Sunol Regional Wilderness–A Mild (Not Wild) But Enjoyable East Bay Park

Sunol Regional Wilderness suffers from several branding problems. First, calling it a “wilderness” is overly generous. Most of it is a working cow ranch. It also is along the flight paths for both SFO and Oakland airports, so planes constantly pass overhead (with the attendant noise). And its relative proximity to the millions of East Bay residents means a steady stream of visitors, especially at attractions like Little Yosemite and Cave Rocks. On a cool and partly cloudy Dec. 31, I saw people everywhere, even in the relatively remote parts of the park. I also saw a lot of off-leash dogs, as this is one of the rare places permitting that.

Second, one of the park’s main attraction is called “Little Yosemite,” where the Alameda Creek flows through a narrows surrounded by high cliffs on both sides. The creek tumbles over boulders, creating little waterfalls. The combination of the cliffs, boulders and waterfalls is vaguely reminiscent of the Merced River flowing through Yosemite Valley, but calling it “Little Yosemite” massively oversells the experience. On my first pass, I walked right past the area without realizing it! Then again, Yosemite sets such a high bar that any comparisons to it will inevitably disappoint. Personally, my favorite part of the park was above Little Yosemite, where the Alameda Creek, surrounded by oak trees and rolling green hills, bubbled through a wide valley. This section of the park would be an excellent destination when the leaves turn colors in Fall.

Third, another main attraction is the Cave Rocks, a big hit with the dozens of kids I saw scrambling around. But one thing I didn’t see at the rocks–any caves.

Once you get past the oversold appellations, Sunol Regional Wilderness is a terrific hiking destination. The paths are well-marked, there are fewer cow patties on the paths than at nearby Mission Peak (and far fewer visitors in comparison), and the scenery is classic East Bay mountains–grassy meadows, oak groves, little creeks (especially after the wet La Nina season we’re having), soaring raptors, fine panoramas, and wonderful wildflower displays in Spring. The meadows are filled with an unusually large number of ground squirrels. If you want fitness, the park has plenty of excellent thigh-busters that will reward you with nice views. Another plus: the park has some really nice backpack campsites, a wonderful quick weekend getaway if you can tolerate the omnipresent airplane noise. The park lacks the jaw-dropping views you’ll get at the top of Mission Peak, but in all other respects it’s a superior destination.

The park’s official directions instruct South Bayers to take Calaveras Road from the south. Calaveras Road peters out into a single lane twisty road all along the Calaveras Reservoir, which makes for slow and nauseated driving. It’s much simpler and quicker to take 680 to Calaveras Road in Sunol and go south. Following the latter route, door-to-door from Mountain View was a little over 40 minutes.

See the photos from my visit.

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