Wednesday, March 30, 2022

Table Mountain (Jamestown, CA)

New Melones Lake and the landscape of California Gold Country
4.5 miles round trip, 550 feet elevation gain
Difficulty: Easy-moderate
Access: Paved but narrow road to trailhead; no entrance fee but very limited parking

The great latite cliffs of Table Mountain are one of the most notable landforms in the Sierra Nevada foothills around the California Gold Rush towns of Jamestown and Sonora. While most of this plateau-like prominence is on private land, hikers can access the top of this mesa on a sliver of Bureau of Reclamation land near New Melones Lake. While wildflowers make this hike a big draw during the spring, the unusual geology of the mountain and the controversial history of New Melones Lake can be appreciated and contemplated year-round. The short climb up the mountain is steep and rocky and may required some scrambling, but most of this hike is flat, easy, and enjoyable.

I hiked up Table Mountain on a mid-April Sunday, hoping to see some wildflowers in the area. To reach the trailhead, I followed Highway 108 to Jamestown from the Central Valley. Just past the historic downtown, I turned left onto Rawhide Road and followed it to the north and west for 2 miles, crossing through a gap in Table Mountain. Two miles down Rawhide Road, the road turned sharply to the right; here, I turned left onto Shell Road, a narrow, one-lane paved road that descended through a small gulch and then passed by many private homes. Shell Road ended at a gate, with a limited parking area off to the right side of the road; this marked the trailhead for the hike.

This hike is becoming increasingly popular, but unfortunately the trailhead is unable to handle the growing number of hikers. There is only room for about 12-15 cars at the main trailhead, with room for a handful more cars at the secondary trailhead beyond the gate. There is very little to no room for parking along Shell Road on the approach to the trailhead; the road is very narrow and is bordered on both sides by private property. Unfortunately, many visitors have taken to blocking residents' driveways along Shell Road for parking- this has resulted in numerous complaints from locals. Hopefully either the Bureau of Reclamation or Tuolumne County will look at providing more parking options here in the future, but for the moment this is the unavoidable situation.

If the parking lot at Table Mountain is full when you arrive, leave and do another hike or spend time exploring the nearby Gold Rush towns of Sonora and Jamestown. Don't be a jerk and block someone's driveway. To ensure that you can fit into the small parking area on Shell Road, do one of two things: hike on a weekday, or arrive early if you come on a weekend. I arrived at 7:15 AM on a Sunday and had no trouble parking. When I drove out at 10 AM, the lot was full and there was a parade of cars coming up Shell Road. Plan to arrive at the trailhead before 9 AM on weekends- and if you can't, then make sure you have a backup plan.

A dirt trail headed off to the right side of Shell Road from the trailhead parking area, cutting across grasslands dotted with oaks. From the trailhead, I caught my first glimpse of New Melones Lake, which I would not see again until reaching the top of Table Mountain.

The trail ran parallel to a dirt continuation of Shell Road for the first mile. This first mile of hiking was fairly flat as the trail wandered through grasslands that were dotted with wildflowers in April. Stately oaks and grazing horses added interest to the trail through the grasslands and occasional views of the high latite cliffs ahead gave me a preview of the hike's destination.

Grazing horses along the first half of the trail
Spring wildflowers in the grasslands
Oaks and grasslands
Table Mountain's latite cliffs
One mile from the trailhead, the Table Mountain Trail crossed Shell Road; this is an alternate trailhead for those willing to drive down a rougher dirt stretch of Shell Road. There was a pit toilet at this trailhead. Crossing Shell Road, I began to ascend up an eroded dirt trail that soon left the grasslands for the brush and low forest at the base of Table Mountain. The wide dirt trail ascended for 0.2 miles from Shell Road before making a sudden sharp left turn and entering a surprisingly lush forest at the base of Table Mountain. Here, the wider path turned into a narrow single track that began a steep ascent through the forest up Table Mountain.

Incongruously lush area at the foot of Table Mountain
The ascent was remarkably steep and quite rocky, although it was thankfully quite short: in two-fifths of a mile of hiking from Shell Road, the trail climbed 400 feet to reach the top of Table Mountain. The very final stretch of the ascent was so rocky and steep that it nearly required some rock scrambling, though I still found the footing secure enough here that I did not actually need to use my hands.

Final steep stone trail leading to the plateau
At just under 1.5 miles from the trailhead, I arrived at the top of Table Mountain. The top of the mountain was as flat as its name promised and was covered by grassland with just a few scattered trees. Arriving at the top and seeing this scenery was surreal: the golden grasses here seemed more remniscent of the East African savanna than of California's Sierra foothills.

Summit plateau of Table Mountain
A number of trails branched out across the summit plateau. A fence ran across the width of the plateau to the north, but clear use paths navigated through the rock-studded grasslands towards the south and towards the east. I took the social path heading east first, crossing the summit plateau and coming to the eastern edge of Table Mountain. From here, I had a lovely view over Jamestown and the California Gold Country. 

These oak-dotted, grassy foothills captured the imagination of people all over the world shortly after James Marshall discovered gold while building a sawmill for John Sutter, a European-American businessman, in 1848. While the Sutter's Mill discovery was farther north near Sacramento, when prospectors arrived in 1849 from the world over they came as far south as Sonora and Jamestown in search of placer gold and eventually, the Mother Lode- the bedrock rich in this valuable metal.

This ancestral home of the Miwok became a new home for a truly diverse immigrant population during the Gold Rush. The nearby town of Sonora was named after the Mexican mining city where many of its residents had immigrated from. South of Jamestown, the settlement of Chinese Camp was home to some of the earliest Chinese Americans, many of whom immigrated from the restive southern city of Taishan in search of Gold Mountain and a stable livelihood only to encounter a legal system stacked against them and a nascent Anglo-American settler population ready to brand them as the yellow peril.

California Gold Country
Overlooking Jamestown
After enjoying these east-facing views, I returned to the west side of Table Mountain's summit plateau and followed a social path south along the western edge of the latite cliffs. Here, I had views of New Melones Lakes to the west and views across the summit plateau to the east. Remarkably, I could see all the way to the snowcapped Clark Range, one of the alpine ranges of the High Sierra in Yosemite National Park.

Distant Clark Range rising over Table Mountain's grassy plateau
The views of New Melones Lake from Table Mountain were very striking: the reservoir's blue waters filled a valley bound by the oak-covered foothills. I visited during a drought year, so the water levels of the reservoir were low even in spring, when the reservoir typically reaches its peak capacity each year. The lake is formed by New Melones Dam, which holds back the Stanislaus River.

New Melones Lake
New Melones Dam was the last large scale dam project associated with the Bureau of Reclamation's Central Valley Project and no dams of its size have been built in the United States since its completion. The 625-foot tall dam, which was not visible from Table Mountain, holds back the fourth largest reservoir in California. Its associated hydroelectric project has 300 megawatts of generation capacity, enough to power a small city. New Melones Lake- along with the rest of the Central Valley Project- holds water that has turned California's Central Valley into one of the world's most productive agricultural regions. These reservoirs- and the Central Valley farms they water- have also drastically changed California's ecosystem, draining the seasonally flooded wetlands of the Central Valley and decimating the salmon populations of California's major rivers. In the 1970s, environmentalists fought the construction of the new dam to save the Stanislaus River Canyon upstream of the dam, which was beloved by outdoor recreation enthusiasts for its whitewater rafting. The environmental coalition to block the dam lost its battle, but has since succeeded in halting the construction of any similar sized projects in the West.

I followed the cliff-edge trail until it terminated at a protruding block of Table Mountain's walls. From here, I had a great angle to study Table Mountain's commanding latite cliffs, which rose about 300 feet above the forest below. In the distance, I could also see from here out across the Central Valley to the Coast Range, notably spotting the twin summits of Mount Diablo. Now about 2.2 miles from the trailhead, I found this an appropriate turnaround point.

Great latite cliffs of Table Mountain
The latite cliffs of Table Mountain are the result of an ancient lava flow: Table Mountain is actually an inverted valley. The volcanic source of this lava flow is actually quite distant, as the lava flow of Table Mountain is related to the same episodes of volcanism that created the many extrusive igneous formations along the Sonora Pass corridor, including the Columns of the Giants and Dardanelles Cone. All of these volcanic features are a result of eruptions from the Little Walker Caldera about 10 million years ago; the Little Walker Caldera today lies east of Sonora Pass, but lava from its eruptions were able to flow over fifty miles down the canyon of the ancestral Stanislaus River. This lava then hardened into the latite of Table Mountain: as the Sierra Nevada have experienced uplift over the past 3 million years, softer surrounding rock has been eroded and this long river of latite has now become a lengthy, sinewy mesa running through the foothills between the Stanislaus and Tuolumne watersheds.

There is a lot of interesting geological, historical, and political context to this short but scenic hike in the Sierra foothills. If you can get here early enough to beat the crowds and find a legal parking spot, this is a worthy hike; if not, don't torture the people who live on Shell Road and leave this hike for another day.

Wednesday, March 23, 2022

Drakes Head

Point Reyes view at Drakes Head
9 miles round trip, 1050 feet elevation gain
Difficulty: Easy-moderate
Access: Narrow paved road to trailhead, no fee required

If you’re looking for a photo of a Canadian rapper’s face, this is the wrong page for you! But if you’re looking for a pretty (albeit long) hike in California’s Point Reyes National Seashore to a coastal promontory with views over bird-packed estuaries, long sandy beaches, and coastal bluffs, then you’re in luck. Drakes Head overlooks both Drakes Estero and Drakes Bay, all named after Sir Frances Drake, the Elizabethan era English naval officer and pirate who robbed Spanish galleons up and down the Pacific coast of the Americas and who likely landed here at Point Reyes. The scenery is generally good, if not superlative; this is one of the few day hikes in Point Reyes that accesses the wildlife-rich Estero, but there are a few long stretches of hiking on somewhat featureless grasslands along the way to the views from Drakes Head.

The hike is reasonably easy despite its length, as there are many short ups and downs but no extended ascents or descents; the trail is mostly out in the open, which can be punishing under the California sun. While perhaps not the highlight hike at Point Reyes, Drakes Head still makes a satisfying day outing and is somewhat less crowded than better known hikes in the area such as Alamere Falls and Tomales Point. High grass is especially common along the trail on the final single-track path to Drakes Head, so be prepared for ticks. The trail is open to both hikers and bikers: expect to see mountain bikers along the way.

I hiked to Drakes Head on a hazy January weekend. To reach the Estero Trailhead in Point Reyes National Seashore, I headed north from San Francisco on US 101 and took exit 450B in the direction of San Anselmo and Sir Francis Drake Blvd. I followed Sir Francis Drake Blvd west past San Anselmo and Samuel P. Taylor State Park for 21 miles to the junction with Highway 1 at Olema. I turned right at the junction and followed Highway 1 north for 2 miles, then turned left at Point Reyes Junction to stay on Sir Francis Drake Blvd. I took Sir Francis Drake Blvd for another 8.5 miles, passing the village of Inverness on Tomales Bay, and made a left turn at the signed turnoff for the Estero Trailhead. The paved spur road to the Estero Trailhead was very narrow but thankfully was only a mile long before reaching a large gravel parking lot with pit toilets and room for about 30 cars.

I started the hike to Drakes Head by following the Estero Trail out from the parking lot. The Estero Trail, which had a wide and well-maintained trail tread, headed to the southeast along the contours of a hill, starting out with a gentle to flat grade. The trail was completely out in grassy and brushy terrain here, allowing views of forested Inverness Ridge rising to the east and the hills of Point Reyes spreading out in the other directions. From this early stretch of trail, I was lucky to spot a herd of tule elk grazing on the grassy hill across the valley. These native Californian ungulates were nearly hunted to extinction in the late nineteenth century after European American settlers arrived; the herd at Point Reyes is part of a rebounding statewide population.

Elk herd
At 0.6 miles, the trail entered a grove of Monterey pines. Over the next half mile, the trail traveled through a pretty pine forest, eventually beginning a gradual descent that dropped the trail down to the shores of Home Bay, an arm of the Drake Estero, at 1.1 miles.

Monterey Pines along the Estero Trail
The Estero Trail crossed its namesake body of water on a small bridge. During high tide, water flows under the bridge and floods these tidal flats, bringing in numerous birds to feed on the creatures that make these tidelands their home. It was a delight to watch birds feed in the Estero while sitting on a bench on the bridge; I especially enjoyed seeing snowy plovers and an egret pecking for food.

Avian dinnertime at Home Bay
Shorebirds feeding
After crossing the bridge, the trail followed a causeway across the remainder of Home Bay. Reaching the other side of the Estero, the trail turned sharply to the right and began to ascend steadily up the side of the low ridge, with increasingly nice views of Home Bay and the grove of Monterey pines across the water. 

Estero Trail crossing Home Bay
The full extent of Home Bay, which included another inlet to the west, became apparent as I ascended. The trail soon leveled out and followed the side of the coastal bluffs, staying high above the water. At 1.6 miles, the Estero Trail began to bend to the left and a magnificent view of the entirety of Drakes Estero unfolded in front of me. The estero’s calm waters sparkled beneath low bluffs and long, grassy ridges.

Drakes Estero
Over the next mile, the Estero Trail made two undulating descents and ascents from the bluffs, each time descending to a small pond separated from the estuary by a small earthen dam that the trail would follow. Neither of the ponds were particularly scenic- one was heavily coated in algae- but both ponds attracted birds and I spotted egrets in the estuary near both spots. The views of the estero evolved each time I ascended back up to the bluffs. Cattle gates made their first appearances on the trail during this stretch.

Egret in Drakes Estero
At 2.5 miles, the Estero Trail came to a junction with the Sunset Beach Trail. The Sunset Beach Trail continued straight ahead on the nice road trace that the Estero Trail had utilized thus far, while the Estero Trail headed to the left, turning into a grassy single-track trail. I stayed on the Estero Trail, which ascended gently through the grasses and offered improving views of Drakes Estero to the west. At 2.7 miles, I crossed a cattle gate and followed blue arrows that marked the trail through these cattle pastures. In the middle of a plateau-like grassland, I could no longer see the water on any side; the scenery transitioned to views of wooded Inverness Ridge and rolling grasslands dotted with grazing dairy cows.

Drakes Estero
The dairy industry has played a major role in Marin County’s economy since the California Gold Rush days and is still renowned today. Much of the non-wilderness part of Point Reyes National Seashore is still managed as cattle grazing land, continuing a practice that was first initiated by European American settlers in Point Reyes who made cheese and butter to sell to the growing city of San Francisco. That legacy lives on in the numerous cheesemakers and creameries that still call Marin County home: most famous of these is Cowgirl Creamery near Point Reyes Station, where the grass of the Marin hills is processed through ruminant metabolism and microbial fermentation into the delectable Mount Tam cheese, among others. Point Reyes Farmstead, Nicasio Valley Cheese, and Marin French Cheese are among other area cheesemakers whose products commonly grace the cheese section in Bay Area grocery stores. While legacy agriculture operations were grandfathered when Point Reyes National Seashore was established, there's still some level of controversy about whether they should continue; the Department of Interior acted in 2012 to discontinue legacy oyster farming in Drakes Estero.

Grazing cows
At 3.1 miles into the hike, I passed through another gate and arrived at the junction between the Estero Trail and the Drakes Head Trail. I took the right fork for the Drakes Head Trail, which began heading south across the broad plateau of the grasslands.

As I followed the Drakes Head Trail south, my destination came into view: Drakes Head was a prominent hill rising at the end of the low ridge that I was following. Soon, arms of Limantour Estero were visible to the east, with the dunes of Limantour Spit visible in the distance and the Pacific Ocean beyond that. The single-track trail headed through the high grass and had to cross a small gully at one point; the bottom of the gully was unfortunately extremely muddy. While hiking through the grass was fairly easy, I can see the terrain here being substantially more challenging with mud after recent rains, although the exposed nature of this hike should also dry things out quickly once the sun returns.

View of Limantour Estero from the Drakes Head Trail
I enjoyed the improving views along the walk down the ridge as the trail descended gently, until I finally started ascending gently again as I approached the end of the ridge. The final, mild uphill climb brought me up along the crest of the ridge towards Drakes Head, offering lovely views of Limantour Estero to one side and a small creek valley to the other side.

View along the grassy ridge leading out to Drakes Head
At 4.5 miles, I reached the destination of my hike atop 150-foot high Drakes Head, a bluff overlooking Drakes Bay with excellent views up and down the Point Reyes coast. The sandy finger of Limantour Spit ran beneath us, separating Limantour Estero’s calm waters from the waves of Drakes Bay and the Pacific. To the west, I could see the end of Limantour Spit and the mouth of Drakes Estero; beyond that, a line of Point Reyes’ distinctive yellow cliffs connected all the way to Chimney Rock at the edge of the peninsula. To the east, more cliffs rose beyond Limantour Estero, stretching down the coast. Haze on the day of my hike limited how far I could see; on a very clear day, the views should stretch all the way to the Farallon Islands, about 23 miles off the coast.

Drakes Bay and Point Reyes view from Drakes Head
Limantour Spit and Limantour Estero from Drakes Head
Egrets fly over Limantour Estero
In 1579, Sir Francis Drake landed in a sheltered harbor on the coast of California during his circumnavigation of the Earth. An explorer and English naval officer, Drake was commissioned by Queen Elizabeth I to explore the Americas and raid Spanish wealth. Despite an unfortunate start to his journey- the six ships with which we left England were reduced to just one, the Golden Hind, by the time he rounded Tierra del Fuego- Drake was wildly successful at sacking Spanish cities and plundering treasures from Spanish ships (treasures that the Spanish initially acquired through the downfall of the Inca and Aztec empires and through the encomienda system that committed indigenous Americans to slavery). While sailing off the California coast, Drake probably landed here in Drakes Bay to make repairs to the Golden Hind; he proclaimed this land to be Nova Albion and claimed the Coast Miwok homeland for the English throne. Anglo American settlers in late nineteenth century chose to reintroduce Drake's name to various landmarks around Point Reyes and Marin County; recently, a reevaluation of Drake's mixed legacy has begun, centered around Drake's role in the slave trade earlier in his life.

Overall, I found the hikes to Drakes Head to be enjoyable but not necessarily exceptional. The views along the Estero Trail and at Drakes Head are great, although there’s not too much variety in the scenery covered over this nine-mile round trip hike. The opening stretches of the hike along the Estero Trail are fairly popular and get a good amount of visitor traffic, although Drakes Head is sufficiently far from the trailhead that it sees fewer visitors. This isn’t a highlight hike in the Bay Area, or even in Point Reyes National Seashore, but it’s enjoyable and certainly worthwhile for Bay Area hikers who make the drive out.

Friday, March 18, 2022

Willson Peak

Poppies atop Willson Peak
8 miles loop, 1950 feet elevation gain
Difficulty: Moderate
Access: Paved but narrow road to trailhead, Henry Coe State Park entrance fee required

Willson Peak's green grassy ridges, wide-ranging views, and explosively flowery serpentine soils make this tallest peak in the southern half of California's Henry Coe State Park one of the better spring hikes in the San Francisco Bay Area. Hikers who tackle this peak, which has a myriad of paths leading to its summit, many quite steep, will find beautiful floral displays of poppies and other California spring flowers each April in the peak's unique serpentine soils. The views into this relatively wild corner of the San Francisco Bay Area are also worth making the trek out. There are three major trails leading from the Hunting Hollow Trailhead near Gilroy to the summit of Willson Peak: the Steer Ridge Trail, the Jim Donnelly Trail, and the Middle Steer Ridge Trail. I'll describe a hike that takes the steep Middle Steer Ridge Ridge up and returns via the gentler Jim Donnelly Trail that is packed with views and pretty oak and grassland scenery throughout. This hike is best in spring; it can be muddy in winter after rains and is typically very hot and less pretty in the summer.

The hike starts from the Hunting Hollow Trailhead just outside Gilroy. To reach the trailhead, I left Highway 101 in Gilroy at exit 357 and headed east on Leavesley Road. I followed Leavesley Road across farmland for 1.5 miles and then turned left onto New Ave; following New Ave north for a half mile, I then turned right onto Roop Road and followed it into a little canyon. Roop Road soon intersected with Leavesley Road again; I turned left at this junction, which kept me on Roop Road. Roop Road began following a creek valley into the Diablo Range and became Gilroy Hot Springs Road. At a junction with Canada Road, I stayed left to continue heading towards Henry Coe State Park; a mile later, I arrived at the Hunting Hollow Entrance to the right of the road. There was a massive parking lot here with room for at least 50 cars. This is quite a popular trailhead, as its one of just two access points into the vast Henry Coe backcountry that is open year-round. On a nice April Saturday morning, I arrived to a full parking lot and took the very last spot just after 9 AM.

I followed the Hunting Hollow Trail, a road trace, from the large parking lot. The trail immediately crossed the main creek in Hunting Hollow. During my May visit, there was barely any flow in the creek so crossing was quite easy, but in times of higher flow (such as shortly after storms) this crossing (and the four subsequent creek crossing) may become challenging or impassable as there are no bridges. I immediately came to the junction with the Steer Ridge Trail after crossing the creek: this is the most direct and steepest route to the summit of Willson Peak, which I would skip that day. A tenth of a mile later, I passed the junction with Jim Donnelly Trail, which I would follow on my return. 

Crossing the stream in Hunting Hollow
I continued forwards on the Hunting Hollow Trail for the initial two-thirds mile of the hike, crossing the creek five times total. While the trail at times passed through forest, long stretches of the trail passed through grassy clearings that provided nice views of the surrounding green hills. Every now and then, I would come across patches of blooming wildflowers in the meadows bringing brilliant colors to the already verdant grasses.

Grassy clearings in Hunting Hollow
At just under two-thirds of a mile from the trailhead, in a clearing with a windmill, I came to a junction with the Lyman Wilson and Middle Steer Ridge Trails, which split off to the left from the Hunting Hollow Trail. I made the left turn here to leave the Hunting Hollow Trail and immediately encountered a second fork in the trail, where the Middle Steer Ridge split off to the left and the Lyman Wilson Trail headed right. While both of these trails can lead to the summit of Willson Peak, I chose to the take the left fork for the Middle Steer Ridge Trail.

The Middle Steer Ridge Trail was a lovely single track trail that initially traveled through the wooded bottom of a valley, passing a junction with a connector trail to the Jim Donnelly Trail that headed to the left and uphill at 0.8 miles. In spring, these woods are especially lovely, with wildflowers dotting the forest floor.

Spring wildflowers
Starting at the one mile mark of the hike, the Middle Steer Ridge Trail began a steady, switchbacking ascent of its eponymous ridge. This marked the start of this hike's long and somewhat arduous climb, with about 1600 feet of ascent over the next 1.7 miles. The early switchbacks carried the Middle Steer Ridge Trail up through a forest of lichen-draped trees. Although there were trees around, foliage cover was sparse enough that I could see the surrounding ridges from the trail.

Lichen hanging off trees
After some initial switchbacks, the trail started on a more direct route along the spine of the ridge, ascending constantly and relentlessly as it climbed up the grassy ridge underneath the canopy of outstretched oaks. This stretch of the trail was very scenic in spring, made even more enjoyable by the fact that the Middle Steer Ridge Trail was a single track trail rather than the typical dirt road trace that's found throughout the Bay Area.

Grassy trail through the oaks on Middle Steer Ridge
As the trail climbed, the oaks became sparser. At 1.7 miles, the trail emerged into a grassy clearing on the ridge, with a brief respite from the steep climb. When the trail began climbing in earnest again, the ridge was mostly exposed, with green grass everywhere and only occasional old oaks dotting the landscape. This is one of my favorite types of Bay Area scenery and I found Middle Steer Ridge on that April weekend to be an exemplar of what I find so beautiful about spring in California.

Big oak on Middle Steer Ridge
As the tree cover dissipated, sweeping views began opening up to the southeast, first encompassing other ridges of the Diablo Range and soon reaching to the distant Gabilan and Santa Lucia Mountains. On a clear day, Monterey Bay and the Pacific Ocean should come into view, but unfortunately some ground-level haze on the day of my hike obscured whatever ocean views might be found on Willson Peak.

Middle Steer Ridge Trail
At 2.3 miles into the hike, the Middle Steer Ridge Trail passed a junction with the Bowl Trail, which split off to the right. I stayed on the Middle Steer Ridge Trail, which went through the steepest pitch of the hike right after this junction, and continued following the trail until it topped out atop a grassy knoll with sweeping views at 2.8 miles. Here, views to the north of the mountainous interior of Henry Coe State Park unfolded. Past this knoll, the trail descended just slightly to intersect with Steer Ridge Road, a wide dirt road trace running along the crest of the main ridge.

View out to the Gabilan Range and Monterey Bay from Middle Steer Ridge
I turned right at the junction with Steer Ridge Road and followed it east and gently uphill for a fifth of a mile through rolling grasslands to the junction with the Willson Peak Trail at 3 miles, which was just short of the high point on Willson Peak. In the V between the split of these two trails was a patch of serpentine soil that becomes the hike's crown destination in spring. This nutrient-poor patch of land is unable to support the grasses that cover the rest of the mountain, providing an opportunity for wildflowers to latch on and bloom in abundance. This small patch of serpentine soil was blooming with brilliant colors during my visit, with orange California poppies mixed with yellows, whites, and purples in a spectacular floral display.

Loma Prieta from the summit of Willson Peak
I followed the Willson Peak Trail for a hundred meters from the serpentine soils to the true summit of Willson Peak, which had fantastic wrap-around views, but I backtracked to the wildflower display for lunch as that was the true highlight of the hike. The views from the serpentine wildflowers was excellent. To the northwest, I could see to Loma Prieta and the Santa Cruz Mountains; while a low hill blocked any potential views of Monterey Bay to the west, I could still see the Gabilan and Santa Lucia Mountains to the southwest. The Steer Ridge Road continued following the grassy, oak-dotted ridgecrest to the southeast, with the Diablo Range near Hollister rising in the distance. The Diablo Range has a notably scenic collection of higher peaks near Hollister, although as far as I can tell there's no name for the grouping of these mountains and they're largely inaccessible on private land.

Diablo Range views from Willson Peak
Serpentine soils are quite common throughout the California Coast Ranges and especially in the Diablo Range, where such soils surround San Benito Mountain, the range's highest peak. Serpentine soils are formed from weathering of ultramafic rock, which is low in silica content and often lacks the nutrients necessary for life but is rich in iron, magnesium, and other metals; due to oxygen content in the atmosphere today, ultramafic rocks are rarely formed in volcanic events and only form in the mantle, where they can sometimes be brought to the surface by plate tectonic events. This is what has happened in California: the convergent boundary between the North American Plate and the Pacific Plate (and previously the Farallon Plate) has surfaced ultramafic rock that formed deep underground. Ultramafic rock- and thus California's serpentine soils- also frequently carry the mineral chrysotile, the soft, fibrous mineral that we know as asbestos. High soil asbestos content in the soil has caused periodic closures of San Benito Mountain in the southern part of the Diablo Range, although such problems have not been reported in Henry Coe State Park, where serpentine soils are instead positively associated with their prolific wildflower blooms.

Wildflowers blooming in the serpentine soils atop Willson Peak
After enjoying the views and the wildflowers, I began my journey back, initially returning from the direction I came along the Steer Ridge Road down to the junction with the Middle Steer Ridge Trail. For the descent, however, I chose to take Steer Ridge Road and the Jim Donnelly Trail down instead: this was a longer but gentler route that would save some wear and tear on my knees. Hikers looking for a shorter trip can return down the Middle Steer Ridge Trail and cut about 2 miles off the hike, but I chose to continue onwards along Steer Ridge Road.

Steer Ridge Road undulated along the grassy crest of Steer Ridge, delivering constant and lovely views, especially to the northeast into the deep heart of the chaparral-dominated Diablo Range. Some distant ridges still appeared charred during my hike, a reminder of the effects of the 2020 SCU Lightning Fire, a massive conflagration of the Diablo Range between Altamont and Pacheco Passes that at the time of writing remains the fourth largest wildfire in California history. 

After initially dropping gently to a saddle, Steer Ridge Road climbed to a lower bump at 4.2 miles. Leaving this peak, the trail made a turn to the southwest and began a steeper descent. Here, views from the grassy ridge encompassed Hunting Hollow to the northwest, made prettier by patches of poppies that popped up around serpentine outcrops. I ignored a turnoff for the Spikes Jones Trail on the right at 4.4 miles and descended along Steer Ridge Road until reaching the junction with the Jim Donnelly Trail at 4.8 miles.

View from Steer Ridge towards Mount Hamilton
I turned left at the Donnelly Trail junction to follow the single track Jim Donnelly Trail for the rest of the descent. The Donnelly Trail had a gentler grade than Steer Ridge Road and used broad switchbacks for the initial descent down a grassy slope. There were pretty views from here over Hunting Hollow and towards the Hollister area Diablo Range peaks; a small pond lay below in a grassy bowl. After passing the pond at about 5.5 miles, the Donnelly Trail followed a ridge and descended gradually but steadily towards the floor of Hunting Hollow, with plenty of switchbacks to ameliorate the downhill grade. The trail generally stayed out in grassy meadows with views, but after passing a junction with the connector trail that led to the Middle Steer Ridge Trail at just under 7 miles, the Donnelly Trail returned to oak woodlands for the remainder of the descent. The Donnelly Trail rejoined the Hunting Hollow Trail just a tenth of a mile from the Hunting Hollow Trailhead, so I turned right at the junction and followed that gravel road back to my car.

Looking over Bills Hill and Hunting Hollow from the Jim Donnelly Trail
I enjoyed this hike up Willson Peak a lot. The views are wonderful, the wildflowers are explosively colorful in spring, and there's a good mix of single-track trails to break up the monotony of the road traces that are so common throughout the Bay Area. This is perhaps the best day hike in Henry Coe State Park, which is itself the largest protected area within the Diablo Range. While these hills may be less fun on hot summer days when the grasses have turned brown, they are a delight when hiked at the right time of year.

Wednesday, March 16, 2022

Bald Mountain (Sonoma County)

Grassy meadows on Bald Mountain
6 miles loop, 1600 feet elevation gain
Difficulty: Moderate
Access: Paved but narrow road to trailhead, Sugarloaf Ridge State Park entrance fee required

Bald Mountain is the crowning summit of Sugarloaf Ridge State Park, which preserves a slice of the Mayacamas Mountains in California’s Wine Country. Just a short drive from Sonoma or Santa Rosa, the hike to the top of Bald Mountain may not be anything close to a wilderness experience- after all, the trail up to the summit mostly follows a paved road- but the wide views over Wine Country, San Francisco Bay, and higher peaks to the north make this a worthwhile outing for locals. Winter and spring are the best times for this hike, when the grassy hillsides are green and skies are more likely to be clear.

The hiking loop described in this post starts from the Robert Ferguson Observatory in Sugarloaf Ridge State Park and then follows the Lower Bald Mountain Trail and then the paved Bald Mountain Trail to the 2729-foot summit. On the return, I took the Gray Pine Trail back down into Sonoma Creek’s canyon, returning to the observatory along a stretch of the Meadow Trail.

I visited Sugarloaf Ridge State Park on a nice March weekend. As the park is halfway between Sonoma and Santa Rosa, hikers can access it by following Highway 12 from either city. Coming from the direction of San Francisco, I reached the trailhead by following US 101 north to Santa Rosa, taking exit 488B to follow Highway 12 east. To stay on Highway 12, I turned left at Farmers Lane when the freeway ended and followed it to the intersection with 4th Street, where I turned right to continue heading east. 4th Street became the Sonoma Highway, which I followed east out of the city into Sonoma Valley; just after passing Hamilton Vineyards on the left, I turned left onto Adobe Canyon Road and followed it up a narrow canyon into Sugarloaf Ridge State Park; the road became quite windy and narrow as it entered the park. After paying the state park fee at the entrance kiosk, I drove until just before the end of the road, parking at a large lot at a wide left turn in the road, about a hundred meters down the road from the Robert Ferguson Observatory. This lot has room for at least 40 cars; there is a second parking lot closer to the visitor center near the entrance kiosk, although that lot tends to fill faster.

I followed the road a hundred meters to the Robert Ferguson Observatory to start the hike. This is a rare community observatory, dedicated to allowing the public to explore the night sky rather than being the exclusive domain of academic astronomers. Named after a local astronomy enthusiast, the observatory’s 40-inch reflecting telescope is frequently open to the public for stargazing. One of the more unique astronomy-inclined installations near the observatory was a scale model of the Solar System, with the Sun at the observatory and the outer planets scattered along the Meadow Trail. I would get a closer experience with this Solar System model on the return leg of my hike.

From the observatory, I hopped on the Lower Bald Mountain Trail, a single-track path that headed northwest and uphill. I immediately passed a junction with a connector trail heading over to the Stern Trail and the visitor center; I stayed on the Lower Bald Mountain Trail through this junction and began ascending through a pretty grassy meadow with views of the peaks south of the canyon.

Sugarloaf Ridge State Park
As the trail headed uphill, it reentered oak woodlands, passing through a beautiful stretch where the single-track trail cut through verdant grasses while winding amidst the trees. At 0.8 miles the Lower Bald Mountain Trail emerged into a burn scar left by the 2020 Glass Fire and shortly afterwards connected with the Bald Mountain Trail.

Trail through an oak forest
I turned right at the junction with the Bald Mountain Trail and followed this paved road uphill. If you’re looking for wild, the Bald Mountain Trail certainly isn’t it- it is a reasonably well-maintained paved road that is still used on occasion as a service road for accessing the communications towers atop Red Mountain. The Bald Mountain Trail initially passed through a scarred landscape of torched brush, but soon moved back into lush green meadows broken by patchy oak woodlands.

At 1.2 miles, the Bald Mountain Trail passed a junction with the Vista Trail, a single track trail that head off to the left across a beautifully grassy hillside. Shortly after passing the Vista Trail junction, the trail wrapped around a seasonal pond before continuing its ascent.

Pond on the grassy slopes of Bald Mountain
The trail wrapped around the back side of Red Mountain as it climbed, passing a junction with the Red Mountain Trail at 1.8 miles. At 2.2 miles from the trailhead, I reached the saddle between the lower Red Mountain and the taller Bald Mountain, a massive grassy mound that now rose directly ahead of me. Here, the paved road ended; a sharp left fork in the road headed towards Red Mountain, while the main trail towards Bald Mountain transitioned to a good dirt road trace.

The Bald Mountain Trail began a final 0.4-mile push to the summit, ascending via some switchbacks through the open grassy slopes. Views really opened up at this point, with much of the landscape to the south visible behind the communications towers of Red Mountain. I could see as far as the Bay, the San Francisco Peninsula, and the skyline of San Francisco itself.

View towards Mount Tam and the Bay
Green, grassy slopes of Bald Mountain
At 2.5 miles, the trail made a clockwise rotation around the summit before reaching the wide high point of the mountain. A bench at the top of the 2729-foot mountain provided a nice spot to rest and enjoy the sweeping 360-degree panorama here. Napa and Sonoma Valleys lay on either side of Bald Mountain, with their fields of mustard flowers and vineyards giving a distinct pastoral look. The Mayacamas Mountains stretched to the north, with the summits of Mount St. Helena and Cobb Mountain clearly visible; the elusive Snow Mountain, still true to its name in March with a white coat, was faintly visible as well. To the south, I could see the Bay, the San Francisco skyline, Mount Tam, and Mount Diablo. Hood Mountain rose to the west above Sonoma Valley.

Hood Mountain
Mount St. Helena, Cobb Mountain, and Snow Mountain in the distance
View towards the Russian River Valley
View towards Sonoma and the San Francisco Bay
I left the summit on the Gray Pine Trail, an extremely wide dirt road trace that followed the ridge directly east of the summit. The ridge walk was initially quite spectacular, as the south side of the ridge was completely open, providing sweeping views as I descended along this ridge that separates Napa and Sonoma Counties.

Summit views from Bald Mountain
After an initial steeper descent, the Gray Pine Trail leveled out for a bit after passing a junction with the Red Mountain Trail at 3.4 miles and followed the more level ridge. Here, I came upon a much more severely burned section of the mountain: the northern side of the ridge had not recovered at all from the Glass Fire the previous year, with no grasses growing and all the trees blackened to crisp.

Fire-scarred and fire-spared
Effects of the 2020 Glass Fire
Napa Valley
At 3.8 miles, the trail came to another junction, where the Gray Pine split from the Brushy Peaks Trail. While the Brushy Peaks Trail continued along the crest of the ridge, the Gray Pine Trail headed right and downhill here, following a minor ridge back down into the Sonoma Creek watershed. The trail descended steeply, dropping 950 feet over the next 1.2 miles as it traveled beneath a set of power lines.

Views along the Gray Pine Trail
The Gray Pine Trail arrived at the bottom of the valley at 4.8 miles, crossing a small stream and then coming to an intersection with the Vista Trail. Heading down the valley for another 0.2 miles, I crossed Sonoma Creek and then joined up with the Meadow Trail at 5.1 miles; I took the right fork upon meeting the Meadow Trail to follow that trail back to the Observatory and the parking lot. The Meadow Trail was flat after an initial crossing of Sonoma Creek; it then traveled through meadows at the bottom of the canyon.

Crossing Sonoma Creek
At 5.5 miles, I came to a plaque by the trail with a depiction of Saturn: this was one of the ten plaques that are part of the Sugarloaf Ridge State Park planet walk originating at the Robert Ferguson Observatory, which I had mentioned earlier. This scale model is at 1:2.4 billion and accurately represents both the relative sizes of the planets and the distances between them. Saturn could fit onto a sign here, but the planet was still a half mile from the observatory, so the immense scale of our Solar System really came across in this representation. After passing Jupiter and the Inner Planets while hiking along the meadow, I arrived back at the Robert Ferguson Observatory, completing the loop.

Bald Mountain is one of many pleasant peak hikes in the greater San Francisco Bay Area. In the Wine Country, its views are probably second only to those from Mount St. Helena; however, the paved road that ran almost to the top of the mountain detracted at least somewhat from my hiking experience. There were plenty of hikers on a sunny spring weekend day, enough to fill most of the parking spaces by the time I finished my hike in the early afternoon, but the far reaches of the hike- especially on the Gray Pine Trail- were pretty quiet.