CROCKETT Face to face with a cow, staring into those big, brown bovine eyes, I had nary a clue as to what to do.
I stood on a remote segment of the Sugar City Trail at Crockett Hills Regional Park, trying to steady my breathing and keep my arms nonthreateningly at my sides. The cow stood on the trail, too, not moving save the switch of its tail and some methodical chewing.
It was your classic standoff, about halfway through a lovely, secluded seven-mile trek in the East Bay foothills just south of the Carquinez Bridge.
Did I happen to mention that the cow was utterly massive, nearly as tall as me and wide as midsize sedan?
Hey, I grew up in the suburbs, where one's main interaction with cows came at Ruth's Chris Steakhouse. So forgive me for freaking out a bit, though only on the inside. I had to keep up a brave front in front of Bessie.
Now, I know what you're supposed to do when encountering a mountain lion (stand "tall," and not run away) or a black bear (make lots of noise and back off, slowly, if it's a mom and cub) on the trails.
What, moo, perhaps?
My, how I wished I had taken time to read the "Grazing Animals" informational sign at the trailhead. As it stood, though, the cow and I maintained our standoff for about 30 seconds. I looked behind me, then left and right. A few of the cow's comrades lurked just off-trail, some shooting me glances. Had I suddenly been thrust into a horror film, "Killer Cows," or maybe "Bovine Bloodshed"?
At this point, I did something I'm sheepish to admit no, it did not involve sheep. I stashed my sunglasses atop my hat, put my hands out in front of me one held a water bottle; the other a wadded-up trail map and spoke to my counterpart.
"It's OK," I said, trying to summon a Dr. Phil-type of calming drawl, as if a Southern accent would impress California cows. "I don't eat red meat."
The cow stayed put.
"I'm going to take a step forward," I said, and did so.
I now was close enough to see the flies hovering around the cow's midsection (the short loin, I think butchers call it). I took another step, and the cow bowed its head and, thankfully, made a left turn toward the hillside and loped off.
As I took off down into the valley, I tried to put myself in the mindset of the cow, to anthropomorphize it. Here it was munching on grassland when it looks up and sees a guy wearing a hat, sunglasses, shorts and carrying a map rapidly coming toward her.
"Tourist!" the cow probably thought, exasperated.
Twice more on this tour over the rolling, emerald hillsides (brown, however, in summer) and oak-studded valleys, I ran into roving gangs of cows. (I know the proper collective noun should be "herd," but these were gangs, trust me.)
Twice more, I was stopped in my tracks and slowly walked past the grazing beasts, hoping they would stick to their main activity, chewing. When I reached a cute, fuzzy calf 3 feet to my right, its battle-ax mama actually snorted and took a step or two toward me until junior hustled toward the trees.
I emerged from these multiple cow encounters unscathed and a little embarrassed for freaking a tad.
Spending quality time with bovines is only part of the allure of Crockett Hills, one of the East Bay Regional Parks District's newest trails, opened in 2006.
This is a park not used much by sentient beings of the two-legged variety, though it's open to mountain bikers, hikers with unleashed dogs, runners and equestrians. If not for the whine of Interstate 80 traffic in the distance and the curls of steam (I hope) coming from the oil refineries in nearby Rodeo, you can roam for hours in peaceful reverie.
Its trails are hilly, of course, but manageable. The views of the Carquinez Strait, San Pablo Bay and the distant peak of Mount Tamalpais are spectacular on sunny days. The ridgetops feature raptors soaring on the thermals; the ravines of Big Valley Trail shaded with oak and home to songbirds; the steep, lush grade before the tunnel under Cummings Skyway populated by deer.
One of the few people you'll find is Crockett resident and ultrarunner Karen Peterson, 48, preparing for next month's American River 50 Mile Endurance Run.
"I can run from my house and in 10 minutes I'm on the trails for hours without having to hit the same trail twice," Peterson said. "It's quite a treat. But it's pretty underutilized. You do see a lot of wildlife. We've had nesting golden eagles in the past year. That was great."
Speaking of wildlife (well, in the cows' case, mostly sedentary life), Peterson laughed knowingly when I mentioned my bovine encounters.
"The cows are funny," she said. "You just never know. It depends on the cow. Some are very used to people and not at all scared. Others are just terrified, thinking you're chasing them.
"I mean, I've caused stampedes up there, and I'm saying to myself, 'Oh, no, I'm just a peaceful trail runner.' My nickname for myself is the 'Cow Whisperer' because I spend a lot of time talking to cows, trying to convince them that I'm not there to harm them."
Good to know others are negotiating with the park's main tenants, too.
For the record, though, the sign at the trailhead advises, "Cows are not aggressive by nature, but if aggravated or threatened will defend themselves."
Then, the sign gave safety tips, such as keeping your dog on a leash near cattle, lest the cattle mistake Rover for a coyote. It also recommends that trail users do not "startle" the cows and to "keep your distance" and "walk around groups of cows" if necessary.
Lastly and this is something I learned "Cows are protective of their young don't get between a calf and its mother."
Yes, I know I'm obsessing on the cows. But they made a big impression.
And one thing Peterson said trail users need to watch for are the literal impressions the cows make on the trails.
"Especially in the back part of the park, on the other side of Cummings Skyway, the cows make the trails kind of rough this time of year," Peterson said, referring to their hoof prints. "A lot of people are not inclined to go back there because of the cow damage in the winter. But, really, (the East Bay Regional Parks District workers) do get out and grade those trails. They've been on top of it."
Running or hiking Crockett Hills in winter and early spring has its advantages. The hills are a lush green and the weather not too warm. In summer, the treeless hillsides lack shade and it can get hot. Don't count on a bay breeze.
But winter trekking here also has its drawbacks, the biggest being that the trails tend to get overgrown and uneven because of cattle divots and deposits.
Before the warm weather arrives, the trails are usually spiffed up so they are more noticeable. But, this time of year, you occasionally find yourself scratching your head and wondering if you're still on the trail.
The parks district has combatted that somewhat by marking the trails at every junction and, sometimes, along long stretches with wooden directional posts.
Yet, on my jaunt, I reached a point going downhill on the Kestrel Loop Trail where a sign with an arrow pointed toward the continuation of the trail.
The only problem: The "path" was so faint it seemed to blend into the hillside. But I took it on faith that this was, indeed, the trail, and was correct.
Elsewhere, though, the trail is distinct, even the two miles of single-track trail carved into the hillside on the Soaring Eagle Trail on the way back from the Valley Loop (see sidebar for detailed trail directions).
You might be tempted to skip the Soaring Eagle Trail in favor of staying on the wider, shorter Sky Trail, which parallels it part of the way.
Don't do it. You'll miss the best part of the trek, featuring great views of the bay, the bridge and, well, the oil refinery.
One thing you won't see on that segment: cows.
CROCKETT HILLS REGIONAL PARK
Trail length: Seven miles
Directions to trailhead: From Sacramento, take Interstate 80 west over the Carquinez Bridge. Take the first offramp past the bridge, Pomona Street. Go east, under the bridge, through downtown Crockett. Turn right on Crockett Boulevard and travel about a quarter-mile. The trailhead parking lot will be on the right.
Route: From the trailhead, go through the gate and veer right onto the Edwards Loop Trail (on some later signs called "Crockett Ranch Trail"). Go uphill for 0.8 of a mile to the tunnel passing under the Cummings Skyway. Emerging from the tunnel, veer left on the Sky Trail. Take the Sky Trail all the way until it briefly becomes paved at the picnic tables. Make a brief right onto the Big Valley Trail, then an immediate left onto the Sugar City Trail. Follow the trail around a hillside to a three-way intersection. Turn left and go on the Kestrel Loop. Follow the loop around a hillside. At an unmarked trail to the right, stay straight, slightly left, on the Kestrel. After a distinct downhill, look for a signpost. Turn left at the post to stay on the Kestrel Loop. Follow the single-track trail downhill, then around a valley to a three-way intersection. Turn left and climb on the Big Valley Trail back to the picnic tables. Turn left on the Sky Trail and take it to the Soaring Eagle Trail. Turn left and follow the Soaring Eagle single-track back to the tunnel. Retrace your steps on the Edwards Trail to the trailhead.
Longer trail option (adds another three to six miles): From the Kestrel/Big Valley trail intersection, go right on Big Valley to the Bay Area Ridge Trail to the Back Ranch Loop before returning to the Big Valley Trail.
Exposure: Mostly exposed to sun. Some covered single-track on the Soaring Eagle and Big Valley trails.
Parking fee: free
Poison oak possibility: minimal
Tick possibility: high, especially in summer
Probability of getting lost: Pay attention to signs.
Will there be blood? Rutted by cattle in parts, but still mostly even and level fire roads and single-track paths.
Call The Bee's Sam McManis, (916) 321-1145 Follow him on Twitter @SamMcManis.