The good, the bad, and the lucky at Sunol Regional Wilderness Trail

SUNOL – As much as I cursed parts of Sunol Regional Wilderness Trail – mostly that mile-long schlep up a fire road with nary a single overhanging oak tree to offer shade – I kept thinking of the alternative and, as a result, chuckled at my inordinate good fortune.

Instead of communing with the sycamore and live oaks and red-tailed hawks on a sunny morning, I could have been commuting with those wired and tired Silicon Valley zombies inching their way along nearby Interstate 680 to San Jose.

See, just over the hill from this out-of-the-way East Bay Regional Park nestled north of Fremont and southeast of Sunol lies the dreaded Sunol Grade, an ennui-inducing stretch of freeway that is packed with traffic day and night, except maybe (maybe!) Christmas Eve at 3 a.m.

So I had to remember my luck that, just before at the apex of the forbidding Sunol Grade, as traffic went from stop-and-start to just plain stopped, I was able flick the right-turn indicator and escape. Five miles later, down curving roads with no brake lights in front of me to slow the drive, I arrived for a 6-mile jaunt in the hills.

(Reality-check aside: Yes, yes, I had to drive 90 minutes from Sacramento to get to this trail, but still cut me some slack.)

It felt like playing hooky, as if I was getting away with something, spending a work day out in nature instead of hunched over a keyboard.

Thus, I could overlook that this loop occasionally lacks beauty (lush riparian areas at the start and near the finish, but vast swaths of treeless brown pasture on the climb) and trail diversity (single track for the first 1.7 miles, then mostly fire roads) because it simply was there. It exists. It even could give office-drone commuters an option, an existential escape valve, should they choose to call in "well" one fine day.

But is the trek worth a special trip down from Sacramento?

Depends on your taste in trails.

On the "yes" side of the ledger:

If you're a birder or nature photographer, bring the long lens. Up to 40 species of birds have been identified, according to park rangers.

As I was running a steep descent on Cerro Este Road, a wide dirt path, I suddenly was stopped dead in my tracks by a hard-core birder in the middle of the road, seemingly oblivious to me. His high-powered binoculars dangled from his neck; he cocked an eye to his viewfinder and clicked away as a red-tailed hawk, soaring in the thermals with wings spread wide, swooped not 20 feet above us.

"Got it," he yelled to me.

The whir and click of his camera reminded me of the sound of the acorn woodpeckers I heard (but, alas, did not see) earlier in the run near the riparian wonders of Indian Joe Creek.

Wildlife accompanies you nearly the entire trip, ranging from butterflies flitting around your kneecaps to squirrels, some impassive cows and ominously hovering turkey vultures on Cave Rocks Road.

The geologic and vegetative diversity along Indian Joe Nature Trail (also occasionally signed Canyon View Trail) and then Indian Joe Creek Trail make these first 1.7 miles go by quickly – almost too quickly.

(Historical footnote, if you care: "Indian Joe" was a real person, one Joe Wilson, a worker on the Geary Ranch that once existed here before the regional park district acquired the land, according to Matt Heid, author of "101 Hikes in Northern California.")

You criss-cross tributaries of Alameda Creek on this stretch, barely moistening your shoes in late spring and summer months. You also are shaded by oak, bay laurel and maple trees and, at your feet, is a host of seasonal wildflowers.

It's a steady climb along the Indian Joe Creek Trail, becoming a tad more technical as you dodge a few roots and rocks. At about 1.3 miles, just past the junction of Hayfield Road, the climb becomes a little steeper as you maneuver over or around basalt, schist and greenstone rock. But it's still a lovely stretch up until you reach the junction with Cave Rocks Road.

This third check in the "yes" column comes after the long, hot slog up Cave Rocks Road. It's the payoff for all that climbing: sweeping views of Maguire Peaks to the north and Mission Peak to the west. You get an even better view if you climb a half-mile (250 more feet of elevation gain) to the Cerro Este Trail Peak at 2,038 feet of elevation.

After going back down to the Cerro Este Overlook and descending sharply, you get a first glimpse of the Calaveras Reservoir, owned by the San Francisco Public Utilities Commission.

They call it "Little Yosemite," a verdant gorge enveloped by lush vegetation and flowing water over boulders (the more grandiose call them "waterfalls," but, c'mon). It's certainly worth the trip, especially after all the exposed-sun climbing and descending that precedes it.

On the "no" side of the ledger:

All of the aforementioned exposed-sun climbing and descending that precedes the bottoming out at Little Yosemite can get tedious. It's a whole lot of light brown grazing land along the Cave Rock Road climb (nearly 1,000-feet elevation gain in 1 mile). Oh, there are the rocks on your left. But, frankly, I was so hypoxic from the grind of running uphill that I didn't give a schist about geologic formations at that point.

Normally, the East Bay Regional Park system is known for its vigilant signage at trail junctions, but the first portion of the trek is a little confusing. After parking at the Sunol Visitor Center, you first follow a short paved path behind the center and two other interpretive buildings before your first sign and the bridge crossing the creek. After 0.2 miles, you turn left at signs for both Indian Joe Nature Trail and Canyon View before soon veering left again on Indian Joe. When you reach a large, dry creekbed, a sign on the opposite side of the creek says "Indian Joe Nature Trail." But you need to keep straight up the stream bed to a metal gate. This is the Indian Joe Creek Trail, which is what you want. Got it?

And, finally on the "no" side, you still must fight traffic to get to the trailhead. The worst of the dreaded Sunol Grade is skipped, but there are still slow spots in Walnut Creek and Pleasanton to endure.

I recommend enduring the drive south at least once for this pleasant, ranch-style trek, if only to glory in the fact that you aren't a Bay Area techie drone battling the Sunol Grade every weekday, every week, every year – at least until the next dot-com bust.


Distance: 6-mile loop

Directions from Sacramento: Take Interstate 80 west to Interstate 680 South toward Walnut Creek. Exit at Calaveras Road/Highway 84 just south of Sunol. Turn left onto Calaveras, go under the freeway and travel south 4.3 miles. Turn left on Geary Road and reach the visitor center after 1.9 miles.

Cost: $5 parking fee

Route: Park at the visitor center parking lot left of the entrance kiosk. From behind the visitor center, go right of the Indian Joe Nature Trail that parallels Alameda Creek and cross a bridge as the creek bends. Head upstream, crossing the creek several times. Turn left at a sign for Indian Joe Nature Trail and Indian Joe Creek Trail. At a wide creek bed, ignore the sign on the left for the Indian Joe Nature Trail and go straight up the creek bed to a metal gate. Pass through the gate. This is the Indian Joe Creek Trail. At 1.7 miles, turn right onto Cave Rocks Road. Ignore the signs for the Eagle Peak Trail and climb for 1 mile to the Cerro Este Overlook, where there's a wooden bench atop the hill at 1,800-foot elevation. (To add mileage, turn left and go 0.5 miles uphill of Cerro Este to the Park at 2,300 feet, then retrace your steps to the overlook.) From the overlook, go downhill for nearly 2 miles past junctions for the McCorkle and Canyon View trails until it dead-ends at Camp Ohlone Road. This is the "Little Yosemite" area. Turn right on Camp Ohlone Trail and follow it nearly a mile to the McCorkle Trail. Turn right and go 0.6 miles, then turn left on the Canyon View Trail for the half-mile back to the visitor center.

Difficulty: Moderate

Elevation: 1,499 feet gained and lost.

Exposure: Four of the six miles are mostly exposed to the sun. Wear sunscreen and bring water, especially in summer.

Toilets: Yes, at visitor center

Poison oak possibility: Moderate

Probability of getting lost: A little confusing early, but good signage.

Will there be blood? No. Single-track is mostly smooth and fire roads are hard-packed in the late spring and summer.

Dogs: Must be leashed 200 feet from any trail as well as in parking lots and picnic areas.

Slideshow: Freshtracks: Sunol Regional Wilderness Trail

Call The Bee's Sam McManis, (916) 321-1145 Follow him on Twitter @SamMcManis.