The rocks of Mulholland Hill

Over the last couple years, I’ve been more and more tempted by Mulholland Hill, the ridge shared by Moraga and Orinda that dominates its area and shelters the former village of Rheem. Tempted because I crave summits, but also tempted because its rocks, named the Mulholland Formation, are interpreted as the youngest in the region.

The Mulholland Formation is mapped in two shades of light tan on the geologic map, due east of Oakland. It extends from downtown Orinda past Moraga and into the watershed lands to the south; a finger of it (not shown) sticks beyond the rest across Cull Canyon and all the way to Crow Canyon.

Mulholland Hill sits in the northern part. Much of it is preserved as open space, and that’s where I went to see its rocks.

But first, what does it look like? This 2016 view east from the ridge above Wilder Valley shows Mulholland Hill’s level top just in front of Mount Diablo; the grassy ridge dominating the view is another hill that overlooks Lost Valley.

This February 2018 view north from Redwood Ridge shows Mulholland Hill against the horizon left of center, dotted with homes and trees.

And here are two closer views, the first looking southeast from 1204 Hill:

And the second looking northwest from Alta Mesa Drive in Moraga last week.

Here’s a closer look at the geologic map between downtown Orinda at top left and downtown Moraga at bottom right, showing the north half of the Mulholland Formation that underlies Mulholland Hill.

The formation is divided into upper and lower parts (Tmlu and Tmll respectively). Notice how the lower part flanks the upper part on both sides. That’s because the whole thing is folded like a taco, so the older rocks wrap around the younger rocks — a configuration called a syncline. The upper rocks have more sand and gravel in them and resist erosion better than the muddier lower rocks.

The paved trail is the middle part of Donald Road; you can get to the open space on Donald Road from north or south. I came up from the south and recommend that unless you’re in a hurry.

Along the way you may see cattle. Moraga originated as a cattle ranch in the 1840s, so these represent an old tradition. For all I know, Moragans still fill their household freezers with artisanal grass-fed Moraga beef.

Get off the pavement to see bedrock poking through the soil. It’s coarse sandstone with a fair share of pebbles.

Elsewhere it’s full-fledged conglomerate, mostly pebbles that represent a variety of different rock types.

These rocks are interpreted as freshwater deposits, laid down by a vigorous river draining hilly terrain. Nearby exposures of this unit contain horse bones and teeth and plant leaves that fix its age around early Pliocene time, some 5 million years ago.

These rocks are pretty tightly folded. This detail from the geologic map shows the direction and angle that the rock beds dip into the hill. You can see that over a short distance, their orientation changes by roughly 90 degrees. As surely as folding a taco, that would push the central belt of rocks upward. The red line with the arrows indicates the syncline’s axis and sense. (An opposite fold, with the arrows pointing away, would be an anticline.)

But by all means, look around from the top of Mulholland Hill. Depending on the weather and the direction, the vista can be stern, like this view of Round Top and the Oakland Hills,

or grand, like this view of Las Trampas and Rocky Ridges, with Bollinger Canyon between them,

or just splendid.

A fine place to visit. It’s also prime raptor habitat — but if you’re a birdwatcher you probably already know about it. I’m tempted to return.

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