Mission Peak and Hidden Valley
Length 6.4 miles Climbing 2130 feet
Mission Peak is one of the most popular hikes in the Bay Area, and it seems to be getting more popular every year. On a nice summer weekend, the parking lot fills up and cars spill onto neighboring streets, adding up to a half-mile to the walk. At the busiest times you'll encounter three or four groups of hikers per minute, many of them big groups.
It's easy to see why this hike is so popular. Mission Peak is conveniently located, it's a prominent feature in the South Bay, and few other nearby trails give you so much of a view in such a short distance. Although there are several other routes to Mission Peak, this is both the shortest and the most scenic, yet you still get the full workout of a climb from the valley floor to the mountain peak. On a nice day, the brilliant sunshine and unobstructed views are uplifting, especially for those of us who have to spend most of our days indoors.
Avoid this hike when it's above 85 degrees: the hillside, which is almost completely exposed, is much warmer than the city below.
Dogs are allowed on the trail and it's common to see exhausted pooches waddling their way up the hill or collapsing in the shade.
This hike takes the most popular route up to Mission Peak, but to add some variety on the way down, I suggest making a small loop on the Horse Heaven and Moore Grove Trails, which makes the hike a lot more interesting.
If you'd rather avoid the crowds, try taking the relatively little-used Peak Meadow and Horse Heaven Trail instead. The Peak Meadow Trail is steep and not especially scenic, but the scenery improves a lot on the Horse Heaven Trail, which has a nice backcountry feel that you don't get on the main trail.
Starting at the parking lot, the trail, which is actually a well-maintained dirt road, immediately begins a gentle ascent through golden grasslands, the partly-wooded peak directly in front of you. After an initial stretch of gentle climbing, the trail begins to switchback and gets steeper.
The switchbacking continues for quite a while as the trail gradually leaves the city behind. However, the parking lot and much of the trail behind remains visible throughout most of the hike.
Reaching the ridge, you turn off onto a wide, heavily-worn trail that climbs the distinctive triangular hump of Mission Peak. Seen from the valley floor, the hump doesn't look that big, but up close it's huge. The trail is steep and rough, and as you climb it gets rougher and more rocky. It seems like the trail is getting wider every year; it's now much wider than the dirt road.
Finally you reach the peak, marked by an odd-looking, graffiti-covered landmark pole. Hikers sit around on the rocky outcroppings eating and talking on cell phones. The peak has one of the most dramatic views of the Bay Area — you can see from downtown San Jose to San Francisco, the glittering metropolis spread out beneath you. There's also a nice view of the endless rolling grasslands to the east.
Instead of returning the way you came, as most hikers do, continue along the trail, which veers off slightly to the left of the ridge. The moment the trail begins to descend, you literally leave the beaten path behind and enter the backcountry. The crowds disappear, the wide dusty trail becomes a narrow singletrack, the big panoramic views become more restricted, and you find yourself among quiet grassy hills.
Turn right onto the Horse Heaven Trail and then right again onto the Moore Grove Trail. The trail, which used to be a little overgrown but now has been widened, skirts an oak and laurel woodland before briefly entering it. A little creek flows; it's surprising to see so much water in the middle of the summer, especially given that you're still pretty close to the peak, meaning that the watershed that the creek drains must be very small.
Emerging all too soon from the forest, the trail passes a ranch homestead and ends at a dirt road. Continue on the dirt road until you reach the main peak trail, then return on this trail.
© 2012, 2013 David Baselt