Planning for Berryessa Peak

Summer hills on Berryessa Peak Trail

Ok, perhaps tackling Berryessa isn’t exactly a major expedition, but for us it requires some extra planning. The peak, at 3,057 feet, isn’t the highest of the  ‘Nifty Ninety’ Peaks, but the elevation gain is given as 3,500-feet. That, with its distance out and back of 14.5 miles, is a bit too much for a day hike for us. On top of that, our driving time from home is two hours each way. What to do?  

Lake Berryessa and vicinity

Ralph, probably because he is raring to do this peak, drove up to the Wine Country to get a lay of the land in early August. Summers in the area can be hot–they regularly hit the 90s and 100s. Nevertheless, he set out–very early and with adequate water–that fine day.

Oak trees give some shade

He didn’t plan to do the entire hike; he wanted to figure out where we could camp partway along. When he came home, he reported that he had found a place where we could camp. It was up a draw to a flat area about four miles along.

After hiking a quarter-mile in from the highway, camping within the Knoxville Wildlife Area or the BLM lands is legal. But further along, hikers have to stay within an easement area for a short distance as the trail goes through private property.

Ralph’s main concern remains the lack of water. If we camp, we will either need to carry all we need or cache some ahead of time because there is none in the area when the creeks are dry. 

Exploring Berryessa Peak Trail again

In early September, we decided to go up again. I had never been to Lake Berryessa and looked forward to seeing both the lake and the first part of the trail. The trailhead, which starts in the Knoxville State Wildlife Area, is next to a pullout alongside the Knoxville Road and is marked Berryessa Peak Trail. Because it was forecast to be hot again, we planned only to get in our 10,000 steps while enjoying the hike.

Star Thistle can be wicked!

The first 1.6 miles of the trail was easy. And the recent, short-duration hunting season (check the website for future dates!) probably improved the conditions, because the awful Star Thistle had been somewhat flattened by the increased foot traffic along the route.

As we followed the dirt track of the old ranch road, we tried to avoid bumping into the Star Thistle. We had worn long pants to protect our legs from the sharp spines. I had even dug out my Dirty Girl Gaiters for added protection

We passed the occasional oak tree, which provided welcome shade, and watched butterflies flitting toward stone-filled creek beds that must have supplied the water they needed, but wouldn’t have sustained our lives. 

We reached an intersection marked with a 4×4 lettered “BPT” (Berryessa Peak Trail). While the ranch road continued ahead, we turned right (south) to start some climbing into the hills. We continued another mile or so, then found a good place to sit under an oak tree and have our lunch.

View of Lake Berryessa from the peak trail

We’ll return when it’s cooler

It was time for us to turn back so we would miss the worst of any commute traffic. We noted that it was 97 degrees–and as we had read, “THIS IS NOT A SUMMER HIKE.”

We both felt that we had been prepared for the high temperature, but we would have needed much more water than the two liters we were carrying to safely go much further. Besides, we want to do this peak, and camp out, with our hiking buddies Tom and Patricia under more favorable hiking conditions!

Meanwhile, if you decide to go for it, click here for details, maps, and more. 

Consider the ‘Nifty Ninety”

Consider the Nifty Ninety

We have now completed more than 75 of the #Nifty Ninety peaks. I know that there are some summits ahead that are even more difficult than those we have encountered so far, but we have gradually become more confident and strong as we have met the hikes’ challenges. We continue to consider the terrain, the mileage, the time required, and the weather conditions when selecting our next hike—and are growing more and more captivated by the parks, trails, and  high points we are discovering.

As a long-distance hiker, I’ve spent a lot of time at high elevation (John Muir Trail being a prime example) so it is exciting to have some of the same joy exploring the peaks of the Bay Area—the far-reaching views and the sense of accomplishment that getting to high points in this area brings.

If, like me, you don’t like to always do the same trails, check out the Nifty Ninety Peak challenge. Link here! You will also find a great deal of information about the peaks on and you can also record your achievements at this easy to use website.

Happy trails and travels!
Susan “backpack45” Alcorn

Getaway to Montara Mountain, North Peak

Encompassing Views of Montara Mountain, North Peak

Looking west at Pacifica and the Pacific Ocean

Our little team has been wanting to do some more #Nifty Ninety Peaks, but we were in agreement that we didn’t want to do them in the 90+ degree conditions of the inland valleys. Since the weather pattern of the S.F. Bay Area brings fog to  San Francisco and nearby coastal areas during the summer, we just had to wait for our opportunity. That happened the last weekend of July.  

There were two peaks down the S.F. Peninsula that were reasonably close together — Montara Mountain (North Peak) and Chalk Mountain. These would be peaks #74 and #75 for us. And since driving to either one involved a long drive from where we live, we decided to do the two peaks on one trip. That necessitated finding a place to stay overnight. Our hiking partner Tom, made reservations for all of us at the Pigeon Point Lighthouse Hostel, near Pescadero. 
We elected to hike Montara Mountain along the San Mateo coast first. Another friend, Patricia, had researched various roads into the hills and had selected the trails that we would follow.
Finding the trail head wasn’t difficult — from Highway I, the Coast Highway, we turned east onto Linda Mar Blvd. As we drove up the hill to San Pedro Valley County Park, we appreciated that starting from the park would save us about 400 feet of the climb to the 1,898′ summit.
We paid our $6 parking fee (free weekdays for seniors) and parked. We had a two trails to choose from initially. The Trout Farm and the Brooks Creek were basically parallel and about the same length, so we decided to start of the Trout Farm and end on the Brooks Creek. Most of our route, however, was an out and back one. 

A bit of history 

The Trout Farm Trail took us past a few picnic table and benches. We found some informational signs that described what the Trout Farm had been — a place where visitors could come to picnic and fish. John and Mary Gay ran the farm. John built several round tanks for raising fish, and a fishing pond. Families rented poles, then stood or sat on logs alongside a pond, and would be charged according to the size of any fish caught. The trout farm was operated by John Gay until 1962, when storm rains washed out the operation; today, only a few pieces of the breeding ponds remain.

Back on the trail

The trail ascended alongside the south fork of San Pedro Creek for a while. We could hear, but rarely see the water, but assume it would be roaring during the rainy season. The seasonal water is part of Pacifica’s water supply and is a major steelhead trout habitat.  

At 0.5 miles along, our trail met the Brook Creek Trail. Turning left, we continued uphill. I was impressed at how well maintained the trail was and appreciated the fact that we had switchbacks to make it easy. Another 0.7 miles uphill, we met the Montara Mountain Trail, and turned left, uphill again.

The Montara Mtn. Trail took us out of the county park and into McNee Ranch State Park. The trail was still fairly good and it took us up to Montara Mountain Road. We turned left on the wide fire road to ascend the final mile to Montara Mountain North Peak. As has frequently been the case, the very top of the mountain was surrounded by a chain link fence keeping visitors from a cell tower. Nevertheless, we were stop for a break and eat our lunches. 

Views from the peak and along the way, had been great — depending where we were standing, we could see down into Pacifica, out to sea, miles of wild open space, across the the channel to Mount Tamalpais in Marin County, and across San Francisco Bay to Mount Diablo. 

Back downhill

The descent was easy — we retraced our steps until we came to the intersection of Brooks Creek and Trout Farm where we kept left to stay on Brooks Creek. Total distance was 8-8.5 miles. 

Then we headed for our accommodations for the night — the Pigeon Point Hostel & Lighthouse. The following day we were set to go on Peak #75— Chalk Mountain, a bit further south on Highway 1. Link is here

hiked: 7/28/2019 Peak #74 for us

Two Peaks in One!

Two New Peaks

It was with some trepidation that we set out for Black Mountain (2,812′) and Windy Hill (1,905′) two Midpeninsula Regional Parks south of San Francisco. It was not the elevation of the two Nifty Ninety Peakthat concerned me, it was the unsettled weather we had been having. Nevertheless, we were looking forward to hiking to our peaks #72 and #73, so we grabbed our packs and set out for an hour+ drive from our home in Oakland.

Since it was outside of commute hours, the traffic wasn’t bad, but the narrow Page Mill Road up the hill from Hwy 280 was windy enough that I had begun to wonder if I might be prone to car sickness. However, we arrived at the parking area of the Monte Bello trailhead of Monte Bello Open Space Preserve without incident. Being a weekday, there were only two cars in the lot. If this had been a weekend, I expect we would have seen many bicyclists on the trails — as it was, we saw only two hikers and one bicyclist.

Black Mountain
We picked up a map of the South Skyline Region and studied the maps on the signboard. Even so, we were a bit confused about where to find the trailhead. We took a narrow dirt trail up a hill to the left, but found we should have proceeded straight ahead and slightly downhill on the wide dirt trail just beyond the trail signs. Shortly after, there was a split — Stevens Creek Nature Trail turned to the right, but our route along Canyon Trail, was to the left. At 0.5 miles from the start, we reached another split — we left Canyon Trail and turned left onto Bella Vista (Beautiful View). The next intersection was another 0.8 miles, we turned right onto Old Ranch Trail. It was along this section of trail that we saw a coyote and two groups of deer.

After 0.5 miles, we hit another intersection. Here there were three choices — a gravel road (Montebello) and two dirt trails. All would have worked — the left one leads directly to Montebello Road, a middle dirt trail goes into the backpacking camp, and the dirt trail to the right curves around and all will converge again on Montebello Road at 0.4 miles. Once at that intersection, it is just over 0.2 miles to Black Mountain. 

A Grand Vista
As we neared our destination, we could see that there were multiple transmission towers ahead. I thought that once again we would reach a peak that was covered with ugly steel structures and surrounded by chain link fencing. But as we neared the towers we looked at other hills nearby and realized that just another few  hundred yards ahead was what seemed to be an even higher point. We continued on up the road and saw off to the right a slightly higher rise — the mountaintop was covered with dozens of gorgeous rock formations. We found comfortable places to perch while we enjoyed our lunches and the grand vista. 

On our hike back out, we started with a slight variation so that we would go through the backpacking camp. After that we retraced our steps back to our car.

This was a moderate hike of approximately 5 miles roundtrip with a gradual ascent and descent almost the entire way. Trails were very well maintained. It was still early for wildflowers and our views were limited because of cloud cover, but it still well worth doing. There are outer routes to the peak that are more on the order or 12-miles round trip and would be rated strenuous. 

Details: Outhouses at the parking lot and at the backpack camp (camping by permit only). 

Windy Hill
Reaching Windy Hill was easy from Black Mountain — requiring only a drive of 4.9 miles north of Page Mill Road along Skyline Blvd going north (or 2.3 miles south of La Honda Road, Hwy 84).  This is another preserve held by the Midpeninsula Regional Open Space District — and another opportunity to be grateful that so many have worked so hard to set aside and maintain these  beautiful lands for the public’s enjoyment. 

Parking was easy. We pulled off Skyline at the Anniversary Trail dirt turnout alongside a small fenced in grassy area complete with welcoming picnic table (and outhouse). We picked up the trail brochure and brochure, grabbed our umbrellas because it was now raining, and started down the single track, dirt trail to the left (north).

The Anniversary Trail was easy to follow, and a gradual ascent. At 0.7 miles, we saw signs indicating the short trail on the left to the Herb Grench (first leader of Midpen) Overlook, but we stayed on the main trail as it wound up to the summit of Windy Hill. After admiring the views, limited though they were by the precipitation, we retraced our steps all the way back to our starting point-making this a 1.5-mile roundtrip hike. 

If it had been clear, we could have seen not only the Pacific Ocean, but also Mount Hamilton, Mount Diablo, and Mount Tamalpais— all of which we had previously climbed on the Nifty Ninety! However, all was not lost —we didn’t encounter any ticks (which others have reported on other trails) and we didn’t experience the windy days for which the trail is named. 


There are many additional trails and miles within the preserve. The northern half allows dogs if on leash. Info on trail conditions: 650-691-1200 or 

Tom Stienstra, on SF Gate, writes up some of the other hikes here.

(hiked both 4/1/2019)  

Eagle Peak on the Nifty Ninety

Fly like an Eagle!

I almost felt like soaring after reaching Eagle Peak (2,369′) in Mount Diablo State Park. It marked the completion of the four Diablo peaks included in the #Nifty Ninety Peaks challenge — Diablo, Norte, Olympia, and Eagle–and 71 of the total. Before we did any of them, I read many trail reports and found most of them intimating — steep, rocky, slippery, narrow, poison oak, hot (in summer). So, we waited until the rains had made the trails damp, but not too muddy — and this worked well for us.

Muddy trail and wild boar damage under oaks
Expansive views and dramatic skies

I also was elated to reach Eagle Peak because the weather report had been for rain. In fact, when we started from the Mitchell Canyon entrance, it was raining. The first part of the trail was very muddy and Ralph put up his umbrella. (I haven’t gotten around to figuring out how to rig mine yet so that I can use my hiking poles at the same time.)

We walked on the grassy sides of the muddy sections when possible and that made our footing more secure. Having recently had surgery, I did not want to fall!

After leaving the broad, muddy Oak Road, we started to climb on dirt, single track. The trail was still muddy in places, but felt quite safe. And, when we began the long ascent on Eagle Peak Trail, mud was no longer an issue because the incline allowed good drainage.

Because I hadn’t been on the trail before, I didn’t have a good sense of where we were headed. Though there were several hills and peaks around and ahead, I had no idea which one was our destination — it turned out that it was hidden until near the end.

I would have liked to have had a better sense of how far we had come, but my Fitbit wasn’t too helpful about the mileage or the number of steps I had taken because the steep terrain had forced me to take baby steps. When we finished, it told me I had done 23,000 steps and gone almost 8 miles. While I loved seeing those numbers, they weren’t really earned. The total distance in and out was about 5.5 – 6 miles.

On the ascent, I worried about what the descent 
— until I told myself to stop worrying about the future and just wait until I had to deal with it when coming down. Sometimes “live in the moment” is a very good thing. As it turned out, the descent wasn’t difficult at all!

We loved the brilliant green grass with the trees either still dormant or just beginning to leaf out. The views across to other peaks, out over the Delta, and west to Mt. Tamalpais, were lovely and the heavy clouds in some directions and wispy in others was dramatic. The wildflower season had not hit yet — April will probably be prime time, but we welcomed the early Indian Warriors, Indian Paintbrush, and lilies. This hike for me was the perfect level of challenge after suffering cabin fever for much of the last several rainy weeks. 

Since we had heard that there was a cache at the top, and some photos showed a trail marker, we looked for them, but both were missing. We double checked our GPS because the flat top to the peak was not particular inspiring — no matter, the views were!

We loved this trail and would definitely do it again (but not in the summer when it is often in the 90s or above). Many folks, sturdier than me, do the Eagle Trail in conjunction with the other three peaks, or the 14-mile round-trip to the higher Mt. Diablo, which takes you from 590 ft. to 3,849 ft. and back again on one of the Bay Area’s toughest day hikes. 

Parking in the park is $10, but free with the California State Park permit. Park is open 8 AM to 45 minutes before sunset. Fill water bottles at the entrance. Flush toilets, water, equestrian facilities, and picnic tables at the entrance.  No dogs on trails. Horses have the right-of-way.

Reach Mitchell Canyon Entrance station at the end of Mitchell Canyon Road in Clayton, CA.

Starting from Mitchell Canyon Staging area, start out hike south on Mitchell Canyon Fire Road and then shortly after that, take Oak Road to the left. After a quarter mile on Oak Road, turn right onto the Mitchell Rock Trail — passing Mitchell Rock and then Twin Rocks (both on your right when ascending). right on to Eagle Peak Trail to the peak. We did an out-and-back, but many people make a loop either deeper into the park, or back down to the parking lot from Eagle Peak (but it starts with a good scramble downhill).