Cull Canyon Regional Recreation Area, Castro Valley, CA
In many ways, hiking the Chabot to Garin Trail at Cull Canyon Regional Recreation Area in Castro Valley is the quintessential Bay Area hiking experience: One moment, you feel completely isolated and alone, feeling that (not to be morbid or dramatic) if you fall off the trail and break a leg, you won’t be found for days. The next moment you feel as though you’re in somebody’s backyard, with a Chihuahua incessantly yapping on a nearby patio, and a garbage truck idling on nearby Cull Canyon Road.
Those minor man-made intrusions are but the negatives of this excellent, albeit smallish sliver of a park. They are far outweighed by the positives. First the basics: the park is part of the East Bay Regional Park District. It’s best reached from Highway 580 (Crow Canyon Road exit). The main parking lot is on Cull Canyon Road between Columbia Drive and Heyer Ave. directions
Hiking is only part of the park’s allure. The recreation area is a popular spot for families, especially its swim lagoon complex and seven picnic areas, four of which are reservable. Unfortunately, the swim lagoon closes for the season on September 22. details for Cull Canyon & other regional park swimming
As for the hiking, unlike Mt. Tamalpais (Marin County) or Mt. Diablo to the east, there aren’t many trails to choose from. In fact, there’s only one trail, the Chabot to Garin Trail, which is part of the Bay Area Ridge Trail system. When completed the series of interconnected trails will encompass 550 miles and encircle the entire Bay Area (presently there are 340 miles of trail).
The park is long and narrow, running north to south. On a map, the park looks like a long crooked spike inserted between Columbia Drive and Cull Canyon Road. Although the Chabot to Garin trail north of the main lot only runs about 3.5 miles through the park, a hiker wanting a longer trek can continue on via a continuation of the trail near the park’s northern border and hike towards Lake Chabot to the northwest. (consult trail map)
For this article, the route to the park’s north border from the main lot will be covered. Like the park itself, the lot is long and narrow. Hikers should park towards the north side of the lot, preferably in the shade. By late morning it can get quite warm. Find the signage for the trail and cross over Columbia Drive. There’s also a tunnel/culvert that goes under the road for another access option. As mentioned, this area can get warm in the summer and early Autumn. My latest hike was at the start of a recent Indian summer mini-heat wave.
Luckily, since much of the trail hugs the bottom of the canyon and follows its contours, it stays relatively cool. The trail begins with a steady climb in the shade under a canopy of oak and fragrant bay laurel. In the cool of morning, the late summer sun filters through the branches and foliage, leaving the hiker to make his or her way through dappled sunlight. The footing is generally good to excellent, although some of the descents can be slippery with dead leaves from past seasons or when the ground is wet. Situated in typical California chaparral, this time of year, aside from a smattering of thistles, there are almost no wildflowers in bloom and the creeks are completely dry. Be sure to bring plenty of water, especially if on a long hike.
Underbrush consists of, among others, scrub oak, chamise, chinquapin, a few wild blackberry bushes, wild grasses and lots of poison oak. For the first 1.5 to 2 miles, the trail closely parallels Cull Canyon Road and Cull Creek and the road remains visible at various points. It’s not a busy road, so there isn’t as much road noise to intrude on the hiking experience. This stretch of trail also is generally rolling up and down. There are a few steep rises and descents.
Eventually the trail veers slightly to the northwest and separates from the road. It also leaves the shade momentarily and leads up a dried out (in summer) rutted section with hip-high chinquapin and chamise on either side. At this point it tends to get a lot warmer along the trail. The backs of several homes come into view, a reminder that neighborhoods are nearby. This section is also a bit steeper, but it soon re-enters the oak and bay forest for a continued climb towards the top. There are some magnificent ancient bay laurel trees tucked into some of the trail creases where the deep shade makes for a good break spot or just to stop and breathe in the smell.
The trail steepens further for a last push through a dense stand of trees before topping out at a clearing. Upon emerging into the clearing, it can be difficult to determine where the trail continues. The backyards of some Castro Valley homes on Bellhurst Lane abut the clearing directly across the trail entry. There’s a gate at the northeast end of the clearing (to the right) with what can be mistaken for someone’s ranch or corral (see photo). Last week there were three blindfolded horses grazing near the fence. Look for the brown regional trail sign. To continue on the Chabot to Garin/Bay Ridge Trail, the hiker needs to open - and close - the gate and continue north. For the most part, the next miles past the gate are along hilltops and ridges and therefore exposed to the sun and wind. It’s another three miles to the next trail junction (Ramage Peak Trail).
To return to the parking lot, it’s necessary to backtrack the way you came since there’s no loop. There are suitable spots in the clearing or just below it on the trail to have some lunch or rest for the return trip.