Sunday, February 27, 2005

Shell Ridge Open Space

A solo hike today; Melinda's at her parents to watch the Oscars ceremony. Personally, I'd rather watch paint dry, so I'm out alone today.

Shell Ridge Open Space is part of the Walnut Creek Open Space, some 2700 acres of land bought by the City of Walnut Creek in 1974 to preserve the landscape. Shell Ridge abuts Diablo Foothills Regional Park; when we hiked there in December, we were looking out over Shell Ridge towards Walnut Creek.

There's a number of trailheads dotted around the edges of the space; but one in particular, Howe Homestead Park, is five minutes' walk from the apartment. It's a tiny little park, named after James Howe, an early Associated Press journalist who lived there. It's also home to Walnut Creek's community gardens, which are pretty much mini-allotments; the Howe Homestead webpage suggests a 3-year waiting list for one.

Jim Howe called his home "Gopher Gulch": the ground is riddled with ground squirrel holes. I'm no longer quite sure what the difference is between a gopher and a ground squirrel; I suspect "gopher" gets used colloquially for any large burrowing rodent.

The Kovar trail leads up out of Howe Homestead into Shell Ridge proper. It's a muddy and dull slog for a while, running along the back of housing developments; but it soon enough climbs up onto Joaquin Ridge, with increasing views over the city below and the surrounding hills.

Trail marking in the Open Space varies; major trails are well-marked, but the foot trails are often missing markers. You often need the Open Space map to find your way. But even then, there are a few surprises. The map doesn't show access or fire roads. And there are often more trails on the ground than on the map; usage has blazed new trails.

I decide to take a long loop along Shell Ridge itself, the highest ridge in the park. It's some 500 feet to climb, but it looks worth it. I can see an enthusiast flying a radio-controlled glider from the top of the ridge.

From the Kovar Trail, I turn north on the Fossil Hill Trail and join the Briones-Mt. Diablo trail heading north, past Indian Valley School and the Marshall Drive trailhead. The trail continues out of the park, but I turn east. There are more trails here than the map shows; I take what I believe to be the Ridge Top Trail. It isn't; it heads straight up the steep side of Shell Ridge directly to the EBMUD water tank, rather than skirting below it and dog-legging back up as the Ridge Top trail should. But it does the trick; I'm up, and the views are glorious. Shame about the rain that's just started and which is being blown straight into my face by the winds coming up the ridge. But I've been lucky with weather so far, and I can put up with mild rain.

Ridge Top Trail continues along the ridge, and after about half a mile a side trail leads right towards the summit. It's worth the effort to stand at the highest point. I find an odd metal disc set into a rocky outcrop, marked "US COAST & GEODETIC SURVEY": more on this later. On the ground, it appears that the side trail continues from the summit down the side of the ridge; don't be tempted, it rapidly turns into a very steep and rocky scramble. Better to backtrack to the Ridge Top Trail which takes an easier descent around the back of the ridge. And it's a relief to be behind the ridge, sheltered from the wind.

You could shorten the hike here by taking the Ginder Gap Loop Trail back down to the Briones-Mt. Diablo trail, but I decided to go for distance today and continued another 1.5 miles on the Ridge Top Trail. This is the quietest part of the hike; I don't meet a single person on this stretch. The wildflowers are starting to bloom; in a few weeks the hillsides should be spectacular. I don't recognise many, but manage to identify bright orange California poppies (furled today against the wind and rain) and little purple lupines.

I returned on the Briones-Mt. Diablo trail before dropping down onto Indian Creek Trail. The creek's surprisingly empty, given the rain we've had lately; and it's very quiet. Ground squirrels dart out of the way as I approach, and an owl hoots overhead.

I'm feeling foolhardy, so I rather than taking the Kovar Trail home from the end of Indian Creek, I drop down on Fossil Hill road to the Sutherland Drive trailhead and take the Summit Ridge Trail. A bit of a mistake; it's a tough climb up the rim of the old quarry, and it feels a bit precarious now the wind and rain have started up again. There's plenty of evidence of why the space is named "Shell Ridge": the stone here is full of chalky shell fragments.

I make it to the top and start dropping down back to the Kovar trail. The rain's really coming down now, and the trail is getting increasingly slippery. I make it almost all the way down; but a few hundred yards from the trailhead I lose my balance, slip, and fall flat on my arse in the mud.

It keeps raining hard as I exit the park and trudge home along the roadside; by the time I make it home I feel like, and must look like, a drowned muddy rat.

In total, I think I walked around 7.5 miles; and it certainly feels like it. Time to do the laundry; and take a hot bath.

Categories: Hiking


Greetings, James Kew! I enjoyed your description of your hike around Shell Ridge. I grew up a block down from the Marshall trail head and spent many hours playing on and around the ridge. (I'm an alumnus of Indian Valley Elementary School.) My wife and I are visiting WC later this summer to see my family and plan on hiking the very trails you've described. She's never been and I'll enjoy showing her around and reviving old memories.

It's interesting to see the map of the area and to learn the names of the trails. For all the years that I spent running around the Open Space, I don't think I ever knew a single name.

I hope your summer is full of good hiking and that the WC heat isn't overpowering. Thanks again for the trail report!