Winter hikes: Solstice, holiday indulgence offer excuse
to explore open spaces
By Lou Fancher
If you owned 121,030 acres of parkland in 73 parks with over 1,250 miles of trails in Alameda and Contra Costa counties, would you visit, maybe go for a hike?
Every tax-paying resident in the East Bay Area that includes the Tri-Valley is part landowner with nearly unlimited access to the East Bay Regional Parks system. Even if you are a visitor or temporary resident, the parks, nature centers, recreation activities, camps and naturalist programs are available to the public, often without charge.
Which is why hikes led by naturalist Ashley Adams tend to fill up rapidly. The 27-year-old resident of Pleasanton grew up in San Leandro.
“One day I was hiking in a regional park and saw a sign for a position as an interpretive student aid in the parks. I was going to Humboldt State University to get my degree in geology. It seemed like it’d be a fun job during winter and summer breaks,” she said.
Adams joined the park district as a naturalist in June 2017. Before that, she worked in a similar position for Pleasanton and in Berkeley.
She leads a 4.7-mile Sensational Solstice High Peaks Hike on Dec. 17 in Sunol and a Walk Off the Winter Feast 3.5-mile trek along Lake Del Valle on Dec. 26. The Sunol trek requires registration, because the secluded area where the hike originates has limited parking. The Del Valle expedition has unlimited openings and focuses on how local wildlife prepares for winter, with history about the former ranch land and cowboy tales drawn from a collection of oral histories.
“I love connecting people in the Bay Area to nature,” said Adams. “I have a long-standing interest in theater and as a naturalist we’re kind of always onstage. I like sharing the knowledge I have from my degree in geology. I help them look at the land, take clues from the rocks on the surface. I tell them in simple language what’s going on under the surface.”
On a recent hike in Las Trampas, an area with the highest hills between Mt. Diablo and the bay, Adams explained the “Hayward-Calaveras squeeze,” a phrase she uses to describe the landscape formation.
“The land lies between two major earthquake faults and that created little faults that create ridgelines. The ridgelines form perfect pockets for wildlife,” she said. Falcons, hawks and other raptors are birds of prey that favor those hideaways. Adams says people may not see them in the district’s other parks.
The primary feature about the Tri-Valley is that it’s a former marshland. “Until the late 1800s you had salmon and steelhead in the rivers. Now all of our streams outside the parks are channeled into culverts or they run underground. But in Del Valle, you glimpse what the area was like before people came in and manipulated the land for their own benefit,” she said.
During hikes at Shadow Cliffs Regional Park, visitors see the arroyo Del Valle running through and pooling into marshy areas. “We’ve seen river otters, so many birds, foxes — just lots of wildlife in that one park.”
While taking people on the solstice hike to 1,688-feet above sea level at the Maguire Peaks that frame the southern end of Sunol, Adams will direct their attention beyond the spectacular optics.
“We talk about the old homesteads where the Welch family lived. We find trees that would never had occurred naturally, or a well you might not know to look for. Someone planted those trees, they’re not native, but you might not know that if someone didn’t point it out,” she said.
Visitors led by a naturalist stand to gain a unique connection to the land. If appreciation for nature starts during childhood, as it did for Adams, it often endures. “My hope is that every child growing up in the Bay Area has the experience I had. If you don’t have a tree in your yard, you have a park. Visiting a park might make them a more earth-conscious citizen or just a more confident person going out into nature.”