Bike Rides & Hikes

Fresh Tracks: Got little ones? Head for the Berkeley hills

A couple of cows share their space with a gang of turkeys at the Little Farm at Tilden Park, jewel of the East Bay Regional Parks system with large swaths of open space in the Berkeley hills.
A couple of cows share their space with a gang of turkeys at the Little Farm at Tilden Park, jewel of the East Bay Regional Parks system with large swaths of open space in the Berkeley hills. mcrisostomo@sacbee.com

Years ago, when my children were toddlers, I had this grand idea for a day outing when the in-laws came to visit. We would head to Tilden Park, jewel of the East Bay Regional Parks system, and hike around the nature area, take a whirl on the carousel, check out the animals at the Little Farm and maybe even learn something at the Environmental Education Center.

Great plan. But, as anyone with young kids knows, parents have at best the illusion of control. How easy it is for any trip to go horribly awry.

We never made it beyond the Little Farm, our first stop. As we sauntered over to the big red barn housing goats, cows, sheep, pigs, chickens and other critters making loud noises, we were greeted with the sight of two exceedingly friendly livestock, uh, being intimate right there in the open. My two boys were enthralled, tugging on their grandfather’s sleeve and saying, “Look, they’re playing piggy back,” while Gramps’ face turned as red as the barn. Moments later, my daughter peered into the mesh chicken coop and a hen turned and tried to peck her hand.

Immediate meltdown. She clung to her mother’s leg and wailed. We bagged the rest of the outing right then. No hike around Jewel Lake and up Wildcat Peak. No appreciating the watershed and the western pond turtle. We left the lettuce and celery we brought to feed the animals for other, braver souls to dispense.

My daughter is 17 now, and her aversion of chickens has not abated. My sons still talk about the amorous bovines. Given that history, I figured a return trip to Tilden Park, including the Little Farm, was in order. This time, however, I made a solo effort as a “Fresh Tracks.” Tilden Park turned 80 this year and a few months ago finished extensive refurbishing of the Little Farm and Nature Area.

Maybe this time, I’d actually get a chance to hit the trails.

Just to make sure, I chose to do the trek first and only then check out the pesky chickens and randy cattle.

Tilden Park, one of the largest swaths of open space in the sprawling East Bay Regional Parks District, goes for miles and miles into the Berkeley hills, but its nature area encompasses only 740 acres. Still, there are more than 10 miles of gorgeous trails in the nature area, canopied by oak, bay and eucalyptus trees, lined by fecund creeks and grasslands as well as the man-made Jewel Lake. And it’s only a short distance to miles of adjoining trails that lead clear to the steam trains (another great place for kids) and, beyond that, to the vast Oakland Hills trail system.

But let’s narrow the focus to the nature area trails, which, barring any Little Farm shenanigans, parents will have no problem cajoling kids to undertake. There’s a mile-long circling of Jewel Lake that starts at the Environmental Education Center that is enhanced by a $2 guide to the flora and fauna. There’s also a half-mile loop on the Lower and Upper Packrat trails shaded by fragrant eucalyptus groves.

Those wanting a bit more of a challenge can tackle a 4.2-mile loop that involves 800 feet of climbing along the Wildcat Peak Trail – which rewards hikers with a panoramic view of San Francisco and the bay – and an equal amount of descent along the Laurel Canyon and Pine Tree trails. That’s the one I took.

What’s surprising in the first segment (the Lower Packrat Trail) is how immersed in nature you feel even though multimillion-dollar Berkeley manses lie less than a quarter-mile away on Grizzly Peak Boulevard. The path itself is snarled in tree roots and plant tendrils, but a carpet of leaves makes the going easy for even the klutziest among us. Some tree boughs, though, hang so low that anyone taller than 4-foot-5 will have to duck.

Before long you circle the west side of Jewel Lake, which, in these drought days, was looking a bit low. In 1922, the city dammed Wildcat Creek with plans to use Jewel Lake as a main water source but later abandoned that idea and left it to picnickers and the bullfrogs.

After making almost a complete loop around the lake, you veer left on Loop Road, a wide, well-groomed fire trail that circles the nature area. You can follow Loop to where it ends near the Little Farm, but our loop necessitates a sharp left turn off Loop Road onto Jewel Lake Trail, followed by a brief jag to the right on the Sylvan Trail and then onto Wildcat Peak Trail where the climb is steady but not severe. It’ll get your heart rate going but not tax your aerobic capacity too much.

You soon leave the eucalyptus behind and wander into open space. There, you can get a feel for the vastness of the park and wonder how forward-thinking people ever preserved for open space such valuable real estate.

Funny you should ask. The fold-out map available at the education center explains. In 1934, in the midst of the Great Depression, a cadre of Alameda County nature lovers put together a ballot proposal to reserve 10,000 acres of land for open space. Voters approved what became the nation’s first regional parks district. Two years later, trails had been blazed, picnic areas erected, roads and structures built. By the end of World War II, the northern section of Tilden was designated a nature area, and in subsequent years the education center and Little Farm were added.

But, as the 4.2-mile loop shows, there still are considerable undeveloped areas to explore. The view from the peak is sublime. Don’t take it from me. Read what Joyce Carol Oates, a grand dame of American letters, wrote about Wildcat Peak last year in a New Yorker short story: “Along the horizon was a rim of luminous blue – the Pacific Ocean, miles away. In the near distance were small lakes, streams. The hills were strangely sculpted, like those bald slopes in the paintings of Thomas Hart Benton.”

Once you drink in the Bentonesque view, there’s a bit more climb, but then it’s downhill to where you began.

Because there are so many small trails and numerous junctions, Nathalie Van Linder and Asa Goldstein, two runners from Berkeley, say it’s impossible to truly get lost.

“Oh, we’ve gotten lost many times,” Van Linder said, “but you just keep going and, at some point, you come back down the trail to where you started. Just remember to (descend).”

True. The Environment Education Center is a good marker down below, as are the sounds of bleating sheep from the Little Farm.

I headed straight for the chicken enclosure, not to exact revenge on the foul fowl that pecked my daughter lo those many years ago, but simply to revisit what has become a funny family story. The chickens were still around and seemed docile enough but, as I moved on, I was startled by a sudden noise that sounded like a pistol shot. Then another. I jerked my head around and saw a ram running headlong into a wooden fence post butting his horns.

A Little Farm employee happpened by and explained, “’Tis the season. He’s getting a little frustrated. The ewes are on the other side (of the fence).”

I turned to the young mother, Christa Pennacchio, and her toddler son, Mason, standing next to me, feeding lettuce to a ewe. Mason didn’t look at all traumatized, but he did ask his mom why the ram is hitting his head. Pennacchio smiled and handed Mason more lettuce.

“He’s my third (child), and I’ve brought them all here,” she said. “They do great programs and nature walks. I think the kids just like getting in touch with animals. Living around here, you don’t get to see farm animals very often.”

I thought about warning the mother and child about those evil chickens, but didn’t want to unnecessarily alarm them. Besides, Mason now has that ram story to process.

Call The Bee’s Sam McManis, (916) 321-1145. Follow him on Twitter @SamMcManis.

TILDEN REGIONAL PARK: NATURE AREA LOOP

Trail Length: 4.2 miles

Elevation gain: 800 feet

Directions to trailhead: From Sacramento, take Interstate 80 west to the University Avenue exit in Berkeley. Follow University east, turn left on Oxford Street, turn right on Rose Street and then left on Spruce Street. Take Spruce to the top of the hill at Wildcat Canyon Drive. Cross the intersection and make an immediate left on Canon Drive. At the bottom of the road, turn left on Central Park Drive and follow it to the Indian Camp parking lot.

Route: From the trailhead kiosk, look for trail posts on your left. Follow the trail that heads straight (do not take the far left trail). Follow the trail around Jewel Lake until you reach a wide fire trail, Loop Road. Take loop Road for about .15 miles and turn left on the signed Jewel Lake Trail. Follow Jewel Lake to the Sylvan Trail, briefly, to the Wildcat Peak Trail, a left turn. Stay on Wildcat Peak for 1 mile, turn right on Laurel Canyon Road. Descend for .2 of a mile, and turn left on an unmarked trail leading over Laurel Creek and to Laurel Canyon Trail, where you turn right. Make a left on Pine Tree Trail until it ends at Loop Road. Turn left and follow Loop Road to the Lone Oak campground and around to Central Park Drive and back to the parking lot.

Difficulty: Easy to moderate

Exposure: Shaded in most parts except for upper reaches of Wildcat Peak

Toilets: Yes, at trailhead

Probability of getting lost: Well-marked but abundance of small trails can be confusing

Will there be blood? No. Trail is well-maintained.

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