Journey: 52 Hikes and more

Hike 38 – Desolate Times in Pristine Climes, April 17, 2010

So where am I?  Where is the trail?

The sign said go left but there is only a canyon that way.  Am I supposed to jump or fly across it? Is there a bridge I’m missing?  Do I need special eyewear to see it?

This was a beautiful hike through near-virgin lands and had me thinking about Neil Young’s song “Natural Beauty”:

What a lucky man
To see the earth before it touched his hand
What an angry fool
To condemn…

Sure, I felt like that lucky man.  But dude, where’s my trail?  Can you spot it?

Where is the trail?

Turns out I was standing on it and looking straight at it.  Let me back up a bit first.

I was hiking in Crockett Hills Regional Park but I might as well have been Neil Armstrong on the Moon.  I was surrounded by a metropolitan area with 7.5 million people, yet there was no one in this park I could turn to for help.

Crockett Hills is one of the newest parks in the East Bay Regional Parks District (EBRPD).  The signage or lack thereof, the condition of the trail (barely visible and unused) and lack of people all indicated how new and unknown it is.  This makes the park more special.

I had spent the morning volunteering for the EBRPD at John Muir’s Homestead in Martinez, CA as part of Earth Day 2010 celebrations.  I prefer to hike in the morning and rarely do so in the afternoon.  Since I was going to be right by the park, I figured this would be a good opportunity to hike here.  Besides, I might catch some late afternoon sunlight, maybe even a sunset, and get some decent photographs.

The highlight of the morning event for me was Mr. Hulet Hornbeck.  Just a few months ago in August 2009, I had hiked a trail named after him.  While I did not get a chance to speak with him because he was much in demand, I did get to shake his hand and briefly thank him for his contributions to the park system as their first Chief of Land Acquisition.

Back when I had hiked the trail named after him, I had never heard of him and knew nothing about him.  Yet, I had recorded these observations about him:

Until today I had never heard of Mr. Hornbeck, but if this trail represented him in any way, I suspect he was a tough, determined but understanding person, generous and open once you got to know him and clearly a lover of the things that make this area special.

Having met him, it is clear that the above statement is right on target.  He definitely seemed to be a really cool guy, quite colorful and interesting.  Since the meeting I have had the opportunity to read up on him quite a bit.  I am sure people who worked for, with or across the table from him would use very colorful language to describe him.  But everyone had the highest regard and respect for him.

Here’s what he accomplished as the land acquisition manager for the park system over his 20 year career:

  • Added 49,000 acres of land to the park system, growing it from 13,000 acres to 62,000 acres.
  • Added 38 new parks to the system, increasing the number of parks from 8 to 46 parks.

If you are interested in finding out more about him, or the history of the EBRPD and the colorful characters that managed it including Mr. Hornbeck, I highly recommend the book “The Living Landscape” by Laura McCreery.

At 1:50 PM with the thermometer reading 67 degrees, I took my first step on the Crockett Ranch Trail.  I could hear the sound of fresh grass being trampled under my feet.  As I began my hike I saw two hikers ending theirs and for the next three hours and forty minutes, I did not encounter anyone else in this park.  If you want to feel like you own this land, this is definitely the place to hike.

Since it was the afternoon, I was hiking in t-shirt and jeans and that felt really nice too.  It had been a while since the weather had allowed that luxury.  Since the weather had warmed up, the hills were now starting to turn brown in places.  Within days or weeks we would lose this lush green cover and everything around here would dry up.

The Crockett Ranch Trail went under Highway 4 and joined the Bay Area Ridge Trail.  The Ridge Trail was totally exposed and soon I picked up the Big Valley Trail.  As the name suggests, it went past a big valley but “big” is a relative term.  It appeared to be large enough to support a family or two but nothing more than that.

I could imagine a dusty wagon accompanied with the appropriate fiddle and harp music in the background pulling over a ridge.  A man wiping sweat off his forehead would turn around and say to his wife, “Well Martha, I reckon this valley here is where we’ll start our new home and life.”  Someone must have done something similar because in the valley there were remnants of a ranch.

The Big Valley trail though was totally overgrown.  Hiking through the tall grass, I could not see where or what I was stepping on.  I prayed I would not step on a rattlesnake.  That could prove disastrous, if not fatal.

Soon I was on the Kestrel Loop trail.  At an intersection on the trail, a sign directed me to the left.  All I saw was a trail going right with nothing resembling even a ghost of a trail on the left.  I figured the sign was right because the map also indicated a trail to the left.  But all I saw was a canyon down below and some trails in the distance.

I figured the sign and map were correct and blazed away and soon found the trail.  I had been on it all this time, it was just hard to see because of the overgrowth.

After the Kestrel Loop, I picked up the Back Ranch Loop which brought me back eventually to Kestrel Loop again.  I completed the last segment there and picked up the Big Valley Trail again and started heading back.

This is where I got the first of two scares.  First I encountered an 18 inch long snake sunning itself on the trail.  I am sure like so many Californians, it was working up a tan after the long winter months.  Unfortunately, I did not care or bother to determine what kind of snake it was and whether it was poisonous or not.  I made a large arc around it and continued on, frequently looking back to make sure it was not hunting me.  Who knows, this might belong to a species that likes people who have a weakness for burgers and burritos.

The second scare was that I saw a tick climbing up the leg of my jeans.  This is the primary reason I rarely hike in shorts, no matter how hot the conditions are.  I promised myself a thorough full-body examination once I got home.

At 5:30 PM I was back at the car having completed an 8.5 mile loop with about 1,800 ft elevation gain.  I had thoroughly enjoyed this hike except for the couple of scares and the inadequate signage.  The newness of the park and lack of traffic make this hike specially enjoyable.  Additional rewards of this hike include views of Mt. Tamalpais, the bay, Treasure Island, Angel Island, Marin County, Carquinez Straight Bridge, etc.

For a successful hike I suggest the following:

  • Have a hiking plan before you get here.
  • Make sure you have a good map.  At a minimum you should bring a copy of the EBRPD map (link) with you as it may not be available at the trailhead.
  • Possibly look at Google Maps online.  One caveat though; Google’s satellite images show many trails in this area but a number of them are off limits.  I could not follow the loop I had planned based on what Google showed and had to fall back on EBRPD map and the trails shown there.

Here’s a map of the hike courtesy of Google Maps:

Here’s a link to a brochure and trail map from the East Bay Regional Park District website:

Here’s a slideshow of pictures from the hike:


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