Secret peaks

Three springtime hikes lead you to the Bay Area's most solitary summits
Lora J. Finnegan

The winter rains are ending, the hills are green, and the first wildflowers are blooming. In the Bay Area, March is prime hiking season. The trouble is, a lot of other people know that too. If you're looking for a spring hike that offers both exercise and wonderful views, you don't need to fight the crowds at Mt. Tamalpais. Instead, you can ascend any of these three lesser-known Bay Area pinnacles and have the summit practically to yourself. Each is a local's secret ― and each offers killer views on an afternoon hike.

MISSION PEAK

Mission Peak Regional Preserve, Fremont. Set above Fremont's Mission San Jose, this peak offers unparalleled views of the South Bay. But the steep hike is for determined summiteers―you ascend nearly 2,000 feet. From the staging area, follow the Hidden Valley Trail (part of the Ohlone Wilderness Trail) about 2 1/4 miles as it snakes up the grassy slope. Veer right onto Eagle Trail for about 1/4 mile, then make the last 1/2-mile climb to the top on Peak Meadow Trail.

From the 2,517-foot summit, look for red-tailed hawks or even hang-gliders riding thermals to the south. Look west to San Francisco Bay and east to ridge upon ridge of limitless green hills.

WHERE: From I-680 in Fremont, take the Mission Blvd. exit, turn east on Stanford Ave., and go to the park staging area at the road's end.
DISTANCE: 6 miles (out and back).
DIFFICULTY: Difficult.
COST: Free.
CONTACT: www.ebparks.org or (510) 635-0135

SAN BRUNO MOUNTAIN

San Bruno Mountain State and County Park, near Brisbane. Not long ago, this land just south of San Francisco was privately owned. Now it's a 2,500-acre park that's gorgeous in spring.

Hop on the Summit Loop Trail for knockout views of San Francisco, the East Bay, and the Pacific. In March, you may spot the peak's unique butterflies, such as the mission blue, and native wildflowers, such as sun cup.

WHERE: From U.S. 101, take Brisbane/Cow Palace exit to Guadalupe Canyon Pkwy. and follow park signs.
DISTANCE: 3-mile loop.
DIFFICULTY: Moderate.
COST: $4.
CONTACT: (650) 992-6770 or www.sanmateocountyparks.org

WILDCAT PEAK

Charles Lee Tilden Regional Park, Berkeley. Inspiration Point is the hike's jump-off ― and on spring's cool days, this easy walk elicits more inspiration than perspiration. The first 1 3/4 miles are on paved, rolling Nimitz Way, popular with cyclists and joggers. Glance east to see emerald Mt. Diablo and sapphire San Pablo Reservoir, west to gaze at San Francisco, looking like it's made of platinum. Jog west on the short, steep Wildcat Peak Trail, pass Rotary Peace Grove, and go about 1/4 mile to the summit of 1,211-foot Wildcat Peak for your final 360-degree vista. Backtrack to return.

WHERE: From State 24 in Orinda, exit at Fish Ranch Rd. and go west. Head north on Grizzly Peak Blvd. to the Shasta Gate entrance. Follow Shasta Rd. east to Wildcat Canyon Rd., and head south to Inspiration Point.
DISTANCE: 4 miles (out and back).
DIFFICULTY: Easy.
COST: Free.
CONTACT: www.ebparks.org or (510) 635-0135