Archive for the ‘Oakland geology views’ Category

Return to Sugarloaf Hill

13 May 2019

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.

Geology of King Estate Open Space

4 March 2019

After tramping all over Oakland, I still find its landscape full of uncertainty and mystery. The alluring hills of King Estate Open Space Park have brought me here time and again, sometimes to lead walks, sometimes to just stop and smell the flowers. Last month I came back yet again, this time to look harder at it.

The best resource on the park’s history and vision is on the Oak Knoll Neighborhood Improvement Association site at oknia.org. The aspirational Site Plan has the following concept for the park: “The winds sweep my imagination across the horizon. We move over the hills exploring the wilds and oaks embrace us. Here, in this place for everyday we cultivate community.”

King Estate Park is a grassy ridge at the south end of the Millsmont-Eastmont hills, an apparent pressure ridge that stretches along the Hayward fault from Mills College to the Oakland Zoo area, between Seminary Creek and Arroyo Viejo. What drew me here as a geologist was the geologic map (USGS MF-2342) that depicts the area as a peculiar ancient gravel (Qpoaf on the map), the largest piece of this material in Oakland.

The attractive thing is that according to the map key, these deposits “locally contain freshwater mollusks and extinct Pleistocene vertebrate fossils.” The odd thing is that they don’t match another criterion: that this dense gravel “can be related to modern stream courses.”

I explored the portion of the park north of Fontaine Street. Here’s the street map, marked with the three locations I’ll be showing photos of.

And here’s the aerial view, from Google Earth.

And just for fun, here’s the digital elevation model, with buildings and trees removed.

OK! Location 1 is on the steep western slope at the north end of the park, which I climbed. Halfway up is a sizable area of rock rubble consisting entirely of Leona volcanics, the same bedrock shown in pink labeled “Jsv” on the geologic map. The near-outcrop is in the lower left corner of this shot.

And the rock looks like this.

Down at location 2, there’s a spiral labyrinth that people have made in the last few years; I don’t remember seeing it before. But on the assumption that it’s made of stones from the immediate surroundings, I infer that it’s Leona volcanics over here too.

The Leona is generally light-colored with some greenish bits and some red-orange coatings where it’s weathered, hard to describe in detail but distinctive once you’re familiar with it. Once a range of underwater volcanoes that subsequently underwent a lot of alteration, it offers up a variety of intriguing bits that lacking a petrographic lab I can only scratch my head at.

Anyway I’m looking all over, and every bit of gravel on this hill is Leona volcanics. Now a river gravel, which is what the map describes and what I expected (indeed, what I actually perceived on previous visits!), consists of rounded clasts and a variety of rock types from the stream’s catchment. Other gravels in this town are just that way, but not this. The whole time I’m there I’m muttering to myself, “this stuff is colluvium” — raw rock rubble, mixed with soil, that hasn’t moved from its birthplace except maybe in landslides.

In location 3, we have proper bedrock. It show up where the soil has been scraped bare . . .

. . . and farther down the slope in genuine outcrops, which I always cherish.

So in sum, the whole north half of the park, far as I can tell, is either bedrock or colluvium of the same stuff: Leona volcanics. How did it get to be mapped as Pleistocene river gravel? The MF-2342 geologic map was published in 2000. There are two previous serious maps of this area. Dorothy Radbruch mapped it in the 1960s for map GQ-769, and there the area looks like this.

She called it “Qg”, “gravel, sand and clay” and noted that it contains pebbles of Leona Rhyolite (what I call Leona volcanics). She also said this: “Contains molluscs of probable early Pleistocene (Irvingtonian) age.” They were at the locality marked by the triangle with “22133” next to it; that number refers to a “report filed at Washington, D.C.” which is probably gathering dust deep in a back room. She also referred to reports on two boreholes, numbered 95 and 96 on the map, which recorded various kinds of gravel down as deep as 45 feet. That could’ve been deeply weathered Leona as easily as anything else.

But you know what? I’m going to go with Andrew Lawson’s original map of the area from 1914 (Folio 193), in which everything is just straight Leona.

Even though he thought the Leona was very young (hence the name “Tln” meaning Tertiary Leona), he could tell what the ground was saying. At least, he and I agree. I’m sure, though, that he scratched his head as much as Dorothy Radbruch and I did. And they must have enjoyed the view as much as me.

I’ll just have to poke around here some more.

The rocks of Mulholland Hill

3 September 2018

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.

Oakland geology ramble 6: Chabot to Leimert via the Oakland Conglomerate reference locality

11 June 2018

In 1914, UC Berkeley professor Andrew Lawson published the first decent geologic map of our area, the San Francisco Folio of the Geologic Atlas of the United States. That’s where the Oakland Conglomerate got its name. But while that fine rock unit lives on in name, the concept it represents has changed. Let’s look at a hundred years of progress in geologic mapping the area just west of Redwood Peak, the heart of the Oakland Conglomerate.

Here’s Lawson’s map from 1914. Orient yourself by finding Redwood Peak. The belt of rocks labeled “Ko” is the Oakland Conglomerate, the road winding along it is called Skyline Boulevard today, and the road heading leftward from it is today’s Castle Drive.

Lawson called Ko the “Oakland conglomerate member of the Chico formation,” a name and classification by which he meant that these rocks were notable but not important enough in the big scheme of things to single out. To be fair, he was dealing with a very large, detailed and cryptic field area at the time.

Fifty years later, along came James Case, who picked this area for his Ph.D. research at UC Berkeley. Lawson, who died in 1952, was no longer around to intimidate his graduate students, so Case was free to argue that Lawson had erred, having lumped too many different rocks in Ko. Some of them were really KJk, the Knoxville Formation, and others Case put in his brand-new Kjm, the Joaquin Miller Formation. (This is similar to what I was saying the other week about the Orinda Formation.) “It is therefore proposed,” he wrote, “that conglomeratic beds exposed along Skyline Boulevard west and northwest of Redwood Peak be considered the reference locality of the restricted Oakland Conglomerate.”

Case’s thesis was approved in 1963. His map, published a few years later in USGS Bulletin 1251-J, is so badly reproduced it’s embarrassing. Instead I’ll show Dorothy Radbruch-Hall’s elegant map of 1969, which incorporated Case’s work.

And for completeness’ sake here’s the current standard map, by Russ Graymer from 2000.

It’s a cool area. I recommend visiting it the way I did: take the 339 bus up to Chabot Observatory and hike down to Montclair or the Leimert Bridge to catch the 33 bus back downtown.

First, go behind the observatory buildings and find the fire road, which is part of the West Ridge Trail in Redwood Regional Park.

The trail exposes the conglomerate beautifully. The cobbles are exceptionally well rounded, a sign that they once tumbled a long way down a steep river into the sea.

You could meander your way to Moon Gate, on Skyline, where you’ll take the trail going left, or you could follow the steep and tempting path up to the water tank. From there the views look north past a wooded hill, with Round Top peeking up behind it, to the Briones Hills . . .

or northwest toward Grizzly and Vollmer Peaks.

A tiny trail on the other side will get you to some proper outcrops of massive sandstone, also part of the Oakland Conglomerate.

Either way, you’ll then be on the Scout Trail heading south, then angling east down to Skyline. Along the way you’ll pass a young and vigorous redwood stand, planted in 1978 thanks to good old Jerry Brown.

Cross Skyline and take the Castle Park Trail west. It’s a lot safer than walking on Skyline, and a nicer walk. When you hit Castle Drive, take the pavement down to the secret fire road called the West Trail.

This is the original century-old road shown on Lawson’s map. Go on, you’ll thank me later.

There’s a particular kind of peace to be found on abandoned roads.

Once the trail ends, back at Castle Drive, you can pick your own best way down, an exercise left to the reader. This was my way — 3.5 miles long, 1100 feet downhill. . .

through the redwoods and across Leimert Bridge.