If you’re reading this and you’re from Oakland or San Francisco, suggesting that you go hiking in Pinole Valley will probably leave you saying, “Huh? Where’s that?” (I mean, SF residents treat even going to Oakland like it’s heading to Tahoe…) Ten years ago, I wouldn’t have known where Pinole Valley was either, so there’s room for all of us to grow. You’ll have to find a little bit of adventurous spirit for this hike (maybe fill up your gas tank), but I’m telling you that your efforts will be rewarded, if you like stunning views and feeling like you have the hills to yourselves. This hike is the opposite of Cataract Falls— we’ve been here three times and seen exactly ONE other person total.
For this hike, we’re heading out to East Bay Municipal Utility District (EBMUD) land again. That means you’ll need to get yourself a cheap permit ahead of time here, and best to print out a map here. You can also get a map from the EBMUD site here, but I think the Bay Area Ridge Trail website has a better map. The hike starts from a very nondescript intersection– well-known to road riders of the Bay Area (it’s on the highly trafficked Three Bears route)– Alhambra Valley Road & Bear Creek Road. When you get to the intersection, look for a sign-in booth. This is the start of the trail (opposite side of the little vineyard). No parking lot, no bathrooms. Be forewarned and also don’t leave anything in your car (but you live in the Bay Area, so this should be standard operating procedure).
The trail starts by heading over a tiny bridge and then entering a gate, following the trail signs to the right. Be sure to close the gate– this land is definitely used for cow grazing. From here, the trail winds to the right and starts to climb up to a big oak tree with a bench under it to enjoy the view. This is about .5 miles from the trailhead and if you just stopped here, you’d be having a good day. However, the best views are yet to come! From here, the trail heads to the right, climbing various hills but always keeping you out in the open with amazing views of the hills– even out to the Bay & Mount Tamalpais!
For a great kid-friendly hike, we recommend continuing on this trail-of-sweeping views until you reach one of the most perfectly placed benches I’ve ever seen, about 1.5 miles from the trailhead (see above). If you want, you can just hang out here and stare at the view in front of you. Or have a snack. We did both. From the bench, you can either head back down the trail, or you can continue on. The trail will eventually take you all the way to the intersection of Pinole Valley Rd and Castro Ranch Rd, or you could do a point-to-point and end up at Fernandez Ranch (maybe 5 miles to get to the parking lot at Fernandez Ranch). While the trail is still beautiful, it DOES start doing some extreme climbing and descending.
Another option is to head up to explore the oak trees along the ridge just past the second bench. There is a tiny unofficial trail that meanders along under some beautiful, maybe-even-tree-climbing worthy oak trees that, if you get tired of climbing, look out to the same stunning vistas. We did exactly that– stopping for some art time, as you can see.
If you venture onward, you’ll be treated to beautiful views of Mount Diablo on the other side of the ridge– this is one of the treats of hiking ridges in the Bay Area– getting to see two big mountains on either side of you. And remember what we said earlier? NO PEOPLE. This is truly a gem of a hike–it’s becoming one of my favorites. If you have people you know who claim to know the trails of the Bay Area inside & out, suggest this for your next hike and gain yourself some trail cred.
This is not a dog-friendly hike, and there is no water available, so bring your own (plus some snacks). While this area may be muddy after a good rain (but it’s also a ridge, so should drain well), it will be HOT in the summer–the next few months are probably ideal. I haven’t been out here in the spring, but it’s on the list for possible wildflowers. We’ll keep you posted. Finally, if you have a cow phobia, be warned that they roam the land freely.