My wife, Nora, had a birthday earlier in the week so, by family tradition, we planned a trip to do something that she would enjoy. In the past, this meant walking the Golden Gate Bridge, a visit to Alcatraz, visits to the various museums and other attractions in Golden Gate Park, etc. This time I suggested the John Muir National Historic Site in Martinez - a place none of us had ever visited before. To those who know me, this is kind of surprising, because I've been a great admirer of Mr. Muir for decades and have acquired quite a collection of his books and collections of his writings and art. For me, this would be better than Disneyland.Still, I worried a bit about the parking situation and with good reason. The trailhead lot is a very small 'Park and Ride' lot. When we arrived at around 9am, there were only a couple of free spaces. I have a full sized pickup truck, so sometimes parking in a small lot can be challenging. I chose a space next to a tree that would, hopefully, help keep us from getting blocked in by others who might park too closely. Within minutes another vehicle claimed the last space. As we geared up, several other cars drove in and, disappointed, had to manuever out of the tiny lot. We were lucky.
And, oh yeah, there were also a couple of minor, but officially named summits within the preserve. When I told her that part of it, Nora rolled her eyes, but she seemed okay with a nice hike as long as it wasn't going to be a death march like some of my hikes have turned out to be. I assured her that these two summits were about as easy as they get - but the views were reputed to be of pretty good quality. Our 16 year old son, Matt, even requested to join us along with his girlfriend, Hannah. She had zero interest in hiking or peakbagging, but was happy to come along to spend time with Matt.
Even though I know better than to try, I still requested for everyone to be ready for an early start. The visitors center and the Muir ranch house opened at 10am, but the nearby trails up Mount Wanda and Mount Helen, in a separate part of the Historic Site, open at sunrise with very limited parking. It seemed like a good idea to do the hiking portion of the trip in the early morning and then visit the main historic attractions in the late morning. I hoped to get to the trailhead by 8am. Unfortunately, that was not going to happen. Due to some lack of communication or maybe mis-communication, Hannah was unreachable at 7am just when we were about to leave to pick her up. Also, my wife asked if we could stop and pick up some breakfast sandwiches along the way. "Sure, Hon," I could literally feel the traffic building up by the second.
Hannah was finally contacted after we called her mother who in turn called the grandmother where Hannah was staying at the time. Hannah requested about 20 minutes to get ready, so we went to Burger King on our way to pick her up to save some time. Finally, breakfast was acquired and so was the girlfriend. At last we were on I-680 heading north. Traffic was lighter than usual, the scenery was splendid and we were in good spirits anticipating our upcoming adventure.
Now that the 'getting ready', the 'assembing the hikers', the 'breakfast acquisition', the 'long drive' and the 'parking situation' were resolved, we had time for one more issue: My wife had to pay a visit to Mother Nature. Badly. Luckily, it was only 'number 1', but there are no facilities at the trailhead nor on or near the peaks. I had to rush through my usual prehiking rituals of changing to my boots, the taking of the trailhead picture and setting up my GPS to record our trip, to help her find a secluded spot out of view of other hikers and traffic so she could take care of business. We found a slightly adequate spot that was still in view of the trail above us. I performed 'guard duty' while she 'paid her little visit'.
At last the usual 'trip drama' was done and it was time to actually do the hike. The trail is actually an old ranch road that climbs at a rather moderate grade. There's plenty of shade lower down and the views looking between the trees of Alhambra Valley and the neighborhoods of southern Marinez are quite nice. Soon the trail veers to the west and, after a little more climbing, Mount Wanda (or is it Mount Helen?) comes into view. A little later we were on the broad plataeu that separates the two peaks. Soon (too soon as far as I was concerned), we were standing on the higher summit enjoying some surprisingly nice views in all directions in spite of the relatively low height of this peak. We could even see the flare at the Valero Oil refinery that had been in the news the night before. It didn't seem like much of a big deal, but it was probably much larger the day before.
We took several pictures and had a snack before we proceded on to Mount Helen (or was it Mount Wanda?). So which peak is which? The USGS map shows this first peak as Mount Helen. The park brochure and map show this is Mount Wanda. There's even a display at the summit that indicates this was Mount Wanda. Very curious. We simply began to use the names on the park brochure.
The second peak, Mount Helen, has no use trail to it's summit. As we waded through the deep grass, I noticed several small furry animals scurry into holes in the ground. "Don't forget to watch out for snakes." I said. My wife just 'loves' it when I say that. She's terrified of snakes venomous or not. As usual in these situations, everyone lets me lead the way.
There was nothing in the least bit interesting about this summit. The promince was insignificant and the views were very limited- especially to the north due to trees. We joked about who the preferred daughter must have been in the Muir family and had a few laughs before returning to the trail. Instead of going back the way we'd come, I talked everyone into taking a slight detour to follow the Nature Trail for a little variety. This was an easy and scenic alternative to the main trail.
Before long we were back at the trailhead and drove the short distance to the Muir House. There was no parking available in the small lot, so we parked on a side street and hiked the short distance to the Visitors Center. The tour of the house was quite enjoyable as well as the hike around the grounds where there were several interesting varieties of plants and trees. All in all a great way to spend part of a day. Most importantly, the 'Birthday Girl' had a great time.
Mount Wanda, Mount Helen
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