This exceptionally quiet, little-used route has a nice backcountry feel with lots of wide-open spaces. It begins and ends with steep climbs, but in between, there’s a walk down an oak-covered peninsula and a pleasant ramble through valley-bottom cow pastures.
This is one of the few all-day hikes in the Los Vaqueros Watershed that’s usually open in the spring. Like most of the trails in Los Vaqueros, the hike is entirely exposed, with no shade to speak of, so in summer and fall it ’s usually too hot. In winter, if it’s rained within the past few weeks, it ’s usually too muddy.
Most of the climbing can be eliminated by starting from the southern entrance and walking north on the Los Vaqueros Trail to the peninsula. This route is about the same length and is much easier, but it’s less scenic, doesn’t have the same backcountry feel, and has a few more people, maybe a group every 10 – 15 minutes.
There’s a $6 fee to enter the watershed.
Start at the visitor center parking lot and take the path on the right side of the visitor center. The path joins the paved road that climbs up the dam. This is the busiest part of the hike, since most visitors are here to fish by the shore of the reservoir.
At the top of the paved road, take the only dirt road, which is marked “Trail”. The road begins a really steep climb; when you finally reach the top, a second steep climb comes into view.
The trail then begins a steep but scenic descent, switchbacking into a wide valley with oak-sprinkled hills and herds of grazing cows. The number of people on the trail really drops off as soon as the trail starts descending; on a nice weekend you might pass a group on the trail every one or two hours, and maybe a few more groups fishing along the shores of the reservoir.
There’s a long and somewhat monotonous stretch where the trail zig-zags through not especially scenic lowlands.
Seen from a distance, the Los Vaqueros peninsula looks like a really inviting place to hike; with its attractive blue oak groves, it’s one of the most prominent and scenic features of Los Vaqueros. As it turns out, though, the trails on the peninsula are actually kind of dull. The Peninsula Crest Trail follows the surprisingly hilly ridgeline, mostly through open grassland, while the Peninsula Trail is a wide gravel road that returns along the reservoir’s shore. Along the way are some picnic areas with views of the water. The peninsula does add a nice, easy middle section to this hike in between all the climbing, but it can be skipped without missing too much in the way of scenery.
The trail gets much more scenic as it leaves the peninsula and enters the flatlands around the northern tip of Cowboy Cove. Turn onto the Oak Savanna Trail, which climbs gently through a broad valley populated by grazing cows, then turn onto the little-used Badger Pass Trail, which begins a slightly steeper climb back to the Los Vaqueros Trail. Return the way you came on the Los Vaqueros Trail.
© 2021 David Baselt