A circumambulation of Shepherd Canyon

I seem to give myself odd assignments. The latest one was to take a hike around the crest of Shephard Creek’s watershed, better known as Shepherd Canyon. Only during the final mile of that 6-mile walk did I realize what it meant: an outing exclusively on ridge roads.

I got the idea from my circumambulation of Claremont Canyon three years ago. That walk features a variety of rock types and a good set of views into Oakland’s best wineglass canyon — a stream valley with a wide upper watershed and a narrow outlet where it crosses an active fault. Most of Oakland’s major streams that cross the Hayward fault have wineglass valleys that are more or less well-formed (and faceted spurs between them), but you may have to scrutinize them pretty hard to see them, let alone walk their rims.

Shepherd Canyon is another of our wineglass canyons where the roads make this exercise feasible — and an exercise it is, with a thousand-foot elevation gain. The trouble is, you don’t get clear views into the canyon itself. Whereas Claremont Canyon is a viewshed as well as a watershed, Shepherd Canyon’s watershed has an inside-out viewshed. Thanks to our high parklands, this ridgetop walk affords good views around the canyon’s outer side.

Enough preamble — let’s amble. The route starts and ends in Montclair on the geologically friendly 33 bus line. Here’s the layout.

Those little red blips are mile markers. I took this counterclockwise because I prefer steep uphills to steep downhills, and the south end is steep. A bicyclist might prefer the other way, but parts of this route are footpaths.

You could start and end this walk at the end of the 33 line in front of the Safeway, but I started from the Snake Road stop and finished at the LaSalle Avenue stop. Most of the first mile is a bit of a chore along busy Mountain Boulevard, but these days the rain has made the creek noisy, and you’ll hear it down in the woods as you cross the lowest point near the Park Avenue junction.

Be sure and get off the road on this nice path.

It goes around the flattened hilltop housing the Joaquin Miller Elementary School and Montera Middle School.

There once was a rocky hill here, occupied by a Scout camp (which is how Scout Road got its name), but it was vacated and leveled as a handy source of stone and used (I believe) as fill for the Warren Freeway nearby. In any case, the path takes you to the foot of Shepherd Canyon’s perimeter ridge, where you’ll turn right up Mountaingate Way. This view past the foot of Mountaingate looks into the valley of Cobbledick Creek, a tributary of Shephard Creek that runs down along Scout Road. In the next mile you’ll climb 800 feet, pretty steadily.

Soon enough you join Castle Drive and start seeing rocks. Now it’s time for the bedrock map.

The ridge is made up of serpentine rock (sp on the map) plus its typical blocks of blueschist. One of the city’s best blueschist boulders sits where Castle Drive starts, and some of the homes along Castle use the blueschist in their landscaping.

The serpentinite is a sloppier, greener stone that you’ll see along the roadside. Let me warn you that hiking on Castle is a challenge — the road is narrow, there’s no sidewalk, and nobody expects pedestrians. Keep your ears open and step off the road as cars approach.

Where Castle starts to turn north, veer off the road and take the little-traveled West Trail, part of Joaquin Miller Park. You’ll thank me, as I said when I took you down it a few months ago. It’s here that your first views open up.

And the rocks change as you start on the trail. From here on out you’ll be mostly on sandstone. Just for the record, you’ll pass through the Joaquin Miller Formation (Kjm), Oakland Conglomerate (not labeled), Shephard Creek Formation (Ksc), Redwood Canyon Formation (Kr), unnamed Eocene mudstone (Tes), Sobrante Formation mudstone (Tsm) and just into the edge of the Claremont Shale before descending through the same units on the way down.

Castle Road ends at Skyline Boulevard. After a few steps on Skyline, duck into the woods and take the Scout Trail parallel to Skyline, where you’ll meet these guys at the top of the ridge — Oakland Conglomerate.

Where the trail ends at Moon Gate, take Skyline for a few hundred yards, passing the Waterloo Staging Area (unless you’re up for a stroll on the West Ridge Trail, which rejoins this route at Skyline Gate), and take Wilton Drive up onto the ridgetop. It skirts the edge of Redwood Regional Park and has one of Oakland’s best views.

Move on and take Burton Drive, then Shirley Drive. At the end of Shirley is an unmapped trail through Redwood Park that starts with this bench, nestled among boulders of Redwood Canyon Formation sandstone.

Not quite the halfway mark, but just the place to take a rest and a good look around.

The trail descends to the Skyline Gate Staging Area. From there, take Skyline to its confusing junction with Shepherd Canyon/Pinehurst Roads. Don’t take any of those roads — go up Manzanita Drive instead, along the ridgetop. Where the power line crosses the ridge is a fine exposure of the Sobrante Formation’s shale.

This is an unusually good exposure of the Sobrante, which is very sloppy stuff along Skyline, because up here it’s grading into the harder chert of the Claremont Shale.

The two units are stratigraphically continuous, with an arbitrary boundary between them. You’ll see a lot of this rock along the road as you make your way north, then down to the junction of Skyline and Snake Road.

At this spot you overlook Shepherd Canyon on the left, Thornhill Canyon on the right, and the mighty Bay in front as you start down. Do stop at the fire station here and top up your water supply.

The descent along the lip of Shepherd Canyon is straightforward: Take Colton Boulevard to Asilomar Drive to Drake Drive. Again, pedestrians are not expected, but the roads are generally wide enough to accommodate everyone without jostling or stir. Here and there you can see into the canyon. Watch its walls grow close as you come near the narrow part of the wineglass.

When Drake meets Magellan (I know, those two explorers never actually met), the ridge road is finished. It only remains to take the unobtrusive path leading through the trees from 2133 Magellan down to the Railroad Trail — when else will you ever have the chance? — and on into Montclair to catch the bus.

The nice thing about this time of year is that many of the trees are leafless, so you can see more of the surroundings.

That and the weather is cool. I always seem to assign myself weird walks in the high hills during summer, which can be brutal. Better to get out there now.

4 Responses to “A circumambulation of Shepherd Canyon”

  1. mpetrof Says:

    This is definitely one to do to get a sense of the various sedimentary formations of the area. Thank you!

  2. Louis Swaim Says:

    Thank you for sharing this delightful excursion. Really a splendid photo essay.

  3. Amelia Sue Marshall Says:

    The thing I love about Andrew’s blog is that he allows me to get an entirely new perspective on places I’ve seen a hundred times.

  4. Steve Says:

    Cool! I rode a motorcycle every where on and off your Circinhymer in the 80’s. It not hard to be proud of this little area. There are no puddles here either. I guess the “steam holes” are not technically in bounds- on the southeast side of Ascot. Watch out for the trees!

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