Crowded Slice of Heaven Above Berkeley by JimmyLyding
This hike starts at the Inspiration Point parking area off of Wildcat Canyon Road, and features all of the positive aspects of East Bay hiking with the exception of solitude. This area is popular for a lot of reasons, chiefly among them being stunning views, widely-varied terrain, and people-watching. There are also the nondescript remnants of a Cold War weapon system in addition to a memorial to those who strove for world peace.
Both Tilden and Wildcat Canyon Regional Parks are part of the East Bay Regional Park District. Head due west from the parking area on the Curran Trail for .13 mile while enjoying views of the mature eucalyptus forest to the south. Take the Meadows Canyon Trail which branches off to the right (north) from Curran. The Meadows Canyon Trail winds gently downhill while crossing 4 drainages. The terrain here is typical of the Oakland-Berkeley Hills with oak and California bay trees cloaking the drainages along with Toyon and chamise bushes rise above the extensive grasslands on the ridge lines. The Meadow Canyon Trail winds 1.43 mile down to the bottom of Wildcat Canyon and its end at Lone Oak Road which has vault toilets and a picnic area.
Turn right onto Lone Oak Road (dirt), and follow it for about .15 mile to the Loop Road Trail (fire road). You pass a number of picnic areas shaded by the dense eucalyptus forest. Turn left onto an unnamed connector trail that is signed as leading down to the Environmental Education Center and the Little Farm area. Little Farm is a replica of a farm that offers the kiddies a chance to get a close-up view of some donkeys, chickens, pigs, and stressed-out parents. Turn right onto the Wildcat Creek Trail, and you run into the Environmental Education Center after .05 mile. The center is fairly interesting with displays of the various ecotypes found in these 2 parks. There is also a small gift kiosk and a soda vending machine. The center is well-worth the 10 minutes it takes to walk through.
Continue along the Wildcat Creek Trail for roughly .25 mile to Jewel Lake. This lake is not much more than a bog full of bulrush (AKA "tule") reed during dry weather, but actually holds a decent amount of water during the winter and spring. This is a popular place for families looking for a short hike from the main parking area that's just south of the Environmental Education Center because it's a good place to spot wildlife. Ducks, coots, swans, and turtles are common sights. There are also 2 drinking fountains located on the east side of the lake.
The Wildcat Creek Trail continues north with a bubble loop branching off to the west (left) that goes through a dense stand of tule on a raised wooden path that rejoins the main trail after about .08 mile. The Wildcat Creek Trail now features a consistently flat route for 1.85 mile. Despite its name, this trail travels about 200 yards east and 100 feet above Wildcat Creek. The only evidence of the creek is the dense riparian forest of oak, California bay, and sycamore visible to your left. Uphill to the right features views of wide open meadows on numerous ridges. Turkeys are frequently seen in these open areas, and deer are common at dawn and dusk.
The Wildcat Creek Trail reaches a 5-way junction with the Havey Canyon and Conlon trails heading uphill, the Rifle Range Road Trail crossing Wildcat Creek itself, and the Wildcat Creek Trail continuing to the Alvarado Area in the city of El Cerrito about 2 miles to the north. This junction is roughly 1.2 miles from the border of Tilden Regional Park and Wildcat Canyon Regional Park. Take the Havey Canyon Trail uphill. This trail doesn't seem to get a lot of use despite going through a nice forest of oak and California bay trees. Turkey are regularly seen here as there is dense cover in the midst of open meadows. Watch out for the prevalent poison oak. Roughly .75 mile up from Wildcat Creek the Havey Canyon Trail crosses its namesake drainage at a spot that that is somewhat hazardous in wet weather. The creek is only about 3-feet-wide, but the crossing requires scrambling down slick rocks to the actual creek. This trail quickly ascends through an open area away from the riparian creek bottom, and the views really open up. You are now firmly in cattle country. This is a great spot to see wild turkeys foraging on open hillsides, and to also hear coyotes vocalizing from their hideouts in the dense chamise chaparral.
The Havey Canyon Trail ends at the paved Nimitz Way Trail, and you should turn left onto Nimitz as it gradually curves around and leads to a spur trail that ascends to the top of an unnamed peak that has a relic of the Cold War.
This peak held a battery of Nike Ajax anti-aircraft missiles and its requisite guidance system from 1955 to 1963. These 23-long, 2300-lbs. missiles were designed to destroy enemy aircraft, and could travel 25 miles up to an altitude of 69,000 feet. They were fairly worthless in terms of strategic value, and their successors the Nike Zeus missiles were never deployed at this location. The Nike Zeus program produced much more powerful weapons systems that had the ability to destroy targets in space using nuclear warheads that were over 20 times more powerful than the bomb dropped on Hiroshima. None of these Zeus systems were put into operation at this location, but one can only imagine how the "Nuclear Free Zone" folks just 2-miles-away in Berkeley would have reacted if they were.
Return down from the mountain top to the paved Nimitz Trail, and head back south. The Nimitz Trail is obviously named for Admiral Chester Nimitz who helped lead our nation's naval forces to victory in the Pacific Theater. The Nimitz Trail is a paved roadway that was originally constructed to service the Nike Ajax sites on the previously-described peak and its related facility atop Wildcat Peak which you can access about 1.5 miles back towards the Inspiration Point trail head where you started. The dirt trail to the top of Wildcat Peak branches off to the west, and passes through the Rotary Peace Grove. The Rotary Peace Grove was planted by the Rotary Club of Berkeley to commemorate individuals who strove for world peace. Some sources indicate the trees to be California redwoods, but they are actually giant sequoias. The giant sequoia is the world's most massive tree, and is native to the southern Sierra Nevada. However, they haven't grown larger than big Utah junipers in this location. These specimens resemble 40-feet-tall traffic cones rather than as the behemoths found in their natural habitat. Underneath each tree is a plaque commemorating an individual who tirelessly strove for world peace. Honorees include such peace-niks as Kurt Waldheim, Dr. Edward Teller, Henry Kissinger, and Anwar Sadat.
Wildcat Peak's summit is fairly nondescript even though it once supported the Nike Ajax site, but the views are spectacular. The Golden Gate and San Francisco dominate the view to the west, and spectacular stands of introduced eucalyptus trees grow in large groves to the south. Return back to the Nimitz Trail, and follow it along the top of San Pablo Ridge back to Inspiration Point while enjoying views of the varied forests in the area and San Pablo Reservoir to the east.
WARNING! Hiking and outdoor related sports can be dangerous. Be responsible and prepare for the trip. Study the area you are entering and plan accordingly. Dress for the current and unexpected weather changes. Take plenty of water. Never go alone. Make an itinerary with your plan(s), route(s), destination(s) and expected return time. Give your itinerary to trusted family and/or friends.
Paved - Car Okay
To hike From Highway 24 just east of the Caldecott Tunnel in Orinda, get off at the Orinda Exit. The exit takes you to Camino Pablo Road north. Take that approximately 4 miles north to Wildcat Canyon Road. Take Wildcat Canyon approximately 3 miles to the Inspiration Point parking lot. You may have to park alongside the road outside of the parking area as this is a popular spot. No fees. Vault toilets and drinking fountains at Inspiration Point.