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Friends Siobhan Stuart, of Brentwood, left, and Joy Hanson, of Clayton, hike on the Miwok Trail at Round Valley Regional Preserve in Brentwood, Calif., on Saturday, June 22, 2013. The 2,2024-acre preserve contains non-native grassland, oak woodland, savannah scrubland and riparian woodland plant communities with many trails. East Bay Regional Parks are challenging folks to get outside and explore some of the 65 parks and more than 1,200 miles of trails. (Susan Tripp Pollard/Bay Area News Group)

For the past 20 years the East Bay Regional Park District has issued a challenge to residents of Alameda and Contra Costa counties. Their Trails Challenge encourages everyone to go outdoors and explore some of its 65 parks and more than 1,200 miles of trails, seeing this as an important step toward exploration, health and wellness.

But this year a twist has been added. The mayors of Alameda and Contra Costa counties have a wager going to see which county can register the most participants between now and Labor Day. Fittingly titled the Mayors Trails Challenge, the contest is off and running with the last count placing Alameda County ahead by almost three to one -- 2,882 to 1,069.

To get the challenge rolling, Carol Johnson, EBRPD assistant general manager for public affairs, coordinated with representatives from the Alameda and Contra Costa Mayors Conferences, setting the time line and coordinating their message about community health and wellness.

"We talked about what we could do to raise awareness and how the mayors might be interested in making this a fun challenge that could promote great activity within their communities," Johnson said.

The Trails Challenge program has been successful in introducing participants to new trails in parks throughout both counties, as proven by an increase in numbers from a few hundred at the onset up to more than 10,000 last year. To complete the challenge, the self-paced program requires hikes on five of the 20 featured trails or the completion of 26.2 miles by Dec. 31.

Online registration provides access to the Trails Challenge e-Guidebook, which contains the 20 trail routes with maps, detailed directions, safety information and more outdoor tips, as well as the right to pick up a free Trails Challenge T-shirt. With all the information at hand, the next step is to select a hike and go out and enjoy.

With the Trails Challenge in place, partnering the park district with Kaiser Permanente, who funds the program, and support from the Regional Park Foundation, along with the mayors adding their challenge, there is no excuse not to join in.

Three of the 20 featured parks -- Black Diamond Mines Regional Preserve in Antioch, Brentwood's Round Valley Regional Preserve, and Marsh Creek Regional Trail in Oakley -- are right in East County's backyard, a good place to start.

The 5.06-mile loop trail at Black Diamond is rated moderate, meaning it is within the 3- to 6-mile length and has an elevation gain of 500 to 1,000 feet. The loop is formed from connecting the Nortonville, Coal Canyon, Black Diamond, Manhattan and Chaparral Loop trails and passes Rose Hill Cemetery, the historic Protestant graveyard for Nortonville miners and their families. Due to the unshaded route, hikers are encouraged to bring extra water for themselves and for their dogs.

At Round Valley Regional Preserve hikers can choose either a 4.39-mile or 7.46-mile loop. The longer choice pushes this hike into the challenging category with elevation gains of more than 1,000-feet.

This hike connects Miwok, Murphy Meadow, Miwok and Hardy Canyon Trails, taking hikers along typical California foothills landscape, home to a wide variety of grasses and oak woodland and affording great views of the surrounding hills and Mount Diablo.

Another moderate hike is offered on Marsh Creek Regional Trail, following the trail from Cypress Road in Oakley to Concord Avenue in Brentwood and back for a 15-mile round trip total. This hike connects three community parks, great places to pause for recreation or a picnic, and is accessible to hikers, bikers, horses, wheelchairs, and skaters, as well as dogs. Marsh Creek provides habitat for an array of birdlife, including great blue heron, belted kingfishers and red-shouldered hawks, making this a great bird-watching hike.

Whether to join in the mayors challenge or just to get out into the East Bay Regional Park District, the Trails Challenge has more than enough trails for fun and exploration.

"Our goal is to get people outdoors and in a fun way, to push themselves, at their own pace, to learn something different from a location they may not have been on before," Johnson said. "We really want to get people to enjoy the parks."

IF YOU GO
Website: East Bay Regional Parks Trails Challenge: www.ebparks.org/features/2013_Trails_Challenge.
Black Diamond Mines Regional Park: 5175 Somersville Rd., Antioch, 510-544-2750.
Round Valley Regional Preserve: 19450 March Creek Road, Brentwood, 888-327-2757, option 3, ext. 4556.
Marsh Creek Regional Trail: Oakley, 888-327-2757, option 3, ext. 4540.