In a far corner of the Bay Area, there's a little known stretch of shoreline where the serenity of nature, meets the roaring highway. It's a place many of us just drive through, without ever knowing the beauty and wildness passing right by us. It's busy Highway 37, skirting the north side of San Pablo Bay.
There are cars racing along by the thousands everyday between Vallejo and Novato. Many of us drive this road without realizing that we’re passing protected ranchlands and wetlands, in fact one of the Bay Area’s finest treasures.
It's a land bursting with wildflowers, and bustling with wildlife. Affectionately known as the Northern Flyway Highway, the corridor along Highway 37 is a patchwork of public and private land that encompasses some of the most beautiful but least known open space in the Bay Area.
This is a landscape that has known generations of ranching, and is home to more cattle than people. Today much of this land is open to the public, and there are many ways to enjoy it. But over the years, a great deal of this open space was almost lost to development.
Galvanized by the threat of development, a group of organizations banded together and were able to protect much of this region. One of them is the Sonoma Land Trust.
John Brosnan is one of their land managers. "There have been development proposals out here for a city of 30,000, a land fill, an airport, and then in 2003 a casino," John says.
John leads occasional public tours, and they’re a great way to see the land. On today's visit, John is taking us on a hike up Cougar Mountain. To begin our hike, we actually have to go underneath the busy highway. This little known path isn't only used by people; there are still 200 or so heads of cattle on this working ranch.
This ranch has been operating for more than 100 years and cattle play an important role in controlling weeds and maintaining a healthy grassland. "They have quite the meadow out here," John says. In the springtime, the meadow is filled with wildflowers that are not only beautiful, but are also the host plant for the endangered Callippe Silver Spot Butterfly, which will only lay its eggs on that one type of wildflower.
So far, over 17,000 acres of land are now being managed by a coalition of organizations. John explains, "Our stakeholder group that we've maintained for this project alone has been over 40 organizations and individuals. Plus our neighbors, the ranchers on the property, the farmers, the hunters, it’s everyone, we’re pitching a pretty big tent."
Along with preserving the ranching tradition, there is also an effort to restore the landscape’s original character. Hundreds of volunteers have been hard at work returning the area’s native plants, and creating habitat for wildlife.
As beautiful as the hills are, this landscape is dominated by water, and there is no better way to experience it, than getting out on a boat. For the next part of our adventure, we go on the Napa river which travels under Highway 37. "It's the gate way to the wine country, but also the gateway to the wetlands," says Isa Woo. Isa is a field manager for the United States Geological Survey and she loves her job. "I am so happy when I see birds or wildlife. I'm a biologist so that's what I do."
Based nearby at historic Mare Island, the USGS helps to monitor the wetlands. The Napa-Sonoma marshes are comprised of 13,000 acres of salt ponds and wetlands. These marshes are a vital refuge for the tens of thousands of birds that travel along the pacific flyway. And with only 15% of the bay's tidal marshes left, every acre has become precious.
This area had long been used to harvest salt. When the State of California purchased the land in 1994 they began restoring it and turning the former salt ponds back into wetlands. "To see it return to a more natural state is just so exciting," Isa says.
One of the best ways to see this maze of levees and marshes is to rise above it. Taking a ride in an open cockpit bi-plane is a thrilling way to see the beauty and the scale of the landscape.
Chris Prevost runs Vintage Aircraft out of the Sonoma Valley Airport, just a stone’s throw away from HWY 37. He offers scenic flights in his classic airplanes.
"You're kind of getting a double dose of history, and the best view in the world," Chris enthuses. "We fly all over the Napa and Sonoma valley, we fly a 25 nautical mile radius from the Sonoma Valley Airport which includes the top of the bay all the way down to this side of the Golden Gate Bridge."
A world class view of one of the Bay Area's most scenic spots, all too often overlooked by those of us rushing by. And whether you see it from the air, the land, or on the water, it's worth taking the time to explore.