Tilden: Nature’s Jewel Outside Our Back Door By MARTA YAMAMOTO Special to the Planet

By MARTA YAMAMOTO Special to the Planet
Friday August 20, 2004

The dog days of summer leading into fall and the return to school don’t spell the end of outdoor activities. In Berkeley’s Mediterranean climate, you’ll find the warmth of the air, the stir of the breeze and the angle of the light calling you to come out and play. 

Tilden Regional Park is the ideal playground. A short drive or bus ride from Berkeley’s city center, it offers a broad range of outdoor attractions to fill an hour, an afternoon or an entire day. Encompassing 2,077 acres preserved for natural beauty and recreation, Tilden Park has been an integral part of Berkeley life since it opened to the public in 1936 (and of my life since 1964, when I arrived as a student.) Through the years it has exercised my body and mind, entertained family and friends, and even provided a name for my son. 

Miles of trails for hiking and biking, a fresh water lake for swimming and fishing, multiple picnic areas to accommodate groups both large and small, a Nature Area with its Little Farm and never-ending bridge, a Botanic Garden rich with California native plants, and for the child in all of us, a merry-go-round, steam train, and pony ride—enough to keep drawing you back again and again. 

The Tilden Nature Area is the place to get acquainted with the park. Inside the Visitor Center, walk through the model exhibit of Wildcat Creek Watershed to learn how the movement of water in its various forms has carved and shaped the unique combination of geologic features, plants and animals that make up this park. Enjoy the changing displays of quality nature photographs, the interactive Nature of Water Hall, and the small gift shop. The posted schedule of ranger-led activities for the month will help you plan for future events. A park map and a dancing chicken t-shirt will set you up to step outside and meet the park firsthand. 

Bring your lettuce and celery to the Little Farm, built in the 1950s by a Berkeley High School woodshop class. The cows, sheep, goats, chickens and turkeys at this working farm will become your best friends, regardless of your age.  

Seven different trails wind through the 70-acre Nature Study Area. The .9-mile Jewel Lake Trail loops gently to a small lake along a boardwalk built through a marshy, lush green jungle of trees and resident wildlife. You might encounter a chattering Scrub Jay, a foraging raccoon, an underwater newt or a shy, bolting deer. At the lake make time for a peaceful visit among its ducks, turtles, and often-present Great Blue Heron. 

Warm weather and water—a natural combination. At Lake Anza’s sandy beach join the multigenerational sunbathers and water sprites and step back in time. No distractions, just sparkling, chilly water surrounded by a forest of conifers and eucalyptus, open to the sun and protected from the wind. Little has changed over the 30 years I’ve visited, on my own and with family. It remains the same mellow haven, though often noisy with the delighted voices of children having fun.  

Lake Anza is a special place in any season; visit in the quiet early morning or on a day when mist hangs over the lake and drips from the leaves. A lovely way to view the entire lake and its creek is to walk the perimeter trail, alone or with a water-loving canine companion. Dogs are permitted, off leash, on trails in the park, except in the Nature Area.  

Well marked hiking trails lead you through a variety of habitats: Big Springs Canyon’s colorful wildflower display, the lost waterfall of Laurel Canyon, riparian forests of alder and bay, cool, moist, and alive with the sound of water over creek cobbles. Some trails are narrow and secluded; others are wide, open, and well traveled, comfortable for a single walker, as I am almost daily. A favorite loop hike, perfect for a one-hour break, begins at Lone Oak picnic area where the Meadow Canyon trail climbs through open grassland and expansive sky to the Curran trail. This steep decline through pines, redwoods and eucalyptus brings you to the canyon floor and Wild Gorge trail which follows the creek under a canopy of trees back to your starting point, about 3 miles total length.  

The Botanic Garden, open since 1940, has accomplished a formidable task. Its ten acres, divided into 10 floral areas, represent California’s 160,000 square miles. Within the garden’s boundaries is the world’s most complete collection of California native trees, shrubs, and flowers, landscaped for exploring, study and relaxation. Seacoast bluffs, coastal mountains, interior valleys, alpine zones, deserts—diverse areas make up California’s botanic bounty. Pick up a map of the garden and a list of scheduled events at the Visitor Center as you arrive. 

When it’s time to nourish the body as well as the soul you won’t be disappointed. There are picnic areas throughout the park, many available for reservation. Big Leaf, Meadows, Buckeye, Lake View, Acacia—equipped with tables, grills, and water. Don’t be surprised to see colorful balloons if you arrive for an early morning hike; Tilden Park is a hot party venue. 

When you just need a break from acting like an adult, head for the Herschell Spillman antique merry-go-round. Wonderful hand-carved carousel animals and the music of the calliope will lift your spirits, and adults can ride too. On the Steam Train you can sit inside boxcars or out in the elements for a scenic ride, complete with appropriately attired engineer, billows of steam and a piercing whistle. Only children can ride the ponies as they circle the pony ride ring, but watching can bring back fond memories. 

Welcome to Berkeley. Welcome to Tilden Regional Park. Throughout the year and regardless of the weather, you’ll find yourself making excuses to walk its trails and absorb its quiet beauty. So close to home and yet remote with its potential for escape.