Wednesday, December 28, 2022

Los Vaqueros Vista Grande

Brushy Peaks and windmills rise over Los Vaqueros Reservoir
5 miles loop, 1200 feet elevation gain
Difficulty: Easy-moderate
Access: Paved road to trailhead, Los Vaqueros Watershed entry fee required

The Vista Grande Trail in the Los Vaqueros Watershed in California’s Contra Costa County lives up to its name, delivering lovely views of Los Vaqueros Reservoir and the rolling hills on the eastern edge of the Diablo Range. Los Vaqueros Reservoir is a fairly recent addition to the network of reservoirs in the Bay Area, its dam completed in 1998 to provide water to the Bay Area’s rapidly expanding outer suburbs, including Walnut Creek, Concord, Livermore, and Antioch. A loop consisting of the Eagle Ridge and Vista Grande Trails is perhaps the best way to appreciate this man-made lake, which is set amongst grassy, oak-dotted hills under the shadow of the Altamont Pass windfarm. The scenery along this loop hike is lovely, but this is a surprisingly quiet trail; don’t let the entry fee to the watershed deter you from visiting. Winter and spring are the prettiest times to visit, when the grassy hills are green; check the watershed’s website before you come to make sure trails are open.

This hike consists of a loop starting at the visitor center below Los Vaqueros Dam: starting by following the Walnut Trail along the road to the start of the Eagle Ridge Trail, the loop then follows the Eagle Ridge Trail steeply uphill and then along a long, scenic ridge, then follows the Vista Grande Trail down a separate ridge, finally returning via the Los Vaqueros Trail to the dam and then following a paved road back to the parking lot.

I hiked the hills of Los Vaqueros on a lovely if slightly chilly December day, when plentiful rains that winter had already turned the hills of the Diablo Range bright green. The Vista Grande Loop is accessed from the watershed’s northern entrance, which is not far from the city of Antioch; hikers from the Central Valley will find approaching from Antioch the easiest. As I was coming from the Bay, my route was a bit more complicated: I followed I-580 east out to Livermore and left the freeway at the Vasco Road exit. I followed Vasco Road north across the Diablo Range until coming to the first stoplight in the Central Valley: here, I turned left onto Camino Diablo. I followed Camino Diablo for 2 miles to its four-way stop intersection with Walnut Blvd, where I turned left and followed Walnut Blvd past the entrance kiosk to the end of the road at the large parking lot and visitor center below the dam. There are pit toilets near the parking lot; I’m unsure if there are nicer bathrooms in the visitor center as it was closed during my visit. At the time of my visit, Los Vaqueros Watershed charged a $6 entry fee or $4 for local ratepayers in eastern Contra Costa County.

The initial half mile opening stretch of this hike from the visitor center to the base of the Eagle Ridge Trail was somewhat confusing. Walking down to the bottom of the hill at the parking lot, I started looking for a trail heading north from the pit toilet- poor signage here made it unclear whether the Walnut Trail, which park maps showed running parallel to Walnut Blvd, was a paved path slightly upslope from the road, a grassy path separated from the road by a barbed wire fence, or just the wide shoulder of Walnut Blvd itself. After trying out each of these options for a short distance, I decided to just follow the road shoulder as the most obvious route; it later became clear, though, that the grassy route on the other side of the fence was the formal Walnut Trail.

After following Walnut Blvd north for a half mile, I came to a gated dirt road on the left (west) side of Walnut Blvd. There’s no parking at this gate, so unfortunately hikers interested in just hiking the Eagle Ridge Trail should still park at the visitor center at the end of the road. I went through the gate here and came to a multi-way trail junction. The wide road-trace of the Mariposa Canyon Trail headed up a gulch from here, while the Walnut Trail led parallel to Walnut Blvd on either side; I took the right fork for the Walnut Trail to head north. After just a few meters along the Walnut Trail, I came to a second junction for the Eagle Ridge Trail, which split off to the left. I hopped onto the Eagle Ridge Trail, a wide and somewhat muddy road trace which immediately began a steep ascent up its namesake ridge.

Cows grazing in the green foothills of the Diablo Range
The Eagle Ridge Trail was very direct and steep in its initial ascent, climbing 500 feet in about a half mile before leveling out on the crest of the ridge. The trail was completely out in the open, providing ever improving views as I climbed uphill. A viewshed initially confined to the nearby rolling hills with grazing cows soon widened to include the Central Valley, higher peaks in the Diablo Range, and the wind farm at Altamont Pass to the south.

Views of the grassy rounded hills of the Diablo Range from Eagle Ridge
At one mile, the trail flattened it a bit as it reached the top of Eagle Ridge. Over the next two miles, the trail followed the ridgeline of Eagle Ridge, ascending gradually along this open, grassy crest. There were lovely views of Mariposa Canyon below and the hills that I would hike through ahead. As I passed under a set of power lines and continued hiking along Eagle Ridge, the views continuously evolved and improved. Soon I could see out to the suburban sprawl of Brentwood and the Montezuma Hills wind farm, which dotted the green expanse of the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta. Clouds above the Central Valley obscured views of the Sierra Nevada across the valley, but on rare clear winter days it should be possible to see directly across the Valley from Eagle Ridge to the snowcapped peaks from Tahoe to Yosemite.

Looking up Mariposa Canyon from Eagle Ridge
Brentwood, Central Valley, and the Montezuma Hills wind farm
At 2.5 miles, the trail began to ascend a bit more aggressively again, reaching the high point on Eagle Ridge at 2.8 miles from the trailhead. The views from the high point on Eagle Ridge were lovely: Mariposa Canyon lay below, with Vista Grande Ridge just across the valley. The many layers of ridges of the Diablo Range lay beyond that. Twin-peaked Mount Diablo itself, its rugged and majestic form contrasting sharply with the gentle, rolling hills of Los Vaqueros, rose to the west.

Diablo Range views from Eagle Ridge
Mount Diablo from the high point along Eagle Ridge
Leaving the high point, the Eagle Ridge Trail began a gentle descent and reached a junction at a saddle at 3.2 miles, marked by an emergency call box. Here, the Eagle Ridge Trail headed off to the right. The Vista Grande Trail lay straight ahead: this was the path that I took forward.

The Vista Grande Trail- also a road trace- had a well-maintained gravel tread that was much more pleasant to hike on that the muddier Eagle Ridge Trail. Leaving the junction, the trail made a short ascend to gain the crest of Vista Grande Ridge. Arriving atop the ridge, I found a splendid panorama of Los Vaqueros Reservoir nestled amidst green, gently rolling hills. Brushy Peak rose on the other side of the lake, surrounded by an armada of wind turbines. Rounded hills, beautifully backlit by the late afternoon sun, rose from the grassy plains of Round Valley below, and Mount Diablo’s twin peaks stood magnificently to the west. Los Vaqueros- “the cowboys”- is named after the Rancho Canada de los Vaqueros, a Mexican land grant that covered the hilly region that is today beneath the surface of the reservoir.

Looking back to Eagle Ridge and the Central Valley
Los Vaqueros Reservoir, with Brushy Peak and the Altamont Pass wind farm in the distance
I hiked along the Vista Grande Trail for the next mile, following the top of the ridge and passing a junction with the Mariposa Canyon Trail at a saddle at 3.8 miles. A fence confined the trail to the top of the ridge; it’s good to stay on trail and follow the rules here as Los Vaqueros is the drinking water supply for Contra Costa County! The trail transitioned from gravel back to dirt after the junction with the Mariposa Canyon Trail, ascending from the saddle to reach the highest point of the hike at 4.2 miles. This unnamed high point along Vista Grande Ridge provided what were surely the grandest views of the hike: all of Los Vaqueros Reservoir was visible below, with the green hills of the Diablo Range running to the northwest and southeast of where I stood.

Shining grassy hills in Round Valley
Mount Diablo viewed from the high point of the Vista Grande Trail
The Vista Grande Trail began an extremely steep descent as it left the high point, following the ridge to the southeast towards the reservoir. Shortly after leaving the high point, the Crest Trail branched off to the left; while the Crest Trail also leads back to the parking area, I stayed on the Vista Grande Trail, which stayed on the ridge and continued providing marvelous views of the reservoir. The trail passed through a gate afterwards and reached a junction with the Los Vaqueros Trail at 4.7 miles. The views were stunning throughout this descent, especially the lovely views of Brushy Peak rising above the field of wind turbines that form part of the Altamont Pass Wind Farm.

Following the Vista Grande Trail down to Los Vaqueros Reservoir
At the junction with the Los Vaqueros Trail, I took the left fork, which followed a turn in the ridge and continued a very steep descent towards the dam. This stretch of the hike was very scenic but also very muddy after recent rains, so by the time I reached the dam at 5.1 miles my boots were coated in mud. I enjoyed some final views of the reservoir from the observation deck on the west end of the dam, then descended a staircase down to the road up to the dam and followed the road downhill for a third of a mile back to the visitor center where I had parked.

Brushy Peak and the Altamont Pass windmills
The Los Vaqueros Dam was completed in 1998, forming the reservoir where there had once been a valley amidst the Diablo Range hills. The earthen dam has already been raised once, in 2012, to expand its capacity; there are proposals now to raise the dam further to meet the growing water demand of the expanding Contra Costa County suburbs.

Los Vaqueros Dam
I saw just one group of hikers on my entire day of hiking- and this was on a federal holiday! Los Vaqueros has not been fully discovered by Bay Area hikers yet, but it is a charming landscape with lovely trails. While not unique enough to warrant a visit from out-of-state visitors, I do recommend this hike for locals looking to branch out from the more crowded parks of the Bay Area.

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