Shots rang out on a still Sunday morning, tearing through the fog-shrouded hills and echoing down the canyon. Staccato and percussive, the sound unnerved me, revving my heart as if it were a German techno song. I nearly jumped off the trail and darn near slid down a ravine.
Thing was, I knew full well to expect gunplay on this stretch of trail at Anthony Chabot Regional Park, which links the Oakland hills to Castro Valley and the depleted, though still hydrated, Lake Chabot. Directional signs along the southern stages of the Red Tail Trail pointed toward the “Marksmanship Range,” home of the Chabot Gun Club (motto: “A Safe Place To Shoot”), and one ominous posting down from Red Tail toward the well-traveled Brandon Trail admonished, “WARNING: Do not enter gun range.”
Still, it was startling to actually hear shotgun blasts so close to what is an otherwise serene and bucolic trail experience. Now I know how Bambi’s mom felt.
Shooting aside, this 14-mile traverse of Chabot, part of the East Bay Regional Parks District, provides everything you’d want in a hike or trail run, including shorter alternative routes if you don’t feel like putting in all that effort.
There are views (the Upper San Leandro Reservoir to the east, Lake Chabot to the west, even some glimpses of the bay, if the marine layer lifts), pulse-pounding climbs on fire roads, mellow stretches of grassy hillsides where cattle roam, lush single-track fragrant with eucalyptus trees, and an extended riparian stretch running parallel with Grass Valley Creek, sadly parched in these drought days.
There’s also 2,110 feet of elevation gain, for those counting at home.
Let’s tour the route:
Getting there: Find your way to Oakland and Highway 13 heading south. Exit at Redwood Road, go east past Skyline Boulevard and then downhill to a pullout on the right side (south) for the MacDonald Staging Area. If you want a shorter trek (by 5 miles), continue on Redwood Road for a few miles and park at the Bort Meadows staging area. Redwood Avenue, by the way, serves as the demarcation line between the Redwood Regional Park (to the north) and Anthony Chabot (south).
Miles 0-2.5, MacDonald Trail: It may seem sadistic, but you start climbing right away from the trailhead sign on your left. It’s a fire road, but shaded – at least for the first quarter-mile. After that, the trees recede and it’s a significant push for the first mile, 501 feet of elevation gain, to be precise. Don’t worry, it flattens out and then you make a gradual descent – 315 feet – down to Bort Meadows, where you must pay heed to the small directional post pointing you straight to the Grass Valley Trail. Of course, you can always stop at Bort Meadows, since it’s your first chance to use a restroom.
Miles 2.5-3.7, Grass Valley Trail: You’ll be able to catch your breath on this brush-covered valley, above Grass Valley Creek and the Brandon Trail (which will be the route on the way back). It’s a slight downhill and you can pick up your pace, provided you can keep your footing. It’s a wide trail, but pitted by cow hooves, hell for those with weak ankles. There’s a panoramic view of the valley where Contra Costa County water and hydraulic mining baron Anthony Chabot grazed his herd. But don’t look too far ahead, because you’ll see a single-track trail heading straight up a hillside on the left.
Miles 3.7-6.8, Red Tail Trail: Yes, you turn left and start climbing again. Stop whining. I know it’s hard, but the steepest climbing is just past the Grass Valley junction. That, unfortunately, is also the worst footing, with rocks and ruts from grazing slowing you. As you chug upward, you’ll start seeing signs for the gun range, and you might wish someone would put you out of your misery. Eventually, it flattens out and turns into quasi-single track that runs parallel with Marciel Road and then crosses the paved road several times. (Just keep looking for the “Red Tail Trail” posts.) You’ll gain 577 feet in elevation on this stretch but, fear not, downhill awaits.
Miles 6.8-7.4, Brandon Trail: Not far after the entrance to the “Marksmanship Range,” the Red Tail Trail ends at the junction with the wide and well-groomed Brandon Trail, a major mountain bike pathway. Make a sharp right on the Brandon Trail at a parking area – and try not to duck when you hear the shots – and follow it downhill (226-foot elevation loss) for about a half-mile to the Two Rocks Trail, where more downhill awaits.
Miles 7.4-8.2, Two Rocks Trail: This is the easiest segment, a mostly smooth path heading downhill. The reason it’s smooth? It passes three campsites, where on a Sunday morning the sight of a sweaty runner certainly turned heads, though my head was turned by the smell of sizzling bacon. Follow the trail to the Lookout Ridge Camp and keep going, until it seems as if you’ll run off the cliff into Bass Cove below. That’s where you’ll find the Columbine Trail.
Miles 8.0-9.7, Columbine Trail: A highlight of the trek, you follow switchbacks downhill from the campsite and veer right (north) for 1 1/2 miles on shaded single-track. You’ll cross a stream – dry, alas – where signs say it may flood “seasonally.” You barely even notice a gain of 228 feet on this stretch.
Miles 9.7-11.3, Cascade Trail: You continue parallel to the Grass Valley Creek, where you’ll see other hikers who started at Bort Meadows or the Clyde Woolridge Staging Area (to the southwest). It can get crowded on a gradual uphill. The lush ferns and bay laurels take your mind off any aerobic strain.
Miles 11.3-11.8, Brandon Trail: When you reach the stone bridge junction, don’t cross the bridge. Keep going straight on the wide Brandon Trail – yes, the continuation of the earlier trail – for a half-mile back to Bort Meadows.
Miles 11.8-14.3, MacDonald Trail: Yes, you knew MacDonald Trail, and all that climbing, was waiting for you. Somehow, the 500-feet climb over 2 miles didn’t seem as difficult, perhaps because the 449-foot descent in the last half-mile serves as a reward.