Most of the East Bay Regional Parks' many open-space stepchildren — isolated patches of protected land — offer a hiker views of roads and buildings at every bend of the trail. Like her sisters, Leona Canyon is entirely surrounded, but her little-used 1.4 mile main trail between steep hillsides cloaked in forest and chaparral feels isolated and serene.
This 290-acre preserve was saved in a 1970s deal with developers, and the south trailhead sits by condominiums atop a ridge of landfill that closed off a small creek and forced it into Oakland's storm drains. The trail drops to skirt a small reedy pond where mallards dabble before following the nameless stream north up the canyon. Though shown as vernal on maps, it trickled through last year's dry summer and supports lush growth of willows, horsetail, ferns, and poison oak. In places the branches of laurel, alder, and buckeye arch over the trail, and we saw flickers, phoebes, and three species of woodpeckers in one tall oak snag. We heard, but did not see, California quail, possibly because the sparse foot traffic here includes professional dog walkers escorting happy fleets of off-leash canines.
Leona Trail starts off easy, but towards Merritt College it gets steep and steeper. Going off to the right at the midpoint is 0.7 mile Artemisia Trail, which climbs the east canyon wall, and is very steep until it levels off as it approaches the back yards of houses along Skyline Boulevard. Presumably 0.6 mile Pyrite Trail, heading off to the west, is similar; I mean to try it someday.
Details: To drive to the south end: from Keller Avenue east of I-580 in Oakland, turn left on Campus Drive, then right on Oaks Canyon to small parking lot (no designated parking). No fee, unless you start from Merritt College (AC Transit #54, or small parking fee; closed on weekends). Dogs and bikes are permitted, and you'll meet quite a few of the former. A portable toilet at the Oaks Canyon entrance isn't accessible, and there are no benches or picnic tables until at least a half mile out. Leona Trail's north end is at Merritt College, where I'm sure you'd find accessible restrooms during open hours, but the trail at this end is steep indeed.
Hike by Ann Sieck, originally published in the January 2009 issue of Bay Nature magazine