Friday, December 30, 2005

Tilden: California's Gem of a Park

Tilden Regional Park is East Bay's outdoors gem
Outdoors Columnist
Published Friday, Dec 30, 2005

Nestled in the East Bay hills east of Berkeley is Tilden Regional Park, a 2,750-acre oasis that is the best family outdoors destination anyone could image. The park, with no entrance fee, simply has something for everyone - grand vistas, easy hiking trails, an abundance of wildlife and the world's most complete collection of California native plants.

There are oodles of things for kids, too, such as carousel and steam locomotive rides, but the solace of nature on a crisp winter's day is something that captivates everybody. To enjoy this park, located just far away from a densely-populated urban area, requires little more than layers of clothing to ward off the cool weather and a picnic lunch to be enjoyed at one of 13 sites, all outfitted with tables, fire pits and restrooms.

On the northwest edge lies the Tilden Nature Area, where the only man-made items are trail signs and where wildlife and vistas take center stage. This 740-acre preserve contains a blend of native stream, woodland and chaparral communities, contrasted with introduced pine and eucalyptus forests, all set around Jewel Lake.

My favorite jaunt in the nature area is the 31/2-mile round-trip Wildcat Peak and Laurel Canyon Loop, an easy circuit with an elevation change of only 500 feet. It starts at the back of the visitor center and is marked with a symbol - a narrow bay laurel leaf and a berry. Simply follow these unusual markers and you won't become lost.

The path goes along bubbly Laurel Creek, through groves of canyon oaks and bay laurels and ultimately to Wildcat Peak, a 1,250-foot-high summit that gives exquisite views of San Pablo Reservoir, Mount Diablo and the entirety of San Francisco Bay. You'll receive such an intimate feeling that it seems you can literally reach out and touch these distant sites. Close at hand you'll also discover a living memorial of giant Sequoias, dedicated to folks who have worked for world peace.

From this lofty vantage point descend on Wildcat Peak Trail through grassy, open slopes and eventually through a grove of eucalyptus, before reaching the visitor center. Plan a visit to the nearby Little Farm, as well, and greet some domestic animals. During this time of year the entire nature area is very quiet. In spring many more walkers take this path to observe masses of wildflowers. Whether winter or spring, however, you'll not be bound by the dense valley fog. The sky here is crystal clear.

The more populated regional park has many more people, black-tailed deer and a variety of diversions, including an 18-hole public golf course. For outdoors enthusiasts, the botanic garden is a "must see." The visitor center offers tours and lectures that complement a unique collection of the state's native plants, including numerous rare and endangered species. The facility is handcapped accessible, with drinking water and restrooms provided.

Another curiosity, though indoors, is the Brazil Building constructed by the Works Progress Administration. It contains the interior from the Brazilian exhibit from the 1939 World's Fair. Don't pass up a ride on the Herschell Spillman merry-go-round - a splendid antique carousel, complete with hand-carved, beautifully-painted animals. An accompanying calliope will take you back to another era in Americana.

From Stockton, the simplest way to reach Tilden Park is to take Highway 24 west from Walnut Creek and after passing by Lafayette and Orinda, turn off on Fish Ranch Road. Turn right at Grizzly Peak Boulevard to the Lomas Cantadas entrance. Once inside the park you can take Wildcat Canyon Road from the Botanic Garden to the Tilden Nature Area.

Park hours are 5 a.m. to 10 p.m. Dogs and bikes are not allowed. A free map is available to the Visitor Center. For information call (510) 562-7275 or online at East Bay Parks.

Contact outdoors columnist Peter Ottesen at

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