There are lots of hiking opportunities east of the San Francisco Bay in Alameda County and Contra Costa County. Most of the trails and parks in the East Bay are owned by the East Bay Regional Parks District (EBRPD).
Although the East Bay is not among the best-known of the world's hiking destinations, it has many hiking trails because the East Bay Regional Parks District (EBRPD) has purchased significant portions of land in the region, turned them into regional parks, and created numerous trails in these parks. Some of the longest trails in the EBRPD are well over ten miles in length. The parks district is still trying to add new parks to its area, but this is becoming increasingly difficult due to the limited amount of rural areas not already owned by the East Bay Parks District, the rate of development, high property taxes if you own land, and high land prices.
If you are inland but are not far above sea level (for example, the Tri-Valley), you can expect daily highs in summer to be around 90 °F (32 °C) and lows in summer to be around 60 °F (16 °C). In a heat wave, high temperatures can get as high as 115 °F (46 °C), which of course makes hiking impossible. In the same location, winter highs will be around 60 °F (16 °C), with low temperatures in December sometimes dropping below 30 °F (−1 °C). At higher elevations in the same area, temperatures will be lower but still high: peaks such as Mount Diablo aren't nearly as high in elevation as they appear, so temperatures could be much higher than you expected. For hiking, the best months are October to May when temperatures are lower.
None of the East Bay reaches the Pacific Ocean itself, but a lot of it has coastlines along the San Francisco Bay, the San Pablo Bay, and the Sacramento Delta. However, there are no hiking opportunities at or very close to the coastline; the closest hiking opportunities to the milder San Francisco Bay shoreline are in the hills directly east of Oakland, Hayward, and Fremont. Temperatures at these hiking destinations are not as extreme as those experienced farther inland.
The EBRPD has divided the land it owns into several parks, similar to the way American federal and state governments divide up the land that they own into parks. The EBPRD parks vary in size, but practically all of them (excluding shoreline parks) have some sort of trail network with which hikers can create a hiking route that matches the distance they want to travel. Some park trail networks connect with the trail networks of a nearby regional park.
Major EBRPD-owned parks
- 1 Anthony Chabot Regional Park. This is the southernmost of a chain of regional parks in the hills east of Oakland. The park is 5,067 acres (2,051 ha) and popular activities include hiking, cycling and horseback riding. There are many grasslands, chaparral, eucalyptus groves, and steep hills and terrain in the park.
- 2 Black Diamond Mines Regional Preserve. Historic mining region in Contra Costa County. It is 6,000 acres (2,400 ha) north of Mount Diablo in Contra Costa County. East Bay Parks District acquired the property in the early 1970s. The preserve includes the remains of three mining towns (former coal and sand mines) and offers guided tours of a former sand mine. There are 60 miles (97 km) of trails in the Preserve that cross rolling, foothill terrain covered with grassland, California oak woodland, California mixed evergreen forest, and chaparral.
- 3 Briones Regional Park. This is a large park with a pretty good trail network. The park is located in rolling hills of the East Bay region, near Lafayette, Walnut Creek, and Pleasant Hill. The western end of Briones Regional Park is adjacent to the Briones Reservoir, operated by EBMUD across Bear Creek Road. Briones Peak is the highest point in the park with an elevation of 1483 ft (452 m), and offers panoramic views of Mount Diablo and the Diablo Valley to the east, the Sacramento River to the north, and the Berkeley Hills and Mt. Tamalpais to the west. The park is also home to many animals and birds, such as turkey vultures, black-tailed deer, cougars, coyotes, squirrels, and redtailed hawks. Cattle, sheep, and goat ranchers still use portions of the park for grazing purposes and hold a one hundred-year lease that is effective until the 2060s.
- 4 Brushy Peak Regional Preserve. This park is open to the public south of Brushy Peak, one of the peaks north of Livermore. There are a few trails that go around the park's small valleys, canyons, and small, cow-pond reservoirs. Near the south of the park is a quite large but temporary lake which is usually either half-full or completely dry — a sign of how desertlike the area really is.
- 5 Coyote Hills Regional Park. This park is in a group of small hills close to the San Francisco Bay. There's also a marshy area in the park, which you can walk through by using the boardwalk. The Coyote Hills trail network also extends past some salt evaporation ponds right out to the bay itself.
- 6 Del Valle Regional Park (There are a couple entrances to the park; the main one is at the southern end of Lake Del Valle, and is accessible by taking Mines Road to the south, which becomes Del Valle Road and leads to the park's camping and southern staging area). This park goes around the Del Valle Reservoir. The park has many oak woodlands, canyons, grasslands, and rocky cliffs, making it one of the region's more scenic destinations. A trail leads along the eastern side of the lake from the northern end to the southern end; it's a really long, exhausting hike but provides some excellent views of the lake, particularly when it crosses a ridge at the northern end of Del Valle Park (see picture to the right).
- 7 Las Trampas Regional Wilderness. Las Trampas is a fairly large park with quite a few trails. It is west of the San Ramon-Danville metropolitan area, making it fairly easy to reach if you're in the Tri-Valley area. Ridges in the park mean that there can be quite a lot of elevation increase involved if you're going to hike there.
- 8 Mission Peak Regional Preserve. This is probably the most popular of all the East Bay Regional Parks: thousands of people climb Mission Peak each weekend. If you don't want to feel like one in thousands climbing the mountain, you can ascend the peak from the Ohlone College or start your climb very early in the morning. The main trail that goes up Mission Peak is also the western end of the Ohlone Trail.
- 9 Morgan Territory Regional Preserve (From Livermore, take Livermore Avenue north toward the hills. After Livermore Avenue swings around to the west, you should soon come to the Morgan Territories road (to your right) that leads north to a summit in the hills. When you reach the summit, you will see the main staging area for the park). A lot of this park is on a high plateau, and its trails connect with the trails in Mount Diablo State Park. The park has plenty of woodlands, grasslands, and regions where flat trails are rare.
- 10 Ohlone Regional Wilderness. This is the location of the Ohlone Wilderness Trail, which leads across many mountain ranges near Del Valle, Sunol, and Mission Peak parkland areas. While these mountain ranges are only a few thousand feet high, the number of them makes this trail an extremely tiring multiple-day hike. For more information about the trail, see the Ohlone Trail listing below.
- 11 Pleasanton Ridge Regional Park. A quite popular hiking destination that is on the same general mountain range as Las Trampas. The hikes start on the western side of the ridge, with the trailheads at varying elevations. The ridge itself is not very high compared to Mount Diablo but still a fair amount of climbing is necessary to get to the top.
- 12 Sunol Regional Wilderness (Take Calaveras Road south, and turn left on Geary Road for the visitor center and main staging area). This park has some very rugged, mountainous territory south of Pleasanton. Sunol is one of the parks with plenty of former ranch roads that have been converted into wide trails that go up and down the ridges. A lot of these can be hard going, with the exception of the Camp Ohlone Trail that follows the route of the creek.
- 13 Los Vaqueros Watershed (There are entrances from both the north and the south; the southern entrance is a popular fishing destination, but both entrances include trailheads). This parkland area is open to the public on the western side of the large Los Vaqueros Reservoir. The hikes on the southwest side of the lake and those west of Cowboy Cove are easier than those immediately west of the dam, which are the most difficult. There are also a couple fairly easy hikes near a creek north of the reservoir.
- 14 Mount Diablo State Park (A couple roads (North and South Gate Road) go up the mountain. Also, a road goes high up on the mountain, close to the top of the peak, so you don't have to hike far to reach the top). This is a quite well-known state park on the largest mountain in the East Bay, Mount Diablo. The prominence and height of the mountain means that you can see chaparral-type flora not typical in much of the East Bay.
- 15 Sycamore Grove Park/Veterans Park. This park has some sycamore woodlands and small, grass-covered hills. There are some trails that lead through it, including a paved trail (closed during much of 2018) and some unpaved trails. A creek runs through the middle of it, meaning that much of Sycamore Grove is on a flat plain; however, some of the park is in hills. The southeastern portion of Sycamore Grove Park, which is close to a veterans' hospital, is called Veterans Park. There is no fee to enter Sycamore Grove, just to park your car there. If you really want to save money, you can take your car to the free parking at Independence Park (Holmes Street) and then take a trail to Sycamore Grove.
East Bay Regional Park trails are usually in networks with other trails, all of which are inside a particular East Bay Regional Park. This should make planning a hike in the East Bay relatively simple - you just need to get to a park, find one of the park maps, and plan a hike that matches the distance you want to do. Some parks have larger trail networks than others, with Briones Regional Park and Las Trampas Regional Park having more trails than Dublin Hills Regional Park, for example.
- Arroyo del Valle Trail (Sycamore Grove Park). This 2.5-mile (4 km) paved trail is a relatively easy hike. The path goes by plenty of sycamore trees and two along the way. The first two miles of the trail are in Sycamore Grove Park, and the final half-mile of the trail is in Veterans Park.
- East Shore Trail. Goes along the eastern shore of Lake Del Valle.
- 1 Iron Horse Regional Trail. 40 mi (64 km) This trail goes through a lot of city regions, including the Tri-Valley.
- Ohlone Trail (Accessible from Del Valle Regional Park and Sunol Regional Wilderness). This is a very long, difficult trail that goes through the mountainous country south of Pleasanton and Livermore. The trail itself is accessible from Del Valle Regional Park and then continues through several canyons and mountain ridges for many miles, passes through Sunol Regional Wilderness, and then eventually goes to Mission Peak and Fremont. If you want to do the whole trail, the smartest thing to do would probably be to camp somewhere along the trail and make it a two- or three- day journey.
The East Bay region is quite easy to access by car because it is connected to several freeways and highways. I-580 enters the region from both the western and eastern sides and the I-680 enters the region from the northern and southern sides. (Both of these freeways usually have traffic jams during rush hours, however.) Once you leave the freeways numerous country roads that lead to the East Bay Regional Parks and trails.
There is a general pattern when driving to one of the local parks: on your way to them, you will usually take a fairly wide road in one of the East Bay cities, but will eventually find yourself on a country road that leads to some ranches and a staging area, where you can begin your hike. Most of the local parks do not have any grand entrances or fancy visitor centers—you come to hike and view the scenery.
Fees and permits
Some of the parks require fees to enter, while others do not. Some parks will also provide passes for the local people, and these help the locals save money if they come to the park regularly.
Generally, you do not need permits to enter a park or enter a part of it; however, there are exceptions. For example, Brushy Peak Regional Preserve is largely open to the public; however, the area around the peak itself, where there are no trails, requires special permission to reach. To hike in Ohlone Regional Wilderness, you need a permit, which is easy to purchase at the main entrance to Del Valle Regional Park.
Most of the parks consist of grasslands, oak-covered areas, and a combination of shrubs and small trees called chaparral. The western part of the East Bay is more tree-covered than the eastern sections, which are closer to the Central Valley.
The general pattern of the landscapes in the American West, which is desert at low elevations and forested land in the mountains, is generally not the case in California and the East Bay is the same. However, those who are in the East Bay will notice that while some of the lower hills near the Altamont Pass are very desert-like, the higher mountain ranges like Mount Diablo and those around Del Valle have noticeably more trees than the lower hills.
Note that most of the photos of the hills in the area are deceptive: they are nearly all taken during wet period of winter or spring to capture the hills when the grass is green, making the area look lush. However, during much of the year (May to October at the least; March/April to December at the most), these hills are gold-colored because the grass has dried out, waiting for either a wildfire to burn them or the rainy season to begin in October to December.
Some of the cities in the East Bay have more trees than would be expected, and this presents the illusion that the area has a wetter climate than it really does. The trees in the cities are almost all kept alive by irrigation, and naturally (as in the times when the area was inhabited by only Native Americans) there would be far fewer trees in the areas that are now densely populated.
Eat and drink
Many of the parks have picnic benches or other nice picnic spots, so you can make your hike enjoyable by bringing a picnic lunch with you. The exceptions to this recommendation are smaller parks, like Dublin Hills, where your hike will not be long enough that you need to bring your own lunch.
Generally, parks that are close to the cities (like Sycamore Grove Park) have plenty of picnic benches, while some of the wilder parks in the EBRPD have very few, if any, picnic benches and picnic areas. If you're in a park without many picnic benches, either go to a staging area or look for the picnic symbol on a map. (On EBRPD maps, the picnic symbol is like a picnic bench viewed from the side.)
Getting lost in parks with many trails can be quite easy. To avoid losing your way, you should take a map if you go to any of the EBRPD parks; the East Bay Regional Parks District produces maps of all of its park areas, along with maps of certain trails and particular regions of popular parks. Their maps are consistent in design and will help you not lose your way. EBRPD maps are on their website in a printable format, so you can print one before you go on your hike.
It is of course easier to lose your way in a woodland than a grassland. In most cases, woodlands will exist inside canyons and/or around creeks, so if you're lost in the woods near a creek, getting to a grassy area will make it easier to know where you are. (But also remember that you should stay on trails when possible.)
If you're lost, there's always the possibility that you have left park boundaries. This would be rare, since as long as you stay on the trails you will almost definitely still be in the park. However, East Bay parks often connect with other parks (for example, Los Vaqueros Watershed and Round Valley are connect), and if you don't see your location or trail on the map you may actually now in a different park altogether.
When you reach an intersection in basically any park in the East Bay, you'll come to a post that will tell which trail you're on and which trail you've reached. Therefore, if you are lost (but still in the park) and you reach a trail intersection, you will be able to spot the intersection on the map.
Mountain lions are the biggest safety issue, particularly in the more remote parks. If you encounter a mountain lion, stay courageous and try to scare it way by extending your arms and legs to look as large as possible, make a lot of noise, and throw sticks and stones. You can reduce your chances of encountering a mountain lion if you avoid hiking during the early morning and late evening and you stay on trails where more people will be hiking.
Another wildlife-related problem, particularly during the summer, is with the rattlesnakes that live in the country areas of the East Bay. If you stay on trails of decent width, stay close to the center of the paths, and watch where you are going, rattlesnakes are not as likely to cause problems because you will be more able to spot them. Also, keep in mind that not all of the snakes in the area are rattlesnakes: only the ones with rattlers at the back are rattlesnakes. However, as a general precaution, stay as far away as possible from all snakes in case you are near a rattlesnake.
While these two species can be a problem in any of the local parks, parks like Sycamore Grove will be safer than, for example, Ohlone Wilderness; however, even in Sycamore Grove the mountain lions and rattlesnakes can be a dangerous problem that becomes life-threatening occasionally when an encounter takes place.
- Del Valle Regional Park – this is one of the larger East Bay Regional Parks, including several trails near Lake Del Valle
- Ohlone Regional Wilderness – wild country south of the Tri-Valley; the location of the Ohlone Trail
- Sierra Nevada — this is California's main hiking destination, with many parks including Yosemite, King's Canyon, and Sequoia. It is across the Central Valley and is a few hours' drive away, but is worth a few days of your hiking trip with its dramatic canyons, valleys, mountain ranges, high peaks, and pine forests.