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Issue date: March 31, 2000

What a view! What a view! (March 31, 2000)

Great hiking opportunities just minutes from the office

by Bob Thomas

Spring has sprung and a young man's fancy turns to... hiking. At least this not-so-young man's fancy.

Having successfully convinced my editor of the need for a feature story on hiking in Pleasanton, and a day away from the office, I chose the first day of spring as an appropriate time to limber up winter-stiffened muscles. But, first things first: Where to hike?

A quick visit to Pleasanton Department of Parks and Community Services was in order. They cheerfully provided two bits of reference material: a map of trails that travel through the inhabited city itself, including the Arroyo Del Valle Trail, and a brochure about Augustin Bernal Park on the ridge above Castlewood.

I love getting to the high ground. The panoramic views are great. But I also enjoy the ability to become oriented to my surroundings, and when you get up high you can place all the landmarks and fix your understanding of a place.

Also, there is the satisfaction of the climb. Working up a healthy sweat makes the summit that much sweeter. So, it's Augustin Bernal Park for me, no question.

I scanned the brochure while sitting in the parking lot at City Hall. Some interesting tidbits: The park offers "opportunities to explore vestigial landscape disappearing in California." Sounds good.

The park is named for Augustin Bernal, "who held the original land grant for the property," and was donated by industrialist Walter S. Johnson in 1971, "with the understanding that it be maintained and operated for public park and recreational purposes in perpetuity." This was all very interesting.

But then I hit upon a section titled "Warnings!" With an exclamation point! Now, I can see this park from my car at City Hall. How much "warning" could be required? Well...

"Poison Oak (Rhus diversiloba) is very common in the park." Oh. No problem, long pants and don't fondle the flora. I'm off.

"Rattlesnakes belong in Augustin Bernal Park and are an important part of the ecology." Oh.

Never have been crazy about snakes, but it's still early in the year, watch where you step, it will be fine. Tally ho!

"The Western Black Legged Tick is the only tick of the 49 species occurring in California that is known to transmit Lyme Disease." Oh.

What's next? Man-eating mountain lions? A quick scan of the rest of the brochure produces no warnings on the dangers of becoming lion scat. It's now or never, head for the hills or back to the office and ask for a beat doing dining reviews of fast-food restaurants.

I bolt down Bernal Avenue, carefully obeying the variable speed limit postings. South on Foothill, a short distance on Golden Eagle Way. I must show ID to pass through the gate on Golden Eagle Way, first time I've been carded to go hiking.

I pass through a neighborhood of large, recently constructed homes and enter Augustin Bernal Park, gaining altitude quickly. In short order I'm in the parking lot and shouldering my daypack. The brochure has a small map and a listing of trail distances. I've chosen the trail to Blue Oak Knoll, 2.23 miles from the parking lot and an 800-foot climb. No problem! Bold talk from someone who has yet to break a sweat in the new millennium.

I strike out on the trail, a dirt service road, wide and rising steadily. Almost immediately I'm rewarded with a view to the northeast, across the brown swath of the San Francisco-Bernal property, through downtown, and across Dublin to the far ridgeline, which is the northern boundary of the Amador-Livermore Valley.

I've really lucked out. The weather has finally given us a respite, 10 days or so without rain. Yesterday the temperature dropped and gusty winds covered the entire Bay Area. The wind has continued overnight and this morning. The result is a crystal clear day in the Valley, the first day of spring.

As I move up the trail, the view is obscured by various types of oak trees that are common to the park. A gap opens, affording a re-oriented view, and now I'm looking more directly down the Valley to Livermore. I can see the new Phoebe Hearst Elementary School under construction on Case Avenue and the Kaiser facility pond on Sunol Boulevard with its incongruous geyser. Just a bit further along the trail the view orients even further to the south, a stunning panorama of undeveloped emerald hills.

At about the halfway point the trail does a 180-degree turn, now taking me south below the ridgeline. A few yards up, a bench has been placed. The higher elevation creates an illusion that everything is closer, more sharply focused. Now the quarry structure east of town is clearly visible, as is Shadow Cliffs lake. I'm sitting eye level with red-tail hawks that are floating on the thermals waiting for lunch to present itself.

Leaving the bench behind, the trail begins to get steeper. I'm on the final run (slog) to the ridge top. When I do crest the ridge, the trees thin out dramatically and I can see trails running off to the north and south. A short side trail runs up to Blue Oak Knoll.

If the views along the trail were stunning, then this is magnificent. Now above the trees I can see the entire Amador-Livermore Valley. In the distance, Highway 580 snakes up to the Altamont Pass. Panning south I see the hills are beautiful. My gaze settles on some agricultural buildings to the south - they look like squat silos. I stare absentmindedly until the recognition develops that these are actually part of the GE Nuclear Facility. Whatever is in them, it isn't feed corn.

The summit is always the best part of a hike. At 1,568 feet, Blue Oak Knoll is a modest conquest, but with big rewards. I should mention that I saw only a handful of people along the trail, all of them coming down as I went up, most walking dogs. Now at the top there isn't another soul about. I've had less solitude at 10,000 feet in the Sierra - and I can see my office from here, but I can't hear the phone. <@$p>

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