Take a Walk on the Wild Side
Wildflowers and waterfalls await on these four East Bay hikes
Spring is springing—and leaping and bounding—all around us. Leaf and bud unfurl with delicate restraint or splashes of brilliant color. It’s time to head out to the wilderness and go deeply into April’s “ahhh…”. Over the next six pages, we profile four of the most stunning walks the East Bay has to offer. Two are flower-filled meanders, and two feature spectacular waterfalls. There’s just one rule: No picking the flowers. Our children’s heritage depends on keeping the plants—and their seed—in place.
Diablo Falls are so stunning, with their 100-foot drop, that our maps of the area are furry and torn on the folds from loving use. Speaking of maps, they are available at the trailhead only on weekends, so you might want to get one from the park in advance. This is a fairly steep hike, so leave early; it warms up quickly, and you pass heat-radiating rock faces as you approach the falls, which are so seasonal, they are almost a secret.
From the start, off Regency Drive, you enter the luxuriant, oak-punctuated grassland of lower Donner Canyon. Going gently uphill, look for blue-eyed grass, fiddlenecks, and blue delphiniums.
Follow Cardinet Oak Creek Trail a short distance east to a right on Falls Trail. Falls goes east, then south to join Middle Trail, which takes you back to the north-heading Donner Canyon Trail.
Near the falls you might see scarlet delphiniums, which are rare, and goldfields. At the first crossing (there are three) of cold-water falls, shaded by juniper and gray pine, take a rest, cool your beverage in a side pool (but don’t drink the water; it isn’t potable), and enjoy your accomplishment. The rest will be a piece of cake.
On your way back toward Murchio Gap, you might spot the indigenous Mount Diablo fairy lantern, Calochortus pulchellus—as beautiful as the Latin promises (pulchellus means pretty).
Where: Mount Diablo State Park; (925) 855-1730; www.mdia.org.
Round Trip: Six miles
Getting there: From Walnut Creek, take Ygnacio Valley Road east to Clayton Road. Turn right on Clayton Road and then right on Marsh Creek Road. Turn right on Regency Drive, and follow it to its end.
Right off San Pablo Dam Road near Orinda, at the south end of the reservoir, the handy and nearly level Bear Creek Trail is good for an outing with the kids (as long as they know what poison oak looks like). It’s gently winding and secluded—a kind of hide-and-seek pathway mostly shaded by coastal oaks and bays. In warm weather, it offers a couple of miles of subdued light and comfortable walking.
In the woods, refreshed by breezes and the scent of scattered pines and likely serenaded by birdsong, you can see false Solomon’s seal, woodland star, purple nightshade, cow parsnip, redwood sorrel, milkmaids, sticky monkey flower, blue dicks, and, in one spot, wild roses set against contortions of smooth-wooded manzanita. Checker lilies, with their snakeskinlike coloring of olive green mottled with brown, are abundant.
About 1.5 miles into this pleasant walk you’ll reach a lovely payoff: a clearing—surrounded by glorious gardens of tiny-flowered, pastel-tinted linathus—with two plain benches and open-water views of Briones Reservoir.
Where: Briones Regional Park, East Bay Regional Park District; (510) 287-0459; www.ebparks.org. Call East Bay MUD at (510) 287-0459 for information on obtaining a hiking permit, or purchase one through www.ebmud.com. You need a permit on your person to hike along the reservoir.
Round Trip: Up to nine miles
Getting there: From San Pablo Dam Road, go north on Bear Creek Road about one mile to the Briones Overlook Staging Area, where the Bear Creek Trail begins on the right. There’s a restroom but no water.
OK, Yosemite it’s not. And the waterfall is usually more sound than fury. But what a wondrous, thunderous sound it is, as Alameda Creek gathers itself and rushes and tumbles through the boulder-strewn gorge here.
From the visitor center parking area off Geary Road, where you can get a map, cross a footbridge and pick up the Canyon View Trail, a walk thick with grassland and woodland flowers: lupines and buttercups galore, plus fiddlenecks, fairy lanterns, Ithuriel’s spears, swaths of unbelievably fat and bushy tomcat clover, blue-eyed grass, and, of course, California poppies.
On expanses of serpentine soil where grass can’t take hold, you’ll see dazzling arrays of goldfields and small violets. And in the distance, you’ll view a ridge with big stone teeth that looks like an old Roman wall. These uplifted vertical outcrops are actually ancient layers of sandstone that were once under the sea.
At the waterfalls, the pools may look tempting, but the park insists on “no body contact with the water.” That doesn’t mean you can’t climb onto a hospitable boulder to soak up the symphony of moving waters.
For an easy return, take Camp Ohlone Road back to your car. Or return the way you came.
Where: In Sunol Regional Wilderness, East Bay Regional Park District; (925) 862-2601; www.ebparks.org.
Round trip Less than three miles
Getting there: From Interstate 680 South take the Calaveras Road exit in Sunol, turn left on Calaveras Road and go about four miles; turn left on Geary Road, which leads in about two miles to the entrance kiosk ($5 entrance fee).
Bob Walker Ridge
You get no waterfall here, but this is a fine springtime walk with plenty of wildflower charm. (And you might see red-legged frogs in a cow pond!)
From the parking area off Morgan Territory Road (where you’ll find maps and which welcomes horse trailers), you might see freshly unpacked horses and riders trotting up the slope through lush grasses toward the Blue Oak Trail. You want to take the Condor Trail to a left on Volvon, then take the Loop along Bob Walker Ridge. Return on Valley View, then Blue Oak, with a right on the short Hummingbird Trail, then back south on Condor. This route tours through various plant communities: grassland, chaparral, and oak woodland (fortunately, blue oaks are not susceptible to Sudden Oak Death, outbreaks of which are common in coastal California.)
In addition to familiar East Bay wildflowers, from buttercups to Mount Diablo fairy lanterns to goldfields, you’ll see lots of red maids on the Hummingbird Trail. This short trail is also a good place to observe avian habitat. Woodpeckers stash their caches of acorns in family-managed granaries inside selected trees; nuthatches settle in oak cavities; and golden eagles nest in the tops of tall trees or on high ledges.
Where: Morgan Territory Regional Preserve, East Bay Regional Park District; (510) 562-7275; www.ebparks.org.
Round Trip: About a five-mile loop (shortcuts are available)
Getting there: The way in from the north, from Clayton’s Marsh Creek Road and then right on Morgan Territory Road, is an adventure back in time to early ranchland life: The road narrows and becomes more rustic (and washout prone) with each twisty mile. Call (925) 757-2620 for road conditions. From the south, off 580 East near Livermore take North Livermore Avenue, which becomes Manning Road, then go right on Morgan Territory.