Bike Rides & Hikes

Fresh Tracks: French Trail in Oakland hills

Redwoods tower over lush vegetation as a hiker traverses the French Trail which is part of the larger Redwood Park in the East Bay Regional Park District system in Oakland on Wednesday, February 24, 2016.
Redwoods tower over lush vegetation as a hiker traverses the French Trail which is part of the larger Redwood Park in the East Bay Regional Park District system in Oakland on Wednesday, February 24, 2016.

Redwood Regional Park, so close to downtown Oakland yet an ecosystem away in terms of terrain, features many trails that pretty much serve as dictionary definitions of “verdant.”

Arboristic playgrounds abound: the big-tree gawking along Roberts Ridge, the vertical expanse of grassy woodlands that is the Canyon Trail, the shady and pungent Eucalyptus Trail, the wild switchback ride of the Golden Spike Trail and … well, do you need more examples?

But there are trails, and then there is the French Trail.

It, simply, has no peer.

Just look at it: towering redwoods, spreading fern, canopied single track, enough ascents and descents to tax the system, but with such a diversity of topography (a sharp right here, followed by a dogleg left, followed by a steep climb, followed by a harrowing downhill, followed by a slalom through the laurels and madrone) that it seems to breeze by.

At 3.96 miles – plus the approach from various trailheads, given that the French is smack dab in the middle of Redwood Regional Park – hikers and runners easily can fit the trail into a day jaunt.

Many choose to start the French Trail not at its intersection with the West Ridge Trail (a half-mile south of the Skyline Staging Area) but another 4 miles down West Ridge at the Orchard Trail. A quick left on Orchard, a 0.3-mile descent, and then you can traverse it from south to north, in toto. Start slow and steady with a series of slight, almost imperceptible downhill stretches, nothing too taxing, until the pace and slope gradually build. By the junction with the Fern Trail, about 1.5 miles in, the hills become a test of stamina.

Most of the climbing comes in the last 2 miles, and yet – while a hiker is undeniably tired – it’s almost a disappointment to see the French Trail end.

A few things to know about the French Trail, though: Because it’s so popular and well-trod, it can be a bit dicey to navigate, especially in rain-soaked winter.

Erosion plays havoc with footing in spots, so pay heed. Even when bone-dry in summer, it is easy to face-plant because of the exposed roots snaking over the path.

In winter, it’s even more fraught with potential injury, since a carpet of needles and fallen leaves obscure said roots. But those needles serve as something of a cushion on aging joints.

The only other hazard trail users might face comes from quadrupeds. The French Trail is open to dogs and, leash signs be damned, locals are not shy about having them run free along the paths. But hikers and runners won’t have to worry about mountain bikers. They are not allowed on the trail and must make do with the wider, less-eye-pleasing West Ridge Trail.

Which really isn’t too much of a hardship for those who pedal. After all, there is no such thing as a bad trail at Redwood Regional Park.

Sam McManis: 916-321-1145, @SamMcManis

French Trail, Redwood Regional Park, Oakland


Length: 3.96 miles (point-to-point, not counting distance from various trailheads and return trip)

Directions: Take Interstate 80 to I-680 to Highway 24. Exit at Fish Ranch Road. Take Fish Ranch to Grizzly Peak, turning left. Turn left on Skyline Boulevard and park at Huckleberry trailhead or, farther south, Skyline Gate.

Trailheads: Huckleberry Preserve, Skyline Gate Staging Area, Moon Gate, Redwood Gate, Canyon Meadow

Longest route (10 miles): From the Huckleberry trailhead, go about 0.3 miles on the Huckleberry Path, then slightly right on the Skyline National Trail. After 1.2 miles, make a right on the West Ridge Trail, and follow 3.5 miles to the Orchard Trail, turning left. Go 0.18 miles on Orchard and turn left on the French Trail. Follow 3.9 miles to the West Ridge Trail. Retrace steps to trailhead.

Toilets: At all trailheads

Dogs: Allowed

Mountain bikes: Not on French Trail, but allowed on West Ridge