Trail purists, those for whom asphalt is anathema, would scoff at calling any trek "great" if it consists entirely of paved pathways.
No matter how bucolic the setting, how challenging the terrain, how popular the route among hikers and runners and their canine companions, if the purists can't get dusty or muddy and actually commune with the very soil of the earth, they just won't bother.
Point taken. But here in a wet (so far) winter, when many hikers and runners grow weary of slogging through slop that turns trails from technical to treacherous, even the hardiest souls, and soles, can long for surer footing and a relatively dry path.
Which is why, heresy or no, this month's Great Trek is the Lafayette Reservoir Shore Trail, a 2.7-mile paved loop that, though hard by a major Bay Area freeway and a BART station, still can give you that feeling of getting back to nature.
This is the perfect "starter trail" challenging but not backbreaking for those vowing to hoist themselves off the couch and get moving in the new year. Bowing to the hardest of the hard core your 100-mile ultrarunners and Tahoe Rim Trail regulars there is a longer and steeper 4.7-mile Rim Trail loop hovering above the reservoir. Consisting of unpaved fire roads, it affords gorgeous views of Mount Diablo and the million-dollar homes of Lafayette and neighboring Moraga.
But that trail is for another, drier day.
Today, we feature the Shore Trail, which even on weekday mornings is packed with hikers of the two- and four-legged variety.
Nearly all the trekkers out on this morning, the day after a drenching rainstorm in the East Bay, seemed to be locals from the tony troika of bedroom communities that people here call "Lamorinda." (That's Lafayette, Moraga and Orinda, where if you have to ask the price of a home, you can't afford it.) How could one tell? Lots of SUVs, Lexuses and Mercedes-Benzes in the parking lot.
Maybe because the reservoir is tucked away on a hillside and not visible from Highway 24, not many out-of-towners know about it and you get the impression that Lamorindans like it that way.
Not that they are standoffish, exactly, just that the entire loop has a back-fence, town-square vibe in which old acquaintances are renewed and gossip is dispensed. Running in my 2009 Sacramento Cowtown Marathon T-shirt, I got some startled looks from the locals swaddled in fleece and Lycra even though the morning temperature exceeded 50 degrees. Who knows? Maybe they expected me to be running with a stem of hay sticking out of my mouth?
The rich may not be like you and me, but even they need their exercise. (They can't outsource workouts, can they?)
So what draws locals off their treadmills and out to the Res?
"It's like being on a postcard," said Sandy Cameron, a Lafayette resident. "It's beautiful here. There's camaraderie. Sometimes my husband and I count dogs on the trail. The highest we've gotten is 78 dogs. I think that was on the day after Thanksgiving."
Wilder animals are what attracts a Lafayette couple, Vicky Windle and Matt Buster.
"The wildlife is great," Windle said. "I've seen deer, wild turkeys, right there in your path, bunny rabbits, crows and ducks. On a Saturday, there are tons of people with dogs. Walking your dog is neat because you have friendly visits between the dogs."
Oh, and as for the workout? Windle and Buster said the path, traversing a series of undulating hills with very few flat sections, presents a challenge akin to walking a roller-coaster track.
"I love the route," Windle said. "It has a lot of hills, which gives you a good interval training, which is awesome."
Or awful, for those who fear hills. But really, the constantly changing topography is what elevates (pun intended) this path from, say, the blander sections of the American River Parkway in Sacramento.
Going east to west, it doesn't take long (one-tenth of a mile) to hit the first rise. There are two major hills, the first about a mile in, the second just past the two-mile mark. (The path, by the way, is well marked at each quarter-mile.)
A bit of advice to many of the walkers seen chuffing up the steep rises: That's when you really need to use your arm swing. An uphill stretch is not the time to clasp your hands behind your back and lean far forward; you're only making it harder on yourself.
Unlike the American River Parkway, where runners and hikers are supposed to go on the left side of the paved trail and leave the right to the cyclists, all reservoir traffic flows as it does on the street, divided by a yellow line in the middle.
One quibble: The dreaded extension leashes for dogs were omnipresent, and they essentially cordoned off the width of the trail for those coming up fast from behind. But even gaggles of mothers with small children, chatting it up at a leisurely pace, were good about moving aside when a speedier traveler politely uttered the universal "On your left!" warning.
For runners, the reservoir is perfect for hill intervals. There are enough variations in hill length and height to keep one from getting bored. The downside is that the trail is only 2.7 miles, but the easy solution is doing laps. I ran three laps (8.1 miles) at my half-marathon pace and felt pleasantly wrung out by the end. Looking at my heart-rate data later, I could certainly tell where the hills were placed.
A bonus for runners is that you get to eavesdrop on snippets of talk as you chug past. And believe me, I felt as though I had stepped into an episode of "The Real Housewives of Lamorinda." On my first lap, I passed two women and caught this nugget: "I said to him, 'What about your wife?' " That inspired me to pick up the pace to catch the two women on the second go-round so I could hear something more salacious. Alas, the sentence I heard on Lap 2 was fairly banal: "That's not the way I raise my kids."
Everybody, it seemed, was talking on the trail, which broke the tedium of doing laps. Even those exercising solo were yakking it up on hands-free cell phones. I heard a middle-aged man, walking toward me, almost yelling, "You're gonna have to bring that up with HR first!" For a moment, I thought he was talking to me.
My favorite eavesdropped line, though, almost made me crash into an oak tree. A woman of a certain age told a companion, "It was her third husband who died of a heart attack."
Admit it: You just don't hear that kind of juicy stuff out on some dusty trail in the middle of a forest. Sometimes, your best trails are paved with adventure and great dialogue.
LAFAYETTE RESERVOIR SHORE TRAIL
Length: 2.7 miles
Elevation gain/fall: 112-foot ascent, 108-foot descent
Directions: From Sacramento, take Interstate 80 west to I-680 on the edge of Fairfield, then go south over the Benicia Bridge to Highway 24 west. Exit at Acalanes/Upper Happy Valley Road in Lafayette. Circle around under the freeway and turn left (east) on Mount Diablo Boulevard for eight-tenths of a mile. Turn right into the reservoir entrance and follow the road uphill to parking lot.
Parking: $6 day pass (use the automated machine to pay) or two-hour parking meters that take quarters.
Hours: Open all year from 6:30 a.m. to at least 5:30 p.m., and later in the spring and summer when there's more daylight.
Dogs and horses? Dogs must be on a leash; no equestrians.
Route: The Shore Trail is a paved loop around the reservoir; going east-to-west is recommended. The final four-tenths of a mile on the west end is open to traffic going to a boat dock, but not many cars travel on it.
For a longer route: In spring and summer, head up from the parking lot to the 4.7-mile Rim Trail smooth and graded fire roads and wide paths that lead to some challenging hills. From the Rim Trail's high point at 1,020 feet, you get a nice view of Mount Diablo to the east and the Oakland hills to the west.
Wheelchair-accessible? The Shore Trail, yes; the Rim Trail, no.
Difficulty: The Shore Trail is easy to moderate, with some short but steep hills. The Rim Trail is moderate to strenuous, with a 554-foot elevation gain over 4.7 miles.
Water and toilets: The Shore Trail has three toilets and four water fountains. There is a wheelchair-accessible vault toilet at the edge of the parking lot.
Poison oak probability: Extremely low.
Will there be blood? On the Shore Trail, those with poor balance might want to pay attention to a severe camber and slope to the right at various spots. Otherwise, it's extremely safe.
Probability of getting lost: Extremely low (many signs and markers every quarter-mile).
Make a day of it: If you're hungry, go to the Rising Loafer Cafe and Bakery (3643 Mount Diablo Blvd.), open from 8 a.m. to 3 p.m. Or, in the Safeway Shopping Center across the street on Mount Diablo Boulevard, there's the trio of Noah's Bagels, Peet's Coffee & Tea and Jamba Juice. For shopping, you can hop on BART and head west to the Rockridge section of Oakland or go east to downtown Walnut Creek.
SEND US YOUR IDEAS
Great Treks and its companion, Great Rides, are Outbound features that invite readers to enjoy the region's outdoors by bicycle and on foot. Have a suggestion for a route or another kind of great outdoors experience? Send an e-mail to firstname.lastname@example.org.