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The Challenge Continues at Briones Regional Park By MARTA YAMAMOTO Special to the Planet

Friday August 05, 2005

The 2005 Trails Challenge sponsored by the East Bay Regional Park District has reached the halfway point. It’s time to crunch some numbers. Assuming you’re with me, we’ve taken three hikes for a total of 9.1 miles. A total of five hikes need to be completed to qualify for the 2005 pin and four months remain for this task. To qualify for marathon mileage, we need 26 miles. Already signed up for the program are 1,700 enthusiasts; are you one of them? If not you can still call (636-1684) and get with the program. 

To walk with nature is to marvel at her bounty, both flora and fauna. Unfortunately, not all the plants we encounter are meant to be there or even wanted. Some plants will leave a lasting impression if they come in contact with our skin. Others are ecological nuisances; their presence takes habitat from native plants and wildlife. 

“Leaves of three let it be.” From the pale green of spring to autumn red, poison oak (Rhus radicans) flourishes as shrub and vine, often climbing high into conifers. Stems and leaves contain caustic oil that reacts with skin and will produce a rash. The oil lingers on clothing, shoes and pets, an unpleasant reminder of your hike even months later. The rash, however, cannot be passed to others. Be aware of poison oak; try to avoid narrow trails, and wash immediately with soap if it reaches out to touch you. 

More common along the Pacific Coast, but also found in moist redwood forests is stinging nettle (Utrica dioica). This perennial of the nettle family has opposite heart shaped leaves with large teeth. The culprits here are tiny hollow hairs that coat the leaves and stems. When the plant touches human skin, the hairs break off, releasing formic acid, a skin irritant that causes white, itchy spots. The reaction can last from one to 24 hours and is best neutralized with a mild base. A paste of baking soda and water will soothe the rash; in a pinch, use saliva, which is also a base. 

Picture the weeds in your backyard multiplied by thousands of acres of open parkland and you’ll get a picture of the results of this spring’s rainfall. One method used by the park district for the last 40 years to address this is grazing. Cattle, sheep and goats are used in about half the parks to control poison oak, coyote bush, thistle and other invasive species that use up resources. Clearing grassland provides more habitats for wildflowers and wildlife like ground squirrels, tiger salamanders, kit fox and burrowing owls. 

Botanically informed and warned, we’re ready for the next hike. 

Trails Challenge No. 4: Briones Regional Park 

4.3-mile loop, rated moderate, dogs permitted off-leash in undeveloped areas. 

Nestled in the hills north of Lafayette, Briones Regional is a treasure awaiting discovery. Cows can often be seen grazing the rolling hillsides in this 6,000-acre spread of oak forests. Once part of Rancho San Felipe, the park features shaded canyons, hidden lagoons and eye-pleasing views. 

East Contra Costa is hot during the summer. For one who performs a fog-dance whenever the temperature rises above 75 degrees, this is not ideal hiking. My solution was to arrive at the park very early, when the air was cool, with a lingering touch of moisture, and the hills just catching the sun. 

Taking me past several different habitats, this hike was a good introduction to the park. Spring greenery had turned tawny, the air was still and bird song was the only sound I heard. Mature bays and giant octopus-like coast oaks formed tree tunnels over the wide, graveled trail as I climbed a secluded canyon. Lingering ocher monkey flowers and violet clarkias provided spots of color among the forest tones. 

Grassy meadows and sensuous, rippled hillsides of green and tan next met my eye. Looking closely I realized the pale green belonged to thick beds of yellow star thistle intermixed with native grasses, the two carpeting all open space. Though cows openly graze in Briones they weren’t present during my hike, but clues to their past digestion were. 

I later spoke with Park Supervisor Denise de Freese about some fenced areas I had passed. She explained that nine plots are being used to study methods of controlling yellow star thistle (Centaurea solstitialis) an invasive weed covering over eighteen million acres in western United States. Combinations of burning, grazing and spraying of a broad-leaf herbicide are being tested. Citing the heavy rains she went on to say that invasive species, like poison hemlock, milk thistle and yellow star thistle were five times greater than normal this year and that areas had been mown twice attempting to prevent their spread. 

Suddenly the early morning quiet was shattered by voices and laughter. As I came upon an environmental campsite, I was met by a large, boisterous group of young campers and their counselors from Roughing It Day Camp. Separated into small groups, they sang as they walked. One young man in counselor-yellow T-shirt sang out, “There she was just a walking down the street” and his male camper chorus replied, “Singing do wha ditty ditty dum ditty do.” Initially annoyed, I smiled realizing what a special event I was witnessing. Around 50 youngsters had spent the night under primitive conditions and were now happily singing. What better way to pass on a love of open spaces to the next generation? 

From here the trail climbed steeply past Mott Peak, affording additional treats. Vistas spread out before me for miles all around past endless undulations of hills and ravines of greenery. An unexpected color up here was the blue of two lagoons. The slight breeze had reeds swaying and water rippling, while mud hens hooted and foraged in characteristic “tail feathers skyward” pose. What I thought was a metal post morphed into a magnificent Great Blue Heron surveying his domain. It is these unexpected moments that make a hike memorable. 

Perhaps my morning hike began too early, but halfway through I realized I was following directions backwards. This shouldn’t matter on a loop trail, but here it did, because I ended the hike at the complete opposite end of the park, the second time I’d taken the wrong trail. At this point I’d probably hiked at least seven miles, it was hot and I was tired. Two shining knights and their dog came to my rescue. Daniel Carothers, Paul Brown and Joplin graciously drove me twenty minutes to my car, and restored my faith in human kindness. Refusing payment, they only hoped someone would extend the kindness to them should the need arise. 

This hike was well described and trails were marked, but mainly at junctions. As a new hiker to this park I would have liked to see more markers on the trails themselves and faded ones repaired. One trail “Old Briones Road” heads off in various directions from the top, which is where I made my mistake. Using directional names, such as east or west, or destination names, “to Bear Creek Staging Area”, would have saved me. This could be a good “adopt-a-park” project for volunteer groups or high school community service classes.  

My mistake also served to reinforce the subject of hiking prepared. Always carry more water than you think you need, a snack, a hat, and leave information behind about your plans. 

In spite of the extra miles, my morning hike was lovely, introducing me to new terrain, alien invaders, and future preservationists. You can find specific trail directions in your Challenge booklet. If you haven’t yet signed up, do so, and you’ll be 1,701!  


Getting there: From Hwy 24, take Orinda exit. Turn north on Camino Pablo, which becomes San Pablo Dam Rd. Turn right on Bear Creek Road. (You can also take Wildcat Canyon all the way through Tilden Park to where it crosses San Pablo Dam Road and becomes Bear Creek Rd.) Continue 5 miles on Bear Creek Road to park entrance on right (Bear Creek Staging Area). 

Open 5 a.m.-10 p.m. Fees: $5/car, $2/dog. 

There are shaded full-facility picnic areas along Bear Creek.