Tuesday, November 17, 2020

Mission Peak (SF Bay Area)

Mission Peak
7.5 miles round trip, 2150 feet elevation gain
Difficulty: Moderate
Access: Paved road to trailhead, Ohlone College parking fee required

Social media's impact on the outdoors is rarely more obvious than at Mission Peak, a mountain rising above the city of Fremont in California's San Francisco Bay Area that is known not only for its sweeping views but also for the crowds that line up to pose at the Instagram-ready summit pole. This is an immensely popular hike, but Mission Peak's commanding position over the South Bay and the views that provides means that this love is well-deserved. The traditionally-preferred route from Stanford Ave in Fremont should be avoided due to the limited parking from that approach, so I'll describe here the slightly longer but still scenic route from Ohlone College, where there's far more parking. 

Many novice hikers view Mission Peak as the ultimate challenge of the Bay Area, although the ascent up the peak is really not too bad for anyone with hiking experience, following wide paths for the most part and only dealing with rockier terrain in its final stretch. This hike is best in winter and spring, when temperatures are mild and the grassy hills are green. Mission Peak lies within Mission Peak Regional Preserve, operated by the East Bay Regional Parks District of Alameda and Contra Costa counties.

I hiked this trail with Anna on an early February weekend day, when an inversion layer locked some smog near the Bay but the weather was otherwise sunny. To reach the trailhead from I-880, the main artery along the east side of the sound, take exit 12 for Mission Blvd and follow Mission Blvd east and north for three miles to Ohlone College. Turn right onto Pine St at Ohlone College and follow Pine St uphill past the baseball fields and tennis courts to the large parking garage. You can buy a day permit at the kiosk by the elevator to park in the parking garage on weekends.

Exiting the garage, cross the street and follow Pine St towards the power lines to reach the trailhead for Mission Peak. A large sign for Mission Peak Regional Preserve marks the start of the hike, at a spot where a wide dirt road branched to the right under the power lines. The trail branched off at the base of a power line tower and then paralleled Pine St. We followed this wide dirt trail uphill for a fifth of a mile, passing a cattle gate and then coming to a junction with another wide dirt trail running along the base of the mountains. Here, we turned right and followed the trail towards Mission Peak.

This wide trail- a road trace- ascended at a steady grade along the southwest aspect of a ridge as it left Ohlone College, traveling through open, grassy slopes. Views opened up immediately, encompassing not just the sports fields of the college below but also much of the rest of Fremont and the Santa Cruz Mountains across the Bay. The part of the hike was also the most crowded, the steeper parts of the trail having not yet weeded out unprepared hikers. After a half mile, the trail curved into a deep notch cut into the ridge of Mission Peak. Cows grazed on the grassy slopes around us.

Passing through the grassy notch
The trail ascended through the grassy notch until leveling out as it approached some woods, passing by a pond and a watering area for the cows. At just over a mile from the trailhead, the trail left the dirt roadbed, heading to the right on a single-track through oak forest and paralleling Mill Creek Road. There's no parking at this access point from Mill Creek Road, so there's no use thinking of shortening the hike by a mile by driving to this side of the mountain. For the next 0.4 miles, the trail ascended gently through the forest along the road, passing by some nicer residences that were across the road.

Oak woodlands
When the trail reemerged in the open, it began to climb more steadily again, pushing uphill to join a gravel road at 1.8 miles from the trailhead. The next 0.4-mile stretch of the trail climbed quite aggressively along a steep slope with gradually widening views to the north until reaching the top of a plateau north of Mission Peak's true summit. Here, the trail switched to a gentler grade as it wandered through broad, grassy slopes with grazing cows. The pointy summit of Mission Peak rose from the rounded hills in front of us while to the north grassy, rounded hills stretched towards Pleasanton Ridge and Mount Diablo. Smog in the Bay had spilled over into the Tri-Valley, keeping Livermore and Pleasanton out of sight below a layer of haze.

Open grasslands on the shoulder of Mission Peak
Summit ahead
The flatter hiking on the plateau ended at 2.7 miles from the trailhead, where we passed a vault toilet. An unmarked gravel road broke off to the right here; we stayed straight and came to another junction immediately afterwards. The trail to the right led towards the Stanford Ave trailhead, while the trail to the left continued towards Mission Peak's summit.

This wide path wrapped around the north side of Mission Peak's summit ridge before making a steeper push through the open slopes to gain the ridge. Along this stretch, we passed a side trail from which we returned after doing a short loop around the summit. The wide path has become quite eroded here as the legions of hikers who make their way to the summit have chosen to leave the main trail and walk out many parallel tracks to reach the ridge. This fairly stiff ascent ended on the ridgeline. 

Final trail to the summit
From here, a dirt single-track path followed the ridge to the summit. The trail is a bit uneven and rocky in places here- the only part of the hike that isn't on a fairly smooth, road-like surface. A final, 150-foot elevation gain push brought us to the summit, 3.5 miles from the trailhead, where the famous summit pole lay a few meters away from rocks marking the true high point. As we expected, there was a line of hikers here waiting to have their photo taken with the summit pole. Since we were here just for the views, we skipped the hubbub and settled on the rocks to take in the expansive views of the Bay Area.

Mission Peak is in the Diablo Range and so the views along the Diablo Range were quite expansive, extending to the south along the grassy ridges of Monument Peak to Mount Hamilton and its white-domed observatory in the distance. To the east were the hills of Sunol Regional Wilderness and to the north were the two peaks of Mount Diablo, rising above the smog that coated the Tri-Valley. The green hills of Pleasanton Ridge and the Dry Creek Regional Park faded down into the smog of the Bay; Fremont and the waters of the Bay itself were just visible through the haze, as were the peaks of the Santa Cruz Mountains rising across the Bay: most prominent were Loma Prieta, Mount Umunhum, and Black Mountain. Mount Tamalpais rose above the smog layer to the north, but unfortunately one of the great prizes of this view- the skyline of San Francisco and the Bay Bridge- were buried in the air pollution. Although my hike predates the SCU Lightning Complex Fires that swept through the Diablo Range, when you hike it you should be able to observe the effects of that fire on the mountains to the southeast.

Looking south along the Diablo Range to Mount Hamilton
Mount Diablo rises over the Tri-Valley
Loma Prieta and Umunhum float above the South Bay smog
Mission Peak is so named for its proximity to Mission San Jose, a Spanish mission that is actually in modern day Fremont. Mission San Jose was one of 21 missions established in California during the late 18th and early 19th century by Franciscan priests. Juniperro Serra- now a Catholic saint- oversaw the establishment of the first missions, which were strung along the coast or just slightly inland between San Diego and Sonoma. The intention of these missions was to establish Catholicism and European modes of agriculture and living for the native peoples of California; baptized natives lived and farmed on the missions. However, natives who lived in the missions were often held against their will or were forcibly driven to the missions; this erased many of the rich cultures of California Coast native peoples and subjected many of them to conditions bordering slavery. European diseases such as measles also decimated native populations.

After enjoying the summit views and reflecting on the meaning of the peak's name, we decided to descend. You can simply return down the ascent route, but we chose to make a loop around the mountain's high northern slopes, briefly getting away from the crowds on the mountain. Our return route involved continuing along the main ridgeline to the southeast, descending for 0.3 miles and joining a dirt road trace at a saddle, and then following this road 0.8 miles around the northeast side of Mission Peak to rejoin the main trail. We turned left at every junction until we returned to the main trail. The walk down the ridge to the southeast from the summit was very scenic, with constant views of the grassy uplands of Mission Peak and Monument Peak. The road trace passed the Eagle Springs backpack camp, a backcountry campsite, and then contoured along the base of Mission Peak's steep summit pyramid with great views to the north in the grassy meadows. After rejoining the main trail, we descended back to Ohlone College and had a well-deserved dinner at Arzu, a favorite Fremont restaurant of ours for Xinjiang food.

Mission Peak is an extremely popular hike, but it's still a good hike. The views at the top are outstanding and the grassy slopes and oak woodlands en route are scenic and enjoyable to hike through. Even if Mission Peak isn't on the list of things to do that I'd recommend for out-of-town visitors, it's still a classic Bay Area hike.

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