Here's another hilly "island preserve" where views too often include adjacent subdivisions. But its "manzanita barrens" belie their unpromising name. A single-track footpath circles the sparsely forested chalky knob where manzanitas grown into gnarled treelings mingle with oaks, laurels, and madrones, arching overhead to make magical tunnels of dappled sunlight that open to bright sky and grassy hills.
The endangered pallid manzanita grows only in the East Bay, and Sobrante Ridge has the second-largest surviving colony–its presence here led to the park's creation in 1985. The plant relies on fire to clear old growth and germinate seeds, so its future is not promising here on a bluff near expensive homes. The pallids need full sun tempered by coastal fog, so they may be harmed by shade from trees that would not have survived fires. But the barrens, home also to brittle-leaf manzanita, seemed healthy and welcoming on our visit.
The barrens are only an up-and-down quarter mile from the Heavenly Ridge entrance, but the short, steep trails of this 277-acre park and its great ridgetop views can be explored from several entrances, including Pinole Valley Park off Morningside Drive, which has full facilities and lies a quarter mile by trail to the north.
But as to wheelchair access! the problems here are not entirely the function of steep terrain. A locked gate at the main entrance on Coach Drive makes sure no wheelchair will even attempt the steep trail there. At the Heavenly Ridge entrance an eroded bypass gate for hikers is irritating but not likely to stop any wheelchair capable of handling the hairy slopes you immediately encounter beyond it. The quarter mile of fire trail between the entrance and the manzanita barrens that are Sobrante Ridge's most interesting feature is steep and rough surfaced. In the barrens itself there’s a brief level stretch where one can enjoy the unusual mixture of tree-sized manzanitas, laurels, oaks and madrones on the chalky hilltop, but the footpath continuing around this knob becomes so narrow and steep that I soon turned back, afraid of tumbling down the hillside onto the roof of one of the million-dollar houses snuggled up to the park's edge.
Other trails in the park are passable if you can handle steep and rough surfaced, except the stretch that descends to Conestoga Way, which I'm told is a single-track path. I have not taken the Morningside Trail to or from Pinole Valley Park, but it seems likely that would be as good as the Heavenly Ridge Trail, which is to say, not very!
Aside from the manzanita barrens, Sobrante Ridge feels similar to other parks in our grassy coastal hills, with views across the East Bay and over lots of development. Only a few folks were walking dogs there when we visited on a weekday in midsummer. It could be a pleasant place to get to know if you live nearby, and as with all the open space preserves, we should be grateful it is protected, but if you are coming any distance, there are places to take a wheelchair that offer much easier access and superior attractions: e.g. Wildcat Canyon, Briones, or Tilden.
Details: To get there take I-80 to the San Pablo Dam Road exit in Richmond. Turn south on San Pablo Dam Road then left for 0.5 mile on Valley View, right on Amend Rd. and left on Heavenly Ridge Lane to its end. Dogs are permitted; bikes allowed on most trails.
Park on the street. No amenities here except a few picnic tables along the ridge trail.
Shorter review originally published in the October 2007 issue of Bay Nature magazine