Tuesday, July 27, 2010

Bay Area Ridge Trail: East Bay - Sobrante Ridge

(Sun. July 11, 2010 - I'm doing a little catch up now that I've started this blog)

Sobrante Ridge Regional Preserve is a little 277-acre preserve between Richmond and Pinole with views into the Briones area and out across San Pablo Bay.

I was feeling my first week's work outs, minor though they'd been, and my bike ride the day before, but I was determined to inaugurate my first weekend with both a Bay Trail bike ride and a Ridge Trail hike.  I could have hiked a section of the Ridge Trail in Martinez but I hit those segments often and wanted something new, even though it was about 90 minutes before dark by the time I got my act together.

Bay Area Ridge Trail
To paraphrase information from the Bay Area Ridge Trail Council's website:  'More than twenty years ago, National Park Service Director William Penn Mott, Jr., envisioned a trail that would ring the San Francisco Bay high on the ridgeline.'  Mott was a Lafayette resident with a lifetime of park and urban trail experience.  He'd been Parks Director for the City of Oakland, then briefly General Manager of the East Bay Regional Park District in the 1960s before being appointed to head California State Parks and then the National Park Service by Ronald Reagan.  In 1964 while at the Regional Park District, Mott and a buddy of mine, Hulet Hornbeck who lives here in Martinez (he was 90 last Fall), led the campaign to expand the Regional Park District into Contra Costa County.  Mott then hired Hornbeck as the Park District's first Chief of Acquisition.

To that point, most of the Regional Park District's lands were on the ridges, mostly accessible to the middle class and the wealthy.  Mott and Hornbeck began a new era by creating shoreline parks in areas that were often industrial and expensive (shoreline land is often bought by the square foot instead of the acre, and often requires cleanup).  For the first time they also proposed urban regional trails outside of parks to link the shorelines with the ridges.  That way more of the public would have access to Park District facilities.  Twenty years later their efforts would be a foundation for creation of both the Bay Trail and the Ridge Trail.

More from the Ridge Council, 'In 1987, representatives of the Golden Gate National Recreation Area and the Greenbelt Alliance organized the Bay Area Ridge Trail project to fulfill Mott’s vision.  This initial partnership brought together public park agencies and trail advocates from all around the region. They mapped out an initial route for the Ridge Trail, and developed a “road map” for an organization to promote its completion. The first Ridge Trail segment was dedicated in May 1989. In 1992, the Bay Area Ridge Trail Council became an independent nonprofit. Its mission is to create a continuous 550+-mile trail for hikers, mountain bicyclists, and equestrians along the ridgelines overlooking San Francisco Bay.  Existing trails in open public lands were quickly added to the Ridge Trail network allowing a 100-mile celebration in 1990, and 200 miles in 1995'.

Carriage Hills development view south
Most of the Trail is an overlay of existing trails but new segments are regularly constructed too.  Trail segments in existing parks were quickly incorporated into the plan, work that was largely administrative and political; choose the existing trail, get approval to overlay the Ridge Trail, update the trail signs.  The first two years included dedications where regional trails already spanned multiple parks, through Mt. Tamalpais and in the Oakland-Berkeley hills, for example.

New miles requiring new trail easements, land acquisitions or construction are more complex.  Imagine the difficulties of creating segments across the Carquinez Strait from Crockett to Vallejo and from Martinez to Benicia.  You could already walk across the Golden Gate Bridge but crossing Carquinez Strait meant waiting for new bridges to be built or old ones refurbished, with bike-pedestrian paths.  The 300th mile was completed in 2006.  In mid 2010, over 325 miles (59%) are open of 550 miles planned.

I'd picked up Jean Rusmore's Bay Area Ridge Trail - The Official Guide for Hikers, Mountain Bikers, and Equestrians, 2008 3rd Edition (the 1st Edition was in 1995) and had been scanning it for ideas.  Sobrante Ridge is between Richmond's El Sobrante, along San Pablo Dam Road, and the Pinole Valley.  It was pretty close to Martinez yet I had never hiked there.

The Pinole Valley
Sobrante Ridge
The preserve was dedicated as a condition of the Carriage Hills development below, an artifact of Contra Costa's anything goes, anywhere, wild wild west, mode of urban planning before conservationists forced adoption of the county's first Urban Limit Line in 1990.  Carriage Hills is classic cherry stem, leapfrog development, approved on cheap land barely connected to Richmond because its developer had political pull.  It jumps from existing development across a half mile of open space, jutting into and fragmenting ranch lands.  Wildlife habitat is also fragmented and the public ends up subsidizing urban services stretched over longer distances.  It's also a great place to live, if you're so lucky, surrounded by open space with great views.  You just have to drive further to get anywhere or to buy groceries.

I took Pinole Valley Road southeast from Hwy. 80.  I passed Pinole Valley Park, where I could have started on a RidgeTrail 'connector trail' but I was in a hurry so I continued further south and then west on Castro Ranch Road, which bisects Carriage Hills "North" and "South."  I took Conestoga Way up to the north end of Coach Drive to get as close to the ridge as possible.

Faux cell "tree" and water tank
"Sobrante" is Spanish for the common lands between Mexican ranchos.  Reminds me of the "tragedy of the commons" as it's known, which has long been used to illustrate the environmental differences between greed and self interest, and good stewardship.  Acting independently the average individual is more likely to overuse shared resources.

To excerpt Wikipedia, the dilemma was "described in an influential article by that name written by Garrett Hardin and first published in the journal Science in 1968... multiple individuals, acting independently, and solely and rationally consulting their own self-interest, will ultimately deplete a shared limited resource even when it is clear that it is not in anyone's long-term interest for this to happen.  Central to Hardin's article is a situation based on medieval land tenure in Europe, of herders sharing a common parcel of land, on which they are each entitled to let their cows graze...it is in each herder's interest to put the next (and succeeding) cows he acquires onto the land, even if the carrying capacity of the common is exceeded and it is temporarily or permanently damaged for all as a result. The herder receives all of the benefits from an additional cow, while the damage to the common is shared by the entire group. If all herders make this individually rational economic decision, the common will be depleted or even destroyed to the detriment of all."

View into the preserve canyon west of the development
California's Mission and Californio eras depended on huge, unfenced herds of cattle.  From the ridge I wasn't far from the town of 'Rodeo' where the cattle were gathered and slaughtered for their hides and tallow.  The tragedy of this commons was that overgrazing from the too abundant cattle, drought years now and then, and introduced European grasses and weeds (really Middle Eastern ones evolved alongside intense grazing) quickly overwhelmed California grasslands and converted them, at the expense of very rich botanical biodiversity.

Sometimes, as in the case of my hiking spot, new ranchos were carved out of the sobrante lands, often becoming named "Rancho el Sobrante."

The small staging area at the end of Coach Drive is incongruous, a park entrance in a subdivision, and the views are initially dominated by the houses below and a badly located water tank and a faux tree cell tower above.  The developer agreed to/was required to donate the open space above and to the west as a condition of the development, but they didn't really embrace the park, or adjust their design to enhance it.  Water tanks are usually higher than development to create water pressure, so they're often visually intrusive.  It's more expensive to sink them into the ground or berm them to cut the visual impacts.  The faux tree is similar - it's the only 'tree' there so it stands out as much as if it were just a tower.

View across Richmond to San Pablo Bay
The whole loop is on the Sobrante Ridge Trail, its upper portions overlaid with the Bay Area Ridge Trail.  A quick zig-zag up the hill, though, and the views get dramatic.  You climb from the development up onto the ridge; about 2.2 miles is part of the Bay Area Ridge Trail, the loop was 3.5 miles.  At first you're passing through those converted grasslands on your way to the main ridge line, with lots of coyote bush--signs of too much and too little grazing.  Then you curve south across the top of the densely oak-bay wooded canyon west of the houses.  The fire road alernates between amazing views of San Pablo Bay, Richmond and El Sobrante below, and a canopy of live oak.  It gets lovely.  On this evening's hike, the fog is flowing into El Sobrante and toward Vallejo, a horizontal layer with the setting sun showing through the swirls of fog.  The botany is more interesting along the ridge line too, and I pass a spur trail down to one of the reasons the Preserve was created, a patch of rare Alameda manzanita.  It will have to wait for another day.

The woodland thickens, and I drop past a picnic bench to a PG&E tower then start east again, descending quickly.  It's still the Sobrante Ridge Trail but the fire road narrows to single track.  Patches of grassland and I'm in the wooded canyon. It's almost dark now and I'm only too aware of the way the Diablo Range ridges converge north to Mt. Diablo in Central County, and to Carquinez Strait in West County, funneling wildlife to a narrow band of open space.  My shoulders and back aren't tingling the way they do sometimes on hikes that end in darkness but I look back frequently, and scan big oak branches above for mountain lions.  Crazy, I know, I'm surrounded by 7 million people, but I'm in lion country.  I'm a big guy but mountain lions are ambush hunters and can break the necks of deer or elk.

Along Sobrante Ridge
It gets darker, the woods more dense, then I'm at the cayon bottom stream--wildlife is affected by gravity too, and there will be more at the bottom of a canyon than the top, rattlesnakes for instance.  Then I start circling around the toe of the ridge and emerge at Conestoga Way.  I climb the subdivision streets back to my car, my first hike on the Bay Area Ridge Trail complete.

Giving Back: picked up some litter on the ridge

1 comment:

  1. Very interesting post! As a resident of Carriage Hills, you should know that the water tank and cell tree are on EBMUD land. I hike Sobrante Ridge very often and have seen fox and bobcat prints, but the preserve is probably too small for any mountain lions to be hiding in there. Happy hiking!