Friday, June 27, 2008

EAST BAY REGIONAL PARK DISTRICT: Climbing Up, Up, Up Pleasanton Ridge, An Eco-Island in the Sky Looming High Above Sprawling Inland Suburbia

On this hot, dry day devoted to checking out Pleasanton Ridge, all the usual critters are out and about – the ground squirrels are eyeing me suspiciously, before scampering away and disappearing down into their extensive network of burrows; two deer prance down a hillside; ubiquitous Western fence lizards, tiny metallic scales refracting sunlight, are lying motionless on hot rocks, but alert enough to dart away when I attempt to stroke them; our long-winged ugly vulture friends loop and dive in a cobalt sky on the look-out for carrion, while red-tailed hawks soar gracefully, occasionally breaking the silence with a piercing screech; a gopher snake slithers off into the brush; many butterflies and bees are flitting about seeking the last drops from nectar-producing flowers -- all innocuous and unremarkable, but no less joyful encounters with local wildlife during a four-hour outing / reconnaissance of the park ' s environs. A thrilling highlight: crossing paths with a sly, simpatico, rarely seen creature - a grey fox! - skittering across a back trail, who turns to look at me with a dog-like glance of curiosity and affection for a brief few seconds before vanishing into the brush.

On first impression, driving along super-Interstates 580 or 680, the mountain of land dotted with pricey manses known as Pleasanton Ridge doesn ' t strike the get-away-from-it-all hiker as too exciting or too inviting a place to work up a lather, unless you happen to live right on the doorstep of this oxymoronic urban wilderness zone which frames one side of the triangle of the populous Tri-Valley referred to as Amador, Livermore and San Ramon, some thirty miles east of San Fran cisco. Pleasant Ridge represents a coup de grace of land acquisition strategies in the midst of urban development for the East Bay Regional Park District, who most recently added a 106 acre parcel purchased from the Vinson family ranch holdings for half a mill - bringing land acquisition totals to nearly $25,000,000 and providing a much-needed north entry access point to the park.

The land formation appears to be just another ho-hum Diablo Range ridge system, nothing special, running a few miles north to south. On closer inspection, it sports a proto-typical East Bay Regional Park look and feel -- rugged contours, auburn hillsides, grasslands and meadows, oak / bay / madrone woodlands, manzanita / chaparral habitat, riparian corridors, and long distance views that throw you off kilter for their telescoping effect. The park ' s highest points rise to a third of the height of the dominant East Bay geologic landmark to the northeast, Mt. Diablo, topping out at above 1600 ft., respectable enough to earn eco-island in the sky designation. All this beauty and drama is right here for the taking, if only you ' d stop long enough to check it out, instead of hurrying on your way past to bigger, better locales, such as Sunol Regional Wilderness or Mission Peak just down the road. Yes, and so it has come to pass, that Gambolin’ Man finally gives Pleasanton Ridge half a chance, and, lo and behold, he comes away half-surprised.

The rolling landscape, criss-crossed with an intersecting system of trails, offers some easy loops, difficult ascents, wide and narrow track, and many trails – much to the disgust of legitimate trail users and the ecoscenti - have been illegally "built" or otherwise spontaneously created by scofflaw mountain bikers, damn ‘em, branding the park with a somewhat well-deserved maligned reputation for trail use and park management activities conflicts, from dreaded run-ins with equestrians and obnoxious mountain bikers, to air and ground noise pollution creating unrelenting hums from dastardly mechanized traffic, to the bane of all outdoor nature lovers and something very difficult to steer clear of - cows, cows, and more cows! Park biologists and grazing apologists will have you believe that the bovines are instrumental in preserving the land, helping to protect native flora, and prevent wildfires, maybe all true, but their preponderance of awful offal every which way you turn certainly makes for a less than appealing nature experience during the best of the hiking season, not to mention severely damaging and rutting out the trails and trampling sensitive areas. The legal trails, though, and once out of range of the cows, will keep you plenty busy, as they cover countless miles over 5000+ acres to provide roaming and elbow room for outdoor enthusiasts of all stripes to engage in the activity of choice - just be respectful and legal, is all one can ask and hope for.

No, a day casually exploring Pleasanton Ridge in the dry season does not constitute the most thrilling of outings compared to other local places, such as Mt. Diablo or Pt. Reyes or Big Basin adventures, nor does it provide the most bang for the buck if you ' re after TRULY STELLAR SCENERY. But no need to be a snob about it! It ' s still GREAT! Just go and enjoy it for what it is! I do reckon the enchanting factor would be ramped up several notches during the rainy season when the mountain, like all dry, dusty, rocky places, bursts to life with the soul-regenerating and earth-quenching nepenthe of transformative water.

Your best bet for covering lots of ground and seeing the park in toto is mountain biking, which will take you to the farthest and maybe most interesting reaches of the park (be respectful! Slow down!). . .or ditch the wheels and hoof it - bring along your dog, why not! - and seek out some lackadaisical loop option that best suits your casual agenda – or why not be more ambitious and gut out a leg-thrashing and lung-busting challenge up Ridgeline Trail for ascents of over 1200 feet . . .that’ll get your blood flowing! And, don ' t mind freeway noise - it does diminishes as you climb up, up, up, into the enveloping forests which buffer the ugly aural and visual distractions below. But that view beyond, my oh my! . . .unless it’s obscured by Tri-Valley smog, more common than not these days from the tony bedroom communities ' strict reliance on cars and commuting to high-paying jobs in San Fran cisco, Oakland, Walnut Creek, Livermore, Tracy, Stockton or Sacramento.

Pleasanton Ridge can and often does (half) surprise, as "prosaic" places are wont to do if only you ' d open up your receptive antenna to the simple miracles and small-charm majesties all around you – is that so hard to do in this dry, dusty, boring old place? Why, no! Not when you come upon odd, contorted "monster" oak trees with tentacle-like branches groping 30 ft. along the ground; or peer down into angular and steep hillsides; or gaze out onto picturesque visions from on high at Mt. Diablo, isolated Brushy Peak and the rugged Ohlone Range; or even pastoral cow grazing scenes can be enchanting - and if you can make it to the farthest reaches of the park, deep down into Sinbad Canyon, more unheralded miracles await in that alluring riparian zone, now desolate of water, but which becomes gravid with the precious stuff come the rainy season, turning ravines into torrential freshets feeding the creek bed and transforming it into a little river of pure joy. All of the ridge system is, no doubt, enhanced in the rainy season when the many rivulets and freshets burst to life and the hills change from their burnt summertime tinderbox look to a lush green landscape sweet with earthy scents and organic textures. Ah, how Gambolin ' Man longs for that! Hear tell there ' s even a secret waterfall or two somewhere hidden .. .but on this visit, the only water I come upon is a stagnant cow pond. . .

Still, Pleasanton Ridge offers herself up like a seductive Cinderella in this, the driest of seasons. The forests are magical at any time of year, and it ' s easy to forget your waterless woes wandering the crackling dry woodlands. As you climb or bike (or horseback ride) to ever higher vantage points, you truly gain the sensation of having left behind - or below - the hubbub and buzz of urban syphilization. Your reward is an elevated feeling of isolation and pristine wonderment, a breathtaking payoff as you gaze out into the great expansive beyond, where it ' s possible to see snow-capped Sierra peaks. . .on those increasingly rarefied days.

Well, you ' ve had a great time, you ' re pleasantly surprised, mildly impressed, and dog-tired, and all you want to do now is relax and picnic ' neath a quaint olive tree - remnant of a 1930 ' s era orchard - but find you can ' t because of all the cow shit deposited in stinky, splattering patches. Disgusting! You get up and think about heading to the Livermore Valley wineries, day-dreaming and lolly-gagging on the way down the trail, and then have to jump to one side suddenly to avoid getting wiped out by an out of control mountain biker dude who thinks he owns the place. Such things - cow shit, rude trail users, noise issues - tend to give this and certain other EBRPD parks a bad rap, but for the most part, it ' s not anything that should keep you from exploring and enjoying the place. You will find solace, solitude and serenity. And, who knows, you might just get lucky enough to avoid them and instead have an encounter with a different kind of creature - bobcat, fox, coyote or mountain lion. Yes, it’s that big and wild, but you have to be patient and lucky, and give the place half a chance.