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Hiking: Northern California

At Home With John Muir

January 18, 1998|JOHN McKINNEY

Most of us picture John Muir in one of two ways: as a young man exploring the High Sierra and the wonders of Yosemite or as America's revered elder naturalist, author and Sierra Club founder.

We don't often think of Muir in his middle years--the 1880s and 1890s--a time of great creativity for him as well as happiness, when he married, raised two daughters and managed a fruit ranch on the outskirts of Martinez, Calif., which is about 25 miles north of Oakland.

In 1880, Muir married Louise Strentzel, daughter of horticulturist John Strentzel. John Muir National Historic Site preserves his family home as well as a portion of his ranch, where he lived from 1890 until his death in 1914. It is altogether fitting that a man often referred to as "The Father of National Parks" be honored at a site administered by the National Park Service.

Allow an hour to 1 1/2 hours to walk the Orchard Trail and to tour the Muir Home. It is a handsome example of the upper-middle-class Victorian lifestyle. John Muir's home, grounds and the park visitor center are open Wednesday through Sunday, 10 a.m. to 4:30 p.m.

In 1993, the park acquired 325 acres of rolling ranchland, site of many Muir family walks. The park's two highest points, 660-foot Mt. Wanda and the 640-foot Mt. Helen, are named after Muir's daughters.

John Muir Nature Trail, an interpretive trail keyed to a brochure available from the visitor center, along with a couple of connecting fire roads, explore what park rangers call the Mt. Wanda Area. This wild side of the park is open every day from sunrise to sunset.

Directions to trail head: From California 4 (John Muir Parkway), nine miles east of Interstate 80 and four miles west of Interstate 680, exit on Alhambra Avenue and drive north to John Muir National Historic Site.

While it's only a five-minute walk from the park visitor center to the Mt. Wanda trail head, I suggest, for reasons of safety (it crosses a freeway entrance and exit), that you make a very un-Muir-like short drive to the Caltrans park-and-ride lot located at the corner of Alhambra Avenue and Franklin Canyon Road.

The hike: From Franklin Canyon Road, join the signed fire road and begin a steady climb above the John Muir Parkway and the Topeka/Santa Fe railroad trestles. As you climb, views open up to the east of mighty Mt. Diablo, towering above surrounding suburban sprawl. To the north, you can view the town of Martinez, as well as the Carquinez Straits between San Pablo and Suisun bays.

About 0.75 mile from the trail head, you'll reach the signed beginning of the 1.3-mile-long John Muir Nature Trail. The educational (although a tad over-earnest) path delivers lessons about local geology, creeks, flora and fauna.

Mt. Wanda's most compelling natural resources are its grand diversity of oaks--coast, live, valley, blue and black, as well as its grassy meadows.

The nature trail ends at a junction with a fire road. You can close the loop and return to the trail head by turning left on the road. Other connecting fire roads allow you to extend your walk a bit.

McKinney's book "Day Hiker's Guide to Southern California" is available through The Times for $16.45 (including tax, shipping and handling) by calling (800) 246-4042.

(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX / INFOGRAPHIC)

John Muir Nature Trail WHERE: John Muir National Historic Site.

DISTANCE: 0.25-mile loop around Muir Orchard; 3-mile loop of Mt. Wanda with 400-foot elevation gain.

TERRAIN: Oak woodlands and grassy meadows, where famed naturalist and his family sauntered.

HIGHLIGHTS: Tour John Muir's home and farm.

DEGREE OF DIFFICULTY: Easy to moderate.

FOR MORE INFORMATION: John Muir National Historic Site, 4202 Alhambra Ave., Martinez, CA 94553; tel. (510) 228-8860.

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