Friday, January 19, 2018

Wildcat Canyon - Exploring the trails of the dog-friendly East Bay

Distance: 6.8 miles
Elevation Gain: 1,055 feet
High Point: 1060 feet
Difficulty: Moderate to Challenging
Time: 2 hours 45 minutes
Fitness: Walkers, hikers, runners
Family Friendly: Parents with small children can do an out-and-back on the Wildcat Canyon Trail for an easier hike.
Dog Friendly: Off-leash; on-leash walking on Nimitz Way. Watch out for coyotes if you have a small dog.
Amenities: Porta potties and picnic area at in the Alvarado Staging Area; picnic area; a few benches along the trail.
Contact: East Bay Regional Park District
GPS: 37° 57' 7.2396'' N 122° 19' 6.3912'' W 

Map to: Alvarado Staging Area, Park Avenue, Richmond, CA
Strava Route:

About Wildcat Canyon:
Covering 2,427 acres, Wildcat Canyon is a popular destination for hikers, runners, mountain bikers, horseback riders—and wildlife. The park houses a wide range of animals including, but not limited to: deer, squirrels, foxes, coyotes, and snakes.

Until the 1920s, Wildcat Canyon was a water source for the East Bay, but in 1935, the East Bay Regional Park District began acquiring this land as parkland. Alvarado Park—the northern section of Wildcat Canyon where this hike starts—used to be a private park, and was taken over by the City of Richmond in 1923. It was once home to an open-air pavilion, a dance hall (later converted into a roller rink), and the Grande Vista Sanitarium, a center for people struggling with addiction and other mental health issues. Wildcat Canyon contains WPA-era stone masonry work, which has earned the park a spot on the National Register of Historic Places. It was transferred to the East Bay Regional Park District in 1985..

The featured route starts out slowly, but builds to be much more interesting as it goes along. From the wide fire trails of the Wildcat Creek Trail, you’ll take the single track Havey Canyon Trail to enjoy a tree-lined ascent. After a short stint on paved Nimitz Way, you arrive at the San Pablo Ridge Trail, where you’ll take in views of Mount Diablo, Mount Tamalpais, the San Francisco Bay, San Francisco, and the Golden Gate Bridge.

This hike is pretty in the winter after a rain when the grass on the hills is green (though the trails can be muddy). In spring, with good timing, you can expect to see a number of wildflower species. In summer, expect to be hot and bring enough water to last you 6.8 miles.

Route Map
Get Moving:
Pick up the Wildcat Creek Trail from the Alvarado Staging Area parking lot at the end of Park Avenue in Richmond.

After 0.2 miles, you'll see a junction on the left for the Belgium Trail. Stay straight on the Wildcat Creek Trail, but you'll come back to this trail later. Continue on the wide paved and then dirt trail. If you're treading quietly, you may hear Wildcat Creek below you to your right. At 1.8, 1.9 miles, and 2.0 miles, you'll pass the Mezue and Leonards Trails to your left and then Rifle Range Road to your right.  At the intersection with Rifle Range Road, take a quick detour to your right to see a WPA-era stone arch bridge across Wildcat Creek.

Remain on the Wildcat Canyon Trail for 0.1 more mile until you reach a junction with the Havey Canyon Trail on your left. Take that left and stay on the Havey Canyon Trail for 1.5 miles, during which time you'll climb 540 feet. For the first mile of this singletrack trail, you'll enjoy a wooded area lined with bay laurel trees, blackberry, and poison oak. For most of this time, the creek is on your left, but at 2.7 miles total, you'll cross the creek for the last time on this route. At 3.1 miles total, you emerge from the woods and enter a grassy area that you'll stay on for the next 0.5 miles. When I hiked this route,  my hike, I saw a number of cows on this stretch—and coyotes. While this area is off-leash for dogs, I kept my dog close here.

At 3.6 miles total, you'll reach paved Nimitz Way (where you'll have to put your dog on leash temporarily). Nimitz Way is named for Chester William Nimitz, Sr. an admiral in the United States Navy who was Commander in Chief, U.S. Pacific Fleet in World War II. You'll stay on Nimitz way for  0.4 miles, and during this time you'll climb an additional 100 feet. Above you on the hill to your right is a former Nike Missile site, and as you pass this site, you can start to see Mount Diablo to the southeast and the Golden Gate Bridge to the southwest across the bay.

At 4.1 miles total, you reach the San Pablo Ridge Trail. For me, this 1.5 mile stretch of trail is the highlight of this hike. Though you've already done most of the climbing on this route, you still have to contend with a few rolling hills on this section. Here you'll also get more views of Mount Diablo and then San Francisco.

At 4.5 miles you reach your highest point on the hike—1055 feet. And at 4.9 miles, you climb to a last hill before starting a 400 foot descent to reach the Belgum Trail at 5.6 miles total.

Follow the Belgum Trail 0.9 miles—all the way down back to the Wildcat Canyon Trail. Along your way, you'll pass the Clark-Boas Trail and the Monte Cresta Trail on your right, but stay straight. For the first 0.3 miles of this trail, you'll encounter the last incline of this route. And 0.4 miles into your route, head off the trail just for a moment at 6.0 miles total to stop at a bench and get great views of San Francisco.

A room with a view:
The Belgum Trail is named for the Belgum—or Grande Vista Sanitarium, which stood here from 1914-1977. Founded by Dr. Hendrik Belgium, the sanitarium housed drug and alcohol addicts as well as people with mental health issues. You'll know you're entering the sanitarium's former grounds when you suddenly see palm trees along the route. Dr. Belgum perished in a fire that raged through the center in 1948. After his passing, his brother, Bernard Belgum and sisters, Ida Belgum, Ruth Belgu, and Christine Heiman tended to the estate—though they had no medical training. Bernard Belgum died in 1963 and there were no heirs to inherit Grande Vista. The grounds were abandoned and the rest of the buildings were burned down in 1977. In 1978, the East Bay Regional Park District acquired the land. 

Stay on the Belgum Trail until 6.5 miles total. Then, once back at the Wildcat Canyon Trail, turn right and continue the final 0.3 miles back to the start.