Trip report: Spring serenity at Briones Regional Park

From Briones Peak, a view to the north of cattle ponds and Carquinez Straits.

From Briones Peak, a view to the north
of cattle ponds and Carquinez Straits.

The day after a snowstorm, folks who ski tend to reference sunny, clear-blue skies as evidence of a bluebird day. If I can extend that term to include my hiking adventures, then I’ve recently enjoyed two bluebird days – one at Big Basin Redwoods back on February 24th, and the other this past Sunday at Briones Regional Park.

Quite fortuitously, each of these hikes had occasion to occur two days after moderate seasonal rainfall late in the week, each rain quickly giving way to clear weather and allowing adequate drainage and drying of the trail surface. By the time I’d arrived at their trailheads, the soils at each park had yielded a near-perfect tack, comfortable underfoot and presenting only minor incidence of loose footing in the shadowed low spots.

Red Maids (Calandrinia ciliata) were a common sight on the sunny saddle between Briones and Mott peaks.

Red Maids, Calandrinia ciliata, were a common sight on the sunny saddle between Briones and Mott peaks.

It had been another in a series of long weeks at work, and I first had to get past the frustrations of deciphering dense Engineerese and an all-too-tall pile of workload. A good night’s sleep and a few miles of road between my Sunnyvale home and the hills of Orinda seemed to carve away the vestiges of these vexations, but once I stepped out of my truck at Briones Park’s Bear Creek Trailhead, breathed the cool green hills, laced my boots and embraced a friend, all care quickly melted into a serene pace and welcome chatter.

Within a few steps, my week had suddenly and gratefully distilled into a decoction of carpe the damn bluebird diem.

We strode out on a counterclockwise loop, Angela and I, first walking a trail east along Bear Creek before angling right along Homestead Valley Trail. We encountered the softest earth along these lower flats which, though pocked with cow sign, were easily navigable, yet too laden with moisture to support wildflower displays. After perhaps a mile, our route took us left onto Briones Crest Trail and into hills rampant with coast live oak, yet studded here and there with madrone, bay laurel and, as we climbed higher to a junction with Table Top Trail, a scattering of surprisingly tall, quickly-growing buttercups.

Mt. Diablo glows in the morning haze.

Mt. Diablo glows in the morning haze.

Eventually we emerged from the trees onto an open ridge below Briones Peak and enjoyed our first glimpse of the surrounding countryside. Mt. Diablo shimmered beyond us to the east above the town of Walnut Creek, its twin peaks prominent on the morning skyline; to the west, we could easily recognize the unmistakable contours of Mt. Tamalpais.

We sauntered on, gaining Briones Peak, then continued northwest, following the crest of the ridge toward Mott Peak. The land undulated away to the north below us, offering a dazzling view of the Carquinez Straits, the Mayacamas Ridge in Sonoma County beyond and, just below us, the twin Sindicich lagoons.

Up until now we had generally followed the main trails, which had in large part been wide ranch road. But having seen that the trail we were on skirted the high point of the park, Mott Peak, I eschewed pretense and instead decided to follow a fenceline cow trail directly upslope to its summit. Mild protestations from Angela elicited a brief discussion of rhythmic breathing technique and, before we were scarcely aware of it, we were communing with the meadowlarks and ravens atop the peak, and hungrily unwrapping our sandwiches.

The Herrick Red from Conn Creek Winery: well-structured, fruit-forward, and absolutely delicious.

The Herrick Red from Conn Creek Winery: well-structured, fruit-forward, and absolutely delicious.

At 1,424 feet, the view from Mott Peak is nothing if not commanding, and so we sat and gazed awhile at the splendor surrounding us, gratefully chowing down and occasionally commanding sips from a bottle of Herrick Red from Conn Creek Winery, a classic yet affordable Bordeaux-style wine sourced and blended from Cabernet Sauvignon and Syrah grapes grown in Napa Valley’s Rutherford district.

On such a comfortable, sun-warm day, it was easy to accept the notion that we should simply linger in the grass among the Red Maids, allow the gentle Bay breeze to caress us, and let our thoughts wander in unbroken reverie, but our feet eventually ruled the moment, given to notions of wandering themselves. And so we ambled downhill, back along Mott Peak Trail to Black Oak Trail which, though it descends sharply enough to wisely warrant a counterclockwise circumnavigation of the Briones Crest, quickly returned us to Old Briones Road and our cars.

If you’re going to Briones Regional Park

The wildflowers are just beginning to bloom, so now through mid-May is a great time to explore the magic of Briones Regional Park. The majority of the park’s over 6,000 acres of open space is unshaded and open to the elements, so be sure to wear sunscreen, even a wide-brimmed hat. The Briones Regional Park website a includes a downloadable trail map; parking at the Briones Park office and the Alhambra, Bear Creek, Lafayette Ridge and Reliez Valley staging areas is $3 and is open from 8 a.m. to sunset.

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Have you hiked Briones Regional Park?
If so, did you see any wildflowers or enjoy the view from Mott Peak?

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~winehiker

Trip report: Nisene Marks State Park & Burrell School Vineyards

It just wasn’t our Fault today.
‘Twas a bit early and a bit chilly Sunday morning when I related my intentions to y’all about the day’s planned excursion through the Forest of Nisene Marks State Park. It was 45 degrees at 9:30 a.m.; not typical for early November in the San Francisco Bay Area. But even so I thought an uphill walk would warm me sufficiently. Golly, I might have been wrong about that. Already, it was going to be my fault not to don the silk longies.

Brrrr!

It was good to see the park again; I hadn’t spent much time at Nisene Marks since my mountain biking days. I’ve always enjoyed the heavy canopy of the park’s redwoods, regardless of the weather. Combined with the low sun of the Fall season, the forest shade was to keep our group cool for a large part of the day. Though ours was a friendly group, ready to brave the forest chill for a long romp through glorious redwood enchantment, we were a shivering group. But we planned to soon be warm: we faced 10 miles of steady hills.

A good day to be in the woods.

A good day to be in the woods.

We started out at the Porter parking area and walked steadily up the former railroad grade that is Aptos Creek Trail, covering nearly six miles before turning off on Big Slide Trail. That’s when the fun began: the trail wound down along a narrow redwood- and fern-lined canyon, alternating between moments of deep, mossy, forested darkness and fleeting glimpses of sunlight. Curving, twisting, and rolling downstream, the trail showed hardly a sign of human passage. The challenge of keeping to the dim path while reveling in the glow of this elfin paradise bore the seven of us, seemingly, to a sidereal separation from earthbound worry.

The group always wins
Alas, the reverie broke too abruptly. Another hiker, one who’d passed ahead earlier, was now returning, informing us that the trail ahead was signed as being impassable. Darn.

Double darn!

I can be ambivalent about such matters. Because if I’d been alone, I would have attempted to pass through the impassable, defying the faceless functionary who placed the sign, to determine the trail’s supposed impassability for myself. A guy’s gotta try, right? You’ve heard the standard phrase: Always Question Authority, Absolutely.

But the group always wins, of course, and for an obvious good reason: doing the right thing usually means nobody gets hurt.

So, after a moment of wistful wishes to continue mixed with negotiations for good citizenship, safety, and compliance, we turned back uphill instead of continuing into areas grey with unforeseen shadows.

Because we were good citizens, however, we never got to see our intended target for the day: the epicenter of the 1989 Loma Prieta Earthquake. We did, however, get to hike about 4 more miles. But that was probably a good thing, since it kept us a little warmer a little longer.

We didn’t make it, but anyone else can
I figure we hiked about 14 miles Sunday. But the good news is: anyone who wants to can get themselves easily to the epicenter without hiking even one-fourth that long. That’s because there’s a much shorter trail that leads to it from a trail junction we had passed early on. But if you should take the long way and try to find the epicenter from the uphill side like we did, and if you find the trail impassable, not getting there won’t be your Fault, either. Unless you read this first and go anyway.

State park budgets being what they are these days, I don’t expect this trail to be repaired very soon. Like “in the next five years” soon.

The group always wines, too
Nevertheless, undaunted and not to be outdone, the seven of us actually did arrive at Burrell School Vineyards about 4:00 in the afternoon for a well-deserved wine tasting in their enchanting little ridgetop schoolhouse. And while only two of us, my buddy Vindu and myself, were keen to tongue-wag about the wines’ characteristics, all of us were keen to their beneficial effects.

Ah, liquid anesthesia!

Vindu and I even found three out of the five bottles poured to be quite worth taking home. I sprung for a 2002 Zinfandel from Ryan Oaks Vineyard, Amador County ($30), which I found quite jammy and well-finished. Vindu, flush with endorphins and polyphenols, let his MasterCard speak for Burrell’s 2002 Estate Chardonnay from their schoolhouse estate in the Santa Cruz Mountains, a fine combination of butter and spice, on sale for $16. Plus, though they weren’t pouring it,* Vindu also picked up 3 bottles of 2003 Cabernet Franc from the Santa Cruz Mountains, a young (but highly drinkable now) estate-grown pure varietal that is very much worth cellaring; it’s priced at $40 a bottle.

Wait! There’s more.
I’d mentioned in my last post that fellow outdoor blogger Tom Mangan would be along for this hike. You might enjoy Tom’s account of this day, a darn-fine photoessay.

*A side note on the Cab Franc: we had thought we would taste this wine at the winery. However, Burrell School is currently down to less than 20 cases and is therefore no longer pouring it at their tasting bar. You can still buy it, though, if you hurry. Vindu and I enjoyed one of these solid Cab Francs for dinner that evening, the upshot being that we both purred like satisfied cats and finished the bottle. And that was nobody’s fault.

See a related story, Why I love redwood trees.

~winehiker

Thoroughly Thursday Links

Terrific Tuesday Links

To Fall, With Grace

The weather here in the San Francisco Bay Area has been uncharacteristically warm and dry lately, making for an Autumn season that has been incredibly enticing to an outdoors junkie like myself.

The other day at Russian Ridge Open Space Preserve, I captured a California buckeye against a backdrop of azure sky and cloud wisps.

A California Buckeye proudly displays its ornaments.

A California Buckeye proudly displays its ornaments.

Saturday, while at Fort Mason in San Francisco, I took a moment to record the following scene of the San Francisco Marina Yacht Harbor. Note the Golden Gate Bridge and Marin County’s Mt. Tamalpais in the background.

A late Fall afternoon at San Francisco's Marina Yacht Harbor near Fort Mason. Note the Golden Gate Bridge and Marin County's Mt. Tamalpais in the background.

A late Fall afternoon at San Francisco’s Marina Yacht Harbor near Fort Mason. Note the Golden Gate Bridge and Marin County’s Mt. Tamalpais in the background.

The beauty that is Fall 2006 is not lost on other outdoor bloggers, either. I must admit, though, that I’m not nearly the shutterbugger that other hikers are, so I’ll dutifully share their perspectives with you as well.

Tom Chandler of the Trout Underground Fly Fish Blog suggests:

With the days sunny and warm and the nights right around freezing, the fall colors just keep hanging in there. Soon we’ll get a cold snap and the hard frosts that follow, dropping the leaves and killing off the October Caddis in droves.

Fall on the Upper Sacramento River.

Fall on the Upper Sacramento River.
Photo courtesy of Trout Underground

Heather over at Backcountry Blog posts a trip report, Fall in the High Sierra, from her Autumn experience at Yosemite’s Saddlebags Lake, which is at 10,000 feet near Tioga Pass. Says Heather:

Fall colors – yellow and gold aspen trees, red tundra – are on full display in late September and October, and with colder temperatures and less predictable weather scaring off many would-be hikers, you can enjoy your favorite trails in relative solitude.

From the Cynical Traveler comes a nice photoessay about hiking in Japan in Autumn. It’s not clear why the Cynical Traveler is so cynical, since a cynic might believe people would greet his blog with consummate disinterest. You just might be interested, though, so here’s a tease:

Hiking Japan in Autumn, from a photoessay by the Cynical Traveler.

Hiking Japan in Autumn, from a photoessay by the Cynical Traveler.
Photo courtesy of the Cynical Traveler.

If you haven’t checked out Dan’s Outside, you should. South Bay resident and outdoor photographer Dan Mitchell has been logging a lot of miles wandering the high hills and snapping some breathtaking photos of California’s fall colors.

And, if you’ve been watching a lot of football this Fall season – especially if you’ve got kids – I recommend that you find a day soon to get your family together, grab your picnic basket and a camera, and get yourselves out of the house to enjoy this sensational Autumn weather in the parks before it gets wet out there.

~winehiker

New Technology Turns Food Leftovers Into Electricity, Vehicle Fuels

Starting today, tons of table scraps from the Bay Area’s finest restaurants will be turned into clean, renewable energy at a new UC Davis research and technology demonstration facility.

read more | digg story

Winter is coming to the Sierra Nevada’s enchanting Mokelumne Wilderness

I mentioned the other day that I’d be posting a story about the autumn-blazed aspens I had looked forward to experiencing. The weather had made a distinctive turn during the week, and Summer had suddenly and finally become Fall.

The Quaking Aspen waits patiently for Winter.

The Quaking Aspen, Populus tremuloides, waits patiently for Winter.

At 7800 feet, the nights around Caples Lake in the Sierra Nevada’s Mokelumne Wilderness, near Carson Pass, had begun to drop below freezing. The quaking aspen responded by metamorphosing to gold and orange and red, especially in the groves near the Lake, where the air temperatures remained cooler.

We just missed the wet weather in camp, having spent three days in progressively cooler sunshine. On the drive home down Highway 88, however, right about the time we hit Waterloo, the water hit us.

Meanwhile, we had enjoyed two good hikes. I always enjoy taking people up to Emigrant Lake from the trailhead at Caples Lake Dam, where fisherpeople abound. With four uphill miles to Emigrant Lake, however, you don’t see any fishin’ folk at all. It’s not that they’re soft, I’m sure. They probably don’t undertake this hike because their fish will spoil on the hike out.

We discovered a new trail, too, to Margaret Lake – one I’d been meaning to explore for years. The trailhead is just west of Kirkwood Inn, and the hike is a 5-mile out-and-back – just perfect distance on a drive-home day.

A cool October morning on Caples Lake.

A cool October morning on Caples Lake.

It’s currently pouring cats, dogs, and cows here in the Bay Area this early afternoon. In retrospect, I’m sure glad I’d scheduled last week’s camp-out when I did. Putting it off one more week would have changed everything.

Snow is falling intermittently in the high passes of the Sierra today, and Winter waits with mild impatience.

~winehiker

Perambulating the Perfect Perimeter

One of the big reasons that the San Francisco Peninsula and the East Bay Hills are such fine destinations for hiking is due to the efforts of the Bay Area Ridge Trail Council. Since 1989, their volunteer efforts have fueled grant programs to spur the development of much of the planned 300-mile trail system that is someday destined to circumnavigate the San Francisco Bay and connect all counties that are contiguous to it. These grant programs are intended to encourage government agencies and qualifying nonprofit organizations to plan, acquire, and construct new segments of the Bay Area Ridge Trail (BART).

It’s nice to know that their good work is continuing. The Council, in coordination with the Coastal Conservancy’s San Francisco Bay Area Program, has just this week announced the availability of up to $450,000 in funds that will accelerate the development of The Trail. The funding will come from Proposition 40, which is the California Clean Water, Clean Air, Safe Neighborhood Parks, and Coastal Protection Act of 2002. It appears that in 2007, the BART Council will be developing trail systems in the counties of Marin, Sonoma, Napa, and Solano – areas that this winehiker feels desperately have needed additional trails, if only to respond to the demands of local Nature lovers (like me) if not to also complement the recreational activities of the wine-touring public.

In fact, a future Ridge Trail corridor is expected to be built from the Sonoma County Agricultural Preservation and Open Space District-owned Jacobs Ranch on the northern flank of Sonoma Mountain (located close by to many Sonoma Valley and Bennett Valley wineries) to the top of the former Skiles Ranch property (now part of Annadel State Park); one proposed trail in that new network will offer 6 miles of moderate to steep hiking and, if I’m correct, connect to Jack London State Historic Park.

Now if only they’ll connect all the wineries along the ridges! Why, this winehiker would be a happy man. Heck, I’d even be willing to gather some talent, grab a shovel, and help to build THOSE trails.

~winehiker

Winehiking, pure and simple

Did you know that the San Francisco Bay Area has more miles of hiking trails per capita than nearly any other region in North America?

Yup, it does.

Don’t ask me how I know that – it’s a conclusion I’ve reached over the last few years, having scoured many hundreds of websites, blogs, forums, and newsletters, and having shared trail chatter with untold numbers of folks who love to hike.

When you add that to the amazing supply of California wineries in the Bay Area – and the great wines that they produce – you can see the potential for winehiking as the next big thing to appeal to active vacationers near and far.

Just think about it for a moment. There’s an incredible number of people who simply love to get outdoors for fresh air and exercise. Whether it’s to provide balance to stressful lives, whether it’s discovering new places, or whether it’s being with friends doing fun things, pursuing outdoor activities is very much a California pastime, if not also a favorite activity the world over. Of the percentage of the population that is active outdoors, I’ve seen evidence which indicates that the greater bulk are fond of hiking.

By the same token, a very large percentage of the world population reveres fine wine. And that population is growing. It doesn’t hurt that medical experts are expounding wine consumption – in moderation, of course – as a very healthy way to combat Nature’s ills. Add that to the notion that in recent years, not only are more people worldwide drinking wine, but they are drinking higher-quality wine for a relatively reasonable price – especially in California – and you have the makings of a true winehiking revolution.

I wish I could give you hard numbers. But I’ll leave that to the industry analysts. All I can say is that I believe I’ve got something good here with this notion of winehiking.

I hope you agree. And if you do, let me know your thoughts. Please, whether I’ve met you personally or not. Because I’d really like to know what you think. Just click the leave a comment link to share your feedback, your rebuttal, your experience – even your passion.

Do you think there’s a future in winehiking? Because you read this blog, chances are that you do.

~winehiker

Reaching the Pinnacles of early Spring

This past weekend, I led a group of hikers over the singularly unique trails of Pinnacles National Monument. There’s something about this place that attracted me – really gripped me – right from the start. Could it be the Spring wildflowers? Could it be the bat caves? Or, possibly, the chance to see California Condors on the wing? Maybe the wildlife, the chiseled trails, the far-off vistas? The tunnels, coves, grottoes and groves? Perhaps the rock itself?

Late afternoon shadow descends upon the Pinnacle's High Peaks.

Late afternoon shadow descends upon the Pinnacle’s High Peaks.

It is difficult to pick out any one thing about Pinnacles that makes it so attractive, but in combination, a weekend camping and hiking experience at Pinnacles is so magnetic to me that I can’t ever resist wanting to bring other people there to share the experience with me. And you really do need at least two days to experience the full magic of Pinnacles. So, for the 5th straight year, I reserved two contiguous campsites at Pinnacles Campground for a weekend of outdoor fun and frolic in this uncanny, holy place among the hoodoo rock.

The end of March is a fine time to be at Pinnacles, too, when the wildflower blooms are beginning to peak and before the heat of Summer arrives, which it always does at Pinnacles well before it hits the San Francisco Bay Area. Having chosen the last weekend of March each of these past five years, it has been interesting to note the differences in wildflower blooms from year to year. This year, the weather has been much wetter than normal, and as a result, the wildflowers at Pinnacles haven’t quite cranked up to their full showy potential.

A Douglas Wallflower (Erysimum capitatum) blooms along the Condor Gulch Trail.

A Douglas Wallflower (Erysimum capitatum) blooms along the Condor Gulch Trail.

That doesn’t mean we didn’t see them! In fact, many species of wildflowers were popping out there on the trails, beckoning to us to take a look as we passed by them. From buttercups to blue dicks, bush poppies to golden poppies, indian paintbrush to indian warrior, and purple lupines to purple witch nightshade, there were quite a variety of wildflowers to see – just not as many of them as I’m used to seeing.

But it’s only going to get better as the rains taper away and Spring gets more than just a foot in the door. I hope to return to Pinnacles in the next few weeks just to note the difference. If you can, dear reader, snag yourself a campsite and go there for a weekend, before the 90-degree days of late April begin to fade Pinnacles’ many blossoms.

Lowland Shooting Stars (Dodecatheon clevelandii ssp. patulum) add joy to the living art that is Pinnacles National Monument.

Lowland Shooting Stars (Dodecatheon clevelandii ssp. patulum) add joy to the living art that is Pinnacles National Monument.

~winehiker