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  • MANNY CRISOSTOMO / mcrisostomo@sacbee.com

    The French Trail weaves through the aptly named Redwood Regional Park in Oakland. This park is mostly shaded year-round.

  • MANNY CRISOSTOMO / mcrisostomo@sacbee.com

    The popularity of the three Oakland hills parks is the only drawback to running the trails there.

Great Treks: The East Bay's many miles of trails lure hikers into the verdant hills

Published: Thursday, Nov. 10, 2011 - 12:00 am | Page 1D
Last Modified: Sunday, Nov. 13, 2011 - 1:32 pm

Tell someone you're going for a hike in Oakland, and you're liable to receive all sorts of snarky comments.

Be more specific and tell them you'll be trekking in the Oakland hills, not the notoriously harsh urban milieu of the city, and then they'll understand. Oh, right, forgot about that part of Oakland.

Snobbish outdoors types from Marin, Auburn, Santa Cruz or Redding might disagree, but the view from here is that some of the best trails in the state can be found in the miles of hilly expanse ranging from Richmond to the cusp of Castro Valley – all courtesy of the East Bay Regional Park District.

The three-mile French Trail alone is transcendent, weaving through the heart of aptly-named Redwood Regional Park in Oakland. Mostly shaded year-round, this forested canyon is vertically challenging but worth every micro-tear in your quadriceps muscle. You get it all: tall redwoods, dappled sunlight, running streams, lush hazelnut leaves, bay laurels, oaks, madrones and other foliage too numerous to catalog.

Even little-known offshoots can offer surprises. The Arroyo Trail in Berkeley's Tilden Regional Park, at slightly less than a mile, offers the visual and olfactory treat of nonnative eucalyptus and Monterey pine trees, with the pine needles offering a spongy carpet on the trail this time of year.

Best of all, from Wildcat Canyon Regional Park to the north in Richmond to Anthony Chabot Regional Park to the south near Castro Valley, the trail system connects directly via the East Bay National Trail or circuitously through scores of linked trails, side routes and offshoots.

Along the way, there are botanical gardens to explore, petting farms and steam trains and merry-go-rounds for the kids, lakes to swim, shooting and archery ranges, mountain-bike friendly routes and equestrian staging areas galore.

The signage is better than you'll find on most freeways – though those who are directionally challenged (me) still might get lost occasionally. But the great thing is that these trails are so well-traveled that you're bound to find someone to eventually set you back on the correct path.

The popularity also is the only drawback. Locals flock to Tilden, Sibley and Redwood parks. The trails play host to a number of ultramarathon runs almost every weekend in the summer and fall.

For some well-to-do swells living in manses in the hills, it's almost their backyard. Dogs often outnumber humans or horses, and apparently their owners spend so much on their mortgages that they can't afford leashes.

There have been periodic run-ins between dogs and horses, the most tragic being the 2008 death of a horse (and severe injury to its rider) after unleashed dogs forced it off the French Trail and down a ravine.

Most times, though, trail users co-exist peacefully and without incident.

A first-time visitor to the Oakland Hills trails (the shorthand most use for the entire area) might be overwhelmed by options. After consulting Bay Area trail experts, we picked three treks that cover most of the highlights.

The first is a 7.5-mile loop through the central and southern sections of Tilden Park. This one has the most sustained hill climbing of the three we picked, but the three-mile ascent to the top will result spectacular views of the bay and San Francisco (provided there's no fog) and, turning to look behind you, a gorgeous view of the San Pablo Reservoir and the verdant (or brown, depending on the time of year) hills of Orinda.

Don't be discouraged by the initial climb, which begins at the Lone Oak picnic area and follows the fire roads up the Canyon Meadow Trail and then climbs even higher on the Seaview Trail. There's not much to see, foliagewise, until you make the sharp right turn down the Arroyo Trail. (If you keep going straight on the Seaview Trail, it will turn into a paved path that leads in another half-mile to the Redwood Valley Railway and Golden Gate Live Steamers steam train rides for kids).

Suddenly, you are plunged downward into single-track, tree-canopied heaven. In slightly less than a mile, that trail spits you out back into reality – the Big Springs picnic area and the paved South Park Drive. You only need to go one-tenth of a mile on the pavement (there's a dirt shoulder, too) before picking up the Quarry Trail, which flattens out and gives trail runners a chance to put in some speed work on a carpet of pine needles.

Those not concerned with speed can watch golfers hacking away down in the valley on the left. The Quarry Trail eventually leads back to the Seaview Trail, but you only retrace your steps (going downhill this time) for less than a half mile on Seaview before making a sharp left (after crossing Wildcat Canyon Road) onto the Curran Trail.

It's all downhill for six-tenths of a mile until you make a right at Wildcat Gorge for the final mile back to the Lone Oak picnic area. Wildcat Gorge runs parallel to a stream and, on the day we traversed it, was overrun by dogs and their straggling owners.

Our second trek is either eight or 16 miles – depending on whether you want to do an out-and-back or have someone drop you off at one trailhead and pick you up at the turn-around point.

This time, park at the Steam Trains lot in Tilden Park. Assuming you can pry your kids from the train rides, start by crossing Lomas Cantadas Road and following the trail sign down a single-track that wends its way for 1.5 miles through East Bay Municipal Utility District land. Once you cross the Fish Ranch Road intersection, you resume the single-track trail over the Caldecott Tunnel (you won't be able to tell when you cross it; the freeway is not visible) into Sibley Volcanic Regional Preserve.

Rock hounds will particularly enjoy this stretch, though its jagged terrain will be tough on the feet. You need to save strength for the Huckleberry Botanic Regional Preserve, a winding, hilly stretch chock-full of its namesake.

Eventually, you will emerge at the opening to Redwood Regional Park. Bear right to the Skyline Gate trailhead. You can't miss it: big parking lot, water fountains, clean bathrooms.

You could be excused for wanting to pack it in at that point – and you can if you were dropped off at the steam trains. Those making the return trip will get another chance to visit the huckleberries and the volcanic rock. The bad news? It's more uphill on the way back.

The third trek features the star of the East Bay trail system, the French Trail.

Start at Skyline Gate and head a half-mile on the West Ridge Trail, a fire road. The French Trail sign is on the left, just past a park bench. You plunge down like Alice descending into Wonderland. The next three miles are up and down, twists and turns, as you are enveloped in green.

Because the French Trail is winding and has so many junctions with other paths, you must be mindful of the trail signs lest you get lost.

It happened to me at 1.3 miles on French when the trail bottoms out in a four-way fork. To the far right is the Redwood Peak Trail, the far left the Starflower Trail, uphill to the right the continuation of the Starflower Trail. You want to veer left up a rise, staying on the French.

From there, it's another two miles to the Chown Trail, where you'll make a right and follow the switchbacks uphill for seven-tenths of a mile to West Ridge. Turn right and follow the West Ridge fire road back to Skyline Gate. You'll pass through the Chabot Space and Science Center and the Redwood Bowl amphitheater.

All three of these treks – especially the French Trail loop – will leave you satisfyingly tired, so blissed out you won't really mind fighting Bay Area freeway traffic back to Sacramento.

EAST BAY REGIONAL PARKS – TILDEN, SIBLEY, REDWOOD

* TILDEN SEAVIEW LOOP

Trail: 7.5 miles

Directions to trailhead: Take Interstate 80 to the Albany exit. Turn left on the frontage road, left on Buchanan Street, right on Marin Avenue for 2.5 miles. Turn left on Grizzly Peak Boulevard, then right on Wildcat Canyon. Take an immediate left on Canon Drive, then a right on Central Park Drive. Turn left into Lone Oak parking area.

Route: From the trailhead, go 1.5 miles on the Canyon Meadows Trail. Cross Wildcat Canyon Road and go about 2 miles on the Seaview Trail. Near the apex of the climb, turn right onto the Arroyo Trail and take it 0.83 miles to the Big Springs picnic area. Go right on the shoulder of the paved South Park Drive to the Quarry Trail. Take the Quarry Trail 0.81 miles to the Big Springs Trail, 0.21 miles. Turn left on the Seaview Trail, heading downhill, cross Wildcat Canyon Road and make a sharp left onto the Curran Trail (0.62 miles). Turn right at the Wildcat Gorge Trail and return to the Lone Oak trailhead.

Difficulty: Strenuous uphill on Canyon Meadows; the rest is moderate..

* STEAM TRAINS TO SIBLEY TO SKYLINE GATE

Trail: 16 miles, out and back.

Directions to trailhead: Take I-80 to I-680 to Highway 24. Exit at Fish Ranch Road (the last exit before the Caldecott Tunnel), go about a mile and turn right on Grizzly Peak Boulevard. Make a left on Lomas Cantadas and park in the Steam Trains lot.

Route: From the Steam Trains, cross Lomas Cantadas and take the single-track trail marked with the Bay Area Ridge/Skyline Trail post. Go 1.5 miles and cross Fish Ranch Road to resume the singletrack. Travel another 2 miles to the Sibley Staging Area. Make a left, continuing on the Bay Area Ridge Trail, winding through the Huckleberry Botanic Regional Preserve for about 2.8 miles to Pinehurst Road. Cross and continue on the trail another 0.2 miles to the Skyline Gate. Turn around and retrace steps.

Difficulty: Moderate

* FRENCH TRAIL LOOP

Trail: 7.5 miles

Directions to trailhead: Take I-80 to I-680 to Highway 24. Exit at Fish Ranch Road, turn left on Grizzly Peak Boulevard. Turn left on Skyline Road. Park at the Skyline Gate Staging Area just past Pine Hills Drive.

Route: From the trailhead, go 0.5 miles on the West Ridge Trail. Turn left on the French Trail. Go about 3 miles to the Chown Trail. Veer slightly right and go uphill and around switchbacks to the West Ridge Trail. Turn right and return on West Ridge for about 3 miles.

Difficulty: Strenuous (on French Trail and Chown segments), easy (on West Ridge)

Water and toilets: Yes, at Lone Oak, Steam Trains, Sibley, Skyline Gate and on the West Ridge Trail at Redwood Bowl and Chabot Space and Science Center.

Poison oak probability: Medium

Varmints: Lots of unleashed dogs

Will there be blood? Everything except the fire roads are technical single-track, with rocks and roots. Step carefully.

Probability of getting lost: Good signage

Make a day of it: You don't even have to leave the parks to make a day of it. For kids, there's the steam trains, the Little Farm and the Chabot Space and Science Center. Picnic areas abound. You also can do a self-guided tour of the Round Top volcanoes in Sibley. Check out the stone volcanic blocks strewn everywhere, dating back 10 million years. Numbered posts on Round Top point out the geologic wonders.

© Copyright The Sacramento Bee. All rights reserved.

Read more articles by Sam McManis



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