Sep 16, 2014
This week marks my 40th trail hike up Mission Peak this year. A planned summer mountaineering trip to climb Mt Rainier got me interested in Mission Peak. Its steep climb and nearby access made it the ideal training hike. As with most training, I needed to exercise regularly, which for me meant weekday evenings. My standard plan was to hop off of work, drive over to Mission Peak, and climb the mountain for 2-3 hours with a rewarding break to watch the sunset at the top. Sure, there's always a gym, but I never could stand the monotony of walking up a stairmaster. Mission Peak, being outdoors with fresh air and beautiful views was a treat as much as good exercise.
There was really only ever one park that met all the necessary criteria of being within a reasonable drive, a good climb, and most importantly - being open late enough for me to go after work. In Mission Peak's case, the park hours are 5AM - 10PM. Peninsula parks all close at sunset. The next closest park, Henry Coe, open 24 hours, is a ~2hr drive in traffic one way.
My weekly climbs up Mission Peak paid off. I got in shape enough to summit Mt Rainier in July. Along the way, a few coworkers started joining in and carpooling with me after work, all of them feeling great about the exercise and fun they were having.
I write all of this saddened after reading a poorly researched article on SFGate this morning describing how East Bay Parks has decided to change the opening hours on this one park in response to complaints from homeowners living nearby the park entrance. The new seasonal hours are posted on the East Bay Park's website and are seasonal rather than the flat 5AM-10PM before:
Sep 29 – Oct 31: 6:30am – 7:30pm Nov 1 – Feb 1: 6:30am – 6:00pm Feb 2 – Mar 7: 6:30am – 6:30pm Mar 8 – Mar 29: 6:30am – 8:00pm Mar 30 – Aug 30: 6:30am – 9:00pm
Even for the 5 summer months of the year, this park is now open for 2.5hrs less every day. My evening weekday hikes will simply become impossible in 2 weeks.
Most parks and communities are spending a lot of effort trying to get folks outdoors and exercising in their community. East Bay Parks has succeeded in doing just that with Mission Peak but now seems to be doing everything it can to keep people away.
The main issue is that the park entrance has a relatively small parking lot, with only 42 parking spaces, while on the busiest of summer days there can be 500 cars parked, mostly on public side streets. All of the usual issues that come when homeowners in suburbs see increased traffic around their homes are at stake. These issues aren't without any merit. You can view the main arguments in this summary video by the Vintage Grove Neighborhood Watch Group
My thought is that many of the issues pointed out in this video are incredibly rare. I've parked on these streets more than most people and have not once seen a driveway or fire hydrant even partially blocked. Generally people park on streets here as or more respectfully than in other places.
This is not a park where people bring their family and a picnic that they roll out on the nearest picnic tables. There are 2 picnic tables in the park, nobody uses them, and everyone there is there to hike at least part of the way up a very steep mountain trail. Once in the park, there is no way that even a radio at full volume would be even audible from the nearest homes. Flashlights are far away dots.
Many of these homes are set far back from the roads inside high walled communities in an area code where the average home price is $2 million. Here's one of the views from the nearby sidewalk: Google Streetview. Many of these homes are fairly deeply hidden behind gates. Certainly the ones affected by weekday traffic fall into this category. If the weekend traffic really does spill further out into the community (I've never observed such) as in this video, then some of the further away homes are a little closer to the public roads. However, the weekday night traffic (times affected by the new curfews) spills only onto Vineyard Ave which has a sum total of only 6 homes along it, all moderately set back from the road.
This is the kind of activity we want more of in the Bay Area. People getting out into nature, getting healthy, and having fun. At Mission Peak, people are doing this by the thousands. There are numerous social groups that hike the mountain together. The Wings of Rogallo Hang Glider group flies off the ridge. At night, REI teaches nighttime photography classes. I've also seen folks using the park for amateur astronomy or doing a night hike to simply watch meteor showers. Much of this is about to end.
I worry that a hundred or so wealthy homeowners would like this gem of a park to be a kind of private park for those who live nearby. Since it's public land, paid for by tax dollars, this isn't possible, but there are things being done to make it more difficult for the public to use. Shorter hours are a big step. Other proposals are to require resident permits for any street parking, limiting public parking to the 42 spots inside the park parking lot. There are proposals to charge entrance fees, with passes for locals for reduced rates. You can get a feel of the desire for this to be a quieter more private park even from the video text:
One of the proposals by the East Bay Parks was to build more parking inside the park, away from residents. Proposals included two different options for building parking with 250-300 spots in each. A pdf showing the parking area proposal can be found posted online. This idea was brought up after the 2012 summer season. The Fremont city council unanimously supported it; the local residents opposed it. This suggests that the residents aren't strictly worried about street parking, it's just an easy issue to get public support on. You can read summaries of the public comments here, here, and here. Essentially there is strong support from hikers and users of the park for more parking, and strong negative comments from locals who oppose any type of increased access to the park.
As for concerns about shortcuts and erosion, the trail restoration programs by local schools and biking groups have been working. The erosion of the trail is decreasing while the number of visitors is increasing. Here are some aerial images from Google Earth. Each pair shows one image from 2011 and one image from 2014.
Bottom of the trail, note the clear parallel bootleg trail to the left of the main trail, which has all but disappeared:
A little further up, in 2011 there is a clear bootleg trail running up to the bench in the upper right hand corner of the image. In 2014, it's invisible except from the air:
The same trees as seen at the top of the previous image are now at the bottom of this one. As you can see there were tons of trails taking short-cuts up switch-backs. Most of these are gone. There is some new erosion along the rightmost curve in 2014, but it's just feet away from the main trail, mostly it's the trail spreading out more than a new trail forming:
A little higher up. Most of the bootleg trails are gone. There is a new one that started forming on the upper left switchback, but it's also already been repaired, signs posted, and I've seen almost nobody using it any more, it should hopefully be restored over time. Just a reminder that this needs continuous attention.
So that none can say I'm picking and choosing my photos selectively, these images cover the entire trail. This last set shows the peak at the very top where erosion has not been effectively controlled thus far. The official trail is the one to the left which doesn't actually go all the way to the peak. It's less popular than the bootleg trail along the ridgeline with better views. Most hikers aren't actually aware of the official trail as there is no clear signage at this intersection and the official trail doesn't visually appear to be headed up the mountain from what a hiker could see. This can and should be improved with a maintained trail to the top of the peak, probably along the ridgeline where hikers prefer to go:
Update (2015): This section of the bootleg trail has undergone some serious work, fencing off areas and directing traffic up the back side of the peak. The erosion is quickly healing here as well.
Lastly here's a video showcasing some of the restoration work. It's done by volunteers under EBRP's supervision, groups are often organized by social media (grr @ 'selfie mountain' reporters):
Similarly with trash, there is virtually zero anywhere on the trail when I hike. I regularly see volunteers on my hikes picking up any trash they do find. I do the same many times. As a result of this attention, the park is more pristine than many less busy parks. There is some trash tossed out along the roads / parking, but it also doesn't seem to accumulate. I've not observed anyone picking it up, but I suspect it's happening as there is always going to be some trash. There is graffiti especially at the top of the peak, but it doesn't build up as volunteers spend hours regularly scrubbing it off the rocks.
Not to mention that none of the above: traffic, parking, trash, noise, curfew violations, erosion, emergency request, etc are reduced by decreasing hours. Those things happen during the day as well, and in far greater volume.
The trail is quite safe, even at night. The large numbers of people hiking it in the evenings ensure there are plenty of people around to help. I've helped carry a large dog down the trail that had collapsed. Folks are quick to offer water to others who look like they could use it. Cell phone coverage is great, and the trail is a fire road 95% of the way to the top, making it possible to access in an emergency. This can't be said for many of the other parks in the area, or even other trails to Mission Peak. The trail that EBRP is directing people to after dark, Ohlone College, has a lengthy portion in a dark, densely forested valley adjacent to a minimally used road in the middle of nowhere. It seems like a fairly dangerous stretch of trail compared to the Stanford Ave trail:
I've climbed Mission Peak from Ohlone College. It climbs more gradually, behind a ridge with less views until nearing the very top. It's a great alternative, but isn't as nice of a hike. It's less safe - at night, I was the only one on the trail. The parking lot near the trail at Ohlone College is not that large or that empty. Ohlone College has expressed disinterest in encouraging hikers to use their parking lot for hiking up mission peak at the current time.
This isn't just about Mission Peak. Other popular bay area parks should have later opening hours as well, which would serve to take some of the load off of this one. A great example is Rancho San Antonio managed by the Midpeninsula Open Space District.
People from around the bay area love Mission Peak. I hope that some of these changes are reconsidered in the future.