Nice Loop With Expansive Views
Wildcat Canyon Regional Park is part of the East Bay Regional Park District, and offers interesting hiking in a slice of open space above El Cerrito and Richmond.
Wildcat Canyon is not the wildest part of the Bay Area, but it's easy to envision what the area was like before being forever changed by the hand of man. The Wildcat Canyon Staging Area is located in a eucalyptus grove with Wildcat Creek, and the Wildcat Creek Trail heads southeast along an old paved road. This area has changed ownership many times since a small band of Spaniards led by Pedro Fages and Fray Juan Crespi visited Native Americans on their search for a route to the north of San Francisco Bay. Mexican land grants, East Bay Municipal Utility District (EBMUD) and private developers all owned this area before the East Bay Regional Parks District acquired it starting in 1935.
Roughly the first 1.25 miles of the Wildcat Creek Trail are on a paved road that goes up and down with a few short quad-burning stretches that will get you warmed up real quick. This stretch travels under a canopy of large bay laurel trees with a trailside garden of coyote brush lining the 15-20' wide road. A thicket of dogwood, alder and willow lines the creek below you to the right. It's easy to imagine this location before it was tamed. The dense thicket could conceal a gigantic grizzly bear that spends its days eating streamside vegetation and waiting for salmon and steelhead to swim up the creek. Wildcat Creek is severely eroded now because so much vegetation has been removed from its headwaters. The groves of redwoods that formerly crowned the crest of the Berkeley Hills and lined its creeks have been replaced by non-native grasses and soft chaparral.
The Belgum Trail heads to the left and uphill less than a half-mile into the hike, and the Mezue Trail does the same a mile-and-a-half further on the Wildcat Creek Trail. Continue about .38 mile to the Conlon Trail past junctions with the Havey Canyon Trail and a spur to Conlon that's closed. Conlon switchbacks uphill to the north with some very steep sections intermixed with flattish spots through open grassland mixed with some coyote brush and other moist chaparral. The Berkeley Hills are basically a collection of ridges with small promontories here and there with clay substrate, and the relatively benign geology is very apparent as the Conlon Trail climbs the top of the ridge between Havey Canyon to the north and Wildcat Canyon to the south.
Imagine tule elk grazing in the meadows between the redwoods with condors soaring overhead as the trail climbs inexorably upward through the grassland. Mount Tamalpais, San Francisco and then Oakland all come into the as the Conlon Trail heads up before finally flattening out near the paved Nimitz Way Trail 2 miles from the Wildcat Creek Trail. Go right on Nimitz Way for 0.4 mile to the junction with the Peak Trail to hit the top of Wildcat Peak. The Peak Trail heads about 0.25 mile to the top of Wildcat Peak with a superb view of most of the San Francisco Bay Area. The far ranges of the Santa Cruz Mountains lie to the west, and Mount Diablo dominates to the east.
You've now gone about 5 miles, and it's time to head back. Return to Nimitz Way and go left/north for 3.8 miles until it ends near the site of an old Nike missile site on top of a high point. The trail is mainly level, but there are a few uphill stretches for more exercise. Continue in the same general direction as the trail changes to the San Pablo Ridge Trail which winds up and down for about 1.3 miles before ending at the junction of the Greenridge and Belgum Trails.
Take Belgum to the left as it descends sharply down the north side of the ridge before briefly climbing to a small saddle. The remainder of the hike consists of Belgum steeply descending back towards Wildcat Creek. The Belgum Trail is named for a doctor who used to operate a small sanitarium near its junction with the Wildcat Creek Trail. Look for the anomalous palm trees, but not the sanitarium because it burned down decades ago.
WARNING! Hiking and outdoor related sports can be dangerous. Be responsible and prepare for the trip. Study the area you are entering and plan accordingly. Dress for the current and unexpected weather changes. Take plenty of water. Never go alone. Make an itinerary with your plan(s), route(s), destination(s) and expected return time. Give your itinerary to trusted family and/or friends.