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Why has Mission Peak Become the Thing to Do?

Apparently, no journey to the 2,000 foot summit is complete without a selfie.

by Lakshmi Sarah on October 16, 2014

Mission Peak attracts people from around the Bay Area.Photo: Mallory Pickett
Mission Peak attracts people from around the Bay Area.Photo: Mallory Pickett

Hiking up to Mission Peak on the outskirts of Fremont, I passed a woman with a small dog peaking out of her backpack and a group of teenagers, an elderly couple, and a mother cow with her baby calf.

As the path continued, a few wild turkeys flapped in the distance as another hiker stopped to take a photo. Trekking higher, after switchbacks and a rocky climb, the view from the top of the peak was worth the two-hour uphill journey.

Apparently other people suddenly think so, too. No one can say exactly why, but hiking to the top of Mission Peak, where a pole anchors the top, has become a thing these days. And no journey that exhausting (or exhilarating) can apparently be complete in this day and age without sharing the moment on social media.

Mark Ragatz, the interim chief of park operations at the East Bay Regional Park District, believes the numbers have been building for the last three to four years, but really “took off” last year. In December, the park service installed a device to count the number of people, and summed up an average of 22,700 visitors a month, or about 750 a day from December to August 2014. On some days, hikers wait up to 30 minutes to get a picture on the pole.

“You would expect numbers to drop off in the winter,” Ragatz said, but this was not the case for Mission Peak.

Happy hikers celebrate at the top with a photo. Photo: Mallory Pickett.

Happy hikers celebrate at the top with a photo. Photo: Mallory Pickett.

Normally, park personnel are happy to see people getting out and using their trails. After all, that’s one of the ways the conservation community makes its case for park funding and expansion. And although this cliché has been trotted out repeatedly in the Mission Peak debate, it is true that there can be “too much of a good thing.”

Noise complaints from local residents, illegal parking on neighborhood streets and a desire from the park service to preserve and maintain the area, has led the EBRPD to decrease hours at the park’s Stanford Avenue entrance (one of two main entry points to the park) from 6:30 am to 7:30 pm until the end of October. Curfew hours have been in effect since July, and the park district means to enforce them. In the second half of July, 327 citations were given to those descending the peak after 10pm, and another 200 warnings for people arriving at the park after 10pm.

Young and old hikers ascend to the peak. Photo: Mallory Pickett

Young and old hikers ascend to the peak. Photo: Mallory Pickett

Local media may blame the “Selfie Generation” for the Peak’s rise in popularity, but more than photography brings people to Mission Peak. Paragliding, training for more strenuous journeys, family outings and a view from the top are just a few of the reasons Bay Area residents frequent the park. Still, Ragatz believes social media has driven some change in the demographics, with a trend toward a younger population. There are more than 88,155 tags using the hashtag “Mission Peak” on Instagram.

“[An] awful lot of people are tweeting and using Instagram,” Ragatz said. He describes the photos as “Hey, I’m on top of the world” kind of pictures.

Brian Johnson, who came from San Jose to hike for his fourth time, said he found out about the park through videos and social media, but he didn’t come for the sole purpose of picture taking. “It’s in a convenient location” and it’s “a challenging workout,” he said. Hiking with him was Bianca Brown of Fairfax.

“I just think hiking, in particular, has become more popular,” she said.

The park’s location has attracted people from several cities in the Bay Area, with users coming from Mountain View and San Jose to Oakland and Pleasanton. Increased popularity has meant that the 47 parking spots near the Stanford Avenue entrance sometimes fill up before 6 am as hikers park in the neighborhood. The local residents, Ragatz said, “can’t have a birthday party or relatives come and stay because there’s never any place to park.”

“Ten years ago the cars were just in the parking lot. Now the whole neighborhood is full of cars,” said Stella Wu, who has lived close to the park for the last five years.

Parking is not the only problem; unprepared hikers without enough water or adequate shoes have also been a burden on local emergency services.

With no water fountains at the top of the peak, rangers recommend bringing enough water to avoid heat exhaustion. Photo: Mallory Pickett

With no water fountains at the top of the peak, rangers recommend bringing enough water to avoid heat exhaustion. Photo: Mallory Pickett

For some, Mission Peak has something other places do not. Greg Grothaus lives in San Jose and works in Mountain View, but began going to Mission Peak on a regular basis in January to train for Mount Rainer. It came down to “either a nice park or a stair master,” Grothaus said. He said Mission Peak is particularly appealing to him because of the steep grade, and the parks closer to his house all close at sunset. For him, “the new hours make it relatively impossible” to hike from the Stanford Avenue entrance, a sign that the park district’s new regulations may, indeed, be effective in curtailing the stampede.

After we climbed roughly 2,000 feet in less than 3 miles, we reached the summit. Looking below towards San Jose, hikers can see all the way to San Francisco. The Dumbarton Bridge looks like a small toy and the South Bay salt ponds glimmer in multiple hues nearby. There is a sense of physical accomplishment at the Peak, and a “spiritual feeling up there,” Francis Mendoza said. Mendoza is a naturalist with the EBRPD whose territory includes Mission Peak. Prior to working with the park district, Mendoza was teaching high school science, but he “just couldn’t stay indoors,” he said. Now he leads district-sponsored group hikes here at Mission Peak and at other nearby parks.

With the goal of lessening the impact on the natural environment and the neighboring community, the park district is considering additional options as well. One possibility is to create a 300-car parking lot within the park. Other options are a per-person hiker fee, or a permit program similar to Yosemite’s Half Dome.

In the meantime, hours will further decrease in the winter, from November 1 until February 1, the Stanford Avenue entrance will be open from 6:30am until 6pm. Hours will increase again in the summer, but the second entrance (at Ohlone College) will remain open from 6am to 10pm.

“This is the first step to trying to solve a problem,” Ragatz said. In the meantime, hiking will continue and so will social media. Though I did not take a “selfie” at the summit, I did post a view from the top on Instagram.

On some days hikers wait up to 30 minutes to take a picture balancing on the pole. Photo: Mallory Pickett

On some days hikers wait up to 30 minutes to take a picture balancing on the pole. Photo: Mallory Pickett

Lakshmi Sarah is an educator and reporter. She is a student at the UC Berkeley Graduate School of Journalism focusing on environmental issues.  

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9 comments:

June Bug on October 18th, 2014 at 9:44 am

Would it be possible to have nature walks at Mission Peak on a regular basis? The naturalist could introduce ideas about science and the natural world – and why these quiet, beautiful spaces are so important – to people and the wildlife and plantlife that are there. Maybe a sign about keeping noise down could help also.

Kathryn on October 22nd, 2014 at 10:46 am

REI lead a night hike to observe the meteor showers. Guided walks are a way to go in the off hours. And we had no crowds since it was after sunset; most people had left by then.

Janet Gawthrop on October 23rd, 2014 at 5:02 pm

Hi,

Can you provide more detail on parking/mass transit to the Ohlone College trailhead? After using the Stanford staging area a couple of times, I agree with the local residents that the traffic/parking at Stanford is a major imposition. I’ve tried e-mailing Ohlone College about accessing Mission Peak through their property, but they were unresponsive.

netman880 on October 26th, 2014 at 10:36 pm

EBRPD has a jewel in Mission Peak Regional Preserve that most Park Districts would love and cherish. Unfortunately, the $700k that EBRPD pulls in revenue from grazing and the lease of communication towers within Mission Peak has been siphoned off for other EBRPD needs. While this might be acceptable, the reality is that Mission Peak has not been policed for years leading to many people not observing park curfews. When EBRPD began enforcing curfews in July of 2014, park usage outside the defined park hours dropped off dramatically. Park revenues should have been used to pay for EBRPD Safety Officers to enforce curfew violations and park regulations regarding graffiti and off trail violations.

EBRPD installed trail counters in 2013 but the data on how many visitors were using the park and when has not been released to the public. This information would be valuable to see whether the enforced curfews were effective. The recent decision to reduce the hours of operation by 23% is unfortunate and reflects a pandering to the local gated community whom has complained for years about the impact of overflow parking on weekends. These same individuals have blocked EBRPD from building a larger permanent parking lot leading to the public using public parking spots within the neighborhoods.

Park revenues could also be used to maintain those trails that have suffered the most damage over the last 3 years. While some $28k was spent on barbed wire fences and wattles in 2013, that is only 4% of the revenues locally generated. No money has been spent in years for gravel on the Hidden Valley Trail that has almost 2 miles of gravel road and receives 95% of the visitors. Culverts on the Hidden Valley Trail that were damaged in the winter of 2012 and 2013 are still not repaired

Given that Mission Peak is one of the most used parks in the EBRPD system, common sense would dictate that planning for erosion control, parking and toilets would be a long-term consideration. Yet, even though usage has increased over time we still have the same limitations in parking at the Stanford Avenue Entrance and no additional toilets. A reasonable person would think that installation of gravel parking lots would be a short-term fix to keep cars out of the neighborhood and thereby minimize the discord.

Overall the article is balanced though I am surprised that EBRPD continues to blame hikers for using the park as though their jobs were not dependent upon managing this resource. In fact, the media campaign EBRPD is currently running to deter hikers from using the Stanford Avenue entrance is focusing more attention on both the Stanford Avenue entrance and Mission Peak. How dumb is that? In addition, curtailing hours of operation at this park are not similar to other local parks. For example here is a summary as reported in the San Jose Mercury news (http://www.mercurynews.com/ci_26669018/mission-peak-park-fremont-cuts-hours-amid-debate) by “Mountain Biker” in response to the hour of operation at other Parks:

Anthony Chabot is open from 5am to 10pm
Alameda Creek Trail is open from 5am to 10pm.
Bishop Ranch is open from 5am to 10pm.
Antioch Oakley is open from 5am to 10pm
Bay Point is open from 5am to 10pm
Briones to Mt Diablo Trail is open from 5am to 10pm
California Riding and Hiking Trail is open from 5am to 10pm
Carquinez Straight is open from 5am to 10pm
Castle Rock is open from 5am to 10pm
Claremont Canyon is open from 5am to 10pm
Crown Memorial Beach is open from 5am to 10pm
Lafayette-Moraga Trail is open from 5am to 10pm
Cull Canyon is open Dec-Feb from 8am to 8pm
Delta de Anza Trail is open from 5am to 10pm
Diablo Foothills is open Nov 4 – Feb 28 from 7:30am to 7:00pm
Don Castro is open until 8:00 pm in the winter months
Hayward Shoreline is open from 5am to 10pm
Iron Horse Trail is open from 5am to 10pm
Leona Canyon is open from 5am to 10pm
Marsh Creek Trail is open from 5am to 10pm.
McLaughlin Easthore is open from 5am to 10pm
Miller/Knox is open from 5am to 10pm
Oyster Bay is open from 5am to 10pm
Point Isabel is open from 5am to 10pm
Quarry Lakes is open from 5am to 10pm
Redwood is open from 5am to 10pm

rich godfrey on November 8th, 2014 at 8:10 pm

It would be great if a balance could be established between residents and hikers at Mission Peak and more solutions should be coming – additional parking above the current area that is now inadequate, more encouragement to hike from the Ohlone College entrance – not difficult to find or to park at. It would be even better if Ohlone and City of Fremont could participate in a BikeShare program that could take some pressure off Stanford Ave. The 6:30 AM limit seems harsh for the many regular hikers that are sensitive to the neighborhood and can’t get an early start and still make it to work. That time change seems punitive without real gain. The front side of Mission Peak will remain one of the most popular hiking spots around, and deserves careful attention!

Why has Mission Peak Become the Thing to Do? | Lakshmi Sarah on November 23rd, 2014 at 1:54 pm

[…] This article originally appeared in Bay Nature. […]

netman880 on November 29th, 2014 at 6:46 pm

According to a SJ Mercury News reporter Mission Peak Park use has declined 38% per the following article:

http://www.mercurynews.com/milpitas/ci_27020528/mission-peak-trail-rules-change-due-neighbors-backlash

Trail count information has been released and shows that park use on the busiest days is significantly less than that publicized by EBRPD. The park district now is stating that the curfews are in effect to minimize erosion on the Hidden Valley Trail and to satisfy the local neighbors. Funny as most of the major erosion is on unsigned use trails (therefore not illegal) and on the Horse Heaven and Peak Trails. Why EBRPD sees such a need to satisfy the gated communities at the bottom of the hill is a mystery. Why not spend energy and focus where it belongs in community outreach to the local schools, managing volunteers (no publicized projects occurred in 2014 on Mission Peak) and laying down more gravel on the Hidden Valley Trail where the majority of use occurs.

ZB on August 18th, 2015 at 6:23 am

I have been hiking mission peak since the 80’s and i love it!!!

Doug Lang on March 7th, 2017 at 3:14 pm

What year did this summit open for public to hike to? When I was a kid in the early 70s I used to ride my bike up there but I just got to the end of the road it was off limits.I wasn’t allowed to go up there back then.What year did this summit open for public to hike to? Did the city by it?

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