ORINDA -- ORINDA Oh, I suppose I’m going to have to tell you about the Briones Reservoir Loop.
Much as I’d like to hoard this trail to keep hordes of hikers, equestrian and trail runners from descending, much as I’d like to suppress widespread knowledge of its lovely, tree-shaded single track, smooth, undulating fire roads and a captivating view from Sobrante Ridge, my boss insists I must share.
Four times I’ve completed the 13.1-mile loop around this lovely man-made body of water in the foothills northeast of Contra Costa County’s most exclusive enclave, and I’ve encountered a total of only five trail users. For someone accustomed to the well-trod trails in the American River Canyon and Folsom Lake, these treks were occasions for revelatory solitude. I knew that people do populate the reservoir loop, because the sign-in page at the staging area was half-full and because, well, I had to hop over some equine deposits along the way.
Comparatively, though, the Briones Loop nearly qualifies as a “secret” for in-the-know East Bay locals. That might be changing, though. Last summer, Inside Trail Racing, a Bay Area running company, staged the inaugural Reservoir Dogs 35K around Briones and part of neighboring San Pablo Reservoir. (The second running will be on July 5.)
Briones’ relatively low profile stems from it being belonging to the East Bay Municipal Water District, which, in typical utility-company fashion, requires trail users to buy a yearly pass (only $10, but still ...), carry said pass with them at all times while on the trails and sign in (with their permit number and your license-plate number) at the staging areas. To many, that’s just off-putting, too much hassle when so many Northern California trails abound sans restrictions.
Another, albeit lesser, reason Briones isn’t more well known is that it often is confused with Briones Regional Park, a neighboring but separate entity run by the East Bay Regional Parks District.
And then there’s the fact that EBMUD doesn’t actively promote its various trails surrounding their watersheds (in San Leandro, San Pablo, Lafayette and, farther afield, Camanche Reservoir and Mokelumne River, all accessible with that single $10 permit fee).
Andrea Pook, an EBMUD spokeswoman, said 6,680 people are currently permit holders, and she adds that, anecdotally, Lafayette Reservoir attracts the most users, probably because the main trail is paved and there are picnic facilities and fishing and boating options. Briones, however, only allows trail use for those on foot or horseback (no bikes; and dogs are allowed only on the fire roads that make up the Oursan Trail.) You aren’t allowed to dip so much as a toe in the water even on the hottest days.
“Our main business is still water,” said Pook, when asked why Briones is underused by outdoors types. “So we don’t actively recruit users. We’re not like East Bay Regional Parks. That’s not our mission. … I don’t think there’s a purposeful thought that we don’t want people there. We just open the land up. It is protected, and we just want to make sure people respect the land the way we respect the land. That’s our focus, regardless of the number of people using it.”
She said the primary reason for the $10 permit fee is to “keep tabs on who’s in there. … It’s really for their safety and for us to monitor who’s using the watershed and make sure there’s nothing, you know, (illegal) going on. And we have their personal info on file. So if something were to happen on the trail, we’d know about them. It’s a way of tracking.”
Not tracking, as in NSA surveillance; nothing that nefarious. Pook means that MUD workers can rescue someone if, perchance, they injure themselves on the trail. That’s actually a comforting thought, since the loop is a long trek with sometimes many miles between the three staging areas.
But the loop is hardly dangerous going. Starting at the Briones Overlook Staging Area, the first 3.5 miles miles to the east on the Bear Creek Trail is shaded single track along a wooded ridge overlooking the south finger of the reservoir. You’ll pass an array of groves – coast live oak, pine, willow and madrone. Unless you’re really distracted by the variety of foliage, there’s no danger of careening down a ravine to the reservoir. You might trip on some exposed roots, though.
Enjoy that early single track, especially if you attempt the loop in the summer, because it’s all you’ll get until the tail end of the trek. When you reach the Bear Creek Staging Area at 4 miles, you’ll cross through a creek (unseasonably dry in late December) and climb to meet up with the start of the Oursan Trail. (If, by some chance, you mistakenly continue straight on the Bear Creek Trail, you wind up in Briones Regional Park’s version of Bear Creek Trail headed toward Lafayette.)
You’ll stay on the Oursan Trail, dirt fire roads that have just a tiny bit of crumbling asphalt in a few scattered stretches, for the next 9 miles. But it’s not a slog. You alternate from exposed grassland hillsides and tree-shaded coves, six to my count. If you’re attempting it in summer or early fall, you’ll appreciate the detours down into the cooler coves. Dogs are allowed on the Oursan Trail, but I saw nary a one in four trips along the path.
The trail hugs the shore until you pass the junction with the Hampton Trail (and staging area) about 8.5 miles into the trek. That’s when the scenery changes once more, and you make a prolonged climb to where, part of the year, cows roam. Even with those big bovine eyes starting at you, you feel thrillingly alone on this stretch, away from roads, out of the flight paths for airplanes, not even within sight or sound of the waterfowl skimming across the reservoir.
Eventually, you’ll wind up atop Sobrante Ridge, where wildflowers bloom in the spring and clusters of oaks provide shade for those needing a respite. The view of the reservoir below is panoramic, with Mount Diablo in the distance to the east. Look the other way, and the San Pablo Reservoir stretches out in a crooked finger below, framed by the foothills leading to Berkeley’s Tilden Park.
The eye candy, alas, abruptly ends as you make your way downhill in the final 2 miles. You’ll pass a series of looming power-line towers. After going through two cattle gates, you bottom out at what looks like a construction or dumping area on your left. The Oursan Trail unofficially ends at this point, but do not take any of the jutting side trails meandering off toward San Pablo. Stay on what becomes a gravel road,which leads to the dam. After crossing the damn, stay on the now-paved road for perhaps 100 feet, until you see a marker for the single-track Bear Creek Trail on the left. That’s the way back to the Overlook staging area less than a half-mile away.
Heading back to my car, I stopped at the sign-in kiosk and was surprised to see two other trail users had logged their names after me.
Already, the secret’s getting out.
Call The Bee’s Sam McManis, (916) 321-1145. Follow him on Twitter @SamMcManis.