4.2 mile loop up and down fire roads on the hills above a reservoir where
golden eagles are regularly spotted.
Distance, category, and difficulty:
Overall, this 4.2 mile loop hike is moderate, with over 700
feet of elevation change. The trailhead elevation is around 780 feet. This
hike climbs to 1500 feet then descends back to the trailhead.
Dirt fire roads.
Spring is best.
From Interstate 580 in Alameda County, exit Vasco Road (exit 55). Drive
north about 5 miles, then turn left onto Los Vaqueros Road (look for small
brown signs) and continue to the parking lot. Access the north side of the
watershed from Camino Diablo (turn onto Walnut Boulevard).
Get driving or public transit directions from Transit and Trails:
GPS Coordinates* for Trailhead:
(* based on Google Earth
data, shown as degrees, minutes, seconds)
Gas, food, and lodging:
Stores, restaurants, and gas back near 580. No camping.
Good size dirt parking lot. $6 entry fee charged ($4 you live in a town
serviced by the water district) If entry kiosk is unstaffed, use self-registration
box in parking lot. Maps available from entry kiosk or at the information
signboard in the parking lot. Restroom on site. There is no direct public
transportation to the watershed.
Most trails are designated hiking only. Some are multi-use (this is unusual
in the bay area). No dogs. Watershed is open from 7 a.m. to 5 p.m. (later
The Official Story:
Los Vaqueros page.
Watershed info 925-688-8225 or 925-513-2160
View trail closure info associated with golden eagle nesting at this page
within 60 Miles: San Francisco, by Jane Huber (yup, that's me, the creator
of this website) has a simple map and a featured hike. Order
this book from Amazon.com.
Map from CCWD (download the pdf)
the late 1990s and filled in early 1999, if you search for Los
Vaqueros on a map circa 1998, you won’t find it. When this Contra
Costa watershed first opened to recreation use, it was an incredibly
peaceful place. I expected that when a marina and interpretive center
opened, it would be packed with fishermen and everyone else in the
area looking for a nice picnic spot, but Los Vaqueros is still a very
quiet park, particularly the southern area, where trails are open
only to hikers. I don’t know if it’s because of the watershed’s
steep admission fee or if hikers don’t know about this recreation
area, but these trails are lonely. The northern
trailhead, Walnut Staging Area, has the denser network of multiuse
trails and the watershed’s interpretive center. The southern
trailhead, County Line Staging Area, is off the road to the marina.
There is no vehicle through-route inside the park from the north to
The trails of Los
Vaqueros (which translates from Spanish to “the cowboys”) wander
through a typical East Bay landscape of oak, grassland, and chaparral
foothills. The watershed property abuts two East Bay Regional Park
District preserves, Morgan Territory and Round Valley. This 4.1-mile
loop barely scratches the surface of the Los Vaqueros watershed, but
it is a good introduction, particularly when spring wildflowers
flourish on a windy, treeless ridge.
On my first visit
to the park in July 2000, I saw golden eagles before I even got out
of the car. From mid-February to late June, when eagles nest in the
watershed’s oaks, some trails are often closed to public use
(specific dates and trails change to accommodate the eagles). Spring
is the most pleasant time of year at Los Vaqueros, with cool
temperatures and a variety of wildflowers, but that’s the season
when trails are most likely to be closed. If you want a long hike,
visit in summer, autumn, or winter, when the connector to Morgan
Territory is open. The trails on the hike described below are not
subject to closure during golden eagle nesting.
Begin from the
parking lot on Black Hills Trail. In a damp spot on the right,
redwing blackbirds sit atop mustard and thistles in spring, and
squirrels scamper everywhere. After you pass through a cattle gate
and begin climbing on the wide fire road, look for a buckeye and some
oaks in a little draw off the trail to the left—this is as close to
a tree as you’ll get on the entire hike.
The grade is
moderately steep, and in summer there’s not much to look at
along the trail—just an expanse of golden grass rolling uphill to
the left and downhill
to the right. You may see a few blooming cardoons (thistles related
to artichokes) and yellow star thistles in July. At 0.1 mile, Los
Vaqueros Trail departs on the right, starting a long, rolling journey
along the park road to the marina area. This trail plays a crucial
role in longer loops, but unfortunately it’s one of the most boring
routes in the watershed. Continue uphill on Black Hills Trail.
lupines, Ithuriel’s spear, filaree, and fiddleneck bloom sparsely
in the surrounding grass. As you climb you may come across some of
the watershed’s cattle. On one hike, I scattered the herds of
cattle each time I came across them. Some stepped toward me, perhaps
wondering what I was, but all of them ran (I mean really ran) out of
sight before I got within 50 feet. For those who are accustomed to
the bossy, elitist attitude of bovines at other East Bay parks, these
shy cows are a nice contrast.
Trail, the return route for the loop, begins to the left at 0.6
mile. Continuing straight on Black Hills Trail, the grade slackens as
the trail passes two small stock ponds on the right. Here are views
north to chaparral-covered hillsides, with oak-dotted knolls in the
foreground. At 1.5 miles, Black Hills Trail bends right, heads to a
junction with Homestead Trail, then proceeds to the hills above the
reservoir in the western part of the watershed, where a trail
connects to Morgan Territory. When I visited one spring, Homestead
Trail and Black Hills Trail from this junction to Cañada Trail were
closed to protect the nesting eagles. Continue straight, now on
Valley View Trail. The fire road heads toward Morgan Territory Road,
but then veers sharply left at 1.8 miles and begins a steep climb.
When it’s windy (which it seems to be all the time), you’ll need
to hold onto your hat. Spring brings a few flowers to the trailside
grass, including blue-eyed grass, buttercups, and fiddlenecks. The
trail crests, turns left, and runs along the ridgeline. Views are
expansive, ranging south across the San Ramon Valley to the mountains
of Sunol and the Ohlone Wilderness. Northwest, Mount Diablo is
visible, and to the northeast you might see the windmills twirling
near Altamont Pass.
As you make your
way across the rolling ridge, the reservoir comes into view in the
heart of the park. With vultures and hawks whipping overhead in the
wind, you’ll need a quick hand with the binoculars to identify
them. Despite the steady winds and the hungry cows, there usually are
plenty of wildflowers on the north slope of the ridge in April,
including loads of bluedicks, Johnny-jump-ups, California poppy,
fiddlenecks, blue and white lupine, Ithuriel’s spear, and filaree.
Off in the distance to the west, I’ve seen patches of purple owl’s
clover bruising lush green hillsides along Morgan Territory Road.
Valley View Trail
drops to a dip where a worn cow path heads off to the right. Continue
straight, climbing and then descending again. The trail curves left
and then leaves the ridgeline. After a steady descent, you’ll reach
the junction with Black Hills Trail again at 3.5 miles. Turn right
and return downhill to the trailhead.
Total distance: about 4.2 miles
Last hiked: April 10, 2003
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