Take a guided tour of the newly protected Vasco Regional Preserve, a remarkable cultural and ecological treasure in our own backyard
Standing atop one of the rocky outcroppings in the Vasco Regional Preserve, you can look both north and south and see the undulating hills of eastern Contra Costa County rising and falling like a sine wave from Livermore to Brentwood. Glance off to the west, and you’ll spy the rocky summit of Mount Diablo lurking over the top of a windmill-lined ridge. Turn 180 degrees to the east, and you’ll see the never-ending flatlands of the Central Valley—never-ending, that is, until the colossal Sierra erupts from the far eastern edge of the plain.
The hills around you burst with outcroppings much like the one on which you stand: rock protrusions pockmarked with caves, erosion-carved into the sandstone by thousands of years of driving wind and rain. Some of the caves are tiny rabbit holes and owl’s nests. Others are large enough to hold several people. And therein lies the magic of the Vasco preserve.
“[The park] has a tremendous importance to Native Americans,” says Bob Doyle, assistant general manager of the East Bay Regional Park District’s land division. The caves afforded shelter from the winter rains and the summer heat for the Native Americans who lived in eastern Contra Costa County. The Native American population was quite large, Doyle says, “more than people realize, going back 7,000 years—which is before Rome, before the pyramids. This is a little oasis.”
But the caves here were important for more than just shelter. Naturalists say that the Native Americans who lived in the East Bay, including the Ohlone, Bay Miwok, and Northern Valley Yokut tribes, considered the area to be sacred ground. In fact, some of these caves contain, so faint that you can barely see them on the walls, polychromatic pictographs—cave paintings.
Vasco feels sacred, in large part, because of the diverse wildlife it contains. The area is home to a stunning variety and abundance of raptors, including prairie falcons, red-tailed hawks, kestrels, owls, and the world’s largest population of golden eagles (it’s no coincidence that many of the pictographs are drawings of birds).
Depressions in the rock underfoot fill with rainwater, creating eerie vernal pools that spill into each other and then over the sides of the rock, giving way to the fleeting beauty of an occasional waterfall. These pools provide a home for three species of endangered fairy shrimp, which lay eggs that survive the dry season until the pools return. Many other forms of wildlife also abound. If you are truly lucky, you might catch a glimpse of the highly endangered San Joaquin kit fox. Vasco preserve is a place that is awe-inspiring, even for those who have visited repeatedly.
“Everything is covered with this beautiful lichen,” says Stephen Joseph, who has been photographing the preserve for the East Bay Regional Park District since 1995. “All the rocks have these incredible colors. When it’s raining, when you’re out there when everything’s damp, the colors are all glowing away, the birds are flying around, and the wind’s blowing—it’s just an amazing place. I’m glad it’s protected.
”Protecting this land wasn’t easy. The park district bought the site from several landholders starting in 1997—negotiations lasted for several years—in order to prevent the construction of 106 large wind turbines. For the previous 200 years, the land had been used for cattle grazing. Cows would often use the caves for shelter from the weather, with the unfortunate result that some of the cave paintings were wiped off the walls.
To prevent further damage, the park district has strictly limited public access to the preserve. Admission is available only through guided tours (reservations are required), and the tours do not take visitors inside the caves. Although you have to take a shuttle bus to the preserve, when you walk up to that small meadow ringed with rock and look out over the same scenery that a Native American standing in the same spot would have gazed upon 7,000 years ago, you will agree that it is most certainly sacred ground.
Reservations for March tours can be made in mid-February. Tours last from 8:30 a.m. to 1:30 p.m., though times may vary. Call ahead for current rates. Buses leave from Round Valley Regional Preserve in Brentwood and Brushy Peak Regional Preserve in Livermore. For reservations, call (510) 636-1684; for information, call (925) 757-2620 or visit www.ebparks.org .