It was a cold, crisp morning in December when we set out from the Pinehurst trailhead into Redwood Regional Park. The sun was still below the horizon, but the dawn sky gave us enough light to see the trail. In the east, a thin bank of clouds hung on the horizon, and a larger golden, billowing mass hovered over the hills of Moraga.
We were on the East Ridge Trail, at a place and time so early in the morning that you could easily forget that a megalopolis of millions of people was just over the hill. Oakland and Berkeley were waking up and while some people got a pot of coffee on, others were still sound asleep, but we were in the woods.
The view west was still shrouded in night, but the brilliance of those gilded clouds to the east intensified as we walked. When they finally faded to the soft blue of morning, the spectacle moved overhead. Thin wisps of overcast, blown in on the prevailing winds, took on shades of pink and purple and saw themselves reflected up from the waters of the San Leandro Reservoir far below. It was a dance of sky and water and color we don’t see by the bright light of day – that beautiful “slot between the worlds” when earth stretches, yawns, and wakes in a magnitude of colors, an evanescent time of the day.
Pines, oaks and chaparral, and the still air of the quiet morning conspired to create a sense of solitude and peace, close to so much human activity. The business of the rest of my day was forgotten for a time.
It’s that feeling of inner peace we find in a forest that makes these regional parks of ours so important to the quality of life in the East Bay. They are so close. They work their ways right down through the cities themselves on regional trails and open spaces. It would be hard to find anyplace in either Alameda or Contra Costa Counties that is further than five or 10 minutes from a trailhead, and in that, our region is blessed.
Roman had to work that day but wanted to hike with Dan and me, so we all settled on a predawn start up the East Ridge Trail, which is only a short way out Canyon Road and up Pinehurst Drive from his home in Moraga. He wanted to knock out eight or nine miles before starting work, and a walk up the eastern edge of the park and back through the redwood-filled canyon was an easy option.
Mu Shu and Kisser were our canine companions, running to and fro, sniffing every trunk that might already sport the scents of other dogs, then adding their own. They were in heaven the whole way. Sniff, run, pee, all hike long. These dogs trotted freely along the trail. Lawrence Ferlinghetti had it right in “Dog” when he posed the freedom of a city mutt against the strictures of our day-in, day-out world, death and politics. Here, early in the morning, I felt a bit of that open wonder myself.
We hiked a long gradual incline to the north end of the park. The oak woodland and chaparral transitioned to pines, eucalyptus and eventually to the park’s namesake redwoods. The exertion warmed us and the chill we had felt at the start quickly changed to the sweat of hikers on a mission – eight miles in two and a half hours.
The sun rose and with the light came the joggers and the doggers and the trail bikes. Solitude gave way to friendly banter and trail dog sniff-outs. We remember faces. Those dogs were caching dog smell memories and who knows what other wonderful doggie insights.
At mile four, we reached the Skyline Gate Staging Area on Skyline Boulevard and turned sharply south onto the Stream Trail, descending the canyon wall to Redwood Creek and into the most extensive remaining redwood grove in the East Bay. These are all second growth, the old trees having been logged to build San Francisco during the Gold Rush, but at this point some are well over a hundred years old and over 150 feet tall.
The bright ridge trail gave way to a dark and mysterious path as we entered this primeval forest. The only thing missing were the dinosaurs that originally lived in the vast redwood-covered globe of the Jurassic Era. It was a time when the planet was misty, steamy fogs prevailing in the pre-Ice Age world.
It is only on California’s foggy coast that those conditions still remain, and where redwoods are a part of the ecosystem. Here the tallest trees in the world can do what they evolved to do, rake the clouds for moisture and create their own rain in a climate that lacks precipitation for much of the year. Have you ever hiked in Muir Woods on a foggy day? It’s as if you were in a light rain. Hundreds of feet in the air the fog clings to the redwood needles, just as your breath steams up a cold pane of glass, and then drops to the ground. Trees created weather and it has sustained them for hundreds of millions of years.
The trail through the canyon was a jumble of fallen logs and deep redwood duff, too dark for my camera. Ferns and a few other low-light plants carpeted the moist understory and tan oaks struggled, spindly trunked, stretching up for the light. The sheer mass of living and decaying organic material absorbed sound, and gave a hushed quality to our walk in the giants. It’s the opposite of the echo in canyons of concrete and steel across the Bay, and calls upon something sacred we all hold in our own natural hearts. Life abides in a redwood forest like none other, and the sense of rightness of residence, on this planet and in this canyon, is palpable for tree and man.
Toward the southern end of the creek at the Canyon Meadow Staging Area, the trail broke out into brilliant sun and we turned onto Canyon Trail and headed up to the ridge again for the short hike back to our starting point. Piles of lady bugs congregated on sign posts and on the ground, overwintering in masses of shiny red bumps.
The dogs were a bit less active on this last stretch of our eight-mile morning and we humans felt a bit calmer as well. Roman was ready for breakfast and a day at the computer, but he’d already done more than most. and Dan and I were off to our own busy lives. But for a few hours in the morning we had shared the beauty of sunrise on trail, the warmth of our friendship and the mystery of a redwood forest. We hadn’t set foot out of our urban East Bay world but for all the peace we had experienced, we might have been anywhere deep in the wilderness. And in fact we had been.
Walk away quietly in any direction and taste the freedom of the mountaineer. Camp out among the grasses and gentians of glacial meadows, in craggy garden nooks full of nature's darlings. Climb the mountains and get their good tidings, Nature's peace will flow into you as sunshine flows into trees. The winds will blow their own freshness into you and the storms their energy, while cares will drop off like autumn leaves. As age comes on, one source of enjoyment after another is closed, but nature's sources never fail.–John Muir
Scott Williams writes regularly about hiking and walking for Martinez Patch, where this article first appeared.