GETTING OUT: A lesson learned – again

Through the Livermore Valley and over Altamont Pass, Interstate Highway 580 is one of the main corridors out of the San Francisco Bay Area.

As I pass through a landscape, I often feel it calling to me to look closer, but not when I travel through the bare hills near Altamont Pass. The myriad windmills and the absence of a plant taller than your knee make for a bleak scene. There is little to tempt the wandering soul.

After a recent trip to Vasco Caves, I was reminded of a lesson I have been taught a thousand times but never seem to learn: Look closer.

Adam Blauert, a friend and fellow outdoor columnist from the Merced Sun-Star, invited me to join him on a trip to Vasco Caves Regional Preserve, an East Bay Regional Park. Because of a number of endangered species that reside there and the delicate nature of the site, public access is restricted to guided tours in the spring and fall.

On a recent Saturday morning, I met Blauert along with about 20 other people, at Brushy Peak Regional Preserve off Vasco Road near the base of Altamont Pass. We only assembled here before boarding a bus and moving on, but I was intrigued by the view of this preserve’s namesake peak. Every round hilltop in sight is a bare grassy knob, but Brushy Peak, high up and equally exposed to the wind, is covered with a dense oak woodland. Even Michael, our docent, couldn’t explain why Brushy Peak was the only oak-clad hilltop in the area. The peak’s distinct appearance and its location at the  juncture of the Bay Area, the California Delta and the Central Valley made it an important landmark along the ancient trade routes of native Californians.

Aboard a plush tour bus, we backtracked to Vasco Road and turned north toward the Delta. Just over the top of the hill and into Contra Costa County, we passed through an inconspicuous and unmarked gate, then climbed a couple more miles into the hills west of the main road.

We parked and walked into rolling grassy hills very much like the rest of the terrain, but we could see large rock outcrops tucked into recesses and exposed on the faces of the hillsides above. As we came closer, we began to see the unusual and artistic shapes sculpted into the rocks by wind and water through the ages. Most of the hollows in the rock were simply vast recesses, not tunnels like the word “caves” might bring to mind, but it was easy to see why this site was sacred to native Americans.

At one spot, Michael challenged us to find the native American pictoglyphs painted on the rock. They were there; faded, but clearly the hand of man. Throughout our walk, Michael also showed us a number of empty twig-built nests and guano-stained perches near inaccessible nooks left by the many raptors that live and hunt here.

On the broad expanse atop one of these outcrops, we explored dozens of vernal pools that filled the scooped-out hollows in the rock. Each pool – some puddle-sized, some spa-sized – is a delicate and complex aquatic habitat.

East Bay Municipal Parks offer trips to Vasco Caves in spring and fall to avoid the summer heat (888-EBPARKS, select option two, then three). The trip isn’t cheap ($34) due to the cost of the tour bus, but you will be surprised and enchanted to see what is hidden in those windswept hills.

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