Walking Horse Heaven

4 Jun 1998 - by David Wright

Sam Gupta and I adjusted our fanny packs as we watched the backpackers in the Stanford Lane parking lot prepare for their trip. They were putting on 6 pound hiking boots, 40 pound packs - with food for several days, sleeping gear, and other sundries. These massive packs brought back memories of my own backpacking trips - you start out with good intentions and a 35 pound pack, but then add that fresh fruit, decide to play it safe and take the ice axe and crampons, fill all the water bottles that could just as easily go empty until the first stream, and you're up to 55 pounds. But today, thankfully, we're running, and going light - water bottles and some "gu" - watching them, I decided not to load down my fanny pack with extra socks.

We head up the Horse Heaven Trail. Once again I'm going to test if walking early on helps later (and again it doesn't!). Walking Horse Heaven, then (hopefully) running down the Peak Trail, is a good strategy though - Horse Heaven is narrow, with lots of erosion and thistles. Peak Trail is a full-service jeep road - sporadically re-graded, erosional gullies filled with gravel, it descends from the ridge with wide, sweeping curves. But back at Horse Heaven, after an hour of clambering up eroded switchbacks and gingerly feeling for the trail through masses of buckthorn thistles in the meadows, we reach the ridge just south of Mission Peak. Even though it's after 10 am now, fog is still blowing over the ridgeline. What we can see of Mission Peak is narrow and green from this angle - I think of the Inca ruins in Peru. The trail ahead of us continues up the mountain and disappears into the fog.

But we turn to the east, where the sun now shines on the grasslands and wooded hilly folds of Sunol Regional Park. That trail descends in swoops and banks, and we fly down it, through the water district land, past the Old Homestead, across the cattle guards at Calaveras Road, and are soon refreshing ourselves at the water fountain in Sunol, the 10 mile point. Picnic-ers, thinking that we, like themselves, have just gotten out of our car for a hike, wave and ask "going far?". We smile and nod, and strap our water bottles back on. Now it's the slog up the face of Flag Hill, and at 2:15 after leaving the trailhead, we're at the summit. Neither of us want to loiter and enjoy the view, so we're off on (for me) unexplored territory as we cruise along the high ridge to Vista Grande. We come to the Eagle View Trail junction, and, although the map doesn't seem quite right, turn onto it. This trail goes into a drainage where you have to watch your step - no "paging out" as we run along here! The slope is steep, but we're contouring around, only descending slightly. Finally we cross a stream, and after running under some oaks, come out into the grasslands again.

The Cerro Este fireroad provides, as the waypoint suggests, some grand views of the grasslands, lightly covered with flowers, and the oak-filled drainages that constrain the grass into waves that flow down the hillsides to the unseen river below. Calaveras Reservoir glistens in the distance. Its waters are barred to boaters, and Alameda creek is too shallow for powercraft, so no mechanical sounds intrude upon the sun-drenched hillsides, and no sound whatsoever pierces the somnolent midday air but the shriek of a passing Red-tailed hawk. We run by several groups of backpackers, picking up speed as the road finally begins to descend. In fact, we pick up so much speed that I miss the junction with the Ohlone Wilderness Trail, and we continue on to Canyon View trail, which takes us back to the footbridge and the water fountain, and, in exchange for requiring us to travel an extra half-mile or so, offers a spectacular view of the Alameda Creek canyon. Back at the fountain, it's now 17 miles and slightly under 4 hours. By the shorter Peak Trail, it's 8.5 miles back to our cars, but it's 5 miles of relentless uphill, and although my brain says "run", my legs say "walk". Sam graciously agrees that walking is fine with him, too.

After a couple of miles, we pass the group of backpackers that we saw in the parking lot, now resting at the Old Homestead. They've lugged their packs 5 miles, we've floated along for 20. But everybody smiles.

At 6:30 hours, we reach our cars. I've done some superficial damage to my feet, but don't feel it until I take my shoes off. The next trip I'll take the extra socks!


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