TILDEN REGIONAL PARK: Replenishing Winter Storms Transform Wildcat Creek and Flush Tributaries into Fair Resemblance of A Pacific Northwest Rainforest
A secret ravine tucked away in a lush, enchanting forest with a melodious freshet cutting bedrock, and topped off by a 15 ft. waterfall? . ..? . . ?.how many miles did you say to get here? Try a mere twenty minute hike - a slog through the sweet mud if you time it right -- just off South Park Drive in the Berkeley Hills. If your cup of nature tea is hiking in cold, drenching rain, negotiating slippery, gooey trails, and falling on your ass left and right, then I suggest you go see this place for yourself! But better hurry -- the glory - in e.e. cummings' words, "the world is mud-luscious and puddle-wonderful" - doesn't last for long.
Naturally, distractions like rain, mud and poison oak tend to keep most sensible people from visiting this place at all, but if you happen to be foolhardy enough to chance upon the sylvan, pluvial splendor when it counts - right after big January '08 winter rains, for instance - you'll be blown away, I stake my Gambolin' Man reputation on it! When Tilden's dry, rugged hills burst to life with rejuvenating water flowing in all the usual places - and in some overlooked, unexpected places as well -- the land transforms; a long-awaited greening / moistening effect that intoxicates like absinthe, overcomes the visual and olfactory senses, and tricks you into thinking you're somewhere much farther away than, as the crow flies, downtown Berkeley.
This crazily close nature get-away is one of East Bay Regional Park District's most popular parks, and for good reason. Without much effort at all, you will find secluded picnic settings by tranquil lakes, pristine ecosystems, a beautifully intact watershed, and all-around suitably primeval conditions attracting many animals to take up residence in the bountiful safety of the preserve. These remarkable East Bay hills, exemplified by Tilden Regional Park, provide badly needed sanctuary for - first and foremost - the native and non-native flora and fauna who commingle and co-exist on the ecotone of the wild and urban -- countless species of living beings who thrive in these protected habitats, and whose very existence depends on us fallible but well-intentioned humans, stewards, shepherds, caretakers and defenders of the East Bay's wild green belt. Lucky for the plants and animals, and for us, too, these public lands on the doorstep of urban sprawl serve as spiritual redoubt for thousands of harried urban dwellers who would go absolutely bonkers were it not for vast acreage of wild places and open spaces bordering on, abutting, contiguous to, and surrounding our ridiculously expensive, overcrowded, crime-ridden, and polluted - but beloved, make no mistake! - cities of the East Bay, from Fremont to Richmond, Antioch to Livermore, Walnut Creek to Oakland.
Despite the occasional eyesore of a transmission tower, the annoying buzz of overhead air traffic, noisy motorcycles zooming along Wildcat Canyon Road, and the subdued mechanized hum of I-80 freeway madness below, Tilden's hidden surprises and ubiquitous charms will soon render all distractions moot, once you're in your rhythm, panting heavily, lost in a deep glade in search of mythical wellsprings, or charging up a final tough hill to take in heavenly 360 views while catching your breath from your run, hike or mountain bike ride. Or maybe you're just slowly strolling along Wildcat Creek Gorge Trail, in no particular hurry to get anywhere - just humbled and awed by the "simple" in-the-moment beauty, attuned to the creek's gentle (yet rip-roaring) energy, harmonized with the pulse of the vibrant forest, at universal oneness and peace with the lovely small gorge. (Note: The usually undistinguished and underappreciated "Guatemalan" like limestone (or pyroclastic?) cave pockets, situated 100 ft. above, have become a prominent geological feature, glistening and standing out with extra dimensionality created by the wet, textural conditions.)
However fugacious, excess run-off transforms the watershed into a rain forest-like environment replete with giant ferns, redwood trees, lichen splattered boulders, vividly alive trees carpeted with phosphorescent green moss and puke yellow algae, and one ephemeral gusher after another. Here, a thin ribbon of water spewing down a cut in the hillside, spilling across the trail; over there, a sun-dappled jet of water tumbling over a 50 ft. rock ledge; down here, big swirling muddy water cutting a wide swathe around a lava flow through the enchanting mile-long gorge; and everywhere, dozens of off-shoot tributaries coursing through ravines chock-full of surprise cascades and pools and water drops. . .bringing the secluded forest to pulsating life with a sensory overload of negative ionic energy (I understand that's good!) infusing your every cell, mind-and-body melding with the lush organic smells of earthy loam, the sweet mustiness of rotting bark, the soothing sounds of healing and relaxing water, the soft touch of a plant, the heart achingly beautiful drop-fall of spraying water descending from a sculpted lip of rock to a pool 20 ft. below.
Can it get any better than this? That the Wildcat Creek Watershed exists at all - let alone in the "Berkeley Hills" -- is an amazing thing, no, really, a downright miracle. The integrity - or wholesome nature - of this compact, intact watershed astounds, even though there are "trouble" spots everywhere along Wildcat Creek's 13-mile journey from the top of the ridge, at Grizzly Peak, where it soaks into the subterraneous aquifers and pumps its discharge quickly downward to the small canyon where the Botanical Garden is, and winds around to head out to the San Francisco Bay at Richmond, where it debouches in not so elegant fashion. Hope for complete rehabilitation of the creek is not Pollyanna sentimentalism - writing in the January - March 2005 issue of Bay Nature, Gordy Slack reports that our main local drainage artery is "a creek holding its own, even on the mend, both in its park-protected upper stretches and mouth and in its urban reaches, which have been, over the decades, the focus of remarkable community-based restoration efforts." (Go Cat Go!) Bearing the exalted status of a perennial creek, albeit slowing to a trickle, and disappearing in some parts during the dry season, you - the animals - can always count on it reappearing to grace hot summer days with cool, tucked away, shade-covered pools. Wildcat Creek offers a reliable year-round watering hole for thirsty deer, bobcat, skunk and fox to come and drink; its canopy covered stretches provide pools and refuge for surviving fingerlings of rainbow trout to struggle to survive until the next big rains. The life and times of a "simple little creek", whose natural history goes largely unnoticed, never ceases to amaze, enchant and soothe the soul.
Characterized by a fault topology that has created uplift and erosion over millions of years, the undulating hills of Tilden top out at varying high points from 1250 ft. at Wildcat Peak to 1754 ft. at Grizzly Peak. The "Berkeley Hills" are a southeast to northwest running ridgeline with radiating fissures - steep ravines and sharp defiles -- extending downward, north to San Pablo Creek Watershed and Brionesland, and south draining the Berkeley Hills. These arteries lead, impractically, into thick, impenetrable dead-ends choked with poison oak, brambles, and chaparral brush. (Follow Gambolin' Man and you're in for some trouble!) But some of these secretive side ravines are so intriguing to explore, you get there somehow to see for yourself the ephemeral beauty of gorgeous streams flowing from 3rd and 2nd -generation tributaries to their motherlode, Wildcat Creek. These are seasonal and very ephemeral gushers you're not likely to see or enjoy unless you really go out of your way, unless you slop through the spongy wet earth and get all muddied up and hurt, even, by slipping and falling more than once in your single-minded pursuit to see and photograph water flowing where no one else has or will see it flowing, in a splendid green mossy ferny setting of sensual smells and exotic "Pacific Northwest" or "Kaua'i" like ambience.
In the rainy gloom (I love it!) of the recent storm, we hike popular Quarry Trail to Big Springs Canyon. At the trailhead, I glance up at the rock outcrops high above on the sloping hillside - they are barely flowing, a silver rivulet streaming down the rock. Through my binoculars, it's a bit more impressive, but nothing like it will soon be as the rains pick up in intensity, when the majority of "surprise" gushers come to life. But right now, it's not worth the effort to bushwhack, so we walk a bit farther and take a side trail leading up to Volvon peak, Grizzly's twin teat, and set off following a lovely little tributary - a 2nd-gener - up Big Springs canyon before a barely noticeable pathway off to the right pulls you through the looking glass and catapults you into a fairytale world of a hidden magical forest, gushing with a 3rd gen artery set so prettily in a setting reminiscent of - this time, I'll compare it to "tropical mountainous wet" Marin County.
There is no evidence of any visitors thus far, except for a family of deer passing this way, and - what's that!? - a raccoon paw imprint! And there's a banana slug, looking like one of those yellow bubblegum cigars we used to play-smoke and chew as kids. We rock hop across the gushing freshet and ascend a knoll of slippery mud to attain a higher perch, a perfect vantage point from which to survey our intimate, recondite domain of riparian ravine splendor. The tough to stick to trail leads up to about level with the top of the falls. We make our way higher up, veritably on the side of the slippery slope, holding on for dear life to saplings and tree branches and rocks. Now, overlooking the falls - a spraying ribbon of crystal water pouring over a sculpted lip of colorful rock to a pool below! - it's like - whoa! This place, largely lost to the madding crowd and unbeknownst to the hiking hoi polloi, largely 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. why, this place, right here in your pocket, is really something!
While hiking Wildcat Gorge Trail - on another fine outing after a day and night of rain -- I "discover" an incredible free-fall of water - at least a 40 ft drop - over a cliff just below the western edge of Lake Anza! See for yourself. I'd previously overlooked this ephemeral gusher due to being entranced by the other gusher opposite it -- a pretty impressive 20 ft waterfall over the lava flow rocks at the bottom of the Lake Anza spillway where the creek resumes its uninterrupted journey until it gathers its peaceful waters again in Jewel Lake two miles downstream. The creek is especially beautiful along this entire stretch.
I'm amazed that this fantastic waterfall has escaped my attention during previous years hiking here and seeking out big water. But indeed it has, hidden away as it is by an impenetrable wall of brush and rocky debris. To find it, get to the little pump house at the end of the gorge trail before the climb to Lake Anza, and divert up and bushwhack to get to the base of the falls. Later, from a different more difficult approach, I scramble to the top where I'm left slack jawed in veritable wonder and amazement to encounter a drop-ledge outcrop over 100 ft. in total plunging length. You get a taste of this mildly Sierra foothill-like waterfall scenery at Big Springs, but this brief sparkling effluence of big water flowing above the pump house takes me by complete surprise.
What an amazing place this Tilden Regional Park is! But as easy as it is to know about the secret places, it's much easier to overlook them as not being "worth the effort" to expend to get to them. After all, it's not like it's Berry Creek or Murietta or Alamere or some "truly spectacular" Falls (and these local referents themselves "pale" in comparison to Vernal or Bridal or Yellowstone Falls) . . .I don't know. . .I do know that when I trumpet my praises of these hidden natural gems to friends who hike and love Tilden, well, they're impressed but clueless. (Probably due to those nasty detractors of mud, rain and poison oak.) Yeah, okay, I concede, we're not talking Kaua'i or the Pacific Northwest, or a miniature slice of New Zealand here. . . it is what it is. But insofar as seeking out "exotic" gems in otherwise "commonplace" surroundings; as for venturing to and fro, through untraversable mud and dense foliage to chance upon, in zen garden-like settings, overlooked and unknown about precious scenes.. . .there's no better place to begin than your own backyard - Tilden Regional Park and the Wildcat Creek Watershed in the Berkeley Hills.