Hikers: Kristen, Joe, Bill and Nat (humans) | Nietzsche and Willow (dogs)
Start Time: 4:00 p.m. at the horse trail entrance to the park at the top of the hill.
Del Valle Regional Park is a true East Bay gem. Located 10 miles south of Livermore, Del Valle (meaning “of the valley” in Spanish) features a 5-mile long lake surrounded by oak-covered hills. Aside from plenty of water-oriented fun, Del Valle has nearly 4500 acres of stunning landscape for hiking, horseback riding, camping and more. It is also the eastern gateway to the Ohlone Wilderness Trail.
Leash Laws: Dogs must be on leash in parking lots, developed areas and under voice control and within sight on trails and especially around cattle and horses.
Trail Difficulty: This park is welcoming to most levels of hikers, that being said, if you follow our suggested routes (Last Ridge – Ridgeline – East Shore), there will be some steep areas (uphill and downhill) since we start at the top of the hill, hike down to the water in the valley and loop around to hike back up. In the dry season, foxtails and ticks are prevalent. Bring plenty of water and sun protection if you are hiking in hot weather. Pay attention to your dog’s comfort level at all times.
Other information: The park’s hours change by season, make sure and check the East Bay parks website for hours and other great information. There is a $2 fee per dog; guide/service dogs free. The visitor center is open Memorial Day through Labor Day.
If your dog’s pads tend to be sensitive, booties are a great idea. Kristen makes sure Nietzsche’s booties are on straight and snug but not tight.
This particular hike was one I was really looking forward to. Kristen and her dog Nietzsche (not only a hero and a service dog, but also a dock diving champ) had followed our work and Instagram adventures for a while and had been trying to get our hike scheduled for months. Livermore would be the first hike in our project that would include a little bit more driving time, but from the way Kristen described it, it sounded like dog hiker heaven, and let me tell you, it did not disappoint. Not one bit.
Since we would have a bit of a drive ahead of us, we scheduled our hike for the evening, hoped it would be less busy near sunset and maybe, just maybe, we would get some great light and color. That would turn out to be the understatement of the year! We set out to meet at the trailhead at 4:00pm, at the top of the hill on Del Valle Road (the horse trail entrance) instead of the main park entrance via the parking lot at the bottom of the hill. Kristen texted me shortly after we arrived: “I have blue hair in case that helps.” I loved her instantly 🙂
After laughs, hugs and introductions, Willow was more than ready to get started, excitedly greeting Nietzsche and pulling to stretch her legs after the long drive from Petaluma. On we went, and we chatted with Kristen about how she and Joe met, how Nietzsche came into their life and about her incredible work as a certified service dog for Kristen, who describes her beautiful petite Lab with a deliciously frosted face as a “Lupus and PTSD warrior.”
One of the reasons Kristen loves coming to Del Valle, and why I really wanted to come and document this trail, is because of what she told me when she first got in touch. “This is where Nietzsche gets to be off duty and just enjoy being a dog,” she said, free of a leash but never far from Kristen and Joe, it was so lovely to see just that as we started our descent via the Last Ridge Trail. I decided to keep Willow on leash for the first mile or so, giving her a chance to calm that initial excitement after a long drive in a small car. First impressions count big time, and I wanted her on her best behavior when she met Nietzsche and her family. She watched Nietzsche run across the hills and back to check in with Kristen with longing golden eyes, but remained contained and at my our side. Patience and lovely behavior and attention allow her more freedom, so after a little while, when I sensed she could run free but still focus on me when I called her back, I released her after a check-in (meaning, Willow looks up at me and the reward for that is getting to do what she wanted, in this case, be off leash).
As if on-cue, both girls flew off, flying free across and over the hills, and in what we humans imagined, Nietzsche set off to lead and show Willow all the best spots her favorite hike had to offer, including a little hole of water; Willow of course wasted no time in jumping in, albeit not as gracefully as the dock diving champ she had for a companion!
Making our way down to the valley and into an oak grove, I was delighting in all the green around us. It being March, it was almost possible to remember California prior to the drought and imagine wetter days ahead. In the hot months, all the green is replaced by gold. It can get hot and fox tails, ticks and snakes are always something to keep in mind. But the promise of a good hike with some off leash fun and a dip in the water is worth the trip (and extra caution).
We followed a narrow winding path and the two dogs enjoyed zooming up, down and around us, Willow making fast friends with Kristen along the way. Kristen enjoys taking photographs as well, so we definitely geeked out on some photography talk.
At the end of the narrow trail and to our left, we caught our first glimpse of Del Valle Lake and Nietzsche was gone in a flash, followed closely by Willow. Like a pro, she jumped in and swam out quite a long distance. Willow barked after her, not daring to go very far in, but greatly enjoying the water.
While the other humans waited up on the trail, I hiked down after the dogs. I am glad I did, for what I saw next had me rolling on the ground in stitches. Clever Nietzsche, enticing Willow to come in deeper and Willow, not resisting the temptation jumped right after her and quickly participating in an unrehearsed descent into the water that was clearly deeper than she anticipated. Just as quickly, she jumped back to the surface and zoomed back to shore with the goofiest expression. I swear I could hear (and see) Nietzsche laughing in the background. In my head, I imagined Willow screaming “oh my gosh, that was toootally way deeper than I thought! ew!”. In case you were wondering, Willow loves water, but she won’t swim, and the moment a drop hits her coat, it becomes frizzy and crimped making her look a lot like a giant, rabbit-eared, half-drowned rat. Priceless. Hence the moments below.
Properly refreshed, we continued on along the water’s edge with both dogs gleefully going in and out of the water and with Bill and I marveling at Nietzsche’s drive and stamina. She is one healthy senior dog.
Off leash time in a beautiful and expansive place like this is a privilege; and these days, a hard one to come by. Honoring that privilege, we always had our eye out for cattle, fellow hikers, other dogs or parties of people and rewarded the girls for coming back to check in and staying close by. It turned out that this little evening time to hike was perfect, while most people were headed home for dinner, we were still out playing and ran into no more than two or three hikers the entire time we were there.
We hung out by the waterfront for a little while, enjoying watching the dogs play, taking in the perfect scenery and soon to be amazing sunset, and taking a few photos.
Did I mention I finally managed to rope in Bill to come hike with us? That was an extra treat for both Willow and myself 🙂
As sunset drew closer, the water started reflecting its golden light and the green valley seemed to glow. Beauty was everywhere, and the weather was just perfect, not too hot or cold. We asked the girls to hold their stay just long enough to freeze this moment in time, and promptly let them off to keep enjoying everything the trail had to offer.
I don’t think I have ever seen Willow so blissful, so unabashedly happy and free and enjoying every opportunity to fly. But the best part is, that she ran around and away, but running back to me seemed to add that extra joy. That took a lot of work and rewarding, every. single. time.
Del Valle was dressed in spring. Green with buttons of purple and blue and yellow and that golden light getting warmer, making the slightly overcast skies glow heavy with contrast. It kept getting better and better.
When we reached the bottom of the East Shore Trail, we turned around and started to loop back up the same way towards the Ridgeline Trail. I loved all the clear markers along the trail in Del Valle. One thing to note is the poor cell reception, which is not a terrible thing if you are out enjoying the wilderness and looking to disconnect; for me it just meant I could not map our hike the way I normally do. Don’t rely on your satelite GPS, and make sure you grab a map at the trail entrance if you’ve never been here before. Lucky for us, Kristen and Joe were our guides and in any case, Bill seems to have the sense of direction of a migratory bird. Oh well, I guess I’ll just have to remember it by heart and encourage you to try out your own trail selections :). Adventure it is then!
When we made it back to the Last Ridge Trail, there were a few scattered cattle getting their last evening graze, so it was a perfect time to get Willow back on leash and allow her the time to start settling back down in preparation for the ride home. Meanwhile, the sky kept getting darker with bursts of sunlight, the greens got greener and sunset arrived with an army of golden rays I have yet to see again. This would be a hike to remember for sure.
I wanted to make sure and get Kristen and Nietzsche together in this light. I never cease to rejoice in photographing people and their dogs. Getting to show them what I see in that moment, and what will come home with me and hopefully stay with them forever: a tangible memory of this moment.
Think about it, think about this everytime you feel a rush of love and excitement for someone or something, regardless of what or who it is: so much time, so much space and yet… to have the serendipitous fortune of coinciding, right here and right now.
As true as I tried to be to what this place looked like at this point in time, I fear my photographs fall short of the majesty of color that was before us. I could not take it all in, it was almost overwhelming. My eyes, camera in hand, scanning and calculating exposures feverishly trying not to miss a single fleeting second. Bombarded by color everywhere. I was seriously one of the most stunning sunsets I have had the joy to experience. I almost felt like this wasn’t California anymore, but somewhere I had dreamed… or a preview of what my idea of heaven would be like: a scene like this with my person (Bill) and dogs by my side, as well as other dog lovers and friends.
Before we reached the end of the trail, I gathered the dogs for a few last portraits, these have to be some of my most treasured from this project to date. I cannot thank Kristen enough for sharing this amazing trail, for her flexibility in schedule, patience in the delay to create this post and for sharing Nietzsche with us. It is a day I will never forget.
Every time we hike with someone, we’ll ask these same questions and share their answers with you. I hope to highlight the things we all share as hiking enthusiasts, while learning from one another and creating a caring community of like-minded people.
In Kristen’s Words:
Who are you/ who’s your canine hiking buddy? (names/ dog’s age / breed(s))
Nietzsche is my 9-year-old black labrador. She was born January 15th 2005. Sometimes it is just us and some times we go with other dog friends. If we go with friends one is a 4-year-old female Border Collie. The other is a 6-year-old Lab mix.
When and how did you get started hiking together?
When I lived in San Luis Obispo, Nietzsche and I would go hiking at least 3 times a week. She was between 1 and 3 when we lived there. In the area, hiking and dog beaches was a way of life and the options had been unlimited. When we moved to Tracy it was hard for us to find a place to hike and we settled “city” walks. We always missed being able to hike in our home town so started to look for semi local places.
Why do you like hiking with your dog/ what do you (both) get out of it?
I really enjoy hiking because it is a time for me to get out and enjoy a walk. I also love seeing her be just a dog. She is my service dog and most the time she is in work mode. It is a treat to let her go off leash and feed her Labrador ways by swimming, staring at the birds, and chasing an occasional squirrel.
What’s your favorite trail to hike and why?
If I could go back to San Luis Obispo, my favorite trail was Bishop’s Peak. The trail started in a wooded area and then you advanced to the climb. It was very rewarding getting to the top of the peak, enjoying the breeze and looking out over all of San Luis Obispo. Currently or local spot is Del Valle. We haven’t really had a chance to go other places or even explore all of Del Valle in Livermore. You can start at the top and hike down (which is what we usually do). At the bottom Nietzsche can swim. Then you really challenge yourself by hiking back up to the car. Round trip it is about 5 miles. I want to tackle Mission Peak in Fremont as well as Mount Diablo, I do hear that those may not be as dog friendly so I am hesitant to try them. I do not want to go hiking some where that Nietzsche has to be on leash because it defeats one of the main reasons I take her hiking.
Do you and your dog have any rituals while hiking? (i.e. we always pack a lunch, we sit at the top for a while etc.)
Any area that there is a place to swim I make sure she has the chance to go. Having a sun allergy, sun screen is of course always a must! I never leave for a hike without my Canon SL1. I am new to the DSLR world and enjoy playing with it to see what kind of images I can capture. I also make sure to protect Nietzsche’s paw pads. Depending on what area we are hiking, I will coat her feet with Musher’s Secret or put on her NeoPaws boots. They are the best shoes I have found to date and are worth the price.
What is the one thing you would advise other dog hikers?
Pay attention to how your dog is moving or acting. If they are limping, check their pads. If their tongue is bright red, TAKE A BREAK! Nietzsche for example, is so happy she will just keep going and going and going. I want to be sure that she is healthy and not injured so that when I need her to get back to work, she is ready to go.
See you next time hikers! Hope to see you on the trail. Be safe and be kind to others and help keep our trails enjoyable and protected.
Nat + Willow
Directions to Del Valle:
To reach the entrance we took on Del Valle Road
- Enter this address on your preferred mapping system:
Del Valle Regional Park
7000 Del Valle Rd
Livermore, CA 94550
The horse trail entrance is at the top of the hill, you’ll see the trail head and often find cars parked on either side of the road. Be careful crossing the road.
- Enter this address to enter the park near Del Valle Lake on Arroyo Road:
5055-5229 Arroyo RdLivermore, CA 94550