Moore Creek Trail above the Napa Valley

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After embarking on a bit of a spontaneous Sunday drive into the mountains above Napa, I decided that the weather was going to hold out long enough to do a hike. After a bit of debate, I settled on heading over to Moore Creek Park, located northeast of the town of Rutherford in the mountains above the Napa Valley. It’s nothing if not out of the way, but certainly worth the drive. Although there are several trails at Moore Creek Park, the one I settled on is the Moore Creek Trail, an out and back hike that runs for 3.3 miles along Moore Creek. A portion of the trail is even part of the Bay Area Ridge Trail. The trail eventually dead ends at a small swimming hole (or so the map proclaims…when I arrived the pool appeared to be no more than knee deep at its deepest points). As I’ve stated before, I love finding hidden gems. This park is truly a hidden gem!

After arriving at the parking area, I started my hike by passing through the first gate on a trail that parallels the creek. IMG_2617For the first mile, the trail appears to be more akin to a fire road, as it doubles as an access road for a private residence located within the park. After that, you pass through a gate and the trail narrows for the remaining 2.3 miles to the pools. After 1.3 miles, you’ll encounter a trail junction with the Valentine Vista Trail that veers off to the right. I took the left fork to continue to the pools. The sound of the rushing creek is present throughout the entire hike, though the trail doesn’t always exactly follow the creek bed. Sometimes the trail is along the creek while others it climbs up the ridge a bit, before rejoining the creek again. It makes for a bit of up and down as you’re hiking, but the trail is never challenging. I only gained just over 500 feet in elevation over the course of the entire hike. There are also several stream crossings to negotiate, though at all of them a wooden post has been laid across the creek to facilitate crossing. It does require a bit of balance though. The canyon had a wide variety of vegetation. I spotted a variety of oaks, Douglas firs, and madrone trees. With it being spring, everything was nice and green. IMG_2632As you hike farther into the canyon, the scenery gets more lush and green. Ferns become a more common sight. When you’ve almost reached the pools, you’ll see a signed junction for a short spur trail to an overlook of the entire canyon you just hiked up. It’s a pretty spectacular spot. Return to the trail and continue down until you’ve reached a sign that says “POOL.” Here you’ll see the swimming hole and the trail dead ends. The swimming hole, though a very pretty location, was a bit underwhelming. It was probably about knee deep for me in the deepest spots, but much shallower throughout most of it. Still, it would be inviting on a hot summer day. Today I decided to stay on dry land and admire the scene. Ferns lined the canyon wall and the water rushed past, making for a quiet and peaceful place to rest and eat a snack. After a short break I headed back up the trail I came on and hiked the same 3.3 miles back to the parking area. On the way back it started drizzling, but since the weather was more cool than cold the drizzle was nice and refreshing. This park is truly a hidden gem! If you need a great place to hike with a shady forest and rushing creek not too far from home, or if you just want a break from wine tasting, head out here.

 

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Part of the swimming hole at the end of the Moore Creek Trail

 

Trip Stats

Distance: 6.5 miles

Elevation gain: 500 feet cumulative, though the hike never felt too difficult

Time: 2-3 hours

Fees: Parking and entrance are free, though I did notice a voluntary donation box near the entrance

Trail map from the Napa County Regional Parks and Open Space District here. Another one from the Bay Area Ridge Trail here.

Moore Creek Park is located near Lake Hennessey about 30 minutes north of Napa. From Napa, take Highway 29 to the town of Rutherford, then take a right onto Highway 128. Follow 128 for about 6.5 miles, passing Lake Hennessey on your left. Turn left onto Chiles Pope Valley Road, and the park entrance will be on your left about 1.5 miles up. Turn left onto the access road and the parking area is just past the private residence on your left.

 

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Pioneer Express Trail at Folsom Lake

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After doing many hikes around Solano County and parts of the Bay Area, I was ready to finally do one in the Sacramento area. Sacramento holds a special place in my heart. It’s where I went to college and lived there for a short time. I have many friends that live there. Needless to say, I was ready to get back and explore. It so happened that I was in town visiting friends and after we said our goodbyes and parted ways, I realized that I had a good hour of daylight to kill. I searched for the nearest trail to where I was, found this one, and off I went!

IMG_2600The Pioneer Express Trail follows the western shoreline of Folsom Lake, a large reservoir located in the hills above Sacramento between the Roseville/Rocklin area and El Dorado Hills. Although the trail technically starts at Beals Point in Folsom, one could conceivably hike from the Nimbus Dam overlook (partially using the American River Bike Trail) all the way to the Auburn staging area in Auburn, 34 miles away, and all within state park boundaries. So I’m not underestimating when I say this trail is really, really long. Given my time constraint, I only covered a very tiny portion of the trail (a little over a mile), but I was very impressed. The trail was well maintained, easy to follow, and had a nice mixture of lake views and forest covering to make it a pleasant hike. I started out from the Sterling Pointe equestrian parking area, which in itself was an adventure to find. You’d probably be better off starting at more popular parking areas, such as Granite Bay, Rattlesnake Bar, or Beals Point. From the parking area, I followed the short Sterling Pointe Trail that led me down to the Pioneer Express trail, which I took heading south. I hiked for about a mile through oak forests, occasionally getting a good lake view. At one point nearing the end of my first mile I found a small side trail that took me down to a small rocky beach that was absolutely sublimely quiet and peaceful at dusk. Unfortunately due to the approaching darkness I couldn’t stay long. I returned via another short side trail to the parking area just before total darkness. Overall this was a great short hike and I will definitely be back to explore more of this trail. I would not however recommend doing this one in the summer, as temps frequently soar above 90-100 degrees. Use that time to do what everyone else is doing at Folsom Lake; being on the lake!

Trip Stats

Distance: 1.79 miles (your mileage will vary, as the Pioneer Express trail stretches about 25 miles from Beals Point in Folsom to Auburn)

Elevation gain: Mine was very small. Trail appears to be mostly smooth with some up and down as it follows the lake shore.

Time: I hiked for 1 hour, but yours will vary based on mileage. This trail could take an hour or all day depending on what you make it!

Fees: Depends on where you park. I parked outside of park boundaries so I didn’t pay, but I think they range from $8-12 depending on where you park (if that seems high, remember that this is the California State Parks we’re talking about)

The Pioneer Express Trail is located at Folsom Lake State Recreation Area, and is accessed from several points between Folsom and Auburn. For specific directions, consult Google Maps or the park website, located here. Trail map found in the park brochure here, look at the west side of the lake for the Pioneer Express Trail.

Wildflowers at Vallejo Swett Ranch

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This trip report is less about a hike and more about a walk/experience of a piece of land in the hills above Vallejo that is normally closed off to the public. Vallejo Swett Ranch is owned by the Solano Land Trust and only accessible via docent led hikes. Every month the SLT hosts a guided hike at the King-Swett Ranch properties, which include this one and two large properties adjacent to I-680 in the hills between Benicia, Vallejo, and Fairfield. Generally they alternate between hiking at Vallejo Swett and King Ranch (next to 680) when doing the monthly hike and this time, in April 2016, Vallejo Swett was chosen. The timing couldn’t have been more perfect. Though I was a little disappointed that the hike turned out to not really be a hike (we mostly walked around looking at wildflowers and wildlife, a distance totaling just over two miles). However, the wildflowers at Vallejo Swett Ranch were simply spectacular. So many different colors were represented; yellow, white, orange, red, blue, purple, green, and everything in between. Entire hillsides were dotted with these gorgeous wildflowers that appeared to be in full bloom. While on the property, we even spotted a bald eagle, which was pretty neat. At one point I climbed to the top of one of the hills and got a great view of all of Vallejo and Benicia, so I imagine on some of the longer hikes at this property the views would be great. If you have particular interests in nature (wildflowers, birding, etc.), I would highly recommend checking out the Solano Land Trust hikes. All of the docents are nature lovers and appear to be very knowledgeable. Guided hikes range from wildflower walks in the spring at Jepson Prairie (south of Dixon), to more strenuous treks at places like Rockville Trails Preserve (west of Fairfield). Check them out!

Trip Stats

Distance: Just over 2 miles (guided hikes vary each time in distance and location)

Elevation gain: Not much. We climbed a couple of hills 🙂

Time: Hikes usually last 3-4 hours

Fees: Free! That’s the best part about the Solano Land Trust; most of their guided hikes are free

If you want to visit the Vallejo Swett Ranch (or many of the other SLT properties), you must sign up for a guided hike on the SLT website (http://www.solanolandtrust.org). Look for the events calendar to see what’s up and coming! Meeting times and places vary, but for this hike we met at the parking lot on the side of Hiddenbrooke Road and I-80 near Vallejo.

 

Lagoon Valley Park in Vacaville

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I’ll be honest right up front. Though it is right in my own backyard, Lagoon Valley has never been my favorite place to hike. In fact, I’ve often considered it my least favorite. Most of the park is without shade, the hills are very steep in many places, most of the year the hills are an ugly yellow and the summer sun can cause temps to soar well above 90 degrees, sometimes over 100. For years I would avoid hiking at Lagoon Valley for these very reasons, and instead sought my outdoor adventures elsewhere. At times, this can be a wise choice; hiking here in the summer can be miserable at best and brutal at worst. However, this winter/spring I decided to give it a fresh chance and was pleasantly surprised at how quickly my opinion changed. In the spring, the hills are a nice green and the cooler weather makes hiking here much more pleasant. From the ridge lines, one gets great views of Vacaville and the valley beyond (plus the Sierras if it’s clear enough), as well as Fairfield and Mt. Diablo to the southwest, the lagoon to the west, and the Vaca Mountains to the northwest. The trails, though unmarked, are easy to navigate and have the right amount of terrain. Some are very steep and go straight up hills, while others flatten out a bit to give you a break. It’s hard to give a specific trip report for this park because usually when I come here I just wander and pick whatever trail strikes my fancy. However, I can say that a popular hike is to park down by the lagoon and follow the fire road up to the farthest radio tower in the park. Depending on how you loop around, you can squeeze out a 4-5 mile hike. The day I did this hike I parked at the end of Butcher Road off of Alamo Drive, a popular place to park to avoid the $3 day use fee if you park inside the park. From the end of Butcher Road, you can hike either up in the nearby hills to Lagoon Valley, or along a paved bike path. As long as you don’t mind freeway noise (present in most of the park), you’ll be fine. I followed a trail up into the hills and stuck along the ridge lines for a while, before descending and walking around the lagoon before returning to my car. I’m sorry if this is vague but the fact that none of the trails in Lagoon Valley are marked or named makes it hard to specific. I can reassure you that it is very hard to get lost in this park, so the best way is to just wander. Come in the winter, spring, and fall, because as I stated summers can be brutal here. If you do decide to hike in summer, go early in the morning or in the evening when temps are more tolerable. You can also enjoy the many other amenities Lagoon Valley has to offer, such as disc golf, an archery range, and picnicking by the lagoon.

Trip Stats

Distance: Today I hiked about 6 miles but it’s really whatever you want it to be

Time: 1-3 hours; depends on how many miles you hike

Elevation gain: Varies, lagoon level is around 200 feet and the highest radio tower is around 900 feet.

Fees: $3 if you park by the lagoon (self serve), or free if you park at the end of Butcher Road

Lagoon Valley Park is located in the hills between Vacaville and Fairfield and is accessed off of I-80. Take the Pena Adobe Road exit and follow the signs to the park. To access the Butcher Road parking area take the Alamo Drive exit and turn right (if coming from westbound), or go on Alamo Drive south (if coming from eastbound). Turn right onto Butcher Road by the 76 gas station and Starbucks. Follow it until the road dead ends, though most days you’ll see cars parked on the side of the road before that. Come early on nice days as this is a popular parking spot.

Bald Mountain Loop at Sugarloaf Ridge State Park

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At long last, after a very rainy March, dry weather started to return by the end of the month. I was particularly excited for this because for the last several weeks, I had been hiking in everything from a drizzle to a down pour. I was excited to finally get a day of gloriously good weather to do a nice, long day hike. I wanted something that would give me good views, but would also be more challenging than some of the other hikes I’ve done thus far. When I came across Bald Mountain in a number of different places, I knew this must be a pretty good hike. I was not disappointed.

Bald Mountain is not very high by most standards, standing at only 2,729 feet. It makes up for it in prominence, and by extension, views. The mountain is located in Sugarloaf Ridge State Park, located a few miles east of the town of Kenwood in the Sonoma Valley. Sugarloaf occupies a swath of the Mayacamas Mountains and has flora that ranges from towering redwood groves, oak forests, ghost pines, manzanita chaparral, and everything in between. Though the summit of Bald Mountain was the ultimate goal and highlight, I found the rest of my hike to be very enjoyable as I wandered through varied terrain and different types of vegetation. This park comes highly recommended.

I began my hike by parking along the main entrance road and hiking up the Pony Gate Trail. My goal was to ultimately circle back and end on the Canyon Trail to view the Sonoma Creek waterfall. While this worked out well, I would not recommend beginning on the Pony Gate Trail if you want to take the easy way. I started gaining elevation immediately and went up, and up, and up. I did cross a few creeks on the way though, which made it more interesting. Eventually I met the Bald Mountain Trail, where the uphill became a bit more manageable. IMG_2446The Bald Mountain Trail is more of a fire road (I suspect that at one point it used to be a passable road to the top), and alternates between forest and exposed ridges with increasingly good views as you approach the top. However, I won’t lie, I was huffing and puffing most of the way up the mountain. It’s fairly steep and should be undertaken by someone who feels up to the challenge. I started at just under 1,000 feet in elevation and climbed to just over 2,700 in about 3.5 miles, so that should give you an idea of the steepness of the terrain. Once you get to the top though, it’s well worth it. The summit of Bald Mountain is aptly named; it’s a small flat, grassy area with sweeping 360 views of the entire region.

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Sonoma Valley below and the Pacific Ocean in the distance

From one spot, I could make out identifiable landmarks from eight of the nine Bay Area counties (Santa Clara being the one I couldn’t), as well as many nearby mountain peaks like Sonoma Mountain, Mt. St Helena, Mt. Vaca, Atlas Peak, Mt. Diablo, Mt. Tamalpais, and the distant snow capped Sierra Nevada. Also seen was the Napa Valley to the east, the Sonoma Valley to the west, the San Francisco Bay, the tops of the Golden Gate Bridge, Santa Rosa, and parts of Napa. I could even see the Pacific Ocean in the distance (this is the only place I can recall seeing both the Sierras and the Pacific in one spot). Not bad for a 2,700 foot high mountain. In true Bay Area fashion, a fundraiser brunch with good food, beer and wine was being held at the top when I arrived (payed in advance customers only), but they did offer hikers drinks if they wanted, which was much appreciated. I spent some time admiring the views at the top, then started my descent on the Gray Pine Trail. The change in vegetation on the other side of Bald Mountain was noticeable; here it was more chaparral, manzanitas, and grey pines (I call them wannabe pines because they look like not fully grown pines in a way). This continued for a few miles until I got down to the bottom of the mountain and the vegetation switched back to more oaks. Eventually the trail met up with the Meadow Trail that follows Sonoma Creek, and I took this back to the main parking area. Sonoma Creek was flowing high and fast, setting me up for what would be the other part of my hike; seeing a waterfall!

Bonus! Hike to the Sonoma Creek waterfall

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One of the other reasons I chose to do Bald Mountain this day was because I had heard Sugarloaf has a hidden secret that I wanted to see revealed, and that is the Sonoma Creek waterfall. To reach the waterfall, follow the Canyon Trail down from the road near the pay station. It will descend down many flights of stairs deep into a canyon filled with redwood trees, making you think you’ve suddenly been transported to the North Coast. It’s a very pretty hike with a lot of downhill, so be prepared to climb back up! Eventually you’ll see a turn off for the waterfall after about a half mile, and if you’ve come at the right time the waterfall will reward you with its glory. The amazing thing about this waterfall is that it’s seasonal, so by summer it’s usually dry. However, in late March with all of the recent rain it was flowing fast and spectacular. Moss and ferns lined the canyon as I surveyed the scene from a rock, just admiring the sound and sights. If you do come to Sugarloaf, come in the winter or spring so that you can have an opportunity to see this waterfall. You won’t regret it.

Trip Stats

Distance: 9 miles (this will vary depending on which trails you choose. Straight from the parking area to the summit of Bald and back can be done in about 6.5 miles)

Time: 4-5 hours

Elevation gain: 1900-2000 feet (it’s a mountain folks!)

Fees: $8 day use fee to enter the state park

Trail map from the state parks can be found here.

Sugarloaf Ridge SP is located about 15 miles east of Santa Rosa and about the same distance north of Sonoma. From Highway 12 in either direction, turn onto Adobe Canyon Road in the town of Kenwood until you reach the park. It will dead end at the parking lot. Camping is available as well!

Searching for views at Carquinez Strait Regional Shoreline, Martinez

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This spring in California has been very hit and miss when it comes to the weather. For most of March, it felt like it was always sunny and warm during the week, but when the weekend came, so did the rain. It was a frustrating combination that led me to hike anyway, despite the rain. I enjoy hiking in the rain provided the proper gear and safety precautions are taken (I’ll explain those in a future post). That being said, on this grey Sunday I decided to find something nice and short that would get me outside and possibly get some good views. My wife Jordan and I were in Concord going to REI and a couple other stores, just hanging out when I suggested going to Carquinez Strait Regional Shoreline near Martinez. To my great surprise, she said yes, and off we went.

The trail that I was trying to target is the Franklin Ridge Trail. Starting from the end of Carquinez Scenic Drive near downtown Martinez, it’s about a 2.5 mile hike in a loop that follows a ridge line for about half, then a small canyon the other half. We decided to head up the ridge first and come down the canyon, though if you do it the opposite way the climb is a bit less steep. Rain came down the entire time and slogging through the mud was an unpleasant experience.

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Behind all of the clouds is the Carquinez Strait

Worst of all, the views we were promised were a white out. Plus on top of all of that, we had to deal with going around herds of cows and having one of them follow us for a good half mile (at a distance, no danger just a little weird). Yet despite all of that, we came out of it having fun and chalked it up as a story to tell. NOW, that all being said, I would highly recommend this hike when the weather is better. The clouds started to clear as we drove back down to Martinez and we got a glimpse of the view and it was spectacular. I can only imagine what it would be like when the weather is completely clear. Do this one when you need a quick, short hike but want a big pay out in views. It’s well worth it.

Trip Stats

Distance: about 2.5 miles round trip from the end of Carquinez Scenic Drive

Time: 1-2 hours depending on how long you stay admiring the views

Elevation gain: about 500 feet

Fees: None where we parked but there may be a day use fee to park at a more developed parking lot. Check with the EBRPD.

Trail map from the East Bay Regional Parks can be found here.

Carquinez Strait Regional Shoreline is located west of downtown Martinez in the East Bay. To reach the park follow Carquinez Scenic Drive from downtown Martinez until it dead ends. The trailhead is nearby.