The East Bay Regional Park District is the largest regional urban park district in the United States. It operates over 100,000 acres of parkland throughout Alameda and Contra Costa Counties crisscrossed by over 1,150 miles of trails. That’s an area about 1/8 the size of Yosemite National Park, but 350 more miles of trail.
I haven’t come anywhere near to exhausting the vast trail mileage in either park, and neither has ever stopped surprising me. Vasco Caves was one of the best recent surprises. I discovered Vasco last winter when I was using the EBRPD website (www.ebparks.org) to find information about Black Diamond Mines Regional Park (also worth visiting).
The caves caught my interest, so I called up my friend Ron Erskine, a fellow outdoor columnist who writes for the Gilroy Dispatch. We signed up for a guided hike last May. The existence of Vasco Caves was once a closely-guarded secret. Public access began through guided hikes after EBRPD bought the land. The hikes are only offered during the fall and spring when the weather is cool and relatively dry.
We met the rest of our group at Brushy Peak Regional Preserve in Livermore at 9 a.m. on a Saturday morning in early May. No parking is available at Vasco Caves, so hikers are bussed from the meeting point to the start of the hike.
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Although it may seem a bit pricey, it’s well worth it if you enjoy discovering the unusual natural features of our state. From start to finish, the hike/tour lasts about five hours with a lunch break at noon. I’m guessing that we hiked about 3 miles of easy trail terrain (mostly fire roads) with frequent stops.
My initial interest was solely in the caves. They’re interesting all right, and it is easy to see how some of the larger ones provided comfortable shelter for Native Americans. This was regarded as a sacred site. Formed by the weathering of sandstone, they have many similarities to the formations at Castle Rock State Park — unpredictably shaped recesses carved by wind and water. I was surprised at the sheer number of caves throughout the preserve. Although we saw quite a few, I could spot many more on distant hills.
In addition to signs of ancient use and habitation by humans, we also saw the mud nests of swallows and the twig nests of raptors. The true surprises were the park’s other features — ancient petroglyphs, wildflowers, raptors, vernal pools in granite outcroppings, views of Mt. Diablo, and brilliantly colored lichens. I was one of several photographers in the hiking group and none of us ran out of interesting landscapes and details to shoot.
Our hike was led by Michael, a knowledgeable EBRPD naturalist/guide.
His expertise about the area greatly added to what we got out of the hike.
The caves are located northwest of Altamont Pass amid grassy hills, sparsely dotted with oaks and buckeye. Nearby windmills pass the days inscribing silent circles on the windy sky with their long arms. They sometimes come into view without warning as you work your way up a trail. You look up from watching your feet and find one looming over the nearest hill. Mechanical giants they are — Don Quixote was at least partially correct.
They add to the sometimes stark beauty of this unusual and largely-unknown region. We had some serious wind gusts on the day that I hiked and I lost my hat more than once.
Don’t forget to pack a windbreaker and make sure you layer your clothes. Sunscreen, lip balm, and plenty of water are essentials for this hike. Pack a hearty lunch and don’t forget your camera. This hike is relatively popular and group size is limited to about 20 people. Call well before you plan to visit in order to reserve a spot.
Adam Blauert can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.