LIVERMORE, Calif. (AP) -- Many people associate the Altamont Pass with bumper-to-bumper traffic, but a few folks have had more soothing experiences on the range separating the Bay Area and the Central Valley.
They have spent hours gawking at ground squirrels and odd-shaped boulders. They have listened to screeching hawks.
Rich with wildlife and local lore, Brushy Peak is a 2,000-acre preserve a few miles north of Interstate 580. The Livermore Area Recreation and Park District leads hikes to the 1,702-foot summit.
While surrounding hills are dotted with power-generating wind turbines, one peak is covered with a full head of oak and buckeye trees. Tall grass and colorful wildflowers bend in persistent winds.
''The distinction of the colors on the hill are just phenomenal,'' said Dave VanWinder of Walnut Creek. ''The green of the trees with the yellows on the oak and the grass -- it's like wow!''
VanWinder recently went on one of the organized hikes, which are offered twice a month. The hike takes about four hours and includes moderately challenging climbs. But the adventure begins way before that.
Hikers meet a park district ranger at 9 a.m., usually on a Saturday, at Robert Livermore Park. From there, they are driven deep into the Altamont.
Cows thinking it's feeding time usually step up to the van, while cottontail rabbits scamper around large sandstone formations that resemble something out of a Salvador Dali painting.
Over time, those boulders -- sacred to the American Indians who once lived in the area -- were hollowed out by water and wind. What's left are shallow ''caves'' where life literally begins and ends.
Each spring, swallows and other birds build nests in the crevices. One cave, sealed with concrete, serves as a tomb for former landowner John Elliott.
The boulders also earned the name ''post office rock'' because travelers used to write letters to the next party passing through, roll them up and plug them into the porous rock.
There's even a rock cave that some say served as a lookout for the legendary Joaquin Murieta, the Mexican bandit with a Robin Hood reputation.
But one tale does hold water: The boulders were a backdrop for outdoor parties in the 1960s, where hippies danced under the stars and tried to connect with the cosmos.
The Livermore Heritage Guild has newspaper clippings and pictures of these parties, including the annual gatherings of the Brushy Peak Bohemian Club.
But over the past two decades, things have slowed considerably. Property owners shut their gates on the hippies, and since then, the flora and fauna have flourished.
A delicate and isolated ecosystem, Brushy Peak is home to the federally protected red-legged frog, kit fox, Alameda whipsnake and, in seasonal waterways, tiger salamanders and fairy shrimp.
The Livermore park district owns 507 acres of Brushy Peak, namely the summit and eastern slope. The East Bay Regional Park District purchased the surrounding 1,100 acres.
Unlike other property owners in the rapidly developing Tri-Valley area who hold out for home builders, the ranchers around Brushy Peak readily sold their land to the park district at about $3,000 an acre.
''The issue is, it's right in the heart of a growth area,'' said Bob Doyle, assistant general manager for the park district's land-acquisition department. ''What we've tried to do is build from Brushy Peak out, to create a buffer zone... It's just a beautiful area.''
Last year, the East Bay park district asked nearby residents for suggestions on public uses. A preliminary plan outlines access from Laughlin Road from the south, with picnic areas and hiking trails on the western slope.
The district has yet to identify funds to open and maintain the park. And for now, the only public access to Brushy Peak is through the Livermore park district hikes.
They begin at an elevation of 925 feet and ascend 777 more feet. The hike is 4 miles round-trip, and it takes about two hours to reach the top.
On a clear day, the wind-swept ridges boast views out to the Sierra Nevada range. But for now, the adventurous still need to make reservations.
If You Go ...
GETTING THERE: Robert Livermore Park, where hikes begin, can be reached by taking the Portola Avenue offramp from Interstate 580 and going south to L Street. Turn right on L, which becomes Arroyo Road. Follow Arroyo to park entrance.
GENERAL INFORMATION: (925) 373-5700.
TICKET INFORMATION: Call (925) 373-5700 for availability. Reservations are required. Cost for Livermore residents is $15 and for nonresidents $18. Hiking groups are limited to 10 people at a time. only take 10 hikers at a time.
ON THE NET: The Livermore Area Recreation and Park District: www.larpd.dst.ca.us
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