Trail Trekkers Forge a New Path in El Cerrito

July 1, 2014

Jenny Hammer, Tom Gehling and I take a big step onto a white retaining wall higher than our knees. We pass by Calla Lilies planted in a front yard to our left and a neatly trimmed hedge in the yard to our right. My car is parked steps away on Navallier Street but here, tucked between two single-family houses is a five-foot wide gateway to open space.

We follow a dirt trail and shortly pass the ends of fenced-in yards. The view opens up to a hillside covered in grass with groves of pines further on. About 30 feet from the start, a sign pegged to a Monterey pine reads “Motorcycle Hill Trail” and gives credit to the El Cerrito Trail Trekkers (ECTT).

The start of the Motorcycle Hill Trail. (Photo by Autumn Sartain)
The start of the Motorcycle Hill Trail. (Photo by Autumn Sartain)

Since 2012, the El Cerrito nonprofit ECTT has built two new trails: Motorcycle Hill Trail and another called Lower Snowdon Trail. Both of these are in the Hillside Natural Area, 85 acres of city-owned open space in El Cerrito. ECTT has also improved other existing trails and surveyed and mapped more than 60. They reach 400 people on their email list, have 31 dues-paying members, and 6 board members.

One of ECTT’s main activities is leading free hikes. In 2013, they led hikes throughout the East Bay, San Francisco and Marin for several hundred people.

Motorcycle Hill Trail, the organization’s showcase accomplishment, has a little more than a 300 foot elevation gain and runs a little less than half a mile through sunny meadows and shaded understories of Monterey pine and eucalyptus.

The hill itself is reasonably steep — a 40 percent grade — so ECTT designed switchbacks, making for easier walking. The trail makers also installed treads made of pressure-treated eucalyptus in particularly steep areas. At the first set of treads, someone has burned the trail name into the eucalyptus with a magnifying glass — to reduce, Hammer says, the environmental impacts of trail-making.

The first tread on Motorcycle Hill Trail. (Photo by Autumn Sartain)
The first tread on Motorcycle Hill Trail. (Photo by Autumn Sartain)

The name for the hill goes back to the 1920s. Hammer stops to pull black and white photos out of her backpack. They show men churning up clouds of dust from the back wheels of their motorcycles as they ride up a steep hill in front of attentive crowds. The site took its name from the National Motorcycle Hill Climb, where men performed these dare-devil-esque shows. “Look at this,” Hammer says, “just dirt and dust and nothing, no trees.”

Gesturing to the now green and tree-filled area in front of us, she says that it’s “not for motorcycles now, obviously.”

The areas where crowds gathered to watch the climbs were eventually replaced by homes. Now, the city of El Cerrito owns the land as part of the Hillside Natural Area.

When Hammer joined ECTT, she helped research and survey existing trails, pouring over assessor’s maps to determine property lines. She discovered that a tiny piece of the Hillside Natural Area squeezed between two houses and reached the sidewalk. Realizing a trail there could provide significant access to the open space, connect to other existing trails, and help prevent erosion by providing a definitive path, she presented the idea to the ECTT board, which decided to build the trail.

Tom Gehling and Jenny Hammer on Motorcycle Hill Trail. (Photo by Autumn Sartain)
Tom Gehling and Jenny Hammer on Motorcycle Hill Trail. (Photo by Autumn Sartain)

As we walk along one of the many switchbacks through a grassy area, Gehling points to a cluster of three small chicken wire cylinders at the trail’s edge. The fences protect scrub-oak acorns planted by the Montessori School of El Cerrito, which has partnered with ECTT to plant acorns and help with the trails. So far, students have planted about a dozen acorns, and they plan to plant more this fall.

With only six board members, ECTT needs partners like the school to help with trail construction and other efforts. Even the treads take careful measuring, Hammer says. “It looks like it’s a snap but it’s not,” she says.

ECTT began building the Motorcycle Hill trail June 2, 2012, on National Trail Day, but the group worked the area for years before shovels hit dirt: pulling out French broom, surveying, and, along with the East Bay Trail Dogs, conducting flagging missions where the proposed trail began to take form. About a year after starting the trail, the group installed treads, and ECTT regularly holds “work parties” to get some extra help.


Jenny Hammer points to an area on Motorcycle Hill that was once covered in French Broom. (Photo by Autumn Sartain)
Jenny Hammer points to an area on Motorcycle Hill that was once covered in French Broom. (Photo by Autumn Sartain)

As we continue up the hill, I see live oak, sticky monkey flower, coyote brush and California buckeye. Native wildflowers are here too and I see lavender blue dicks hiding amongst the non-native grasses. I hear the scold of a scrub jay and spot a wild turkey foraging under the trees. Yellow butterflies bounce on the light breeze over the grass.

ECTT focuses also on restoration, or at least removing invasive species, so when we come to a meadow covered in French broom – a particularly tenacious shrub with pretty yellow flowers — Gehling heads off the trail and starts weeding. Hammer pulls up her own, and then says to me, “You gotta pay your toll.”

I pull on a small shoot and successfully get the root out.

“When you get rid of broom the natives come back,” Hammer says, and she points out another section now covered with California sage and grasses. She has also spread poppy seeds on the hill. “Won’t this be gorgeous,” she says, “You look up here and the whole side of the hill is poppies.”

A view from Motorcycle Hill Trail. (Photo by Autumn Sartain)
A view from Motorcycle Hill Trail. (Photo by Autumn Sartain)

At the top of the hill there’s a bench beneath a eucalyptus. From the summit, the view extends over the roofs of El Cerrito and Richmond, over the waters of the Bay, to the San Francisco skyline, the Golden Gate Bridge and Mt. Tam.

A fire road from the summit leads to the 8-acre Madera Open Space, an area ECTT would like to help the city of El Cerrito purchase from its current owner, the Trust for Public Land, which is holding the land temporarily until December of this year. Hammer says the price tag would clean out the city’s parks and recreation fund, so ECTT has been working with Friends of Five Creeks and the El Cerrito High School mountain bike team to try to raise $100,000 from the community to help offset the cost. So far, Hammer says, they’ve raised $36,000.

The 85-acre Hillside Natural Area has oak woodlands, riparian areas and trails for the community, but it is divided by Potrero Ave and rows of houses. The Madera property lies between the two sections and would help provide a natural connection. Hammer describes Madera as “dark and peaceful and cool” with its glens and groves of oaks. “It’s other-worldly,” she says.

Madera, Hammer and Gehling say, offers not only natural connections but educational opportunities. The Madera elementary school is adjacent to the land, and so it offers a chance to get “young people out appreciating nature and doing physical exercise,” Hammer says.

We walk back down the trail. Soon the sounds of scolding scrub jays and our feet patting the dirt are replaced by the tinkling of a backyard wind chime. When we step onto the sidewalk, the views of meadows are replaced by cars driving along Navallier. “You’re right in the middle of a developed area,” Gehling says, referring to our hike.

“Then,” Hammer says, “you step up this wall and you’re in a whole different world.”

Autumn Sartain reviewed the Motorcycle Hill Trail in the July issue of Bay Nature.

For more information about the El Cerrito Trail Trekkers, including membership, trail maps and events, visit

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