If you long to roam in solitude through dark woods and gold-green meadows by a brilliant blue lake, there's no better bargain than a $10 East Bay Municipal Utility District trail permit, which opens over 80 miles of watershed trails to you for a year. Take it to Briones Reservoir north of Orinda early on a weekday and you may well hike all morning without seeing another human. (If that's too solitary for you, the permit admits family and up to three friends.)
Oursan Trail is a well-maintained dirt fire road draped like a ribbon along the lake’s hilly shore. The trail climbs steeply from the trailhead over a grassy knob, passing a giant oak hung with mistletoe, before it comes on a splendid view down into clear water bordered with silver-green reeds where ducks and grebes forage. Dropping back to the lake's edge, it passes through rank stands of wild mustard, thistle, and poison hemlock, then takes an up-and-down course around two fingers of the lake, sometimes under mature forest, where nest boxes for wood ducks have been placed and may be tenanted. Other birds are plentiful, along with wildflowers: buttercups, lupine, poppies, blue-eyed grass.
After about a mile the trail leaves the woods to run nearly level and close to the water for at least another mile. We turned back there, but Oursan Trail strays inland and continues around the lake for almost 10 miles. You can complete the loop by following Bear Creek Trail back to the trailhead; total distance 13 miles.
Getting there: For permits, visit EBMUD's website or call (510)287-0459. Going east on Bear Creek Road from Orinda, find the staging area’s parking on the left after the bridge and before the Briones Regional Park entrance. An accessible vault toilet is provided; no water activities or bikes allowed; on-leash dogs are permitted on Oursan but not Bear Creek Trail. No benches were to be found for at least a mile.
Originally published in the April 2012 issue of Bay Nature magazine