A couple of hours into a long run in the East Bay last Saturday, I crested a ridge and surveyed miles and miles of open space in all directions.
With three other runners, I was exploring the Ramage Peak Trail maintained by the East Bay Municipal Utility District (EBMUD). It lies in between Anthony Chabot Regional Park to the west and Las Trampas Regional Park to the northeast. More than once I said to myself, I can’t believe this is out here. I can’t believe it’s so big and so remote.
To the west, toward Oakland and the bay, multiple hills and ridge lines carved by oak-filled canyons blocked the site of the urban corridor along Interstate 580. To the east, toward the suburbs that sprawl along I-680 between Walnut Creek and Dublin, many more hills with ridges crowned by rocky outcroppings filled the view.
After gazing at this open space on a map for years, and looking down from an airplane and wanting to explore it, I finally found myself in the middle of this vast greenbelt of grazing land and protected watershed. I could scarcely believe I was right in the middle of the urban and suburban areas where I’ve been living and commuting for nearly two decades. I felt transported to another place entirely—to a Northern Californian countryside completely removed from development.
Many runners and hikers don’t know of or don’t use the treasure trove of East Bay trails maintained by EBMUD. I hesitated to write this post and spread the word, because part of what makes these trails special is the fact that you’ll encounter far fewer people on them than on the park district’s trails. But I can’t imagine they ever would be heavily used, because these trails take preparation and endurance.
Here’s what you need to know to run or hike on them:
- You absolutely must obtain a permit. Then you have to sign in at the kiosk of the trailhead with your permit number, and carry the permit in case you’re stopped by someone patrolling the area. One of the guys I was with said he hiked an EBMUD trail without a permit several years ago and was detained by an authority who treated him more like a criminal than a hiker. The water district understandably wants to guard against vandalism and contamination, so they keep tabs on anyone using the land. Good news: the permits are pretty easy to obtain through the EBMUD website page http://www.ebmud.com/recreation/trail-use-permit/east-bay-trails
- The EBMUD website also has two downloadable maps—one of the north watershed’s trails around Briones and San Pablo reservoirs, and one of the south showing those around the Upper San Leandro reservoir—but the maps are barely adequate to show you where to go. Several fire roads and other trails branch out from the main trails, so it’s relatively easy to get lost. But the fire roads loop around and connect, and the trail signage is pretty frequent, so you won’t get too lost. Have patience and carry a compass.
- Carry water—lots of it—and iodine purification tablets to treat water from streams or springs in case you run out. The trailheads and staging areas, for the most part, do not have drinking water. I carried 64 oz. in a hydration pack and two hand-held bottles, but I ran dry an hour before finishing and started to dehydrate.
- Be prepared for encounters with grazing cattle and, potentially, big cats. I wouldn’t recommend running solo out here due to the safety risk of animal encounters. Follow precautions detailed in an earlier post, “How to Run or Hike Safely.”
- No bikes allowed, period.
- No dogs allowed off leash; dogs allowed on leash only on a few of the shorter trails (Oursan, Hampton, and Kings Canyon Loop).
We started at the EBMUD’s southern-most trailhead, the Chabot Staging Area near the intersections of Redwood and Miller roads, just north of downtown Castro Valley. Our idea was to run Ramage Peak and Rocky Ridge trails, which sort of make two sides of triangle, all the way to Moraga, and then back—about 25 to 28 miles, depending on whether you add a portion of a loop. We wanted to reach the Rancho Laguna Park Staging Area because it has water.
So we set off at 7 a.m., the clouds in the sky pink from sunrise, and followed a trail that runs next to a Christmas tree farm. A little more than a mile in, we hit the first trail intersection and made a significant mistake, since the sign’s arrow was ambiguous. It seemed to point up toward the wider trail, so that’s where we went. But we should have kept straight and gone down the single track.
We ran a couple of miles on fire road and gained quite a bit of elevation before realizing we weren’t on the Ramage Peak trail. It wasn’t a bad mistake to make, since it rewarded us with a gorgeous view from a summit, but as we ran back down, we realized we were looping south back toward the parking lot. We worried we had sabotaged our long-run plan, and our map proved useless—we had no idea where we were.
Fortunately, right after we resigned ourselves to running back toward the trailhead to retrace our steps and find the proper trail, we happened upon an intersection with the Ramage Peak Trail—a lovely, meandering single track. We figured we had gone off course nearly 2 miles—no biggie.
For the next fives miles to its intersection with Rocky Ridge Trail, the Ramage Peak Trail covers an impressive diversity of terrain and landscape. Many portions followed a single track through canyons dense with oak and bay trees. Sometimes oak leaves crunched underfoot; at other times, long, slippery pieces of eucalyptus bark carpeted the trail. Higher up, green grass blanketed the barely discernible trail.
Our friend who was supposed to be our guide, who had run this before, had canceled at the last minute, but he left word that we were supposed to look for an oak tree on a ridge line on a summit, and that’s how we’d know where to go. This seemed absurd as I gazed at many ridge tops with numerous oaks. Which tree was he talking about? But, sure enough, the trail climbed switchbacks out of a canyon to a summit where a distinctive oak stood anchored in a natural monument of rock. A lone white plastic ribbon hung from its branch, a subtle trail marking. This may have been the summit of Ramage Peak, but I’m not sure—we reached so many peaks, I don’t know which was the trail’s namesake.
At the intersection with Rocky Ridge Trail, we abandoned our original plan to run all the way to Rancho Laguna Park in the interest of time (and wrongly thinking we had enough water). We instead chose to do the Rocky Ridge Loop before heading back on Ramage Peak Trail. The three-mile loop addition definitely is worth doing—but extremely steep. “Good Ohlone training,” we all agreed, a reference to the Ohlone 50K, and indeed those uphills mimic the Ohlone course in the Sunol wilderness to the south.
The Rocky Ridge Loop hits the border of Las Trampas Regional Park, and we looked down to glimpse Bollinger Canyon Road, an artery to the suburbs.
After the loop, we headed back on the Ramage Peak Trail, running at a steady pace but hiking a lot of the uphills. We spooked flocks of wild turkey and pheasant but otherwise didn’t see wildlife, although the skeletal remains of some medium-size animal on the trail indicated that more game and prey call the place home.
We got back to the car after about 5.5 hours, having covered about 23 miles—a slow pace, including breaks, but not too bad considering the elevation gain and loss. Jeff’s altimeter calculated about 6000 feet of up & down.
EBMUD maintains about 80 miles of trails through 27,000 acres of open space, and with this run/hike, I can say I’ve covered all but two major portions of the network (the Old San Pablo, Inspiration and De La Vega trails in the northern half).
Before, I had two favorite EBMUD trail runs: the Kings Canyon Loop/Redwood Trail in Moraga, and the Oursan/Bear Creak loop around Briones Reservoir near Orinda. Now, it’s Ramage Peak.
Two final thoughts:
Where does the name Ramage come from? I don’t know, but I’d like to find out.
And, why do I yearn to spend half the day virtually by myself, unplugged and removed from civilized life in this hiding-in-plain-sight open space? Same answer.