Secret acres: Berkeley’s hidden hillside park

The Vicente Canyon Hillside open space can be hard to find.

High on a hillside, tucked behind houses lining Alvarado and Vicente Roads sits one of Berkeley’s most hidden parks.

The two and a half acre open space is studded with oaks, toyons, bay and pine trees, as well as native plants like purple needle grass, soap plants, coyote bush, and California sage brush. Pathways meander up and down the hills, and wooden benches are placed throughout to capture the view of the bay and San Francisco.

This is a public park, but the public does not own it. Instead, the hilly property belongs to the Vicente Canyon Hillside Foundation, a non-profit organization with about 60 members. But it is a dedicated open space, which means anyone can go there – if they can find it.

Hikers walk down stairways leading from park.

Getting to the park can be tricky. Its entrance is up a set of wooden stairs near 146 Vicente. The park boundary is at the top of the steps, but the trails begin even higher up. The land there is so steep that the foundation’s members recently installed a rope handrail.


Since it is so tucked away, it is not well known.

“People don’t use it very much,” said William McClung, a foundation member whose company, Shelterbelt Builders, has an annual contract to help maintain the open space.

The open space came into being in 1976 after a developer built three houses along Vicente Road. He had plans to construct another 18 homes on the hillside and link them to to Gravatt Avenue with a new road.

Local residents didn’t like the idea of so many homes crowded on the hill, so they bought the 2.5 acre hillside for about $16,000, according to McClung.

“A group of neighbors got together to see if they could buy it and keep it from being developed,” said McClung, who lives on Alvarado Road.


On a recent sunny Saturday, McClung gave a tour of the open space to a group of about 10 neighbors. As the group climbed up the steep slopes and paused to admire the views. McClung explained how foundation members have been trying to restore the area’s native vegetation by ripping out invasive Scotch broom and other non-native grasses and planting native ones in their place.

Some, like soap grass, are flourishing, but others have difficulty establishing themselves because of deer and other predators, he said.  At one point McClung dug up the root of the soap grass to show the group its bulb, which can be eaten or used for soap. The husk surrounding the bulb can also be used like a brush, he said.

The open space was burned during the 1991 Oakland Hills Fire (the park straddles both Berkeley and Oakland) and traces of the flames can be seen on the underside of the branches of some coast oaks. Part of the foundation’s mission is to maintain a 50-foot buffer between the open space and nearby homes.

“It’s a classic wildland urban interface, to speak firestorm terminology,” said McClung.

Joyce Sasse, an attorney who lives on Gravatt  Avenue in Oakland, used to have an acre around her old house in Orinda but now only has a patio and a few pots. She came on the tour with her rescue-dog-in-training, Breeze, to see if she might help out with the community garden portion of the open space, which has been run by McClung’s son John for the past few years.


John McClung has planted grapefruit, oranges and other fruits, along with chard, lettuce, and other vegetables.

The foundation is looking to get more people involved with the open space, both as a way to raise funds and to increase the number of people helping maintain the land. The $60 annual dues help pay for “maintenance of the hillside so that it does not become a fire hazard, upkeep on the community vegetable garden, clearing footpaths of poison oak, repair of the stairs on the Vicente easement access, liability insurance, and city assessments from Berkeley and Oakland,“ according to an article realtor Julie Nachtway posted on her blog.

For more information on Vicente Canyon Hillside Foundation, contact McClung.