If you are looking for plenty of hiking options from moderate to somewhat strenuous and what to take in plenty of stunning vistas, wildlife, with minimal crowds and do so within a 45-minute drive from the San Joaquin Valley, then head to the hills on the western edge of the Delta.
It is along picturesque Camino Diablo road where a string of regional and state parks along with watershed conservation areas offer unparalleled access to Coastal Range and wildlife all within minutes of heavily urbanized areas is where you will find the North entrance to the Los Vaqueros Watershed.
Operated by the Contra Costa Water District it features some 18,500 acres of protected watershed with 55 miles of trails surrounding the 1,900 acre Los Vaqueros Reservoir with a storage capacity of 160,000 acre feet.
The South entrance from Vasco Road that’s closest to Livermore does not connect to the North entrance although the trail system can be accessed from either side.
The North is a notch or two lower key than the South area mainly because it does not have a marina and for whatever reason anglers flock in greater numbers to the areas accessed from the South entrance. Los Vaqueros is considered one of the best finishing lakes in the Bay Area — more about that later.
The North entrance is a 33-mile drive from Manteca that will take you about 45 minutes even with having to navigate Naglee Road traffic in Tracy to reach Grant Line Road.
Vehicle access fees are $4 for Contra Costa Water District ratepayers, $5 for non-ratepayer seniors, and $6 to non-ratepayers.
I opted for a 5.4 mile loop that had a gain in elevation of 1,150 feet that reached about 1,300 feet that consisted primarily of the Eagle Ridge Trail and Vista Grande Trail made into a loop by short segments of the Walnut Trail and Los Vaqueros Trail.
I spotted one golden eagle driving between the entrance station and the trail head by the John Muir Interpretive Center next the foot of the dam.
During the hike, I spotted a coyote and four deer — including three does traveling together. There were also plenty of cows.
You are supposed to have a commanding view of Mt. Diablo when you reach the crest of the loop on the Eagle Ridge Trail segment.
Much of the route was on primitive roads made a tad challenging by the fact it was mostly along ridges which meant strong winds on the day I was there. The payoff was nice views of the western edge of the San Joaquin Valley, and the beauty of the small ranches and rural estates that line Camino Diablo on the back way to Concord.
On the solitude scale the hike knocked it out of the park. Once I paid my entry fee, I did not see another soul until I passed the John Muir Interpretive Center at the end of the hike to reach my car.
The views of the lake were stunning from the Vista Grande trail and would have been even more enjoyable if I wasn’t contending with strong winds. The fact I had hiking poles is the only thing that kept me from losing my footing and slamming butt first onto the trail.
Los Vaqueros is also considered by birding enthusiasts as one of the best places to bird watch in the Bay Area. Given it is part of the string of preserves, regional parts and state parks that has preserved the ridge of hills between the Livermore/Diablo valleys and the San Joaquin Valley it is easy to understand why that is the case.
The watershed is also home to a number of sensitive species including the San Joaquin kit fox, California tiger salamander, California red-legged frog, Alameda whip snake, and golden eagles. There’s a lot more wildlife including rattlesnakes as well as a creature that has an annual run at the watershed named after it — tarantulas — that make their presence known in the fall.
Make sure you carry water as there is none available along the trails. As far as trail makers, they are among the best and least confusing you’ll find especially compared to Mt. Diablo.
Several trails including Eagle Ridge connect to the adjoining trails in Round Valley Regional Park.
Fishing fees are $6 per day per angler. There are catfish, trout, striped bass, bluegill/sunfish, crappie and largemouth bass.
You cannot use your own boat — even a canoe or kayak — given the reservoir holds drinking water. That said the marina rents electric boats and pontoon boats. There are also restrictions on bait.
For more information go to ccwater.com/losvaqueros