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Leg-stretchers for the season's first hike.

While the high country is still locked in snow, California's coastal mountains are spring green, their trails lined with wildflowers. If you're planning to do some mountain backpacking this summer, it's not too soon to start trail-toughening your legs and lungs.

Where can you find "warmup" hikes special enough to warrant a day-long outing or even an overnight trip? We talked to hiking clubs and park rangers to find four topnotch trails just outside the San Francisco Bay Area. Each of the four is located in a public preserve (see map at right).

Though you don't have to struggle against high altitudes on these trails, they still provide enough of a challenge to strengthen your muscles, limber up your knees, and boot-harden your feet. They range in length from 8 to 10-1/2 miles round trip, with a 1,300- to 2,900-foot elevation gain and loss. Along the way, you may see splashes of wildflowers, shy wildlife, and glorious views.

Before you hit the trail. Examine your backpacking gear; if anything needs replacing, buy it now and try it out on these hikes. Remember, new boots take a while to break in; new packs may ride too high or rub on your hips (you may need additional padding). Wear the same clothes you would on a backpack trip; it's best to find out ahead if those pants are too binding or if those socks are too loose.

If you'll be making your first long hike of the season, allow extra time so you don't have to push. On all hikes bring plenty of water and a lunch.

We descirbe normal weather conditions for each location, but rain can persist through April. It's wise to call ahead for weather and trail reports.

1. An 8-mile trek in wild Ventana

In Los Padres National Forest, Ventana Wilderness occupies more than 160,000 acres of steep coastal mountain terrain. From Monterey, take STate 1 south about 15 miles to narrow Palo Colorado Road; turn left and follow it 8 twisty miles southeast to the trailhead at Bottchers Gap. A free wilderness permit is required; call a week ahead at (408) 667-2423 or 385-5434.

Devil's Peak trail: 8 miles round trip, 2,110-foot elevation gain. This is perhaps the toughest trail of the four we've chosen. From the north end of the parking area, take the Skinner Ridge Trail up a gradual incline past majestic madrone, bay, and oak trees. You'll see some dead trees--reminders of the big 1977 Marble Cone fire. Keep to the left at each of the trail's two forks.

At 3 miles, the steep ascent begins. The trail dips into a saddle and crosses Turner Creek Trail (not the sign), Some 200 yards north, take the trail to the left (not the fire trail straight ahead). As the narrow path winds up to the summit, you may pass lupine, poppy, and Indian paintbrush. Atop the 4,160-foot summit, look for a smashing clear-day view: the corrugated ridges of the Santa Lucia Range to the south and east; the sparkling Pacific to the west. Backtrack to return.

Weather, camping. March and April days are generally sunny, but bring warm clothes in case of fog and wind. May through mid-September days are often intensely hot. Watch out for abundant poison oak year-round.

There's camping at Bottchers Gap (11 sites on first-come basis, $3 per night) and in wilderness camps (permit required; call one of the numbers above).

2. A 10-1/2-mile loop in rocky wonderland

At Pinnacles National Monument, 80 miles south of San Jose, eroded volcanic spires present an imposing challenge to any hiker. To reach the park's east entrance from south-bound U.S. 101, take STate 25 south 42 miles through Hollister to State 146; follow signs to the visitor center (408/389-4578).

Pinnacles loop: 10-1/2 miles, 1,400-foot elevation gain. Our route climbs into the heart of the pinnacles, then down, the less-exposed western slope where you'll see spring wildflowers--buckbrush, tiny pink shooting stars, and carpets of goldfields.

From the visitor center, take the Moses Spring Trail; it winds past Bear Gulch Caves, one of the park's highlights. These aren't real caves, but narrow canyons roofed by huge fallen rocks wedged between canyon walls. Closed in March 1983 because of flood damage, they were reopened last November. If you go through the caves, carry a flashlight and follow the white arros.

Past the caves, climb up stairs in the rock to the edge of Bear Gulch Reservoir. Follow the steep High Peaks Trail through chaparral toward the jutting pinnacles. From Scout Peak, take a few minutes to look west to Salinas Valley and south to North Chalone Peak.

Continue on the High Peaks Trail as it twists through the maze of pinnacles, over a wooden bridge safeguarded by cable handholds, and down steps carved into the rock by CCC workers before World War II.

Join the Juniper Canyon Trail as it descends steeply, leaving the pinnacles behind. At the bottom, replenish your water supply at Chaparral Campground, then start back on the Balconies Trail through a rocky gorge between the Balconies Cliffs and the 400-foot spires of jagged Machete Ridge. The Balconies Trail becomes Old Pinnacles Trail, an easy wooded route around the base of the pinnacles. At Chalone Creek picnic area, take Bear Gulch Trail back to the visitor center.

Weather, camping. Expect March days in the 60s or low 70s. Summer bring sweltering heat. This month crowds begin to get heavy on weekends. Day-use fee is $1 per car. Plan to arrive before 10 A.M., since parking is limited.

Just outside the park's eastern entrance is privately owned Pinnacles Campground (first-come basis, $4 per person or $12 per site with six-person limit). At the park's west entrance off U.S. 101, Chaparral Campground has 2o walk-in sites at $5 per night.

3. An 8-mile ramble at Point Reyes

Point Reyes National Seashore encompasses 100 square miles of rocky headlands, grassy meadows, and forested ridges north of the Golden Gate. From U.S. 101 at San Rafael, take Sir Francis Drake boulevard northwest 20 miles to State 1 at Olema. Turn right on State 1, then left on Bear Valley Road. To check weather, call (415) 663-9029.

Mount Wittenberg loop: 8 miles, 1,300-foot elevatingain. The seashore's highest trails snake up 1,407-foot Mount Wittenberg. To get maps, stop in at Bear Valley Visitor Center (open 9 to 5 weekdays, 8 to 5 weekedns).

Take nearby Sky Trail west up through bay and fir forests on the east side of Inverness Ridge. For the next 2-1/2 miles, the trail climbs steeply to the summit. Consider a picnic lunch at Sky Camp (tables, water, rest rooms). Continue on as the trail drops down onto the spine of Inverness Ridge and then take a 1/4-mile jog north at a signed junction to the camp.

On clear days, the views from the summit and ridge are outstanding: southwest over the ocean to the Farallon Islands; west to the white cliffs of Drakes Bay and Chimney rock at the tip of Point Reyes. Hiking slowly near the summit on a quiet afternoon, we sighted a black-tailed buck with a fine rack and a small herd of shy white fallow deer. Head back on Sky Trail to Old Pine Trail, descending gradually through forests and meadows to the visitor center.

Weather, camping. March through May often brings clear but windy days. Dress in warm layers. June through August is often foggy. The lower sections of Sky and Old Pine trails are popular, especially on weekends; fewer hikers go all the way to the summit.

There's free camping at four walk-in backpack camps (44 sites total, with water, rest rooms, and tables). Reserve up to two weeks ahead by calling (415) 663-1092.

4. A 10-mile jaunt above wine country

Sugarloaf Ridge State Park spans 2,500 acress of rolling hills on the Napa-Sonoma county line. From sTate 12 in Sonoma, go north 12 miles to Adobe Canyon Road; turn right and go 2 miles to the park entrance station (707/833-5712).

Bald Mountain loop: 10 miles; int he course of the hike, you climb and descend a total of 2,900 feet. Day parking is on the left just beyond the park entrace. As you start up the Bald Mountain Trail throuigh the meadow, look for California poppies, lupine, and creamcups. The new, well-graded trail switchbacks up steeply through live oak and bay forest; follow it uphill to the right where it becomes a paved service road.

When you reach the junction near the top of Red Mountain, follow the trail right as it winds alon ghe chaparral-covered ridge and around 2,729-foot Bald Mountain. Hike up just a few yards to the windy top for vistas of vineyards below and the town of St. Helena to the northeast.

Continue northwest on the High Ridge Trail from the junction of Bald Mountain and Digger Pine trails; you'll descend steeply on the old gravel road into a valley about 700 feet below. At the bottom are a few tumbledown remains of Bear Creek Ranch, remembrances of late-1800s ranching days at Sugarloaf Ridge. (It's named for the cone-shaped loaves of sugar sold at the turn of the century.) The grassy meadow makes a good lunch stop.

Follow the trail back up the way you came, and take the Digger Pine Trail left when you reach Bald Mountain. This wide gravel trail is the best one from which to view the Brushy Peaks to the east. When it levels off, take the Meadow Trail to the right, a pleasant walk along Sonoma Creek among alder, bay, and horsechestnut tress. Pass through the group camp and continue on the trail back to the parking lot.

Weather, camping. March days hit the 50s and 60s; nights can dip to the 30s; occasional rain. Summer brings hot, dry days. By the end of March, trails and the campground can be busy on weekends. Park day-use fee is $2; trail maps are available for 75 cents at the entrance kosk.

In a meadow near Sonoma Creek, you'll find a day-use picnic area and campground (50 sites on first-come basis, each with table and fire ring, $6 per night). Starting in late March, you may reserve sites through Ticketron for Memorial Day and later.
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Copyright 1985 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.

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Title Annotation:Big Sur to Sonoma Valley, California
Publication:Sunset
Date:Mar 1, 1985
Words:1727
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