On a clear day, find your way above the tree canopy in Sacramento, look southwest, and there you’ll spot it—the soaring 3,849-foot peak at the center of Mount Diablo State Park. The summit—reachable by foot, bike or car—rises over a thousand feet higher than the world’s tallest building, and from it, you can see 40 of our state’s 58 counties. At Mount Diablo, you can also hike up to 150 miles of trails, camp in the ultimate “room” with a view, and literally lunch above the clouds. So go west, young men and women, and experience California from a whole new point of view.
TTwo roads snake their way up into Mount Diablo State Park, either of which would be considered a roller coaster you need to be this tall to ride in a different kind of park. This is particularly true of the South Gate Road, which I tackle one Sunday in April. Leaving behind a lush, residential enclave of low-slung, quaintly rustic ranch houses on the outskirts of Danville, I glide over plushly carpeted, rolling hillsides so soft they appear as if through a blurred lens. Today they’re a tender bud green; most of the year, they’re as gold as a mountain lion’s coat. An artful scattering of evergreen oak trees—their thick, spiky leaves like speckles applied by Bob Ross with a dry paintbrush—follow valleys and culverts, garlanding the slopes and shading the riparian zones.
The road winds crazily upward, as if someone had tossed a spool of ribbon into the air and let it fall where it may. Is there a loop-the-loop ahead? The climb isn’t just a major achievement for hikers and cyclists. The park’s supervising ranger Cameron Morrison tells me it can be too much work even for some vehicles. “We’ve had cars, right when they get to the top, catch on fire,” he says, while also noting that it happens only once every year or two. “I’ve had one right at the tower site just completely burn to the ground.” So unless you’re training for Ironman, I wouldn’t bring the bike for a casual Diablo weekend, and maybe go ahead and get that oil change and keep an eye on the temperature gauge. But oh, will it be worth the trouble when you’re finally standing on top of the world.
For over a century, the myth persisted that Mount Diablo possessed one of the most expansive views of the Earth’s surface, second only to Mount Kilimanjaro. Although that myth was debunked in the 1990s, when you’re on the summit of Diablo, you can see why people believed it. You will feel that you are seeing farther than you’ve ever seen before—you can indeed see portions of 40 of California’s 58 counties, thanks to the mountain’s vertiginous prominence amidst the flatness of the valley floor.
As someone who has lived in a handful of these visible counties, I saw much of my life spread out before my eyes. As I stood turning slowly round and round, first I clocked the city of San Francisco, the place where I wrote my first novel; the Dumbarton Bridge ending in Palo Alto, where my dad launched his first tech start-up in the 80s; Mount Tam, where I have hiked off a broken heart (or two); the Farallon Islands, which I rounded on an ocean sailboat race; the Delta islands, where I dove into warm water off a derelict barge; and the Sierra, where I lived off the grid chopping wood through an April snowstorm. And yes, on a clear day, you can just make out Sacramento, where as Sactown’s editor-at-large I once climbed to the top of the Tower Bridge for a story. This mountain has held the panoply of my experiences ever so patiently, waiting for me to make a pilgrimage. I haven’t yet stood atop Mount Kilimanjaro, but as a Northern Californian, I can say confidently that when and if I do, I will be looking at the second-best view in the world.
The North Gate entrance to Mount Diablo State Park—located just east of Walnut Creek—is around a 75-mile drive from Sacramento; the South Gate is around 80 miles. The mountain’s North Gate and South Gate roads converge at an elevation of approximately 2,000 feet and continue as Summit Road. Whichever way you enter, the route to the summit is about 10 miles and takes roughly 40 minutes to negotiate. North Gate offers a less nerve-wracking driving experience, but the best picnic spots are located along windier South Gate, as is Rock City, an area in the park that’s worth exploring even if your goal is to get that mountain high in the end. So the best strategy for seeing it all is to split the difference and take South Gate in and North Gate out.
Where to Start
Whether you travel by car, bike or boot, you haven’t fully “arrived” at Mount Diablo until you achieve the summit. Seth Adams, land conservation director at Save Mount Diablo, an organization that has been working to preserve open space on and near the mountain against urban sprawl since the early 1970s, has met me at the charmingly rustic visitor center, constructed by Civilian Conservation Corps workers from 1939 to 1942 out of stone quarried from the mountain. The tip of the actual 3,849-foot peak rises up through the middle of the floor inside the small building, but the best views are to be had from the rooftop observation deck, which wraps around a cupola housing a beacon. (The beacon is only lit three days each year—on Memorial Day, Veterans Day, and National Pearl Harbor Remembrance Day on Dec. 7.) It’s cold this April morning, so we take shelter inside to talk about the mountain, perching on an east-facing window bench.
“See the Sacramento River coming down?” Adams asks, pointing north. “See the drawbridge at Rio Vista? That’s the direction of Sacramento.” Haze blocks the city skyline today. “Storms go through in January and February and that’s the best time for [a clear view]. But spring is the best time for wildflowers. Then when the summer fog is coming in and out, it’s gorgeous. And I love the fall—there’s consistently good weather. Mount Diablo is superlative in all kinds of different ways.”
Where to Camp
Camping on the flanks of Mount Diablo is something every Northern Californian should have on their bucket list—the scenery is jaw-dropping and the fact that the park gates close overnight makes the mountain your own personal kingdom after sundown. Here’s the lowdown on the three “family” campgrounds—which are for up to eight people; there are other sites available for larger groups—where you can fall asleep under the stars with visions of epic hikes dancing in your head.
Live Oak Campground
If I were looking to spend a weekend lounging around beneath the shady sprawl of an old oak tree with friends or extended family, this would be my campground. Low on the mountain, Live Oak lacks the views of Juniper Campground (see next entry), but offers spacious campsites adjacent to Rock City, a complex of fascinating rock formations that kids—even sullen teens—could easily spend an entire day exploring. Just a mile past the park’s southern entrance, this 20-some site campground lies in a hollow, and many of the sites are equipped with one of the park’s famous stone ovens, built in the 1930s, making it one of the only campgrounds I can think of in California where a wood-fired pizza night is an option. Site 15 is the one I’d try to snag, because it includes its own rock formation, and could keep kids occupied as a climbing gym while you get the marshmallows skewered up.
This campground—which hugs Diablo’s steep western flank at 3,000 feet of elevation—is for sunset lovers, with many of its 34 sites offering sweeping views of the San Francisco Bay. My favorite sites, numbers 11-17, are each their own private garden, virtually walled off with lush barriers of chaparral and—of course—juniper trees. They also come with their own picnic tables and fire pits. Site 17 has the best view but a steep approach, so I set up at site 12—with its level pull-through parking pad, it was perfect for my van. Meanwhile, sites 18-20 are situated on flatter ground, closest to the sunset viewpoint. They are also well shaded by oak trees and near the restrooms. But don’t sweat it too much, you can’t go wrong with any site—each one is a magical fairy woodland.
At the bottom of the campground’s single loop, a wide pullout serves as yet another sunset amphitheater, a place to bring your camp chair and a thermos of hot tea or cocoa (the park has a strict no alcohol policy) to watch the ever-changing nightly show. I arrive just in time to see the sky redden where the tips of the Golden Gate poke through cotton-candy fog, while angled rays make the hillside beneath me glow like a stained-glass window in a majestic cathedral. I can’t resist texting pictures to friends in Sacramento and Davis, who text back variations of “WHERE IS THAT???!!!!” Even my pictures of the Grand Canyon, which I hiked the week before, didn’t warrant the all-caps response.
When you’re in a windy, cold campsite, the sun tells you when to go to bed, so I obey. I don’t even hear the wily racoons open a sealed plastic bin and rummage through my food stores, nibbling on new potatoes and feasting on a bag of trail mix. A ranger later tells me, “Yeah, you should really just keep everything in your car.”
Juniper Campground is the perfect jump-off point for a weekend of hiking, as it lies at the intersection of many of the mountain’s most breathtaking trails (with a parking lot and picnic tables for day hikers here as well). Starting out this high on the mountain means you’ll have views around every bend, and the summit is an easy 1.5 miles or so up—or 6 miles, if you want to take the even more scenic route to the top.
Secluded, shady and halfway up the mountain, tiny six-site Junction Campground’s greatest virtue is that it’s strictly first come, first served, so if the Juniper and Live Oak campgrounds are booked up on the weekend you desire, you still have a shot at scoring something here for the weekend. Situated at the junction where North Gate and South Gate roads join with Summit Road, this campground rarely fills up, despite its cozy size. Many enticing trails pass nearby, including the Summit Trail.
Campsites can be reserved through reservecalifornia.com or 800-444-PARK for $30 per night each. Mount Diablo’s entrance gates are locked between sunset and 8 a.m., but you shouldn’t plan on leaving anytime during your stay in the park, as the round trip for a forgotten bag of ice or a can of propane is absurdly long. Open flames are prohibited during the summer months, but during the rest of the year, they are allowed only in provided pits and ovens, subject to fire season bans, and you must bring your own firewood; no gathering of wood allowed. Flush or pit toilets are provided (showers and hot water only at Juniper Campground), pending drought closures.
Where to Hike
With 150 miles of trails—a mix of narrow single tracks and wider “fire roads” (unpaved roads for park vehicles that you can also hike on)—Diablo offers a hike for every season and every ability level. But be prepared for sun and wind, and bring plenty of water. “We’ve had people die from heat exhaustion,” supervising ranger Cameron Morrison says. “Real bad things can happen real quick, so hike within your abilities.”
Juniper and Summit Trail Loop
Sure, you can drive to the summit, but it’s far more satisfying to experience the big reveal on foot, to arrive with your blood pumping vigorously and your endorphins primed for the exhilarating view. Hardcore peak-baggers love the 14.5-mile hike to the summit and back that starts at Mitchell Canyon, one of the park’s hiking entrances in Clayton (the road ends at a parking lot, and leads to multiple trails), but you can summit right from Juniper via a lively and satisfying 3.8 mile loop.
Hiking counter-clockwise, take the Juniper Trail, which runs below the eponymous campground, to where it meets the Summit Trail, cross Summit Road and head along the mountain’s southeast face, with views of rolling hills and a glimpse of the China Wall—a rock formation that takes its name from its passing resemblance to that “great” wall on the other side of the Pacific. Follow the trail’s hard turn at the Devil’s Elbow, then continue on until you cross the road again and head up to the summit. When you’ve oohed and ahhed to your heart’s content, head back down and pick up the Juniper Trail in the lower summit parking lot and continue through the shady forest, across the road and back to the campground. 3.8 miles; 1,400 feet elevation gain; moderate
Ask any Diablo regular, and they’ll likely tell you this is their favorite hike. The route circuits the mountain, traversing through all the various habitats, switching things up between fire roads and single tracks. Portions of the route are steeper than anything I had encountered on the hike out of the Grand Canyon—many of the trails were built by the Civilian Conservation Corps at the same time they built the summit visitor center, and apparently they’d never heard of switchbacks—so this hike is fairly arduous, but it is also a carousel slide show of dramatic views, revealed one by one as the trail dips up and down.
Starting at the bottom of Juniper Campground, head clockwise on Deer Flat Road. The first half-mile is relatively flat, then the road drops precipitously through a pretty meadow. You’ll turn right at Meridian Ridge Road, but if you’re taking your time, you can opt first for a short detour and continue on Deer Flat Road a few hundred feet to Deer Flat, a bucolic picnic area with views of the Bay. Follow Meridian Ridge to Murchio Gap, where you’ll take a right into thick madrones onto the single-track Bald Ridge Trail; if the fire road starts to turn downwards, you’ve gone past it. Bald Ridge crests at Bald Knob 3.2 miles into your hike—that’s halfway—so stop and rest while taking in the expanded view. Spread out a blanket if you brought one and take off your shoes for a spell.
After the respite, continue on the Bald Ridge Trail to a junction at a saddle between the main Mount Diablo peak and North Peak, where you’ll go right onto the North Peak Trail. Here you’ll pass through fragrant high chaparral overlooking the Central Valley and the distant Sierra. Turn right again at Devil’s Elbow, onto the Summit Trail. To include the summit, head on up when you reach the lower summit parking lot, then retrace your steps and take the Juniper Trail at the bottom of the parking lot to finish the loop. 6.5-plus miles; 2,500-foot elevation gain; steep and strenuous
Mary Bowerman Trail
This trail is a gentle loop of just under 1 mile that begins and ends at the lower summit parking lot (the first 0.2 miles are wheelchair accessible). But don’t skip MaryBowerman just because it’s short and easy—it’s a crown in which every view is a jewel. Along the way, interpretive signs explain how the vegetation you see has recovered from fires in 1971 and 2013, and how vital fire actually is for the landscape; some high chaparral plants like the madrone only release their seeds in the heat of fire, and some species only flourish in the years following a fire and fall dormant between burns.
The paved portion leads to Ransom Point, where you can sit on a bench and look toward Oregon and Nevada. Further on, you come to another perfect viewpoint overlooking Devil’s Pulpit. Stroll the rest of the way listening to the episode of Save Mount Diablo’s podcast about the trail’s namesake, Mary Leolin Bowerman, who enrolled in UC Berkeley’s botany program in 1930. Undergrads were commonly assigned a mountain to catalog, and Bowerman was given hard-to-reach Diablo simply because she was the only student who owned a car. She fell in love and stayed for the rest of her life. When she cofounded Save Mount Diablo in 1971, the park consisted of a mere 6,788 acres at the summit; when she died in 2005 at the age of 97, the total was 87,000 acres (today over 100,000 acres are protected through a network of adjoining parklands and preserves). In an era when climate change seems so inevitable and human action so futile, it’s comforting and inspiring to remember what a difference determined individuals can make. 0.7 miles; 255 foot elevation gain; easy
You can buy a durable, detailed map at either entrance gate or the summit for $6, or better yet, pick up a copy of the Mount Diablo Interpretive Association’s Hiker’s Guide to Mount Diablo State Park ($15 at the summit visitor center), which details 50 of the best routes, from shady foothill meanders to vigorous summit loops.
Where to Picnic
Mount Diablo is a picnicker’s paradise, with over 25 picnic areas, each entirely different, ranging from intimate grottos for two to huge, reservable areas fit for a large family reunion. The best sites, including my two favorites mentioned here, are located along South Gate Road.
This collection of dramatic rock formations, which is adjacent to Live Oak Campground, is a mile from the South Gate entrance and features wind caves (hollowed out nooks in sandstone that weren’t actually carved by wind, but by water) and man-made grinding holes where native Miwok and Ohlone turned acorns into flour (look for fist-sized and larger pock marks on stone surfaces).
Rock City is dotted with sweet tucked-away spots for a perfect alfresco lunch. If you’re not staying at Live Oak, you can park and picnic near the area’s Elephant Rock, a pachydermal formation that makes the perfect base camp for a day exploring this section of Mount Diablo once known as the Garden of the Jungle Gods (a much better name than Rock City, in my opinion.) When you set out to roam (tip: wear long pants, as the trails are narrow and poison oak is abundant), don’t try to stick to the official Rock City Trail, which is criss-crossed by so many side trails it is actually hard to follow. Instead, just wander around and among the wondrous rock formations tucked among thickets of trees. (But be prepared for your wonder to be tinged with sadness at the graffiti marring the rock faces, despite the diligent abatement efforts of volunteers.) Keep walking until you find Sentinel Rock—a gorgeously eroded promontory you can scamper up with the aid of safety cables (it’s a pint-sized version of Yosemite’s Half Dome) for a view of the Diablo Summit.
Just 3.2 miles from the South Gate entrance, Bridal Nook consists of a single stone picnic table nestled into the crook of a hairpin turn in the road, next to a babbling brook. The vegetation overhangs, making this a good choice for a hot day, and for secret canoodling (it’s cozy for two—three would be a crowd here, and four positively claustrophobic). Just up the road, the similar Maple Nook is reached by a lovely stone staircase, but lacks the water feature.
When you plan a picnic, check the fire ban status before bringing the charcoal briquettes and remember to leave the alcohol at home as the entire park is dry. And while the summit visitor center has snacks, the selection is quite limited, so if you want something more exciting than a protein bar, you’ll need to bring it into the park.
Follow the Leaders
Organizations like the Mount Diablo Interpretive Association (MDIA), Mount Diablo Astronomical Society, and the Bay Area-wide Greenbelt Alliance sponsor informative, docent-led programs year-round, including plein air painting sessions, rock climbing excursions, stargazing tours and naturalist-helmed events where you are almost guaranteed to spot show-stopping flora and fauna, including wildflowers, hummingbirds and nesting raptors—and for the arachnophiles out there, tarantula migration hikes. I normally hike for meditation and solitude, but the following two group hikes I took this past spring reminded me that it’s good to identify as a social animal now and then.
Nocturnal Fauna Hike
Nine of us gathered at the Mitchell Canyon entrance to the park just before sunset and set off on a hike that started with a jaunt up the Globe Lily Trail to see the blooms before it grew dark. Right away, our docent Leslie Contreras, event coordinator for the MDIA hiking program, pointed out a hole that looked like it could have been made by the tip of a hiking stick: a tarantula den. Diablo is a famous tarantula habitat. You can see their dens year-round, but in fall you can often see the spiders themselves. I thought back to my conversation with Cameron Morrison, the ranger. “The ones you see out are gonna die,” he said soberly. “The males are looking for a mate. Whether they get killed [on the road] or die soon after mating, they leave their burrows and that’s the end of their life cycle.”
As a result, male tarantulas live roughly seven years to the females’ 25, and leave their burrows to mate only once. “They’re gentle giants,” Morrison said with a twinge of sympathy for the doomed road warriors. “They look scary, but they won’t bother you.” The shy females are all business, remaining snug in their nests out of public view.
As dusk darkened the canyon, we listened for the poooor-will call of the common poorwill, a nocturnal bird that comes out at dusk to snatch moths out of the evening air. We also heard the soft coocoocoo of the screech owl (not nearly as screechy as expected). Doubling back on the path as dusk turned to dark, Contreras switched on her blacklight flashlight and began scanning the stone and earth embankment alongside the trail. “Here!” she cried triumphantly, beckoning us to gather ’round.
There sat a tiny, psychedelic scorpion centered in the beam of her flashlight, vivid acid green in the dark against a purple velvet backdrop of dirt. It was less than an inch long and didn’t look real until it scuttled forward, then paused to pose. When Contreras turned off her blacklight and shone a white light on the same patch of ground, the creature was invisible in the dusk, blending right into the moist loam of the bank, a reminder that the world is full of things we don’t see because we aren’t looking in the right way or in the right light.
Peregrine Falcon Watching
Twenty or so would-be falconers, ranging from solo seniors to a homeschooling family, turned up at the Castle Rock Regional Park, one of a patchwork of parks that surround and adjoin Mount Diablo State Park, hoping to see some very rare, once nearly extinct birds. We assembled under a 200-year-old oak tree with a canopy so broad that two of its heaviest branches had been shored up with sturdy steel posts, where naturalist Ken Lavin—outings coordinator for the climate-focused advocacy group Greenbelt Alliance, as well as a volunteer for Save Mount Diablo and MDIA—gave an introduction, orienting us to where we stood from a historical perspective. “Stagecoaches used to come up here in 1870,” he explained. “A gentleman named Joseph Hall traveled to the top of Mount Diablo and said, ‘This would be a great place for a resort hotel.’ ” Hall built a 16-room hotel in 1874 a couple of miles from the summit that only operated briefly.
“John Muir actually camped out on [Mount Diablo],” Lavin continued. “He wasn’t going to sleep indoors. But on the way down, he stopped off at the Mountain House for breakfast.”
Then the lead of the Mount Diablo Interpretive Association’s peregrine team, Staci Hobbet, guided us on a leisurely 2-mile stroll up shady Pine Canyon Trail to a sloped meadow where her associate had set up a viewing scope—swearing us to secrecy on the exact location for the birds’ safety. If you want to see them, docents are usually available and often station themselves in the meadows to help you get a peek. “You couldn’t have timed this [hike] better,” she said, “because our chicks hatched two days ago.”
Peregrine falcons once ruled the skies nationwide, Hobbet explained, until the insecticide DDT came along after World War II. “Across California there were 400 nests,” Hobbet said. “And only about four years after the release of this chemical for commercial use, the peregrines here were gone.”
Naturalists have painstakingly reintroduced the species to Diablo over the past 34 years, scaling cliffs to gingerly place eggs and hatchlings in the nests of prairie falcons, who miraculously took the foster falcons in, feeding and fledging them. There are now a handful of nesting pairs of peregrines throughout the Diablo Mountain Range, and nearly 400 mating pairs in California.
Around half of us, myself included, had packed binoculars. I trained mine on a rock formation, and saw a tiny shape that turned out to be the head and shoulders of either a mama or papa peregrine deep inside a wind cave that was maybe a foot tall and 3 feet wide and housed the chicks. Soon the parental figure emerged to stand on the nesting ledge and then take flight, soaring in an arc—the peregrine falcon is the fastest flying bird in the animal kingdom, capable of speeds up to 200 miles per hour. I couldn’t help gasping in awe and delight.
All of us on that hillside felt a surge of heady optimism, watching those magnificent birds reclaim their place in the universe, so we were excited to continue on for the rest of the hike. Emerging from the shady trail, the view opened up again to undulating hills streaked with yellow mustard stalks in bloom. The day was windy, cooling us down in the direct sun and making the mustard flow and ripple.
“The story goes that the padres used to scatter mustard seeds as they walked from mission to mission,” said Lavin, who led this part of the trek, “so that there would always be a golden path to lead the way.”
“Follow the yellow brick road!” someone in the group exclaimed. So we did, around a couple of bends, and there was our picnic destination: China Wall.
As we crested a saddle between hills and headed toward our rest stop, more foothills came into view beyond, and I felt a shock: These hills were covered with McMansions. I eyed them narrowly while I ate my protein bar and drank my green juice, perched on the wall. The oversized, awkwardly bulky domiciles seemed emblematic of our deracinated relationship to nature—their walls were enormous and their windows tiny, refusing to relate to the natural beauty just outside.
For the rest of the hike, I kept picturing the landscape covered in more and more of that kind of development, and appreciated the not-so-minor miracle that the Diablo foothills have been preserved. I credit pioneers like Mary Bowerman and Seth Adams for working their magic to preserve this sacred ground where there is so much to see, so much to feel and so much to learn from a strong, silent mountain.
Your boots are made for walkin’ this summer with these mountain hikes and other group outings taking place in July, August and September.
On July 15 and Aug. 12, the Mount Diablo Interpretive Association (mdia.org) will host a three-hour Common Poorwill Twilight Walk, where you can explore the habitats of Diablo’s nocturnal denizens like bats, poorwills, owls and even the occasional scorpion. On Aug. 6, you can join the early birds by taking the morning Mangini Ranch Meditation Hike provided by Save Mount Diablo (savemountdiablo.org), which will be punctuated by guided meditations and a visit to a “secret” spring. The organization will also host tarantula hikes for both families (Sept. 3) and adults (Sept. 10), during which Ken Lavin will step in as guide and dispel myths about these eight-legged creatures during their peak mating season on the mountain. Meanwhile, the Mount Diablo Astronomical Society (mdas.net) will offer a few stargazing tours, including Nature’s Fireworks on July 2, Sunset to Moonrise on Aug. 13, and Our Place in Our Galaxy on Sept. 17. And if you want to paint the night sky instead, pack your art supplies for Save Mount Diablo’s evening plein air painting hike on Aug. 13. All events are free to the public with park admission, but require reservations in advance.