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This walk explores volcanic fragments that were erupted south of San Jose about 11.5 million years ago and then carried to Berkeley as ocean and continental plates ground against each other.
Preserved in small parks or incorporated into oak-shaded homes and gardens, today these Northbrae rhyolites provide fascinating urban exploration. The walk outlined here, one of many, has lots of steps to climb and gains about 650 feet elevation. But it also offers eight parks to rest in, each with its own charm.
Begin at the block of Solano Avenue just below The Alameda, jammed with coffee shops, snacks, and restaurants. Indian Rock Path quickly leaves the traffic behind. At the top of the first leg, jog north to visit Contra Costa Rock. Like the other small rock parks, this little oasis was set aside by developers before the area was part of Berkeley. Loop around the rock to quiet lawn; climb the few steps to the top if the day is clear. Return to Indian Rock Path and continue uphill.
On the fourth leg, where the path divides, take either way around Indian Rock, famous among rock climbers. The lava is rhyolite, silica-rich and hard, one reason it is so good for climbing. Besides admiring the climbers' skill, explore small caves, and take steps to the top for the gorgeous view. You'll find drinking water, and picnic tables here and in the shady, quiet area across Shattuck Avenue.
Continue up Indian Rock Avenue to Mortar Rock Park — mossy and shaded by big bay and buckeye trees. Take the loop trail around the rock, discovering holes worn by Native American women pounding acorns and seeds, as well as many restored native plants and, very likely, climbers practicing challenging laybacks. Steps lead to a flat top with leafy solitude, but no views.
Continue up Indian Rock Avenue to Santa Barbara. At this point, you have gained about 300 feet elevation. If you're up for climbing about 350 feet more, go right and ascend the three legs of shady Easter Way (once used to reach sunrise services) to 3-acre Cragmont Park, again with beautiful views from the top (as well as water and restroom). Starting in the 1920s, climbers here developed techniques that made possible major climbs in the Yosemite, the Sierras, and mountains worldwide. Unlike other Northbrae Rhyolite parks, this one was not set aside by developers. Instead, residents bought the land and donated it to the city.
Continue as shown, up Pinnacle Path (with terrazo mural) to 6-acre Remillard Park. The park was donated by Lillian Remillard Dandini, a local heiress who married an Italian count and named for her father, who made a fortune in bricks from local clay. Reddish Pinnacle Rock here is not volcanic. Formed deep in the mantle, probably in the age of dinosaurs, it was scraped off as North America overrode the Pacific plate.
If you don't choose the added climb, from Indian Rock Avenue at Santa Barbara jog north to Grotto Rock, again with a loop trail and easy steps to a bench set in the rock -- perhaps the most romantic view in Berkeley.
Amid shaded stately homes, with a creeklet or two, continue down north of Santa Barbara, descend one block on Montrose, and jog south on San Luis to Upton Lane. Drop down the steps into John Hinkel Park. Hinkel both donated the park and built the clubhouse, last of its kind, now falling into ruin. The amphitheater, built with recycled sidewalk, is a WPA creation.
There are many ways to descend through this oak and bay-shaded park, where two creeks come together. Whichever route you choose, at the bottom take Somerset Place to the Arlington, jog north, and cross to quiet Frederick mini-park.
Here you have another choice. The direct way back takes both legs of Yosemite Steps to The Alameda and returns south on Alameda to your start.
But if you still have energy, at the bottom of the first, rather steep Yosemite Steps, walk north on lovely Contra Costa to Great Stoneface Park (water fountain). Trees hide the stone profile, but you'll see one of the big concrete urns that developers used to characterize Thousand Oaks, much as stone towers characterized Northbrae, the neighborhood you just left. This urn is a recent restoration by neighbors. Descend Indian Trail — one of the most picturesque of Berkeley paths — to see the only remaining original urn.
Publicly owned features like the urns, parks, and paths are only part of the charm of this area. Many houses and yards beautifully incorporate rocks and gnarled oaks.
At the bottom of Indian Trail, you still have choices. The direct route follows The Alameda back to your start. But for a longer walk, head north on Alameda, take the two legs of easy Paseo Path downhill to Vincente, descend Vincente to Colusa, and then return on Colusa — with a stop at the small park and restored creek on the north side of Thousand Oaks School. The school was built a century ago, like the houses here, to take advantage of this natural feature.