Monday, February 25, 2008

PT. REYES NATIONAL SEASHORE: A Ten-Mile Walking Meditation to the Coast and Back Via Super-Popular, Ever-Alluring Bear Valley Trail





We didn't intend to hike Bear Valley Trail, from the Visitor's Center at Pt. Reyes National Seashore, to the coast, four and a half somewhat long miles away, on this gorgeous classic California warm winter day. If you'd asked me prior to our noon time arrival in the jam-packed parking lot if I wanted to do a weekend hike on Bear Valley Trail from the Visitor's Center at Pt. Reyes National Seashore to the coast at Arch Rock, my first and immediate response would be "ARE YOU KIDDING?!" Don't you know that it's probably THE most popular trail head in Northern California, and for good reason, owing to its innumerable historic attractions, sylvan charms, riparian Siren allures, and littoral enticements; and yet somehow in my mind, from a lame memory twenty years ago when a Park Ranger busted me in front of a bunch of gawking passers-by for having my dog, Samantha, off-leash, it's been off my "A-List" all these years as a preferred destination to hike on a regular basis - and why? Certainly not because of a dearth of beauty, or a paucity of natural splendor, or any real short-comings. . .except, of course, for the eternally clogged overflow traffic of hundreds of thousands of visitors a year. Talk about a turn-off! Why, this place is dog-eared in a hundred languages in every Bay Area guidebook, making it a de rigueur holy trek done daily by hundreds of people. If not an invigorating long outing to the impressive Arch Rock via Bear Valley Trail, then there's an inviting network of easy paths to lollygag the day away exploring and taking in nature's glorious bounty in an utterly leisure fashion - try Earthquake Trail @ 1 k; Woodpecker Trail @ .8 k; or Kule Loklo Trail @ .6 k). People of all shapes, sizes, ages and abilities are out and about everywhere, all the time! (In actuality, this is a good thing, Gambolin' Man!) I figured that this stretch of woods has become a path so trodden that peace and solitude must surely be as impossible to come upon as a file-in-line parade up Mt. Fuji . . .oh, well, here we are, the day's precious, so let's enjoy it.

From the outset, we'd been looking to hike semi-old growth redwood forests in Samuel P. Taylor State Park, but on this cold, cold (apparently) morning, all the locals must be freezing their collective asses off because a million fire pits are stoked, turning the crisp air into a miasma of unbreatheable, choky smoke that clings to tree tops like a layer of funky fog. We climb back in the metal monstrosity, our own polluting machine, and push on farther until, just twenty minutes later, we arrive on the doorstep of Pt. Reyes land. Instinctively - probably more due to driving fatigue and a keen urge to get out and enjoy this brilliant day - I automatically pull into the Bear Valley Visitor's Center - Heaven forbid! - and drive a couple of football fields to find a place to park.

I'm quite skeptical whether this scene can be atoned or salvaged. . .it's a glorious, sunny, warm day after rains and gloom, and you couldn't hope to be anywhere prettier! -- but these crowds! My God! It's a jamboree! Now calmed down, and ambling ecstatically down the trail, I'm quite surprised at how few people we actually encounter. . . So, what's your friggin' gripe, Gambolin' Man?

No gripe from me! In all honesty, I'm totally blown away by this hike, the land that it goes through, where it ends up. Although flat and easy, and no marathoner by any stretch of the imagination, it's still nine or ten miles, and still does require a modicum of stamina and sturdy, reliable body parts, for all the tromping around and scampering about in insatiable bursts every five hundred feet or so of "look-see" forays to explore overlooked nooks and discover underappreciated crannies, can tend to do some tendon damage to already over-stressed lower extremities. Ah, the price to pay for doing what you love to do, what you live for, what you crave like a drug.

The hike - some would call it a stroll - leads down the pretty canyon corridor through diverse habitats of alternating vegetation zones, from riparian to mixed woodland to chaparral to extensive meadowlands, all along following the sweet meandering course of a nameless little creek that becomes Alder-choked Coast Creek below Divide Meadow about halfway into the hike. It's a richly aromatic forest where you'll find (in season) colorful displays of native wildflowers and endemic and California plant communities of ferns, thimbleberry, alder, bay, Douglas fir, coffeeberry, ceanothus, gooseberry, hazelnut, poison oak and countless other species comprising the floral understory of the magnificent forest.

Coast Creek, replenished by modest rains, flows vigorously to its terminus at ocean beach, relentlessly cutting a riparian path through the canyon, where coursing waters have divided the headland into the cascading debouchure on one side, and the peninsular spit of land jutting into the sea 100 ft. above the crashing sea below on the other - creating a gigantic, precarious cliff from which to take in the truly spectacular surroundings of this utterly pristine stretch of Pacific shoreline. (Little wonder it's a National Recreation Area / National Seashore.) Off to the left, the creek reaches the sea by way of a small gorge cutting a series of boulder-clogged twists, turns, and pretty little chutes spilling down its ultimate egress over a 10 ft. waterfall to flow over brown sand into the bosom of lapping waves. A most remarkable sight, ignored by four-fifths of the crowd up on the cliff admiring the sweeping pelagic views.

The day is unfolding leisurely; we're in no particular hurry - even though the open ocean beckons and the deeper hills call. And what about some ADVENTURE, dammit? Well, on a day like this, who needs it! There are about two dozen people here, who'd gotten an earlier jump on the day, already picnicking, loitering at the beach, most heading back now that the day's light is beginning to wane. Many are in groups, tourists, speaking French, German, Japanese. We stake out a piece of paradise and enjoy a lunch break, and hardly notice anyone as we take in the calm, blue expanse of infinite ocean, and the rolling green hills behind us framed by Mt. Wittenberg's 1407 ft. high eminence. We explore a side track leading out along the edge of the cliff, awed at the crashing waves below, and entranced with the opposite view looking back up Bear Valley, appearing as a long, white tipped Alder-choked ravine.

If there'd been any gas left in the tank, we would extend our hike by a few miles, and return via Sky Trail, or Coast Trail, back up through the secluded hills, but it's already been an ankle-buster, and we're only halfway done, so we opt to kick back in the sun and soak it all in for a few more leisurely minutes. I find a patch of diminishing sunlight, perch my haunch on a rock, and soak my foot in the gushing cold (healing) waters of Coast Creek. Finally, knowing it will take twice as long to make it back, we reluctantly pack it up and reverse course, heading back up Bear Valley Trail. It's slow, painful going for the most part for the hobbled Gambolin' Man, and we barely make it to the staging area by dusk, exhausted, sore, but exhilarated as always by the spiritual rewards reaped from another rejuvenating dose of the magical natural world.

Thursday, February 07, 2008

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.