Valley View Loop, Los Vaqueros Watershed,
Contra Costa Water District,
Contra Costa County
In brief:
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.

Exposure:
Totally exposed.

Trail traffic:
Light.

Trail surfaces:
Dirt fire roads.

Hiking time:
2 hours.

Season:
Spring is best.

Getting there:
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:
http://transitandtrails.org/trailheads/313

GPS Coordinates* for Trailhead:
Latitude 3746'22.52"N
Longitude
12144'25.50"W
(* based on Google Earth data, shown as degrees, minutes, seconds)

Gas, food, and lodging:
Stores, restaurants, and gas back near 580. No camping.

Trailhead details:
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.

Rules:
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 in summer).

The Official Story:
CCWD's Los Vaqueros page.
Watershed info 925-688-8225 or 925-513-2160
View trail closure info associated with golden eagle nesting at this page

Map/Book Choices:
60 Hikes 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)





Constructed in 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.Black Hills Trail     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 south.
     
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. View to reservoir
     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.spring wildflowers
     In spring, 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.
     
Valley View 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.Valley View Trail
     
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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