OAKLAND -- Believe it or not, this year's East Bay Regional Parks District's annual Trails Challenge is turning 21.

For the past 20 years, the event has focused on getting people outside, exploring parks, trails and wildlife, and forging a connection with the cultural and environmental heritage of Alameda and Contra Costa County open spaces.

Each year, 20 different parks and specific trails are selected, but the district's challenge remains the same -- to complete at least five trails or 26.2 miles, record each on your trail log and submit it by December 1, making you eligible to receive your 2014 pin.

A 2011 addition to the Trails Challenge, made possible through a partnership between the park district, the Regional Parks Foundation and Kaiser Permanente, is the Healthy Parks Healthy People aspect that features health benefits and tips. 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 features for this year's 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.

Easy online registration gives access to the Trails Challenge Guidebook, a well-packed booklet that should be required reading for anyone venturing outdoors on their own, with a group or with children and pets in tow. Important topics, including how to plan an outing, using a map and compass, wildlife encounters and hiking with kids and dogs offer useful information.

Of special concern to first-time hikers can be ticks and poison oak. Advice is given as to how to avoid ticks and what to do if bitten and how to recognize poison oak. The guide continues with tips regarding ticks and poison oak when hiking with dogs.

One of the most important sections deals with making trail selections, based on interests and abilities. Each of the 20 selected hikes is clearly detailed with information on mileage, elevation gain, CPS coordinates, level of intensity, park features, trail highlights, trail directions and map, and driving directions.

With 65 parks and 1,200 miles of trails covering more than 114,000 acres, there's equal opportunity to venture far to explore new areas or hike close to home. Three of the 20 featured parks and hikes for 2014 reside within the Oakland hills, a great place to don a free Trails Challenge T-shirt, trail log in hand, and start answering the Trails Challenge.

Easy hikes are relatively flat, on paved or packed gravel trails and range from one to three miles, ideal for beginners and kids. Roberts Regional Recreation Area is home to a 1.3-mile loop that wanders beneath lush, towering redwoods past Roberts Pool, a barrier-free children's playground, the archery ranch through the forest and into Redwood Bowl, just the spot for kids and dogs to romp.

Temescal Regional Recreation Area, an urban oasis popular for swimming, features a second easy hike, a 1.16-mile loop, along the lake past the beach swimming area, lovely picnic and fishing spots, and local plant life. Last stop on the loop is a large lawn area, with enough space for a host of recreational and picnic possibilities.

Hikes rated moderate have a significant elevation gain, from 500 to 1,000 feet, and are three to six miles long. A good supply of water and trail snacks should be part of a moderate-hike pack.

Sibley Volcanic Regional Preserve, a geological treasure trove, has a 3.5-mile loop with a 513-foot elevation gain for a hike that crosses weathered basalt and passes geologic features on its way to Round Top, one of the area's highest peaks, then drops into a eucalyptus/bay laurel forest.

To sample a challenging hike, one of greater than 1,000-feet elevation and six to 20 miles in length, requires a bigger commitment.

For the 21st year of the Trails Challenge, it seems fitting to add a sixth or seventh hike to the total. What better way to branch out and explore new parks, feel healthy and fit and support the park district. This is a challenge too good to miss.

FYI
Trails Challenge 2014: http://www.regionalparksfoundation.org/trailschallenge/moreinfo.
Roberts Regional Recreation Area: 10570 Skyline Blvd., 888-327-2757
Temescal Regional Recreation Area: 6502 Broadway Terrace, 510-652-1155
Sibley Volcanic Regional Preserve: Skyline Boulevard at Grizzly Peak Boulevard, 888-327-2757
Old Moraga Ranch Regional Trail: Hike begins and ends at Rancho Laguna Park, 2101 Camino Pablo, Moraga, 925-376-2520.