COYOTE HILLS REGIONAL PARK: Ohlone Spirit Abounds In Ancestral Lands On Fremont Bay Shoreline
I was veritably stunned on my first visit to Coyote Hills recently. This gem of park – more a cultural and ecological resource -- is located only a little more than half an hour south of Oakland-Berkeley, down an infamous stretch of dangerous and industrial highway, Interstate 880. To be avoided at all costs. No wonder, then, that it took me so long – nearly 25 years! - to finally make the trip. (Lame excuse!)
After first checking out the visitor center, up we scrambled to the top of a grass and chaparral covered hill no higher than four or five hundred feet. I gained perch on a lichen-encrusted boulder, thrust my face into the warm air, sniffed the littoral breeze carrying whiffs of sea, salt and kelp weed. Expansive views in all directions unfolded beneath a flawless blue sky. This is “Silicon Valley East”? I thought. San Francisco’s skyline glittered distantly northwestwards across the calm blue bay, a regular old surreal apparition. Behind me, wetlands have been preserved along Alameda Creek, and the long views of her rugged headwaters / watershed lands were pleasing. Crescent shorelines, thin ribbons of brown sandy beach, extended far outward into San Francisco Bay. Was that Mission Peak over there? Could that really be Mt. Hamilton I’m looking at? Welcome to Coyote Hills, Gambolin’Man! Better late than never!
Coyote Hills rises from the Fremont bay shoreline out of a flat landscape. The hills are the eroded tips of a tilted fault block; they actually manage to poke up several hundred feet out of alluvial deposits from Alameda Creek, right out of the bay like its own little kingdom. Indeed, the 976 acre park makes for a surprisingly exotic setting, offering up historical and cultural tidbits of interest, plus a delightful landscape with sweeping views of San Francisco Bay and beyond, atop Red Hill via Bay View Trail.
The Marsh boardwalk provides easy access for all to enjoy a remnant of the wetland / marshland environment that once dominated. A leisurely stroll takes you in to the reedy interior of the marsh. Red winged blackbirds congregate on the fringes, singing up a ruckus, whilst the lovely marsh wren reigns queenly among the tule and cattails. Terns, gulls, herons and many other aquatic fowl can be spotted. Benches allow one to sit, stare, listen, observe, meditate, spit sunflower seeds in deep contemplative musings. . .what could be more peaceful, more relaxing, more satisfying, than that? Right here in this simple place. Interrupted only by the sudden swoosh of an egret alighting nearby.
An excellent visitor center / museum lends an educational aspect to the park, with dioramas of by-gone hunter/gatherer lifestyle depictions of Ohlone basket-weavers, tool-makers, and mythic story-tellers. It’s a familiar story made famous in Malcolm Margolin’s masterful The Ohlone Way.
Various tribes of Ohlone peoples flourished here in widely scattered encampments up and down the Diablo and coastal ranges of central California. The Bay Area was an entirely different place. Magnificent bald eagles and condors patrolled the skies. Predators like grizzly bears, wolves, cougars and humans hunted salmon, otter, beaver, deer and tule elk. Whether bivouacked creek side in rolling hills heavily forested with oak, bay, and madrone, or banded together for a bountiful season on tidal bay shores, inlet rias and deltas, wherever they settled, Mother Earth sumptuously offered up an inexhaustible cornucopia of varied food sources, from esculent plants, tolarge and small "game", to tasty banquets to be had in the sea, river, and bay. Both two and four legged denizens of this land had it made, it was such a rich biota. In terms of the natural bounty just "there for the taking”, there was probably not another place on earth that compared to pre-Columbian Bay Area for its sheer “inexpressible fertility.” Up until a couple hundred years ago, human societies had managed to devise a simple formula for living in spiritual harmony with the sacred rhythms of life – they had the relationship down for millennia. . .until this timeless pattern of eternal moons was rudely interrupted by conquistador / Spanish missionary zeal – one part proselytization / assimilation, three parts mass extermination / genocide. (The sad, familiar story.)
Seemingly a small place, Coyote Hills surprises with a variety of activities that could consume an entire day. From inspecting rock formations and wandering about aimlessly, to picnicking, bird watching, hiking, biking, or, fancy yourself setting up an easel and painting. Take Bay View Trail up for a super-loop and amazing views. Check out the side trail leading to a crescent moon of a shoreline for a very unusual bayside stroll (of course my camera’s battery died right then). Take in the marsh wetlands, add another short loop to an adjacent section of the park to see Ohlone lifestyle recreations, and a mile or two along paved but interesting Alameda Creek Regional Trail, and you’ve got a full day on your hands (and feet!)
Ah, yes, what better place than Coyote Hills to experience a soulful connection to the original native inhabitants, to honor their spirit in their own land, to know a place for, perhaps not, the first time.