"Next time I invite you to go backpacking with me, please remind me of this moment and why we hate backpacking," I groggily told my sister, Molly.
Molly holds the record among my three younger siblings for being the most likely to join me on outdoor adventures -- albeit begrudgingly. I had dragged Molly, whose preferred pronouns are they/them, on a last-minute backpacking trip to hike the Ohlone Regional Wilderness Preserve trail over a three-day weekend after canceling other plans because of COVID.
We had just spent a night in the wilderness that had involved, on my end, not sleeping as much as closing my eyes for extended periods of time and shivering on the cold ground. (Molly had forgotten their sleeping pad on this journey, and in an effort to spread the misery around and get them to come back for future adventures, I'd agreed to give up the pad for the night.)
With hips, shoulders and backs already aching, we packed up and got going on our longest day yet. We were less than halfway through the 28-mile trek from Fremont to Livermore, and by our third and final day, we were both sore and smelly. Worst of all, we still had 16 miles to go.
I'd underestimated this trail, thinking the rolling hills of the East Bay that I'd spent years gazing at longingly while driving past wouldn't be anything like the Sierra Nevada, Rocky and Appalachian mountains I've been lucky enough to hike around in the past.
In reality, the path cutting through these "rolling hills" felt like a three-day workout on nature's stair machine -- a series of relentless, unyielding climbs and descents that made the hike feel much longer than it really was.
There was not an easy mile along the entire route.
Yet later that morning, after huffing and puffing our way up (yet) another vertical hill, we suddenly crested it to see the sun rising on the horizon below us, lighting up the sky with a warm glow.
There was not another human in sight, just a crew of happy cows grazing in the distance and green meadows all around. Molly and I looked at each other and beamed.
"Worth it?" they asked.
"Worth it," I replied.
Day 1: 4 miles. Fremont's Stanford Avenue Staging Area to Eagle Creek Backpacking Campground.
We started out our adventure by meeting at our planned finish of the hike: Del Valle Regional Park in Livermore, where we were able to pick up our Ohlone Wilderness Regional Trail hiking permit and map.
We left one car there and then carpooled to the start -- the parking lot at Mission Peak Regional Preserve. After waiting a bit to score a parking spot, we set out on the trail, which started out with a steep uphill and didn't let up until we were just about at the summit of Mission Peak.
We shared the campground, a lush little field in the mountain's shadow that looked out over the valley, with a courteous troop of Girl Scouts. Before settling down for the night, we watched the sunset from the top of the peak. From there, the lights from civilization looked small and far away.
Day 2: 8 miles. Eagle Creek Backpacking Campground to Cathedral Campground at Sunol Wilderness Area.
After a slow start to the morning, we finally hit some downhill sections on our way into the Sunol Wilderness Area. About halfway through, the trail opened onto a massive parking area and the Sunol Visitors Center, where we ate lunch.
The second half of the trail more than made up for the downhill respite by heading right back uphill. This section included a portion of "Little Yosemite" in Sunol Regional Wilderness, and the landscape was green and scenic, when we were able to take a break to look around.
Our campsite was about a five-minute hike off the trail, and, while it had its own outhouse -- which seemed to drop into an abyss -- the water promised at the campsites was a good 10-minute uphill hike, a fact we weren't thrilled about at the end of an already long day.
We arrived and set up camp with just enough time to see the hill become crowded with newts, out for some nighttime gallivanting. We cooked dinner and had a heart-to-heart over my favorite camping cocktail, hot chocolate with whiskey.
Day 3: 16 miles. Cathedral Campground at Sunol Wilderness Area to Del Valle Regional Park.
This was a hard day. In retrospect, we probably shouldn't have planned to cover more miles the third day than we had on the first two combined. Oops. Fortunately, Molly had a pair of AirPods that we shared, which kept us from getting too spread out and kept us bopping along to some "angsty" pop punk as we willed our aching legs forward.
I can't even count the number of times that we were slogging along the trail, saw a mountain ahead on the horizon and said "Surely not...!" only to have the trail go precisely there.
Along the way, we summited Rose Peak, the highest publicly accessible peak in Alameda County at 3,817 feet.
In our delirious efforts to plod ahead at all costs, we made increasingly silly puns, talking about how we were "making moomeries," in homage to our bovine trail companions grazing along the way.
Did we at one point cry into our mushy peanut butter-Nutella sandwiches when we saw yet another mountain we'd have to climb before the trail ended? Maybe. We also invented a new downhill expletive: "Kneezus Christ." (I was pretty proud of that one.)
Eventually, we made it to the finish, finding a reserve of energy we didn't know we had to run the last 100 meters to Molly's vehicle, nicknamed the Ratmobile because its engine had needed to be repaired earlier that year after a rat made a nest under the hood. The Ratmobile had never been quite so adored as at that moment.
Starving, we beelined for downtown Livermore for a hot meal, dirt-crusted and all. Fortunately, the restaurant staff at the First Street Alehouse didn't say anything about our grimy appearances as we dug into what I'm pretty sure were the best burgers ever.
With the benefit of hindsight and legs that are no longer sore, I can now say that the Ohlone Regional Wilderness Trail was a remarkably accessible, affordable adventure that physically challenged us, inspired awe, offered some great wildlife sightings and was ultimately doable over three days. The trip turned out to be one of my favorite experiences of the year so far.
After completing the hike, I spoke with Ashley Adams, supervising naturalist for the Sunol Wilderness Preserve and Ohlone Wilderness.
One great thing about the Ohlone Trail is that it is a "choose your own adventure" type of trail, she said. Because there are so many campsites along the trail, beginning backpackers can start at any of the park entrances to hike shorter distances rather than the full thru-hike.
Meanwhile, more experienced backpackers have used the trail to train for longer hikes like the Pacific Crest and Appalachian trails. The trail is home to some of the steepest trail segments in the Bay Area, she said.
"It's a little piece of thru-hiking here in the Bay Area," she said. "It's a pretty cool thing to have all of this wilderness here in the East Bay."
Unlike so much of the rest of the region, which has been developed and changed since Spanish colonization and the Gold Rush, the wilderness that the Ohlone Trail passes through wasn't developed, she said. As a result, some of the oldest and largest oak trees in the region can be found in that wilderness, she added.
On the trail now, people can catch special wildflowers called "fire followers" that have rarely been seen in the area and germinated as a result of the 2020 SCU Lightning Complex wildfires.
Generally, she said, she advises people to do the thru-hike in the opposite direction, from Del Valle Regional Park to Fremont, because the steepest climbs happen toward the beginning. Also, the ascent to Mission Peak from the Sunol side is far less busy and more gradual, she added.
If you are thinking about hiking the Ohlone Trail, here's what you need to know.
Distance: 28 miles
Elevation change: about 7,000 feet
You'll need: * A hiking permit. The Ohlone Regional Wilderness Trail permit will be your best friend for planning this trip. Each $2 permit includes a detailed map of the trail that's hard to access elsewhere.
You can pick up your permit and map in person at the entrances of Del Valle Regional Park, Sunol Visitor Center and entrance kiosk (when staffed), the Coyote Hills Visitor Center in Fremont, the park district's Administration Offices in Oakland), or order it a week ahead to have it mailed to you.
One thing the map won't help with is understanding what kind of elevation you're signing up for. The scale of the elevation map is spread out across the 3-foot map, so it means that every small upward blip on the map is an epic climb. Dogs are allowed during the day but not overnight, so don't plan to backpack with your pup.
* Overnight camping reservations. Call the East Bay Regional Park District's reservation office at 1-888-327-2757 to make reservations at least two days in advance of your planned trip. The permits will include an overnight parking permit you'll have to display on your vehicle.
* A shuttle plan. For this thru-hike, there are no shuttles, so you'll have to figure out your own rides at the start and finish. We left one car at the Stanford Avenue Staging Area in Fremont, with our parking permit displayed, and another at the end at Del Valle Regional Park in Livermore. Cell reception is spotty at Del Valle Regional Park, so make sure you have a way to communicate if you'll be needing a pickup after you finish.
* Lots of water. There are a few spots to refill on water along the trail, but you'll have to treat it first. There are also long stretches of unshaded trail that can get very hot during the summer, so it's critical to make sure you don't get dehydrated for your own safety.
* Fire season awareness. During the fire season between May and October, trails are evaluated on a day-to-day basis for fire safety and may be closed due to extreme fire danger. If you're planning to be on the trails during this season, be sure to call 1-888-327-2757, option 2, then 4, for the latest updates.