Flawless seventy-five degree mid-February weather. It’s why you put up with so much crap in California.
Why you pay out the yin-yang to live here. Why you love living here. Of course, according to a survey just released, most of the rest of America holds the Golden State in low esteem, understandable on so many levels, but on a day like today, this once great state’s dysfunctional political and legislative machinery, its out of control mega-sprawl and congestion, its Clockwork Orange urban degradations and unfixable societal ills, matters not one whit. You have a day off from work (thank you Mister Presidents), and you’re determined to leave it all behind to reap nature’s sweet rewards in the heaven-scented bosom of the Ohlone Wilderness.
It’s an Ohlone kind of day. You feel it in your (creaky old) bones. You feel the sentiment pervading your angst-ridden (child) spirit. You feel that (all things Ohlone / Sunol / Diablo Range) urge to get out and explore the Grand Outd
oors. No telling why the Ohlone Wilderness awaits on this particular day. But, aha, you’ve forgotten just what a tough little ball-buster of a hike this will turn out to be. Fortunately, that minor detail doesn’t cross your mind just yet at the outset, the boyishly enthusiastic phase, prior to the debilitations setting in. . .otherwise you’d turn straight around and head somewhere more conducive to easy strolling and idyll pursuit. Now, though, the only thing that matters is the intention to get your lazy butt out to this magical hinterland a mere few minutes beyond the city limits of Livermore,
California – a chief hub of US nuclear R and D. You drive straight on through – past cute gentrified downtown, past the local, well-established vineyards and wineries of Murrieta’s Well, Concannon’s and Wente’s, yearning to detour for a sip or three, before finally veering up and away from the remote and curvy motorcyclists’ wet dream, Mines Road, which, 45 anfractuous miles later, ends up at the summits of Mount Hamilton (4196 ft.) and Copernicus Peak (4367 ft.), where the Lick and other observatories help astronomers plumbs the depths of the universe (however tritely that comes off) - until there you are, about an hour or so from your doorstep (if you are lucky enough to live in Berkeley), wide-eyed and expectant on the precipice of a 9737 acre swathe of greenbelt harboring a biologist’s wet dream of a diverse ecosystem stretching 15 grueling “big burn” miles and beyond to Sunol on the southwest connector side. For Bay Area nature playgrounds, t
his is as pristine and remote as it gets, and today, it’s all yours, yours and yours alone, pretty much, so stay safe, and bring plenty of water and food.
You’re thinking how nuts it is that you’ve never hiked the entire length of this well-trod and notorious trail, or even spent a single night camping out at one of the several primo spots high in the sky on islands of grassy ridges touching the stars at 3500 feet. It is downright inexcusable and inexplicable in your playbook. Well, today you’ll atone for that a little bit by setting an ambitious goal of Rose Peak – about nine p
oint five incredibly gutsy miles in – but of course you’ll never make it even half that far, and think instead how nice it would be to hike the 14+ mile round tripper to Murrieta Falls, like you did back in the late eighties and not once since, because after all, it’s not considered a primo waterfall destination, even though it’s Alameda County’s highest at over 3000 ft. and when the rain does deign to fall in buckets, it is a noteworthy sight, but the masochistic effort required has always put you off, even at peak flow, when there are so many other easier to get to waterfalls. And this being a low-rain season, there’s doubly not much motivation to justify the energy expenditure and wear and tear, but, ah, now, Rose Peak, at 3817 ft. (and only 32 ft. lower than iconic Mount Diablo) – now, that would be a huge accomplishment, but all you can do is reminisce about the time – what? eight years ago already,
which is scary – that you actually made it to Rose Peak, from the Sunol side, where, atop the undistinguished knoll which serves as the“peak” you ran into - how could you forget – the incredible running machine Beth Vitalis (molecular biologist you recall at the Lawrence Berkeley National Lab) who was training for a long-distance marathon – the famous Ohlone 50k race. (Just Google her.) She had run from Del Valle in about an hour fifteen, she said, and you were blown away by the ease with which she pranced and cavorted about, while you were doubled over in pain from burning shin splints and festering blisters, and dreaded the eight mile slog back to Sunol. You recall with vivid precision (so unlike most of your memories) that bright, bright, morning air, that blinding cobalt sky, the bejeweled sheathe of ice caked to coal black te
ndril branches, a sublime rime of glistening white snow blanketing dead brown hills, a truly stunning sight to behold, this silent world of isolated Rose Peak - crackling and crinkling oh so delicately as the sun’s rays beat down on the fragile hoarfrost. There you were, you and Beth Vitalis on top of this sparkling world. And still some dick on Summitpost.org, upon viewing the photo she snapped of Gambolin’ Man atop Rose Peak, can you believe it, wrote, with just a hair of unenlightened inspiration, “Hardly any snow. Yuck. Lame.” (Seriously. Just Google it.)
And so you must settle, contentedly, for the subtle splendors of Sycamore Flat and the Svengali charms of Williams Gulch at “just” three miles in – telling yourself, hey, it can’t get any flat out prettier than this stretch so why all the ball bustin’? Well, take it from yourself, you’ve been forewarned. It’s just so damn gorgeous, you want to keep on hiking and hiking and hiking. . .one more bend, one more hill to climb, one more tremendous vista to take in - c’mon, y
ou can do it! And you will, just not to Rose Peak or Murietta Falls.
You and your sweetie – your Gambolin’ Gal – begin hiking on Vallecitos Trail, a nice little secretive connector to the Ohlone Wilderness Trail at 7/10 of a mile in; at the sign-in gate (where you overlook signing in), the trail swerves mercilessly upwards, gaining an instant – well, not quite instant – 900 ft. Geez! You don’t yet realize how tough it is, though, because you’re fresh with bubbling energy and buoyant with irrepressible enthusiasm, a constrained puppy on a leash. HalleluJah! HellYeah! This is what you live for! This! You actually stop at a clearing on the trail to look around and gesture 180 degrees with a sweeping motion, taking in the expanse of Goddess’ country – rollicking hills, intimate hollows, ridges and hills, ridges and hills, dotted with copses of majestic oaks, those silent hilltop
sentries silhouetted stark and sculptural against a high contrast sky. Veritable canyon country - rising and falling out of nowhere. The incomparable beauty of the Coast Range mountains. Well, okay, they’re just hills – but still you call them mountains. Like you like to exaggerate everything.
Up and up you trudge – for trudging is what you are now doing. It is not an easy hike, all this uphill on steep grades, but it’s what you wanted, isn’t it, it’s what you deserve today, isn’t it. (Your Gambolin’ Gal may have a slightly different opinion on that.) Remember, you’re in no rush to get anywhere – forget about Rose Peak and Murietta Falls – this is all about being in the moment, appreciating the minutiae of nature’s boundless expressions
of the simple and miraculous unfolding in time honored rhythms and eternal cycles of death and renewal (of which you are unwittingly a part) - a tiny lavender flower growing out of a crevice in a rock; shiny brown acorns stashed away in deep furrows of oak bark; flitting butterfly, pretty little harbinger of spring; the way stringy moss hangs from the trees; red lichen boulder garden; impressionistic painting on sycamore leaf; a haphazard arrangement of rocks forming a snake worthy of an Andy Goldsworthy sculpture; faint tinkling of water at old spring, supreme sacred gift to the denizens of this wide-open territory. Could it possibly be home to the endangered San Joaquin kit fox? Certainly the purlieu of mountain lion, bobcat, coyote, black-tailed deer. Who knows, ringtail cats might live here, and you wouldn’
t be surprised if a bear scared up somewhere, it’s that wild. Speaking of being that wild, you recall sightings reported here and elsewhere in the Bay Area of a mysterious, elusive black panther spotted but never photographed. Camera at the ready, you’re secretly hoping to be the first to capture an image of a mythic, secretive animal many sober eye witness hikers have claimed to catch fleeting glimpses of (here and at Las Trampas Regional Wilderness and Pt. Reyes National Seashore). Gambolin’Gal says, all right, fine, just so long as the lioness keeps a respectable thousand yards away. Likewise with Ms. Rattlesnake, she wants nothing to do with either critter. No problem, actually, since you realize that lions and rattlesnakes are ra
rely if ever seen, let alone encountered; mountain lions, probably never, and specimens of the genus Crotalus - c’mon, just how many times have you ever seen, let alone encountered, a rattlesnake on the trail? Just a handful of times out of hundreds and hundreds of nature outings over 45 years of hiking and camping in prime puma and rattler territory, that’s how many. Best be more concerned about those infernal poppy seed sized ticks crawling up your nape.
You’re surprised that no one – human that is - is out here, but then again, with so many stellar places to hike in the Bay Area, and this being one tough nut to crack, it’s no wonder you’re all alone, you and the Ohlone spirits and animals. It’s been, what, five or six years already since you wer
e here last? How can that be? Next thing you know, your reverie is interrupted by a bounding group of a dozen energetic teens and two puffing adult escorts passing you by on the downswing, and a while later a couple of pole-wielding hikers pass you, which precipitates a conversation about the scientifically proven benefits of using hiking poles, incorporating them into your stride. Somehow, despite all evidence pointing toward ergonomic improvements in how your body carries and distributes weight, knowing your slightly overweight frame is adding to the pressure bearing down on those hobbled knees and rock-solid frozen ankles, you
just can’t bring yourself to embrace pole hiking. If need be, at stream fords and on steep hills, just find yourself a stick, for cryin’ out loud. Well, you’re stubborn as can be about the topic, and refuse to get with the program, at least probably until you’re sixty and hobbled beyond repair. And even then you’d probably just rely on your great-grandfather's 100-year-old blackthorn shillelagh.
Your left foot is pretty much throbbing like a bruised eggplant now, but you’re numb to the pain; your brain is producing enough opiates to make you giddy; but, damn, your good wheel is beginning to feel strained now, which slightly w
orries you, but it’s too early to get all worked up over your debilitations. Instead, you distract yourself by stopping here and there and everywhere for extended look-sees and diversionary sallies to check this or that out, or just sitting quietly for a few minutes contemplating eternal conundrums; you’re in such remote country that it seems like you’re a million miles from anywhere. You pretty much are. A couple of swift hikers come up on you from out of nowhere and next thing you know, they’re hundreds of yards down the trail and you’re like, man alive, was I really once that fast and agile? Oh, how the years catch up!
By now, you’re pining for some running water to liven up the static day. It can’t be far away, that gushing thrall of swi
rling pastel colored water rippling over Ohlone blue-green andesite bedrock in a very pretty gulch. But, dang, you’re still climbin’ up and up, with no down or end in sight – who’s complaining? - until finally, you’re really warmed up now, you crest high atop an island-in-the-sky ridge – Rocky Ridge, it must be, strewn as it is with lichen splotched boulders for a thousand yards. You vow to catch it on the rebound. The day’s heatin’ up, as is your internal combustion engine of a body which is pumping blood through your heart and racing through your veins – every molecule of you is alive with the pulsating energy of some universal force propelling you up and up and up without a care or thought or complaint. Sweat pours dow
n your face and soon you’re soaked through and through – lucky you thought to bring an extra shirt. You are a bit sore, and more than concerned about your bum feet, but so what – you’re alive, you feel it, the adrenaline is flowing and masking the discomfort, and you are in your element and nothing else matters. Except poor Gambolin’ Gal’s got a little hitch in her giddy-up, which worries you a tad since she hates straight up / straight back down hikes. They do tend to wear on the old bod, you agree, but hey, this is what’s happening today. Suck it up! Which she does admirably with just a few grumbles. You gotta love your Gambolin’ Gal.
Animal spirits make their presence known in subtle and brazen ways – you hallucinate the black
panther tearing across the field, but it’s only a fleeting shadow, unlike the family of black-tailed deer on the leap and bound ‘cross a grassy vale. You come upon a shed snakeskin, cool ant mounds, busy ground squirrels, and many different birds, including red-tailed hawks, a little falcon, the kestrel, warblers, scrub jays, magpies and buzzards. There’s got to be huge potential for the California Condor to one day (again) soar majestically over these big hills, and you’re hoping against all hope to spot one of the Bald Eagles nesting at Del Valle Reservoir, or chance upon a behemoth member of the elusive herd of Tule elk roaming the hills. And all your dilly-dally bird watching, sure takes time and patience to just stand there looking up into the trees, and so your progress is measured not so much by leaps and bounds and miles ticked off on the trail, but by how much you are able to take in and experience of the natural world around you. Heeding the advice of spiritual shaman Teilhard de Chardin, you begin to try “to understand the world, knowledge is not enough. You must see it, touch it, live in its presence.” You wonder: what have others missed in their rush to claim Rose Peak in four hours or clock a new distance record? On the
other hand, you’re thinking, what have YOU missed by not rushing to claim Rose Peak or clock a new distance record? If you could, that is.
You eventually crest to a high point at about 2400 ft., having gained 1600 ft. in hard-earned elevation since the trailhead, which leaves you pretty much out of breath but eager for more masochistic hiking. Coming right up – the shin-splinting descent to Williams Gulch. You recall a certain stand-out tree on the way down on the edge of Sycamore Flat – a gnarly oak. And there it is, an old friend greeting you on the corner. An excellent reason to divert for half an hour to pay homage to this wondrous arboreal specimen with a trunk five feet wide and deep furrowed bark giving the tree a textural richness the likes of which you’ve never quite seen on any other tree. You sense it to be an ancient and sentient being. There is sanctity and purity about its presence. You s
pend an inordinate amount of time in lurid fascination just standing in the wings of this special tree, admiring it, wondering about it, inspecting and scrutinizing its various oddities and profundities – and when a lone hiker walks past it without so much as a glance up, you don’t understand how someone can just walk by and not pay extra special attention to this tree, because – news flash! – it’s not just “any old tree”!
You take a boatload of mostly horrible pictures before hauling yourself down another couple hundred feet to the bottom of the gulch, where just a sliver of water is running through, unlike past occasions when winter rains flushed the gully with swirling, melodious water. Still, the hint of a trickle is a most precious gift in this garden paradise spot, this richly green, florid environment of oversized ferns and translu
cent moss, its soul inebriating heady ripe pungency, that psyche calming earthy aroma rising from the cool moist ground. You take a lunch break here –your first real breather – at a special rock garden with a notable boulder cut into lapidary facets as though by sculptural design. More photos are snapped, invocations are delivered, and it’s time to head back because certainly you don’t have any cojones left to climb up the “Big Burn” portion of the trail to the next ridge and beyond to Schlieper’s Rock, which you’ve never even seen, but know about its incredible vantage point situated high on a grassy knoll at 3080 ft., overlooking several prominent ridges – Rocky Ridge, Rowell Ridge and Wauhab Ridge – sounds like someplace in Death Valley, you’re
thinking - and even if you do have it in you, think of the return, an extra two very regrettable miles. Remember, you’re not 20, or 30, or 40, or even 55 years young anymore. . .man, how old are you nowadays, anyway, you’re wondering, gulping slightly.
Time to cinch things up and get the blood flowing through the extremities and pumping the heart back into action for the little old 400 ft. climb back up to the false summit beyond Sycamore Flat – where, of course, you stop for another languorous twenty minutes to admire the giant oak and do more of absolutely nothing but attract ticks with your sweaty meaty scent in the grass you’re sitting in – and then it’s another, oh, 500 more feet to the intersection of Rocky Ridge Trail, wher
e the allure is too much – you divert for another two hard-earned miles added to your strenuous agenda. It’s an easy approach, this modest eminence, but a transformed world all its own with unprecedented views out toward Mount Diablo and Morgan Territory, and that crazy little bump on the horizon known as Brushy Peak offering up a new perspective, it seems, on old (but not tired) sights. Morgan Territory and Brushy Peak, at 1702 seemingly insignificant feet, are today part of the East Bay Regional Park District lands, once the stomping grounds of peregrinating Bay Area Ohlone tribes and foothill Miwok peoples commingling on friendly trading terms on the ecotone of a great meeting up site (in present day Round Valley near Los Vaqueros Reserv
oir and Vasco Caves area in eastern Contra Costa County).
The beauty of Rocky Ridge immediately captivates as you take in a sprawling, treeless mall of painted rocks and superb long distance views of wild, voluptuous hills dropping off, rolling and rolling, hundreds of feet below, bathed in soft velveteen light. In springtime, Rocky Ridge is ablaze with fiery orange poppies and colorful wildflowers, a true Garden of the Gods.
Where did the time go? The sun’s dropped lower in the sky, your day is about through. Although distance-wise you’re fairly close to the trailhead, you’ve still got to gear down those 1600 ft. of elevation you forgot about to get back to your car. You’re thinking – oh heaven shit, no way can you make
it, but – you have no choice. You gut out the remaining stretch, playing the limping martyr, thinking trite thoughts like no pain no gain, but it keeps you sane. Some such mental patter.
Late evening sun striking distant auburn hills, setting them aglow in a triumphant sheen of soft radiance, an alluring panorama of a view of the Diablo Range not wholly familiar to you, a bona fide exotic sight whose magical essence you will not succeed in capturing digitally. (Just look.) But it serves as a fine enough distraction to keep you moving along, in feigned ignorance of your acute pain, gawking and marveling at the – you keep saying – “Big Southwest s
cene” out there - until, finally, with time to spare before darkness settles in, you find yourself back where you began, feeling pretty sore but quite accomplished for a couple of old buzzards (well, speak for yourself, Gambolin’ Man!).
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Congratulations! You survived a very tough section of the Ohlone Wilderness Trail! Wear your feat like a badge, because just ask around, have YOU ever hiked the Ohlone Wilderness? (You’ll probably get blank stares.) Sure, you missed a ton of great stuff –stuff you probably won’t ever get to see in your lifetime – so, no, it won’t always be there waiting for you. But someday soon, you hope, if you can convince your Gambolin’ Gal to give it up one more time for the rigors and challenges of the incomparable Ohlone Wilderness, you may find yourself immersed in beauty and mystery - and maybe who knows, next time you’ll camp out and knock out the whole thing from Del Valle to Sunol. Fat chance. But you’ll try knowing you will always
live and die by the Native American credo, “Above me and below me hovers the beautiful. I am surrounded by it. I am immersed in it.”