Length: 2 miles or 5 miles (longer version)
Time: 1 Hour
Difficulty: Easy. Fine for kids.
Elevation Gain: 371 feet
EBMUD Permit: Not required.
Highlights: When most people think of Briones Regional Park they think of rolling hills with a huge network of fire roads to hike or bike on. But the Bear Creek Trail offers one of the few “single track” trails that winds through a more woodsy and shaded part of the park. This is very pleasant trail that anyone can enjoy that reaches a scenic picnic area for a lunch or dinner stop.
Directions: From Lafayette take Happy Valley Road up over the hill to Bear Creek Road. Take a right and then another right into the Bear Creek Staging Area. From Orinda take Camino Pablo north towards San Pablo Dam Road. Take a right on Bear Creek Road and go five miles to the Bear Creek Staging Area. Drive into the park – staying to the right – and park in the large gravel lot at the end of the road.
Trailhead: After you’ve parked then backtrack to the picnic area until you see the Bear Creek Trail sign (see picture).
Briones Regional Park is a huge, uncrowded park with 6,256 acres of parkland for recreation. The land was originally part of Rancho Boca de la Canada del Pinole (rancho at the mouth of Pinole Canyon), popularly known as Rancho San Felipe and later Rancho Briones. In 1829 Felipe Briones built a home near the Bear Creek entrance, cultivating the land and raising cattle. Cattle grazing has been the major land use in the Bear Creek watershed ever since.
From the picnic area, the Bear Creek trail descends down to the creek. This is a nice spot to pause for a few minutes. You might wonder how the creek got its name. The name came from a 1000-pound bear shot by Ramon Briones, near Bear Creek Falls, in 1897 (see photo). This was the largest bear killed in Contra Costa County. Bears used to inhabit this area, especially the foothills of Mt. Diablo.
From the creek you will ascend into a forest of mostly California Bay Laurel trees – a cousin of the Mediterranean Bay tree whose leaves are used in cooking. Bear Creek’s banks are also lined with coast live oak, willow, madrone, and big leaf maple. The trail winds along the side of the hill, above the creek, heading east.
In the spring you might spot a California newt near the trail. This tiny amphibian thrives in Briones around Bear Creek. It spends most of its time living in burrows and holes. But once year, the newts make an epic migration (at least for them) to nearby ponds for mating season. I happened to spot one in February (see photo).
After about a mile you will reach a group camping site called Homestead Valley. This is a great spot to hang out and have a snack or lunch, especially with kids… or maybe a picnic dinner in the summer.
When you depart this clearing you will cross a little seasonal stream and reach the Seaborg Trail. For a two-mile loop take a left and then another left at the three-way junction to head back to the staging area.
For a longer 5-mile loop, take a right on the Seaborg Trail. After a little ways you will start climbing into the hills and will reach the Briones Crest Trail. The Briones Crest Trail is the spine of the park and offers great views of Mt. Diablo, etc. About a half mile later you will reach the Crescent Ridge Trail. Take a left and descend back down into the valley. You will pass an archery range, which is a lot of fun with kids if you have access to some bows and arrows. There is a course very much like a 9 hole golf course. After passing the archery range, you will reach a three-way junction with Seaborg Trail. Stay right and you will end up back at the staging area.