Del Valle to Murietta Falls in Ohlone Regional Wilderness

Murietta Falls, at around 100 feet, is the tallest waterfall in the bay area, high up in the diablo mountains it’s a steep climb along the Ohlone Wilderness Trail from Del Valle Reservoir to reach.

I’ve visited Murietta Falls before on a slightly longer hike to Rose Peak, but in the spring of a drought year. I was looking forward to visiting again after a wetter year. Because the falls are high up not a huge amount of water discharges into them, unless it’s near to a rainstorm. With the volume of water that fell from the skies this past winter I was itching to hike up again.

But the winter storms caused Del Valle Reservoir to flood the facilities and it was closed to the public until it could be made safe again. The estimated opening time kept getting pushed back as the rain refused to let up for any significant period of time, and access to the park wasn’t restored until early spring.

By the time the park reopened the rain had mostly gone and skies were blue. The weekend I went the main parking lot was closed so I started my hike from the campsite. Access to the park costs $6 and to hike on the Ohlone Wilderness Trail requires a $2 permit, which conveniently is also a map of the wilderness. I got to the park early, the hike up involves a steep climb and is mostly exposed, so it’s best to do this hike in the cooler seasons and to start early to avoid having to climb in the heat.

The first few miles of trail follow a fire road. About a mile in there’s a trail register at the information sign where all hikers are asked to sign in, and back out again on the way out. It’s a novelty to see how many people are out ahead of you on the trail and where they’re all headed. After another mile or so there’s a small trail camp and then it’s a short climb up to an overlook of the reservoir.

The trail then drops down a to cross a stream, and turns into single track. On a hot day the cool air and shade along the stream are a welcome relief. From here the trail again climbs, but the single track trail isn’t quite as steep as the road as it contours up. Along the way there are some great views north towards Mount Diablo.

As the trail gets higher it starts passing through grasses and oak trees. When I was here during the drought years the oak trees looked parched, with many downed boughs and fallen trees. This time they looked much happier, with broad canopies of green leaves.

The oak trees looked much happier after the wet winter. When I hiked the same trail in a drought year the trees looked parched.

A little under 2 miles from the stream the trail tops out and there’s an artificial pond right at the trail junction where the path to Murietta Falls splits from the Ohlone Trail. In the springtime there were splashes of yellow all over the trail and among grasses from the wildflowers. This is the high point of the hike at just under 3,400 feet. From here it’s a relatively short drop down to the falls.

The scenery here is my favorite part, as the trail drops down it curves into a small valley, crossing over La Costa Creek, which feeds the waterfall. Most of the time the creek runs pretty low, but the trickling water winding down the green valley is pretty. After crossing the creek the base of falls are scramble down the steep rock to the pool below. It’s a great place to stop for lunch, and that’s exactly what I did.

Murietta Falls was hard to photograph as the sun was right behind. The stream cascades down the rocks into a small pool at the base.

From here it’s a couple of miles further to Rose Peak, and even with most of the steep climbing behind it still continues to undulate. Today though I turned around and retraced my steps back to Del Valle. The way back is much easier as it’s mostly downhill, but it’s a steep climb back up from the stream crossing, around half way back.

The final descent down the fire road is steep and not much fun. A mile before the trailhead we’re back at the trail register. It’s not until right before the end that the reservoir finally comes back into view. It’s a long and steep hike up and back, but the scenery along the way, and the falls itself, are pretty and well worth the effort.

Panorama Loop in Yosemite

A long hike with some of the best and most extensive views of Yosemite Valley. Starting at the valley floor, climbing up the Mist Trail and past Vernal and Nevada Falls, following the Panorama Trail round, over Illilouette Fall, and around to Glacier Point, before dropping back down to the valley floor via Four Mile Trail.

I did this loop on the last day of a four-day trip to Yosemite. I’ve been up the Mist Trail multiple times in the past, it’s one of Yosemite’s most popular trails, and for good reason. I got to the trailhead early to try to beat the crowds. Still, at 6 in the morning there were multiple groups of people who had the same idea and were heading up the trail alongside me. With the snow melt from the huge snowpack this winter the rivers were swollen, and the waterfalls promised to be spectacular.

The trail starts at Happy Isles as the John Muir Trail (JMT), following the Merced River up to Nevada Fall. It’s paved for the first mile, up to a bridge over the Merced. Then, as the John Muir Trail splits off, the Mist Trail turns into granite steps that climb steeply besides Vernal Fall. There was a huge volume of water pouring over the falls, and walking up the steps the spray was more like rain than mist. I was completely soaked by the time I got to the top.

Above Vernal Fall there is another steep climb that ends with another set of granite steps, alongside Nevada Fall. The trail isn’t as close to the water here, as the valley is much wider, but there’s still great views of fall on the way up. At the top of Nevada Fall there’s a bridge that crosses back over the Merced right before the river plunges over the edge.

In a little under 3 miles the trail is now 2,000 ft above the valley floor. Another short section of the JMT connects over to the Panorama Trail, and switchbacks carry up and over to Illilouette Fall. On this section of trail I had left all the people behind, and other than a few backpackers I had the trail to myself for a few miles.

On the way up Panorama Trail there are glimpses back to Nevada Fall, as it starts to recede into the distance, and some views down into the valley. It’s not until after dropping down to Illilouette Fall, and climbing back up the other side, towards Glacier Point, that the views really start to open up in all directions; up the basin of Illilouette Creek, back to see both Vernal and Nevada Falls, and, on the other side of Half Dome, up Tenaya Canyon.

Nearing the top of Panorama Trail the number of people start to increase again, until, on reaching the high point of the hike, over 3,000 ft above the valley floor, there is suddenly an explosion of people at Glacier Point. And it’s hard to fault them, the vista across Yosemite Valley and its famous waterfalls and beyond is killer. I found a shaded spot and had sat down for lunch, taking in the view.

To complete the loop Four Mile Trail drops down over 3,ooo ft in a little more than 4 miles of many many switchbacks, back down to the valley floor. The trail here is relatively exposed, and I’m glad I wasn’t one of the many people I passed, climbing up in the afternoon sun. As the trail begins there’s a fantastic view down the valley, which isn’t visible from Glacier Point, of the sheer granite face of El Capitan as the Merced meanders through the forested floor. As the trail continues to drop the valley gets closer and closer until, finally, the trail joins up to the valley loop.

From here it’s a flat 2 mile walk back around to Happy Isles. The free valley shuttle could cut out most of this distance, but I wanted to complete the loop. In total the loop is a little over 16 miles with over 4,500 ft total elevation gain, but in exchange you get unbeatable views. This time of year, with the amount of water swelling the rivers and waterfalls, it was spectacular.

Hetch Hetchy to Lake Vernon

An overnight loop from Hetch Hetchy dam, up to Lake Vernon, and back down through Tiltill Valley, past Rancheria and Wapama Falls, and skirting Hetch Hetchy Reservoir back to the start. The spring temperatures are pleasant, and the lower elevation means it’s mostly snow free.

This past weekend, for my first trip to the Sierra this year, I headed to Hetch Hetchy in Yosemite. I’ve never been to Hetch Hetchy before, although I have glimpsed the reservoir from the trail, while doing the Grand Canyon of the Tuolumne. Spring time is the most popular time to visit this entrance; as it lies at a relatively low elevation so the snow melts earlier, and, also due to the elevation, it gets rather warm in the summer.

After an incredibly wet winter in California Yosemite received record snowfall and snowpack at the higher elevations, at 215% of average, but at the lower elevations, below around 8,500 ft, warmer temperatures produced a snowpack of only 150% of average. So as of May most of Yosemite is still under snow. But Hetch Hetchy, and the areas surrounding it, are mostly snow free.

I arrived at Hetch Hetchy around 8am to pick up my wilderness permit and chat with the ranger about the wilderness conditions. The ranger suggested a couple of destinations but I had my eye on Lake Vernon. The route up was entirely snow free, save for one or two small patches in shaded areas. However, to complete the loop requires climbing up and around Mount Gibson before dropping back down to Tiltill Valley, peaking at a little over 7,600 ft. This route still had quite a bit of snow over 7,000 ft. I had my snowshoes with me and the ranger suggested climbing up and having a look.

The loop starts right at the dam, crossing over and into a short tunnel blasted into the granite. After around a mile the trail starts switchbacking up, with pretty views of the O’Shaughnessy Dam, and then the reservoir falls out of sight as the trail continues to climb up to Beehive. Here is a trail junction to Laurel Lake, however the ranger had said the lake was closed, due to snowmelt, and he wasn’t wrong, this area was very very wet with pooled water and streams.

From Beehive there’s another gentle incline, over the drainage basin, and then the trail is mostly flat, walking across a large granite basin where the creek from Lake Vernon drains to become Wapama Falls. After around a mile the lake falls into view, and with the snow-capped mountains surrounding it, it was beautiful. The weather was warm, and I spent most the afternoon dozing on the warm granite with the view of the lake. I dropped down to the lake to filter some water and take a look from the shore, but headed a little way back up to camp overlooking the lake.

The route next day first crosses over the drainage from the lake, over a footbridge. The lake was completely overflowing, with the surrounding trees partially underwater. To get to the bridge I first had to wade through water spilling up before it, and boy was it cold. A shock to the system first thing in the morning. The water was really gushing underneath the footbridge, turning white as it cascaded over the granite below.

The trail then switchbacks up the slope of Mount Gibson. There was a fast flowing stream cascading down the granite, just past the apex of the switchbacks. There were great views across the lake and down the drainage from the trail.

After about 800 ft of climbing I hit the first patches of snow, and then as the tree cover started the trail disappeared under the snow completely. I strapped on my snowshoes, this was the first time I’ve used them. As the trail skirts around Mount Gibson there’s a further few hundred feet of climbing and then it contours around. Due to the snow no one else was coming this way so I got a real wilderness experience on this section of trail, which was a real treat, as Yosemite is usually teeming with backpackers.

I travelled a lot slower across the show, having to navigate without being able to see the trail. But it was only for around 2 miles, before crossing over a lush green meadow, and popping out of the treeline, and then the snow suddenly disappeared, replaced with dusty chaparral. From here the trail switchbacks down, dropping 2,000 ft from the peak, to the green meadows in Tiltill Valley.

From the valley there’s a small climb before another steep set of switchbacks down to Rancheria Falls, feeding into Hetch Hetchy. With the snow melt the falls were also gushing and white, with a huge volume of water emptying into the reservoir. There’s great campsites at Rancheria Falls, so long as you don’t mind falling asleep to the sound of waterfalls, but I was only spending one night, so I started the 7 mile trip around the side of Hetch Hetchy and back to the entrance.

As I was leaving the Rancheria Falls area I passed 2 day hikers and a pair of backpackers, but then for a few miles saw no one else. Considering it was just past midday on Sunday there were suspiciously few walkers here. After a few miles Tueeulala and Wapama Falls popped into view, and boy were they flowing. There was a huge amount of spray pouring off of Wapama Falls, not surprising considering the amount of water I saw flowing out of Lake Vernon.

The trail had been following around a few hundred feet above the reservoir, and just before the falls drops down a little to a series of bridges crossing over near the base of Wapama Falls. As I got closer I could see a group of people on the far side of the falls, but I still hadn’t seen a single hiker since the few near Rancheria Falls. I crossed over the first couple of bridges, and around a boulder, and the final bridge was inundated with water.

As no one was coming over I wasn’t sure if it was safe to cross over the bridge, so I backtracked and waited on the far side of the bridges. I figured either someone would cross over, or the day hikers I’d seen earlier in the day would come back and I’d be able to ask them how the bridge was like when they came across earlier in the day. I didn’t much fancy the idea of the alternative, which would be to retrace my route, 24 miles and over 7,000 ft of climbing back around. But I also didn’t much fancy attempting to cross a bridge that wasn’t safe.

It was only about 20 minutes later that the day hikers both happened to arrive almost at once, and had no fear walking straight over the bridge. They said it had been flooding when they came. So I followed suit, and got a soaking walking to the other side. In the end it didn’t feel unsafe as the water flooding across the bridge was mostly coming down and not flowing sideways. But on the other side, with the group of people, there were two park service rangers and a “trail closed” sign, which is why the far side was so free of people. The rangers said it was a “soft closure”, but that they were recommending against crossing given the conditions. The Wapama Falls had the most water they’ve had in many years. In the end it was all fine, and the quick rest combined with the soaking was very refreshing given the mid afternoon heat and sun beating down, and gave me a second wind for the final few miles back around to complete the loop.

Backpacking to Robinson Mountain in Orestimba Wilderness

Robinson Mountain Trail could be more accurately described as a suggested route rather than a trail, but the views on the way up are really pretty. Deep into Orestimba Wilderness it’s a long walk in, and back out again, to get to this rarely walked trail.

For the second year running, I threw my backpack on the back of motorcycle, and headed down to Henry Coe to visit Orestimba Wilderness. I was a little better prepared after my experience last year and stuck to the trails I knew were easily navigable. My goal was to try to get to Robinson Mountain Peak right in the center of Orestimba Wilderness. The trail up to the peak is from the east so I had a long hike from park headquarters just to get to the base of the mountain.

I took the most direct route to get to Orestimba Wilderness from the Park HQ, heading to Mississippi Lake via Poverty Flat Road and Willow Ridge Road, and then dropping down Hartmann Trail and following the Orestimba Creek up to Rooster Comb, where I spent the night. The rivers were pretty full of water and the scenery was very green this time of year. From Rooster Comb it’s a few miles around to Robinson Mountain Trail, just past Lion Canyon.

Robinson Mountain Trail is more of a suggested route than a trail. Like many of the trails at Henry Coe, it walks straight up a ridge to a sub peak of Robinson Mountain. There was only one small section where the trail seems to have been man-made, where it tracks around a particularly steep ridge. The views over the valley on the way up are really pretty. The entire path up requires scrambling through waist to chest high coyote brush, but it’s pretty easily navigable.

After getting to the top though, it’s another story. The chaparral is really thick and has grown well past head height in places. I could see across to Robinson Peak, but there was no obvious path over without crawling through some very thick shrubbery. I was quickly approaching my turn around time, so the summit and views over the western section of the wilderness will have to wait for another year. I turned back, and retraced my steps to Mississippi Lake. The views on the way down the mountain trail were even better than on the way up.

On the way back I met two volunteers trimming and flagging Hartmann Trail, in preparation for the wilderness weekend the next week. This is where Dowdy Ranch is opened to vehicles one weekend each spring, which makes visiting Orestimba a lot more attainable. The volunteers were a couple, both around 80 years old, out maintaining one of the steepest trails in the park, I take my hat off to them.

I also got to talk to a volunteer in park HQ at the end of my trip, a guy named Ken, he explained to me that the ridge roads are actually old fire roads which is why they so strictly follow the ridge lines. Willow Ridge Road is nicknamed the rollercoaster because it goes up and down do many times as it traverses the ridge. It was another fun trip, and I suspect that I’ll be back again in the springtime next year.

Hiking Caliente Mountain Ridge Trail in Carrizo Plain National Monument

The Caliente Mountain Ridge Trail follows the ridgeline of the Caliente Range and offers spectacular views to the east over Carrizo Plain, and to the west over Cuyama Valley the entire way. The springtime super bloom in California this year lit up the sides of mountain with vast swathes of yellow.

After five years of severe drought this winter has been the wettest in California in over a hundred years. And it was sorely needed. In the age of instagram the springtime super bloom in California’s desert climates has flooded the internet and Carrizo Plain has one of the best displays of wildflowers in the country.

Looking over Carrizo Plain and Soda Lake from the start of the Caliente Mountain Ridge Trail. The yellow wildflowers spill down the sides of the mountains and splash across the plain.

Carrizo Plain National Monument is a vast native Californian grassland with two mountain ranges stretching down either side, Temblor Range to the east and Caliente Range to the west. In the middle there’s a large alkaline lake which dries out during the dry periods. Most of the year it’s a harsh and desolate landscape, but during the spring it turns green and color floods down the sides of the mountains and across the plain.

The land is managed by BLM and contains many dirt roads. There’s only one long maintained trail in the monument, which stretches down the ridgeline of Caliente Range. For the first half it borders a wilderness study area and follows along a dirt road, the second half is entirely inside the wilderness study area and becomes a single track trail right up to the ruins of a World War 2 lookout hut at the Caliente Mountain Summit.

I ended up doing the trail as an overnight to split the two legs of 5 hours of driving to get to the monument. The monument was teaming with picture takers and the campsites and many spots along the road up to the trail were full of campers, but in the late afternoon and early evening hiking along the trail I only saw a few other hikers. The trail is completely dry and I had to lug in all my water, but the climbing is gentle, and until the last mile it’s mostly flat going.

I got to the peak just before sunset and backtracked a little to find a flat place to pitch my tent. While the sky was clear, there was a pretty strong wind in the afternoon. It died down a little at sunset but picked up again through the night and the noise of my tent flapping wasn’t exactly conducive to sleep, even with earplugs in.

During the night I was beginning to question whether camping out on the ridge was actually a good idea, but the morning more than made up for it. The wind died down at dawn and the sunrise and early morning hiking was really beautiful. I dropped back down into the valley, through the arriving throngs of picture takers, and five hours up the 101 to home. Carrizo Plain in the springtime is well worth it.