Wednesday, March 09, 2005

Shell Ridge 2: Sugarloaf Loop

Another day on my own company; another hike out from the apartment. I'm considering another stretch of the Iron Horse Trail — Walnut Creek to the Willows Shopping Center in Concord is about a 9 mile round trip — but it's a glorious sunny day and the hills are calling.

This time, I plot a circular hike through Shell Ridge Open Space and along the connector trail to Sugarloaf Open Space; returning by taking the Iron Horse Trail from Rudgear Road.

And it works out very well. The trails are empty today: I meet in total 3 other people. It's very hot on the hillsides, and I sweat like a horse. I keep telling myself it's good acclimatisation practice for summer — I prefer cool to hot, and I'm somewhat apprehensive of how I'll deal with midsummer California heat. There are lots of bluejays out today, and I see my first two lizards of the year basking on the hot ground of the trail.

I choose the Indian Creek Trail again, and it's a good choice: it's shaded and cooler alongside the creek, and there's more wildlife to see. The ground squirrels are out in force today, and it's hard to move more than 10 paces without hearing scurryings up ahead as they notice me and startle. At a bridge just after crossing Fossil Hill Trail, I find two fat warty toads huddling in the wet grass.

I continue on the Briones–Mt. Diablo Trail before cutting right on the Sugarloaf–Shell Ridge Trail. This trail can be frustrating; it doubles back on itself several times, so you often end up walking just across a valley from where you were minutes ago. A shorter route would to take the Joaquin Ranch Trail to the Whitecliff Way trailhead, and then the lower Twin Ponds Loop Trail to rejoin the Sugarloaf–Shell Ridge Trail at Bull Frog Pond — with the advantage that the Twin Ponds Loop Trail skirts Vierra Creek and is likely to be shaded.

Bull Frog Pond is fun; today it's covered with a red carpet of tiny 5mm-wide floating plants. Algae maybe? And there are frogs; I disturb a few basking at the edge of the pond as I approach, and I spot a number more watching me with just their bulging eyes visible above the water.

Immediately after the pond, a gate marks the edge of the Open Space and the beginning of Diablo Foothills Regional Park. The Sugarloaf–Shell Ridge Trail continues, unmarked, to the right just inside the gate. After 0.5 miles, turn right on Franco Ranch Loop Trail before turning left back onto the Sugarloaf–Shell Ridge Trail. The trail here is narrow and almost disappearing into long grass, and drops down into a valley. If I were doing it again, I'd probably stay on Franco Ranch Loop Trail, which runs along the ridge and has better views. There are lots of ground squirrels here too, and in the grass I can see that squirrels have trails too; a network of narrow tracks on the valley-side connects adjacent squirrel holes.

The trail leaves Shell Ridge Open Space here and heads through residential neighbourhoods to Sugarloaf Open Space. It's a pleasant interlude: for most of the distance, the trail runs along the backs of houses and is shaded by trees. At one point, I hear a whole choir of frogs croaking in Franco Creek.

Sugarloaf Open Space starts off well: good facilities at the trailhead. I decide I should take the opportunity to get up onto Sugarloaf Hill and plan to take the Ridge Top Trail to get there. And here the trouble starts: the trails here are unmarked. What I believe is Ridge Top Trail rapidly turns into a muddy cow-track before petering out altogether. I climb cross-country up the side of the ridge to find the trail. But here too, the trail has been heavily trafficed by cows making it uneven and uncomfortable to walk on. The views from the ridge are good, but it's just above highway 680 so there's a lot of freeway noise; I can see Bottom Hill Trail below me, which looks muddy and noisy. Oh well.

The map doesn't show a trailhead at the end of the Ridge Top Trail, but I decide to investigate anyway. A stile over the boundary fence encourages me; a mobile-phone antenna farm with chain-link fences discourages me; but the gates are unlocked so I go for it and eventually emerge onto Rudgear Drive. A roadside trek brings me down to Rudgear Road and the Iron Horse Trail home.

Total distance estimate just short of 10 miles, but a lot of it is flat; total time 4 hours. You could shorten it by about 2.5 miles by taking the Joaquin Ranch shortcut and by not faffing around in Sugarloaf.

Categories: Hiking