This is one of those epic hikes that make you feel like you’ve really been on a journey. Starting just outside of Berkeley in the very civilized Tilden Park, the trail climbs over Wildcat Peak and drops down to San Pablo Reservoir, then runs along the shore of the reservoir for several miles before climbing back over the ridge and into Tilden Park again. There’s a lot of variety along the way, with eucalyptus groves, open grassland, the wooded shoreline, and great views of the scenic reservoir.
Start in the visitor center/Little Farm parking lot and take the dirt road that goes past the visitor center. Just after passing Jewel Lake, turn right onto the Peak Trail, which dives into a eucalyptus grove. The trail is narrow and heavily lined with poison oak. The eucalyptus briefly gives way to dense native woodland, then the trail emerges into open chaparral. There are some nice views of San Francisco and the Golden Gate Bridge.
The trail ends at the road to Wildcat Peak. To the left it’s a short dead-end climb to the peak with its fine views, while to the right the road descends to Nimitz Way. As the road descends there are some nice views of the distinctive hills of Tilden Park, their oddly sharp, peaky hills covered with dark stands of pines and eucalyptus contrasting with the more common gently-rounded oak-dotted hills of the East Bay.
Turn left onto paved Nimitz Way. The road, which runs over gently rolling hills, is popular with cyclists. The wooded landscape of Tilden Park almost immediately gives way to the less attractive grassy hills of Wildcat Canyon, where herds of cows graze the hills.
Turn right onto the Eagle Trail. This dirt road, like the Inspiration Trail, is little-used and is visible mainly because it’s been mowed. There’s no tread to walk on, just grass stubble. If the road hasn’t been mowed recently it might be somewhat hard to see and you’ll have to wade through grass, but it’s always been passable. Take the first road to your left; it’s easy to miss since it can be hard to see and the signs may be hidden by grass.
The trail becomes easier to follow as it descends through a shady eucalyptus grove. Cross San Pablo Avenue.
The road that runs alongside San Pablo Reservoir is closed to cars in the winter, but at other times of year an occasional car will pass by. Although it’s still a pleasant walk, if possible take the Whopper Trail, a wooded fishing trail that parallels the shore of the reservoir (to reach the trail, take the paved road down to the Oaks Picnic Area; when it ends, continue straight on a faint, grass-covered track. When you’re almost to the reservoir, you should see the trail to your right). The trail is well-maintained as far as the visitor center, then becomes progressively narrower and more overgrown. Unlike the road, the trail offers some great views of the huge reservoir with the wooded hills rising up on the other side.
The visitors’ center has a store with a snack bar, where in summer you can get hamburgers, hot dogs, french fries, and pizza. You can even rent a boat and paddle or motor around the reservoir. In summer this area is mobbed. A colony of cliff swallows sometimes lives under the eves of the visitors’ center.
A mile or so past the visitors’ center, there’s a gate across the road. The road isn’t maintained after this point and is closed to cars; it’s also somewhat less scenic. Few people come here, even in summer.
The road detours around a landslide, dumping you in a huge parking lot. Find the narrow, overgrown San Pablo Trail and take it up to San Pablo Dam Road. Across the road the Inspiration Trail, another little-used, mowed dirt track, begins its ascent to the ridge. Herds of cows congregate near the road. This road gets really muddy in the winter and once it reaches the ridge it’s tempting to cross over to paved Nimitz Way. It does, however, have some nice views of the reservoir.
Reaching Inspiration Point, you re-enter Tilden Park. With its well-maintained dirt roads and cow-free hillsides with the resulting long grass, it feels refreshingly civilized compared to the last few miles of trail.
Take either the Conlon and Wildcat Gorge Trails or the Meadows Canyon Trail back to the parking lot. Both routes are the same length; the Conlon and Wildcat Gorge Trails are wooded throughout and are more interesting, but the Conlon Trail can get extremely muddy. The Meadows Canyon Trail runs through open chaparral and is a nice steady descent but doesn’t offer any exceptional scenery.
© 2012, 2017 David Baselt