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Monday, September 8, 2008

San Francisco Bay Ridge Trail making big gains

Conservationists, agencies link efforts for 550-mile trail around the Bay
By Denis Cuff/MediaNews Group

CASTRO VALLEY - She could have done another vacation in Maui, but Sheila Daly rode her horse and camped for six days this summer along the rugged San Francisco Bay Ridge Trail to nourish her inner cowgirl.

A little known and partially complete 550-mile route around the Bay, the ridge trail gave her challenging hills for exercise, scenic views of water, and campsites where screeching owls and howling coyotes serenaded her band of travelers on the edge of wildlands and suburbs.

"I've been to Maui. It's crowded. I would rather escape in the hills here," said Daly, a Saratoga businesswoman. "It brings you back to the era of the way it was: the roughness, the outdoors, nature. I think I was a cowgirl in a past life."

Daly and some 75 other horse riders and hikers spent over a week trekking up to 100 miles from Castro Valley to Pinole in an annual trip to draw attention to the loop trail that will encircle San Francisco Bay. The trip ended on Labor Day weekend.

More rural, more natural and less known than the San Francisco Bay Trail along the shoreline, the Bay Ridge Trail is more than half complete after two decades of effort by conservationists, recreation advocates, and 75 cities, counties, park and water districts, and other public agencies.

Solano County residents are invited to attend a meeting Monday in Vallejo that will discuss the county's trails, progress made so far, and upcoming projects.

Donna Burla, a spokesperson for the Bay Area Ridge Trail council, said anyone not familiar with the trails throughout the county, including parts of Lynch Canyon, should come to Monday's meeting to get information, maps and ask questions.

There are a wide range of trail options for all skill levels in Vallejo and around the county, Burla said, including places people can hike on their own as well as trails that require a guide.

"I feel if we don't plan trails now we will lose the opportunity to experience great trails and these places will get built up and lost to development," Burla said.

Burla said the group is also looking for volunteers to be trail leaders for hikers, bikers and equestrian groups.

Some 313 miles of the trail - most of it dirt - is open for use by hikers, equestrians and mountain bikers. About half of the other 257 miles is under public ownership, although not yet built.

Trail advocates predict it will take another 15 to 20 years to finish the ridge trail and a network of campsites for long trips, such as adventurers take along the 2,175-mile Appalachian Trail from Maine to Georgia.

"Ultimately, we would like to have camping spots so people could do the entire trail and stay in tents or huts," said Janet McBride, executive director of the Bay Area Ridge Council, the nonprofit group spearheading trail planning.

Many people confuse the ridge and shoreline trails, or question the need for both.

Recreation advocates say each trail has a distinct character, but complements the other.

"We think of them as two large wheels with spokes in between to connect them," McBride said.

The shoreline trail is paved, closer to large population centers and freeways. It is lined with many buildings and waterfront parks such as the East Shore State Park from the Bay Bridge to Richmond.

The ridge trail follows the ridges from Tilden Park to Mount Tamalpais through more remote open spaces, and thick forests and brush. It also serves as a wildlife travel corridor for deer, coyotes, mountain lions, falcons, hawks and other creatures to move about to find food, shelter and mates.

"From the ridge trail, I can look down and see all the buildings, all the parking lots and all the people rushing about," said Daly one late August day before mounting her Tennessee Walker named Murphy to begin her trip at Chabot Regional Park in Castro Valley. "On top of the mountains, I see this is a place to get away and to recharge."

Remote as it looks, the ridge trail is close enough in so that when finished, it can be reached by a 30-minute drive from anywhere in the Bay Area.

That closeness can be convenient, as when the East Bay group ran out of ice one day and someone accidentally left the mayonnaise jar in a shopping cart back at the grocery store.

"We'll make another store run this afternoon for mayonnaise and ice," said Bob Cooper, head chuck wagon cook and one of the many volunteers who supported the hiking and riding group. "That's something you can't do on the Pacific Crest trail in the Sierra."

The group also lined up a masseuse to give massages to horses, riders and hikers at campsites.

On one day when Oakland park officials threatened to rescind the group's camping privileges because of high fire danger, East Bay Park officials supplied them with take-out food. That eliminated the group's need to cook and preserved camping rights, said Morris Older of Orinda, one of the volunteer organizers of the trek.

The creation of the ridge trail is a grassroots effort with no lead government agency to oversee trail planning or operation.

Trail advocates formed the nonprofit Bay Area Ridge Trail Council in 1987 to plan the route and press cities, counties, park districts, and nonprofit open space groups to buy land or secure public access rights to cross land.

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