Gratitude for our trails

Thanksgiving and Gratitude

Sunol Regional Park, Alameda County, CA

Here in the S.F. Bay Area, the days have been so mild with daytime temperatures in the 60s and 70s, it’s hard to believe that it’s almost Thanksgiving. However, when it starts getting dark at 5 PM, and colder, we realize we have to work a bit harder to fit hikes into our shorter daytime hours.

This reminds me that I have much to appreciate about where I live, why I try to support environmental causes, and how grateful I am for the thousands of people here who work to protect our environment.

Sunol Regional Park, Alameda County, CA

In particular, I am reminded of the importance of the regional parklands around me, which…

  • provide hundreds of miles of trails that I can hike. 
  • bring ever-changing displays of flowers, trees, and other plants. 
  • have quiet places to clear my head and exercise my body.
  • inspire my writing and photography with its scenic beauty.
  • support wildlife—from ladybugs covering entire branches; herons stalking their prey; hawks soaring overhead; flickers hammering cavities in tree branches to build their nests.  
  • offer the opportunity to gain perspective on our place on this earth.
  • allow free, or inexpensive, visits to all who want to come. 

And, people are instrumental in what happens…

  • by envisioning the setting aside of parcels of land to create parklands.
  • when they work to acquire properties that would otherwise turn into developments.
  • by volunteering to help with fund-raising, to interface with the public at the kiosks and gift shops, and by organizing work parties for weed control.
  • when they become park employees that build fences and picnic tables, clear out invasive plants, repair storm damaged trails and roadways, and educate park visitors. 
  • by voting in tax measures to support and improve our parks

Galen Rowell, photographer, climber, author (1940-2002) in  Bay Area Wild: A Celebration of the Natural Heritage of the San Francisco Bay Area wrote,  “The San Francisco Bay Area holds the most extensive system of wild greenbelts in the nation, with more than 200 parks and other protected areas lying within forty miles of the city.”

We are truly blessed to live here. 

Is 10,000 a magic number?

What about 10,000 steps?

Along the Vezelay, FR., Camino route.

For many years, 10,000 has been given as the magic number of steps to take daily to improve our fitness level and boost our longevity. More recently, however, we’ve read that 10,000 is really an arbitrary number. In one study of women (average age 72), click here, it was found that 4,000 steps per day was beneficial. Additionally, the study said that anything over 7,500 steps brought no additional benefit.

That is not to say that counting steps isn’t a helpful tool; it can be. It is an fairly effective method of keeping track of your steps and mileage. Just as writing in a food diary is a more accurate way of seeing what your caloric intake is than relying on a running total in your head, a step counter will probably keep you more honest. And, as the study stated, for most people, any increase in steps is helpful. 

For us as hikers, another takeaway is that counting steps is not a well-rounded way to become trail-ready, particularly if your aim is longer hikes and multi-day backpack trips. Nevertheless, I find aiming for 10,000 motivating, and I am relieved to learn that I am not harming myself when I don’t reach that number. 

In my article, Training for Walking, Hiking, and Backpacking, you’ll find plenty of advice to achieve greater hiking stamina and strength that goes beyond counting steps. 

Our Strategy for Nifty Ninety

Mural in Coit Tower, Telegraph Hill, S.F.

It wasn’t very long after Ralph and I started doing some of the high points on the ‘Nifty Ninety’ Peaks challenge that our friend Patricia became interested. Like us, she wanted to do some new local hikes on a regular basis, found the selection of peaks on the list interesting and within our hiking abilities, and wanted to spend time with friends.

Choosing which peaks to do first…

Patricia suggested a strategy—that we do all of the peaks within a category on the list and then go on to another category. For example, we could do do all of the National Parks peaks, then all of the California State Parks, and then those of the North Bay, etc. 

We toyed with her idea for a bit, but then decided that other factors should be prioritized—such things as the difficulty of a hike, the weather, and the time needed to commute back and forth. We also considered such things as when the wildflowers would be out or the waterfalls flowing. After all, the peak hikes were supposed to be fun as well as good exercise, so we wanted to optimize the conditions whenever possible.

Mount Tamalpais, Mt. Tamalpais State Park, Marin County.

We get on the way

With those considerations in mind, we started out by doing the shorter or less strenuous hikes first. We figured we would get stronger and more confident over time. Sometimes we were able to do two, even three peaks, in a day—such as when we did San Francisco’s Telegraph Hill, Russian Hill, and Nob Hill. 

The hardest ones may be ahead!

Now that we have reached more than 75 peaks, we have done most of the easy and moderate ones—which means, of course, that the peaks remaining on our list are more difficult to reach. Namely they will require hiking more miles or driving a longer distance, will be more technically difficult because of the trail’s steepness or slippery nature, or the elevation gain to the peak.

However, we are now stronger and feel more confident. We think that all are now within our capabilities. So, it is we hope, just a matter of waiting for the weather we prefer and the time needed to get to the destinations.

Time will tell!
Happy trails,
Susan Alcorn, aka backpack45

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. 

Details 
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.

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

Trails
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). 

Hazardous hike and bees ahead in Sunol Regional

Flag Hill and Vista Grande and a few hazards 


On Tuesday, Ralph and I headed out for Sunol Regional Wilderness in Alameda County —eagerly looking forward to climbing to two peaks in the park — Flag Hill and Vista Grande. These would be #41 and #42 for us on the ‘Nifty Ninety’ Peaks challenge that we have been pursuing since the Sierra Club Bay Chapter issued their challenge back in December 2017.

Ralph at the Flag Hill signpost 

Sunol Regional is a popular destination on the weekends, but rather  quiet on weekdays. In fact, we saw no one else on our trails during our 7+-mile hike.

The  S.F. Bay Area weather has been quite varied the last couple of weeks. Sunol can easily climb into the 90s and even 100s during hot spells, but on this particular day, it stayed comfortable. It was 70s during most of our hike with a cooling breeze while we were on the peaks. As we came back down from the hills, the temperature rose, but by that time we were done with our explorations.

Our route: The climb to Flag Hill (1,360 ft) is described as steep and strenuous. The Flag Hill Trail (which starts just behind the Visitor Center on a small wooden bridge) climbs about 900 feet in 1.26 miles. We reached the marker, then walked to the top of the hill right behind it — and in the process picked up dozens of stickers in our socks!

The rewards were several however — the workout itself, of course, but also views of the park and Calaveras Reservoir. The occasional giant Oak trees provided welcome shade as we switch-backed through grassland on a narrow, dirt trail (with a few rocky sections).

From Flag Hill, we followed a more moderate route going north and then east onto Flag Hill Road for .78 miles where we reached an intersection and went straight onto the Vista Grande Road (another wide dirt road). I enjoyed looking over to the Northeast and seeing the challenging Maguire Peaks that we had hiked a couple of months back.

Finding the peak of Vista Grande, at 1840′, was a bit more difficult than finding Flag Hill had been. There wasn’t a signpost or survey marker to show the point, but our GPS located the spot we wanted—the highpoint in the middle of a grassy mound.

The hazards: Our two peaks located, we doubled back on Vista Grande, and stopped to eat lunch with views and a bench at the intersection with Eagle View.

As we proceeded down onto Eagle View, we were startled to find a sign that urged care. The “No Bicycles or Equestrians” wasn’t unusual to see, but the  “Steep and Hazardous Terrain, Use Extreme Caution in This Area” was a bit ominous. As we rounded a curve and saw what lay ahead, I considered turning back, but I didn’t want to climb back up the hill and figured that if we were careful, we would be ok.

As I led the way, I had two concerns. The first was that the hillside was very steep and a fall would lead to a tumble a couple hundred feet down the slope. Secondly, we were in prime rattlesnake and tick territory. As I proceeded, I used my hiking poles to keep me steady and I scanned the grassy slopes to spot any snakes. I kept telling myself that if I were to see a one, I should not jump or lose my balance.
Bee nest ahead: I was very happy, and relieved, when we finished that section of the trail and descended to cross a small creek. We continued our descent on the Rocks Trail and Indian Joe trail. We’d planned to continue on Indian Joe, but a hand-lettered sign, “BEE NEST AHEAD” convinced us to turn onto the wide Hayfield Road the rest of the way down the hill where we crossed on the wooden bridge again and returned to our car.

This was a wonderful and exhilarating hike with enough challenge to leave me feeling I had worked to complete these peaks! Grateful for a break in the hot spell; generally this hike is best done in the spring or fall. (You’ll enjoy more wildflowers in the spring.)

Additional resource: General overview of Sunol hikes.

Date hiked: June 26, 2018. (Our 41, 42)