The Ohlone Wilderness Trail – Hiking the Big One
Lake Del Valle to Boyd Camp
Staring at my map of the Ohlone Wilderness Trail 3 years ago, I felt I was about to embark on a relatively short amble through the gentle slopes of the Diablo Range. I’d wanted to explore this trail for some time. The entire trail stretches 31 miles from the trailhead at Del Valle to its terminus at the Stanford Avenue trailhead on the west face of Mission Peak. The map detailed a section of trail about 2 and a quarter miles in length, one way, to the campground I wanted to scout. Well, heck – that’s shorter than the paved trail at Sycamore Grove! This should be piece of cake, hardly a challenge. I loaded up my day pack with water and trail snacks and such, then started up the hill to Del Valle Regional Park. I looked forward to a sedate afternoon on this short section of the Ohlone Wilderness Trail.
I parked the car next to the Lichen Bark Picnic Area at the end of the park road. I saw the trailhead, and noticed the trail was flat until it took a little uphill turn and disappeared around a corner. But I also spotted a couple hikers just about to set off the trail. I thought they were tremendously over prepared for this trail, wearing huge backpacks and the most stout hiking footwear possible. I tossed the knobbie tires on my chair, strapped my day pack onto the back, and chuckled to myself about the pair with the giant packs. I set out on the approach, still chuckling about the grandstanders in their first rate, expensive gear – on such a delicate little trail! How could I have known they would have the last laugh, after my first day on this magnificent trail.
It’s late Spring 2006 now, and I just had to get out here again to see the wildflowers still ablaze with color, and hope for a golden eagle sighting. I started the easiest stretch of the trail, the first eighth of a mile, before it got going uphill. Within 100 yards, the long, slow trip to Boyd Camp began. This gentle, relatively short trail turned ominously up, and kept going – up. And up. And UP!
The first mile to the wilderness sign – in board brought home a theme about this trail – it’s steep! The loose dirt can also make it slippery when dry, which is probably why the two previously mentioned hikers wore the best in hiking shoes. There was almost no respite from the relentless grade coming out of the parking lot. But that seemed to only enhance the experience for me. A nice canopy of trees provides shade on this stretch, and trailside displays of wildflowers spice the experience, peppering the range of vision with color while in season. Reaching a small rise, there’s a little temporary relief in the form of a gentle downslope to the Ohlone Wilderness sign – in board. I am pleased to be able to sit for a few minutes in the shade of a California Laurel, and although I’m only day hiking, I sign in at the kiosk – just in case. There are only one and a quarter miles to go from here to Boyd Camp.
Allow me to share a tidbit of trail information here. This section of trail is THE most difficult I’ve done of all the trails I’ve hiked in the East Bay Regional Park District. You will most certainly find out what kind of shape you’re in. It’s steep almost beyond comparison – and for whatever reason, I was loving every minute of this day. I meet hikers out here frequently who’ve run out of energy and have to take more frequent rest stops on the way up. But stop at one of the few flat spots at the crest of a small hill – the view over Lake Del Valle is wonderful! As the elevation increases, so does the scope of the view, mostly to the north and northeast. The oaks along the way offer shade for hot and worn out hikers or runners. As the wildflowers go into their seasonal decline, I shift my focus to birds. I get a little uneasy moving so slowly up this trail and finding buzzards circling overhead, however! The variety of raptors and songbirds is really something. As frequently as I stop to rest, I pick up on the tune of a warbler or flycatcher, and almost always hear the soft tapping of a woodpecker on one of the dead trees found along the way. Of course, the cry of the red tailed hawk is almost ubiquitous along the trail. I don’t feel so bad taking frequent rest stops – listen to all the activity! Look around – you might spot a deer watching you just a few yards from your position. Being in the chair is sometimes more rewarding than making better time hiking. There’s so much to see and hear, so much natural drama. If I were asked for advice, I’d tell the inquisitive to take it slow, to look down at the stories of life being told at our feet, along the trail, and in the air. And each rest takes a little focus away from the fact that this is one steep trail – or have I said that enough?
There’s nothing like a good hill to make me appreciate how hard I’ve worked to be able to do this. I look once again at my map, and determine that although I feel as if I’ve come several miles since the sign – in kiosk, it’s only been a half mile. Although that’s a bit discouraging, I pause to watch a stream of red ants carry bits of building material back to their nest. Where are they finding the material? I follow them a few feet off the trail, and it appears they’re cleaning out the inside of a dead oak limb. They will simply not be deterred. I drink a little water and keep going. At every turn in the road I ask myself, like the best 5 year old child – “are we THERE yet?” I’ve been on the trail for 3 hours, and have not yet reached Stromer Spring, a very comfortable place to find water or just cool down in the shade of a large live oak. I make it through a gate, now struggling up this stretch, and in just a short bit I get to the Spring. Whew! Shade, glorious shade!
I decide I’ve earned more than a minute or two at this spot, so I sit and listen to the fullness of sound in the air as I cool down. There’s still one third of a mile to the camp, and by the time I reach it, it’ll be time to turn back. Next time, I’ll bring the full pack, tent and sleeping bag. This is a remarkable place, so typical of the hills around the valley, yet so full of variety. I’m beginning to feel I’ve cheated myself by not planning to stay overnight, as the best parts of the trail are still up the road a distance. A day hiker in good shape can (and should!) make the trip to Murietta Falls, a beautiful and hidden waterfall found off the main trail another three miles west of Boyd Camp. The hike to the Falls is strenuous. Go soon, as any lengthy hot spell will cause the Falls to dry almost completely. Closer to Boyd Camp is Williams Gulch, which is for me the most difficult piece for the through hiker. Great shade next to a small creek, however. But it’s a real challenge for a wheelchair, requiring ropes and a lot of patience to get through. But lest I get ahead of myself….
The trail narrows past Stromer Spring, until finally the backpack camp is reached, or in my case, achieved. 4 hours from the start of my hike, I’m finally here. Now I REALLY wish I’d brought the tent and bag, because I just want to flop down and wake up another day. Shoulders are tired and achy, but it’s a good kind of ache, the kind you feel when you’ve done something rewarding. Even with two good legs, this trail is a real challenge. And to think there are a few hardy souls who run the Ohlone from end - to - end each New Year’s Day! I’ve been fortunate enough to meet a couple of these tremendous athletes out on the trail, and fortunate enough to be able to call them friends – even if they DO blow my wheels off when we’re going uphill!
Rest time is over. On paper, it seems this should be the easy part since it’s all downhill now. Just cut loose and freewheel it all the way to the car…right! In reality, steep downhills require more attention and really test the forearms. A really steep hill, such as this one on the Ohlone, can get downright scary. I move slower than one might expect, again taking time to stop and listen while letting the burn in the palm of my gloves subside. From here, I look down into a trailside canyon and watch a small raptor soaring 200 feet below my position, gliding over the treetops. Outstanding! The pain of the long uphill now forgotten, I continue working down the hill, stopping to talk to the wildflowers and bumble bees. OK, so I have some…quirks! I don’t worry unless they talk back!
I’m back at the car now, and make another one of my little notes to myself – gotta get out here for an overnighter! Next time, start earlier, pack the gear, and do a little stargazing from Boyd Camp. If you decide this is the kind of trail you’ve been looking for, remember water and sunscreen at the very least. Both are critical when hiking this trail anytime during the year. Hiking the Ohlone Wilderness Trail requires the purchase of a trail permit, available for a nominal fee at the entrance gate. The permit is also a great map, and includes distances between points, elevation differentials and lots of other good bits of trail knowledge. To camp on the Ohlone requires reservations, which can be made by calling the East Bay Regional Park District at (510) 636 – 1684. If you are in good shape, or want to get into good shape, try out this short section of the Ohlone Wilderness Regional Trail. It’s one of my all time favorites, and I bet it will become one of yours once you give it a try.
To get to Del Valle Regional Park: From Downtown Livermore, follow Livermore Ave. south through town, where it becomes Tesla Rd. Turn Right on Mines Rd., which becomes Del Valle Rd. after a few miles. Follow signs to the park entrance. Specific questions can be answered at the entrance gate.