diablo from San Pablo Ridge

The trail continues along San Pablo Ridge for about 5 miles. We kind of cruised along, enjoying the views and wildflowers. Among others, we saw some checkerbloom (Sidalcea malviflora), which looked like it was just beginning to bloom.

photo of checkerbloom


The poppies had begun to pop, and there were many of them scattered among the hilltop grasses, along with lupine.

Although there are other trails and the trail changes name, way-finding is straightforward. This trail is multiply-designated: in addition to the East Bay Skyline National Trail, which is part of the National Trails System, it is an American Discovery Trail and part of the Mokelumne Coast to Crest Trail. About 4.3 miles from the trailhead the Bay Area Ridge Trail enters from the adjacent East Bay Municipal Utility District watershed lands. I hiked the southern 6 miles of this route previously as part of my Bay Area Ridge Trail circumnavigation.

About 5.2 miles from the trailhead the trail leaves Wildcat Canyon Regional Park and enters the Tilden Nature Area. As it happens, the trail leaves the open area and becomes more forested; the shade would be welcome on a warmer day. Less than a mile later the trail leaves Tilden Nature Area and enters Tilden Regional Park. Then at 7 miles from the trailhead we arrived at Inspiration Point, overlooking the hills to the east. After this the climbing begins again, but with more views and wildflowers providing pleasant distractions.

Here is a milk thistle in bloom. Although it is considered to be an invasive weed, I happen to think the blossom is pretty!

picture of milk thistle

Milk thistle

There were several impressive patches of bush, or silver, lupine (Lupinus albifrons) along the trail.

image of silver lupine

Silver lupine

The spectacular views across San Francisco Bay included Angel Island, the Golden Gate Bridge, and some afternoon fog beginning to come inland across the Marin headlands.

photo of Angel Island and the Marin headlands

Angel Island and the Marin headlands

There were impressive views of downtown San Francisco behind the Bay Bridge. Just to the left of Sutro Tower are the Twin Peaks. If you look closely you can see that the old Bay Bridge has been partly demolished, leaving a bigger gap next to the new East span. Eventually the entire old section of the Bay Bridge will be removed.

picture of downtown San Francisco and the Bay Bridge

Downtown San Francisco and the Bay Bridge

The trail continues to follow a ridge-top, with views over the East Bay hills (for example Sobrante Ridge and Franklin Ridge) as well as San Francisco Bay.

image of view across the East Bay Hills

View across the East Bay Hills

I noticed some pretty, small white flower clusters on a plant with large, broad leaves. I later identified this as coastal manroot (Marah oreganus), based on the leaf structure. (The other possibility is California manroot (Marah fabacea).)

photo of coastal manroot

Coastal manroot

I was surprised to find mule’s ear (Wyethia) here, since I’m accustomed to seeing it more than 5000 feet higher in elevation in the Lake Tahoe area. I couldn’t determine whether it is the grey or the narrow-leaved variety.

picture of mule’s ear

Mule’s ear

Among the views to the east side of the ridge was Briones Reservoir.

image of Briones Reservoir

Briones Reservoir

Wildflowers included hound’s tongue, forget-me-nots, and a few fiddlenecks already blooming, quite early this year. Also, I was startled to almost walk right up to a snake stretched out in the sun about half way across the trail, which, fortunately, is a double-wide trail. Also fortunately, the snake was a bull (gopher) snake rather than a rattlesnake.

I noticed a small, pretty pea-like flower that I think I’ve seen before without identifying. This time I got a picture good enough to help with identification: I believe it is common, or spring, vetch (Vicia sativa).

photo of common or spring vetch

Common or spring vetch

About 9.6 miles from the trailhead everyone missed a turn to stay on the Skyline Trail, and we ended up on a portion of the Seaview Trail that is paved. After going a short distance up the paved trail we decided to turn around and see if we could pick up the dirt trail. (The paved trail actually goes to the ending trailhead, so it was a choice to return to the dirt trail.) The highest point of the hike was actually in this short (0.4-mile) off-route section, and the remainder of the hike was a descent to trailhead parking near the steam trains.

This would be a beautiful hike at any time of the year, but was especially nice to experience with members of my hiking club as a first-day-of-spring celebration.

This entry was posted in Contra Costa County, East Bay, East Bay Regional Park District, wildflower hikes and tagged , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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