Four times I’ve completed the 13.1-mile Briones Reservoir Loop in Orinda, which winds around a lovely man-made body of water in the foothills northeast of Contra Costa County’s most exclusive enclave. In total, I’ve encountered only five other trail users.
For someone accustomed to the well-trod trails in the American River Canyon and Folsom Lake, these treks were occasions for blissful 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. Its low profile stems from belonging to the East Bay Municipal Utility District, which, in typical utility-company fashion, requires trail users to buy a yearly pass (only $10, but still …), carry said pass at all times on the trails and sign in (with a permit number and your vehicle license-plate number) at the staging area.
Another, albeit lesser, reason that Briones isn’t better known is that it often is confused with Briones Regional Park, a neighboring but separate entity run by the East Bay Regional Parks District.
But go ahead and pay the $10. It’s worth it.
Weekend hike: Briones Reservoir
Distance: 13.1 miles
Directions to trailhead: Take Interstate 80 to I-680 over the Benicia Bridge to Highway 24. Exit at Camino Pablo in Orinda. Go right for 2 miles. Turn right on Bear Creek Road and park at the Overlook trailhead parking lot on the left.
Route: Pass through metal gate and join the Bear Creek trail heading right for 3.5 miles. When you reach the Bear Creek Staging Area at 4 miles, you’ll cross through a creek and climb to meet up with the start of the Oursan Trail. Stay on Oursan, a fire road, for the next 9 miles. After peaking atop Sobrante Ridge, the trail leads downhill to the dam. 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 dam, 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. Return to trailhead.
Toilets: Yes, at trailhead.