Wildcat Canyon Regional Park: East Bay’s Best-Kept Secret for Hiking, Mountain Biking
By Shelly Rivoli
Wet clay oozes out from between my boot treads on a rainy Saturday, reminding me of The Playdough Factory I had to have as a little girl. I glance back at my own little girl, already 10 months old and drifting off to sleep against her daddy’s back.
The gray clouds have driven most parents indoors, but we’ve traded in our Mommy and Daddy hats in favor of slickers and caps. Catching the first rain drops on our noses and cheeks, we giggle like a couple of school kids as we hike down from Rifle Range Road through a canopy of bare-winter trees.
Wildcat Canyon Regional Park is a quiet mass of rolling hills that begins at the north edge of its better-known neighbor, Tilden Regional Park, and sprawls along the east side of El Cerrito to where it ends at Richmond’s Alvarado Picnic Area. For those who enjoy hiking, mountain biking, and horseback riding with a view, Wildcat Canyon’s 2,428 acres offer many trails with differing levels of difficulty-and suitability for what the weather holds.
On this drizzly day-hike, we venture in and out of tree-tunnels with our daughter snoozing comfortably beneath the rain hood of her backpack carrier. "She wouldn’t be napping like this at home," we agree, and trod further into our secret wonderland of lichen and laurel trees, with squirrels rustling overhead and cattle dotting the green hillsides.
We pause at the bridge overlooking Wildcat Creek and wonder aloud how many raindrops rush beneath our feet.
From the bridge, we opt to follow the Havey Canyon Trail , favored by locals who enjoy a moderate hike up a trail less traveled, with the frequent shelter of trees from sun, wind, and even some rain. But it is only one of the routes one can travel up to the San Pablo Ridge Trail and the Nimitz Trail, where hikers and bikers are rewarded for their efforts by spectacular views of the San Francisco Bay, panning from Vallejo across San Francisco’s landmarks to Oakland’s city center.
If you’d like to explore Wildcat Canyon Regional Park, here are a few great places to get started:
ALVARADO PICNIC AREA
At the northernmost end of Wildcat Regional Park, you’ll find a delightful park dating back to 1909. Alvarado Picnic Area is a maze of pathways and picnic sites where, in its early days, East Bay residents cut a rug on a large dance platform and later rolled across it as a skating rink. Nowadays, this park’s commodious picnicking sites are popular for parties large and small, with plenty of room to fling a Frisbee or whack at a piñata. The park derives much of its character from the stone masonry walls, lamp posts, and bridge that were created during the Depression through public works projects. More recently, a modern playground and horseshoe pits were installed near the center of the park.
To get there : Exit I-80 at McBryde or San Pablo Avenue, follow McBryde east from San Pablo Avenue to the entrance of the Alvarado Picnic Area. Free parking is available on the street and a little further down the road at the Alvarado Staging Area. This area is also served by AC Transit bus #68.
Tip : If you’re planning a large gathering in the park on a weekend, take advantage of the service vehicle and driver at the entrance. He’ll help shuttle your ice chests and even some guests to your picnic site.
WILDCAT CREEK TRAIL
Families can enjoy a leisurely stroll through this picturesque parkland by following the Wildcat Creek Trail which begins at the Alvarado staging area and traces the canyon floor. This wide, relatively smooth trail is suitable for jogging strollers and junior mountain bikers, and it provides a pleasant alternative to the hillside trails when bay winds are in full force.
Meander past a grove of eucalyptus, scattered oaks, and bay laurel, and watch for the occasional hawk or buzzard soaring overhead. This trail rambles on for approximately 3.5 miles, eventually venturing into Tilden Regional Park and ending by Jewel Lake (near the Little Farm). Simply follow the trail as far as you like and do an about-face when ready.
To get there : Follow the directions to the Alvarado Picnic Area, then continue on McBryde to the entrance labeled "Alvarado Staging Area." Parking is free. You may also access this trail from its opposite end near Jewel Lake in Tilden Regional Park. Parking is available at the nearby Tilden Nature Area, or take AC Transit bus #67 (weekends only).
Tip : During hot weather, visit this trail in early morning or in late afternoon when you can benefit from the shade along one side of the trail.
After traveling roughly one-half mile along the Wildcat Creek Trail, you’ll find a short, paved road leading to a cattle gate where the Belgum Trail begins. This trail is named for Dr. Belgum who founded the Grande Vista Sanitarium in 1914, where "mental patients, drug addicts, and alcoholics" hailing from some of the Bay Area’s wealthiest families were sent for treatment, although it is said that the house was run more like a country club than anything else.
Just a short distance past the gate, you’ll notice a small path heading off to your right, wandering down what was once a tree-lined driveway leading to the remote sanitarium. While the Belgum Trail itself continues on through the hills up toward the ridge, this intriguing detour is worth exploring, especially for Bay Area history buffs or those merely packing a picnic. The impressive estate fell into disrepair after Dr. Belgum’s death and was eventually abandoned.
In 1977, vandals burnt the house and the nearby barn to the ground. But now, on a warm spring day, you might catch the old rambling rose or a few of the fruit trees in bloom. A handful of palm trees and other landscaping plants can also be seen growing wild around the exposed foundation, where cattle graze oblivious to their storied pastures.
To get there : Follow the Wildcat Creek Trail to the paved Belgum Trail turnoff, approximately .5 miles from the Alvarado Staging Area. A short distance past the cattle gate, you will see a small display of pictures with a brief history of Grande Vista and the old driveway leading to the right.
Tip : The Grande Vista area is best traversed on foot, and after winter’s rains have had a chance to dissipate (it can get downright boggy). If you are continuing on up the Belgium Trail, be prepared for bay winds that often pick up by 3 p.m., even on warmer days.
This particularly scenic 2-mile trail wends its way through trees, cattle pastures, and across a creek, up to the Nimitz Trail . In the warmer seasons, you might see wildflowers along this trail, and in the wetter seasons, you may spot chanterelles and other flourishing fungi. Be careful as you cross the creek, as the rocks can get slippery (children will need to be steady hikers themselves for this trail, or ride along in the infant carrier, sling, or backpack).
Once you reach the end of this trail, where it joins with the Nimitz Trail high in the hills, you can choose from two loops to follow back to the Alvarado Staging Area . For either of these loops, you will turn left on the Nimitz Trail. After about 1 mile, you can follow the Mezue trail to your left, which wanders 1.3 miles back to the Wildcat Creek Trail . Or, from the same intersection, you can continue straight on the San Pablo Ridge Trail (the Nimitz Trail veers to the right) and follow it for an additional 1.5 miles to where the Belgum Trail descends on your left, down to Wildcat Creek Trail .
Once joining Wildcat Creek Trail , turn to your right and continue to the Alvarado Staging Area . Each of these loops offers spectacular views of the bay as well as glimpses of the San Pablo and Briones reservoirs to the east.
To get there : Either start out from the Alvarado Staging Area (as described above) and follow Wildcat Creek Trail to the Havey Canyon turnoff, or take the steep half-mile trail down into the canyon from the Rifle Range Road entrance, just off of The Arlington at the north end of El Cerrito.
Tip : Anticipate mud well beyond the rainy season, and bring hats to prevent ear aches in case of blustery bay winds. Hard copies of the map and a park brochure are available at the Alvarado Park entrance on McBryde Street in Richmond.
WHEN YOU GO, REMEMBER:
· Much of the parkland is grazed by cattle, so be sure to latch the cattle gates closed behind you.
· All of these trails may be used by equestrians, hikers, and mountain bikers, so be sure to stay to the right on trails, especially those with limited visibility.
· Dogs are welcome throughout the parkland, but they must be on leashes in developed areas and in parking lots (pit bulls must be leashed at all times).
· Poison oak can be found along most trails, so take care to avoid any brushes with it and help children to do the same.
· For those with a good sense of direction, there are a number of additional trails to explore that are not labeled on the map.
www.ebparks.org/resources/pdf/trails/wildcat_map.pdf . - A map of Wildcat Canyon Regional Park and its trails.
Shelly Rivoli is a freelance writer based in the East Bay. Her first novel, I was a Vacuum Cleaner Salesman , was published in 2003. She is currently at work on a book about traveling with infants and small children, and her zealous research of the topic has led to family adventures from Bangkok to the Big Apple.
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