Hidden hiking

Contra Costa County has great trails, close to town
Dave Weinstein

Ygnacio Valley Road, the thoroughfare running between downtown Walnut Creek and the edge of the city, holds a secret. The busy highway is standard 21st-century California. But not far away spreads a network of quiet trails that link the area to its rural past.

More than 100 miles of urban trails, most managed by the East Bay Regional Park District, crisscross Contra Costa County. They make for civilized hiking: Hikers can start in town, set off to savor nature, and return to enjoy dinner at a nice restaurant. As a bonus in this era of rising gas prices, many trailheads are accessible by BART.

Trails are open to hiking, biking, skating, and equestrians. Dogs on leash are allowed. Free maps are available from the East Bay Regional Park District ( www.ebparks.org or 510/635-0135).

Here are three favorite hikes.

Lafayette-Moraga Regional Trail

This pretty trail follows the route of a logging railroad that brought redwood from the Oakland Hills to Sacramento. Start at the Lafayette BART station, then head south on Happy Valley Rd. toward St. Mary's College of California in Moraga. Go 1 mile east on Mt. Diablo Blvd.; at Third St. and Golden Gate Way, the Lafayette-Moraga Regional Trailhead is on the right. On the trail, you'll pass cottages built when Lafayette was a summer-resort town. St. Mary's College has a gorgeous Spanish chapel and an art museum rich with California landscapes. Return the way you came.

TRAILHEAD: Lafayette BART station.
DISTANCE: 13 1/2 miles round trip.
INFO: St. Mary's College of California chapel is open daylight hours; the art museum is open when they have shows (11-4:30 Wed-Sun; $2 donation suggested; 925/631-4379) .

Pleasant Hill to Briones Regional Park

The walk along the Contra Costa Canal Trail seems gritty as the trail dips beneath Interstate 680. Be patient: Within a block, oak-dotted hills rise and the city melts away.

Start at the Pleasant Hill BART station, follow the Iron Horse Trail 1/4 mile and head east on the Contra Costa Canal Trail, then take the Briones-to-Mt. Diablo Regional Trail through Larkey Park (home of the Lindsay Wildlife Museum) and the hills of Acalanes Ridge Open Space.

You can also start in Civic Park in Walnut Creek. That makes for a longer trek but allows you to end up downtown, where the growing number of good restaurants makes for a nice reward after your hike.

TRAILHEAD: Pleasant Hill BART station or Civic Park (N. Broadway at Civic Dr. in Walnut Creek) .
DISTANCE: From the Pleasant Hill BART station, 9 miles round trip; from Civic Park, 11 miles round trip.

Walnut Creek Canal trails

Rush hour here consists of two moms pushing strollers on the trail and, on the 4-foot-wide canal itself, a party of paddling mallards.

For a half-day hike, start at Heather Farm Park, whose Olympic-size pool is great for a posthike dip. Cross Ygnacio Valley Rd. on the Briones-to-Mt. Diablo Regional Trail. To your left is the area's first subdivision, Joseph Eichler's modernist 1955 Rancho San Miguel. Hang a right onto the Ygnacio Canal Trail and return via the Contra Costa Canal Trail. For a longer hike, after crossing Ygnacio Valley Rd., follow the Briones-to-Mt. Diablo Regional Trail on a 3-mile out-and-back jaunt to Shell Ridge Open Space. Return the way you came and continue your loop on the Ygnacio Canal Trail.

TRAILHEAD: Heather Farm Park (Ygnacio Valley Rd. at N. San Carlos Dr.).
DISTANCE: 6 miles round trip (without Shell Ridge segment).