Monday, March 2, 2015

Family Adventure: Sunol Regional Wilderness (Sunol)

Running alongside Indian Joe Creek
on the Indian Joe Nature Trail

Today, on a whim, we visited Sunol Regional Wilderness in the East Bay foothills, and it turned out to be a GREAT decision. What a wonderful way to spend a sunny weekend morning!

Sunol Regional Wilderness is tucked in a beautiful valley formed by the Calaveras Fault, with Alameda Creek running through its center. It's just a short distance off 680 at the Calaveras Road exit, an easy drive from anywhere in the South Bay (unless you're traveling at commute time!).

Heading off for an adventure
on the Indian Joe Nature Trail.

Near the valley floor (where you'll probably spend most of your time if you're visiting with a toddler), you'll find mostly oak woodlands, with grassy meadows and plenty of trees for shade. The trails are dirt, and can be kind of mucky after a rain (meaning today), and the terrain may be difficult for even a rugged stroller (narrow trails, lots of rock obstacles).

But if you're a family that enjoys peaceful, scenic nature walks along a bubbling creek and on shady hillsides, AND either
  • Your toddler is old enough (and willing) to walk (with a bit of toddler climbing), or 
  • Your toddler is content in a carrier, or
  • You have a BOB or similar rugged stroller and you don't mind navigating some less-than-ideal trail conditions,
then this would be a wonderful outing for you!

Location: Sunol Regional Wilderness is easily accessible from the South Bay via 680 North, taking the Calaveras Road exit. Turn right on Calaveras and continue to Geary Road, where you turn left. Geary will lead you straight into the park.

Parking: Parking costs $5/car, payable at the entrance kiosk. The best place for parking for the trails we enjoyed is in the first lot on your left after you enter the park, right next to the Visitor Center. Bathrooms are available in the parking area.

What's there to do? The main attractions here are hiking, picnicking and, if you're so inclined, throwing rocks in Alameda Creek. Dogs are allowed (for an extra fee), and there were plenty around, so feel free to bring your four-legged family members. 

The bridge from the parking lot to the trails.
Here are the trails we tried during this visit (we plan to hike to "Little Yosemite" next time we go):

Indian Joe Nature Trail: We tried this first because it's labeled on the map as a short/easy loop trail, which is always a good start when hiking with a toddler. 

When we hear "Nature Trail", images come to mind of some of the stroller-friendly jaunts we've done recently at Henry Cowell (the Redwood Loop), Big Basin (same), Uvas, etc. Well, the Indian Joe Trail at Sunol mixes it up a bit! While there are numbered posts indicating spots of interest (as you'll find on most nature trails -- always fun for toddlers to search for the next number), the flat, wide, packed dirt trail you might expect was instead a slightly rocky, often narrow, and occasionally sharply-inclined path on this .91 mile loop. 

Sunny meadows...
...and shady woodlands on the
Indian Joe Nature Trail.
The trail was TOTALLY fine for an older toddler walking (with hand-holding by mom or dad for the two stream crossings and occasional narrow spots near a significant drop-off, and a few inclines where a toddler might have to climb/crawl a tiny bit), but it was decidedly NOT stroller-friendly.
The Indian Joe Creek trail requires two very
 minor crossings of Indian Joe Creek, which no doubt
only flows in the winter months.

As we neared the top of the first somewhat steep, extremely rocky incline, we were wishing we'd left the BOB behind in the car. Toddler X didn't ride in it for a second, and instead it was just excess -- and super inconvenient -- baggage for Mr. X to lug. 

Not so much fun with a stroller.
Regardless, we loved the trail, which follows the path of Alameda Creek for a bit (including a very minor stream crossing of a tributary -- probably only because it rained yesterday), then turns uphill, passes another spot on the tributary (a nice shady place for a break and some rock throwing), then climbs and descends through a beautiful hillside meadow. The mix of shady oaks and grassy hillsides was gorgeous, particularly during the time of year (now!) when the hills are a vibrant green. Toddler X walked/ran/climbed the whole thing.

Spotting wildflowers on the trail
Overall, I'd recommend the Indian Joe Nature Trail for either of the following:

-- Parents with a child in a carrier, or

-- Families with an older toddler who is a strong/willing walker and will enjoy climbing up a few minor hills and perhaps stomping through a stream (if it's still there).

I wouldn't recommend a stroller.

To get to Indian Joe, park in the lot mentioned above (near the Visitor Center), then head across the large grassy field toward the creek. Take the bridge across the creek and turn right, following the signs for the Indian Joe Nature Trail (note that there's another, longer Indian Joe Creek Trail -- we didn't try that). 

The start of Shady Glen Trail before the turn-off.
Shady Glen Trail to unmarked creek-side trail. Our second hike was even cooler, and somewhat off the beaten path. We returned to the starting point of the Indian Creek trail (the bridge that leads to the parking areas), but headed the other way along the creek (turning left if you're coming from the bridge). We initially planned to take the Shady Glen Trail, but when we reached a trail split, we saw that the Shady Glen Trail headed up a hillside, while another unmarked trail continued along the creek. With Robert Frost in mind, we chose the unmarked (and presumably less traveled) trail, and it was wonderful! 

The trail went right, we went left.
Shortly after the trail split (staying on the unmarked creek-side trail), we began to see potential creek play opportunities (no splashing today, as it was kind of chilly, but it's never too cold for rock throwing!). But it wasn't until we passed through the first cattle gate on the path (it has a little clip fastener on a chain -- be sure to re-attach it after you pass through)...

...that we found the goldmine: a calm, deep pool, just below some rushing water (so lovely burbling brook sounds), edged by huge boulders (a la Sand Harbor at Tahoe), with rocks galore for throwing. 

The area is JUST past the cattle gate, so be aware that the gate extends into a barbed wire fence -- be sure not to let toddlers explore around the wires!

Yikes! Keep toddlers away!
Just past the large pool is a rocky beach, perfect for -- guess what? -- rock throwing! This might be a good place to wade in in warmer weather, though you'll have to judge the slipperiness. Whether your toddler splashes with feet or just thrown rocks, though, it's still a lovely, peaceful area and lots of fun. 

We continued on the path until we reached another cattle gate (this one opens by sliding the bar to the right).

We debated continuing on the creekside trail (to the left) or walking through a meadow (to the right) and went with the latter. 

Good choice, as the creekside trail soon petered out, while the meadow trail was quite pleasant. There is one difficult part on the meadow trail if you're using a stroller (which I do recommend for this part of the hike -- explanation to come); it's an awkward side angle for pushing and a narrow path, so Mr. X took Toddler X a short distance downhill, which worked better. Overall, though, it was very nice and even more peaceful -- we didn't encounter a single other person on this stretch of the trail. Be aware that here, too, there is barbed wire running along the side of the trail to keep the cows in (one of the reasons I recommend a stroller here). 

We turned around at some random point and headed back, but I'm sure there was more to explore -- maybe next time!

Picnicking: There are picnic tables in lovely setting in various places at the park, but two jumped out to me. The first (and where we had our own picnic) is in the camping area (currently closed for camping, but open for picnics), just below the Visitor Center. Park in the Visitor Center lot, then head down the hill behind the restrooms at the far end of the lot (facing the Visitor Center, head to the left). There are five or six picnic tables in the shade on the banks of the creek, and it's a very pleasant place for a snack. We were surprised by how few people were down there. 

Picnic tables in a creekside wooded glen
right below the Visitor Center
Another picnic area that jumped out to me as nice was at the very start of the Indian Joe Nature Trail, on the righthand side by the creek -- there's a single picnic table in the shade, right next to a little beach of sorts (quite muddy when we visited).

Finally, there are several picnic tables on the big open lawn to the right of the Visitor Center, and I understand that there are more up in the Little Yosemite area.

The Visitor Center: If you go on a weekend when the Visitor Center is open, it's worth sticking your head in to take a look around. They have several live animals in terrariums, including snakes, toads, a turtle and a newt. They also have several items for toddlers to touch and hold, and magnifying glasses, which of course every toddler loves.

Cautions: As with all natural spots in our Bay Area hills, you need to be aware of the possibility of mountain lions, poisonous snakes and -- a biggie here -- poison oak. While I saw almost no poison oak on the Indian Creek Nature Trail, there was a TON on the sides of the second trail we followed (the unmarked one along the creek). Toddler X was in the stroller so we weren't really worried, but I'd be very careful having a toddler walk through this area.

If it has three leaves, then leave it alone!
On this first adventure, we just began to touch on what Sunol Regional Wilderness has to offer -- we can't wait to get back to check out the much-touted Little Yosemite area on Alameda Creek, with waterfalls, boulders and pools.

I hope you get the chance to check out Sunol soon too!

Happy toddling!

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