Wednesday, January 11, 2023

Corduroy Hills Loop

The Corduory Hills of Las Trampas Regional Wilderness
8 miles loop, 2050 feet elevation gain
Difficulty: Moderate
Access: Paved road to trailhead, limited parking, no entrance fee required

To Eugene O’Neill- the playwright who became the first American recipient of the Nobel Prize in Literature, who once lived on a farm here in Danville, California- the green grass-covered forms of the Diablo Range in Las Trampas Regional Wilderness were the “Corduroy Hills.” This poetic name is a delightful descriptor of these lovely hills, which are a lush green during winter and spring months and provide enjoyable hiking through grasslands, chaparral, and oak forest with great views of the mountains east of the San Francisco Bay. The hike described here is a loop in the hills directly above O’Neill’s residence, with a lovely ridge walk along Las Trampas Ridge that hits three low summits, grazing cows, and plenty of views of stately Mount Diablo. Winter and spring are the best times to visit, as the hills here are less pleasant during the hot summer months when the sun is overbearing and the grass is brown. The trails in Las Trampas Regional Wilderness can be a little muddy following rainstorms in winter and spring.

The Corduroy Hills Loop can be accessed from several different trailheads; I will describe an approach using the Ringtail Cat Trail from the Ringtail Cat Staging Area on Hemme Ave, although it is also possible to connect with this loop from roadside parking along Camille Ave for a hike of similar distance and difficulty.

I hiked the Corduroy Hills Loop on a lovely and sunny December Saturday, after the first few major rainstorms of the season had already refreshed the greenness of the grass. To reach the trailhead, I took I-680 out to Danville, exiting onto El Cerro Blvd; I headed west on El Cerro Blvd to its junction with Danville Blvd and then followed Danville Blvd north for 1.5 miles to the stoplight with Hemme Road. I turned left onto Hemme Road and drove to the cul-de-sac at the end of the road. There is a small parking lot run by the East Bay Municipal Parks District at the end of Hemme Road that is signed as the Ringtail Cat Staging Area; unfortunately, the lot is quite small and accommodates less than 10 cars. For the moment, street parking along Hemme Road is legal, although I wonder how long the very clearly affluent residents of this subdivision will tolerate the flux of weekend hikers here.

From the parking lot, I followed the Ringtail Cat Trail into the forest along an unnamed creek; while this creek is likely dry for most of the year, there was some low flow during my December visit. The environs around the creek were lush and shaded and the trail was flat. About 200 meters or so into the hike, the trail passed an old pump next to the stream.

Old pump
A third of a mile in, the Ringtail Cat Trail intersected with a trail coming from South Ave. Here, the Ringtail Cat Trail turned sharply to the left and began to climb above the stream. A gradual initial ascent lifted the trail out of the shaded streamside environs onto a grassy ridge with a canopy of oaks; at this point, the Ringtail Cat Trail became substantially steeper as it ascended along the ridge.

Oaks along the Ringtail Cat Trail
At 2/3 mile into the hike, the Ringtail Cat Trail passed a blocked-off side trail leading to the left. Shortly after, the trail left the forest of oaks and broke out into an open, grassy hillside. As the trail continued ascending through two switchbacks up this gorgeously green slope, views of Mount Diablo emerged. As I climbed higher and followed the trail onto the crest of a ridge, more views of Walnut Creek to the north and the Tri-Valley to the south opened up.

Mount Diablo above the grasslands along the Ringtail Cat Trail
Oaks and grassland of the Ringtail Cat Trail
View towards the Tri-Valley
At one mile from the trailhead, the Ringtail Cat Trail ended at a junction with the Madrone Trail. The two directions of the loop split apart here: I chose to hike the loop clockwise, taking the left fork first to handle the steep climb up to Eagle Peak earlier and leave the gentler descent from Las Trampas Peak for the return. This fork of the Madrone Trail- actually a road trace- initially stayed out in the open, providing some more lovely views of the Tri-Valley while passing by a number of stately oaks, but the trail soon (appropriately!) entered a madrone forest and began a steady descent in the woods until emerging on a grassy ridge and intersecting with the Corduroy Hills Trail at 1.5 miles. The Madrone Trail led straight ahead from here down to the Camille Ave trailhead, while a sharp right turn put me on the Corduroy Hills Trail.

Madrone Trail
The Corduroy Hills Trail immediately embarked on a steep and aggressive uphill climb, following a steep road trace uphill through open, grassy slopes with improving views of the Tri-Valley and the luminously green grasslands in the distance. At 1.8 miles, the road trace ended at a small landing, splitting in two to make a small loop (both forks of the loop lead to the next section of trail). From the landing, there were spectacularly open views to the east that encompassed everything from Walnut Creek through Mount Diablo down to the Tri-Valley.

Incomparably verdant grasslands of Las Trampas
The Corduroy Hills Trail transitioned to a narrow single-track trail as it left the landing, continuing to follow the ridge. Here, the grasslands of the lower ridge transitioned to grassy oak woodlands. Over the next 0.8 miles, the trail followed the ridge, with frequent openings that provided many lovely views of Mount Diablo and the nearby chaparral-covered ridges.

View of Danville from Eagle Peak
At 2.6 miles, I came to an unmarked spur splitting off to the left from the Corduroy Hills Trail that followed the ridge to the summit of Eagle Peak. I took this short, fifty-meter detour to enjoy the views from the summit, where there was a nice bench from which I could enjoy the views. Mount Diablo rose high across San Ramon Valley and the sprawl of Dublin and Livermore filled the rest of the Tri-Valley to the south. The barn at Eugene O’Neill National Historic Site was clearly visible in the middle of a grassy field, an idyllic reminder of this landscape’s inspiration on the playwright who wrote A Long Day’s Journey into Night and The Iceman Cometh.

Returning to the Corduroy Hills Trail, I came upon a series of outcrops along the ridge of Eagle Peak that opened up new and lovely views over Bollinger Canyon and across to Las Trampas and Rocky Ridges. Soon after, the trail left the crest of the ridge and descended steeply to a grassy saddle between Eagle Peak and Las Trampas Ridge before climbing steeply up the other side, passing through a narrow hiker gate to join up with the Las Trampas Ridge Trail at 2.8 miles. The southwestern side of Eagle Peak was surprisingly rocky, which added interest to the otherwise chaparral-dominated scenery here.

View of Rocky Ridge from Eagle Peak
At the junction with the Las Trampas Ridge Trail, I turned right and followed the trail to the northwest to continue my clockwise loop. The vegetation along the crest of Las Trampas Ridge alternated between brush and oak woodlands over the next mile. I passed Vail Peak and two junctions with the Bollinger Canyon Trail as I followed the undulating ridge, from which I had superb views of Bollinger Canyon and the rest of Las Trampas Regional Wilderness. Most notable was an open ridgetop walk starting at 3.3 miles, from which I enjoyed amazing views of the Diablo Range all around me. I was even able to spot Mount Tam and the tall conifers on a distant ridge in Redwood Regional Park near Oakland.

View of Las Trampas Ridge and Bollinger Canyon
The trail dropped through another saddle and then ascended again to reach a cattle gate just below the high point of Las Trampas Peak at 3.8 miles. Immediately after crossing the gate, an unmarked social path led uphill and to the left through a grassy slope to the top of Las Trampas Peak. I checked out this short detour, which brought me to the high point of the hike. Las Trampas Peak had nice views down the grassy north slope of the mountain towards Walnut Creek and Suisun Bay; I could spot notable mountains north of the Bay from here, most notably the multi-humped peak of Mount St. Helena. More unique was the view to the west: I could see part of the San Francisco Bay, with the Santa Cruz Mountains rising behind it. While not a remarkable panoramic view, this was still an enjoyable spot to stop.

Santa Cruz Mountains, San Francisco Bay, and the redwoods of the Oakland hills
Returning to the Las Trampas Ridge Trail, I followed the trail down a broad, grassy slope. On this side of the cattle gate, the chaparral of Las Trampas Ridge had been replaced by grasslands, the vegetation here kept trim by the grazing cows. Several cows were scattered across the slope, taking in their daily views of Walnut Creek and its surrounding hills. The trail wrapped around a ridge and passed two unmarked splits in the road trace; the second of these splits was potentially confusing, as the clearer path made a sharp turn to the left even though the actual Las Trampas Trail continued straight. After crossing another cattle gate at 4.5 miles, I continued descending through the meadows until the trail reentered the oak woodlands and arrived at its junction with the Madrone Trail in a small clearing at 5 miles.

View from Las Trampas Peak down towards Walnut Creek and Suisun Bay
Cows grazing the green hills of Las Trampas
During my visit, two cows had made a temporary resting spot out of the junction of the Las Trampas Ridge and Madrone Trails, spreading plenty of their poop around the area. Making my way around them, I took the right fork of the Madrone Trail.

Cows munching and pooping on the Madrone Trail
The Madrone Trail continued the long descent from Las Trampas Peak, sticking mainly to oak woodlands but at one point emerging onto a ridgeline clearing with some more views of Mount Diablo and the Tri-Valley. Making a broad left turn, the Madrone Trail descended until bottoming out at a creek crossing at 5.9 miles. An undulating mile of hiking through the forest after the creek crossing brought me back to the open meadow and the junction with the Ringtail Cat Trail at 7 miles where I had started the loop earlier in the day. A final descent along the Ringtail Cat Trail closed out the hike. 

The Corduroy Hills and Las Trampas Regional Wilderness are already well-loved, but still receive fewer visitors than Mission Peak or Mount Diablo or other overcrowded East Bay destinations. The hiking is just as enjoyable and the views are sweeping, if not quite equivalent to those from taller Bay Area summits. On a nice December Saturday, I saw close to a hundred other hikers on the trail on an all-day hike, although the far reaches of the loop near Eagle Peak and Las Trampas Peak were pretty quiet.

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