The Horse Heaven route to Mission Peak is the quieter backcountry alternative to the Hidden Valley Trail. Most people avoid it because it’s a lot steeper, but it’s also a lot more scenic, especially the singletrack section at the top. It’s really amazing what a completely different experience this route is, even though it’s within sight of the more popular route.
Park on busy Vineyard Avenue or Antelope Drive near the Stanford Avenue trailhead. A lot of spaces on these streets, as well as all other streets east of Mission Boulevard, are reserved for residents, so if you find a spot, look for no parking signs. On a busy day all the legal spots will be taken and you’ll need to park west of Mission Boulevard, where there aren’t any parking restrictions. In this case the walk to the trailhead will add about a mile each way to the hike, but it’s a pretty quick and not entirely unpleasant mile.
At the Stanford Avenue parking lot, join the stream of people on the main trail to Mission Peak. After just a few minutes, though, turn off onto the Peak Meadow Trail, where there are a lot fewer people, maybe a group every one or two minutes. The road descends a little and passes by some cow corrals before beginning a steep climb.
Like the main route, the Peak Meadow Trail is a dirt road. However, while the main route feels like a wide sidewalk, the Peak Meadow Trail is a working ranch road. Whether or not that’s a good thing depends on the time of year. In the summer and fall the Peak Meadow Trail can be somewhat unattractive; the open hills are often overgrazed and the area has a dusty, worn-out look. It’s a lot more enjoyable in the winter and spring.
Regardless of the time of year, the scenery improves when you reach the Horse Heaven Trail. This is where the real climbing, and the real scenery, starts. The singletrack trail switchbacks up a hill, then gives up switchbacking and heads straight up the mountain at a bruising 30% grade. The climb seems to go on forever, but it’s remarkable how much the views open up during this part. At two points the trail, which is otherwise completely open, briefly dips into surprising little glens where there are few trees and a tiny creek.
After a final steep push, the trail finally starts to level out as it approaches the ridge. Turn right onto the Peak Trail and then left onto the Eagle Loop Trail, which descends as it loops around the backside of Mission Peak. This area is even quieter than the Horse Heaven trail; almost no one comes here, and the views of the Bay Area metroplex are replaced by views of the East Bay hills. With its oak-lined ravines this area also has noticably more trees, although the trail itself is still completely open.
The trail climbs back up to the ridge, where it rejoins the main trail for the final climb to Mission Peak.
After reaching the peak, continue along the Peak Trail. Turn right onto the Horse Heaven Trail and then turn right again, just before it reaches the first gate, onto the Moore Grove Trail. The Moore Grove Trail is really difficult to see: it looks like a cowpath, and since the Horse Heaven Trail has moved, the intersection marker is way off to the side in the trees where you’ll never see it. The trail skirts an oak and laurel woodland, passing through an area made muddy by a seep and churned up by cows. A little creek flows; it’s surprising to see so much water, especially in the middle of the summer, and so close to the peak where the watershed must be small.
The trail enters the creekside grove, a welcome relief on hot summer days, and turns into a dirt road that’s much easier to hike. 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. Rejoin the stream of people as the trail winds its way down the hill.
© 2017, 2022 David Baselt