A Salute to Bay Area Mountains on International Mountain Day

Mount Diablo Mountains International Mountain Day Bay Area
A view of Mount Diablo, by John Morgan on Flickr

Covering a whopping 27 percent of the earth’s surface, mountains – those stunning geological wonders that rise out of the bedrock in all shapes and sizes and levels of majesty – are amazingly crucial to our planet’s overall well-being.

One tenth of the world’s population gets its life support directly from mountains. These same mountains are also a lifeline for millions of lowland towns, cities, and villages. Add that up, and pretty much all of us benefit from mountains in one way or another. Why? In case you need a little Biology 101 refresher, mountains are the sources of all the world’s major rivers, and many smaller ones. They help capture moisture from the clouds (causing rain), and gather snow to be stored until spring and summer, when it melts. In arid and semi-arid regions, over 90 percent of river flow comes from mountains. In short, they are the bringers of water, and we all need water to live.

Today, December 11, is International Mountain Day – a day of recognition mandated by the United Nations in 2003. The UN uses International Mountain Day as a way to spotlight the importance of sustainable mountain development (because mountains provide resources like water, energy and food that are becoming increasingly scarce). While many resources are abundant in mountainous regions, these same regions are also vulnerable to climate change, deforestation, and natural disasters.

Here in the Bay Area, we’ve got a few mountains of our own, and we count ourselves lucky that many of them are protected under land preservation laws, so their beauty, mystery, and wildlife can remain unadulterated. It couldn’t hurt to tip your hat to these beauties in honor of the life, inspiration, and opportunity for adventure they give us. We’ve chosen a few of our favorites below.

Mount Diablo

Aside from having some major video game street cred, Mount Diablo is the prime locale (and one of the Bay’s highest peaks, at 3,864 feet!) for hikers and bikers to score sweeping views of the Bay and its surrounding cities from the East Bay.

The two best trails that offer Mount Diablo’s famous views are via the mountain’s summit and the Grand Loop. The general exploration of the Mount Diablo State Park will eventually get you to the summit, because, after all, that is the cherry on top. It’s an easy 4-mile, 1-3 hour trail that, on a clear day, will give you a view of the Golden Gate Bridge, Farallon Islands, Mount Loma Prieta, Mount St. Helena, and way more. The 3-4 hour, 6.2-mile hour Grand Loop boasts a bird’s-eye view of the Bay Area, enabling hikers to gaze out over the Bay and beyond, to the Farallon Islands, Santa Cruz Mountains, Mount Lassen, and the Sierra Nevada.

If you’re a hardcore cyclist, be sure to check out the Save Mount Diablo Challenge, a timed 11.2 mile rile to the mountain’s summit for a different way to experience the mountain.

Mount Tamalpais

Hundreds of miles of trails cover Mount Tamalpais, so whether you’re on foot or on two wheels (mountain biking was, after all, literally invented on Mount Tam), grab a map and get thee to the top. If you haven’t been to the 2,572 foot summit, you’ve probably seen countless Instagrams of the view from your friends who’ve made it to the finish line. The mountain has three summits: the West, Middle, and East Peaks. While the East Peak is the most popular thanks to its gorgeous view of the San Francisco skyline, almost every hike to the top offers amazing vantage points looking out over the ocean, Bay, cities, bridges, and all the attributes that make the Bay Area glorious: fog, sunsets, rocky outcroppings, water falls, wild flowers, ocean cliffs, beaches, and way more.

Mount Davidson

Right in the heart of the city lays San Francisco’s highest peak – Mount Davidson. While it’s not quite as formidable as other Bay Area mountains, its manageable 928 foot summit and heart-of-the-city locale make it perfect for a quick jaunt to the top. Foot trails criss-cross the mountain, so depending on whether you want a looped route or a there-and-back route, it’s definitely a choose-your-own-adventure type of experience. In all, the hike through towering eucalyptus and pine trees takes about an hour, and the summit not only hosts a very bizarre, 103-foot cross at the top (read about its history here), but a front row view of Sutro Tower across the way, sweeping views of the city, Oakland, and Berkeley beyond the Bay’s glittering waters.

San Bruno Mountain

Bike or hike along the San Bruno Mountain range to view San Francisco, the East Bay, and the Bay itself looking north. Not only is the mountain covered in gorgeous wildflowers in the spring and extremely popular among cyclists, it was once a hotbed of controversy back in the early 1970’s.

We’ll give you a little history lesson: As the Bay Area’s population continued to grow and expand, David Rockefeller schemed to develop and fill an area of the South Bay the size of Manhattan to make way for residences, restaurants, and industry. Rockefeller funded the West Bay Communities Associates – Crocker Land Co., Ideal Cement Co., and investment banking firm Lazard Freres & Co. – to get the bay fill project underway. Crocker Land Co. owned San Bruno Mountain, and to reap even more real estate development, the company hatched a plan to chop off the entire top of the mountain off. Can you imagine? Read how local residents took West Bay Communities Associates to court and stopped their plans.

Here in the Bay, we are blessed with so many life-giving mountains, and even the Bay itself has the Sierras and their snowpack to thank for its rippling waters. What are your favorite Bay Area mountains?

Off the Beaten Path: An Adventure Along the Mokelumne River

Mokelumne River California
Photo by Jackie Richardson

As an avid local day hiker I always longed for a bit more of an adventure. At the end of this summer I had the opportunity to take my very first backpacking trip along the Pacific Crest Trail (PCT) in the Sierra Nevada mountain range for a real off the beaten path experience.

Little did I know that I was hiking right along the Mokelumne Watershed, which links to the San Francisco Bay! The Mokelumne River begins in the Sierra Nevada, flows through the foothills across the Central Valley and into the Sacramento-San Joaquin River Delta, which empties into the San Francisco Bay. Not only does it supply most of the East Bay’s residents their drinking water through the Mokelumne Aqueduct, but it also provides clean water to a thriving San Francisco Bay.

Pictured at the top right was the first stop, Lower Kinney Lake of Mokelumne Watershed. Kinney Lakes are actually a trio of reservoirs along Ebbetts Pass where you can often find PCT hikers camping out for a night. Once I arrived at Lower Kinney Lake I couldn’t believe how serene and clean the glass-like water appeared.

Mokelumne River
Photo by Jackie Richardson

While both preparing and hiking along the watershed I learned a few do’s and don’ts of backpacking (from a first timer’s perspective) highlighted below:


  • Give yourself plenty of time to prepare. I was surprised to find out how long it took to prepare my pack due to the limited amount of space.
  • Research! Be sure you have an idea of exactly what you need for your trip from tents and sleeping bags to freeze dried food.
  • Get fitted for your pack. This is one of the most important things I learned while getting ready for my trip. Have a professional fit you for your pack so you can be as comfortable as possible while hauling 40+ pounds up a mountain. Be sure they fill your pack with a realistic weight so you have an idea of how it would feel full. Make sure the majority from the weight of your pack is resting comfortably on your hips and not entirely on your back or shoulders. I was adjusting the straps on my pack for the first two miles of the trek until I found a comfortable fit. Everyone is different; make sure you find a pack that fits you right.
  • Take everything out that you brought in. A sign of a good backpacker is leaving no sign that you were ever there.


  • Don’t pack more than you can carry. This is very common for first time backpackers. Take the essentials and nothing more. Conserve weight by purchasing a water purifier, freeze-dried food and keep the electronics at home.
  • Don’t be an over-achiever. Do what you can. Carrying a 40+ pound pack is a lot more difficult than it sounds. Don’t out-do yourself on the first day.
  • Don’t skimp on the essentials, including rain gear, shelter and good hiking boots.
  • Don’t underestimate the power of nature. Be aware and know what’s around you.

While hiking along the Mokelumne Watershed I learned first-hand the satisfaction and challenges of backpacking, I also took on a whole new perspective about how water travels from the Sierra to the Bay. Backpacking in such an isolated area, knowing that the environment surrounding me supports the health of our Bay reminded me how important it is to take care of our environment, no matter where the trail takes you.


Drought Shows Stark Contrasts

I just got back from a week-long backpacking trip in the High Sierras, and what I saw shocked me.

It’s impossible to escape news that California is in the midst of a terrible drought, but it took spending five days in the backcountry of Inyo National Forest and Kings Canyon National Park to give me perspective on just how dire the water situation in our state really is.  Creeks and rivers that should be raging are barely ankle deep.  Peak summits that should be encased in snow and ice are exposed and dry.  As soon as I got home, I downloaded photos from the trip, and started looking online for photos from previous years.

Below are two photos – I took the one on top two weeks ago looking West from the shore of Summit Lake in Humphrey’s Basin, at an elevation of roughly 11,000 feet.  The one below was taken by a fellow backpacker almost exactly 4 years earlier, on July 6th of 2010, a nearly perfect “average” snow year based on data from the Department of Water Resources.  The contrast is indeed stark.

Summit Lake, July 2014
Summit Lake, July 2014
Summit Lake, July 2010
Summit Lake, July 2010. (Photo credit – user: OLI, www.easternsierraforum.com)

So we know there’s a drought, and we can see the difference in charts and graphs that show snowpack and river flows.  But living in urban communities there’s a gap between what we know, and our behavior.  After all, the water still comes out of our faucets just as fast, and the price we pay for residential water has barely nudged, leaving both our perceptions and our pocketbooks intact.  Without additional action, there is little beyond personal responsibility to motivate people to conserve.

Earlier this week, the State Water Resources Control Board approved stiff new fines for conservation scofflaws.  Californian’s caught wasting water – hosing down sidewalks instead of using a broom, over-watering landscaping – may now be subject to a $500 per day fine.  But as we’ve seen with other environmental issues like Save The Bay’s efforts to enforce outdoor smoking bans, regulation means little without consistent enforcement.

While it remains to be seen whether the recent emergency drought declaration by Governor Brown, or the State Water Board’s approval of fines will change behavior, there are still significant gaps in how we manage water in California.  Statewide management of groundwater resources continues to lag behind other western states (although an interesting new court ruling may change that).  And the Bay Delta region continues to be one of the longest standing bureaucratic and political messes in the state.

As the adage oft attributed to Mark Twain goes, “Whiskey is for drinking, and water is for fighting over.”


Notes from the Field: Seth’s Three Cents

Exchange students from Singapore removing invasive species at Ravenswood Pond in Menlo Park.

With a new school year recently underway and our native planting season beginning in a few short months, I took some time this past weekend to reflect upon the two and a half years I’ve spent with Save The Bay. Ultimately, I identified a handful of personal opinions formed while leading habitat restoration programs with Save The Bay. Anyone who has spent time with me in the field has probably listened to me harp on some of the themes discussed below, and while I do not intend to come across as prophetic or prescient, I firmly believe in these three ideas:

1. Almost nothing is static. People change, cultures evolve, economies fluctuate, and landscapes are perpetually in a state of transformation, albeit a gradual one. Back in the fall of 2011 I applied Jared Diamond’s theory of landscape amnesia to the San Francisco Bay. Humans often fail to recognize changes when they occur gradually enough to be imperceptible to the human eye. While we may look at the shape of the Bay and assume it remains unchanged, in reality the outline and appearance of our estuary has shifted dramatically—due to geology, climate, and human impact—and will continue to shift due to these same variables.

Though humans’ impact on the Bay has been ecologically destructive in the post-Gold Rush era, this momentum can be reversed through progressive legislation and physical reparation. Our land use advocacy and on-the-ground wetland restoration accomplishes exactly this: changing the shape of San Francisco Bay in an ecologically beneficial manner. Personally witnessing two and a half years of work at our restoration sites has proven to me that our approach really works; degraded wetland areas can be improved at a terrific pace. As we look towards a future challenged by the threats of climate change, water scarcity, and loss of biodiversity, maintaining a dynamic view of our relationship with the California landscape will be critical to finding creative, sustainable solutions.

2. Everyone cares. I’d like to suggest that Community-based Restoration be renamed “Global Community-based Restoration.” The sight of 50 or 60 Bay Area locals showing up to volunteer at 9am on a rainy Saturday morning will never fail to impress me. That being said, even more astonishing are the groups of volunteers from Los Angeles, Pennsylvania, and even Singapore we’ve witnessed demonstrating the same dedication and respect for our projects that the locals do. Despite the likelihood that these volunteers will never visit our sites again, they still take the time to plant each native seedling with care, recognizing that while we do not necessarily all share a bay in common, we do share oceans.

Peter Baye
Local wetland ecologist Peter Baye, Ph.D, walking down a bike path flooded by king tides last winter.

3. It’s all about the “watershed” perspective. One cannot talk about the health of San Francisco Bay without also considering the health of the Pacific Ocean, the Sierra Nevada Mountains, and the polar ice caps. Melting glaciers at the poles are raising ocean levels worldwide, which means that our Bay will also experience a rise in water levels. In anticipation of this change, local scientists are focusing research on wetlands’ ability to migrate vertically and keep up with rising waters. One major variable in determining the success of vertical migration is the availability of adequate sediments (dirt, sand, and other materials) present in Bay water. The majority of these sediments originate from the Sierra Nevada mountains and travel to the Bay via the Sacramento and San Joaquin Delta.

In recent years the sediment load entering the Bay has decreased significantly due to river damming and diversion in the Sierra Nevada and Central Valley. This sediment supply chain connects the future of coastal Bay communities with the water politics of the San Francisco Bay watershed, an area comprising 40% of California’s landmass. As you might guess, this is just one of many complex interrelationships impacting the Bay. What this means is that San Francisco Bay conservation and restoration cannot just be a local issue; effective action will require state-wide participation and collaboration. Everyone will have a role, and the more we can educate ourselves and maintain a big picture view, the better off our state will be.

Care to discuss any of these ideas in person? Come volunteer with us.

Spring Runoff 2013: From the Sierra to the San Francisco Bay

Tunnel Chute Rapid
Taking my family rafting, Tunnel Chute Rapid (class IV+), Middle Fork American River between Oxbow Reservoir and Folsom Lake.

During the spring and summer I have a habit of sneaking away on the weekends to guide whitewater rafting trips in the Sierra Nevada foothills.  I’ve been doing this for 10 years, and have been lucky enough to explore the majestic canyons and exhilarating whitewater runs of rivers like the American, Tuolumne, Merced, North Stanislaus, and Kaweah.   In the process of learning to navigate these rivers I gained a deep understanding of the linkages between winter snowpacks, weather conditions, dam releases, and the volume of water flowing through a given drainage; however, it was only when I began working with Save The Bay that I adopted a complete “watershed” view of how water travels from the Sierra to the Bay.

Back in December I wrote a blog entry titled Driving over the Drain, investigating the ecological and hydrological significance of the Golden Gate (not the bridge, but the strait of water beneath it).   This piece explained how roughly 40% of California’s landmass is contained within the San Francisco Bay watershed.  By definition this means that all water falling on this land as rain, snow, and sleet should ultimately flow into the Bay and out through the Golden Gate.  I deliberately use the word “should” in the previous sentence rather than “will,” because the truth is that while some of this runoff will ultimately reach the Bay, it certainly won’t be following the natural course it did 200 years ago.

Humans began damming, diverting, and modifying the physical structures of California rivers as early as the Gold Rush. Today, the 1,400 named dams in California provide valuable services such as flood protection, hydroelectric power generation, and water storage for our state’s vast agricultural industry.   However, damming and diverting rivers comes at a significant ecological cost.  Not only do dams flood entire river canyons and destroy riparian habitat, they also change the quantity and characteristics of waters passing through them.

Folsom Dam
Folsom Dam, East of Sacramento.

The dams and aqueducts of the Central Valley Project and State Water Project currently divert roughly 30% of the freshwater inflow to the San Francisco Bay delta.  Less freshwater entering the Bay means that water in the estuary is now saltier, and saltwater is moving farther upstream into the Delta.  This is a direct cause of fish mortality and ecological disturbance.   Dams also obstruct the natural flow of suspended sediments (sand and soil in the water), ultimately causing less sediments to reach the Bay.  While this may at first seem like a beneficial side effect in that it improves water clarity, the presence of suspended sediments is a key factor in determining the potential rate of accretion (accumulation) of tidal marshes.  Tidal marsh vegetation, such as the native plants installed by Save The Bay volunteers, have the ability to trap sediments, thus allowing marshes to rise vertically over time to adjust to changes in sea level; however, this is partially dependent upon availability of these sediments.

Though the situation I’ve outlined above may seem concerning, the saving grace of manmade water projects is that they can be removed.   The road is dam removal is a long and costly one, but venerable organizations like Friends of the River and Tuolumne River Trust are tackling these challenges head-on.   As we plan for the future of water management in California, it’s important to maintain a “watershed” perspective, remembering the myriad ecological interdependencies existing within the complex network of natural and manmade waterways connecting the High Sierra to the Bay.