Sunol Regional Wilderness
Featuring the Flag Hill Trail and Little Yosemite
Tucked away in a partly-wooded valley south of Highway 680, Sunol feels pretty remote, yet it's easy to get to and easy to hike. Just a 20 minute drive outside of Fremont, the park has several short, well-maintained hiking loops that offer challenging climbs and rewarding vistas.
The park also has some well-known longer hikes; the Ohlone Wilderness Regional Trail connects it with Mission Peak to the west and Del Valle to the east. There are some really nice backpacking camps just outside the park, about 4 miles from the Camp Ohlone Road trailhead.
The park is best hiked in the spring and fall. Most of the park's trails are on south-facing hillsides that get really hot on summer afternoons. Although the park is about half covered with oak woodlands, the trails seem to prefer to run through open grassland.
Oddly enough for a place called a "wilderness", cows graze throughout the park. Fortunately the park isn't as heavily grazed as some other East Bay parks and doesn't have the trashed, barren look that over-grazed grasslands get.
Click here to see the trailhead location in Google Maps.
Driving into the park from the entrance kiosk, continue just past the turnoff to the visitors' center parking lot and park under the trees next to the trailhead.
Begin the hike by walking across the footbridge across Alameda Creek. This is a pretty good-sized creek for this area; in winter it's an impressive 30 foot wide torrent.
Turn left onto the trail, which meanders through the cool shady forest by the creek. Look for the Flag Hill Trail to your right and turn onto it.
The trail immediately begins to climb, leaving the dense creekside forest and winding through grassy meadows and small patches of oak. The climb is fairly steep although not ridiculously so. There are some views of the valley floor, although at this stage the view is mostly of the parking lots. Eventually the trees end completely and the narrow trail reaches the hilltop. A short path to your left leads to a viewpoint.
Follow the dirt road to the right. The road descends the other side of the hill into High Valley. The valley, which lacks any trees, can seem a little barren in summer although it's nice in spring. Reaching High Valley Road, continue straight onto Vista Grande Road, beginning another steep climb. The road rises and falls along the ridgetop, offering views mostly of High Valley but also of the hills to the north.
At the first intersection, turn onto the somewhat faint singletrack trail to your right. The trail, cut into the side of a steep hill, passes through chaparral before descending into a narrow wooded ravine. Watch out for poison oak as the trail crosses the creek and descends by some narrow steps. The trail climbs out of the ravine and is mostly level the rest of the way to Cave Rocks Road.
At Cave Rocks Road, a popular option is to turn right and take the Indian Joe Creek Trail. This trail, which is one of the best in the park, descends through attractive oak woodland, eventually bottoming out in a very pleasant glen where a little brook flows through grassy meadows. The trail crosses the brook several times and in the spring it may not be possible to do this hike without getting your feet wet.
For a longer, full-day hike, forego the Indian Joe Creek Trail and instead turn left onto Cave Rocks Road. You'll see much more of the park this way, including the park's most popular attraction, Little Yosemite.
The dirt road climbs to Cerro Este Road, the high point of the hike. From here it's mostly downhill for the rest of the day. Descend Cerro Este Road through open grasslands and turn left onto the McCorkle Trail.
This trail doesn't start out especially scenic; the grasslands here seem kind of dry and dusty. But the scenery improves as the trail crosses over a little brook cascading down a jumble of rocks and then descends an oak-dotted hillside. Turn right onto Backpack Road and descend to Camp Ohlone Road. This gravel road is one of my less favorite trails in the park, and it's also one of the most heavily used, not only by hikers but also by equestrians and vehicles going to and from Camp Ohlone.
Little Yosemite is a short stretch, perhaps a few hundred yards, of Alameda Creek where the creek flows through a narrow, boulder-lined gorge created by a steep butte. To me it looks more like Kings Canyon than Yosemite. Most hikers seem to be coming here, and two most obvious routes to get here, Camp Ohlone Road and the Canyon View Trail, see many more visitors than any of the park's other trails.
Turn right onto Cerro Este Road and climb to the Canyon View Trail. Turn left onto the trail. After crossing the McCorkle Trail, the Canyon View Trail descends steeply along a wooded ridgetop. There's a nice finish to the hike as the trail passes through pleasant steamside forest.
© 2011 David Baselt