Growing by the Bay

Category: hikes

Bay Area Hiker

I’ve been reading Bay Area Hiker’s reports for a long time. They’re detailed without going overboard, and they give a really good sense of what to expect from a particular hike. But I had always ended up on their pages when I was searching for information on a certain destination rather than going through their main page. It turns out, however, that entering through the front door has its advantages. There’s a lot of useful information on this site. Click the screen shot to sample it.

bay area hiker screenshot

Mount Diablo tarantula

Each fall the tarantulas come out on Mount Diablo to mate. We saw a couple this year and read about a couple of cyclists — Mt. Diablo is popular with high-endurance mountain bikers — who got so distracted by a pair of mating tarantulas that they crashed into each other and had to be hospitalized.

It looks like this fellow might have been captured and taken home by someone. But what do you do with your tarantula after you get him home?

Sobrante Ridge

Most guides will have you enter the Sobrante Ridge Regional Preserve from Coach Drive in Carriage Hills, but if you enter from the El Sobrante side — the trail head is at the end of Heavenly Ridge Lane — a short hike past the endangered Alameda Manzanita will take you to the top of the ridge, where a selection of pictnic tables awaits you. A view of Mt. Tamalpais lies to the west.

sobrante ridge view to west: mt. tam and marin county

To the east is Mount Diablo, and to the south Wildcat Canyon.

sobrante ridge view to south: wildcat canyon

You can descend to Carriage Hills to the north, if you wish.

carriage hills from sobrante ridge

The Belgum Sanitarium

Hikers in the Wildcat Canyon hills above the city of Richmond may be surprised to come upon a glade full of palms and other exotic trees amid the chaparral and oak woodlands.

palms at the belgum sanitarium, richmond

These are the vestiges of a sanitarium that overlooked the bay, with views of San Francisco to the south southwest

san francisco view from east bay hills

and Richmond to the west.

view of richmond from tilden park hills

This was the location of the Grande Vista Sanitarium, founded by Dr. Hendrik Belgum in 1914. Residents of the sanitarium included drug addicts and alcoholics as well as the mentally or emotionally disordered — neighbors called it “the crazy house.” The sanitarium, advantageously located, catered to an up-scale clientele who wished to keep embarrassing members of their families out of view.

The centerpiece of the property was a large stucco mansion originally built by Jacob M. Tewksbury, a wealthy pioneer. Guests entered through a high-ceilinged foyer decorated with Tiffany chandeliers. Other features included a day room, library, kitchen, living room, and formal dining room. A curving staircase led to bedrooms and offices — nearly all with magnificent views — on a second floor.

One of these rooms served as Dr. Belgum’s office. As years went by, the doctor himself grew more and more eccentric and reclusive, preferring the company of his patients to that of the people he met on his expeditions into town. Neighbor children brave enough to sneak up to the mansion reported being spellbound by strains of enchanting music cascading down the hillside. It was said that the doctor and his ethereal sisters enjoyed dancing with the patients as the setting sun would cast its golden glow across the bay below them.

According to one of the doctor’s brochures, “To insure our guests an abundance of fresh, wholesome, nourishing food, so essential to the restoration of health, a select purebred dairy is maintained, also a poultry plan, an apiary, a fruit orchard, vegetable gardens, conservatories, private spring water system, etc.” Remains of some of the foundations can still be seen on the site.

In 1948 a grass fire suddenly flared up and threatened the idyllic estate. Dr. Belgum fought desperately to put out the blaze, and in that struggle he gave up his life. Then the mansion passed to his brother, Bernard N. Belgum, and sisters, Ida Ruth Belgum and Christine Heiman. A few patients remained with them as those melancholy years dragged on, though the surviving Belgums had no medical qualifications. As the turmoil of the fifties and early sixties raged in the cities ringing the bay, the sanitarium, in its remote setting, seemed frozen in time.

After Bernard’s death in 1963 at the age of 82, no heirs remained to inherit the estate. The grounds were simply abandoned, and all of the buildings had been burnt down by vandals by 1977. The following year, the East Bay Regional Park District acquired the land, which is now part of Wildcat Canyon Regional Park.

This part of the park is used for grazing cattle, who tramp down the hills above the sanitarium.

hils above the sanitarium

The sanitarium’s palms can be glimpsed beyond the thistles that grow where the cattle graze.

thistles and palms

To reach the site, take the Belgum trail from the Alvarado staging area in the Richmond hills.

alvarado staging area, wildcat canyon, richmond hills

A nearby display gives the history of the site. There is little material readily available about the Belgum sanitarium. (I have put up a few more pictures in my Belgum flickr set, which also contains larger versions of the images here.) Chad Dickerson of Yahoo posted some information about it, and consequently has been termed an “authority,” but really he just reprinted the material that is available at the site and does not appear to have done any original research. Still, he did post the materials from the site in their entirety, whereas I have been selective and have also added some narrative touches in order to tell the story of the sanitarium in a way that appealed to my imagination.

A more promising source of information is the El Cerrito Historical Society, which cites a publication called Richmond: Windows to the Past by Susan D. Cole (Contra Costa County Library, 1980). It includes “pictures and vignettes about early Richmond, including perhaps the best information available on the Belgum family’s Grande Vista Sanitarium, which was located near the mouth of today’s Wildcat Canyon Regional Park.” The Richmond Public Library probably has a copy, but I have not consulted it.

Outdoors in the Bay Area

So far the winter of 2006-207 has been a cool one in the Bay Area. But we got out for a short hike yesterday on Sobrante Ridge, and it was quite pleasant. The trail wasn’t muddy, and the manzanita was in bloom. I’m starting to post some pages on outdoor activities in the Bay Area.

Some rights reserved 2022 Tom’s Garden. This work is licensed under a Creative Commons (attribution, noncommercial, no derivs: 3.0) License (US), although some of the work this blog incorporates may be separately licensed. Text and images by Thomas Christensen unless otherwise noted. For print permissions or other inquiries please request via