My first trip to Los Vaqueros Watershed would be a family trip with wife, Nora and son, Matt. The gate opens at a relatively early 7am (most local regional parks / preserves usually open at 8am), so I insisted on an early 6am start from our house. My two victims were not very happy with waking up in the 5am hour, so I promised a trip to McDonalds along the way for some greasy, but delicious breakfast sandwiches. (I just had coffee- as usual.)
With very light traffic, we were able to reach the trailhead parking lot at about 7:30 and were on our way by 7:45. The official park trail map is not a very good one and the trail we wanted (the Crest Trail) was not well signed. Even with the topo map that I'd printed online and a study of the satellite views the previous evening, we still had a brief false start before we found the correct trail that would take us to our first goal: Peak 1272.
This very minor peak sports a prominence of over 600 feet and is easily accessible from the main parking area. It took us about 40 minutes to hike up the 800 feet to the summit on the moderately steep trail. Temperatures were low during the early part of the morning- about 38 degrees at the trailhead and dropped to 34 degrees at the summit. Luckily there was only a light breeze on the way up the trail, but it was very biting. I worried that I would have a mutiny on my hands if there had been a stronger wind at top.
At Nora's insistence, we took a shivering family portrait before pausing to enjoy the views from the summit. Dominating the view below to the south, was the vast Los Vaqueros Reservoir. Built in the late nineties, this feature is relatively new and is not even shown on all but the newest topo maps. It's unfortunate that the region south of the reservoir containing numerous wind turbines is currently closed to the public. To the east, we could see well into the San Joaquin Valley. Overcast and haze obscured the more distant views. Mount Diablo and North Peak loomed to the northwest nearly 10 miles away. A high more densely vegetated ridge just to the west more or less defined the boundary between the Los Vaqueros Watershed and Morgan Territories Regional Preserve. In the low hilly valley below was my next intended goal- Peak 957. I thought that continuing on to that next peak would be somewhat tricky since my beloved wife and son don't quite have the enthusiasm for peak bagging that I do. I pointed it out and explained how we should proceed to get there. To my surprise, they seemed up for it, so we set off on the Vista Grande Trail northwest of our current summit.
This trail is quite enjoyable as it follows a gently undulating ridge crest. We even passed over a minor summit- Peak 1200+- that I wasn't too proud to declare as a bonus peak. The trail we followed eventually comes to a junction with the Eagle Ridge Trail. It was there that we saw something I don't think I've ever seen before in 45 years of hiking- a trail-side emergency call station. The trail map shows that there are 5 of these stations located at various parts of the watershed. Seems to me to be a bit over-protective and maybe some of the money could have been used to create a better trail map, but I don't care. I'm just happy to have more public trails that can be hiked without the paranoia that I usually experience on non-public lands..
Soon we came to within view of our previous attempt to approach Peak 1272 from Round Valley Regional Preserve. This attempt was made the previous fall. During that trip we turned back due to a nicely built barbed wire fence defining the preserve boundary complete with “No Trespassing” signs posted every several yards. Even though I knew that the area beyond the signs was open to the public, Nora and Matt refused to even consider my plan of climbing over the fence to follow the trail we were now on. I couldn't resist a gentle, “see, I told you so” chide toward them as I pointed out the trail we were on during that previous trip. “Then we would have missed this wonderful hike,” was my wife's comeback. Good point! But, now that I think of it, the statement may have been slightly sarcastic...
Now on our way to the next Peak 957, we followed the Eagle Ridge Trail steeply down along the boundary with Round Valley Regional Preserve into the valley to the west . A sizable herd of cattle had Nora a bit nervous as we approached, but they soon moved out of our way as we got nearer. Where the trail makes a significant bend to the east I called a halt and pointed out that this was the beginning of the route up our second bonus peak- Peak 957. I explained that this would be very easy- a 3 hundred foot or so climb in about half a mile. All of it cross country on gentle grassy slopes, but maybe a use trail would be found to make things even easier. They didn't even hesitate to refuse. Sadly, this wasn't their first hike with me and they know how often I underestimate the length and difficulty of a hike. I don't do this deliberately. It's just that I can usually glance at a map and know whether or not a hike will be within my limitations. If I have to calculate out mileage and elevation gain for them, then I'm going to probably be wrong now and then. They kindly agreed to wait for me (well, indulge me) while I went off on my own little adventure.
It didn't take long before I realized that their decision not to join me was probably a good one. There were unexpected steep sections of very wet deep slippery grass that reminded me of post-holing in deep wet snow. I also discovered that I misread the contour map and underestimated the amount of elevation gain. In reality, this was about 450 to 500 feet- not 300 feet. No big deal to me, but this would have been another strike against me if they had come along. As it was, I was a little worried that this was going to take somewhat longer than the 20 minute or so round trip that I had promised them. Oops.
It took nearly 30 minutes to reach the rounded grassy summit. The views were nice, though limited due to the proximity of other higher peaks and ridges including the one we'd just come down from. I could only stay and enjoy the view for a very short time as I was worried about Matt and Nora waiting for me below. As I began my return journey to the road, I used my cell phone to call Nora, but I didn't get an answer. I left her a message that I was on my way back down.
When I returned, they were slightly upset at my tardiness, but were happy to finally get underway. Nora had been nervous when that large herd of cattle came back and stared at the two of them for a time. Matt and I reminded her again that they were domesticated and posed very little threat if left alone. That did little to assuage her fear; she's a little person and those are big animals.
We followed the Oak Savannah Trail- as it bends from east to south and crosses a low saddle. To Nora's displeasure, we passed by another large herd of cattle. At least 20 head- all standing and staring at us from about 30 feet away as we passed by. Nora was right. It can be a little disconcerting. I noticed something about them that I kept to myself for her sake until later: They were all bulls- not a cow in sight.
A trail junction was reached and we turned east onto the Badger Pass Trail. The trail starts with a gentle climb towards what I knew would be a bit of steep climbing to where the trail passed back over the high ridge that included Peak 1272. I thought of Matt and Nora and knew that in their condition- tired, hungry, cold and sore- they were not happy with the prospect of climbing back over the crest of this ridge. I glanced at my GPS and saw that we were already at an elevation of nearly 700 feet. Not Bad! Only about 350 feet of climbing to do to reach the highpoint of the trail. I announced this nice little factoid to my two victims- reminding them that the climb up from the other side that we did at the beginning of the hike was 800 feet. By comparison, this would be 'easy-peasy'. They warmed up to me a tad until we reached the top of Badger Pass and saw the other side... oops.
Once again I'd failed to carefully study the map and missed the fact that the trail makes a winding dip back down nearly to the 500 foot level (nearly lake level) before the final climb to the ridge crest. Drat! Oh, well. We found a picnic table with a bathroom nearby. A short break before the final climb helped everyone to relax and mentally gear up for the final push.
As we started out, I suggested that we all go at a slow relaxing pace and take it easy. There was plenty of time- it was still only about 11:30 in the morning. I also reminded them that we've done much more difficult hikes than this one on several occasions. “Grumble, grumble.” As usual, so much for my pep talks. Also, as usual, it didn't take long for them to advance up the trail in front of me and put on a lot of distance between them and me. This is partly because I stop pretty frequently the take pictures, but the main reason is that, for all their grumbling, they are both very strong hikers. Nevertheless, I did manage to pass Matt on one of the steep switchbacks. I gave him some words of encouragement as I continued on trying to catch up with Nora visible about a switchback above us. I caught up with her at the top of the crest, but only because she waited for us. She looked at me and, once again, declared that she was “too old for this” and that “this would be her last hike with me”. Yeah, right. I've certainly heard that one before.
The view from the trail highpoint was wonderful. We could look straight down at the massive dam that created this huge reservoir. Even though we were in the middle of an historic drought, the water level was surprisingly high. There was still plenty of haze and overcast to obscure the view in most directions, but the hills in the vicinity were quite beautiful.
Before long, we were on our final descent back to the car. The trail followed a steep ridge crest down toward the dam and the paved road leading up to it. By the time I got to the dam, Matt and Nora had already gone ahead down the paved road toward the parking area. I wanted to take a closer look at the dam and spillway, so I took a slight detour just before the paved road on a concrete platform. Finally, I dropped down some steel stairs and followed the road as it made a sweeping turn back down to the parking lot.
I return just as Nora was leaving the John Muir Interpretive Center next to the parking area. Matt was waiting near the truck as we approached. Did anyone want to go back to the JMIC for a more thorough visit? No, maybe next time. After I changed into my 'civilian shoes', we drove back to our house in Newark. There was more traffic, but happily, everyone on the road was pretty well behaved so the drive home was pretty pleasant
Los Vaqueros Watershed: Peak 1272 and Point 957
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