Posted on Sun, Mar. 02, 2003


Las Trampas' steep trails reward the hardy with beauty


Rugged peaks, rolling hills and deep valleys carpeted with wildflowers make Las Trampas Regional Wilderness a favorite among hikers, equestrians and extreme mountain bikers alike. Its steep trails offer isolation from the urban crush, while its vistas on a crisp winter afternoon evoke something from an English novel.

Never mind that the settlements glimpsed in the distance are actually bustling San Ramon and the 680 corridor. Seen from such a remote perch, the imagination is free to create a more romantic interpretation.

One of the largest holdings in the East Bay Regional Parks system, this 3,798-acre regional wilderness area straddles the ridges and canyons between Alamo and Moraga. Today, Las Trampas stands proudly above the fray, rising 1,720 feet at Eagle's Peak and cresting at 2,000 feet along the Rocky Ridge, but 20 million years ago, Las Trampas was at the bottom of the ocean.

That aquatic heritage is preserved in its upthrusts as Cenozoic era marine fossils and the remnants of ancient beaches and shorelines. Volcanic activity, earthquakes and ancient rivers and seas left their imprint in geological formations still visible today.

By 1844, Las Trampas, Spanish for "the traps," was a Spanish ranchero, part of a land-grant application by Inocencio, Jose and Mariano Romero. It would be another century before the East Bay Regional Park District took over the area, buying up land in three major purchases between 1966 and 1969.

The park district's mission to protect the pristine wilderness from development took on critical importance in 1971, when county planners contemplated running a six-lane freeway from San Ramon through the regional wilderness area to Moraga.

Today, Las Trampas offers ample enticements for geologists, bird watchers and wildflower enthusiasts as well as fitness buffs.

For Alamo financial planner and avid runner Jim Brandt, the appeal lies in both the beautiful terrain and the physical challenge. Brandt's running group, the Forward Motion Gang, meets in downtown Danville for its weekly run, warming up on the scenic Iron Horse Trail before heading into Las Trampas.

"North on the Iron Horse Trail, left on Camille and boom, you're there," he says.

The park is a favorite with hiking groups like INCH, the Intrepid Northern California Hikers, run by Steve Walstra and Peter Savitz. The group has logged more than 300 Bay Area hikes since its founding in 1996.

"We've hiked nearly every corner" of Las Trampas, says Walstra. "The park is nicely segmented diagonally into a South/West Side, Devil's Hole and Rocky Ridge Loop, and a North/East Side. Each side has a different flavor, and both provide great five- to 10-mile hike loops."

Savitz agrees. "Las Trampas is a great place to hike -- easily accessible, not too crowded, and with trails of varying difficulty for all levels of hikers."

As semi-official hike historian, Savitz has stories to tell. The park district is not kidding about the wilderness aspects of the Las Trampas name, he says, and the cautionary "carry water" instructions are no joke.

"Last summer, we had one person who went on an eight-mile loop with us on a 90-degree day. He ran out of water after the first mile. I gave him all my remaining water, but it was too little, too late," he recalls.

Two helicopters, a horse patrol and a foot patrol later, the hiker was found and treated by paramedics. Savitz recommends carrying at least one liter for every four miles of trail, but notes that "your mileage may vary."

And beware those bucolic cows. "On the same day as the helicopter incident, another bunch of our hikers got chased up a tree by a bull and had to stay there for about an hour," he says.

Bicyclists are welcomed on designated trails, but to extreme mountain bikers, a trail leading upward from Las Trampas Road racks up superlatives on a Web page devoted to the infamous Duey's Descent. Bikers praise the gnarly switchbacks and insanely steep drops on "Tetnus" -- a misspelled reference to the inoculation that a fall on the slope might necessitate -- and offer detailed directions from downtown Alamo.

"Dennis from Alamo" adds helpfully: "There's also a bike shop there to assist you with the parts you will break."