Bike Rides & Hikes

Fresh Tracks: Ah, Wilderness! Follow in Eugene O’Neill’s Steps at Las Trampas

A creek waterfall is part of the scene along the oak tree- filled foothills of the Las Trampas Regional Wilderness.
A creek waterfall is part of the scene along the oak tree- filled foothills of the Las Trampas Regional Wilderness.

We do requests here at Fresh Tracks. So send ’em in. Really. Knock yourselves out, people.

This month’s offering, in fact, comes from reader Joe Franklin, an outdoorsman with a literary bent, apparently. He recommended Las Trampas Regional Wilderness, in those oak-drunken hills hugging the monied East Bay enclave of Danville.

“We combined it with a hike-in trip to Eugene O’Neill National (Historic Site),” Franklin wrote. “Some of the trails were steep but right now it is incredibly green. … It was about 11 miles and 2,500 feet of climbing. It was a good early spring hike.”


Now, many a time, I’ve made pilgrimages to the O’Neill “Tao House” – his plays chronicling familial dysfunction are sort of sacred texts to many of us Irish, more real-life than fictive, if you must know – and had noticed that a well-manicured trail (the Madrone, it turns out) runs right past the property, within view of the grave of O’Neill’s beloved Dalmatian, Blemie. But, so besotted was I with O’Neill’s life and oeuvre, that’s as close as I ever got to Las Trampas. (The Nobel Prize-winning playwright lived in Danville from 1937-44 and wrote three of his most famous plays there.)

So Franklin’s suggestion that I tramp through Las Trampas was enticing, especially since I, hack writer that I am, could make cheesy use of the title “Long Day’s Journey Into Night” when describing the trail’s length and lung-straining difficulty.

You don’t need to be an O’Neill scholar, or even know him from sitcom star Ed O’Neill, to appreciate this hike. But I couldn’t help but imagine the playwright trudging along the single-track paths mulling the human condition, and sought to go in his footsteps.

Per Franklin’s suggestion, I began the jaunt by parking at the Ringtail Cat Staging Area, which has a small lot surrounded by sprawling mansions (one for sale: $2.39 million). From there, you proceed in a counter-clockwise direction up, up, up to grassy Las Trampas ridge, then make a twisting loop down through oak and laurels to ogle the Tao House from afar and get back to the Ringtail Cat Trail.

I’m not going to mince words: This hike is a haul. It taxes your lung capacity on the uphill – 1,713 of the 2,457 total elevation gain comes in the first 5 miles – and then tortures the knees on an extreme winding downhill to reach the border with O’Neill’s property.

A two-week dry spell in late February-early March kept the paths from becoming too muddy, but the ruts and indentations from grazing cows and galloping equine made them rough going in many places. The ankle-ligament-tearing erosion, too, will slow you down.

Even on a weekday morning, you’ll find other hikers setting off from Ringtail with canines big and small, but they mostly keep to the first 0.3 miles, which is lush and not too hilly. Once the climbing begins and peaks during 2-mile stretch of the Madrone Trail, humanity thins out and you can be left alone with your thoughts.

That early part of the Madrone Trail (you’ll see it again in the final 2 miles) climbs above the treeline and is so unrelenting that you almost get into a Zen-like, arm-chugging rhythm. There’s not much in the way of views, except if you turn around and stare at Mount Diablo to the east, so you put your head down and concentrate on where each foot fall can go along the rutty path. It’s so quiet the only sound is your labored breathing; not even the hawks squawk this high.

Actually, once I opened the cattle guard in the midst of another climb where the Madrone and Las Trampas Ridge Trail intersect, I did find myself in an encounter with sentient beings: a cow and her calf.

Regular “Fresh Tracks” readers might recall my earlier bovine run-ins and the advice from a livestock researcher saying to walk slowly into the cow’s “flight zone” – the physical space where it loses its feeling of safety – and it will flee. But this cow, smack in the middle of the single-track with a calf at her side, refused to move even when I was an arm’s-length away. Raising her head from chewing, she eyed me suspiciously. I decided to make eye contact and speak soothingly as Mr. Rogers (“I’m going to step over here now … ”) while I walked gingerly around the cow’s ample hind quarter, giving her a wide berth.

From there, though, I saw no living thing – save salamanders, out in force – until the return on the Ringtail. The view keeps you company, though. To the north, you can see beyond Concord and Martinez to the Benicia Bridge; to the south, you can laugh at the poor suckers stuck on I-680 making their commute to Silicon Valley.

You can’t totally drink in the views because there are some serious downhills to navigate, especially the descents on the Sulphur Springs and Del Amigo trails. My GPS later told me I covered the uphills faster than the downhills, which are joint-rattlers.

Near the end of the downhill, you get your first Tao House sighting: the handsome Spanish tile roof gleaming in the late-morning sun. That image stays with you as you go back up the Madrone (yes, two more killer hills) and back to the trailhead, 10 miles traversed and several hours of solitude enjoyed.

Sam McManis: 916-321-1145, @SamMcManis


10-Mile Loop

Directions to trailhead: Take I-80 to I-680, exit at Stone Valley Road, west. Turn left on Danville Boulevard. Turn right on Hemme Avenue. Parking lot is at road’s end.

Route: From the Ringtail Cat Trailhead, go about 0.7 miles to the Madrone Trail and turn right. Follow Madrone 2.4 miles to the junction with the Las Trampas Ridge Trail. Turn left and go about 1 mile to the intersection with the Bollinger Creek Loop Trail. Veer left to stay on the Las Trampas Ridge Trail. After about 2 miles, turn left onto the Sulphur Springs Trail. After 0.6 miles, veer left (a sign will point towards Del Amigo Trial). Follow Del Amigo down 0.5 miles to the Virgil Williams Trail. Turn left and go 0.7 miles. Turn left on the Madrone Trail and go 1.2 miles back to the Ringtail Cat Trail. Turn right and retrace steps to the trailhead.

Elevation gain: 2,457 feet

Toilets and water. No

Dogs: Yes

Mountain Bikers: No