The East Bay mountains are known for their rolling green hills, oak trees, and spring wildflower displays. In the summer they are dry and brown, a constant source of wildfire concern and rattlesnakes. Waterfalls and rocks are not the first thing that comes to mind when thinking of this part of California, but it turns out there are some interesting places tucked back in the hills that provide exactly that.
One of these locations is Murietta Falls, mentioned here in the past. The falls are a short distance off of the Ohlone Wilderness Trail, about seven miles and ~3000 ft of gain one-way from the nearest trailhead. Getting there can be a full-day commitment of hiking, and if you’re going to put the effort in you might want to pay attention to the water conditions to make sure they will be flowing!
I hadn’t really considered hiking Murietta this spring due to our extreme drought, figuring they would be dry this winter. But some heavy rains last week led me to believe they might be flowing, so off I went.
I started at the Del Valle Reservoir end of the Ohlone Wilderness Trail. One advantage to this park is the early opening hours. Fishermen like to get out on the lake early, so the gates open at 6 am at this time of year. It was supposed to be a hot day so I decided to get an early start, arriving at the trailhead a little after 7 am. Make sure to pick up the Ohlone Wilderness permit ($2, and it’s a nice topo map) at the entrance gate.
After locating a bathroom, finishing my coffee, getting my new GPS configured, and packing up, I set off up the Ohlone Wilderness Trail at 7:30 am. The trail climbs immediately, climbing from 700 to 2400 ft in the first 2 miles. Then the heartbreaking part happens – the loss of that elevation you just worked so hard to gain!
The trail drops about 600 ft to Williams Gulch, a shady break from the sunny exposed trail. It feels good to descend, but you can’t help but think about how annoying that climb will be on the hike back out.
I took a short break at Williams Gulch to fuel up for the big climb ahead. Known as the Big Burn, you’ve got another ridge ahead of you. The trail dwindles to single-track as it climbs steeply to the ridge, going from 1800 ft in the gulch to 3300 at the top.
I had forgotten about the single-track nature of this stretch of trail and spent the climb carefully dodging poison oak. It is abundant and grows across the trail at several locations and at several heights. If you are sensitive to it, watch for it from head to toe! Fortunately this is the only single-track section and ends after about a mile of climbing.
At the top of the Big Burn you have the option of turning off the Ohlone Wilderness Trail and heading straight over to Murietta Falls, or continuing along the trail for a bit and making a loop of the trip to the falls. The loop adds a bit of distance but the hike along the ridge has some great views, including the distant Sierra on a clear day.
Murietta Falls is in a beautiful green canyon near Stewart’s Camp. The sudden appearance of the rock outcropping and the gnarly little use trail to the bottom of the falls are unlike the surrounding terrain. Once I got to the bottom I was pleased to see that there is indeed water this spring, though far less than usual.
I took a short break and snacked while enjoying the falls. Only a couple of other hikers were around. Despite the long hike, this is still a relatively popular location. Being a beautiful sunny day after a week of rain I expected it to be busier. I suppose my early start helped, because on my return hike I passed a lot of people coming in late.
For the return, you have to climb out of the canyon (the falls are at about 3000 ft) back up to the top of the big burn, about 300 ft of climbing. From the top of the Big Burn you have a steep descent ahead of you back down into Williams Gulch.
Take another break at Williams Gulch, because your last climb of the day is immediately ahead of you. So far, the day has included over 4000 ft of climbing. This last 600 ft climb was surprisingly quick on the way out, but the midday sun was really starting to heat things up and I was very glad to be done with it at the top!
Interested in doing this hike? Get the details here.
The final few miles back down to the trailhead seem to take forever, but eventually you’ll get there. You’ll probably smell the lighter fluid and hamburgers from the picnic areas below long before you see any people.