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Ohlone Wilderness Trail - California, United States

by Vaudesir  
with a Garmin Colorado 400t
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Story:
After having hiked a portion of the Ohlone Wilderness trail from Lake Del Valle to Murietta Falls last February, I felt compelled to hike the full 28 miles of this trail, connecting Lake Del Valle to Stanford Avenue in Fremont, which is the west-facing foot of Mission Peak.
This sure seemed challenging. 28 miles is long, even over two days. The climb to Rose Peak is strenuous for sure. And then, Mission Peak comes as a "bonus".
After doing a little bit of research and asking around, I concluded that I could do it over 2 days:
Day 1 - from Lake Del Valle to Rose Peak - about 10 miles and 4000 feet of elevation gain
Day 2 - from Rose Peak to Sunol to Mission Peak to Stanford Ave - about 18 miles and (roughly) 2400 feet of elevation gain, and a lot of downhill.
Quite a challenge for me...

Another challenge would be organizing it. Picking a date, booking a campsite, rounding up the right people (I would not do this by myself, if only for safety reason), hoping for the right weather. Just because of it, I put this project on the side.
On Easter day, Fanny and Michael proposed to do a short hike in Coyote Hills Regional Park and when we entered the visitors center, I was drawn by this big map of the East Bay parks. I showed the Ohlone trail to Michael and told him that I wanted to hike it someday. He replied "Looks good, I'm available next weekend, let's do it". Wow...

I was not sure I could book a campsite on Rose Peak (Maggie's Half Acre) on a 6 day notice but I called them anyway the day after. Of course, no site was available. The first available was for May 9th and without thinking, I just said "OK" (to hold the reservation). I checked with Michael. Both Fanny and him would be available that weekend so it was a go. I called a few days later to confirm the reservation and to make the payment. I received the permit one or two days later. I have to say that the EBRPD folks managing the reservations are very nice and helpful.

On the Saturday morning, we left our cars at the foot of Mission Peak and Vero drove and dropped us off at the Lichen Bark picnic area (trailhead) in Lake Del Valle. Fanny and Michael bought a hiking permit (I had one already), which is needed if you intend to enter the Ohlone Wilderness. Besides, this permit is actually an incredibly high quality map of the trail and the parks it goes through. $2 a piece, what a great deal!

My pack weighted only 24.8 Lbs, which is a first for me (in a light kind of way). The weather was good enough, which allowed me to drop rainfly and stakes. I only went with dehydrated (light) food that could be eaten straight out of the package, so as to minimize cooking utensils weight. I knew there was water available along the trail so I didn't fill up my camelbak and started with less than 2 liters. A water treatment system is absolutely needed if you're going to drink this crystal clear water flowing from the hills (we did see cows drinking in Williams Gulch). I had a steripen, and Fanny and Michael had a filter.

We hit the trail at about 10:40 am. Not very early but the best we could do given our personal constraints. We figured it was only 10 miles and even starting at 11 would be early enough. The trail started climbing right away and there is little relief until reaching the top of Rocky Ridge. One of the few downhill sections is the section leading to the Sign In panel. We let Fanny take care of signing us in while I snapped some photos of a big toad that Michael almost stepped on (in the middle of the trail). There was some poison oak along the trail, but since the trail was actually a service road, there was enough space for both poison oak and hikers. I spotted a bunch of Mariposa Lilies and a few healthy Wind Poppies on the way.

After almost 1.5 hours of climbing, we reached the top of Rocky Ridge. We could now focus on the next big and dreaded "big burn" climb. But before that, I was determined to enjoy both Sycamore Flat and a lunch break down in Williams Gulch. I love Sycamore Flat. All the more since there were a few Yellow Mariposa Lilies (the first I have seen this year).

45 minutes later, we were down in Williams Gulch. The temperature was high enough that by the time we reached the stream, I had drunk all my water. I intended to refill in the stream and got really worried when I noticed that the stream bed was dry. There would be no water until after the Big Burn climb and I would need water for that climb. Fortunately, as the trail continued along the stream bed, we reached an area where the water was suddenly running out of the ground (isn't that called a spring?) and we had a real nice flowing stream (caterpillars were bathing). We stopped for lunch. There was another group of backpackers having lunch. Popular place. We took the time to eat, and then fully refilled our camelbaks and bottles. It was a nice 30 minutes break but we got bit by ferocious mosquitoes so I was happy to leave.

And so started the infamous "Big Burn" climb. It's just a long steep climb on a narrow trail, with many switchbacks. You gain elevation really quickly and pretty soon, Rocky Ridge (the other side of the canyon) seems very low. At the beginning of the climb, we were really surprised to see cows on the trail. We were not too sure how we would go around them but they took initiative and decided to avoid us by "cross-countrying" directly toward the stream. I swear, they were gliding. From above, we saw them reach the stream and drink from it. Good reminder that treating the stream water before drinking it is important. For most of the climb, I tried to stay focused. There was poison oak everywhere and it was difficult to avoid. People sensitive to poison oak will need technu for sure. Wearing long pants and long sleeves might also be a good idea even if it's warm. Yes, it was steep, yes it was long but in the end, we reached the top of Rowell Ridge, shortly after we passed Schliepper Rock. Of course, the climb was not over, but the steep part was done. It took us about 1.5 hour.

We were then hiking on a gently rolling service road, enjoying the views. We could see (barely, and certainly not as clearly as in February, for it was a bit hazy) the snowy tops of the Sierra Nevada. We ignored the trails leading to Murietta Falls as it would add significant mileage and elevation, and most importantly because it was sure to be dry. When I visited it in February, it was not flowing much. It's a beautiful place, but not a beautiful waterfall.

On the way to Rose Peak, the ground was carpeted with millions of tiny yellow, white and blue wildflowers. It was truly enjoyable. After going around an interesting, unnamed little pond (with fishes) in a piece of land belonging to EBRPD and normally not open to the public, we started a short climb on what would be the last ridge (Wauhab Ridge) before Valpe Ridge (which hosts Rose Peak). It was incredibly beautiful. There were lots of poppies, just like on the photos overlaid on the permit map. The only worry is that we now had to go down in the canyon and cross Indian Creek (North Fork) only to climb back up on the opposite Valpe Ridge. We lost elevation quickly and regained it quickly as well. We were close to Rose Peak and thus to the end of our strenuous 10 miles hike. In other words: pretty tired.

Because I wanted to map completely the Ohlone Trail with my GPS, I didn't want to skip any section of it, and so we decided to stay on the trail (which means skipping Rose Peak) to reach the junction with the trail that goes to Maggie's Half Acre (campground) at marker #38, find our site, setup camp and then backtrack to Rose Peak. It seemed perfectly fine on the map, but in retrospect, it was a mistake. It's not obvious but you lose a lot of elevation between Rose Peak and the campground. The campground is not just behind the peak, it is way below it. I think Rose Peak should be visited before going to the campground (at least when you come from Del Valle). We passed Rose Peak at 5:40 pm, about 7h after we started our hike.

Maggie's Half Acre is a small campground, in the sense that it only has 3 sites, but the sites are distant form each other. There is a pit toilet (with toilet paper mind you), a trashcan, and water in a little meadow by a tiny pond. A sign on the faucet tells you that the water is not treated and that EBRPD recommends you treat it before drinking. You've been warned. Site 2 and 3 are nice big sites close by. Site 2 is directly across the trail from the "water/bathroom" meadow. Site 3 is slightly further down. Site 1 is uphill and we were told by the site 2 occupants that it was not as nice as site 2 and 3. There are no picnic tables and no bench but there are big logs that you can use to sit or cook on (no fire allowed). Our site (site 3) had taller grasses, maybe because it has been less busy than site 2, and I was worried about ticks, but we didn't see any.

I really wanted to visit Rose Peak so after dinner, I added some extra uphill mileage  to climb to the top. Beautiful views. Mount Hamilton to the south, the Mission Peak ridge to the west (Sunday's objective), Diablo to the North... I could even see downtown San Jose. The sun was reflecting on the San Francisco Bay and the top of Mount Tamalpais was sticking out from the haze. Once I had seen enough, I went back down to camp.

The temperature was nice and I didn't have to use my fleece other than as a pillow. The night was disturbed only by loud birds, toads (hundreds of them it seemed) and planes about to land somewhere in a major Bay Area airport. I tried to get as much rest as possible. The plan for Sunday was to leave at 7 am. It would be a long day: 10 miles to Sunol headquarters, and then go over Mission Peak.

Before leaving on Sunday morning, we refilled our camelbaks and bottles. I was not too sure if water would be easily available before Sunol so I took 4 liters, which made for a heavy pack. At 7:15, we headed out. For some reason, I thought the trail to Sunol was all downhill, but that's not the case. There were a bunch of either steep or long climbs. The first very steep (but short) one was at South Fork Indian Creek. There would be others, especially in Sunol, starting right after the junction with Backpack Road (where the permit is no longer required), along the McCorkle trail. The hike from Maggie's Half Acre to Sunol HQ was beautiful. Green rolling hills with big rocks sticking out, very East Bay-like. There were less flowers than on the other side of Rose Peak. An hour into the hike, we met a troup of boyscouts who were going straight to Lake Del Valle after having left Eagle Eyrie (one of Sunol's backpack campsites) earlier that day. Besides the boyscouts, the other animals we saw along the trail were thousands of ground squirrels, a young gopher snake, and a beautiful eagle. I could not tell for sure whether it was a bald or a golden eagle. We saw him grab a squirrel probably 50 yards from us. It felt like a National Geographic moment.
We could see Mission Peak and its ridge during pretty much all the hike. It seemed distant but it actually looked like we were getting closer and closer. It was hard to believe that in the afternoon, we would be on top of it.

As we got closer to Sunol, the grass got dryer and taller. There were a lot of people in the Sunol backpack camps. Some campsites are in very nice location. We reached Backpack Road (where you no longer need the Ohlone Wilderness permit) just before 10 am, roughly between 2.5 and 3 hours into the hike, and took a nice 20 minutes break in the shade, watching some other boyscout troups go down the trail and exiting through Backpack Road. We then continued hiking along the McCorkle trail.

I hiked this section of the McCorkle trail last year so it looked familiar. At at least one spot, maybe two (I totally forgot to mark the spots), there was clear water that could have been used to refill our bottles. But I had enough water to reach the HQ so I didn't bother. At some point (between markers 17 and 16), we arrived at an unmarked junction and it was not really obvious whether we should go left or right. Looking at the map, and at the terrain, we chose to go right and it turned out to be the correct choice. Few hundred yards further, we found marker 16. As we got closer to Sunol's HQ, we started to see more and more hikers. The closer we got, the less prepared people looked. It looked like many families were on a "mother's day" hike. The Ohlone Trail stopped being the McCorkle trail and became the Canyon View trail. It took us to the visitors center.

We reached the visitors center shortly after 11:45, about 4.5 hours into the hike. Time to take a nice lunch break at a shaded picnic table. I had drunk my 4 liters of water along the way so I was very happy to be able to refill camelbak and bottle (about 4 other liters). I thought I would need all this for the final part of the challenge: climb up to Mission Peak and go down to Stanford Avenue.

We started the last leg of the journey at about 12:30. It was hot in the sun, and we were climbing. I had a hard time finding a good pace. I had to pause often during the first mile every time I could find some shade. Once I finally got into the "zone", I was feeling good. We were gaining elevation quickly, and a slight breeze helped us stay cool enough in the exposed areas. There was enough shade to make the climb comfortable. We were surprised when we realized that we were at the same elevation as the "red roof house" that we could see from the other side of the Sunol Valley. It seemed quite high then. This house is marked as "private property" on the map. We kept walking, talking, snacking, keeping a good climbing pace when Mission Peak suddenly appeared out of nowhere, just in front of us. It was about 2:20 pm and it was shortly before leaving the San Franciso Water District land and entering the Mission Peak Regional Preserve.

The trail changed completely to become one of those trails that are behind Mission Peak (well, it is one after all). It was exposed, surrounded by green grass and California Poppies, and the view were really nice. We regretfully had to lose some elevation when going down the Laurel Canyon, just to regain it immediately. We then started to go around the peak, following the trail to the North. I really wanted to go to the top and even though Fanny and Michael were not too enthusiastic about it, they decided to do the climb with me. I didn't realize it was that long and that steep. In retrospect, we (I) should probably have skipped it. This climb up, and the subsequent climb down did take a toll on our bodies. We reached the top at about 3:40 pm, 3:10 hours after we started from Sunol HQ. We took a nice break at the top obviously, enjoying the fantastic view on the Bay.

The climb down was uneventfull. We all had done it before. We all knew it would be uninteresting and painful so we just took the pain as well as possible. We could really have done without it. Skipping the extra climb to the top would probably have alleviated this a bit. We left the top at about 4pm and finally reached the Stanford staging area at 5:30, happy for the climb down to be over, and too tired to really enjoy the accomplishment. I still had about 2 liters of water left.

Hiking the full Ohlone Trail is certainly a great accomplishment for me. It was a very enjoyable adventure, shared with good friends, and it confirms that I really like hiking in the East Bay. I might have some opportunities to hike it again, and I would probably be game.
Tips:
Our timetable (may include breaks):
Lake Del Valle to Rocky Ridge: 1.5 hours
Rocky Ridge to Williams Gulch : 45 min
Williams Gulch to top of Rowell Ridge: 1.5 hours
Lake Del Valle to Rose Peak: 7 hours
Rose Peak to Sunol Backpack Road: 2.5 to 3 hours
Rose Peak to Sunol HQ: 4.5 hours
Sunol HQ to Mission Peak : 3h 10 min
Mission Peak to Stanford Ave : 1.5 hours

Drinkable water available at Lake Del Valle and Sunol HQ
Untreated water available at Maggie's Half Acre and in other campgrounds but side trips would be required
We used water from Williams Gulch but it may not be flowing all year long (ask the rangers)

A hiking permit is needed ($2 at Sunol HQ or Lake Del Valle HQ but not at Stanford). Permits are valid for 1 year and are an actual beautiful, useful map of the trail and the parks it connects.
Reservations must be made for a site at Maggie's Half Acre. There are only 3 sites. Site 2 and 3 seem the best ones.

Tags:
Ohlone, sunol, Ohlone WIlderness Trail, Mission Peak Lake Del Valle, Rose Peak
Photos: See all pictures and videos from Ohlone Wilderness Trail
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Trip Info
May 09, 2009
Trip Location: Scotts Corner, California, United States
Length: 29 miles
Duration: 2 days
Activity: Backpacking
Trip viewed 9,406 times
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