Fresh Tracks: Trailing remnants of history in Marin

Marin County cows, I’ve found, harbor major attitude problems. They just don’t care. More than that, really. They actively don’t care, flaunt their impassivity with all the studied nonchalance given to their metronomic tail swishing.

As insolent as they are indolent, a gang of about 20 blocked my way to a lovely single-track trail barely a mile into this month’s Fresh Tracks adventure at Mount Burdell Open Space Preserve. All I wanted was to mosey past and let them return to their grazing buffet. But, no, they had to strike a pose and look all defensive and huffy, like dissolute teens loitering outside a convenience store.

Every time I took a step of two forward, the cows wouldn’t give an inch. One or two flared nostrils at me, the only other sign amid this sea of bovine stares that they even acknowledged my presence. In all my previous showdowns with creatures such as these, the cows have turned tail and wandered off, slightly cowed, if you will, by the encounter. Vacaville cattle were very accommodating, Crockett ones a tad skittish but compliant, and those on the trails in Sunol wanted nothing to do with the likes of me.

But here on the oak-studded grasslands heading to north Marin’s highest mountain, part of a dazzling and popular 5-mile loop to the summit and back, these cows apparently felt entitled. As I took in the scene, I couldn’t help but compare them to old biddies telling me to get off their lawn. Geez, Bessie, eat another mood-altering California poppy and mellow out, will ya?

OK, fine. Be that way. Though they had me outnumbered, I could wait them out. I had all day. Sure, it was pouring rain, that late-March downpour we badly needed, but I was already soaked to the bone and couldn’t get any more wet. One of us would eventually blink, and it would not be me.

Five minutes elapsed – a long time when you’re alone in a meadow on a rainy morning – before I finally mustered the will to walk straight at the herd, prepared to bob and weave, Muhammad Ali-like, if necessary. I had to get to the Michako Trail, and this junction was the only way, so, onward. A rather cheeky specimen up front, the cattle equivalent of the Rachel McAdams character from “Mean Girls,” took two steps right toward me, as well. Then she blinked and veered away, but sloooowwwwwlllly. The cow’s acolytes followed suit. I re-activated my GPS watch and loped by.

See ya.

I would not see them, or any other bovine babes, along the way. The only wildlife turned out to be newts, scores of them, scurrying under foot. Those, I can handle, no problem.

Now, about this Fresh Tracks: It had been a while since the last visit to the North Bay, and this 1,558 acres of protected property in a sleepy Marin County bedroom community has several things going for it as a day-trip destination.

For one, it’s freeway-close. After emerging from that harrowing gauntlet that is Highway 37 from Vallejo to San Rafael, you only need to drive a mile or two north on Highway 101. Then, it’s a short drive through suburbia until you reach the trailhead, where varied terrain, stately oaks and remnants of Bay Area history await.

Mount Burdell not only is the highest point in the northeast part of the county – though, at 1,558 feet, it pales compared to the grand Mount Tamalpais to the south – it may be the only peak in America named after a dentist. That would be one Galen Burdell, who received the ranch land as a wedding gift from his father in-law in 1863.

Long before that, of course, the Miwok Indians settled at Burdell’s base (they called it Olompali) and hunted and gathered the area’s riches.

After the Miwoks were forced off the land, parts of this modest mountain were carved up into quarries. The cobblestones used to pave San Francisco streets in 1888 came from Burdell’s soil. One remnant that remains is a winding stone wall erected by Chinese laborers near the summit during the mining days.

Now, though, the only commercial use of the mountain is the communications tower at the summit. That, and the cows who graze seasonally.

These days, the land has gotten the most use as a place to recreate and gaze upon a Technicolor spring wildflower display, thanks to the conservation efforts of the Marin County Open Space District, which allows hikers, runners, equestrian and (on select trails) mountain bikers. And it’s heavily used, too, much to the cows’ chagrin.

Even on a rainy weekday, cars line the road near the trailhead, and some people even abide by the law to keep their dogs on leashes. Most mountain bikers stay off the protected single-track.

Many routes spring from the main trailhead, but the most popular is a counterclockwise loop (with a little out-and-back to the summit) that is challenging but eminently doable for people with a modicum of hiking experience. You will encounter some climbing (1,345 feet, most coming in the first 2.5 miles) and a few rocky stretches (especially on the aptly named Cobblestone Trail), but you’ll also find vast stretches of grassy meadows and easy fire roads, as well as a sustained and gentle downhill back to the trailhead.

At the entrance off San Andreas Drive, you get on the San Marin Fire Road heading to the right, bear left after 200 yards on the Big Tank Fire Road. A half-mile in, you reach the junction where I joined the cow congregation. It’s a four-way stop and can be a little confusing, even if the cows are off somewhere else. Look for a wooden fence post slightly to the right for the Michako Trail, where bikers are verboten.

You’ll proceed slightly downhill and know you’re going the right way when you pass an eroded stream and, 100 feet beyond, a large water trough. At the next gate, go left on a fire road, which eventually will be marked by a post as the San Carlos Fire Road.

This begins the climbing portion of the trek. It’s a pretty steady uphill slog, first on nicely groomed road, then, when you veer left onto the Old Quarry Trail, single track. You’ll ever-so-briefly go on the Middle Burdell Fire Road, but then right back on the Old Quarry Trail, which winds around and goes up for about a mile.

Here, I had to watch my step to avoid the newts that looked to be having a great time scurrying over and under the rain-slicked rocks. The newts are no problem; I’ve never met an intransigent newt. Take note, cows.

The next major junction comes at the 2.3-mile mark. To the left is the Cobblestone Trail; to the right, the Mount Burdell Fire Road, which turns into a paved path leading to the tower. You, however, will go straight up a somewhat faint single track until you can’t get any higher. Near the apex, you’ll follow the stone wall, still in good shape about 135 years after it was erected.

Make this your turnaround point and take the Cobblestone Trail at the junction. It’s downhill, yet very rocky, but becomes a smooth fire road by the time you make a right to the Middle Burdell Fire Road and a left to the San Andreas Trail back to the car.

Those wanting a longer trek can make a right on the Deer Camp Fire Road, off of Cobblestone. It spits you out back on the Middle Burdell Fire Road, adding about a mile to the journey.

But the rain was coming down harder, and I heard there might be some more of my bovine nemeses along Deer Camp, so I called it a day at 5 miles. Only after I finished did I notice the trailhead sign titled “Cattle Grazing Area,” with the advice that “Cattle will eventually disperse if you wave your hands and shout; use this approach, well in advance ”