Sunday, January 24, 2010

Murietta Falls, Ohlone Regional Wilderness

murietta falls peak

Murietta Falls in peak mid-winter form.

Make no mistake, the trail to Murietta Falls is the definition of strenuous, that's part of what makes Murietta the rarest waterfall in the Bay Area. It's a 12.5 mile, 4,300ft climb up to the falls which are just a trickle most of the year. The other part? You have to catch it right after a big storm (we went after the biggest storm in 5 years) to see it running full throttle. In the summer the creek dries up. If you can catch the falls though, you are in for a real treat.

Hike Summary
Difficulty Very Hard
Distance 12.5 Miles
Popularity Quiet
Peak Season Winter, especially after a large storm
Fees $6 per vehicle parking fee

After grabbing bagels and coffee we set out for Del Valle Regional Park and parked at the Lichen Bark lot where we could hook up with the Ohlone Wilderness Trail which would take us most of the way to the falls.

Beylah at the trailhead.

We expected to find the trail very muddy after several days of hard rains but were pleasantly surprised. The mud was contained to just a few patches along the trail, mostly at the bottom. Unfortunately we did not realize this trail would be nothing but climbing up endlessly. Our motto became: "It does not matter how slow you go, so long as you don't stop."

The first leg took us to the top of Rocky Ridge, requiring a 1500 ft climb over the first hour and a half. The whole trail offers magnificent views of the valley and the whole east bay. Pristine oak trees line the trail all the way up, seeming to get older, and more gnarled as you go.

The trail jumps in and out of tree cover. No doubt this hike would be brutal in the summer.

Just below the top of rocky ridge is a small campground for backpackers after which the trail kicks back a little and becomes less steep over the next quarter mile until the top. Coming over the last few hundred feet we were treated to views of a large open canyon and a snow capped ridge. This was followed immediately by the horrid realization we would need to descend back down into the canyon, and then up another ridge.

Rocky outcroppings on the imaginatively named Rocky Ridge.

Views at the top of Rocky Ridge.

Fortunately the downhill was short, and a small flat segment at the bottom provided a nice break from the all the elevation change. We took pictures and relaxed for a little while in the cool mossy forest along Williams Gulch.

A small unnamed waterfall along Williams Gulch of which there were many.

We crossed the swollen creek and made our way to the opposite bank only to begin yet again more climbing.

Beylah navigating the swollen stream crossing.

The second leg of the climb is by far the worst. The trail climbs quickly through a series of switchbacks for about a mile up a hill called Big Burn (aptly named) until you reach what feels like the top at Schliepers Rock. We were dismayed to find the trail continued to drag on up past the rock. Still, it was a nice little scramble to the top along with some fine views of the terrain we covered.

Beylah working her way up Big Burn.

The view from the top of Schlieper Rock.

It must be said though that the Oak trees all along the trail were simply magnificent. Gnarled and twisted and old, they reminded me very much of the 4,000 year old Bristlecone Pines of the White Mountains.

A downed Oak that made a fabulous bench.

I returned to Beylah panting and out of breath after running to the top of the rock to snap some photos. We were both exhausted at this point and it was time to break out some food. I devoured my bar like a rabid squirrel and continued on up the trail. At this point we started running into more and more snow along the side of the trail which naturally lead to a small, sad, and tired snowball fight.

Beylah crossing some snowfields.

Finally we reached the top of Big Burn and came to a small depression with a beautiful, snow banked lake called Johnnys Pond. We crossed the field the pond was situated in and as we did so something darted across the dirt in front of me. I stopped just long enough to see a prarie dog jet back in to his hole. I approached slowly trying to get a photo. My lens was unfortunately a 17-45mm zoom, great for landscapes but awful for wildlife (making the prairie dog look smaller than he actually was). He let me get to within about a foot of him before he finally darted back down into his hole.

Making friends.

Johnny's Pond.

It was also very cold at the top of Big Burn, exposed to the wind, and at a decent elevation we had to layer back up for the first time since we left the car.

The snow-capped ridge above Murietta Falls.

We continued along our merry way, back down the trail again on to our final destination. We could hear the roar of the falls, and see the rocks it came out of, but the falls themselves were obscured. We had also been notified that the best way to get down was to traverse the hillside before the falls rather than follow the trail which takes you to the top. It turns out there is a rocky, far more stable way down on the other side of the falls that we did not know about. So, following the tracks of a group on its way back up we headed down. The hillside was steep and slippery. Beylah slid on her butt for a good part of the decent. I climbed down on all fours myself for a good ways. Finally I reached the bottom, five minutes ahead of Bey.

Well worth it is all I could think. The falls were glorious and fully engorged. The previous week of storms was throwing a torrent of water over the slick rocks at the top of the falls. The hills behind the falls were totally covered in snow and the air was crisp. After taking photos and climbing around on the rocks at the base we ate lunch. We both wolfed down Peanut Butter and Jelly sandwiches and some apples. They were maybe the best PB&J's I've had in my life. We shot some more photos after lunch and started back up the trail around 3:00. A couple groups were still arriving as we left but they all looked like formidable hikers.

murietta falls

Murietta Falls.

We passed two girls on the way back who were just coming up to the falls at about 3:20. Much too late to be arriving. Beylah and I both wondered how they were going to make it back in time but didn't stop to think long about it because a dense fog bank had moved in around the top of Big Burn. We cut across a field just as the fog and clouds rolled in, enough to disorient me for just a second and make me feel lost. Fortunately I could see a pair of hikers going back down the trail ahead of us. We would trail them for most of the rest of the hike back.

big burn

Two hikers in the fog near the top of Big Burn.

Our descent was a bit slower than I think we both would have liked it to be. The trail was so steep for so long our toes got crammed into the front of our boots long enough to blister, Beylah especially (my boots have been worked in so well they are like clouds on my feet). We had to stop frequently and it was not long before we were racing against the clock. At 4:00 we had just crossed Williams Gulch when I realized we were not going to make it back before dark. As it turns out it became dusk right around the time we started descending Rocky Ridge.

valley oak in the fog

Valley Oak in the fog.

Just before we reached the Ohlone Regional Wilderness boundary sign one of the girls we passed by the falls came running down the trail behind us at full speed. It was dark, but not night at this point and Beylah and I were both worrying aloud about her friend who must have been alone behind us. I switched on my headlamp about 10 minutes after that and we returned to the car just a couple minutes after 6:00, tired and ragged.

A car pulled in next to us, it was the girl who had run down the mountain. She told us her mom (who we must have not seen while we took our shortcut) had blown out her knee and was walking down with her cousin. She had pulled the car around to this lot since it would be flatter and easier to walk than the route down she had taken. They had gone up without packing a lunch and with only a small amount of water for three people so we offered some of our leftovers, the last drops of water in our packs and some snap peas and carrots beylah had left over. I walked up the trail with her for awhile with my headlamp. None of their party had light gear. After about a half a mile I think we were both exhausted and worried about them, we decided after a couple of minutes of yelling to them we would turn around and get a rangers help.

When we returned to the lot Beylah was chatting with a female ranger who was closing the park. We explained the situation and as we left two figures started walking down the trail. The girls mom and cousin. With everyone safe and sound, we all jumped in our cars and called an end to a very very long day.


  1. What a BEAUTIFUL posting of my favorite place on earth!! This is my Half Dome substitute, can't afford Yosemite. You've got the elevation climb right, the hiking books all have it wrong.(4300') I am 59. Have done this hike every year
    since 2006. Thanx!! Please feel free 2 contact me.
    John Buckley of S.F.

  2. Hey John - Yeah. It's a hell of a hike. It's taken a permanent place in our lives too. We often describe hikes as being "tough, but not Murietta Falls tough".

    To date this is the most strenuous Bay Area hike I've been on, and 3rd only to Yosemite Falls and Mt. Whitney.

  3. Chris and Beylah,
    Hello again! I just hiked to Murietta Falls again. (Mar. 17 2013) Although the Falls were running like one millionth of their full capacity, and I was so tired that I swore that I would retire my M.F. hikes 4ever (I am almost 61),...Well...2 days later I feel fabulous, I can say again that I adore this hike, might do it again in April...if there are storms. Take care. Thanks for the wonderful website.
    John Buckley.