The East Bay’s Premier Magazine of Culture & Commerce

The East Bay’s Premier Magazine of Culture & Commerce

THE ROCK PARKS

THE ROCK PARKS

The following chapter, “Walk 10. The Rock Parks: Seven Volcanic Rock Outcroppings Turned into Parks and Residential Use of Local Rocks,” is excerpted from the just-published Berkeley Walks: Revealing Rambles Through America’s Most Intriguing City with permission from Roaring Forties Press, the publisher, and the authors, Robert E. Johnson and Janet L. Byron. Copyright 2015.

Overview: Northeast Berkeley has a higher concentration of rock outcroppings—mainly volcanic rhyolite—than other Bay Area locales, and the way these rocks were integrated into the landscape is unique. This walk visits seven small rock parks and passes several striking residences, as well as large garden rocks and rock walls. Some steep uphill walking is involved.
Highlights:
• Paths and stairways, California live oaks
• Seven rock parks, fascinating geology
• Lovely homes and gardens
Distance: 3-5 miles
Time: 2-4 hours
Elevation gain: 470-1,100 feet

Start at the northeast corner of Solano Avenue and The Alameda. Street parking is available nearby (read signs carefully) or take AC Transit bus lines 7, 18, or 25 from the Downtown Berkeley BART station or other locations.

Walk north on The Alameda, with the hills to your right, for about five blocks. The right side of the first few blocks is lined with London plane (sycamore) trees, with large, maple-like leaves, and sweetgums, with bright colors in late autumn, line part of the left side. A tall Canary Island palm is at Tacoma Avenue on the southwest corner. After Capistrano Avenue, there are four Melaleuca linariifolia, or paperbark trees, along the sidewalk. With soft, spongy bark and small leaves, they look almost coniferous; their sprays of white flowers in the summer remind one of broccoli dipped in cream. [1] Indian Trail is on the right, just past 717 The Alameda.

The original developers of this area placed the urn at the beginning of Indian Trail path as part of their landscaping, which also included stone street markers. This is the only original urn of 20 that were placed in this neighborhood around 1911; the community recently replaced several. The developers also brought streetcar trains to the area in the 1910s as an inducement to homebuyers.

To avoid the rigid street patterns found in lower Berkeley and in the San Francisco hills, the roads in the Thousand Oaks neighborhood were contoured to follow the natural hillsides. Pathways and stairs were built for pedestrians to walk to the streetcar or to use as escape routes; one theory is that the paths were built to follow main sewer lines (allowing maintenance access). These paths are now a city treasure.

Carefully ascend the steep trail, which has large, rough-hewn rock steps. This fascinating and unusual trail goes up between two impressive homes—on the left, at 715 The Alameda, a red-brick, Georgian-style house by Henry Gutterson, and on the right, at 717 The Alameda, a house modified by John Hudson Thomas in 1917. There are many California live oaks (with leaves all year) in this area and along the path—thus the name Thousand Oaks.

At the top of Indian Trail, cross the street to Great Stoneface Park (see the East Bay Geology box near the end of this walk), which was designated a public park as part of the Thousand Oaks development in 1921. It is only 0.73 acre, or 31,800 square feet, and the feature that gave the park its name is now hard to see due to shrubbery. In the rock outcropping nearest the corner, the rust color is derived from iron oxides and the yellowish brown from limonite (another iron oxide), while the green is from lichen and moss. If you look carefully, you may also see bands from repeated volcanic flows.

After exploring the park, walk back toward Indian Trail and cross Yosemite Road. Turn right on the sidewalk, strolling past impressive houses in different styles with rock walls at the sidewalk.

Stop at the second house from the trail, 1874 Yosemite, a huge Gothic Tudor with Dutch and fairy-tale elements in brick, stucco, and half-timbering. It was designed by John Hudson Thomas in 1911 for the family of Robert Newell, John Spring’s son-in-law and a partner in the real estate firm promoting Thousand Oaks. The family of Percy Murdock, another Spring son-in-law, lived in the European-style house next door on the left, though it is hard to see that house through the foliage.

Just past 1874 Yosemite, 1864 Yosemite (best seen from the gate) was the [2] home of Mark Daniels, a civil engineer and landscape architect who built this home in 1910, one of the first in Thousand Oaks to promote the idea of building with nature; he worked with Spring on the layout of the entire development. The Swiss chalet-style house—believed to be designed by Daniels and architect A. W. Smith of Oakland—incorporates many boulders (including Shasta Rock), some of which press up against the lower side of the house while others bolster the retaining walls and steps. This was a challenging site because there are rocks all over it. A rock outcropping is visible against the left side of the house, and there are rumors of a smoke-darkened cave with Native American implements. Daniels, who worked briefly as landscape engineer for Yosemite National Park and as general superintendent and landscape engineer for the national park service, also designed the neighborhoods at Forest Hills and Sea Cliff in San Francisco and helped lay out Monterey’s 17-Mile Drive and Bel Air in Southern California.

Continue downhill on Yosemite and turn left on The Alameda. Just after a rock wall-lined driveway, tall Guardian (or Sentry) Rock stands in a landscaped private garden; there is a cleft with a path through the rock (not open to the public). This rock is in the garden of a grand Italian Renaissance house, 641 The Alameda, which can be viewed from just past the rock; the house is called [3] Villa Felice and dates to 1934.

Cross the street toward 640 The Alameda, where a red-flowering gum tree is brilliant in summer, and then go left a bit and turn right down rock-lined El Paseo Path, crossing one street (Santa Rosa Avenue, which is not marked) and continuing another block down the path until it ends at Vincente Avenue.

On Vincente, virtually every lot has at least one rock outcrop, though many are hidden from the street in backyards or even in basements. Turn left to see the house at [4] 683 Vincente, with large rocks in the front yard, a sinuous wrought-iron handrail, stairway lantern, built-in mailbox, and a charming light fixture in the shape of a miniature lighthouse (it might be covered in ivy).

Turn around, cross the street, and walk right (north) up Vincente, noting first 680 Vincente, with a collection of ceramic planting pots in front. Proceed to 636 Vincente, a brown-shingle with a huge wisteria vine across the front that blooms in March and April. Continue on to [5] 619 Vincente on the right side; this house was built over a giant rock and includes siding of a different kind of rock. Half the garage/basement is taken up with a large outcropping. On the left side, 616 Vincente is built up against an outcrop called Tamalpais Rock, which has a deck on top of it.

Cross Thousand Oaks Boulevard at the stop sign and turn right to walk uphill. In February, lovely pink flowering plum trees are in full bloom along many streets in this area, particularly on Thousand Oaks. After one block, bear left on Menlo Place to see a big rock on the left that almost hides [6] 11 Menlo (with a big spruce growing at one side). After the curve, turn right on Santa Rosa to see [7] Picnic Rock, a city landmark, on the right. At one time, public access was allowed to the rock, but a new owner halted this (except by permission) due to liability concerns.

Continue on Santa Rosa and turn left up Thousand Oaks, crossing The Alameda then Santa Clara Avenue (on the northeast corner a native ceanothus shrub has fragrant sprays of blue flowers in February and March). Continue past San Fernando Avenue and Great Stoneface Park. Julia Morgan, one of the Bay Area’s most famous architects, designed [8] 1937 Thousand Oaks, a Mediterranean-style house framed by rock outcrops; no rooms have all four corners at 90 degrees. Live oaks and big boulders surround the 1915 residence.

Cross the street toward [9] 1936 Thousand Oaks; the front of this house, designed by John Hudson Thomas and dating to 1913, includes his signature of four squares and two parallel vertical lines. Return right to Great Stoneface Park and descend left down paved Great Stoneface Path, which passes a residence and its garden fence. Cross the street carefully and turn left on Yosemite Road.

From across the street, note the Japanese-influenced house and garden that you just passed, with impressive rocks, including a large rhyolite plinth; some pink crabapple and other trees bloom here in spring. The house to its right contains another large rock in the yard. With its high stucco wall and arched rear entranceway, this house is actually the same one you saw on Thousand Oaks designed by Thomas. Note how different it looks from this side, as well as the fine oaks and large magnolia tree.

Keep walking around the curve to the right. The street becomes Contra Costa Avenue as Yosemite veers to the left. Keep walking straight ahead on Contra Costa past Capistrano Avenue. Contra Costa is lined with Japanese maples, which often have brilliant autumn colors depending on ground moisture. Blackberry Creek is visible on the left, just past 825 Contra Costa. The creek was restored with native plants, and there are some nice rocks upstream. Just beyond, [10] 841 Contra Costa is reminiscent of a Japanese temple. The huge oak on the right side of the street—some call it Hercules because of its mighty branches—is believed to be one of the oldest oaks in Berkeley.

Continue walking on the left to Contra Costa Rock Park, a gift to the City of Berkeley from the Mason-McDuffie real estate company during its development of the Northbrae area. Dedicated in 1917, the park is a tiny 0.17 acres, or 7,410 square feet. If you wish, proceed carefully up the steps cut into the rock’s left (north) side to a lookout with a view (there will be an even better view later). Take the rock’s back steps down, ducking under the oak branches. Note small, cavelike erosion features as you circle around clockwise on a return path to the street.

Walk left along Contra Costa to Indian Rock Path. The Berkeley Path Wanderers Association (BPWA) advocates for these paths, and its volunteers have devoted many hours to constructing paths that were originally designated as public rights-of-way but were not built. (BPWA sells an excellent map of all public steps and paths in Berkeley; you can purchase one in local bookstores or at www.berkeleypaths.org.) Proceed left uphill on the path, cross Mendocino Avenue, and walk up another block. Cross Arlington carefully and continue up the path until you reach Indian Rock; at the rock face, bear right.

On the left going up the south side, about 50 access steps are cut into the rock, leading to the top (the first step is a bit of a challenge, but the rest are relatively easy). The view from the top is panoramic, and many people come here to watch the sun set over the bay. Be aware of a steep drop-off on the far side.

Indian Rock Park was also a gift to the City of Berkeley from Mason-McDuffie during its development of Northbrae. The park was dedicated in 1917 with 1.18 acres, or 51,400 square feet, including a portion across the street.

Dick Leonard (known as the father of technical climbing), David Brower, Jules Eichorn, Bestor Robinson, and other members of the Cragmont Climbing Club practiced at Indian, Cragmont, and Pinnacle rocks in the 1930s to prepare for climbing the difficult cliffs of Yosemite. They pioneered dynamic belaying, the use of nylon rope, and other innovations, transforming the sport. Beginning and experienced climbers often practice in Berkeley: top-roping at Cragmont and Pinnacle rocks, bouldering with no ropes or equipment at Indian and Mortar rocks, and rappelling at Cragmont Rock. Brower used his knowledge of rock climbing to prepare training manuals during World War II that proved critical in enabling the 86th Regiment of the US Army to surprise the Germans at Riva Ridge in the North Apennines in Italy; the successful attack disrupted German supply lines in southern Europe.

After returning to the ground via the same steps, walk up through the park to Indian Rock Avenue and turn right. At the intersection with Shattuck Avenue, look catty-corner across the street to three [11] John Hudson Thomas houses in a row (800 Shattuck and 859 and 861 Indian Rock). These all-gray stucco homes were designed in a style called Vienna Secession (seceding from dull traditional architecture, as the proponents saw it). Cross Indian Rock and walk straight ahead on Shattuck to 811/811A Shattuck, built over a rock. Next door, 813 Shattuck has a huge oak on top of a front-yard rock (how did the roots reach the ground?).

Return back toward Indian Rock Avenue. At the corner, walk up the 10 steps to the right and take the path through the upper part of Indian Rock Park. The path is lined with oaks and tall blue gum trees, one of many Australian eucalyptus varieties. At the next corner, turn right on the sidewalk and go up Indian Rock Avenue past Oxford Street to Mortar Rock Park. This park was another gift to the City of Berkeley from Mason-McDuffie, dedicated in 1917 with 0.39 acres, or 16,990 square feet.

Steps are cut into the main rock from the south side; the view from the top of the rock is mostly obscured, and there is not much space at the top. At the steps, a plaque discusses Native Americans and plants. Do take the steps and path between the rocks to the left side of the main rock outcropping, noting native oak and buckeye trees, the latter sprouting plumes of fragrant white flowers in late spring. Beyond the large rocks, take the right fork to low rock outcroppings, where mortar holes can be found near the main rock face and to the right. Native Americans ground acorns and other foods in these holes.

If you want to cut the walk short, return to the starting point by walking back the way you came to Indian Rock, walking around the rock, and descending Indian Rock Path four blocks to the starting point at Solano and The Alameda.

To see three more rock parks, continue on the path to the northeast from the mortar holes. Walk down four steps to the street (the upper part of Indian Rock Avenue) and turn right; a couple of blocks up, you may see goats on the steep slopes across the street at 828 Indian Rock. At the end of Indian Rock, turn left onto Santa Barbara Road; when you see the stone steps on the right, cross over into Grotto Rock Park. Another gift to the City of Berkeley from Mason McDuffie, this park was dedicated in 1917 with 0.31 acres, or 13,500 square feet.

Grotto Rock Park once had a natural spring that provided the park’s name. Steps between the sidewalk and the rock lead up to a gravel and dirt path. Many native plants are in front of the rock, including purple-flowered ceanothus, yellow-flowered fremontia trees, sagebrush, manzanita, and fragrant black sage. Circle the rock in either direction; on the south side, about 33 steps carved in the rock lead to a view (the steps do not go all the way to the top).

After exploring, return to Santa Barbara, turn left, and walk down to Marin Avenue, where a large but squat Canary Island palm is on the corner. Turn left, up steep Marin to Spruce Street, crossing both streets to the southeast corner. Walk southeast on Spruce, looking carefully for a sign on the left marking Easter Way, just past 933 Spruce. Walk up Easter Way to Cragmont Avenue, cross the street, and walk up another block on the steep path to Euclid Avenue. Cross Euclid carefully (there is no stop sign on this busy street) and go left about 30 yards to continue up Easter Way just past the bus stop sign. The path ends at Cragmont Rock Park. At Regal Road, turn right into the park. Take the paved path to the park’s upper section, where there are picnic tables.

Cragmont Rock is mainly rhyolite but was formed from agglomerates of hardened ash, volcanic glass, and pebbles—different than flows on other rocks on this walk. Neighborhood residents bought the land from the Cragmont Land Company and donated it to the city of Berkeley; it was dedicated in 1920 and covers three acres, or 130,680 square feet. Using the techniques he honed at Cragmont Rock Park, Dick Leonard planned the first technical rock climb (that is, one aided by devices such as pitons, carabiners, and ropes) in Yosemite in 1934. He eventually led over one hundred expeditions and climbs in the Sierra Nevada, making many first ascents on mountains thought impossible to climb.

Walk around the flat upper area, which sits on the rock faces, to see the views: a partially obstructed view of the bay from the pavilion; the UC campus, Oakland, and the South Bay from the low rock wall across the upper lawn; and a favorite rock-climbing cliff, seen through the shrubs past the stone bench to the left.

Go back down to the street, noting the [12] Spanish-style “village” across the street, with various living units and faux ruins. Walk down Regal Road to the right, looking for Pinnacle Path on the left, where “983” is painted on the curb. Ascend Pinnacle Path, noting the ceramics embedded in the retaining wall, a family gift to the mother who lived in the house above. At Poppy Lane, turn right and walk to Remillard Park, the seventh and final rock park.

Lillian Remillard Dandini, heiress of the Remillard Brick Company, donated this property, which includes Pinnacle Rock, to the city of Berkeley in 1963. The city purchased additional acreage in 1969-70. The area of park is 5.9 acres, or 257,000 square feet. Its most notable feature is that the rock is very different from that in the other parks both in its spire-like appearance and its composition: the reddish rock here is not rhyolite, as in the other six parks, but rock from deep in the Earth’s mantle believed to have formed 140 million years ago during the Jurassic Period (think dinosaurs). Pinnacle Rock is popular with climbers, with or without ropes. The park also has a number of tall blue gum (eucalyptus) trees.

To get back to the starting point, return along the street to descend Pinnacle Path. Turn left to go downhill on Regal Road and turn right on Cragmont to Euclid. Cross Euclid carefully and continue down Cragmont to Santa Barbara. Turn left on Santa Barbara and walk to Spruce Street. Go right on Spruce and continue to Marin. Descend steep Marin, which was laid out for a cable car that was never installed and is lined with plane (sycamore) trees that form a canopy. At Marin Circle, walk counterclockwise and turn right on Mendocino Avenue. Finally, turn left down Indian Rock Path and walk two blocks to the starting point.

(Alternatively, for a quieter route with less traffic, one block down from Spruce on Marin turn right on Santa Barbara and left on Indian Rock Avenue. At Indian Rock Park, walk around the main outcropping and pick up Indian Rock Path. Walk four blocks down to the starting point.)


Meet the Authors

The authors, Robert Johnson and Janet Byron, have a few events, including tours and book signings, scheduled this month, including:
Sunday, Nov. 1, 4-6pm. A guided walk around the Elmwood followed by a book signing at Mrs. Dalloway’s Literary and Garden Arts, 2904 College Ave., Berkeley.
Saturday, Nov. 7, 1:30-4pm. Johnson leads tour of volcanic outcrops in North Berkeley. To reserve space, write to info@BerkeleyWalks.com or call 510-528-4368.
Saturday, Nov. 21, 1:30-4pm. Johnson facilitates a spin near Hopkins and Monterey Market full of Victorian and Craftsman houses. To reserve space, write to info@BerkeleyWalks.com or call 510-528-4368.

Faces of the East Bay