WALNUT CREEK – In retrospect, maybe my first clue that I was no longer running on the Ridge Top Trail here at Shell Ridge Open Space was that there was no freakin' ridge anywhere within sight.
Somehow, I had left the winding, single-track ridge that cuts through the spine of this Bay Area suburban oasis and descended onto an unmarked fire road going the same direction, west, but nowhere near the dizzying heights that promised to show off gorgeous views of Walnut Creek and inland Contra Costa County.
Instead, the trail eventually led me to Sulfur Creek Pond.
As its name implies, said pond was smelly and bile-green, marked with a big sign in red letters warning people away from swimming in it or drinking the water.
Where the heck was I?
Sulfur Creek was not on part of the trail directions I had scrawled on a Post-It note and tucked into my shorts. My map? It was resting comfortably on the seat of my car at the trailhead about three miles east.
The obvious choice was to retrace my steps to where I last saw the wooden signpost for the Ridge Top Trail, but it was getting hot and a half-mile of backtracking didn't appeal. I vowed to push on, heading southwest toward the hills. Eventually, I figured, a connector trail would lead me back to the correct path.
Let me stop right here and say: Don't do this, readers.
Don't be a chucklehead like me and think, "Oh, the right trail is just up this rise. OK, maybe the next one." Next thing you know, you're in Danville.
Let me be a cautionary tale, then, the lesson being that when running or hiking a trail new to you, always bring a map. Even on a trail system with signage as anal-retentively thorough as the city of Walnut Creek provides, the directionally challenged trekker needs a cheat sheet, just in case.
Though I had neither, I eventually found my way back to the Ridge Top Trail – then stupidly lost track of it again as I neared a water tank, failing to see that the trail took a sharp right and descended down and around the tank.
I actually cut time and mileage off the trek with that second mistake, as well as a third error – making a turn too soon off the Fossil Trail later in the adventure.
But I wound up getting that mileage back, and then some, near the end of the sojourn, when I made an inadvertent right turn off the Briones-Mount Diablo Trail (the main drag of the open space) and found myself on something called the Hanging Valley Trail on East Bay Regional Park land, heading toward Mount Diablo. I did backtrack in that case, because I was running out of water and patience by that point.
It's always a wonderful sight to see one's car waiting for you at the trailhead after conjuring images of yourself perishing in the dust like the hero of Frank Norris' novel "McTeague."
So, to recap, getting lost is always a possibility while hiking or trail running. It's how you react once you recognize your wayward path that matters. You can either bring a map with you, or you can be a doofus and rely on memory or a Post-It note to pull you through.
(Aside about the Post-It: The squares of paper may be great for to-do lists, but they don't hold up well on the trail. After a few miles in my sweaty hand, the ink had run and the writing became indecipherable.)
I'm happy to report that, two days later, sorer but smarter, I returned to the trail and completed the correct course with nary a single false step.
It's a nine-mile loop through the heart of Shell Ridge Open Space, a trail system of 31 miles with paths snaking off every which way, all well marked. Walnut Creek was smart enough to save this swath of oak-studded foothills from the housing developments that engulfed the rest of the area.
So here, with complete confidence, I present the trail description. Have I regained your trust so that you'll heed my directions? Even if you don't, the map accompanying this story is most assuredly correct – because it came from the city itself.
You park at the Castle Rock Recreation Area trailhead, an equestrian-friendly dirt parking lot a mile or so past the vast vestiges of strip-mall suburban sprawl. Begin your trek just beyond the cattle gate on the south end of the parking lot. This is the Castle Rock Trail, which you follow for the first seven-tenths of a mile. It starts as a fire road, climbs slightly to single track, then returns to fire road at the first junction, the Shell Ridge Loop, anchored by a giant boulder to the right. After two-tenths of a mile, turn left while staying on the Shell loop for another four-tenths of a mile.
The first major intersection is the Briones-Mount Diablo Trail, a well-manicured, rolling-hill fire road. Turn right and travel on it past the Borges Ranch Trail on the right. Eventually, you'll see a post with an arrow heading skyward. It says Ridge Top Trail. Hang a right and begin a steady but not-exactly-lung-busting climb for a mile.
You can make a slight detour and rest on a wooden bench on the hilltop before returning to the trail to tackle some switchbacks along the side of the hill. Those switchbacks eventually take you downhill to a cattle gate intersecting with the Costanoan Trail, a wide fire road. Cross the Costanoan and do a two-tenths of a mile loop around the hill. It looks like a thumbprint on the map. It leads back to the Costanoan, where you cross again and go through another cattle gate and resume the single-track Ridge Top Trail.
It was at this point that I made the wrong turn and went to Sulfur Creek on my first attempt. My thinking: What kind of trail would basically have you do a semicircle and wind up only 100 yards down the road from where you started? I figured the Ridge Top Trail was that sharp right before the cattle gate. But that sharp right led to the aforementioned pungent pond.
Anyway, the Ridge Top Trail is as scenic as advertised. Once your climb ends, the downhill footing can get a little tricky, with exposed boulders dotting the path. About 100 feet before you reach the hulking water tank, look to the right and take the single track briefly east but eventually west around the ridge.
At this point, you're back on the Briones-Mount Diablo Trail. Make a right just past Indian Valley School, off in the distance, onto the Fossil Trail.
You know you're on the right path when you see bits of shells ground into the dirt – evidence of marine fossils left behind when the ocean receded from this area.
The directions tell you to turn right on Indian Creek Trail after traveling on Fossil Hill. And that's correct. But a doofus like me got confused when seeing a post pointing to Indian Creek Trail off to the left. Rather than continuing up and around the hill on Fossil Hill, I took that sharp left, which cut about a half-mile off the course.
On my do-over run, I stuck to the correct path and looped around the hill before picking up Indian Creek Trail. You still traverse a major chunk (about a mile) of serpentine Indian Creek, dry as dust in August but said to be flood-prone in winter.
When Indian Creek ends, turn right. You're back on the main drag, Briones-Mount Diablo. After a brief downhill, gird yourself for seven-tenths of a mile of solid climbing. That ends once you reach the junction with the Borges Ranch Trail. It was at this point in Version 1.0 that I mistakenly turned right and went way off course. I blame hypoxia.
You actually want to stay straight – the signs are obvious to everyone, well, almost everyone – and then retrace your steps back to Shell Loop and then the Castle Rock trails.
My last suggestion – and take it with a large grain of sodium chloride, given the source – is not to get so wrapped up in all the twists and turns of the trails that you forget to look around at your surroundings.
Shell Ridge might not feature idyllic woods and, yeah, the hills are brown from late May to November, but the gnarled oaks are lovely and there's a surprising array of birds in flight.
I saw raptors soaring overhead, scrub jays flitting through the chaparral, even what I later learned were Western blue jays making a colorful contrast to the beige sandstone cliffs.
And I even saw some fellow runners and hikers, most trailing off-leash dogs, out and about. All gave the impression they knew where they were going. They must've had a map.
SHELL RIDGE OPEN SPACE
Walnut Creek 9 miles
Directions to trailhead: Take I-80 to I-680 over the Benicia-Martinez Bridge. Take the Walnut Creek exit, and merge onto North Main Street. Turn left on Ygnacio Valley Road. Turn right on Walnut Avenue (note: not Walnut Boulevard, which is a mile before). At a traffic circle, veer right onto Oak Grove Road/Castle Rock Road. Castle Rock Recreation Area parking lot is on your right.
Route: From south of parking lot, take Castle Rock Trail for 0.5 miles, turn right on Shell Loop Trail. After 0.2 miles, turn left, staying on Shell Loop. At the next junction, turn right onto the Briones-Mount Diablo fire road. After 1.8 miles total, turn right onto the Ridge Top Trail. Follow for about a mile uphill and down switchbacks to a cattle gate. Cross the Costanoan Trail and do a semicircle on the Ridge Top Tail, winding up back on the Costanoan, 100 yards west. Cross Costanoan and the cattle gate and resume on the Ridge Top Trail. Before the water tank, make a sharp right, staying on the Ridge Top Trail. Turn left on the Briones-Mount Diablo Trail, then a right on Fossil Hill Trail. Take it around the hill about 0.3 miles, then turn right on the Indian Creek Trail. Take Indian Creek for 1 mile, right on the Briones-Mount Diablo Trail. After a 0.7-mile uphill, stay straight on the trail to the Shell Loop and retrace steps to the trailhead.
Shorter route (6 miles): At the Ginder Gap Loop Trail crossing on the Ridge Top Trail (about 3 miles into trek), turn left and take Ginder Gap past Willow Spring Pond to the Briones-Mount Diablo Trail. Turn left and return to the trailhead on Briones-Mount Diablo and Shell Loop.
Longer route (12.5 miles): After completing the Indian Creek Trail segment, go right onto the Briones-Mount Diablo Trail and, after a half-mile, turn right on the Sugarloaf Shell Ridge Trail. Go downhill to the second signed post for the Twin Pond Trail. Turn left on Twin Pond (just after a trailhead) and go 0.3 miles before making a sharp right turn, staying on Twin Pond. At the Joaquin Ranch junction and trailhead, turn left on Twin Pond and take it past the Sugarloaf crossing, going right, then left, then wrapping around the pond. Turn right at the Sugarloaf junction (which you initially passed) and head uphill to the Briones-Mount Diablo Trail, then return the way you started.
Difficulty: Moderate (only rolling hills); bring sunscreen for vast sections without shade
Toilets: At Castle Rock trailhead
Parking fee: No
Poison oak possibility: Slim
Probability of getting lost: Only if you don't pay close attention.
Will there be blood: Probably not; footing is mostly fine.
– Sam McManis