Thursday, November 16, 2017

The “outer loops” in Sycamore Grove Park

Horses off Harrier Trail in Sycamore Grove Park
The outer loop trails in Sycamore Grove Park include Valley View Loop, Cattail Pond Loop, Meadowlark Loop and Harrier Trail. Whereas the inner loop trail—the Winery Loopleads around flat grasslands and orchards, the outer loop trails traverse mostly open hillsides with various vista points.

You can access those loops via Wagon Road Trail. Ascend the less steep branch of the Wagon Road Trail loop near the junction of the Winery Loop and Walnut Trail. This shaded, east-heading incline takes you above the Olivina winery ruins with views of the partially overgrown rubble inside the buildings that once were used to produce olive oil, wine and brandy.

Pair of palms near Wagon Road Trail/Valley View Loop intersection

Harrier Trail post
Post at Valley View Loop/Harrier Trail junction
Continuing south on Wagon Road Trail, you will pass another historic site, a pair of palm trees and then meet the Valley View Loop. Turn left on the loop trail and after half a mile you will arrive at the Harrier Trail post. Harrier Trail is a path traversing meadows next to an olive orchard and the Veterans Administration Hospital. The Harrier Trail incline past the row of tall eucalyptus trees alongside the hospital property leads to an unnamed loop. Either way you eventually will end up on Valley View Loop again.

The Valley View Loop summit features an excellent vista point with views of the Livermore area and Mt. Diablo farther north. Back on Wagon Road Trail, go west to Cattail Pond. You may see western pond turtles on the tiny rafts floating in the pond.

If not yet loop-tired, you still have the Cattail Pond Loop and Meadowlark Loop ahead of you, but they can be skipped by just taking the Wagon Road Trail back and downhill to the “lowlands” of the Arroyo del Valle.

Olive orchard, Livermore and Mt. Diablo (zoom in) seen from Valley View Loop Trail

Wednesday, November 15, 2017

Winery Loop Trail

The Winery Loop Trail is a 2.7-mile-long hiking and biking loop around the grasslands south of Arroyo del Valle in Sycamore Grove Park, five miles south of downtown Livermore in California. Trail highlights are the ruins of the historic Olivina Winery and the sycamore with a hole—the Hobbit Tree.

About a quarter mile south of the parks's Wetmore Road entrance, the trail follows a vineyard fence for another quarter mile to its junction with the 0.3-mile-long Olivina Trail. While you continue on the Winery Loop, you will soon arrive at an intersection, from where the 1.5-mile-long Wagon Road Trail ascends the hillscape and the 0.2-mile-long Walnut Trail offers a shortcut back to the streambed and Wetmore entrance. Past the intersection, the loop trail skirts the fenced ruins of the Olivina distillery and winery.

Ruins of the historic Olivina Winery
As you come to the junction with Kingfisher Crossing, you get another chance to shortcut the loop. If you do the complete loop, you will now travel between orchards: an olive orchard to your right (not part of the park) and a neglected almond orchard at the turning point of the loop. Here, the Winery Loop Trail meets the 2.5-mile-long Arroyo del Valle Regional Trail, which connects the Wetmore Road entrance with the Arroyo Road entrance

Old almond orchard with Wine Loop Trail

Saturday, November 11, 2017

The Hobbit Tree in Sycamore Grove Park

“Teapot view” of Hobbit Tree
The Hobbit Tree is an old sycamore tree in Livermore's Sycamore Grove Park.You can get to the tree by walking for about half a mile from the park's Wetmore Road Entrance on Arroyo del Valle Regional Trail to the trail's junction with Olivina Trail. The Hobbit Tree stands between the trail and the streambed. The site includes two benches.

Doorway and hole of Hobbit Tree
The hollowed-out sycamore houses various creatures. Hobbit-size humans find it easy to walk inside the tree through a narrow doorway or slide down to there through the oval hole. I found myself tall enough to simply look through the hole. Doing this from the Arroyo del Valle side, I got a peekhole view of the grasslands and the hills that backdrop the Olivina Winery ruins—historic structures, but younger than the Hobbit Tree. 

In a recent Bay Nature article, Sylvia V. Linsteadt shares her Hobbit Tree knowledge and discoveries:

I stopped on the Olivina Trail to visit an old sycamore known to park personnel and visitors as “the hobbit tree.” It's not hard to see why—from the outside, the tree resembles a fantastical teapot with a window, and what's more, it's partially hollow, with an arching doorway that opens into the tree's interior. Someone placed a stump just inside, and I sat there for a long time, looking up into the sycamore's hollow trunk, into darkness, trying to imagine the life of such a tree, roots down in the alluvial gravel of the old Arroyo del Valle, tall branches clattering in the breeze and home to countless birds, insects, and mammals. 

Reference and more about Sycamore Grove Park

Sylvia V. Linsteadt: Western sycamores speak of an older California. Bay Nature Oct. - Dec. 2017, 16-20+52.  Link:

Thursday, November 9, 2017

Sycamore Grove Park south of Livermore, California

A sycamore with a view: Hobbit Tree peekhole
Sycamore Grove Park is a small semi-urban park surrounded by neighborhoods, wineries and orchards. The ruins of the old Olivina Winery can be found within this open-space park with its many loop trails. Hiking, bicycling and horseback riding trails traverse sycamore and oak woodland as well as grasslands. Unpaved roads and single-track paths over hilly landscape offer varying vistas of the valleys and mountains of the Diablo Range, including the Mt. Diablo Summit and North Peak north of Livermore. If you enjoy relaxing in riparian habitat, you may just want to stroll along the trails on either side of the willow-lined Arroyo del Valle, which runs through the park.

Sycamore bark patchwork
The park is named for California's native western sycamore trees that you can explore on the brookside plains. Platanus racemosa (family Platanaceae) trees grow over 100 feet (35 m) tall. Trunks commonly divide in two or more strong trunks. The bark typically builds a patchwork of white, gray and beige layers. Older and darker bark slowly peels away.
Arroyo del Valle seen from Magpie Loop Trail
The Hobbit Tree, a hollow tree with a look-through hole, is the most popular sycamore in the park and a fun site for photo shoots. Sylvia Linsteadt explains that western sycamore trees can live for hundreds of years and that the oldest tree sprouted in what is now Sycamore Grove Park some 300 years ago [1]. Describing the grand old sycamores amid flat grassland on either side of the Arroyo del Valle streambed, she writes about the once common, now rare sycamore alluvial woodlands in California:

Such wide, graveled banks are a classic feature of sycamore alluvial woodland, and they're integral to the tree's health and longevity. A distinct and vital ecosystem in California, sycamore alluvial woodland is characterized by summer-dry streambeds that branch and braid out through the sandbars, silt, and gravel beds deposited by winter rains and floods. [...]. Livermoore's Sycamore Grove Park is among the few preserved alluvial woodlands left in the East Bay, and as such it provides us a window into an older California.    

The flooding that occurred during the 2016/2017 winter rains hopefully boosted the revival and healthy growth of those sycamores that had been damaged in drought years.

Getting there
Sycamore Grove Park has two main entrances (a few miles south from downtown Livermore): the Wetmore Road entrance at the park's northwest end and the Arroyo Road entrance at the southeast side, not very far from the Del Valle Regional Park entrance.
Wetmore Road Entrance
To get to the Wetmore entrance, drive west (best on 1st Street) from downtown Livermore to get on Holmes Street. The latter takes you south and continues as Vallecitos Road. Turn left on Wetmore Road and, after 0.3 miles, find the park entrance to your right.
To get to the Arroyo entrance, drive south on S L Street from downtown Livermore. S L Street continues as Arroyo Road. After passing the Arroyo Road/Wetmore Road junction with the historic Olivina Gate, follow Arroyo Road for another 1.5 miles and find the park entrance and ranger station to your right across the Wente Vineyards.

Ruins of the old Olivina Winery

References and more to explore

[1] Sylvia V. Linsteadt: Western sycamores speak of an older California. Bay Nature Oct. - Dec. 2017, 16-20+52.  Link:
[2] Livermore Area Recreation & Park District:

Saturday, November 4, 2017

Grass Lake Trail: from Lily Lake to Grass Lake in the Desolation Wilderness

 Grass Lake

From the Glen Alpine trailhead at the north side of Lily Lake, a westbound gravel road leads past private cabins and decaying buildings to the Glen Alpine Springs Historical Site, located one mile from the trailhead. Interpretive displays explain the history of the site and illustrate how its resort structures once looked. 

At a junction 1.6 miles from the trailhead, Glen Alpine Trail continues northwest to Mt. Tallac, Half Moon Lake and Susie Lake, while the 1.1-mile-long Grass Lake Trail veers southwest to Grass Lake. Soon you will leave the riparian forest into a more open, glacial granite landscape with scattered conifers. At one point, you need to cross Glen Alpine Creek. A log across the creek comes in convenient to hold on in case the step-rocks are slippery.

Fractured rock structure near Grass Lake
Beyond this crossing, the single-track trail remains its gentle uphill path through small canyons and around fractured granite structures, occasionally covered with pinemat manzanita or with a few trees on top. The granite scenery continues at Grass Lake. Although the lake has some shallow corners with grass growing on its shore, the overall appearance of the lake is dominated by the granite rocks and cliffs surrounding it.

Getting to the Glen Alpine trailhead

The trailhead is located at the end of a narrow, paved one-lane road south of the Tallac Historic Site. From Highway 89 (about one mile west of Camp Richardson), turn onto Fallen Leaf Lake Road. Follow the road along the entire length of Fallen Leaf Lake. Be prepared to stop to let oncoming traffic pass. Also watch for pedestrians, bicyclists and dogs, especially while passing  the lakeside homes and cabins. Past the fire station at the far end of the lake (about 4.5 miles south of Hwy 89), follow the road as it winds uphill. Find parking after crossing a bridge over Glen Alpine Creek.  

Glen Alpine Creek waterfall between Lily Lake and Glen Alpine Springs

Friday, October 27, 2017

Majestic Oaks Trail: a short trail through the oak forest of Caswell Memorial State Park

Oak forest of  Caswell MSP in California's Central Valley
Oak forest of Caswell Memorial State Park in California's Central Valley

Majestic Oaks Trail is a short hiking trail through dense oak forest. This less-than-a-half-mile-long trail connects with Fenceline Trail and Gray Fox Trail and intersects with River Bend Trail in Caswell Memorial State Park, California. Some of the majestic valley oak trees in the park are said to be more than 60 feet tall and can have a circumference of up to 17 feet. Wild grapevine is taking over the underbrush—and in many places is trying to reach for the higher branchwork as well.

The spreading oak forest canopy is amazing. You are in an oak jungle. To appreciate the size of a single valley oak, see the broad-crowned oak tree in the Cosumnes River Preserve, another small Central Valley park, in which old valley oak trees are preserved and new ones are planted to keep the Valley alive with valley oak.

Monday, October 23, 2017

Caswell Memorial State Park: shaded trails through an ancient forest

Wild grapevine drapings in Caswell Memorial State Park
Caswell Memorial State Park is a preserve of riparian woodland six miles southwest of the city of Ripon in San Joaquin County in California's Central Valley. The east- and south-side boundary of the park is the meandering Stanislaus River with its bends and sand beaches.

Grapevine branches hanging over Gray Fox Trail
The riverside park stands as an example for a mature oak riparian forests; now rare, but once much more prominent in the valley landscape. The most striking feature of the park is the ancient forest —actually, most of the preserve consists of dense forest. Tall oak and cottonwood trees grow here, many of which have been conquered by wild grapevines with hanging and swinging branches. Numerous shaded trails loop around interesting forest sites and some provide access to vista points alongside the Stanislaus River.

Stanislaus River
River Bend Trail vista: Stanislaus River at river bend
The riparian ecosystem is teeming with wildlife. Racoons, foxes, skunks, weasels and squirrels live here. The smaller riparian brush rabbits and riparian wood rats have their burrows or nests in the thick understory—hidden, but still not completely safe from predators. Jordan Summers writes about these small mammals [1]:

Sitting at the bottom of the food chain, they are meals for raptors such as great horned owls, osprey, and Swainson's hawks; they are also on the menu of all the mammals listed above; and they are even taken by snakes. No wonder they live in seclusion.

Park history

The plaque at the park entrance says that Caswell Memorial State Park was donated in memory of Thomas Caswell (1843-1921), early day rancher and humanitarian, and his sons Wallace Caswell and Henry Caswell. The park brochure shows a picture of Thomas Caswell on his Modesto ranch and provides further details:

Seven hundred acres [2.833 km2] of riparian forest along the river were purchased by Thomas Caswell, a farm equipment manufacturer and rancher, in 1915. In 1950 the Caswell family created a legacy for the people of California by donating 134 acres [0.542 km2] of forest to be preserved as a state park, so future generations might experience the valley in its original natural state.

Getting to Caswell MSP

The park address is: Caswell Memorial State Park, 28000 South Austin Road, Ripon, CA 95366. Phone: (209) 599-3810.
From downtown Ripon head west on West Ripon Road. Turn left on Austin Road and drive south. The road leads into the state park. An entry fee has to be paid at the kiosk. After continuing for less than half a mile on the shaded road to its dead-end, the parking lot, rest rooms and picnic tables are found on the left side.

References and more to explore

[1] Jordan Summers: 60 Hikes within 60 Miles, Sacramento. Menasha Ridge Press, Birmingham, AL, 2008.
[2] Caswell Memorial State Park. Links: Website and Park Brochure.
[3] Campground map of Caswell Memorial State Park. Link: