I love exploring long, flat trails. A trail with lots of turns and distance give me the ability to get out and stretch. After picking over rocks on Mt. Tam and in the Sierra earlier in the week, cruising along a paved suburban experience like the Marsh Creek Trail felt like the right thing to do. Years before, the connecting Big Break Regional Trail had been a Trails Challenge trail, but ended at a locked gate where the Marsh Creek Trail was being constructed. I recall looking down that nice surface and putting it on my "Things to Do" list as soon as it was completed.
To access the trail, I parked at the new lot on Cypress Road in Oakley just half a block east of Highway 4. The trail is 8.5 miles long, one way. The day was gorgeous, sunny but still nice at 8 AM when I started out. In summer, I'd advise an early start if you wanted to walk or ride the entire route - it can get ferociously warm as well as windy out in East Contra Costa County this time of year. Please remember the usual "musts", especially if you head out after 10 AM - lots of water, sunscreen and a hat. I'm fond of repeating this, because if you head out unprepared what should be a very pleasant day can turn into a dreadful experience. This trail offers a lot of sun exposure, so be prepared.
But advisories aside, I was anxious to get started. The chair and I headed north toward the start of the Marsh Creek Trail, which begins at a bridge signaling an intersection with the Big Break Regional Trail. I took my time stretching out and rolling north, and got my first look at Marsh Creek as well as an idea of how my day would be. Reaching the Big Break crossing, I sat on the bridge and watched a muskrat work purposefully along the west bank of the creek. It was clear he was heading to one of those places only a muskrat might know about, and I watched until he disappeared from sight into the brush. The Delta breeze was gentle and cooling. It was time to begin my 17 mile jaunt, though, so I picked up a moderate pace southbound, toward the end at Concord Ave. in Brentwood.
One of the first and most heartening things was to find a new housing development that had been designed with ramps from the streets onto the trail. To be able to come home from work, gather up the family or dog and walk out on the trail, maybe catch a sunset, maybe even a rising moon - to get in shape while amusing oneself with the doings on the trail what a wonderful amenity! The views are wide open, too - in the valley, there are not many obstructions to a sunset or full moon rising over the Sierra.
As I crossed Cypress Road I noted that a person could walk or ride to parks, school or shopping areas within a block or two of the trail. That's a bonus. Think of it this way - to be able to leave the car (and save that fuel!) at home while watching the sights and listening to the sounds of the trail is a good thing. And because the trail mileage markers are at ¼ mile intervals, a fitness seeker could easily gauge their progress, determine their endurance levels and challenge their abilities. It also invites those who might have physical challenges to get out for a walk that won't overtax them. The physical nature of the trail is easy to describe: it's flat and paved. I didn't find a section rough enough to note - it was smooth and fast. The entire length was easy to cruise along, and wide enough to pull off and stop to gaze into the creek.
Make no mistake, though - yes, you could style a fitness program here and work into great shape with a daily walk, ride, run or roll. But the attraction of the trail is Marsh Creek. It's a living entity, filled with the links of entire food chains. After meeting the muskrat earlier, I stopped every half mile to look into the creek to see what might be staring back. Ground squirrels are, of course, ubiquitous, especially so close to a water source. While I find all animals and birds noteworthy and amusing, I have my favorites - hawks, owls, and large wading birds are tops on my list. At half a dozen points I heard the serenade of red shouldered hawks. A kestrel called out from a fencepost a few feet before I breezed past her. Burrowing owls were there, too - choose a grassy field and a shady spot from which to watch. Keep looking for their telltale built - up dirt "shoulders" around their dens, and wait. I am by no means an expert in bird behaviors, by the way, but I learn so much from observing and listening.
The temperature was holding around 80 degrees by now, so I'd stop in the shade when I could find it. I saw what I thought was a Prairie Falcon at a point where a small tributary spilled into Marsh Creek. It didn't hang around long enough for an absolute identification, but I noted it for a look - up in my bird book later that afternoon.
"Coolest Bird of the Day" honors went to a Belted Kingfisher who was resting on a post overlooking the creek. The Kingfisher and a Great Blue Heron shared a stretch of the creek just before I crossed Sunset Road. I'd been out for just a short while and was excited that so many miles of trail were left to explore. I kept going, feeling better by the mile.
One of the keys to having such a good time on any trail is conditioning. I don't get tired on trails like the Marsh Creek route, because I make time to work up my endurance and strength levels. I had to make a conscious decision that I wanted as few limitations on my lifestyle as possible. One way to gain endurance is to walk or ride (or roll!) regularly. A walk doesn't have to be of epic length. Any time spent outdoors, in my humble opinion, is good time. As you feel better, you'll want to walk more. That's the short version of the 4wheelbob Fitness Program. A fitness effort, as the old saying goes, begins with a single step. Walking does quite a lot to keep the machinery in tune.
Having a creek as lively as Marsh Creek next to you helps focus you away from your physical effort, too. As I reached the current trail's end at Concord Avenue in Brentwood, I stopped bird watching and began looking for creatures of the aquatic sort - denizens of the creek, those shelled, finned, furry or floating members of the creek community. The creek didn't let me down here, either. I started back watching the water intently, and the sun made for easy viewing.
As I started back toward the Delta, I felt really good - far better than I thought I would after 8 and a half miles. Bird watching had consumed a good deal of my attention, and all parts seemed to be in strong working order. I stopped more frequently on the trip back because I wanted to thoroughly scope the creek for whatever might be making homes there. Almost immediately, I saw the first of what would be dozens of sightings. I noted that some of the sandstone rock at the creek's banks had large, dark spots on their light tan faces. And as I got closer, the "spots" tumbled off the rocks and into the creek! They were Western Pond Turtles, of course, lots of them. Each time I stopped to look around I'd see at least one. Being a fan of turtles, I call that a "score."
Rolling slowly along, I began seeing shadows cruising just below the surface of the free flowing creek. Catfish! Way up the reek were catfish, some floating near the surface, others only occasionally rising from the creek's floor to expose their location. The flow in the creek is strong enough this year that other species of fish have probably also found their way upstream. I'll have to go back and research that!
I started hearing a powerful, low baritone call in several places along the creek. I recognized the call immediately as that of the bullfrog. To help with their identity a few were cordial enough to float in the middle of the creek, basking in the bright sun. Although the trail crosses through suburban East County, the point I hope I'm making is that there are so many natural wonders making Marsh Creek their home that it would be a shame to live nearby and not indulge. I'd gladly drive to find a creek so full of life. It was nice to hear all the activity, to realize that our regional trails have so many things to offer even a casual user.
The total experience of the Marsh Creek Trail is much, much more than the sum of its parts. It's long enough for a nice bike ride, or a walk of just about any length comfortable to the walker. There are plenty of natural attractions, many of which I didn't note (I'll let YOU find them!). Kids and their parents can share time with each other, letting Mother Nature provide the stimulus. If you should decide to commit to an exercise plan, this trail would be a perfect start. Walk, run, ride to your heart's content with nature surrounding you. I could find more difficult trails to hike, but few that are more rewarding. Once you try it on for size, I bet you, too, will find the Marsh Creek Trail a perfect fit.