Just off Mission Boulevard on the mountain side of Fremont lies a totally rejuvenated trail up Mission Peak, at 2517 feet one of the tallest hills in the East Bay and one of its more breathtaking destinations. The old route was a haphazard near vertical; series of single-track mud-paths virtually useless on wet winter days, and despite leading to one of the nicest spots in the area, frequently wasn't worth the effort. The new course is a well-drained gravel, dual-track, all-weather path that switchbacks up the peak at an almost constant grade. What a difference!
Beyond the parking lot at the end of Stanford Road, a pedestrian gate provides access to the trail. As I go through it I always look up, as the entire trip to the top as well as the peak itself is visible. It starts out gently for the first half a mile as the trail glides past a tall row of eucalyptus trees, a welcome "warm-up" time before the climb. This stretch serves a reverse function on the way down.
Soon the "climb" is unambiguous, and although I see people jogging up and even a few bicycling, for most people it's a slow walk. Since I make the climb frequently, I set a rhythm early on and it seems to make the process of gaining several thousand feet in under three miles a little easier. I do that by measuring the number of steps I take each time I plant my walking stick, and while that might sound a bit anal -- try it -- it really works. I find about three steps to each walking-stick-plant (four steps on the peak itself) provides me a good pace for this kind of grade.
Beginning on the Hidden Valley Trail, the beauty of the walk is quick to reveal itself. The nearby hills, whether green or gold, are gentle and graceful, and the views beyond of bay and city are glorious. There are animal companions, cows in the fields, frogs in the ponds, and always hawks circling overhead. Mission Peak's nearness to the civilization surrounding the bay gives the walker a perspective that few other hikes in the area do. From the peak, to the west you see the entire bay, the commercial centers of San Francisco, Oakland and San Jose, as well as the four peaks "anchoring" the Bay Area: Mts Tamalpais, Umunhum, Hamilton and Diablo. To the east, you see only wilderness.
As the trail climbs, one of the most noticeable features is the cow grazing paths. Cows tend to graze along lines of equal elevation (because they're lazy) and their weight, particularly in the wet months, creates paths that look like mini-terraces up and down the hillsides. While in no way unique to this park, these terraces are more prominent here because of the steepness of the hillsides and their western exposure, allowing for some fabulously dramatic patterns at low sun angles in late afternoon.
A little over half way up and just before an over-look with a small oak cluster clinging to the hillside, there's a fairly obvious but unmarked junction with a trail heading off to the right. This route takes you through the Aqua Caliente Creek watershed, which is the prominent drainage on the right during the climb, and a pretty trip in its own right with plenty of shade on hot summer days. Taking this path leads you over to the Peak Meadow Trail, visible across the ravine, which in turn take you back to the parking lot. These trails are less well developed (read: still muddy in the winter) but this loop makes a less strenuous and more varied alternative to the up and back hike to the summit.
At the crest of the last small plateau before the ridgeline and just under the summit itself, I enjoy looking up at the face of the peak, at the wondrous rock colors of hazelnut and burnt orange, caused by the minerals in the stone. Above and to the left of this display, there's a mature oak growing right out of a rather large mass of stone. In that same area, you'll meet another right-side trail junction, this one signed the Grove Trail, that heads toward several buildings and a well-forested draw containing a spring. From this point it's possible to make a loop to the top of the peak, but be advised that the Grove Trail is also pretty squishy in winter and spring.
Continuing up the last switchback to the ridgeline brings on yet another trail junction denoting the end of the Hidden Valley Trail, and beyond a gate, the Peak Trail. After turning right on the dual track it's .6 mile to the summit. The splendor of the peak will come as a bit of a surprise since the trail stays to the east side of the mountain, away from the bay. Once you get to the top, the scene really hits you.
You will notice there are two choices on the descent, either retracing your steps or a narrow path along the edge of the ridge, a steeper but more direct option. Climbing down the ridge I'm always surprised at how narrow Mission Peak is from this perspective, as it looks so wide from the Valley below.
If you can afford the time, plan to stay on top for a while and if possible witness sundown from the ridge. It's always a sight worth waiting for, and what's only slightly less awesome is the lighting up of the civilized world below. Don't worry, with a walking stick and a slow pace, hiking down at night is not only quite possible without a flashlight, but also legal. The park doesn't officially close until 10PM, and the lights of the city illuminate the trail well. (Just be sure you're off the actual peak before dark as those trails are a little tricky.)
At dusk, the contours in the bay created by the sloughs and salt evaporator berms are dramatic and visible long after sunset, while the color of the sky will be mirrored in the water. Occasionally this time of night also coincides with the fog coming in, it will mostly be below you as it brushes by the hills and ridges. No matter when you decide to head down, the return will be punctuated by frequent stops to gaze at the scene and you'll be back in the car all too soon.
Getting There: Mission Peak
From San Jose: Take either Interstate 680 or 880 north to the Mission Blvd exit (between 10 and 15 miles) and head east (right). From 680 it's a half a mile on Mission to Stanford Avenue (from 880 add another mile). Turn right on Stanford past some pricey homes on the left and it's about a mile to the parking area. The road dead-ends at the park, and the trail begins on the left side of the restroom behind a signed gate.
From Oakland: Take I-880 south to the Mission Blvd exit (about 30 miles) and follow the signs to Mission (only one direction possible). Then follow directions above.
For additional information on the park and to download a map: http://www.ebparks.org/parks/mission.htm
Distance: just under six miles
Elevation: my altimeter read 450 feet at the parking lot and 2600 feet at the summit.
Maps: Every time I have visited there have been plenty of good hiking maps at the trailhead.