Backpacking the Ohlone Regional Wilderness Trail

Bird’s eye gilia and poppies in Sunol Regional Wilderness. Santa Cruz Mountains and Mission Peak in the distance.

Bird’s eye gilia and poppies in Sunol Regional Wilderness. Santa Cruz Mountains and Mission Peak in the distance.

A handful of weeks ago, in late April, I backpacked the Ohlone Regional Wilderness Trail, a 28-mile trail that runs west-east between Mission Peak Regional Preserve in Fremont and Del Valle Regional Park in Livermore.

 

The ORWT is one of the closest backpacking routes to San Francisco, located on the southeastern side of the Bay. This past winter, I hiked the eastern portion of the trail to Murietta Falls, and after that, became enamored with doing the whole thing.

I got my permits, organized my food, adjusted my backpack. One glitch? Days before I was scheduled to leave, weather forecasters predicted a heat wave on my permit dates. 80+ degree temps combined with constant sun exposure, near 100% humidity, and the strenuous nature of the trail—over 8,000 feet cumulative elevation gain—with a 30 lb. pack!—sounded excruciating. I considered postponing the trip, but time was running out. If I waited too long, I would miss the peak wildflower season and emerald green hills the hike is famous for. So off I went.

ORWT 25.jpg
A cow and her calf in Mission Peak Regional Preserve at sunrise.

A cow and her calf in Mission Peak Regional Preserve at sunrise.

A saving grace among the sweaty climbing and sparse shade was how well-signed the trail was. Red discs on trail posts are placed at every potentially confusing junction throughout the 28-mile route. There are forty of them in total and each trail post is numbered. My ORWT permit included a topo map with each numbered trail post clearly marked so I could cross-reference my location as I hiked.

Red discs mark the ORWT.

Red discs mark the ORWT.

Tent accomplished. Site #1 at Maggie’s Half Acre.

Tent accomplished. Site #1 at Maggie’s Half Acre.

My campground, Maggie’s Half Acre, sat just below Rose Peak, 3,817 feet. Arriving at 2:00 p.m., I felt abject relief that I had made it. I went about exploring the other campsites (no other backpackers had arrived yet, nor would they that evening). Across from camp #2 was a backcountry toilet and a spring-fed water spigot. I decided my first task was refilling my 2.5 liter water bladder for the hike out the next day, so I used my mini water filter and did just that. After about 5 cycles, it was good to go. I then filled up a small, collapsible water bottle to use for the rest of the day. It may sound superfluous, but I didn’t want to touch my carefully filtered water supply for the next day, and based on experience, it’s handy having an extra water source in my tent throughout the night if I needed some water. Later, I came back to the water spigot with my camp sink to get water for cooking and washing.

Love my camp sink. (thanks Grace :)

Love my camp sink. (thanks Grace :)

Back at my campsite, I went about setting up my tent and choosing a place for my bear can and cooking gear. Although it wasn’t required, I brought a bear can to help protect my food from critters and curious birds. It’s also convenient for sitting and leaning against a tree and reading, which I did for a while until it was time to cook dinner. Chicken pad thai in hand, I fired up the JetBoil and let the mixture sit in my camp bowl for 15 minutes. Happily, I didn’t encounter aggressive wildlife, particularly gray jays and chipmunks, which I was used to fending off in Washington State.

I loved watching the scrub jays and acorn woodpeckers fluttering around my campsite once I sat still for a while. That and the sunrise were the most peaceful moments of my trip, the kind that make it worthwhile.

Chicken pad thai. Yum.

Chicken pad thai. Yum.

After dinner, I had quiet time in my tent. I had loaded podcasts onto my phone, so listened to those for a while. I didn’t have too much fear about being alone, to be honest. Onur had my detailed itinerary, and I had backpacked solo before on Mount Whitney. Recently, I gave up my SPOT messenger in favor of a personal locator beacon for emergencies, and that gives us some peace of mind as well.

Partial views of a distant ridge from my campsite.

Partial views of a distant ridge from my campsite.

Still, a restful night’s sleep eluded me. I am not a good sleeper in the backcountry. I’ve tried several sleeping pads and sleeping bags, finally settling on a spoon-shaped Nemo bag so I could move my legs around instead of feeling restricted in a mummy bag. I still tossed and turned, with a full moon shining like a flashlight through my tent’s vestibule.

Bright moon !@$@$*%@!

Bright moon !@$@$*%@!

After closing the flap and shifting positions, I did what I usually ended up doing: checking my phone throughout the night until it was a reasonable hour to get up. On a recent hike, a backpacker let me in a secret that she takes sleeping pills to help her sleep when camping, but also admonished me to make sure I try them out first at home to see how my body reacts. I thought this was a pretty fine idea. I’m also thinking of getting a lightweight Thermarest Z pad to put under my primary inflatable pad for extra support. A girl can hope.

Sunrise at Maggie’s Half Acre

Sunrise at Maggie’s Half Acre

Finally, at about 40 minutes to sunrise, I decided it was a reasonable time to get up. I had just enough time to make sweet coffee and oatmeal to enjoy it with the sunrise. With dark smudges under my eyes, I recorded a video for Onur, a tradition we have so I can share with him a small piece of what I’m experiencing. The light changed from pearly blue to warm yellow, and I kept taking pictures, trying to capture the magic of the changing light on my iphone. (Had to leave the camera and tripod at home to save weight on this trip, unfortunately :(

Morning light from my campsite, looking south towards Rose Peak

Morning light from my campsite, looking south towards Rose Peak

After cleaning up camp, packing up, and setting everything to rights, I fired up my gps and began the trek to Del Valle Regional Park. The rolling terrain meant I still had 1500 feet of elevation to climb, despite camping just below the high point of the trail at Rose Peak. I would lose 4600 cumulative feet over the next 10 miles. At one point, my iphone fogged up from the heat penetrating my backpack’s hipbelt pockets, resulting in unintentionally mysterious photos.

Pretty (and fragrant) buckbrush along the trail, Mount Diablo in the distance.

Pretty (and fragrant) buckbrush along the trail, Mount Diablo in the distance.

Meadows of goldfields near Shafer Flat

Meadows of goldfields near Shafer Flat

The best moments from this last stretch were the wildflowers at Shafer Flat, Big Burn, and Rocky Ridge, reaching the familiar part of the trail I had hiked to before, and…finishing! Although I hadn’t planned on it, I made a decision on the spot to jump into Lake Del Valle, hiking clothes and all. I had a towel in my trunk, and a change of clothes…why not? After hiking in that stifling heat, there was nothing sweeter.

Well, maybe one more thing. I met an older couple who was visiting Del Valle and they had seen me jump into the lake. As I was treading water, they called over and asked if it was cold, and I said, “not after hiking 10 miles in this heat! :)” We talked about hiking trails for a little while and they remarked that for some reason the park entrance fee was free that day (a Friday). I let them know that it was going to be free on Fridays for a while yet, since the East Bay Regional Parks District was celebrating their 85th anniversary in 2019, and this was a kind of celebratory gift to the public. They were super happy to find that out, and I was pretty happy to share that with them.

Lake Del Valle

Lake Del Valle

And since then? I’ve been writing up a detailed ORWT guide for Modern Hiker. I wrote about the permit process, camping options, transportation, safety considerations, the route, and of course, added lots of pictures. I wanted a comprehensive guide that had everything you needed to know about the 28-mile route. It is done and submitted and I’m looking forward to sharing it with you when it is published :)

Thank you for sharing this journey with me and Happy Hiking :)

Melissa