Monday, December 31, 2007

BAY AREA HIKING - BEST OF 2007: Gambolin' Man's Top Destinations and Favorite Outings of the Past Year

The Bay Area is a diverse and contradictory place to call home, especially for an Indiana boy. The prospects of "settling down" in the twelfth largest metropolitan area of the U.S. was a repugnant idea, a ridiculous plan gone awry over unrequited love. But I stuck it out, and here I remain, a quarter of a century later, no worse for wear (except for that nagging bum ankle). But I still often ask myself, "What am I doing here?" and the call of "Bay Area Wild" always answers. Over the years, I've come to love and appreciate more and more the pristine natural qualities that make the Bay Area such a special place in which to reside. Tom Mangan of Two-Heel Drive purports to call our home "the hiking capital of the universe"! With thousands of miles of trails, it's hard to argue. The Bay Area's all-encompassing natural beauty and bounty continues to inspire, amaze, and keep me sane and fit amid my urban surroundings. Here's a look at some of my faves.


Tilden Regional Park / Wildcat Canyon Regional Park

Once a land 'o plenty teeming with salmon, shellfish, grizzly bear, elk, bald eagle, and mountain lion, once home to Ohlone hunter gatherers for tens of thousands of years - in other words, Paradise on Earth -- today, this open space, set on the ecotone of the urban and the wild, where East Bay metropolitan sprawl meets Mother Nature's organic green blanket, covers more than 4500 acres of pretty valleys, modest peaks and ridges, attractive meadows and healthy woodlands, tropical-like riparian corridors, chaparral sage-scented hillsides, and a rich aquatic biota composed of ponds, marshes, lakes and creeks. In other words, it's still Paradise on Earth.

Living as we do, so close to the "Berkeley hills", has the psychological drawback of tending to take the beauty and ecological integrity of our local Tilden and Wildcat parks for granted. But the secret is, Tilden and Wildcat is wilderness right in our back yard! I've spotted more birds - ducks, hawks, golden eagles, hummingbirds, kingfishers, black phoebes, herons, egrets, wrens, sparrows, finches and flycatchers; I've encountered more amphibians - Pacific tree frogs, bullfrogs, California newts, salamanders; I've stopped in my tracks for more reptiles - Western fence lizards, skinks, rattlesnakes, gopher and garter snakes; and I've observed more species of mammals making their rounds -- deer, fox, raccoon, bat, coyote, bobcat, feral cat, and skunk -- in these two parks than seems possible in such a heavily populated / urbanized area.

I've witnessed surreal sunsets atop the seemingly insignificant 1250 ft. Wildcat peak, a modest but stand-out eminence offering up nonpareil 360 degree views. I've hiked my butt off from Richmond to Orinda and still haven't covered all the trails. In the rainy season, I've marveled at hard-flowing Wildcat Creek cutting deep bedrock channels, and sought out hidden, amazing waterfalls in secret ravines off South Park Drive, one of the busiest arteries in Tilden, when it's not closed for seven months out of the year (November to May) to allow for the safe passage of migrating, sexually active newts. There is just so much to do in these two parks, for every walk of life -- biking, horseback riding, swimming, exploring, picnicking, golfing, calliope and steam train rides, and, of course, aerobic hiking for superb views, west, of the Marin headlands and San Francisco's glittering skyline, north to hills and glistening reservoirs of San Pablo and Briones, and east, twenty miles distant, to Mt. Diablo rising to 3849 ft. It just doesn't get any better than this, for urban living / nature retreats / wild escapes on your doorstep.

Mt. Diablo State Park

Deadly in summertime, unless your plan is to picnic and lollygag under shady oaks alongside a trickling stream at the staging area - which is quite a pleasant activity, no doubt -- save your more ambitious explorations of this 20,000+ acre urban zone wilderness for more hospitable seasons. But make no mistake, the Mountain can, will and often does kick your ass any time of the year. My favorite forays are after series of cloudbursts have replenished bone-dry wellsprings in upper slopes, when gullies and ravines burst to life with torrents of cascading water. In these mid-range elevations - 1500 ft. to 2500 ft. -- tucked in deep, lush canyons, Mt. Diablo is reminiscent of Hawaii (were it not for the colder temperatures and presence of the Western Juniper.) On a rainy day, try hiking super-lush and intriguing Curry Canyon, luring you ever downward into its moist, green depths. . .or on a clear February day, pace yourself up Donner Canyon trail for four miles and a thousand feet of gain, encountering water splashing down hillsides, water rushing across the trail, water spilling down rock faces in sweet bursts of rainbow spray. . why, no place within two hours' drive is prettier or more rugged until you hit the higher elevations in the Sierra foothills. There's so much going on at Mt. Diablo St. Park -- everything from hiking, running, biking, horseback riding, paragliding, bird watching, wild flower appreciation - that you could plot an outing, plan an adventure, every day for a month, and still not see and do it all. Mt. Diablo - no doubt still the Center of the (Hiking) Universe.


Well, I spilled the beans already about Brionesland -- Briones Regional Park and the adjacent water district territory -- in a recent blog post, so if you missed it, check it out. You can always count on getting away from it all, no matter where your adventure takes you, in Brionesland. On a recent day, exploring the north side of the regional park, on a lower crest, visibility was so flawless that I could see snow-capped Sierra Nevada mountains with my naked eyes! Through binoculars, I sighted what might be 9735 ft. Mt. Tallac on Lake Tahoe's southwest shore, and swear by the light of day it was Half Dome I was seeing farther to the south. On several recent hikes through the rolling voluptuous hills of the watershed lands, with no one ever about, I've oft-spotted this huge yellow feral cat who must weigh at least thirty pounds! Although getting long in tooth and sauntering lackadaisically, this is one fat cat who's making a killing in the mice fields of Brionesland. He must also be pretty damn wily -- how is it that a lion, a coyote, or a golden eagle hasn't attacked, killed and eaten old Felix?

Sunol Regional Wilderness

No matter the time of year, you can always find beauty, serenity and a strenuous workout (or a lazy ol' time just strolling by the creek) at this ever-popular "park" -- park it is, I suppose, but, really, once you park it, and set off in any number of directions on multiple connector trails, you're likely to have the place all to yourself.

It's a big place, affording blister-inducing hikes, lung-busting climbs, pay-off views. The many faces of Sunol throughout the changing seasons enchant and tantalize: flaming orange poppy fields dotting rocky hillside meadows in springtime, evoking images of the Scottish highlands; rugged ravines flush with water from winter rains, bringing Alameda Creek and the cascades at Little Yosemite to thunderous and symphonic roar; sturdy, stately sycamore trees lacing broad flood plains in autumn's fiery hues; summer's secretive pool kept shady and cool, where only you know where to find it. Losing yourself in Druid forests of stunted oak and lichen-splotched boulders dotting grassy flower strewn hills like ruined menhirs. Grueling hikes up to vantage points with names like Eagle's Nest, affording spectacular views atop rocky promontories of the Calaveras Reservoir, Mission and Monument Peaks, Mt. Hamilton, Mt. Diablo, the McGuire (Maguire) Peaks, and the fabulous Ohlone Regional Wilderness range. Alameda Creek churns in the canyon one hundred and fifty feet below -- on this rainy, eerie day it all feels so very much unlike the rest of Alameda County. Stopping in your tracks amid chaparral and scrub trees to listen and spot gorgeous little finches with yellow breasts and sweet songs. And, trying not to step in the cow shit. But the cattle grazing doesn't bother you. Scrambling up the W Tree Rock creek, with its unique Diablo Range geology of richly textured green and blue andesite boulders, and reveling in the endless miniature glory of its flowing cascades, falls and chutes. Sunol rocks, Sunol rolls. If you haven't been to Sunol, get a move on and see what you've been missing, for no place is closer to paradise on earth, on a beautiful spring day, after winter rains, than the lush, green, rolling hills of our beloved Sunol Regional Wilderness. (Wait, didn't I say that about Mt. Diablo? . . .well, it's all one and the same, after all.)

Huckleberry Botanic Regional Preserve

Thank God for this tiny but splendid reserve off Skyline Boulevard above the city of Oakland, offering up self-guided nature tours and miles of recreational trails leading into ecologically sensitive territory. Huckleberry is a botanical preserve home to a "relic" variety of plants found in just a few other places in California owing to specialized remnant habitats. Among the interesting species finding root and refuge in the botanic preserve are the California hazel nut, Pink flowering currant, Dwarf chinquapin, rare ferns, and the endangered pallid manzanita (Arctostaphylos pallida), found no where else on earth but the Bay Area, and in most abundance here. About 2500 of them have long flourished atop exposed rocky knolls, in poor soil, low in nutrients, but the colony of A. pallida found at Huckleberry is now on the decline due to fire suppression tactics, unnatural shading, and other deterrents to life for a tree struggling to survive in an increasingly unnatural or artificial world. Bid it good-bye and safe tidings, and take a trail leading down into the moist bowels of the thriving forest . . .find mushrooms, come upon packrat huts, inspect dewy spider webs, examine lichen on rocks, marvel at "nothing little" ephemeral waterfalls, become child-like and get lost in a deep, secluded world above and below the urban boundary zone.

Redwood Regional Park

Redwood Regional Park lies directly above the 44th largest city in the U.S. - Oakland, California - and 16 miles or so directly across from the Golden Gate strait. The several thousand acre refuge has long been a favorite haunt of Gambolin' Man. From the early eighties on I've probably made over 500 visits and hiked / ran / biked hundreds of miles. . .and each time I'm no less in awe and wonder, never let down, always uplifted and inspired anew by the beauty and wild that has remained in this tract of land that once supported -- in primeval days, before the evil saw mills - the biggest Sequoia sempervirens on earth. Right here in "downtown Oakland" (as I always joked), the redwood giants reigned. What's left of the original groves? Fairy rings, circles of second and third generations of cloned offspring; within the empty space circumference of the fairy rings, you can imagine the original Mother Tree filling the area with millions of cubic feet of hairy woody tissue. These fire-scarred arboreal behemoths would likely be 2000+ years old, and 360+ ft. high had they not been zealously chopped down by ruthless profiteers caught up in the San Jose - San Francisco building boom of the mid-1800s. By 1863, the once Jurassic like park had been reduced to a "sea of stumps." What you see and experience today, however, is nothing to scoff at. Stands of stately 175 ft. tall redwoods adorn the banks of burbling Redwood Creek, and deserve respect and admiration in their own right, these noble descendants of the ancient giants, who are our constant reminders of what is still to come far beyond our puny lifescale.

Sibley Volcanic Regional Preserve

Sibley's an amazing place, really. Site of a ten-million year old exploded volcano, where long-necked camels once grazed alongside saber-toothed tigers and other mega-fauna, today Sibley is a favorite and easy get-away for nature-lovers located just on the fringes of Oakland and Berkeley. Covering a mere 700 or so acres, Sibley's not really a place for any major hiking, per se, although you can get anywhere you want by hooking up to the Bay Area Ridge Trail and East Bay Skyline National Recreational Trail - and recently a long-off-limits patch was opened giving the park a bit more breathing room - but rather, and mostly, Sibley is a place to take it all in, let your mind slowly drift and your imagination wander as you check out each sign post noting some outstanding geological feature or event; appreciate the darting rabbits, the soaring hawks and vultures; take in leisurely views, exploring newt ponds, meditatively walking the hidden labyrinth to give thanks and praise and wonder evermore.

While hiking around a back canyon on the veritable edge of California's eighth largest city, moments after watching thirty ravens swirl around in the sky for minutes on end, I spot a pair of White-tailed Kites hunting, eating, roosting, preening, and surveying their relatively vast domain from twin snags of an old tree.

In all my gambolin' days, I've never seen a White-tailed Kite, yet today, like omens of wisdom and self-sufficiency, they appear and put on their show for an uninterrupted half hour. Luckily, I have my binoculars handy, for the stately birds are a good 75 ft. away from my own perch on a rise of ground above the hidden labyrinth. Taking in big views east of Mt. Diablo, northeastward to Brionesland, and west across the bay to ever-alluring Mt. Tamalpais, I don't see them right off. . .but then, suddenly aware of my immediate surroundings, I spot the gorgeous hawk-sized birds roosting effortlessly on their snags. They're distinctive, beautiful birds - white chests, black shoulder streaks on grayish-white backside plumage, sharp yellow talons, and slanty coal black eyes. They have an air of kingly superiority; clearly, these birds have adapted as specialized hunters, masters of their domain, and I'm lucky enough to be watching one of them tear apart a mouse atop the snag, pecking at it, dropping a stringy gut and then slurping it up like a noodle, now almost fastidiously picking it apart in delicate jabs, eating all the while looking around, seemingly totally enjoying himself . . .him? or her? Can't tell, and don't know - they're identical in appearance, so perhaps they are not a nesting pair?

Meanwhile, the partner goes off searching for something because there's no sharing here. I watch her hunting in the canyon's low open country, hovering as sun rays glint off spreading wings and long fan-shaped tail. The Kite then swoops down, disappearing for several moments before finally swooping back up and heading to the tree snag in amazingly short time to join the other bird still licking his chops and ruling the snaggy roost.

Watching the just-perched Kite, wondering where his meal is, since there is nothing warm, furry and dead in his clutches, I'm suddenly amazed to see him stretch up and open his plumy breast with flapping histrionics to reveal, like a magician, his tasty provender secured below on a hillside meadow. An agitated raven blitzes by; a California quail flies into a nearby tree with a characteristic peep; a red-shouldered hawk kamikazes toward the pair, then decides to swoop away. The big white Kites are unruffled and continue to sit there atop their perch, surveying their domain with calm detachment and utter serenity, right here in the local hills.

Las Trampas Regional Wilderness

Another perennial favorite, Las Trampas is a place to snap your fingers and escape the surrounding sea of urban madness - especially if you live in the Walnut Creek / Alamo / Danville / Blackhawk / San Ramon corridor of metropolitan / suburban sprawl. Come, leave it all behind and festering below - hike with me, along trails zig-zagging up and down Brontosaurian roller-coaster ridges, islands in the sky, along a rocky limestone spine rising over 2000 ft. to provide "pay-off" views of Mt. Diablo, looming like a monster on the hazy horizon, and the more distant Ohlone range beyond Livermore, and west toward the East Bay ridges of Grizzly and Volvon peaks. While hiking the spine, you might hear the buzz and hum of freeway traffic below on the superhighway 680, but as you duck in and out, up and down, through forested stretches and exposed rock outcroppings, you hardly notice it. And there are some gorgeous zen-like rocky gardens serving as the crap room for a variety of critters who congregate en masse to leave their deposits here, for no other reason - certainly not territoriality - than the stupendous views afforded during their leisurely defecations. (Or so I imagine.) Over on the opposite ridge - Rocky Ridge - Elderberry Trail wind up to the crest for wind-blown views of expansive water district lands, vacant of humans, populated only by mountain lion, bob cat, coyote, skunk, deer, and cryptozoological legend and several eye-witnesses have it, a black panther. One area deep below the ridge - Devil's Hole - is probably THE most remote spot in the East Bay, and is where the black lion might call home; it is also the area where pilfered fortunes of brigands are rumored to lie hidden in hard-to-reach sandstone caves and pockets. I've piddled about and poked around in vain searches for traces of the bonanza, but never anything. . .in summer, carry extra water -- one stretch is a mile down at over 15% grade, and then a grueling climb out of the canyon, unless you opt to go wayward and climb the 1400 ft. Ramage Peak about another mile away. Might as well - no one bags Ramage. With water running out, you return to hike Sycamore Trail to the ridge via an ass-kicker of a steep climb up and out. At the top, you find the wind is blowing about 45 mph, just one more force of nature to contend with at Las Trampas.


Pt. Reyes National Seashore

There is no place in California - therefore on earth! - quite like Pt. Reyes National Seashore. Noted for its outstanding geological, botanical, zoological, historical and recreational features, the National Seashore is a Shangri-La of nature for millions of visitors each year. . .and yet I rarely encounter a one! Reached after a mere (and very beautiful) ninety minutes' drive from Berkeley or San Francisco, you're dialed in to wherever the guidebook directs you or your spirit takes you. The views are certain to blow you away, the rock formations will surely awe and impress, the sheer variety of flora and fauna will astound and amaze, the ocean will humble and energize you, and all day long, in between huffing and puffing up and down hilly trails, or endless beachcombing, you'll be throwing up your arms in supplicating thanks and praise for the miraculous existence of such a place. So, when was the last time you visited Pt. Reyes National Seashore? Toured the Lighthouse and watched the sea lions, seals, dolphins and whales at play? Hiked through tinselly forests to secluded bay beaches? Trekked to land's end at the edge of the great continent - Tomales Point - where herds of Tule Elk roam? When did you last picnic on a beach of wild surf, run up and down sand dunes like a twelve year old, watch exotic birds in a lagoon?

Tennessee Valley

A favorite spot for me and about a million other nature lovers who crave the quick fix get away with the superlative mix of scenery, adventure, eco-activities, and lazy beach combing fun. See recent posting on the gem of the Golden Gate National Recreation Area. (Just yesterday espied a beautiful bobcat slinking away into the brush.)

Matt Davis / Steep Ravine Loop

I love this loop, either way, beginning at Pantoll Ranger Station high up on the slopes of the big mountain in Mt. Tamalpais State Park. Ok, so you have to shell out a few bucks to park (unless you're one of the early ones to snatch up a free parking spot across the road in the little lot that holds about six cars), but every penny's worth it. Of course, like most Bay Area hiking destinations, it comes alive during the rainy season when the moist hills reek with earthy loam and creek ravines fill with frenzied water creating magical waterfalls and harmonic conditions of negative ionic energy cleansing you to the soul-bone. ..but even in the depths of summer, shady canopy offers shelter and surviving trickles of water and pools, perhaps nurturing the next generation of steelhead trout, and luring you from one nook and bend to the next. The loop is about eight or nine miles round-trip, done either way, losing and gaining probably more than 2000 ft. of elevation on twisty switchbacking trails across broad swathes of high grassy hillsides and deep forest, alternating tremendous ocean views of the mighty Pacific lapping up against world-famous Stinson Beach and Bolinas town and lagoon, with intimate immersions into lush, sylvan wonderlands.

Carson Falls Loop

You gotta love a place that's easy to get to, provides long distance hiking with superb views, lush creeks, and big waterfalls set amid deep rolling rock dotted and flower strewn hills in the heart of Marin County. The loop, which can set you back, or advance you, eight hard miles or more, winds through thick oak, bay, madrone, alder and redwood forests, snakes along riparian corridors whose water flows are often set back from the trail, so to appreciate the best of them, you'll have to walk through tall, tick-infested grass, wary of tripping over downed logs and unseen jagged rocks to lay your eyes on some of the most amazing scenes you've ever seen of water chuting down bedrock channels and plunging over rocky shelves into clear, swirling pools, through magical, lush forests alive with birdsong and the sweet smells of earthy residue ...Carson Falls itself is truly a gem, especially in the rainy season - say, on a bright, blue, windless, warm mid-February day after plentiful downpour has brought this magnificent ravine cleft to life with run-off galore. In summers, it's barely a trickle, nothing to get excited about. . .unless, like Gambolin' Man, any presence or manifestation of water flowing in natural conditions is precious, magical and inordinately charming. Certainly, if you're a frog, to wit, viz., the endangered Foothill yellow-legged frog, whose existence depends on this late-summer water flow to protect and nurture its eggs, you'll be happy as hell to know you're considered a species of "special concern" fully protected by the State of California and the feds. (You're welcome to come and admire, but thank you for keeping dogs out and treading carefully!)


Robert Louis Stevenson St. Park

This Napa County gem of a park is a must-hike locale when you're up in Wine Country looking to burn a few calories and get away from the hoi polloi and hubbub of tourism. Like most of northern California coastal wildland, it's a combination of woodland, riparian, and chaparral, a land of bio-diversity, big rock outcrops, and vast watersheds owing to the towering presence and bulwarky dimensions of 4343 ft. Mt. St. Helena, the biggest Bay Area mountain. It's a fabulous place to experience "wild" Napa before getting your pampered ass back to the tasting rooms and restaurants.

Sugarloaf Ridge St. Park

Hiked here in Sonoma County one day and was duly impressed - perennial water flowing, big ridge crests to climb, healthy forests to walk, not many people.


Sadly to say, I'm embarrassed to admit that I have not been hiking much, if at all, in South Bay this year. Not to my beloved Henry Coe State Park, not to Portola, Sam McDonald, Nicene Marks, Big Basin, Butano, nor to any of the Skyline open space districts above Palo Alto. . .the only place I managed to drag a skeptical Gambolin' Gal was to Sierra Azul Open Space Preserve, pretty enough with Guadalupe Creek tumbling through, and the Santa Cruz mountains' fourth largest peak - Mt. Umunhum at 3486 ft. - dominating but off-limits. But the place turned out to be pretty much of a bust due to the ugly presence of electrical pylons and what we perceived as the negative energy aura radiating from Umunhum's toxic asbestos and lead contamination from the old Air Force radar station.