Tuesday, December 2, 2014

An Unplanned Challenge: From Sunol to Mission Peak (and Back)

It's raining today. I look outside and see the hills, finally green on time, hoping that the long drought is finally over.
I had this half-done blogpost in the pipeline for 17 months and now it's time to post this lovely summer hike I did a while ago. 

Date: July 29, 2013
Place: Sunol Regional Wilderness to Mission Peak segment of the Ohlone Wilderness Trail, Fremont, California
Coordinates (Sunol side) : 37.514098, -121.830347
Length: 10 miles in and out
Difficulty: Strenuous

The rolling East Bay hills are soft and round, pleasant to see and soothing to observe. Sanding out is Mission Peak with its pointy, pyramid-shaped summit of hard rock. Towering to the height of 2500 ft, this peak that overlooks the city of Fremont, attracts many who use the strenuous, no-let-up, 3 miles trail from Stanford Avenue staging area to the summit, as an exercise routine. For others, myself included, making it to the summit for the first time or at a certain self-imposed regularity, becomes a personal goal of sorts. An achievement that says ... nothing, really, except that one has on hand the 5-6 hours needed to make it all the way up and down and no desire to waste that time slot on less inspiring activities.
I have been up and down Mission Peak several times, stating at the Stanford Avenue trailhead or, more frequently, the Ohlone Collage trailhead. These are the shortest and steepest tails and, most importantly, begin relatively close to my home, so it is feasible for me to drop the chikas of at school, hike up to the peak at a leisurely pace, and make it back on time to pick them up.

But there are two more trails leading up to Mission Peak. One of them comes from the east: it starts at Sunol Regional Park. This trail isn't as steep as the west-originated trails but is 2 miles longer, making for a 10 miles round trip hike. It also requires a special permit because the trail goes through the lands of the San Francisco Water Company. This permit, the Ohlone Wilderness Permit, is easily obtainable at either Sunol or Del Valle Regional Parks (or at the East Bay Regional Park District office), and it costs $2 a person, for an entire year.
Flag Hill, view from the Ohlone Wilderness Trail to Mission Peak
That Summer day was the last full day for the chikas in their summer camp, and for me, the last chance to hike a 5-hour trail on my own that summer. Ascending Mission Peak from Sunol has been on my wish list for some time and there was that opportunity I've been waiting for. So I dropped the chikas at their camp and hurried to Sunol Regional Wilderness, found the trailhead and started uphill.
I didn't plan to go all the way up, just to go as far as I could in 3 hours, then turn around so I won't be late to pick up the chikas. So I took my time, walked slowly, and paid attention to the vegetation.
A field of tarweed
I didn't expect to see any flowers at that time of year, and was surprised that there were quite a few. Mostly DYC's of course, one of which I liked enough to photograph and identify (hopefully correctly).
Yellowflower Tarweed (Holocarpha virgata)
But there were other colors too.
Broadleaf Lupine (Lupinus latifolius)
The Sunol end of the trail begins at an oak forest. The oaks there are always busy with acorn woodpeckers. Every time I go there I see them flying about and shouting their loud squeaking-door-like calls. Occasionally one would stand still long enough for a photograph.

Acorn Woodpecker, male
On the way up the trail goes intermittently in and out of oak groves. The oaks are for the woodpeckers. The open hillside is for the turkeys.

When out in the open, the view opens up. Looking around I could tell how high I have climbed already.
I was level with a vulture :-)

 I saw many vultures on that hike, but very few of them in flight. Most vultures I saw that day were passing the hot hours roosting on bare tree branches, like this cute pair:
Turkey Vultures
The minutes ticked by and I kept going up. It was a hot day and I was grateful for the lovely oaks that shaded segments of the trail where I stopped to drink and to catch my breath.

The higher I ascended, the more scarce the trees were and the trail more exposed. I thought that might be a good point to turn around and go back.
Coastal Live Oak (Quercus agrifolia)
But as slow as I thought I was, I actually had a good pace: I looked up and saw the summit and it seemed close enough, so I decided to go on.
I already was much higher than the Maguire Peaks of Sunol.
Maguire Peaks, viewed from Mission Peak
I left the trees behind me. I was walking in a see of tall, dry grass that rippled in the light breeze.

There were other animals beside me that were roaming through the grass. Mostly cattle, but others too.
A lone coyote on the high slopes of Mission Peak
Some I had to look down to see.
A spider's trap web
Although the grass was completely dry, there were some living plants there too. Not many, but they were very green and lively, providing a nice contrast to the yellow dry grass all around.
California Poppy (Eschscholzia californica)
Almost all the way up, east of the peak, there is an enclosure, perhaps for the cattle. I stopped there and contemplated turning around. By then I had walked for full 3 hours and I estimated that going all the way would take me half an hour more, leaving me with just 90 minutes to make it back to the car on time to pick up the chikas.
But then I noticed a sole biker coming from around the corner, struggling up the trail. I have seen him before when ascending from the Ohlone College trailhead. I grabbed my backpack and without giving another thought to the time I started uphill once again.
Mourning Dove on a fence post by the cattle enclosure. 
I made it all the way to the summit. Once again I stood highest over Fremont. Except, of course, for that hawk that was circling above me, reminding me that I could rise only so far.
Red-tailed Hawk
I had no time for a relaxing break. I snapped a quick photo of the view to the west, the South Bay spread way below, and took off down the trail right away.
The salt ponds of the South Bay
I was glad I brought my hiking poles along. They made my descent through the slippery gravel road much quicker than it would have had I had to rely on my legs alone for stability. As it was, I glided downward with long, quick strides. I didn't stop to rest, or drink, or take any more photos. I made it to the summit, now I had to make it to the summer camp by the pick up time.

I made it. I hiked 5 miles to the summit of mission Peak in 3.5 hours at an easy pace, then flew those same 5 miles down in just 90 minutes. Gravity helped, of course.
I was exhausted, drenched in sweat and hurting all over when I got to the summer camp. But the big smile on my face and the elation I felt did not wear off for a very long time.


  1. very nice achievement!
    The view is very nice and the animals' encounters are even better :-)

    1. Thanks! It was a while ago and I haven't done anything as crazy since :-)

  2. amazing! this sounds very Strenuous!
    can you see your home/street from the summit?

    1. Not quite. It is hidden in a bend of the hill line (I cannot see the summit from my home, I have to get to the main street for this).