The fog stops at Hilltop. That's what the real estate agents say to West Contra Costa home buyers, anyway, and it has the ring of truth to it. At seven o'clock on a summer morning, as Berkeley and Oakland wake beneath a cool, damp blanket of gray, it's already warm in Pinole.
This town seems out of place in West County, as if transplanted here from rural environs further north. For a couple blocks, Pinole looks much as it did when transcontinental traffic lurched from stoplight to stoplight along US Route 40, better known as San Pablo Avenue. Armed with an eponymous pastry from local hangout the Bear Claw bakery, you step onto the trail at San Pablo and follow Pinole Creek toward the Bay.
Past Fernandez Park with its picnic tables and baseball diamonds, the trail ducks under a wooden trestle. Just as you step beneath it, a heavily loaded Santa Fe train thunders overhead on its way east into Franklin Canyon. The noise flushes a kingfisher that had been sitting on the bridge's crossbeams: It flies downstream emitting little strangled cries.
Downstream, the landscape becomes more industrial. An RV storage lot flanks the south side of the creek, the Union Pacific line skirts the bay, and an occasionally odorous sewage treatment plant occupies the far shore. Still, wildlife is abundant. Egrets stalk the shallows; cliff and barn swallows catch insects on the fly; garter snakes and kestrels regulate the wetlands' rodent population.
A loop trail around the sewage treatment plant takes you to the Pinole Wetland Field Station, which is just an acre or so of cordgrass marsh. Across San Pablo Bay, the huge cranes of Mare Island are the only artifacts that mark the long view of the hills of Sonoma, past Carneros, and on to Lachryma Montis. It's tempting to sit and watch the bay go by for a few hours, or to hunt fossils in the bluffs across the creek. Still, you want a bit more exercise after this short warm-up, so you get back on your feet.
But where to go? Uphill along Pinole Valley Road until it becomes Alhambra Valley Road, once the freeway is recrossed and a couple miles of '70s-era suburbs left in the dust, the choices are enough to overwhelm. Briones Park is there, with its steep climbs, annoying cows, and occasional glimpses of pumas or coyotes. Past that, you could negotiate the twists and turns of Happy Valley Road, emerge in Lafayette, and from there head for the slopes of Mount Diablo.
But at Castro Ranch Road, inspiration strikes, and you veer into a soulless cookie-cutter suburb, taking absurdly named roads (Conestoga, Carriage, Coach) to Sobrante Ridge Regional Park. Filling your water bottle at the trailhead, you eye the climb before you. With a mere three hundred feet or so in elevation gain it's not much by Diablo standards, but the Sobrante Ridge Trail lies along an exposed, south-facing slope, and that cooling fog is still stuck on the other side of Wildcat Peak.
Heading up the long hill, you get an expansive view of the open space east of Tilden. Much of the land in the distance is protected, but that in the foreground is not. Ten years from now, this hike may be very different. Suburb already presses hard against the Richmond line.
You turn right onto the Manzanita Trail, then the Heavenly Ridge trail, which probably was aptly named before the houses on Heavenly Ridge Lane were built. Narrowly escaping a visit to someone's backyard, you turn onto a smaller trail -- your destination, the Manzanita Loop. A few steps, and you enter a grove of Pallid Manzanita -- Arctostaphylos pallida, a species that grows here, in and near Huckleberry Preserve in the Oakland Hills, and nowhere else on earth.
It's cool here; in the manzanita shade you lean up against a red trunk to catch your breath. The day isn't over yet. There are more miles of trail before you reach your car, a slow trip back to town, an evening of dinner. and listening to the tree frogs sing in Pinole Creek. But you're in no particular hurry. What good is a perfect day without moments like this, ones you wish could last forever?