The brutal climb to Murietta Falls is one of the most challenging in the Bay Area, exceeded only by the hike to Rose Peak, which is the same hike with an extra 1000 feet of climbing tacked on. It’s also one of the most remote trails in the Bay Area.
Although there are plenty of very nice, wide-open spaces on the trail, there's surprisingly little really dramatic scenery given all the climbing and remoteness. In fact the land at the top of the hike is used for ranching and is very ordinary-looking for the East Bay.
Although there are some wooded sections, most of the hike is in the sun.
Airplanes can occasionally be heard overhead throughout the hike. Most planes flying into SFO from the east pass over this area (in fact, the flight path seems to go right over Stewart’s Camp) at about 5–6,000 feet above ground level. It’s not super loud, but once you’re aware of it, it’s hard not to notice.
The falls don’t have a lot of water unless it’s rained within the past few days. Fortunately the trail doesn’t get very muddy; the main issue is the potentially slick rock scramble at the end. In contrast, most other trails in Del Valle get pretty muddy and can be difficult to hike.
The climb from the Ohlone Wilderness check-in point to Rocky Ridge is 16.1%, while the singletrack section of Big Burn has an average grade of 16.8%. Although it’s not crowded, given its difficulty the trail is remarkably popular; on a nice spring day after it rains, you might see a group every 10–15 minutes.
The trail starts right next to the parking lot on the west side of Lake Del Valle. It gets off to a good start, climbing steeply through attractive oak woods. Del Valle has some of the most attractive woodland of any East Bay park and the woods here are especially dense and lush, growing out of a groundcover of grass.
The woods soon thin out, though, and the trail breaks out into more mundane chaparral for the next mile.
The trail passes Boyd Camp, a small backpacking camp with two well-separated sites, an outhouse, and water supplied from some nearby tanks. Site 2 is right next to the dirt road, while the much nicer Site 1 is a few yards down a side trail, in an attractive oak grove with a bit of a view of the valley below.
The first ridge, Rocky Ridge, is dotted with attractive blue oaks and offers some nice views of the remote hills and valleys to the east. The road levels out for a while, a welcome relief, before beginning a descent to a creek. Shortly before the creek the road becomes a singletrack trail.
The trail follows the creek for a few yards, then crosses it and begins the climb known as “Big Burn”, which is really the main event of this hike. The trail is clear and in pretty good condition given how remote it is, but it’s still narrow and steep; in some areas, abundant poison oak overhangs the trail. Even so, singletrack trails aren’t very common in the East Bay parks, so it’s certainly a pleasure to tackle a long singletrack climb like this. At first the trail climbs through dense maple and bay laurel forest, but this is soon replaced with oak forest with a few patches of denser mixed woodland.
The forest gets more open near the top of the trail, offering a few views, then the trail turns into a dirt road. The climbing continues unabated, though. Soon the trail reaches Schlieper Rock. You can climb up this rock for a sweeping view over Del Valle and, in the distance, the Livermore area. For some reason I find that I’m always the most tired at this point of the hike; even though there’s lots more steep climbing to come, it seems like it gradually gets easier.
You could turn around at Schlieper Rock and you wouldn’t miss much, since after this point the scenery isn’t as good.
At the highest point of the hike, the landscape transitions to typical South Bay ranchland; the trees become much more sparse and the trail leads through open grassland that has a worn-out, almost barren look. However the remaining mile or so to Murietta Falls is relatively easy.
A few points offer a distant view of San Francisco Bay.
The trail descends into a shallow valley with gently sloping grassy hillsides and a tiny creek. There’s no hint of a waterfall from the dirt road, and in fact the rather dull landscape doesn’t even look like the kind of place where you’d expect a waterfall.
However, an unmarked unofficial trail leads out onto a low rock formation and makes a rather hazardous descent down a dropoff on the backside of the rock. Coming around a corner, you find yourself in a little grotto with a 100-foot rock face that has a thin stream of water flowing down it. If it hasn’t rained recently it may not have any water at all. But it really is rather striking, especially given how gentle the topography is in this area; pictures don’t do it justice.
© 2012, 2022 David Baselt