Friday, June 22, 2012

LAS TRAMPAS REGIONAL WILDERNESS: Over the Top Hike Rewards with Island in the Sky Isolation & Serenity

A pair of Red-shouldered Hawks trace a yin yang in the deep blue sky high above golden grassy hills on a searing day in early June.
A pretty Yellow-rumped Warbler flits about and brightens the moment with a euphonious chirp. Anna’s Hummingbird is abuzz with her hum, flashing a brilliant shock ‘o ruby on her neck and head for a split second.
A Red-headed Woodpecker bangs away at a rotting under branch, rat-a-tat-a-tat. A Western Bluebird flutters from barbed wire to high pine branch like a musical note come to life. Raucous crows jostle for position nearby on the ground . . . and we haven’t even left the parking area at a pull-off along Bollinger Canyon Road out in “far east” Contra Costa County!
Gotta love Las Trampas Regional Wilderness!
There for the takin’!
Rather, for the enjoyin’!
Las Trampas is (will not use the word “arguably”) the most distinctive and rugged wildland in the East Bay Regional Park District’s sizeable holdings totaling more than 112,000 protean acres, featuring 65 amazing parks and over 1,200 miles of biodiverse trails, from bay shoreline to redwood forests to blown apart volcanic summits.
Las Trampas has long been a favorite “wilderness” escape; many moons ago it was that Gambolin' Man first made the meandering drive, and it is not a place you can visit any old day, unless you live in the vicinity.
I once described Las Trampas as a “thank Goddess for” off-the-beaten-path location you have to drive as:
“ . . . a 45 minutes to an hour to get there from Berkeley, forced by rugged East Bay hinterlands to veer south on I-580, then east on Crow Canyon Road before turning west on Bollinger Canyon Road to access the trail heads west of the I-680 corridor which leads south to San Jose.”
Being smack dab plunk in the middle of this mind-boggling sprawl, it’s hard to imagine how it can be conflated with the concept of remoteness. But, as all things are relative, it is indeed remote and provides for some GEN-u-ine “wilderness”!
An honest to God sanctuary of pure and total escape, a healthy dose of soul reinvigorating solitude for the handful of visitors who venture here.
Hey, don’t scoff  it’s not completely untrue! My emboldened hyperbole is backed up by hard-core world explorers.
The late Galen Rowell, speaking of the interior eastern green belt of the East Bay, wrote in his classic photo-narrative coffee table book, Bay Area Wild:
“Oak woodland and open grassland rolling endlessly over hill and dale give preserved areas of the interior an unparalleled continuity of wildness.”
Did you hear that?
Referring to Las Trampas, the iconic Bay Area nature writer and historian, Malcolm Margolin, also expressed gratitude for such a place in his revered and beloved vade mecum of Bay Area wildlands.
He writes in his classic book, The East Bay Out, A Personal Guide to the East Bay Regional Parks:
“I am always heartened by this view of so many square miles of still wild, undeveloped land remaining in the East Bay.”
That was nearly 40 years ago . . . nothing has changed.
Las Trampas throws at you over 5000 acres of:
To revel in, to explore, to escape the pressure cooker of life. Jane Huber, author of the popular hiking blog, BAHIKER, cheerily observes:
“There are no steam trains or petting zoos. Just steep, rugged trails, interesting geology, and fantastic views.”
Yelp has over 50 reviews of Las Trampas, mostly praiseworthy. Negative comments related to all the cow shit everywhere, and some dutifully complained about the strenuousness of the hiking trails. Most, though, chimed in with enthusiasm and brio for Las Trampas, lending a perspective apart from, but complementary to, Gambolin’ Man.
A sampling:
“Long trails (many hiker only), remote, steep climbs, awesome views of Mt. Tam in the distance, bird calls including hawks, and free parking. What more could you want from a regional park?” (Sandyann g, Livermore)
“Las Trampas doesn't have any Destinations. You go there for the experience, the workout, and the great escape from the drudgery of life in the burbs.” (Ron L., Concord)
“Discovering Las Trampas is like discovering a rare gem on a deserted beach.” (Naseem E, Granite Bay)
“The Las Trampas hills are my zen. Many a time during my angst-filled teenage years I would retreat to these hills with friends to exert some muscle, talk it out, or just be still.” (Marissa C, Oakland)
“Go here if you want to get your ass kicked.” (The H, Oakland)
“The park is beautiful and the views are incredible but MAN it kicked our butts! The grade of the trail is SO steep and the 3 of us are in good shape and we struggled a lot. That was 2 days ago and I can still barely move.” (Claire H, San Francisco) 
Tom Mangan, publisher of the now-inactive hiking blog, TWO HEEL DRIVE, had good things to say after a couple of punishing hikes:
“This is a pretty park, very much a worthy destination . . . more evidence we live in a hiker’s paradise around these parts . . . Teeming throngs of suburbanites live on the other side of that hill over to the right but right here, it looks like backcountry that could stretch for miles.”
And yet . . . I rarely see anyone here. This time: a young couple running like yours truly used to (they later passed us again, all turned around and arguing), and a woman on a horse at the beginning. Basically, out here, you’re on your own. Mountain bikers, owing to some god-awful unruly terrain, tend to ignore the place.
It’s nothing but woolly roller coaster descents on rutty surfaces followed by impossibly difficult ascents. (Plus, you can’t make a loop, and how fun can that be? As though an out ‘n back is somehow depriving of the full enjoyment of the adventure.)
But hold your horses!
Paul B from Alamo notes on Yelp:
“There are some real jerk mountain bikers who routinely ignore the no biking signs and tear up the single track trails – they also build unauthorized trails and ruin pristine areas and create erosion.”
On the occasion or two I have biked there (on legal fire roads), I’ve had to get off and push uphill for long painful stretches as a merciless sun blazed down, and I’ve been knocked senseless for a fleeting second or two in more than one careless spill.
But I loved every minute of it – loved being able to cover so much ground and really explore the rollicking ridge landscapes that seem to roll off into infinity. (So much more interesting and rewarding than scofflaw single trackin’ it through bosky shut-ins.)
Ah, yes, hiking vs. biking . . . I can never seem to cover the kind of ground I once used to, so that’s why I love riding, but at heart, at sole, I’ll always be a “foot to the earth” person.
Las Trampas must be a more visited locale than I tend to acknowledge, preferring to uphold in my mind an ideal conception of Las Trampas as a pristine place untouched by civilization, unnoticed by most, lost to time’s relentless beat, misplaced in geography, contorted in topography, existing in a holographic bubble of primeval nature encroached on by a contagion of suburban sprawl.
It is a place where mysterious crypto-fauna roam; where hidden caches of filthy lucre belonging to Joaquin Murrieta are stashed in inaccessible wind caves in the secluded Devil’s Hole area (so they mythologize  Joaquin Murrieta being the notorious nineteenth century bandit, hero to some, who would elude posses and bounty hunters here).
A place where you can find marine fossils from another age when Las Trampas’ ridges were but island mirages dotting an inland sea.
Residents of the tony Tri-Valley communities of Walnut Creek, Danville, Alamo, Blackhawk, Pleasanton, and Dublin, which abut or are near the park, are best positioned to take advantage of the many splendors of Las Trampas.
Even so, it’s a ways down a rural road, beyond the smog and congestion of the I-680, several miles down a beautiful valley opposite Mount Diablo, where farms and ranch lands suddenly give way to the wide expanse of impressive hills and high ridges, contiguous to undeveloped EBMUD holdings (pristine watershed lands).
Rocky Ridge rises a not insignificant 2024 ft., lending a towering sense to the far-flung vistas attained from its oft-wind-blown vantage points. Neighboring Las Trampas Ridge is characterized by exotic-looking pyramidal formations and big rock outcrops, cold hard geology staring you in the face.
Rowell referred to Rocky Ridge as “the spine of some ancient creature,” and waxed rhapsodic, nearly, over the impressive geology of this “wildly tilted sandstone.”
Indeed, for the geology buff, and probably for a professor or three from neighboring colleges, Las Trampas is a wet dream of a mystery of evidential clues to our past, to the earth’s very creation.
The park district notes two major Bay Area faults – the Las Trampas and Bollinger Faults  accounting for the uplift and exposure of geological formations, informing us that the Orinda formation “holds remnants of ancient beach and shoreline”; while the El Sobrante formation “consists of several fossil-bearing compressed rock layers” and that the Pinole Tuff "is of volcanic origin."
Indeed, Las Trampas rocks!
In writing about Las Trampas several years ago, I was struck by how infrequently I had made the effort to visit, because, as I wrote in a post from 2005, Las Trampas was:
" . . . always one of those places too far away and not exotic enough to have courted it much. This sad misconception has prevented many a fine romp in this Diabloan wilderness.
Unfortunately, I still only infrequently get to tramp around at Las Trampas, and I’m always pleased to see that it’s pretty much still an unspoiled land left alone by nine-tenths of the Bay Area and touristic hiking community. (Well, there I go again, thinking I have the run of the place all to myself.)
What people miss out on, though, by avoiding Las Trampas, is worth every pummeling head wind atop the Stegosaurian ridgebacks, worth every brutal lashing of the sun’s scorching rays castigating your exposed body parts, worth every sting of the nettle and thrash of the poison oak, worth every lung-busting, ankle-bashing, knee-knocking step up and down steep gnarly trails.
The payoff is unrivaled solitude, beauty, isolation, and tremendous long-distance panoramas.
The vistas, looking out toward the southeast, encompass Lick Observatory, visible to the naked eye, atop 4196 ft. Mount Hamilton dominating the rugged Diablo Range; another view is the looming vision of the 3849 ft. bulwark of Mount Diablo.
And opposite, fantastic glimpses out toward the East Bay Hills’ jagged horizon of reassuring little eminences – Round Top at Sibley Volcanic Regional Preserve (at 1763 ft.) and Grizzly and Vollmer Peaks in the Berkeley Hills (at 1758 ft. and 1905 ft. respectively) in Tilden Regional Park.
More immediate views, too, enthrall, entice and entrance  of plunging hillsides and uplifted rock, of cloud layers settling over nearby high points, of little streams and stout oaks, inviting moments to just plop down, letting your gaze wander from one pretty sight to the next.
Maybe you’re not even looking out, but suddenly aware of the unique ecology of the island in the sky, a highland world of oak and madrone, chaparral plants, and roughened patches of sandstone rock scratching up from the scat-littered surface.
You’re so taken with the piles here and there of desiccated feces that you photograph some of them for later identification while marveling endlessly at how cool it is – a communal shitting hole, with stellar long-distance views, for foxes, weasels, bobcats, mountain lions and skunks seeking to unload their digested meals.
Our climb today begins with a steep switchback traverse up Chamise Trail, aptly named due to the preponderance of this tall flowering shrub keeping us company every step of the way, along with thickets of black sage releasing heaven-scented aromas; an occasional orange poppy popping up, and pretty bouquets of yellow monkeyflower; even the bunching stands of poison oak with their shiny green tripartite leaves add beauty to our environs.
At a juncture, 300 ft. higher than where we began, we take a break at the cool “L” tree, then divert down on Mahogany Trail plunging to ever-darkening depths of sunless forest populated by tall groves of California Bay, laurel, Scrub, Black and Live Oak, Madrone, Manzanita, Sycamore and Big Leaf Maple.
Down in this intimate hollow, the riving defile of a creek bed holds just mere traces of water, but enough to appreciate its reflective presence and bask in and soak up its sacred quality, even just a tiny amount of it.
Even just enough to provide a much needed quencher for the passing fox and raccoon, a refreshing gulp for the prowling coyote, a sip for the thirsty deer – and who knows? – a lapping up for the black panther on the scent of the thirsty deer.
Black panther?
That’s right, the Bay Area's "ultimate wildlife mystery," avers San Francisco Chronicle Outdoor writer, Tom Stienstra.
Rumors abound of a large, mysterious black felid creature roaming around these parts (and spotted at seven or eight other locations throughout the Bay Area) – little wonder given the supreme isolation and rugged nature of Las Trampas and neighboring 27,000 acres of EBMUD land.
The 1200 ft. to 1400 ft. high ridge system, from valley floor to high points, creates a tortured topography of deep gullies, ravines, hollows and secretive nooks and crannies perfect for a stealth creature such as a black panther to hide in and remain virtually unseen most of the time.
Sober eye witness accounts – coming in at a pace of about two per year, have provided tantalizing insights into this cryptid species, but so far, no sighting has been fool-proof confirmed of, perhaps, surviving offspring of a black panther released in these parts decades ago.
Which is why every time Gambolin’ Man heads to Las Trampas territory, he’s got his eye-balls peeled for a once in a lifetime sighting (if that).
Margolin, in his timeless essay, at once exalted and rued about Las Trampas:
“Golden eagles are regularly sighted here, gliding smoothly and silently over the meadows, still regal even though there are no longer Indians in these valleys to collect their feathers and worship them as gods.”
This strikes a resonate chord, stokes a feeling of kindred spirit, a mystical connection welling up, an inexplicable kinship to the vanquished people of this land, to the living eternal spirit of this land itself.
Margolin delights in limning the “so-called ordinary” world around him – at Las Trampas, he “discovered the wind” 2000 ft. above the valley floor:
“ . . . the most extraordinary wind that can be found in the Bay Area.”
Oh, yes, you remember that enemy wind well, that cruel wind, that ultra-vata temperamental wind that can blow on a slow day 35 mph.
One day we were caught in a 50 mph headwind that knocked us fairly around high up on Rocky Ridge before we ducked into a wind cave for shelter while it battered the world out there like a wailing banshee until we could finally make our descent during a lull. We felt stripped of our skin and nearly burnt by its sandblasting effect.
The unexpected diversity found at Las Trampas – geology, topography, isolation, wildflowers, birding, vistas, water (in season), rumors of hidden booty, sightings of large black cats  will lure you back time and time again.
The vast scale of geologic time will always be a source of magic and wonder, the beauty and tranquility eternal.
Margolin imagined “lichen, wind and water will be at work for millions of years” grinding down these rocky ridges to sea level again, “grain by grain,” as we are transported:
“ . . . immediately into the immense consciousness of geological time.”
Allergies, ticks, mosquitos, poison oak, stinging nettle, foxtails, blazing hot sun, searing winds and painful appendages notwithstanding . . .
Las Trampas Regional Wilderness
will rattle your soul & rock your world!
Check out another Gambolin' Man post on the amazin' wonders of Las Trampas:
A couple of live-action snippets of this wonderful place: