Strawberry Canyon: Nature Right Next Door

By Phila Rogers, Special to the Planet
Thursday August 21, 2008 - 10:15:00 AM
UC Berkeley's Memorial Stadium stands at the mouth of Strawberry Canyon.
Phila Rogers
UC Berkeley's Memorial Stadium stands at the mouth of Strawberry Canyon.

The fog lifting in the morning reveals a beckoning canyon opening in the high hills behind UC Berkeley’s Memorial Stadium. A short walk from the center of the campus brings you to the mouth of the canyon. Probably no other place in the East Bay offers the same close-in accessibility to wildlands.  

Strawberry Canyon contains one of the region’s few year-round streams and is an important wildlife corridor directly linked to Tilden Regional Park and to San Francisco Bay by its stream and views. The rugged and varied topography of the canyon and its watershed has favored the establishment of a rich diversity of plant and animal life—100 species of birds alone—making it today one of the finest natural areas of comparable size in Bay Area. 

On the walk up along Centennial Drive, you’re confined to a narrow footpath between a low wall on the road and the chain-link fence surrounding the Haas recreational area. The first, less-than-pleasant, section ends at a small dirt parking lot on top of a dam where Strawberry Creek enters a culvert that carries it under the stadium. 

The path, now wider, takes you downhill where the sound of the stream replaces traffic noise. The path (usually referred to as the lower fire trail) skirts the UC Botanical Garden and then heads uphill through a fine forest of native live oaks, bay-laurels and planted conifers. For a good climb and the finest views, take the steep road uphill which connects to the upper fire trail where the road levels off for the three-mile, almost level, circumnavigation around the bowl-shaped watershed. 

And what a walk! Each bend in the road opens out to arresting views down the canyon, over the campus and the city to the bay. My favorite view is when the fog is pouring through the Golden Gate in a rich vaporous river with the languorous shape of Tamalpais reclining on the horizon. Most evenings the fog advances on the city below and begins flowing up the canyon to engulf the hills in its life-giving moisture. 

When you are weary of all this grandeur, there’s plenty to engage you close at hand. Layers of tilted sandstone (once upon a time this landscape was under a warm sea) provide niches for orange California poppies and red Indian paintbrush. Moist seeps from the springs which make up the headwaters of Strawberry Creek are shaded by bays and dense with ferns. The drier slopes support fragrant, gray California sage—a sprig of which always goes into my pocket for future reference. The commingled fragrances of bays and sages is a heady mix sure to refresh sensibilities dulled by urban life. 

While the south end of the fire road is an open landscape with a mix of mostly native plants, the north section of the road is shaded by planted eucalyptus. Though offering fewer open views, a eucalyptus forest provides its own olfactory pleasure. The north end brings you to Grizzly Peak Boulevard at a group of buildings. 

Along the fire trail, blue and white signs indicate that you are in the Ecological Study Area. About 350 acres of wildlands were set aside in 1968 by UC, in the spirit of preservation, as an area to be kept in the natural state for study and research. But over the years, interest in the area has waned and University expansion plans impinge on its boundaries 

If you’re not up to retracing your steps (which extends the walk to six miles), walk a block downhill to Lawrence Hall of Science where buses will deliver you back down the hill. 

The canyon is part of my family story, beginning with my grandfather, who built a house north of campus in 1902. When he walked the canyon, no stadium filled the canyon entrance. What he remembered was a broad meadow, live oaks of exceptional size, and a series of waterfalls where the stream crossed the Hayward Fault. The upper reaches of the canyon were grazing land and a dairy farm.  

The ridge tops had recently been planted with seedling eucalyptus. It would be another 25 years before the stadium was built at the mouth of the canyon and five years more until the UC Botanical Gardens would move up to its present site at the head of the canyon from its original location on the campus.  

By the time I came back to Berkeley in 1947, the Cyclotron had been built high on the north slope of the canyon. Over the years the “Rad Lab” morphed into Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, managed by the Department of Energy. Buildings spread over the hillside between the watersheds of the two branches of Strawberry Creek. The latest Long Range Development Plan calls for construction of close to a million square feet of new research facilities and is presently being challenged in court. 

Of immediate concern to those who care about Strawberry Canyon is the seven-story, 140,000-square-foot Helios Facility (with research funded by BP, formerly British Petroleum) which would be built in the canyon itself on a slope opposite the Botanical Garden with a second access road off narrow Centennial Drive.  

A group of community activists, incorporated as Save Strawberry Canyon, is committed to protecting the canyon from such inappropriate development. They hope to persuade the university to chose another site that would spare the canyon from irreparable damage to its inhabitants—including federally listed species like the Alameda Whipsnake—which depend on the canyon for their livelihood. Save Strawberry Canyon also supports providing safer and more attractive walking access to the canyon itself. 

But now, at the end of summer, the natural world of the canyon takes a deep, slow breath and waits for the renewal that comes with the first fall rains. The stream has slowed to a trickle and the native big-leafed maples are beginning to turn gold—a fine time to enjoy this still-wild place next door.