People who’ve known me awhile sometimes ask if I miss Southern California, land of my misspent youth.
I hesitate maybe a nanosecond before answering, emphatically, “Are you kidding?”
When they ask why, I can list scores of reasons, most having to do with traffic, but here’s a recent anecdote that speaks volumes:
Northern California, of course, is not without traffic snarls, particularly in the Bay Area. And one recent afternoon, on the drive from the Peninsula back to Sacramento, I endured L.A.-like freeway congestion, starting at the Dumbarton Bridge, building on Interstate 880 south of Oakland and reaching full gridlock on I-580 near Castro Valley. By the time I reached Oakland, I was restless, bored and frustrated. I longed to escape the traffic and, almost magically, I inched near a directional road sign on Highway 13 that said “Joaquin Miller Park.” In less than two minutes, I was off the freeway and transported from a concrete jungle to verdant woods dotted with coastal redwoods, fragrant eucalyptus and stately live oaks and maples shedding leaves as big as DeMarcus Cousins’ hands.
Miles of luscious trails beckoned.
There’s your answer. In NorCal, even in an urban core such as Oakland, you’re only a freeway exit or two from nature.
And the thing is, Joaquin Miller Park is not a lone green space in the Oakland hills, not by a long shot. In fact, to many trail enthusiasts, it’s almost an afterthought. Most Bay Area hikers and trail runners in the know tend to gravitate to the more scenic and vast wilderness expanse of the East Bay Regional Park District. In fact, one of the most well-trod EBRPD sites, Redwood Regional Park, is separated from its neighbor, Joaquin Miller, only by Skyline Boulevard, yet many never cross that threshold.
If each Bay Area park has a distinct personality – Diablo and Tamalpais mountains have sweep and grandeur, the Marin headlands windswept and dramatic, the Berkeley hills steep and stately – then you could call the 450 lush acres of Joaquin Miller, run by the city of Oakland, quiet and unassuming.
Which, if you know anything about the park’s namesake (and you can learn a lot at the park), it’s quite the opposite of Miller himself. A late 19th-century scoundrel, Miller was both a gold miner and environmentalist, vigilante fighter against the Indians and an Indian advocate, a horse thief and a judge, the patriarch of several concurrent families, a newspaper editor and fabulist novelist, and the guru of a bohemian writers community at the site of the park.
Just like Miller’s dichotomous life, the park he left as a legacy is both well-used and not.
On the afternoon I veered off the freeway for a quick jaunt, only three cars were parked at the ranger station, just past the main gate and the launching point for several trailheads. Yet, the trail was peppered with people walking their dogs, riding mountain bikes and doing hill training for who-knows-what endurance sufferfest lying ahead. A ranger milling about the parking lot later explained that, because the park is sandwiched between residential neighborhoods, it draws lots of locals who indulge in the luxury of going from front door to trail.
For a relatively small park, many trail options are at people’s disposal. It’s difficult to string together a long trek in Miller, without doing multiple routes. But if you cross Skyline Boulevard and take a connector trail to the Moon Gate Staging area (near Chabot Space and Science Center), you wind up in Redwood Regional Park and can ramble for miles and miles.
Sometimes, though, you just want to do a short, invigorating hike, to get the blood moving and maybe wait out the traffic accumulating on Oakland freeways. In that case, Miller more than suffices.
Arguably, the most popular path at Miller is the Sequoia-Bayview Trail, a 1.5-mile stretch that wends roughly north-south along the upper ridgeline but, strangely and fortunately, is mostly flat and exceedingly tree-shaded. But getting to that segment lined with redwoods, fern, bay laurel and huckleberry is the question.
You could always drive farther up Joaquin Miller Road and turn onto Skyline and drive some more to a parking area for the Big Trees Trail, which connects to Sequoia-Bayview. But do you really want to spend more time behind the wheel?
Better to park at the ranger station, a scant 0.7 of a mile from the freeway exit, and follow a leisurely 3.5-mile loop with only one significant hill climb. You’ll actually pass the Sequoia-Bayview trailhead, but you are going to embark on the Sunset Trail, a wide, major artery in the park. Signage is sometimes hard to find, but just remember to keep Paco Seco Creek on your left. Along the route, you’ll pass a restroom and picnic area.
Heading toward the Cinderella Trail, the Sunset narrows to almost single track. Shedded eucalyptus bark somewhat obscures the path – it was one of those wind-advisory days and branches were strewn like pick-up sticks – but look for a wooden post announcing the Cinderella Trail. You will know you’re on the right trail, because your heart rate will soar on the half-mile climb in which you gain 600 feet in elevation. On your right is Cinderella Creek, Paco Seco’s main tributary and flowing freely in early January.
Steep as the Cinderella is, the pain is only temporary. When you reach the crest of the hill, you make a sharp right on a connecting trail. It isn’t immediately identified as the Sequoia-Bayview Trail, but signs eventually pop up. This is the trip’s highlight, so enjoy the lushness and flatness and, occasionally, even some brief peeks at the bay and San Francisco below. The trail hooks around a horse arena, which you’ll barely notice, and passes junctions for several trails (Chaparral, Wild Rose, Fern Ravine, Big Trees).
At the 3-mile mark, you sadly have to leave the Sequoia-Bayview Trail and return to the trailhead on the Sunset.
This last segment is a wild ride, a steep downhill on switchbacks with some exposed roots that can trip you up. Negotiate it carefully, but don’t forget to chuckle at the exhausted mountain bikers gamely using granny gears to make the ascent as you cruise down to the trailhead.
You won’t be laughing when you get back in the car and find that the East Bay freeway traffic hasn’t eased much. But at least you’ll be fatigued enough from the trek that you won’t resort to road rage.
Call The Bee’s Sam McManis, (916) 321-1145. Follow him on Twitter @SamMcManis.
JOAQUIN MILLER PARK, OAKLAND
Trail length: 3.5 miles
Elevation gain: 600 feet
Directions to trailhead: From Sacramento, take I-80 west to I-680 to Highway 24. Immediately after passing through the Caldecott Tunnel, take Highway 13 south toward Hayward. Take the Joaquin Miller/Lincoln Avenue exit. Turn left on Monterey Boulevard, then left on Joaquin Miller Road. Drive 0.7 of a mile to Sanborn Drive. Turn left into the park.
Route: From the ranger station parking area, walk back down Sanborn Drive to a yellow gate with a trailhead sign. Go 50 feet straight beyond the yellow gate and turn left onto the Sunset Trail. You’ll pass the Sunset Loop and Chaparral Trail junctions and, just before the 1-mile mark, turn right (uphill) on the Cinderella Trail. After 0.5 miles, make a sharp right onto the Sequoia-Bayview Trail. Stay on it for a mile, passing several junctions, and then turn right on the Sunset Trail for a 0.5-mile descent back to the trailhead.
Exposure: Shaded in most parts
Toilets: Yes, at ranger station and just beyond the trailhead
Probability of getting lost: Well-marked but abundance of trail offshoots can be confusing
Will there be blood? No. Trail is well-maintained.