Return to Sugarloaf Hill

It’s been almost four years since my last visit, and no locality, even the wildest, ever stays the same. Sugarloaf Hill, that iconic bump in the ridges of East Oakland, is one of the city’s wildest places. It helps being part of the Leona Canyon Open Space Reserve, an odd holding of the East Bay Regional Park District away from the usual watershed lands and coastal strips.

Sugarloaf Hill is the highest point underlain by the Leona volcanics. The drainage is sharp enough to discourage trees, and the EBRPD considers it a good example of grassland that still includes a lot of native species. Last week the peak, like most of the hills, was nearing the end of the green season and starting to turn summer gold.

The loose stones on the peak have been moved around since my last visit. Then, they were arranged in a rectangle, like the outline of a small building. Now they’re piled in a cairn that displays them nicely. The same energetic person or people who did that also brought up a chair, which I found very welcome after scrambling around the steep slopes.

This hilltop deserves a real bench, and a decent path to reach it. The existing trail is steep enough to be tricky footing, and the poison oak keeps edging closer on all sides.

On this visit I made a concerted attempt to find another trail to the top, both from the bottom up and from the top down. And there are some faint paths on the lower slopes. One of them led me past this old city benchmark, undoubtedly recorded on some obscure list but not relevant for quite a while.

This wild place did not start that way. Its wildness is not a primordial state or a static climax; it’s a temporary illusion created by depopulation — in Oakland’s case, the depopulation of genocide, followed by its softer sibling gentrification — leading to “parkification” or managed neglect. Untended, the hilltop will become impenetrable chaparral, the most dangerously fire-prone habitat we have.

For centuries, perhaps millennia, this hill was maintained as grassland by its native caretakers. They did controlled burns to do that, and the deer and the antelope helped keep it grazed. When the Franciscan priests of New Spain captured and enslaved the natives, the abandoned land made its way into the hands of the Realty Syndicate. Cattle grazing kept it in a simulacrum of the aboriginal flower fields.

In the 1970s the developers of Caballo Hills sought to divide this rangeland into premium country estates: nine large parcels of 40 to 50 acres. Someone would surely have stuck a private castle up here. The city of Oakland just wanted to start harvesting property taxes instead of a few steers. Instead, after neighborhood opposition, the developers deeded it to the EBRPD and went on to subdivide the ridgetop of Campus Drive into one-acre lots.

Nowadays what threatens the meadows of Sugarloaf Hill is the relentless growth of brush and chaparral. As decades pass, the ground cover rises, alien broom sprouts without hindrance, poison oak burgeons. Footpaths devolve into deer trails or disappear altogether. Eventually the most intrepid hikers give up, until a well-funded crew can reclaim the way. The EBRPD is committed to monitor the plants and animals in the park, so it’s up to that agency.

A rugged jeep trail used to be here, running up from the north end and circling the peak.

Bits of it are still accessible, but most is heavily overgrown. If EBRPD restores the road, the land would be ready for controlled burns again. The hill is a perfect site — isolated on all sides, yet accessible. The park’s planning document envisages controlled burns here, along with fuel reduction and similar half-measures.

Sugarloaf Hill could be a showcase for this deeply traditional land-management technique. For Merritt College students who already study the park, the rejuvenated hill would enhance their educational resource. It would be kept prime habitat for the Alameda whipsnake and other precarious species. And the views would remain fantastic in all directions.

Next, the park district could advance another item in its planning document: bringing back the historic York Trail. The old right-of-way, still visible in Google Maps, runs along the north side of Sugarloaf Hill, then up to Skyline Boulevard near Brandy Rock Way.

It would open a much-needed connection to Anthony Chabot Regional Park over the Parkridge land bridge.

2 Responses to “Return to Sugarloaf Hill”

  1. Andy Says:

    Been planing a walk up there. Thanks for the update.

    I checked out Google Maps and wasn’t able to see the right-of-way you spoke of in either the Terrain or Satellite view. But in the Maps view I did see a y-shaped parcel along the northwest edge of the park and running up the drainage to Skyline.

    Looking it up, I went down a bit of a rabbit hole and found the parcel is actually owned by the City of Oakland, and a brief Google search found this record (www2.oaklandnet.com/w/OAK034033) of a proposal back in 2003 to re-establish the top 850 feet of trail.
    However, as the proposal was part of a development plan, it looks like they may have been more interested in using city resources to create a fire road for the new houses than developing public access.
    Another thing that piqued my interest was the name of the developer – Collin Mbanugo – the same developer that was so reluctant to clean up the Leona Canyon Sulfur Mine.

    Hopefully one day the city and EBRPD will consummate the land swap mentioned in the above meeting minutes and EBRPD will be able to get back in there, reestablish the connection to Chabot and burn back some of the over growth.

    As counter-intuitive and unpopular as it is, the only way we’re going to control these terribly destructive fires is to burn our way out of it.

  2. Andrew Alden Says:

    That was interesting. Elihu Harris spoke in favor of the project, which apparently didn’t go anywhere.

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