One Wild City San Francisco’s Bay Area Has More Wild Territory Than Yosemite, And A Surprising Number Of Animals Call It Home
When I was growing up in the Berkeley Hills across the Bay from San Francisco, I would sit at my parents’ window and watch the lights of the city as they glowed ever brighter against the evening sky. I still live in those hills, just a block from a 30-mile strip of open space, but now I find myself more intrigued by the vast dark patches above and between those lights.
Here, public lands of multiple designations interconnect to form vast stretches of wild country, greenbelts where sightings of deer, coyotes, eagles, owls and the occasional mountain lion make the landscape come alive.
Before dawn, when the city lies beneath a blanket of fog, I often escape the gray pallor by taking a trail run through these lands.
Sometimes I’m joined by a fleet neighbor who can always outpace me. I’ve grown used to catching him unexpectedly on the steepest hill, nearly 2,000 feet above the Bay, as the first rays of dawn break through misty Monterey pines into golden beams. He stops at the edge of the fog to watch the light and mist come together in colored glories that hover above the landscape with our shadows inside them. Here in Tilden Regional Park, even the ground beneath our feet takes on rainbow hues when spring wildflowers are in bloom.
At these times, there is no other wild place on Earth that I would rather be - a conviction born of travels to the seven continents and both poles. Even John Muir, the famous 19th-century adventurer and environmentalist who explored Yosemite and so many other wildlands of America, chose to live the last half of his life in the East Bay.
On a multiday solo hike in 1877, he “beheld the most ravishingly beautiful sunset on the Bay I have ever yet enjoyed” from these same Berkeley Hills.
One hundred twenty years later, however, when I mention to people that I live in the San Francisco Bay area, they assume that I travel to exotic places to get away from my 6 million urban neighbors.
Few residents and fewer visitors realize that no other major metropolitan center holds such an extensive system of natural areas. The extraordinary total of wild greenbelts within 40 miles of San Francisco exceeds Yosemite National Park in size, biodiversity and visitation. Unlike Yosemite, these more than 200 preserves, parks and other protected wildlands have no single name or governing agency.
An old family friend from Berkeley who worked summers as a Yosemite ranger was once asked, “What would you do if you had just one day here?” “Lady, I’d cry,” he answered. That is how I feel about the wild Bay Area.
So great is the appeal of these wild and wide open spaces that real estate values seem to fall in direct proportion to the property’s distance from them. Ads for prime Bay Area homes often call attention to their proximity to parks and trails.
Local governments are discovering that preserving urban wildlands is not only an environmental but also an economic imperative. Creative plans for preservation have become models for urban centers elsewhere - the largest urban national park lands in the world, the first multicounty regional parks, and the protection and restoration of the Bay due to citizens’ action groups such as the Save San Francisco Bay Association.
Take Marin County, just north of the Golden Gate Bridge, for example. A whopping 27 percent of its land area and 28 miles of its wild coast are under national park designation, while just 11 percent of fashionably wild Costa Rica is national park land. When other preserves and public-access wildlands are added in, Marin’s percentage of protected land jumps to an incredible 44 percent.
From the air, Marin County’s Mount Tamalpais appears as one forested peak, but maps show it as chopped up into state park, national park, water district and regional open space designations. Even Muir Woods National Monument fills just one small valley bottom that merges with far larger and lesser-known forests that blanket the west side of the peak. The wild wholeness I see from a small plane reminds me of the first astronauts’ descriptions of what their eyes beheld - a singular, living Earth - after being brought up seeing globes colored by political entities.
Hikers can discover much the same experience on the ground.
The seven-mile Dipsea Trail wends from the town of Mill Valley up and down over the spurs of “Mount Tam,” past flowered meadows and cascading streams into the heart of the redwoods to emerge against the waves of the Pacific Ocean at Stinson Beach.
Starfish and sea urchins color tide pools all along the wild Marin coast while old-growth forests near Point Reyes form the southernmost habitat of the northern spotted owl, the controversial symbol of the Endangered Species Act to prevent clearcutting.
Despite thousands of visits to “my” local parks and preserves, I was astonished to discover how little I really knew about the Bay Area’s wild places. As I talked with veteran users of local wildlands, I found myself in good company. Virtually all of us knew a few places well, but rarely ventured beyond our favorite local haunts. We were more likely to have spent weeks in the wilds of Nepal than on the far shores of the Bay opposite our homes. We simply hadn’t given equal effort to visiting places we thought we could see any time.
My brief forays beyond the familiar -to see the tule elk herds of Point Reyes National Seashore or the elephant seals of Ano Nuevo State Park, for example - had been prompted by the need to show out-of-town guests around.
To patch these holes in my experience, I decided to approach even the most mundane of my Bay Area journeys as if I were traveling abroad. Instead of using a road map to find the fastest way to and from an appointment, I kept trail maps and natural history guides in my car. Whenever possible, I expanded long urban drives to include visits to new wild places.
I would schedule a business appointment in Silicon Valley, for example, with enough extra time to hike into one of the 23 Midpeninsula Open Space District preserves before sunset. A bonus of such a detour was that I would return home far more relaxed and fulfilled than if I had merely bucked traffic and tended to business.
One of my favorite Midpeninsula preserves is El Corte de Madera beside Skyline Boulevard, where a network of trails drops off the crest of the Northern Santa Cruz Mountains toward the sea through deep forests of redwood, Douglas fir and live oak. Eroded sandstone cliffs and pinnacles sprinkled beneath the leafy canopy give the place a timeless aura of mystery. Nearby, the new Lodge at Skylonda fitness retreat offers guests organized hikes and other healthful experiences in this wild setting.
Many Bay Area wildlands are so splendid in natural character and easily accessible that I marvel at finding solitude so close to the city, but others require major chunks of time and energy. The 29-mile Ohlone Regional Wilderness Trail in southern Alameda County rivals the toughest Yosemite trail as it gains and loses 17,000 feet through open oak woodland along a route broken by only a single road. Only those blessed with lots of leisure time and physical stamina ever complete this walk, but those on tighter schedules can get almost instant gratification on many other Bay Area trails.
One of my North Bay favorites is Tennessee Valley, just five minutes off the freeway in Marin County. Short trails lead to the sea through open country, where I have yet to wander without seeing a hawk, an owl, a deer or a bobcat on even a brief 15-minute stroll.
In the East Bay, I especially love the variety of trails that spoke out from Skyline Gate in Redwood Regional Park. Fern-lined paths through forested canyons and broad ridge trails with views of Mount Diablo interconnect into options from one-mile walks to marathons. One of my favorites connects with the Sibley Volcanic Regional Preserve, where solidified volcanic ash turns crimson in sunsets. Routes are well marked on free brochures from the East Bay Regional Park District, the oldest of its kind in the nation.
In the interior of the East Bay, Mount Diablo State Park has steadily increased in size from just over two square miles to 30 square miles that encompass much of the 3,849-foot peak, thanks to the efforts of a local group called Save Mount Diablo. Spring wildflower displays on the upper peak are not to be missed, whether by the paved road that goes all the way to the summit or by the trails that traverse all sides. Since wider fire trails are open to mountain bikes, one of my favorite spring outings is to coax a friend into dropping me off at the summit with bike and camera pack.
When I was growing up, I thought of Bay Area wild places as wilderness with training wheels - places to practice for the real thing in more remote parts of the world. Experience elsewhere has taught me that those wheels were only in my mind. Trails where I once held my father’s hand are no less worthy destinations today, especially as they are being connected to form the 400-mile Bay Area Ridge Trail, a circuit of the Bay that is now more than half completed.
Merely knowing about this grand circuit changes the way I think about my experience in subtle ways. I should be able to take each mile and moment at face value, but the Ridge Trail emblem on each signpost bears a named, formal connection to the entire Bay Area. It gives me the feeling of being in another part of the American West so vast that I can never fully know it in one lifetime, despite my luck to call it home.
MEMO: This sidebar appeared with the story:
IF YOU GO
The following organizations can provide additional information about Bay Area parks:
California Department of Parks and Recreation, P.O. Box 942896, Sacramento, CA 94296; (916) 653-6995.
East Bay Regional Park District, 2950 Peralta Oaks Court, Oakland, CA 94605; (510) 635-0135; park information, 510-562-7275.
Golden Gate National Recreation Area, Building 201, Fort Mason, San Francisco, CA 94123; (415) 556-0560.
Marin County Open Space District, Room 415, Civic Center Drive, San Rafael, CA 94903; (415) 499-6387.
Midpeninsula Regional Open Space District, 330 Distel Circle, Los Altos, CA 94002; (415) 691-1200.
Point Reyes National Seashore, Bear Valley Road, Point Reyes Station, CA 94956; (415) 663-1092.
Bay Area Ridge Trail Council, Fourth Floor, 26 O’Farrell St., San Francisco, CA 94108; (415) 391-9300.
This sidebar appeared with the story: IF YOU GO The following organizations can provide additional information about Bay Area parks: California Department of Parks and Recreation, P.O. Box 942896, Sacramento, CA 94296; (916) 653-6995. East Bay Regional Park District, 2950 Peralta Oaks Court, Oakland, CA 94605; (510) 635-0135; park information, 510-562-7275. Golden Gate National Recreation Area, Building 201, Fort Mason, San Francisco, CA 94123; (415) 556-0560. Marin County Open Space District, Room 415, Civic Center Drive, San Rafael, CA 94903; (415) 499-6387. Midpeninsula Regional Open Space District, 330 Distel Circle, Los Altos, CA 94002; (415) 691-1200. Point Reyes National Seashore, Bear Valley Road, Point Reyes Station, CA 94956; (415) 663-1092. Bay Area Ridge Trail Council, Fourth Floor, 26 O’Farrell St., San Francisco, CA 94108; (415) 391-9300.