Saturday, September 26, 2015

THE EAST BAY UNKNOWN: Gambolin' Man's Top 10 Overlooked Gems, Ignored Beauty and Hidden Splendors in Old Familiar Haunts

"We shall not cease from exploration. And the end of all our exploring will be to arrive where we started and know the place for the first time."
Cottonball cumuli over East Bay Hills from secret vantage point
T.S. Eliot's oft-quoted line from Little Gidding reminds us that the places near and dear to our hearts may harbor secrets yet teased out. Jaded by years of familiarity, we may dismiss our favorite backyard hiking areas as "ho-hum" and our cherished views, vistas and venues as "same old, same old," consigning the tried and true to some mental dustbin of "been there / done that / seen it all."

But pray tell let us hope not!

Wildcat Creek's "back country" splendor in secret spot
Constantly seeking something new and better, are we, in our repeated wanderings, barely able to notice subtle manifestations of natural beauty before unseeing eyes? If only we might, for a moment, set aside preconceptions of what constitutes "precious beauty." If only we might redefine what fun is and what adventure means, and take a second, deeper look at old familiar surroundings, we might be surprised at what we've missed.

Right in our back yard, right under our nose, right in plain sight.

Mount Diablo viewed from Sibley Volcanic Regional Preserve
For in our haste to seek out the the prettier other, the more charming alternative, the grander elsewhere, how easily we fall for the fallacy that the "commonplace" is merely that - a common place absent of magic and mystery! But far from it! We are all sorely in need of a timeless lesson imparted by Ralph Waldo Emerson - "the invariable mark of wisdom is to see the miraculous in the common."

California Poppies carpeting hillside, Las Trampas Regional Wilderness
On closer inspection - and it does require getting down on all fours or putting your nose up against a tree trunk - it turns out that our most familiar stomping grounds are replete with novelty; our most pedestrian locales shelter tiny miracles yet disclosed to a searching, discerning eye. Where every nook and cranny has been (seemingly) explored, and every square foot of hiking terrain (seemingly) exhausted, and every view (seemingly) like watching a rerun again and again, what could possibly be left to exult over? But, ah, what magic awaits, if only, as Tolstoy exhorts, "in the name of God, stop a moment, cease your work, look around you."

Secret cascade above Lake Anza, Tilden Regional Park
Look around you, where wild aura and character abound in special little places that unexpectedly turn up, places that have been right under our noses, within eyeshot, all along. In well-trafficked areas, just down a hillside, over an "off-limits" fence, up a trail to an obscure knoll, around a never before explored bend of "simple" creek, a scramble up to a normally arid cliff face above a placid lake now pouring forth an impressive discharge of run-off.

Places to find solitude. To stumble upon expressions of implausible beauty in the most unexpected and overlooked venues. Places to appreciate a swathe of open space somehow missed all these years. To marvel at a stretch of creek winding through a landscape reminiscent of rural Oregon. Places to gaze upon familiar landmarks with a fresh perspective, affording a revitalized view of Mount Diablo, or an exotic backside panorama of the Berkeley Hills.
Pied-billed Grebe spotted at Jewel Lake
Places out of mind but in plain sight and largely devoid of people. Because, after all, what is of possible interest in a dried up old creek bed? (Maybe a fox skull or deer antler?) What compelling reason to detour over to that weedy meadow overrun with thistles? (Maybe wild turkeys or an exotic little bird?) What remote impulse to explore that unremarkable rise of land next to the Tilden Golf Course? (Maybe two big bucks rutting with a doe and little fawns looking on?)

Simple beauty of Wildcat Creek captured in reflective moment
Such places of under-valued recognition and little-noticed beauty are guaranteed to not be on anyone's must-see / must-do bucket list, not being on maps or tied to GPS coordinates or referenced in guide books or written about in nature blogs, being mere local places, unheralded and understated, that cannot possibly compare in grandeur, scale or scope to - to what? The John Muir Wilderness? Some amazing national seashore? Enough!

Octopus tree limbs, Wildcat Creek
Because most of us live an urban existence, we can't always enjoy the transcendent pleasure of finding ourselves in the John Muir Wilderness. And so our daily options are to arrive where we started, to seek out the presence of small miracles in unexpected settings in and around our city parks and, especially, the East Bay Regional Park District's amazing land holdings where surprises and beauty await in over 50 parks and 200,000 acres. Sure, anyone can experience the grandiose, appreciate the Yellowstones and Yosemites, but, ah, the small miracles in unexpected settings, that takes a special set of senses to detect what at first glance may seem like "nothing" or "boring" to jaded or unappreciative eyes.
Wildcat Creek surging after rains in oft-overlooked stretch
But on closer inspection, a deeper connection will alter our perspective and allow us to apprehend novelty all around, allow us to let go of comparisons to bigger and better and more whatever places, allow us to get inspired by delving deeper into an old familiar lover. The joy of discovering a new view, a fresh perspective, is the perfect antidote to banality and complacency. As Henry Miller put it, "The moment one gives close attention to anything, even a blade of grass, it becomes a mysterious, awesome, indescribably magnificent world in itself."

Manzanita branches sheltering secret riparian area
A lesser known line in Little Gidding explains why such places are free of human intrusion, left untouched, unnoticed by the hoi polloi - "Not known, because not looked for. . ."

And so, at the (seeming) end of all our exploring, here are some of my favorite "known, because looked for" places that keep inspiring me to return to where I started decades ago and know - truly know for the first time - the intimate charms of places no longer refusing to be seen by unseeing eyes, places I now return to to discover hidden, overlooked gems with the simple awe of a child finding a minnow in a drying up pond or the unexpected delight of chancing upon a four-leaf clover in an old horse meadow.
Giving thanks and praise at the Center of the Circle
May you be similarly inspired to seek out your own indescribably magnificent and awesome worlds wherever they may be found: in the beauty, magic and mystery contained within an "insignificant" blade of grass, a trailside feather, a fallen nest, a bullet-shaped acorn, a heart rock, a flitting butterfly, stringy moss hanging from a tree, lichen on bark, impressionistic designs decorating a decaying sycamore leaf.

A world within a world within a world. All yours. There for the enjoyin'. Simply stop for a moment, look, listen, and see.

Unexpected boulder in lower Wildcat Creek
Wildcat Creek, born of subterranean springs atop Grizzly Peak in the Berkeley Hills, winds for 11 bedrock cutting miles to drain into San Francisco Bay in the industrial, gritty city of Richmond, California. Along the way are many sheltered and beautiful spots to seek out solitude, serenity and beauty, many of the best spots overlooked, ignored and hidden, because they are, while in plain sight, completely off peoples' radar.

I've written extensively about the Wildcat Creek watershed, whose parklands are visited by thousands of people a year. But a particular, recondite backwater paradise eludes most, lying hidden down Wildcat Gorge Trail below the Kensington ridge.
Special aura prevails in lower Wildcat Creek
The creek below the picnic tables and parking lot
Though some but not many manage to find this burbling, rock strewn length of creek, existing in pristine isolation deep in a lush forest, it's mostly "nowhere" for 99.9% of those passing by up on the Gorge Trail, requiring as it does an ankle-twisting bushwhack down intractable land through poking brush, poison oak, stinging nettle and thistles. A small price to pay for the privilege of being uniquely privy to nature's sanctum sanctorum, down here on the ol' crick, in a holiest of holy settings, as remote as you could hope to get in an East Bay Regional Park District park.

After years of exploring the watershed, I thought I knew Wildcat Creek inside out. But of late I have returned to know it for the first time. To know it like a prince knows the third or fourth of seven sisters, to find that the unheralded, ignored one is truly the most beautiful. Proving the wisdom of the adage, that right in my veritable back yard true adventure and beauty can be found, where commonplace miracles abound - if only we can open the eyes of our heart to see and experience - and feel - them. In this special stretch of creek, one day I sat still, listening to the world of extraneous noise completely disappear, leaving me awe-struck by the serenity and silence, the only "noise" the buzzing in my head, soon drowned out by the mellifluous flow of burbling water and gently whooshing zephyrs.
Unknown beauty of Wildcat Creek
Another previously ignored area I recently checked out is a little stretch of the creek below the parking area and picnic tables in the Tilden Nature Area. Nothing special quote unquote, merely a 100 yard stretch lying hidden - awaiting discovery if you're a fanatical lover of all creeks great and small. Even with the water flowing low, I'm instantly struck by a peculiar charm. Despite being just a bird poop's drop away from a jam packed parking lot, you get the sensation of being much farther distant than just a few feet down a tree lined embankment. A deer path - a child's discovery trail - invites to see what the fuss is about.

My intention is simply to take a quick look-see and photograph the surroundings, so I can tick off the stretch as part of my goal to explore all 11 miles of the creek. My first inkling of being somewhere special comes on the mud slide ledge down to the creek bed, where a mess of seeds and feathers lay scattered, evidence of time-honored bird feeding activity where the Juncos and Sparrows return from their booty raid forays to the nearby picnic tables to nibble on sunflower seeds and other edible bits.
Wildcat Creek existing in its own world if you can find it

The creek was running very low when I first discovered it this hot, dry summer, and is completely dry on my second look-see a few weeks ago. Down in the heart of this insignificant little world, raccoon paw prints are impressed in muddy flats, and birds and butterflies rule, flying about in a tangle of canopy and underbrush. A dazzling hummingbird hovers above, checking me out. The simple understated beauty of this little creek might not pack a big WOW factor, or induce thrilling sensations of awe in most observers - if present to observe - but for Gambolin' Man, it gets a big thumbs up for just being what it is - a simple unpretentious slice of creek, unnoticed and ignored, an unveiling of Mother Nature's small secrets, her nothing much doings, her unnoticed goings on. A refuge for birds and deer, and no doubt, fox, coyote and mountain lions lurking where the two-legged creatures do not tread.


Unexpected magical boulder garden delights those who seek it out
A great thrill for cyclists completing a tough loop in the Berkeley Hills is the all downhill stretch from the Steam Trains at Vollmer Peak (1905 ft.) in Tilden Regional Park back to the city flats at around 50 ft. above sea level. It's a non-stop thrill ride for a few miles on a curvaceous road with star-studded postcard views of San Francisco Bay, The City, the Golden Gate Bridge, Angel Island, Marin Headlands, and Mount Tamalpais. For locals, the ride truly is world-class, which makes the Bay Area so special, and of course, such a competitive and expensive place to call home.

Jumbled collection of boulders incites awe and wonder
I've zoomed down this stretch of winding asphalt a hundred times, always exhilarated at the freedom of flying 20 to 30 miles per hour after tough slogs grunting up Berkeley Hills loops, hardly giving pause to anything except maintaining course while checking out the stunning vistas beyond. No surprise, therefore, why it's taken years to discover the geological mini-wonderland situated on a boulder-clogged knoll in a pretty little oak / bay forest right off the road.

Boulders jutting up from the earth
One day, for no good reason other than timing, I pull off by the sentinel rock everyone passes and, dutifully acknowledges as the "big roadside rock" - but who ever actually stops to pay homage, touch and feel and inspect its textured nuances, walk around and climb on it, and heaven forbid, delay the rush down the hill to see where the little winding path behind it might lead to. After all, what possibly could be there?

Try a surprising collection of boulders of varying shapes and sizes. These impressive remnants of million year old volcanic activity would be entirely missed even if you did happen to slow down and look up. Unless - heaven forbid - you are curious enough to delay your zooming thrill ride for a few moments. Then you'll get to immerse yourself in a mini-Pinnacles garden of boulders in a pretty forested knoll where, to no great fanfare or remarkability, except perhaps by a grad student in the geology department, you come upon a jumbled collection of "bones of the earth" existing in a time warp off Berkeley's major hilltop thoroughfare, Grizzly Peak Boulevard.

Rugged beauty in Oakland Hills
The complex and varied land forms of the Berkeley Hills hold many surprises and treasures - sheltering second growth redwood forests and dense oak woodlands, alternating with chaparral, grasslands, and meadow environments; hiding tranquil lakes and ponds; harboring gentle riparian corridors; and nurturing sensitive ecosystems. But when in need of a dose of Southwest style redrock wilderness, or a reasonable facsimile thereof, look no farther than on the urban fringes of Oakland California, where a 10,000,000 year old volcano exploded. Round Top Peak (1763 ft.) is all that remains amid an eroded debris field that invites serious geological study and attracts legions of nature lovers and birding enthusiasts.
Odd red rock formations abound to wow and inspire awe
Covering a mere 700 acres, Sibley packs it in, although not a place for any major hiking, per se, but you can work up a lather climbing up and down the canyons, and once up on the blasted ridge top, you can extend your destination by hooking up to the Bay Area Ridge Trail and East Bay Skyline National Recreational Trail. Recently, a long-off-limits section was opened, giving the park a bit more breathing room. Mostly, though, Sibley is a place to slow down, let your mind drift and your imagination wander as you check out each sign post on the self-guided tour, noting some outstanding geological feature or event.
You'd never know it was the East Bay Hills
Hundreds of people visit Sibley every week to hike its network of trails around Round Top Peak, through shady forested canyons, and descending to an old quarry pit to walk the inscrutable labyrinth, whose builders remain a mystery. Spend some quiet time listening to the wind whistling, while meditatively walking the circular pathway to the center of this little universe, giving thanks and praise and wonder evermore. Return by scrambling up steep sloped detritus if seeking a more ambitious egress from the blasted depths of the pit.

Rugged red rock East Bay wild - and relatively few people
Lesser known about and rarely visited - as evidenced by recent outings where I encountered exactly zero people on successive weekends - are two remoter areas of the park, one on the back side of the quarry pit, beyond the park boundary fence, where I once spotted a rare Black-throated Gray Warbler, and another in the north side of the park where geologic neck-craning outcrops transport you to another dimension, to a place of unexpected beauty a la the rugged desert of red stained boulders and large rock formations alien to our typical East Bay landscape. Views of Mount Diablo dominate eastern Contra Costa County, adding to the visual magnitude and visceral sensations of being somewhere much farther away than just above Oakland California, the 45th largest city in the U.S.

Surprising beauty in pristine watershed setting
On the other side of the Berkeley Hills, snaking down Wildcat Canyon Road, a tiny parcel of protected watershed land shelters hidden riparian beauty. Right on the doorstep of urban East Bay communities, you'd never know it's there, unless you drop your plans and plan to seek it out and experience it. Odd thing, this tiny acreage exists right under our noses - but it might as well be remote wilderness, since not many know, or care to know, about it. . . our very own San Pablo Creek.

Pretty bend in the creek
Here in a healthy mantel of forest, creek and meadow, surprises galore await in the primeval water course that once channeled tons of salmon, which in turn attracted Grizzly Bears and Bald Eagles, but, alas, no more, although San Pablo Reservoir is one of six sites in the forty square mile Bay Area supporting nesting Baldies, which gives you a good idea of this place's nature quotient.

San Pablo Creek flowing sweetly through meadow / forest land
When in need of some good old-fashion soul-calibrating solitude, nothing beats a few hours alone in this small, rich, bio-diverse slice of habitat that instantly enchants. A matrix of trails connects to the great Bay Area beyond, out Old San Pablo Trail for five miles, or test your mettle hiking nearly fifteen miles on Oursan and Bear Creek Trails, circumnavigating the 60,510 acre ft. Briones Reservoir, one of the East Bay gems, though off most peoples' radar.

A creek runs through it. . .watershed land on the urban ecotone
Some may wonder, what's the fuss. And maybe they're right. After all, my sphere of exploratory wandering / casual go-nowhere investigations encompasses an area no larger than a couple of acres. But they really pack in a ton of stimuli! Ignoring the din of commuter traffic speeding toward the Bay on San Pablo Dam Road, I focus my attention on other things - like communing with tall, old sycamore, pine and oak trees, which provide high canopy for a myriad of unseen birds, infinite, hidden well. Secondary understory and dense shrubbery shelters sweet flowing San Pablo Creek. A short stroll reveals open meadow / scrubland, bordered by thickets of dogwood and remnant apple trees from an old homesteader's orchard. It all makes for a perfect bird sanctuary and all-around nature lover's intimate experience; notwithstanding, the few people I have seen here are always on the move, hiking, running or horseback riding, curiously, never stopping to take it all in as silent witnesses to something special. I hope I'm wrong about that.
Nearly too lovely for words. . .a place strictly for the birds

Several secret spots can be accessed with a little bushwhacking, providing you aren't averse to tangling with poison oak and stinging nettles and wicked thorny blackberry brambles, but the payoff is finding the most amazing hidden stretches that veritably resemble the back country creeks of my Indiana youth. From the bridge off Bear Creek Road, plenty of sweet little spots lie hidden to kick back and watch birds or just stare at the rhythms of water flowing and swirling. Past the bridge over the creek, I divert off path and find ever more intriguing stretches. I've filmed much of these parts, but only recently discovered an amazing stretch several hundred yards before it is swallowed up by San Pablo Reservoir.
Heart-rending beauty of local "off-limits" creek
Biking Old San Pablo Trail, I ditch my bike and scramble down an embankment and across a mess of tangled vegetation to suddenly encounter the creek, unseen here by all but birds, coyotes, deer, raccoon and bobcats. Fully exposed to the surveillance of authorities (mostly looking for signs of fire in this super-dry season), I fearfully and quickly tread a football length's distance upstream to an area riffling with divergent waters, then route find downstream to a swirling channel near the mouth of the reservoir. I sit on the stream bank for a while, taking it all in, marveling at the bucolic scene, in disbelief to never have laid eyes or set foot on this stretch of creek before. 
Horsetail and fern-lined stream bank invites dreamy exploration

Note: take care to stay hidden for it is illegal to traverse off-trail on watershed lands and to have any contact with the watershed's bodies of water, but the reward is simply too compelling; not normally being a scofflaw, I occasionally ignore the former rule in order to soak up (not literally) the majestic sensations of the pristine creek, experiencing it how it must have been for indigenous coastal Ohlone peoples hundreds, thousands, of years ago. For urban-cum-wild creek aficionados, it doesn't get much better.

Magical reflections on the simply pretty (simple) creek
Perennial flowing Codornices Creek, originating in the Berkeley Hills, charms and enchants every step of its bedrock cutting way to San Francisco Bay. One of several hill streams in the East Bay, it may be the most lovely little stream of all. Lovely how it pools modestly in unnoticed nooks and overlooked crannies. Lovely how the sun's angle diffuses the waning light across the water's reflective surface causing rainbow colored magic to happen. Lovely how beauty is rendered. I am witness.

Stunning beauty there for the enjoying, if noticed
I've photographed most of the magical reflections in Live Oak Park, where the creek's course is perfectly situated for the evening gloam when the sun's god beams kiss the water. For what special beauty, what magnetic allure, when these subtle scenes on the small ribbon of creek's surface create ineffable painterly visions, as beautiful as anything on earth. Yet these reflective miracles, occurring in plain sight, right under people's noses, are too often missed by the many who are too busy throwing tennis balls to chasing dogs or too distracted with their toxic barbecue obsessions, or too engaged in other activities to take notice. I hope I'm dead wrong in public!
Off-limits secret stretch in Berkeley
A hidden, off-limits stretch, across the street from Live Oak Park, lies within a fenced-off parcel of land under the stewardship (and watchful eye) of the Jewish Community Center. Warned against trespassing, and once actually "busted" while birding there by the elderly director who came out to ask me what I was doing with binoculars and children present (!), I couldn't help myself and chanced prosecution because I just had to become acquainted up close and personal with this tiny little stretch, no longer than fifty feet or so, over-grown with big trees and thick foliage, sheltering the creek but affording Jays and Juncos and Robins and Chickadees and Goldfinches a place to splash about and cool off. I've observed them at water's edge dipping gamely, then retreating to a hidden branch to slough off the water. Down on the little creek, pastel reflective water swirls in mini-eddies through tiny channels and rocks, a miniature world you have to experience to believe. Intimately, too, when no one's looking!

Revitalized urban stretch of Codornices Creek in Berkeley
Another part of the creek beckoned me one day when I set off - for the first time - to check out a stretch of the creek in a gritty urban sector of West Berkeley. Now, what on earth could be so attractive about that? Well, successful restoration efforts have daylighted a sweet little portion of the creek previously lost to smothering industrialization. Volunteers re-established bank-stabilizing flora along the stream, planted trees, re-routed the creek, and - voila! - overnight nature took over soon turning the parcel of abused neglected creekside land into a preserve worthy of pride and wonder. . .and yet, who really goes down to the creek, follows its contours, gets down on all fours to inspect it, see it from a lizard's or butterfly's or bird's point of view? Most people I see are just passin' through. . .I get the feeling I am a living breathing specimen in a museum diorama, a mere backdrop to more immediate goings on - lovers smooching on a bench, kids racing through on bikes, many passing through tuned out, plugged into their earbuds blotting out the sounds I'm enjoying: water rippling music and birdsong symphonies in an overgrown riparian setting just trying to make a living. A pretty sweet living at that, thanks to Friends of the Creek.

2000+ ft. above sea level, 360 degree views are fantastic, surreal
Gotta love Las Trampas Regional Wilderness, easily the most distinctive park in the East Bay Regional Park District’s sizable holdings.

Time and time again I return to the timeless rugged raw beauty contained within this big wild land that straddles tri-valley urban sprawl opposite Mount Diablo's dominant massif.

Fantastic 360 degree views prevail from a 2000 foot elevation vantage point. Sure, it takes some time and effort to ascend to the rarefied realm, with special wind caves and boulder gardens, a place remote and high enough to remain untouched by humanity's encroaching presence (ignore the radio antenna tower in the near distance). But get thee there and it will change how you see your local environs.
Lichen-encrusted slab of rock
Seasonally, Las Trampas undergoes personality transformations. Summers and early fall bring tinder-box dry conditions, golden hills, inferno heat. Winter brings the life-bearing rains (maybe lucky to get five to ten inches a year), and then Springtime, the loveliest of seasons, arrives with Hiburnian hillsides strewn with wild flowers, songs of running brooks, and an eternal longing to return time and timelessness again.

Stele like menhir
Las Trampas has long been a favorite “wilderness” escape; many moons ago it was that Gambolin Man first made the meandering drive, and it is not a place you can visit any old day, unless you live in the vicinity. Residents of the tony Tri-Valley communities of Walnut Creek, Danville, Alamo, Blackhawk, Pleasanton, and Dublin, which abut or are near the park, are best positioned to take advantage of the many splendors of Las Trampas. Even so, it’s a ways down a rural road, beyond the smog and congestion of the I-680, several miles down a beautiful valley opposite Mount Diablo, where farms and ranch lands suddenly give way to the wide expanse of impressive hills and high ridges, contiguous to undeveloped EBMUD holdings (pristine watershed lands, an unbroken continuity of wildness; herein, roams the fabled black panther, spotted by sober witnesses a few times over the years). Rocky Ridge rises a not insignificant 2024 ft., lending a towering island in the sky feel to the far-flung vistas attained from its oft-wind-blown vantage points.

Las Trampas ridge is characterized by exotic-looking pyramidal hills and big rock outcrops, cold hard geology staring you in the face. Galen Rowell referred to Rocky Ridge as “the spine of some ancient creature,” and waxed rhapsodic over the impressive geology of this “wildly tilted sandstone.”

Glorious lupine in bloom atop island in the sky rock / boulder garden
Referring to Las Trampas, iconic Bay Area nature writer and historian Malcolm Margolin also expressed gratitude for such a place in his beloved vade mecum of Bay Area wildlands – The East Bay Out, A Personal Guide to the East Bay Regional Parks: “I am always heartened by this view of so many square miles of still wild, undeveloped land remaining in the East Bay.” That was nearly 40 years ago. . .nothing has changed.

EBMUD hinterlands on the fringes of urban sprawl
After a sweaty thousand foot climb, things level off on a ridge for breathtaking views. A small path diverts up a gnarly knoll leading to a hidden island in the sky boulder and flower garden. Lupines and poppies with butterflies fluttering about. Far beyond the Ohlone Range rules, with peaks over 4,000 feet tall. What people miss out on, though, by avoiding Las Trampas, is worth every pummeling head wind atop the Stegasaurian ridgebacks, worth every brutal lashing of the sun’s scorching rays castigating your exposed body parts, worth every sting of the nettle and thrash of the poison oak, worth every lung-busting, ankle-bashing, knee-knocking step up and down steep trails. The payoff is unrivaled solitude, beauty, isolation, and tremendous long-distance panoramas. Unique rock formations, some resembling sacred steles, grace the island in the sky boulder / flower garden. A large boulder painted with endemic lichen calls me over, to run my palms up and down its surface, lean back against this giant stone, resting for thousands of years in this spot, at around 2000 ft. elevation on Rocky Ridge. Go forth and find it, along with the wind caves, if you have the mettle and know where to find 'em.

Dramatic big cloud day over East Bay hills / Mount Diablo
I've passed by this famous cyclists' juncture a hundred times, each time dutifully continuing on my uninterrupted way to grunt up a final leg of winding hill to reach the top of the Berkeley Hills crest at the Steam Trains. Only once have I ever stopped to get off my bike and maybe enjoy a small snack off the road along where the EBMUD trail system snakes through below the ridge heading towards the red hills of Sibley.

Once, cycling up steep Claremont
Vollmer ridge line from unique vantage point
Canyon, we got caught in a downpour at the crest and sought refuge under a tree on this self-same knoll off the roadside. . .that memory sparked my impulse a few weeks ago to take a second more in-depth look around. So I drop my bike behind some bushes and set off on a trail leading up and over the knoll, then veer off and down into a big wide open high hilly area set between Fish Ranch Road and - nothing but tremendous views of Mount Diablo and a gigantic Vollmer Peak sub-ridge that I had never seen from this angle before.
High knoll meadow hemmed in all sides by hills and long distance views
Throw in for dramatic measure cottonball puffy clouds capping the hills and it's a veritable Big West scene that takes my breath away precipitating a two hour delay just ambling around the perimeter of the huge meadow high atop the knoll, unseen from any of the four nearby roads. It's a world within a world, a place where time seems to stop and my heartbeat slows waaaaay down to where I'm able to one second enjoy long-distant views and in the next moment be absorbed in the minutiae of things around me - the "blade of grass" holding so much magic and mystery: strange looking flora sheltering flighty birds and surprises like bunny rabbits nibbling peacefully without fear of a human or hawk, odd colored moths flitting about purple thistle tops, and bizarre fungi reminiscent of female sexual organs. All in all, one of those soul-satisfying days in a unique setting, right on the fringes where thousands pass by unsuspecting of the beauty peculiar to the place. If you can't be some place else more spectacular, this surely takes an easy second place with little effort. Except you gotta want it.

Water pouring over lip of rock shelf in nearly inaccessible gully
Among Tilden Regional Park's innumerable charms and attractions are three seasonal waterfalls that truly add an exotic and surreal touch of Pacific Northwest glam. When the rains fall and the trails turn "puddle-licious and mud-wonderful", when the gullies become agush with swirling water, just follow the slippery hillside contours as best as you can to find the three hidden, ephemeral waterfalls.

Big Springs Hills hides rocky crevasses with cascades and falls
Largely lost to the madding crowd and unbeknownst to the hiking throngs, hidden to the entire world, and forever unheralded, never to be oohed and aahed at, or elevated to "world class" status by those who will never experience it, you can have Pacific Northwest style wet, wet lushness just by seeking it in overlooked out of the way ravines in the Tilden hills. Can it be so easy?

Freshet flowing through small gully
Bag your first falls by dropping below Lake Anza's berm to where a beat up old abandoned station hut sits, or hike up from Lone Oak Trailhead through the Gorge to get to the base. Off to the right is a wide curtain of impressive water tumbling over boulders as it gushes out of the artificial spillway feeding Lake Anza's discharge into where Wildcat Creek begins to pick up steam around the ten million year old volcanic plug.

Swirling water cutting narrow channel at lip of secret falls
This one's in plain sight, for all to see and experience with just a little detour off the path. But the big surprise awaits up and beyond the station house, where run-off pours over the lip of huge rock shelves forming drop-step falls of the type you might see in some desert canyon. . .or what used to exist right in these very hills before the Lake Anza dam was constructed back in the 30s destroying a 90 ft. waterfall. But this one, very well hidden by thick tangles of nasty brush amid slippery footing, requiring expert navigation and balance, is no slouch of a sight when the rains have recharged the flow. I devoted an entire Gambolin' Man post to it a few years ago. Look for it, or, better yet, go look for the real thing. Don't be daunted, it can be attained. And you will find your comfortable world of "Lake Anza" upturned by disoriented sights and impressions.
Big Springs drop from on high
Next up, an area called Big Springs sandwiched in the foothills of Vollmer Peak between Big Springs and Arroyo Trails. Barely visible from regular vantage points along the trails, getting there requires a bushwhack up a tick-infested ravine following the course of a thin ribbon of whooshing water. When it's whooshing, that is. Climbing gradually ever higher, views soon open up of the steep, deep, rolling hills off South Park Road. The little cleft narrows and becomes rockier with each foot of elevation surmounted. Finally, a shelf of rock is reached where sweet water plummets over the lip in a mesmerizing tinkle. Keep ascending to attain a grotto-like dead end where a nice little plunger awaits in your own private world of wildflowers, rock gardens, sing-song water dropping into a small plink plink basin, all in the purview of bright blue skies after replenishing rains. It doesn't get much better being so "remote" in a nearby park.

The third hidden falls is next, where I trace a nearly unnoticeable deer path off the main stem of Arroyo Trail, ducking beneath low hanging branches, avoiding snags of poison oak and brambles, seeking the confluence of two small arteries. At the right fork, the path becomes slippery and indistinguishable, leading up a muddy humpback ridge strewn with ever more obstacles, no matter, drawn deeper and deeper in to the heart of the moist dark womb of the forest. Soon, the tinny roar of - can it be? - yes! A secret waterfall! Come to life!

Ephemeral gusher reminiscent of submerged 90 ft. waterfall
Here, in a hidden ravine, an unnamed, unknown about, uncared for, little nothing of a seasonal rivulet has carved a reddish curving narrow bedrock chute, a sight to behold this swirling mass of tightly channeled water plunging over the mossy lip of this miniature cliff face.

I struggle up and over several downed tree branches and trunks, nearly losing my footing on the unstable, steep slope of the hillside, to get an up close and personal glimpse of real beauty coming into view - a twenty-five foot plunger! A sight that only I shall witness today, perhaps all week, perhaps all season. . .the hidden waterfall of my dreams, in a remote gully in Tilden Park in the Berkeley Hills. And it's all mine, and I can't get enough of it, or get over its inordinate preciousness which half the world - nay, all the world - will never know or care about in its utter, beautiful, simple obscurity. May it remain that way, despite my exultation.

Reservoir from unique perspective
One day while riding Wildcat Canyon Road to El Toyonal Road, the intention being the short but grueling, steep climb up Lomas Cantadas Road to Grizzly Peak, I stop at the horse stables for a quick nosh and a few moments of bird watching. Soon, a Lazuli Bunting appears in the trees, enough to keep me glued to the spot, searching for more birds. Giving up on doing the climb (too hot, anyway!), I drop my bike and climb over the stile separating the watershed land from the public road and pick up a narrow trail and begin following it, to see where it might lead, which from my observations of this landscape from high atop Sea View Ridge and Nimitz Way trails, I knew, or thought I knew, what was there, where I was, but as I follow the trail into a great open meadow,all familiarity dissolves and I find myself in a most strange landscape.

Back side of Seaview Ridge and Berkeley Hills
The view of the Berkeley Hills ridge looms large, from out of nowhere it appears like a telescoped mirage, something so unfamiliar I can't believe it. I circle aimlessly around in a semi-torpor state (the heat!), finding myself at the edge of small gully. I stop to pluck a few tart plums from an old tree, and explore around a bit tracking a mother turkey and her four poults waddling off fearfully. I stop in the shade of a copse of oaks to soak in the silence, the magic and mystery of this unknown place that I have always seen from high above, far off, but never up close and personal. Off to the northeast, cobalt blue Briones Reservoir presents angled perspectives that lend an exotic sheen to the body of water. All is familiar, nothing is familiar. Now known, though, because sought out, looked for.

Incomparably beautiful Briones Reservoir
One of my favorite “best kept secrets” for exotic local hiking is the East Bay Municipal Utilities District (EMBUD) owned and managed reservoir lands. The 725 acre artificial lake, gorgeous and painterly, tucked away in scenic, rolling, oak-studded hills, is one of the gems of the system.

How many thousands bike and drive by the two staging areas off Bear Creek Road daily, and pass right on by, looking out, admiring it dutifully, and remarking "how pretty" but never once stopping. San Francisco Chronicle outdoors writer Tom Stienstra describes it as “the bluest body of water in the Bay Area." Add to that, it might well be the coolest body of water in the Bay Area, too.
Raccoon family espied from below on the trail
Many spots invite exploration and sheltered nooks provide solitude and serenity in an exotic lakeside setting. And you won't find many people in this unspoiled place of cobalt blue waters and extravaganza of waterfowl and bird life. From the moment you set foot on the trail, it's woodsy, pristine and far from the madding crowd, a veritable paradise, a cool retreat on a hot summer day. You can't go wrong, only left, right, and round-about.

From the Overlook staging area, Oursan Trail winds down to San Pablo Creek and San Pablo reservoir. Bear Creek Trail takes you in the opposite direction, winding up and down through thick forest with beautiful views for four miles all the way to Briones Regional Park. Down on the lake, it’s Duck City -- buffleheads, mallards, canvasbacks, and mergansers abound. Here and there, ample evidence of the comings and goings of deer, bobcat, coyote. Not many human footprints or much evidence of any human presence period, that’s why you gotta love the reservoir lands.

Ever changing hill landscape, in green springtime
Boating, swimming, any contact at all with the water, is verboten (except the Cal Rowing Team gets to practice in this paradise), rendering the lake a “mere backdrop”. . .but, oh, what a picture perfect backdrop it is! Out ’n back or long loop hikes take you into a lost world amid sweeping blue sky vistas and azure water canvasses against green or golden oak-dappled hills bursting with wildflowers and harboring secret waterfalls in springtime. The water is hypnotic, dazzling, alluring, oh so tempting to sneak a dip - but do not! - on a hot day.

A stunning place to take it all in . . .all alone
Briones Reservoir is where I escape to, not so much to hike my butt off, but to simply get in a good walk, be out and about in beautiful Mother Nature, where I can observe pretty surroundings in unhurried reverie, lose myself in thought, seek out sweet spots at shore's reedy edge, kick back and relax, take it all in, and melt away harmful stresses from the pressure cooker of everyday life just up and over the other side of the ridge.