For a spectacular autumn display, visit the oak-studded hillsides of Briones Regional Park in Contra Costa County when the park’s deciduous black, valley and blue oaks turn orange and gold. The fall colors nearly trump this park’s springtime show, when velvety hollows are carpeted with poppies, buttercups, lupine and fiddlenecks.
The park is named for Felipe Briones, who built his home in 1829 near what is today the Bear Creek Staging Area, raising cattle and farming. Today, Briones Park is an important watershed and grazing land, managed by the East Bay Regional Park District since 1964. Hikers, runners and bikers share the land with cows, which can make the trails rutted and muddy. Best to hike before winter.
This 3.5-mile-loop hike offers a little bit of everything – grasslands, woods, rolling hillsides and vistas. Squirrels, black-tailed deer, raccoon, skunk and gophers are common. You might also spot an elusive coyote or fox darting by. Soaring above are turkey vultures and red-tailed hawks. One of the park’s most unusual species is the brown and red California newt, which secretes a highly poisonous neurotoxin – the same poison found in the deadly puffer fish.
At the Bear Creek Staging Area, pick up the Abrigo Valley Trail right past the portable toilets. You pass the Oak Grove picnic area nestled beneath grassy hills dotted with oaks. Past a cattle gate, you find yourself in the woods on a fire road. Enjoy the shade, as the trail soon opens into full sun. After about a mile, turn right on the Mott Peak Trail. To your left is the Maud Whalen picnic and camping area. Mott Peak climbs steadily uphill. Turn around frequently to view the undulating vistas behind you.
Turn right on Black Oak Trail, which roller coasters over hill after hill. A strategically placed bench lets you enjoy a view stretching east from Mount Diablo and the Diablo Valley, north to Suisun Bay, and west to Mount Tamalpais and Marin County. The trail then heads steeply downhill. Look for shapely California buckeye trees.
The trail descends into a valley where you will find cows – lots of them. As a result, the trail is rutted, and sometimes wet, so walk carefully. Past the cows, you will shortly come to Old Briones Road Trail, another broad fire road that will lead you back to the parking lot. Turn right on this trail to find shady spots under some bay and oak trees.
Things to know
The park is open from 8 a.m. to 10 p.m., or as posted. There is a $3 parking fee on weekends and holidays. Dogs must be on leash (6-foot maximum) in the parking lot, picnic areas or any posted area. They may be off leash under voice control in open-space areas.
On your return, take a stroll through Orinda Village on Orinda Way off Camino Pablo. Stop in at Orinda Books (276 Village Square), an independent bookseller, where you can not only browse for books but also purchase wares by local artisans. Orinda Village Antiques (107 Orinda Way) is filled with china, glassware, silver and collectibles. Horse lovers will enjoy the Orinda Village Horse Shop (85 Orinda Way), which features equestrian apparel and tack. There are cafes, delis, pizza shacks and Thai, Japanese, Chinese and Mexican restaurants.
By car from San Francisco, cross the Bay Bridge and exit at Interstate 580 east. Take the Walnut Creek turnoff on the right and then merge onto Highway 24 through the Caldecott Tunnel. Exit at Orinda. At the stop light, turn left on Camino Pablo. After about 2.2 miles, turn right onto Bear Creek Road. The Bear Creek Staging Area is about 4.4 miles ahead on your right. Past the kiosk, make a left into the parking lot.
Cover photo: Jonathan Galazka via Flickr
Insert photo: Eliot Phillips via Flickr