Tuesday, March 07, 2006

MT. DIABLO'S WESTERN FOOTHILLS: A Casual Stroll Through a Beautiful Canyon Alongside a Charming Creek in the Shadow of Tuyshtak

Barely a minute on the trail, I notice high on the hillside a stealthy animal in hunting mode, creeping, creeping, slowly forward, then freezing in pouncing pose. The raggedy-ass coyote repeats this nonchalant routine for several minutes, before finally coming up empty. But home for ol’ Wily is one vast ground squirrel smorgasbord, and for now, at least, it’s just too much trouble to continue the charade. Turning to cast a skulking glance, off he trots, tail hanging low, nose to the ground, and ears to the wind, a ghostly, lonesome four-legged figure masterfully blending into the landscape and out of sight.

Pine Canyon is where we find ourselves, along Pine Creek, in the 1024 acre Diablo Foothills Regional Park, one of the East Bay Regional Park District‘s real (perhaps underappreciated?) gems. This eastward section of the Walnut Creek watershed drains 150 square miles to San Francisco Bay. On a map, nothing outstanding or remarkable catches your attention. But one day, after refreshing rains, with nowhere else to go, you happen to end up here. For the first time ever. And you’re blown away. At the risk of exaggeration — for such pronouncements are usually reserved for “truly impressive places”-- let me say that little Pine Creek and the canyon it meanders through is a precious resource to nurture and cherish and fight for; it‘s a priceless natural treasure, right in the midst of civilization, on a par with wild lands I’ve had to mountain bike twenty miles to get to. (Sounds impossible, I know.)

Barely outside the reaches of Walnut Creek, California -- a bustling city of 70,000 suburbanites in heavily populated east-central Contra Costa County -- you can leave the city behind and lose yourself in panoramas of rolling hills and sweeping valleys, charming riparian corridors, steep ridge lands with massive rock outcrops, and preserved swathes of greenbelt. It’s all right there (or here) on the edge of urban sprawl, in the shadow of Tuyshtak, or as Westerners know it, “Devil’s Mountain”, the 3849’ Mt. Diablo, ancestral home to the Supernatural Beings, or the “First People“ (among them coyote), or so goes it in Bay Miwuk legends.

The designated Open Space lands of Shell and Lime Ridges (oceanic fossil-rich deposits); historic Macedo Ranch; China Wall (a thousand foot long camelback protrusion of sandstone boulders broken up into a linear Stonehenge of lichen-encrusted menhirs and oddly-carved stele); Pine Canyon and Castle Rock Regional Recreation Area (where you magically find yourself!). . .these State Park, East Bay Regional Park and city of Walnut Creek open spaces always had a, je ne sais quoi, a strained proximity about them, brief escapes for city folk, too close for comfort to the hustle-bustle of the urban environs to merit much attention.

Well, surprise, surprise! Whether it’s a rambling exploration on a lovely Spring day, with flowers abloom, birdsong rife, and melodious freshets livening up Hibernian hills; whether it’s a cool creek side stroll on a hot, golden, summery day; or whether braving the elements on a bitter cold, rainy outing, you’re bound to be impressed by the intensity and variety, the downright rugged beauty, of the open spaces and wild places just outside of Walnut Creek.

Tell me this ain’t veritable wilderness on the fringes of a major East Bay suburb! (And a prime reason why it costs a million bucks to live in the Bay Area.) And then, of course, you come to your senses and realize, sadly, that it hasn’t been real wilderness since the land grant days of 1821 when a vast area came under the control of Dona Juana Sanchez de Pacheco -- Rancho Arroyo de las Nueces y Bolbones -- and soon, the land was transformed. Adios grizzly, bald eagle, and condor. Hello cattle, horse, and sheep. The local native population, of course, suffered horrendous casualties at the hands of Spaniard conquistadores and missionaries, who brought disease, war, enslavement, torture and death to thousands of Bay Miwuk speaking peoples. (My personal akashic conspiracy theory is that present day Indian casinos are karmic payback for all this.)

But here we are, in the here and now! Behold fabulous Southwest-like pink sandstone monoliths jutting skyward in heavily forested green hills; revel in the subtle majesty of a humble creek providing habitat for the survival of three native fish species and diverse flora and fauna in a lush riparian corridor; marvel at moss-draped, vine-choked oaks in wildflower-dotted meadows. Truly, it’s a paradise slice of classic Diablo Range wilderness. It’s hard not to be agog -- you’re within minutes of hard-edged city vibes! It’s tough not to be genuinely blown away -- look around at the steep ridged canyons, sweetly rejoice in the music of burbling streams, admire duck ponds and cattail fields, give thanks and praise for healthy forests of oak, bay, manzanita, madrone, willow, alder, sycamore, buckeye, and big leaf maple.

Pine Canyon bustles with animal life, although you’d be lucky to see much of it. It’s home to elusive wild cats, curious coyotes, and other “First People“ (including fox, prairie falcon, and once, eagle and condor). Already, a hummingbird is flitting about, and the promise of Springtime beckons in showy congregations of lady bugs; listen to the croaking of frogs at water’s edge; see the two mule deer bolt up the hillside; check out through your binoculars the frequent fliers -- predatory raptors and carrion-loving vultures -- soaring deep blue skies, nesting in high ledges and cave pockets in the domengine sandstone tors. Hello, all you other animals, yes, you too, Ms. Rattlesnake, hidden away in your dens, burrows, and secretive hollows. Thank you for your hospitality today!

The trail gently follows alongside the creek, with no elevation gain to speak of. (Of course, you can get all the elevation gain you want by diverting up high ridge trails along the way.) It’s a break in the inclement weather, a perfect day for a lazy, wonderful, relaxing stroll, where all five of your senses are engaged and heightened, and there is no hurry in your actions, no expectation or judgment in your approach to the day. So what if you have to ford the creek eight times. It adds a bit ‘o jaunty fun to the tame outing.

Okay, so you want to ratchet up the adventure a notch or two. Then go climb the big rocks at Castle Rock. These gigantic rocks of sheer exposed sandstone soar 200 ft. above the valley floor, looming skyward like a cyclopean fortress, truly defying the ordinary, possibly challenging your sense of place and time.

Unable to resist, I follow a rutty pathway leading to the top of a massive rock with energy similar to Black Rock, the Yahi’s sacred monument in the remote Ishi Wilderness below Mt. Lassen. The scramble is easy, except for a twenty or thirty foot stretch of near-vertical scrambling over slick sandstone. Sturdy black sagebrush, sweetly pungent with new growth, provides a hand-hold, and soon I’m on top. A maze of pathways criss-cross and connect these geological ramparts, affording stellar views unseen before! So dramatic are the exotic sculptured rock formations all around me in this “aerie“ world, I think: have I been transported to Arches National Park in Utah? High atop a rocky ledge, I espy an assemblage of sticks and branches forming a huge nest, no doubt a vulture’s roost. They’re awfully big, and ugly, but you gotta love ‘em. Various raptors glide the air currents. Before I scramble back down, I take some pictures, investigate wind caves and tunnels with their intriguing carvings, and puzzle and marvel over other complex deposits from the Eocene. Yes, all so seemingly out of place, and unfortunately, out of time. . .

Later on, I learn that Mt. Diablo, and the Pine Canyon area, is one of the world’s great birding habitats. Fully one-third of all nesting and breeding species of birds found in Canada and the United States are found in this avian treasure-trove. At least eight different kinds of buteos and accipters (hawks, eagles) patrol the skies looking for their tasty and abundant meals of field mice, voles, moles, ground squirrels, possibly even baby foxes. On our casual stroll, we noted at least a half dozen varieties of birds, including robins, hummingbirds, blue jays, woodpeckers, sparrows, and ducks. A real “birder” could spot, if patient and lucky, kingfishers, canyon wrens, flycatchers, owls, thrushes, swifts, orioles, grebes, rails, herons and sandpipers, among 200+ birds that can be spotted in this rich biota.

A “backyard” excursion to these unheralded foothills provides the best in nature outings -- sightseeing extravaganzas, thrilling rides on sinuous fire and paved roads, strenuous or easy hikes for outstanding views, day trips and picnics, along with interesting geology, history and ecology lessons to be learned.

Most of all, though, it’s the peace and quiet you experience from being here. The solitude, the refuge from the madding crowd. Again, it isn’t cheap to live in the Bay Area for the precise reason that you can so easily escape the stress and pressure cooker of urban living. Pine Creek and Pine Canyon carry on in their timeless natural rhythms, co-existing on the boundaries of the urban and the wild. . . and we are ever so fortunate and spiritually better off for having such wild spaces and open places in our lives.

http://www.savemountdiablo.org/