A car-less person’s guide to hiking around Berkeley

Last week I was happy to have the opportunity to attend a research workshop on causality, hosted by the Simons Institute here at Berkeley. One of the other attendees asked for recommendations for things to do around the East Bay. Maybe because most of my time here has been under the influence of covid (but, honestly, I’m kind of just like this), I found myself rambling about different places I like to walk or hike around. Berkeley is a hiker’s paradise: hills overlooking the bay and San Francisco (with beautiful sunsets to boot), a huge diversity of plant life, and many miles of trails, all within 1.5 hours of the UC Berkeley campus on foot. I’d like to briefly mention a few of my favorite spots, just in case it’s useful to other students or visitors.

Tilden Park

Turtles in Jewel Lake

This is a hilly natural area to the northeast of the Berkeley campus with many hiking trails leading to great views, including Inspiration Point. There may be something to that name – I had an important (to me at least) research insight while walking around this area. When I mentioned this to a lab colleague, I learned that according to local legend, Nobel prize-winning economist Daniel Kahneman was also very fond of hiking in Tilden as a way to develop his ideas. If the potential for Nobel-quality research ideas isn’t enticing enough, I’m happy to inform you that Tilden’s Jewel Lake is home to some extremely cute native turtles. As a last bonus, if you don’t mind being surrounded by toddlers, there’s even a place where you can ride around on a working scale model steam train. (I have done this as a grown adult and yes it was worth it.)

Fire trails and Siesta Valley

The Berkeley fire trails start directly next to campus, just to the east of the California Memorial Stadium, so you can get away from car traffic and go on an excellent hike right after finishing classes or meetings. Although technically the Fire Trail is one specific trail that provides access for fire-fighting equipment, I’m really referring to a collection of trails in this area that can be accessed by starting here. Some areas are quite steep, but once you gain some altitude, the beautiful views come frequently along almost any route you might pick. I could give directions to some of my favorite spots, but I think exploring is a large part of the fun. These trails boast an impressive diversity of scenery along just a few miles, from lush forests and views of campus and the bay, to more arid spots looking eastward over grassy areas and wildflowers.

Indian Rock Park

This tiny park is dominated by the titular rock, which towers over nearby houses and provides one of the most easily accessible scenic views of the bay. Although there are now stairs carved into it, the rock played an important role in the history of modern rock climbing, and people still go bouldering there. A small crowd of locals can be found there nearly every evening around sunset, but the view is well worth seeing at any time of day. The rock’s name probably comes from the acorn grinding pits carved into it by the indigenous Ohlone people. (The sunset image at the top of this post is from a path just south of the park).

Albany Bulb

Last but very much not least, the Albany Bulb is a vaguely bulb-shaped piece of land jutting into the San Francisco Bay north of the Berkeley Marina. It’s the site of a former landfill, closed almost 40 years ago, for construction debris. This may not sound like a promising location for a park, but nature has reclaimed the piles of broken concrete and twisted rebar to make something new and strangely beautiful. There are large trees twisted by the wind and vibrant wildflowers. Lizards sun themselves on the concrete, and ground squirrels burrow around it. And because this is Berkeley, local artists have helped the reclaiming process too, by turning the debris into a kind of indie open-air art gallery with a continuously changing rotation of things to discover. There aren’t any explanatory plaques or price tags or curators – only individual artists taking a place that might have been ruined or abandoned, and choosing to celebrate it instead. Whenever I visit the Bulb, I can’t help but feel hopeful that humanity can learn from our past mistakes. You couldn’t ask for a better metaphor for what we might achieve by working alongside the natural world that is our home, and by recognizing and growing from the past instead of attempting to bury it. Whether you buy into my waxing poetic or not, I can’t recommend this place enough.

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