East Bay Exploring with Park Ranger Francis Mendoza
I love travel because of the magic that can happen every day even within our daily grind. I have a growing list of local places that I’ve never been to like Mount Diablo's 10,000 year-old archeological and sacred site Vasco Caves Regional Preserve in the East Bay.
Sustainable Travel is rooted in protecting local habitats and connecting with local residents and the local culture. Green Matters wrote a good article about sustainable travel and how we can as tourists incorporate its principles in our vacation planning and experiences.
Today, I am excited to introduce an East Bay resident and local Park Ranger Francis Mendoza of the East Bay Regional Park District. Francis is field testing our Messenger Bag right now. Enjoy his story and start planning your next trip!
Can you tell us about the East Bay Regional Park District and what you do?
I am a Naturalist which entails teaching people, mostly school children, about not only the wonder and beauty of nature, but the science, as well. Science has been under attack lately, so it’s very important to substantiate why and how we take care of the environment with the what, when and where. This includes climate change which will invariably affect everyone in the San Francisco Bay Area, especially those who live near the shore. The effect on wildlife will also be far-reaching, including shoreline habitats near the bay and ocean, but also within critical habitats such as the vernal pools near Vasco Caves and the rolling grasslands of the East Bay hills, which can be hundreds of miles from the nearest shore.
As the largest Regional Park District in the nation, we are fortunate to have the resources available to us to conserve and protect these open spaces, develop a plan for climate change and communicate these plans to residents through the power of social media. Not every agency is so lucky, as evidenced by events in the past few years on a federal level. I am also a major contributor to EBRPD’s Facebook and Instagram, which affords me the opportunity to communicate such important issues to the public without fear of reprisal.
What don’t people know about the Park District that you think is really interesting and important?
At the park I work at most in Fremont, Coyote Hills has a more than 2,000 year-old Tuibun Ohlone Village site. In fact, there are many village sites all around the Bay Area, most of which have been developed on top of by roads, buildings and other structures. To the more than 7 million people living here, it mostly goes unrecognized. But to the Native Americans and their descendants, they are sacred places where their ancestors once lived, and my work, in part, is to not only teach people about their history, but the descendants who are with us today. Every year, there is a Gathering of Ohlone Peoples at Coyote Hills on the first Sunday in October. This year marks the 25th Anniversary of the Gathering, along with the 50th Anniversary of Coyote Hills, so we are having commemorative events and talks on Memorial Day Weekend, which I invite everyone to attend!
What are the hidden gems inside the Park District?
Everyone knows about Tilden Park in Berkeley, Redwood Park in Oakland and Mission Peak in Fremont, but aside from those iconic locations, we have lots of hidden gems where one can virtually be alone in nature, save for a burrowing owl or two hanging out nearby. One of those gems is the Hayward Shoreline, where I worked for six years before coming to Coyote Hills. Also in Hayward is Garin Regional Park, nestled in the hills between Hayward and Union City. Families go there to picnic, fly kits and fish. I like to run the trails and look for snakes and amphibians. Between our 73 parks and 1,250 miles of trails connecting them, one could spend a lifetime exploring our parks. We have a self-guided Trails Challenge that is in its 25th year of existence, where you get a guidebook, t-shirt and pin for free after exploring just 26 miles of trails in one calendar year (or less).
What local events are your favorites?
One of my favorite events is the Garin Apple Festival on the first Saturday in September. Kids enjoy old-fashioned ice cream, families taste the heirloom apple varieties within the orchard, and inside the red barn, there’s a good ole’ fashioned string band that plays music throughout the day. What I enjoy most is the diversity of people who come out with their families, the myriad of languages you hear in passing and the sharing of culture with one another.
If you could put together a travel itinerary for a tourist, what would it be?
I would definitely put the aforementioned Redwood Regional Park on that itinerary, along with some of the great festivals we hold every year. That includes the Art in Nature Festival and Harvest Festival at Ardenwood Historic Farm, both in the Fall. Being a child of the ocean, I would also include the Crab Cove Visitor in Alameda as a destination spot, especially if they have young children. There’s nothing better than going out to the shore on a low tide and catching mud crabs in your hands.
We also offer great kayaking trips out to the bay and delta, including an adventure out to Brooks Island in Richmond. There, one can get a 360-degree panoramic view of the Bay Area and see plants, butterflies and other organisms unique to that island.
In the Green Matters article, they write about the importance of protecting the local environment. I always think of Machu Picchu as an example of how tourism is destroying this amazing ancient site. Can you speak to how that is happening or has happened in the East Bay and San Francisco Bay Area?
Our most popular park is Mission Peak in Fremont, where thousands of people each weekend climb a steep 3-mile stretch to reach a directional pole near the peak, and take a picture of themselves standing atop of it. Unfortunately, many people who are not accustomed to Leave No Trace principles will litter wantonly, go on illegal switchback trails and contribute to the unnatural erosion that is already taking place. Mission Peak is also a sacred site to the Chochenyo Ohlone, and the degradation happening to their land compounds the problem. We’ve attributed the spike in popularity of the peak to social media, and are also using it to educate people on how to not only use the park for health and social well-being, but also for environmental conservation and stewardship.
What are your favorites local places to eat and drink after a hike?
I’m known as Roving Ramen Rice Ranger on Instagram, and I love a good bowl of ramen after a hike. Some of my favorite ramen joints include Yokohama Lekei in Union City, Orenchi Ramen in Santa Clara and Ramen Dojo in San Mateo. My teenage daughters and I also frequent Boba/Bubble Tea places throughout the Bay Area. There’s nothing like a refreshing passionfruit green tea with aloe vera after a long hike. Our favorites include T4, iTea and the Boba Guys.
What is your favorite park-to-city experience?
I often take kids from urban areas to parks that are just a stone’s throw away from their local neighborhood. Unfortunately, many of them do not frequent these parks because of cultural barriers, unfounded fears such as the perceived presence of bears and crocodiles, and founded ones such as dead bodies oftentimes being dumped in parks from local gangs. I try to dispel these fears by teaching them the only thing they usually have to worry about is poison oak and on occasion, rattlesnakes. One of my favorite groups to work with is Thunder Road, an alcohol and drug rehabilitation center for teens and young adults. At first, many of them were hesitant to go on a 2-mile hike through the redwoods. But after going on half a dozen hikes, we were going six miles through steep terrain with the strong possibility of encountering a rattlesnake. Not one of them complained throughout that hike, and many of them continue to hike as part of their rehab.
How can we support your work?
Come out to your parks and use them! Jump on opportunities to restore habitat such as beach clean-ups, invasive plant removal and tree plantings. Being an informed voter and advocating for open space organizations through fundraisers and social media are all ways that support our work. Remind your friends and family not to take illegal trails, to keep cultural resources safe by not taking historical artifacts, and not to feed animals as this will eventually lead to their demise.
How can people follow you on social media?
I manage the @ebrpd and @changescale Instagram accounts. ChangeScale is an environmental education collaborative in the Bay Area that helps leverage resources from partner organizations and enact real change within the state’s school district curriculum. As I mentioned before, I am also on Instagram as @rovingramenriceranger. Give them all a follow!
Thank you Francis! We can't wait to check out all your local recommendations.
Photo credits: Photo 1: Vasco Caves by Kara Wilber. Photo 2: Kámen Road Messenger Bag. Photo 3: Sweathouse at Tuibun Ohlone Village at Coyote Hills. Photo 4: Coyote Hills Trails. Photo 5: Richmond Marina to Brooks Island by Isabelle Murphy. Photo 6 and 7: Ron Fernandez Photography (www.ronfernandez.com).