BYRON — If you are looking for plenty of hiking options from moderate to somewhat strenuous and want to take in plenty of stunning vistas, wildlife, with minimal crowds and do so within roughly an hour’s drive, then head to the hills on the western edge of the Delta.
It is along picturesque Camino Diablo Road where a string of regional and state parks along with watershed conservation areas offer unparalleled access to the Coastal Range and wildlife all within minutes of heavily urbanized areas is where you will find the North entrance to the Los Vaqueros Watershed.
Operated by the Contra Costa Water District it features some 18,500 acres of protected watershed with 55 miles of trails surrounding the 1,900-acre Los Vaqueros Reservoir with a storage capacity of 160,000 acre feet.
The South entrance from Vasco Road that’s closest to Livermore does not connect to the North entrance although the trail system can be accessed from either side.
The North is a notch or two lower key than the South area mainly because it does not have a marina and for whatever reason anglers flock in greater numbers to the areas accessed from the South entrance. Los Vaqueros is considered one of the best fishing lakes in the Bay Area — more about that later.
The North entrance is a 33-mile drive from Manteca that will take you about 45 minutes even with having to navigate Naglee Road traffic in Tracy to reach Grant Line Road.
Vehicle access fees are $4 for Contra Costa Water District ratepayers, $5 for non-ratepayer seniors, and $6 to non-ratepayers.
Hours from November through February are 7 a.m. to 5 p.m., March 7 a.m. to 6 p.m., April through August 6 a.m. to 8 p.m., September 7 a.m. to 7 p.m., and October 7 a.m. to 6 p.m.
Being somewhat of an elevation gain junkie, for my first trip there on a Sunday I opted for a somewhat shorter route than I’d usually do as I wanted to squeeze in a trip to the gym first, leaving me with a half day to hike with a limit of being out of the watershed by 5 p.m. Failure to do so results in a nice hefty fine.
I opted for a 5.4 mile loop that had a gain in elevation of 1,150 feet that reached about 1,300 feet and consisted primarily of the Eagle Ridge Trail and Vista Grande Trail made into a loop by short segments of the Walnut Trail and Los Vaqueros Trail.
What also made my decision easier was an advisory that the Eagle Ridge Trail is often closed from February and as far into the year as August if nesting golden eagles are found in the area.
I spotted one golden eagle driving between the entrance station and the trail head by the John Muir Interpretive Center next to the foot of the dam that is open Saturday and Sunday from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m.
During the hike that went from sunny to drizzle to wind swept rain flying in front of me almost perpendicular to the ground along the ridge by the lake to steady rain, I spotted a coyote and four deer — including three does traveling together. There were also plenty of cows.
You are supposed to have a commanding view of Mt. Diablo when you reach the crest of the loop on the Eagle Ridge Trail segment but low rain clouds obscured the view during my trek.
Much of the route was on primitive roads made a tad challenging by the fact it was mostly along ridges which meant strong winds. The payoff was nice views of the western end of the San Joaquin Valley, and the beauty of the small ranches and rural estates that line Camino Diablo on the back way to Concord.
On the solitude scale the hike knocked it out of the park. Once I paid my entry fee I did not see another soul until I passed the John Muir Interpretive Center at the end of the hike to reach my car. Part of it had to do with the time of year but I’m sure the weather was the real reason. That said, those that frequent the North entrance indicate the trails are sparsely populated during prime weather conditions during early spring.
The views of the lake were stunning from Vista Grande and would have been even more enjoyable if I wasn’t contending with strong winds, steady rain, and the cement-like mud that made the steep downhills a bit precarious and made it feel as if I had lead weights on my hiking boots. The fact I had hiking poles is the only thing that kept me from losing my footing and slamming butt first into the oozy mess.
If it sounds like I had a miserable time, quite the contrary. Granted it was somewhat more pleasant before the drizzle started two-thirds of the way into the hike that then broke into rain but the views, the solitude, and realizing there are indeed areas that are wild that encircle not just the Central Valley but the Bay Area as well made it a top-rated hike.
Just like with other regional park and watershed hikes in the East Bay, hitting the trails in January and February will provide the visual treat of hills decked in the greenest green. Given Los Vaqueros watershed isn’t that far from Dublin, a hike this time of year will make you understand why Dublin was named after the Irish capital as the green hills rival any hill your eyes will feast on in Ireland when it comes to being vibrant green. It is made all the more impressive by oaks still in their naked winter grandeur dotting the hillsides.
Los Vaqueros is also considered by birding enthusiasts as one of the best places to bird watch in the Bay Area. Given it is part of the string of preserves, regional parks and state parks that has preserved the ridge of hills between the Livermore/Diablo valleys and the San Joaquin Valley it is easy to understand why that is the case.
The watershed is also home to a number of sensitive species including the San Joaquin kit fox, California tiger salamander, California red-legged frog, Alameda whip snake, and golden eagles. There’s a lot more wildlife including rattlesnakes as well as a creature that has an annual run at the watershed named after it — tarantulas — that make their presence known in the fall.
Make sure you carry water as there is none available along the trails. As far as trail markers, they are among the best and least confusing you’ll find especially compared to Mt. Diablo.
Several trails including Eagle Ridge connect to the adjoining trails in Round Valley Regional Park.
Fishing fees are $6 per day per angler. There are catfish, trout, striped bass, bluegill/sunfish, crappie and largemouth bass.
You cannot use your own boat — even a canoe or kayak — given the reservoir holds drinking water. That said the marina rents electric boats and pontoon boats. There are also restrictions on bait.
For more information go to www.ccwater.com/losvaqueros
One final note: I was so impressed with the challenge, scenery and solitude, I intend to return once a month on those weekend days where I only have time for a half day when I comes to a hike as well as getting there and back.
It was a great feeling to get in some fairly decent elevation gain and then not have to face a 90-minute to three hour drive home.