Archive for the ‘Oakland peaks’ Category

Pill Hill

27 April 2020

Pill Hill, an odd outlier of ancient alluvial gravel in North Oakland with a long history, rises almost 50 feet above its flat surroundings. Today it’s thoroughly encrusted with buildings, as seen here looking up Broadway from the YMCA gym building and down Broadway from the Kaiser hospital parking structure.

Beginning in the 1860s it was known as Academy Hill or College Hill for its private schools in gracious settings, which included St. Mary’s College, the Pacific Theological Seminary (now the Pacific School of Religion on Berkeley’s Holy Hill), the California Military Academy, the Pacific Female College, Hopkins Academy (where publisher J.R. Knowland started his first newspaper as a student), and other long-gone institutions.

Although the hill started out as bare grassland, after a few decades of landscaping the location was described in 1885 as “healthful, retired, and beautiful” and was served by horsecar lines on both Telegraph Avenue and Broadway.

Anthony Chabot built the first reservoir of his Contra Costa Water Company here in 1868, near today’s Summit Street and Hawthorne Avenue at the hill’s highest point. It held a million gallons of Temescal Creek water, and Academy Hill institutions may have been early customers supplementing their own wells. See its location on the 1878 Dingee Map:

and here’s the spot today.

The 1949 USGS topographic map shows the hill lovingly outlined in 5-foot contours. Given all the construction and digging done here since then, I think not even a modern lidar survey will ever match the fidelity of this map.

You can see that all the academies were gone by then (except for Grant Senior High, now the Zapata Street Academy), replaced by hospitals. Hence today’s name of Pill Hill. Probably the availability of large land parcels, the subsequent improvement of the water supply, the great street access, the advantages of a concentrated healthcare district (including the original Samuel Merritt College) and the attractive setting favored this change. When Pill Hill’s three big hospitals combined in 1992 to form Summit Medical Center, it was the hill they shared that inspired the name. The views from the hill, especially from the higher hospital floors, remain excellent.

Pill Hill is part of the widespread body of old Pleistocene-age gravel that I call the Fan, specifically lobe 2. Here it is on the geologic map.

Where this material extends across 27th Street, there’s a low hump in the road that the builders didn’t bother to flatten.

And at its north end, the construction of I-580 wiped out the hill, but a little bit still extends into Mosswood Park. This cut in the low rise at the park’s south edge may expose the gravel, but of course I can’t dig into it.

The rest of the hill’s periphery is an abrupt edge; this view west from Broadway down 30th Street is typical. I showed a few more views of the hill in this post from 2011.

The gravel of the Fan is considerably older and more consolidated than the alluvial plains around it. Exposures are very difficult to find, which is maybe why I’m a bit obsessed. The official description of this map unit (Qpaf, Quaternary (Pleistocene) alluvial fan) includes the tantalizing bit that they “locally contain fresh water mollusks and extinct late Pleistocene vertebrate fossils.” I did present one good (short-lived) exposure here in 2015.

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.

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.

The highest point in Oakland

25 September 2017

I have believed — and what’s worse, repeated — that Oakland’s highest point is Grizzly Peak. In fact, the highest point within the city limits is Chaparral Peak, an eminence so subtle you can barely tell it’s there.

Let’s look at the 1959 topo map of the high Berkeley Hills. Everything south of the county line is in Oakland.

Grizzly Peak stands out, at approximately 1745 feet. Figures differ, so don’t quote me on that. But Chaparral Peak definitely rises above the 1760 foot contour, making it a hair over one-third of a mile above the Bay. Here’s the mountaintop, such as it is.

It’s Oakland’s largest exposure of the Bald Peak Basalt, which extends from here beyond Vollmer Peak.

Chaparral Peak is the heart of Frowning Ridge, a name we don’t use much (and I’m not sure we ever did). Frowning Ridge is an ill-defined set of peaks and eminences running from Grizzly Peak to Chaparral Peak and then down Siesta Valley where it’s cut off by a fault. This is the view upridge to Grizzly Peak. Mount Tam is in back, on the left.

And this is the view southeast to the Oakland Hills.

Round Top is in the center, against the sky, and exactly in front of it is 1684 Hill. On the right rises a nameless hill, topped by a large installation, where the county line goes. I think of these as affiliated with Gudde Ridge, on the south side of Route 24, because they line up with it.

Both ridges reflect the presence of volcanic rock units. Frowning Ridge is held up by the Bald Peak Basalt and Gudde Ridge (and its northern affiliates) by the Moraga Formation.

Here’s one more view, this time due east across the far flank of Siesta Valley to Mount Diablo.

The Mount Diablo Base Line, the master line for land surveys in most of northern California and all of Nevada, runs right between Chapparal and Grizzly Peaks. That’s the red line on the map, with Township 1 North and 1 South on either side of it.