Recently the East Bay Regional Park District opened a new park in the Fremont Hills: Vargas Plateau Regional Park. The park hosts a 2-mile segment of the Bay Area Ridge Trail. Both the park opening and the new Ridge Trail segment were much-anticipated events, in the making for a number of years. The only park access is from the new Vargas Plateau Staging Area on Morrison Canyon Rd not far from Vargas Rd.
Vargas Plateau Regional Park features grass-covered hills separated by small but steep canyons. Trees are mainly oak with some bay, and are mostly located near the small streams that run down the canyons, eventually leading to Alameda Creek. There is relatively little shade on the trails, but the views of the surrounding area are expansive and beautiful. Here is a view down one of the tree-lined canyons, with Lake Elizabeth in the background.
There is only one trail, the Golden Eagle Trail, leading away from the staging area, denoted by the orange dot on my GPS track. The Bay Area Ridge Trail route follows the western side of the loop and, for now, terminates at the north end of the loop. Someday the trail will connect to existing Ridge Trail segments in Garin Regional Park a few miles to the northwest and in Mission Peak Regional Preserve less than 5 miles to the southeast.
I visited the park with a friend, and we first hiked up to the loop containing the Bay Area Ridge Trail segment, the Upper Ranch Trail, where we went around the loop counterclockwise. Near the end of the loop we took a short side trip to a view point. After completing the loop and returning to the top end of the Golden Eagle Trail, we headed southwest on the Deer Gulch Loop Trail. At the next junction we climbed up Cliff Trail, which ends at the park boundary, and finally returned to the staging area. The length of the hike was 6.7 miles.
As we were about to leave the staging area, a hiker returning from his hike alerted us that there were some cows on the trail less than 1/4 mile ahead. Sure enough, as soon as we rounded the first slight curve, a group of about 6 cows was coming down the trail toward us. I wasn’t quite quick enough with my camera to get pictures, but it seemed that at least two of the females were very pregnant.
Not far from the Y junction at the end of the Golden Eagle Trail, we came upon a dense cluster of ruby sand spurry (Spergularia rubra). The whole area looked light blue-purple because the blossoms were so dense. The blossoms are quite small, only about 1/4 inch in diameter. They were quite delightful, and we saw another cluster a bit farther along.
In general I would say that the spring wildflower season is winding down. We saw California poppies here and there throughout the park, as well as filaree, a few fiddlenecks, some Mediterranean linseed (Bellardia trixago), and a bit of miniature lupine (Lupinus bicolor).
Many of the trails appeared to be former ranch roads; the park land was previously ranchland owned by the Vargas family. Although there were almost no flat areas, the elevation changes were less than I have experienced in many other areas of the East Bay Hills. The elevation difference between the lowest and highest parts of the trails we hiked was less than 300 feet, but the total elevation gain and loss was nearly 1100 feet.
As we reached the far end of the Upper Ranch Trail loop (and the unmarked north end of the Bay Area Ridge Trail segment) about 1.6 miles from the trailhead, we came around a curve and suddenly found ourselves descending to where we would pass a pond. The green color of the pond’s surface was striking.
At the right side of the pond there was a patch of yellow flowering plants. When we got closer I took some pictures, which I then enlarged further on my computer after the hike. The yellow flowers turned out to be seep spring monkeyflower (Mimulus guttatus), which favors a wet habitat. I wasn’t able to determine what the white flowers are, and we didn’t go off-trail to get a closer look.
Since the day was sunny and warm, in the mid 80’s, we were grateful to find a bit of shade among the oaks at the bottom of the hill past the pond. In this area we noticed some miner’s lettuce, which enjoys shady areas.
When we reached the spur trail to the view point, we climbed up to check out the 360-degree views. There were nice views across Fremont, toward Garin to the northwest, toward another ridge line to the northeast, and toward Mission Peak to the southeast. After completing the Upper Ranch Trail loop and returning part way to the trailhead, we decided to explore the Deer Gulch Loop Trail, which goes west ant then southwest from the 3-way junction. Perhaps 1/2 mile along Deer Gulch Loop Trail, we had more nice views of Mission Peak, here with a row of milk thistle in the foreground. I was a bit amused that, at first, I almost didn’t recognize Mission Peak from this angle. I-680 passes along some folds in the hills on its way from Fremont to Pleasanton.
When we reached the junction with Cliff Trail we decided to follow it to the park boundary. But first we went just a little bit further along Deer Gulch Loop Trail because we could see that a nice view was coming up. Indeed, we had a fantastic view of the numerous lakes and ponds that make up Quarry Lakes Regional Recreation Area. Just out of view over the hill is the upper end of Alameda Creek and the Niles Canyon Staging Area for the Alameda Creek Trail, where I have gone for long training walks several times.
Near the top of Cliff Trail we found a number of yellow mariposa lilies (Calochortus luteus). This is one of my favorite wildflowers, and I was hoping we would find some. These two flowers were part of a cluster of three, being visited by some small beetles.
I couldn’t resist taking a picture of my friend as she snapped photos of the mariposa lilies. The upper right of the picture shows a hint of the beautiful views from this spot near the park boundary.
When I encounter a favorite wildflower, I tend to photograph several flowers, usually multiple times each, to be sure I get some good shots. In this picture the interior of the mariposa lily is especially clear, including the hairs that are found on the petals of many members of the Calochortus genus. Near the base of each petal there is a darker yellow nectar gland, which has denser hairs. Note that the entire flower has 3-fold symmetry, a hallmark characteristic of the lily family.
As we were leaving the area of mariposa lilies to begin to return to the trailhead, I noticed a pair of johnny jump-ups (Viola pedunculata). I tend to think of these flowers a bit earlier in the spring, so it was a treat to see them here in mid-May.
As we were approaching the 3-way junction once again, we noted a pretty view of a nearby hill topped by a single oak tree, with a couple of other oaks nearby. In the background behind this hill we could see a row of hills in the Sunol and Ohlone Regional Wildernesses. The Ohlone Wilderness Trail winds through these hills and is a wonderful longer-distance trail, covering 30 miles between Mission Peak Regional Preserve in Fremont and Del Valle Regional Park in Livermore.
After reaching the 3-way junction we returned down the last hill to the staging area, where we were glad that our cars’ air conditioning was in good working order. It had been an unexpectedly warm hike, but highlighted by pretty views and several wildflowers. And as I drove out of the staging area, I encountered a wild turkey crossing a driveway on the other side of Morrison Canyon Rd.