SUNOL REGIONAL WILDERNESS: A Favorite Springtime Gambol Up Indian Joe Creek Trail, Then Over ‘n Yonder to the W Tree Rock Scramble Via Cave Rocks Road
The floating reptile writhes about for a few minutes, lulled into lethargy by the post-prandial dip in chilly waters - suddenly, a slithering motion, ninety degrees, straight up a smooth rock. She’s now exposed in the sun, half-in and half-out of the glittering pool. What a wondrous thing - to casually observe a baby rattlesnake just being a baby rattlesnake, without any sense of harmful intent, without any real need to put much distance between us. Half an hour later, after a knee-banging roustabout up the boulder-strewn upper reaches of the W Tree Rock Scramble, I again encounter our fine juvenile specimen -- Crotalus viridis oreganos -- stretched out languorously on a warm, sunny rock, completely aloof to our presence.
Anytime, but especially in springtime, Sunol is heavenly bliss. (Except for the cows, and some might say, those dangerous rattlers!) On two recent visits - one day, “gloomy” and rainy; another day, dreamy and balmy blue skies -- we hiked this perennially favorite loop in each direction. Payoff galore -- strenuous ascents with rewarding views of the Alameda Creek watershed and the Ohlone range framing a stark backdrop to the southeast; Mt. Diablo dominating (as usual) off to the north; to splendid western panoramas across the great bay past the twin McGuire Peaks; and south-southwest to Calaveras Reservoir, Mission and Monument Peaks; to long-distance views of Loma Prieta (3791 ft); and beyond to the northern fringes of the Santa Cruz mountains.
It just doesn’t get any better than this! Well, I suppose it does, but not just a short forty-five minute drive away! Located in the farthest reaches of undeveloped, southeast Alameda County - on adjacent water district lands, it’s often the illegal and clandestine province of Mexican mafia marijuana growing operations -- and sprawling enough at 6858 acres to get sufficiently lost in despite the multi-use crowds streaming in from all over, this East Bay Regional Park gem of preserved inner coastal range is a quick and perfect get-away for people of all ages, physical abilities and outdoor agendas. Sunol’s for everyone, and yet owing to its vastness and tough terrain, on a long, remote hike, chances are you won’t see anyone! (OK, slight exaggeration!)
Our hike begins at the Visitor Center, along the signed, easy, Nature Trail loop. Here Alameda Creek lazily wends like an old Kentucky crick; in rainier seasons, it’s a torrent of whitish muddy froth. We divert up, up, up beautiful Indian Joe Creek Trail and follow the ravine / riparian course of one of those “nothing little creeks” that so charm and enthrall. We take our time up this lovely trail, wonderstruck with awe and intrigue at every nook and bend in the little creek’s journey through the fairy-tale forest. It’s a flawless day, rain or shine!
Eventually, and reluctant to leave the idyllic riparian corridor, we top out at Indian Joe Caves - a most impressive basaltic outcrop of pyroclastic remnants left over from cataclysmic volcanic eruptions millions of years ago. (Did I get that right, my geologist friends?) All right here! After an abortive attempt to scale a ninety degree rock face -- I’m not quite as gravity-defying as the baby rattler! -- a short scramble up a side trail leads to the top of the jagged and jumbled 25 to 30 ft. high outcrop. Pausing in reflective grace for that essential moment of silent prayer to the winds, I gaze out at the expansive vista, marvel at the beautiful, wild place where city / civilization remains unseen beyond the canyon ridges, and offer up thanks and praise.
Anyone in halfway decent shape can knock out this loop in under three hours, but, as usual, it takes us around six dilly-dallying hours. And why not? What’s the hurry? There are so many things to see and experience along the way, that everything else can just wait -- a ground squirrel posing on a rocky perch; a raggedy-ass coyot’l scampering out of sight; brilliant orange poppy fields abloom on green hillsides; western fence lizards darting for safety under lichen-encrusted rocks; a blue-tailed skink gone in an eye blink, but look! there she is motionless in the grass; a tiny spring seeping out of a wall of rocky serpentine, attracting butterflies and bees; a fresh patch of delicious miner’s lettuce under a huge old oak; more birds, wildflowers, lichen-encrusted rocks, superb views; an intriguing stock pond rife with hierarchies of bustling but mostly unnoticed life; lovely, quiet oak forests; digger pine trees; rippling, kaleidoscopic, reflective water realities. Fact is, it’s so damn easy to be eternally way-laid, forever stymied on such hikes, by the enchantment of Mother Nature all around.
Sunol Regional Wilderness lays claim, in my book, to having some of the oddest, most intricately textured, almost ruin-like ancient rocks found anywhere . . . cold, hard evidence of a turbulent geologic past. All right here! Serpentine and Franciscan formations mostly comprise the earthy detritus left behind; abounding in streambeds, and as erratic-sort of boulders found high on hillsides and crumbling cliffs -- the many green chert, blue schist, and blue-green andesite boulders lend color, texture, and depth to the swooping, high Scottish-like hills and streambeds. (Did I get that right, my geologist friends?) What wonderful things to behold! To the lay person who just loves touching, inspecting, admiring, climbing on, connecting and communing with rocks - the “bones of the earth“ -- to the geologist-sleuth-detective who loves piecing together the history and mystery of an ancient, puzzling “earth in upheaval” - Sunol absolutely does indeed rock!
At the mile long gash in the Sunol hills known as the W Tree Rock Scramble, we stop for a streamside refresher amid small boulders and modest pools and cascades. This is where we chance upon the baby rattlesnake. Due to a dryish year, the water’s at quarter- or eighth-flow for what it’s capable of producing this time of year. Still, it’s a compelling scene of precious, mesmerizing water spilling into basins over smooth rock lips. That it flows at all with so little rain this year, speaks to its wet, living presence, to the huge acreage of hill lands the W Tree Rock Scramble drains.
I just love this magical earth feature, this ravine / creek that keeps flowing and flowing - all year round you can expect to find the W Tree Rock Scramble water course draining from deep wellsprings, providing a perennial water source in the high hills for all kinds of ritters - raccoons, deer, coyot’l, bobcat, wild Toms, the usual suspects. It’s a playground for the kid in you -- endless bushwhacking up or down, following the sinuous, boulder-strewn course along its gradually steep descent to merge with Alameda Creek. At every turn, you’re enchanted by the simple wonder of this beautiful, magical journey of water flowing over polished, richly textured Ohlone rocks (they‘re like big marbles for the kid in you), in series of pools and cascades, going and going, all in a perfectly pretty setting of voluptuous hills cloaked in a healthy mantel of forest. In too many ways to name, the W Tree Rock Scramble, from its confluence with Alameda Creek, to this 800 ft. high juncture with McCorkle Trail, charms, amazes, enthralls, and ultimately soothes the soul.
Back down on Alameda Creek Trail, you expect to encounter the hiking / strolling / jogging / dog-walking / horse riding / biking crowds, and you’re plenty surprised at how few people there actually are on the trail. Here, the creek cuts a broad swathe through the valley landscape, opening up to meadowy floodplains lined with magnificent sycamore and big leaf maple trees. Below is a secret little paradise guarded by rattlesnakes and dragonflies; downstream, we come to the locally famous gorge known as Little Yosemite. Not much water is flowing, but it’s impressive enough for this kid to climb down, scramble around, and check it out up close. Water flowing anywhere is sacred, and Alameda Creek, charging hard through this cleft in the earth, enraptures me with its magical water music for quite some time before snapping to my senses and rejoining Gambolin‘ Gal back on the trail, where, as usual, she‘s patiently waiting for me and hoping it‘s nothing more serious than a scrape and a scratch.
Sunol Regional Wilderness is a place you’ll return to time and again, and with each visit, you’ll see it never gets boring or old, no matter the season; with each visit ,something new and surprising will manifest. For thousands of animals, birds, insects and plants, Sunol provides habitat, home; and thankfully, it exists as sanctuary and refuge for harried urbanites seeking respite from the madding crowd. So go forth, discover and experience the magic! Truly, there is no sweeter place deep in the heart of Ohlone Country, in our virtual back yard, than Sunol Regional Wilderness.