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Briones Peak

Briones Regional Park

Briones Regional Park Links:

March 8th, 2003

8.4 miles
1975 vertical feet
Total Time: 4:57

Rating: 7/10

Directions: Take Highway 24. Exit Pleasant Hill Road. Drive north for 0.6 miles, then left on Reliez Valley Road. Drive 4.8 miles, then turn left at the big sign that says Briones Regional Park - Alhambra Creek Staging Area. The parking lot is about 0.8 miles down the road; along the way you'll pass the entrance station where the parking fee was $4 as of 2003.   View Driving Map

I've biked along Bear Creek Road and Happy Valley Road, which border Briones Regional Park. So I know it can get quite hot and dry during the summer. In the spring, however, the hills are still green. So on a beautiful late winter day which felt more like spring, Cammy, Jean, and I set off on a loop hike in Briones.

We started off at the Alhambra Creek staging area. We arrived at the huge parking lot at around 11:30am, but there was plenty of space. The lot would be a bit fuller when we returned 5 hours later.

Great view a few steps into the hike

The Alhambra Creek trail starts right from the parking lot. We followed the wide dirt road, with glowing green hills on the right and the small creek parallel on the left. Oak trees dotted the hills. It's a typical East Bay hike, with cows, green hills (in the spring), and oak trees. The trail starts out fairly level, but then gradually starts to climb.

There's a single-track which parallels the trail on the opposite side of the creek, under shade of tree. In retrospect, we could have taken that route instead, as it eventually meets up with the main trail before the first intersection. As we climbed, we ran into occasional hikers, joggers, and mountain bikers. Even though mountain bikers are allowed and can go quite fast down some of the steep trails, they're not much of a problem because the trails are so wide and there are not a lot of blind corners.

After about a mile we turned right onto the Spengler Trail. After about 0.7 miles later, we passed through a cattle gate and came to one of two adjacent ponds. We could only really see one of the ponds from this vantage point, but we'd see the other as we climbed higher. The ponds (called the Maricich Lagoons) are fenced off and gated to restrict access for the cows that graze nearby.

There were quite a few people in this area, some of them coming from the Toyon Canyon Trail. We turned left onto the Old Briones Road Trail and climbed up a large green amphitheater. A couple of dogs ran around us played with their owners nearby. Dogs are allowed off-leash in most places in the park, except where posted. I get a lot of questions about what hikes are dog-friendly, and this is one of them.

We continued climbing, gaining views of the Benicia-Martinez Bridge and surrounding area. We reached another gate attached to a barbed-wire fence. On the opposite side of the fence is a great view of rolling green hills and trees. We turned left and continued yet more climbing, now on the Briones Crest Trail.

View over the fence looking west

We had a weird rainy season this year -- lots of rain in November and December, and not much in January and February. Usually it's the other way around, and I wonder if this caused the wildflower season to get out of whack. I expected to see lots of wildflowers, but there weren't very many. I can't tell if we were early or late; it looked like some of the flowers were past their prime. Most of the flowers we did see were small lavender flowers; we saw occasional poppies and a few scattered others.

Mount Diablo from Briones Peak

About 2.5 miles and 1200 feet of climbing into the hike, we reached Briones Peak, which at 1483 feet is the highest point in the park. There's a short single-track spur trail which leads to the top, which you can see from the main trail. There's a fence here, and a bench on the other side of the fence. To get to the bench, you have to climb through some bars in a gate, which doesn't open. The bench was occupied when we arrived, so we opted for the shade of a tree just down the slope from the bench.

Nap time on the summit

The views from the top are impressive. There are a fair number of trees on the summit, so there aren't 360 degree views. However, there are nice views of the rolling green hills to the west; you can still see the Benicia-Martinez bridge, Concord, Walnut Creek, and everything in-between. The big attraction, though, is the most impressive view of Mount Diablo I've seen. I'd never viewed Mt. Diablo from this vantage point before, and really shows how the Diablo massif dominates the surrounding area.

View looking northwest from the summit

After lunch, we packed up and were getting ready to leave. While we were still on top, a couple of raptors soared in front of us. Later, another spread its wings right above us. Unfortunately I didn't capture any of this on film, but I'd get my chance later...

After lunch we continued on the spur trail and rejoined the main trail. I noticed a gopher sticking its head out of its hole, then retreating. It did this a couple more times, a la Caddy Shack, before disappearing for good. After being amused by his antics, we climbed past another gate, then bore right onto the Table Top Trail. This trail climbs up and down, in and out of the shade of trees. Along the way we passed a large communications complex -- one of the largest I've seen on a hike. Rows of antennas and a small bunker adorn the hill to the left. And on the right, there's a massive radio telescope pointed towards the heavens. It must be about 30 feet across. It's fenced off, of course.

Radio telescope

While on the Table Top Trail, we caught glimpses of a couple raptors, perhaps the same ones we'd seen earlier. We came to another gate, but turned left and continued onto the Spengler Trail. We now started a descent in the shade of a pleasant forest. As we descended, we could see massive houses down the right, on the edge of the park near Reliez Valley Road. Huge houses with no backyards built right next to each other.

View of a ridge through the trees

Vulture soaring over the valley

We emerged from the trees and saw the raptors at it again. They soared through the air. But this time, there were more than just two. More and more kept appearing -- up to about 7 of them. I frantically brought out my camera with the fast film and long lens and started snapping away. These are amazing creatures and, at least for me, the hike is worth it just to be able to see them. I think most of the raptors were turkey vultures, though I think I might have also spotted a red-tailed hawk. Hopefully my pictures will turn out and I'll be able to tell later. By the way, turkey vultures have wing spans of up to 6 feet.

Vulture over the ridge

Turkey vulture


After admiring the raptors, we continued down the sometimes very steep trail. There are a number of intersections, some signed and some not -- it's important to take a map with you, and even then you may have to end up backtracking. Somehow, with the help of a map and book we managed to stay on course. We expected this section of the hike to be mostly downhill, but there is still a fair amount of climbing here. It is shaded for the most part, however, and nice and quiet late in the day. We also encountered quite a few wildflowers in this part of the hike, including a lot of poppies.

Open forest

Eventually we reached the Diablo View Trail and turned right for our final descent. This drops down to an unsigned gravel road. Take the fork to the right, as we did, and you'll soon see the parking lot below. With all the gravel, this section is slippery-steep, so we were glad to have our trekking poles with us.

This was a nice hike with great views and a chance to see raptors. And we've only scratched the surface of the park. At 5,756 acres, the park is one of the largest in the East Bay, and is criss-crossed by a myriad of trails which can be combined to form a nice loop, short or long. Perhaps I'll return sometime to explore the trails from the Bear Creek staging area of the park.

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