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A couple walk together along the trail inside the Black Diamond Nature Preserve in Antioch, Calif., on Friday, March 7, 2014. The East Bay Regional Park District selected 20 trails in 20 different parks and "challenges" folks to hike/bike either of five different trails. The Black Diamond Nature Preserve is one of the trails picked. (Dan Rosenstrauch/Bay Area News Group)

This year the East Bay Regional Parks Tails Challenge turns 21, coming of age after 20 years of encouraging East Bay residents to get outdoors and explore the wealth of regional parks throughout Alameda and Contra Costa counties. By selecting 20 parks and trails each year, the park district wants to see hikers, bikers and skaters of all ages outdoors, enjoying wildlife and open spaces, and reaping the health benefits that result.

Even in its 21st year the challenge remains the same: to hike any five of the 20 selected trails or complete a marathon distance of 26.2 miles. Accepting the challenge is simply done: Register online and receive the guidebook, read up on all the hiking dos and don'ts, plan your outings and just go!

The guidebook is a wealth of valuable outdoor information and should be required reading for everyone heading outdoors. It discusses how to plan an outing, map reading tips, how to use a compass and encounters with wildlife. There's good advice on how to avoid ticks and poison oak, with respect to hikers and dogs, as well as general discussions on hiking with dogs and kid in the parks.

While the emphasis remains the enjoyment of nature, a partnership with Kaiser Permanente recently added a Healthy Parks Healthy People aspect that features health benefits and tips that are included in the guidebook.

An Every Body Walk app, free from Kaiser, provides ways to personalize walking plans, connect with walking communities and keep up with fitness trends and tips.

The park district also has its own tech-age stay-connected features for the Trails Challenge, including posting hike photos on Instagram, following on Facebook and downloading the free Trails Challenge app for easy access to trails, maps, hikes and mileage logs.

The bulk of the guidebook is devoted to the 20 selected hikes and each one is clearly described with information on length, elevation gain, GPS coordinates and level of intensity. Also included are park features, trail highlights, trail directions and map, and driving directions.

With a park district of 65 parks that covers 114,000 acres and 1,200 miles of trails, there's enough to choose from to cover 20 Trails Challenges, either exploring new parks or hiking close to home.

Two of the featured 20 parks and hikes are right in East County, covering Antioch, Brentwood and Oakley, ideal for accepting the challenge and working toward the five-hike minimum.

At the lowest level of intensity are hikes rated as easy, those that are relatively flat and range from one to three miles, while moderate hikes have significant elevation gain, from 500 to 1,000 feet, and are three to six miles in length. An out-and-back hike from Big Break Regional Shoreline to Marsh Creek Regional Trail is rated easy to moderate since hikers or bicyclists can turn around at any time.

The total length is 11.81 miles one way with only a 151-foot elevation. Adjacent to the beginning of the trail is the newly built Big Break Visitor Center and there are great Delta views, benches and picnic tables along the route.

Another moderate hike requires a drive to Kennedy Grove Regional Recreation Area in El Sobrante, the former site of ranchos, wheat fields and stations for the California Nevada Railroad. The 3.52-mile loop with a 1,047-foot elevation begins in a lovely eucalyptus grove, then ascends through shaded chaparral, filled with live oak, coyote bush, toyon, ferns and, yes, poison oak.

The route offers a great lookout point for bird watching and distant views.

Challenging hikes up the ante to six to 20 or more miles and elevation gains of more than 1,000 feet. A 7.7-mile loop with almost a 1,600 foot elevation gain goes from Contra Loma Regional Regional Park to Black Diamond Mines Regional Preserve, giving hikers the chance to experience two parks with views of the Delta and Mount Diablo, walking through grassland, foothill woodland, stream vegetation and exotic plantings.

As Trail Challenges are completed, record the trail's name on a trail log and submit it to the park district.

Trails
Trails Challenge 2014: www.regionalparksfoundation.org/trailschallenge/moreinfo.
Big Break Regional Shoreline: 69 Big Break Road, Oakley, 925-289-5711.
Kennedy Grove Regional Recreation Area: 6531 San Pablo Dam Road, El Sobrante, 888-327-2757.
Contra Loma Regional Regional Park: 1200 Frederickson Lane, Antioch, 888-327-2757.