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Length 8.5 miles
Time 2 hours
Total Climb 1550 feet
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Fernandez Ranch

Fernandez Ranch is among the few properties of one of our smaller open-space land management agencies: John Muir Land Trust. Most of the properties of John Muir Land Trust are quite small patches of land that don't contain enough trail mileage to be of interest for a bike ride on their own, unless you string them together with other nearby trails. Fernandez Ranch is arguably one of a couple of exceptions to this (the other being their "Franklin Ridge" cluster of contiguous properties adjacent to the John Muir National Historic Site). This park actually didn't come to my attention until it was suggested to me via a viewer's email. It's a small park, where the trail mileages shown on the park map barely add up to about 7.5 miles at the time I write this. The good news is that a surprising percentage of these are singletrack, and there are some reasonable loop opportunities that could be used for repetitions to boost your total ride mileage.

In terms of setting, trail quality, scenery, and a number of other factors like that, Fernandez Ranch feels like an extension of Crockett Hills, which makes perfect sense since it's located essentially right across Highway 4 from Crockett Hills. In fact, if a trail connection between these two properties is not built at some point in the future, it should qualify as a missed opportunity. At the moment, I can imagine only two possible ways of connecting a Crockett Hills bike ride with the trails at Fernandez Ranch, and both of those are awkward at best and risky or outright prohibited at worst. One would involve descending on Back Ranch Valley Trail in Crockett Hills down to the railway near Route 4 and following the railway over a rail bridge across the highway in order to connect to Christie Road on the other side, and the other would have you descend from Back Ranch Loop toward Route 4 via a Bay Area Ridge Trail segment to connect to an underpass that crosses the westbound lanes of the highway and connects you to the eastbound lanes, whose shoulder space you would then need to ride in the direction opposite of the traffic flow in order to get to Christie Road. Neither of these sounds like a wise choice to me. Plus, once you get to Christie Road, this road itself is bad for cycling anyway, even though you'd need to ride on it for less than a mile. It's very narrow and the sightlines are terrible due to a few, small ups and downs.

The setting of the park is a very varied and interesting landscape that's going to be pleasant especially during the part of late winter and spring when the scenery is green. I didn't do my ride during that time. When I did this ride, the scenery was in what I would call "brown vegetation" conditions. To get a sense for what the landscape here might look like in a greener state, you could take a look at my Crockett Hills photo set.

Cows have a strong presence in Fernandez Ranch and, naturally, so does cow dung and cattle gates. It was actually a bit of a pleasant surprise for me how little cow damage I saw on the trails, though I did find plenty. My experience must have been due to the fact that my ride, at the end of the dry season, was timed fortunately in terms of cow damage. During the wet season and toward the beginning of summer, it may be in much worse shape. Still, not all the trails have a lot of cow damage. While Windmill Trail felt essentially as if it were used as a cow freeway and the early parts of Woodland Trail also had some cow damage as well as some other portions that are exposed to the sun, in general, there seemed to be a pattern where cow damage was less severe in the shady spots. Overall, though, it wasn't bad enough to take too much away from my enjoyment of the ride.

The singletrack at Fernandez Ranch is non-technical, though I can't say it's smooth. This is mainly due to the cow damage in some spots that I've already mentioned. There's also a higher than usual amount of off-camber spots on the trails that I noticed. It's hard to tell whether this is due more to cow damage or to bad trail use, though I would suspect the former. There are no rock gardens at Fernandez Ranch at the moment. I think I remember maybe one tree root that I had to roll over, and not too many other trail features that would keep your attention either. On the positive side, quite a few of the trails seem to have been designed with the enjoyment of mountain bikers at least partially in mind, in that they don't continue along the hillside as flatly as a bookshelf but rather do ups and downs and follow a lot of the natural twists of the terrain.

My recommended ride route at Fernandez Ranch, which is what you see here, is a short one and is made up of two distinct halves. This implies that any half that you like you can repeat in order to add more mileage if you desire.

The parking lot at Fernandez Ranch, which happens to be free of charge, is a surprisingly small one. I could count nine spaces for cars, although one part of the parking lot that is nominally set aside for trailers was also readily utilized by car drivers at the time of my ride, and that part accounts for an extra eight or so spaces. However, the good news is that there is some overflow parking space made available in an adjoining empty field, as long as you're not driving a vehicle that wouldn't be capable of driving on grass a little bit.

You start this ride on the smooth and wide Windmill Trail. This fire road serves almost like the spine of the park's trail network. The first fun segment of the ride is reached when you turn right onto Woodland Trail for the first half of the route. Woodland Trail is a singletrack that starts out on cow-flattened open terrain but, shortly after it makes a turn around the nose of a grassy ridge, it enters some shady, wooded areas of varying tree density, true to its name. This trail appears to follow essentially flatly on average along the hillside, but it still requires some pedaling in both directions, because it includes playful ups and downs along the way. It appears that Woodland Trail could have also been named "Bridges Trail" perhaps, because I counted six wooden bridges that this trail crosses.

This first half of the ride is worthwhile even just for the sake of traversing Woodland Trail back and forth, but part of the point of this extension toward the northwest end of the park is to do the short Canyon Loop Trail. This part includes an optional visit of a hilltop seemingly named Paul's Peak with very open scenery and a view of Richardson Bay, which you can do through a short spur just as you're about to begin the singletrack portion of Canyon Loop. On Paul's Peak, the more scenic spot is actually is at the last hairpin turn on the trail before reaching the peak rather than at the peak itself. The view from here covers most of San Pablo Bay, from Mount Tamalpais to Vallejo.

Canyon Loop is actually the one part of this ride that I'm not sure I can recommend. This loop, when done clockwise, involves descending through a narrow canyon on a fun singletrack. This trail plunges into a shady canyon that contains some ancient-looking oak and bay tree specimens. When the fun is over, the rest of the loop involves a ridiculous fire-road climb to come back. In other words, this loop is of the kind where the payment is deferred, and you put in the effort after the fun, and quite frankly, I'm not sure the fun is worth the effort. The end-to-end average slope of this half-mile fire-road climb is an eye-opening 18%. Even its supposedly more reasonable parts include stretches at or above 20% grade, but the worst are the places where it approaches 40%! My GPS data seems to imply at least two such stretches without leaving too much room for being a measurement fluke. This trail can easily be counted among those that give a bad name to East Bay fire-road climbs.

Once that torturous climb is finally over and you connect back to Woodland Trail, you follow it in the opposite direction back to Windmill Trail. Woodland Trail does seem to have a bit better flow in this return direction, though I would still have difficulty calling this the "descending" direction. There's work you need to do on Woodland Trail regardless of direction.

Following this, you continue your climb on Windmill Trail, which shortly reaches a cluster of trees where it enters a ravine through a narrow bottleneck at its bottom, and keeps climbing as the ravine opens up a little more behind it. This stretch was thrashed by cows even during my ride in the late dry season, but it didn't really matter that much because it was a hike-a-bike for me for most of the way anyway. You have the option of cutting this climb (as well as the ride's second half) short by connecting to Whipsnake Trail straight from Windmill Trail, but that would mean you also miss out on the part of the descent on Woodrat Trail that's further up. To include that upper portion, you'll need to climb all the way to the park boundary, which is where Woodrat Trail begins from a junction with Windmill Trail.

Woodrat Trail is another one of the park's nice singletracks. It begins under patchy tree cover, initially tracking quite flatly, but it begins to feel increasingly like a descent the closer you get to its bottom where it meets Whipsnake Trail. Whipsnake is another one of the playful trails at Fernandez Ranch that seem akin to some of the singletrack at Crockett Hills. As you may guess from its name, Whipsnake Trail is a twisty trail, though not really to the extent that would satisfy the expectations that might be set by its name. Its twisty stretches are limited to a couple of switchbacks you climb early on and to its lowest parts, just before it ends by handing you off to Black Phoebe Trail. When this second loop of the ride route is done in the counter-clockwise direction, you'll be doing Whipsnake Trail in what I would consider the appropriate direction, which is mostly downhill, although, even in this direction, it does involve a significant uphill portion in its first half.

It's clear when you're riding at Fernandez Ranch that there are numerous unsanctioned trails in the park. Considering the willingness that a small park agency like John Muir Land Trust is showing to allow bicycle access to its trails, I hope this kind of unofficial trail blazing is not taken to the level where it would disillusion and discourage them from continuing this practice.

As I've alluded to already, this ride involves trails that are fun enough to deserve repetition. So, if you find the mileage insufficient, you can repeat one or both halves of the route. In fact, that happened to be my plan at the time I did this ride. I was going to repeat the loop that constitutes the second half of the route. I changed my plans at the last minute because I decided I was running short on time. In addition to this, even if Fernandez Ranch doesn't seem to have a good connection to Crockett Hills just yet, it does connect to other trail networks outside its borders. This is true most clearly at the upper end of Windmill Trail where the gate at the park's boundary opens onto some East Bay Municipal Utility District trails, although these appear to be a trail network that requires a permit for use, judging by the sign that was at that junction. Incidentally, that same junction has a sign that reads "steep rough trail - no bikes" intended for the descending direction of Windmill Trail. This puzzles me a bit, since this stretch of Windmill Trail has no similar sign at its lower end and this trail isn't marked as such on the official park map either. The best I can surmise is that this may be meant to make Windmill Trail a one-way trail in the climbing direction because the descent is considered to be too risky.

The USGS topographic map of this area shows a place label for a "Christie" nearby. Along with the name of Christie Road, if this may make some of you curious (like me) as to whether there may have been a settlement here that has since disappeared, I can share with you what little I've found out. There appears to be a couple of residential properties near the junction where Christie Road connects to Route 4, but it's unclear if these are what's supposed to be called "Christie", since the label on the USGS maps is much closer to a nearby power substation than it is to the location of that cluster of structures. (A second label is placed even further away.) Christie does qualify as a "populated place" according to the USGS, apparently, though it's not incorporated or even "census-designated". Meanwhile, a little scanning through older USGS maps seemed to imply that it started showing up on these maps at some point in the 1950s. In the end, "Christie" is probably nothing more than a name for those couple of residences after all (unless it's just a location name invented to label that substation) and I saw no indication that it has ever been anything more than that.

© Ergin Guney


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