What Goes Down, Must Hike Up

September 2018 Hiking Photo & Video



Mt. Diablo State Park is one of those places I’ve heard of, but couldn’t quite believe in. Anyone can claim “spectacular views” and “breathtaking trails.” I know from experience that talk is cheap, and no brochure can capture the spirit of a place. Like a wise person once said, “the map is not the territory.”

I was too late to sign up for the Tarantula Hike through Mitchell Canyon. But there was plenty else to do, and I decided to start at the top.

At the entrance, a park ranger didn’t seem to happy that I lacked exact change, but gave me $10 for my $20 without further comment.

Driving to the park took an hour — but driving to the summit meant another 30 minutes climbing tortured switchbacks with increasingly wide views. I was obliged to creep along carefully, always on guard for cyclists who shared the road. Blind corners were common.

The southern view from Mt. Diablo.
The southern view from Mt. Diablo.

At the precise summit of Mt. Diablo itself stands a stone, CCC-era building. In the 1930s, a 10-million candlepower beacon on the rotunda was an important marker for airplanes in the area. Today it’s a plush visitors’ center. The beacon was turned off during World War II, and is now lit only every December 7 in memory of Pearl Harbor.

I arrived an hour before the center officially opened, but the observation deck wasn’t restricted. I wasn’t disappointed. As promised, the views were breathtaking. Or maybe it was climbing stairs at 3849′ above sea level, a tad higher than I was used to.

View of North Peak from Mt. Diablo.
View of North Peak from Mt. Diablo.

Looking northeast, I could see the antenna complex atop North Peak. It was barely a speck at the end of a thin line of road. I didn’t know I’d end up there in a few hours.

I didn’t linger. The constant wind was chilly, and low-hanging clouds kept rolling over the landscape. And it was cold. I retreated to my car and drove to the trailhead at Juniper Campground.

Descent to Deer Flat

West of the summit, a dozen or so overnight sites hid among the trees and brush. They looked in good shape, but it’s clear that someone had refurbished the facilities more than once over the past half-century.

The road departing from Juniper Campground.
The road departing from Juniper Campground.

At 9:30am I parked at yet another overlook, double-checked my map, and began my hike along a dusty, unpaved fire road. The weather was 55° and sunny. It wouldn’t last.

The trail ran steadily downhill, and I was keenly aware that every step down meant one back up. But it was hard to worry with pleasant weather and gorgeous scenery.

The trail gradually turned north, then northeast. Windswept fields of pale-gold grass gave way to oak and pine trees with some of the most ambitious pine cones I’ve ever seen.

The park featured ambitious pine cones.
The park featured ambitious pine cones.

An hour later I reached Deer Flat, a junction of several trails protected by tall oak trees. With less wind and no clouds, the day warmed quickly. I didn’t know it then, but I was near the lowest elevation on this loop trail: 2040′ above sea level.

Approaching Deer Flat.
Approaching Deer Flat.

The falls that probably weren’t

Around 11am or so, I reached a trail junction the map said would lead to a waterfall. The day was warming quickly, so I stopped to remove my long-sleeve shirt and pant legs.

Studying the map while munching a Clif bar, I saw that the falls were closer now than Deer Flat was. And that had been easy. I was making good time. Better than expected. So I took a side trip. Why not?

You might guess where this is going.

The narrow path was slippery with dirt. It was also claustrophobic. And dim. Low-hanging branches forced me to duck often, and snagged my hat and pack. The dense brush didn’t give much space to plant my trekking poles, so I slowed down to keep my footing. Down, down, down.

The phrase “as the crow flies” seemed pertinent. While the falls weren’t far on the nice, flat map, the trail was treacherously steep. I crossed one dry creek bed, then another. If these were dry, then the falls were probably minimal at best. And I had other goals to reach.

After half an hour I turned around and began marching back uphill. It was my first taste of reclaiming elevation for the day, and the first real test of my perseverance on this trail.

The long, hard climb to Prospectors’ Gap

Two roads meet at a saddle between Diablo Summit and North Peak. This is Prospectors’ Gap, “only” 2960 feet above sea level. The Gap had once been an important route for miners searching for quicksilver, coal, and various minerals. For me, it was a place to rest and check my map.

But first I had to get there.

Looking south to Ransom Point.
Looking south towards Prospectors’ Gap. To the right is Ransom Point.

While the road to Deer Flat presented a gentle descent, the trail to Prospectors’ Gap was an unforgiving uphill march. By noon the sun was downright hot, and I was glad when a few clouds provided a few minutes’ shade.

Looking back at the trail to Prospectors’ Gap.
Looking back, half-way to Prospectors’ Gap.

I passed a couple of hikers, one of who was consoling the other. I didn’t understand the language, but I got the gist. This was not a challenge for the casual pedestrian. Starting with two liters on my back, I wondered how much water I had left.

Up, up, up. At length, I noticed the observation deck perched high above the mountain to my right. It looked awfully tiny. I tried not to think about how my car was on the other side. Instead, I trudged on.

Even my trekking poles took a break.
Even my trekking poles took a break.

Eventually I reached Prospector’s Gap, which turned out to be a flat, shady patch of dirt and grass. Though the trail was a trial, after a short break I didn’t feel as tired as I expected. So again, I looked at the map and asked myself, why not?

Climbing the North Peak

The summit of Mt. Diablo is west of the gap. But three-quarters of a mile northeast (and 300 feet higher), a road lead to North Peak. This is one of four major summits in the park. After climbing more than 900 feet in an hour, 300 didn’t seem so bad. So instead of heading back to Diablo Summit, I went the other way. It wasn’t so bad. Until the end.

After half a mile, the dirt road gave way to one made of broken rock carved from the sheer cliffside. It would challenge any 4×4 truck. With effort, though, I reached the top and enjoyed my second snack on the antenna complex’s metal stairs at 3557’ up.

Leaving the peak was as much about skidding as walking. Twice I nearly pitched headlong, but the experience gave me more faith in my trekking poles’ strength. On the way down to Prospectors’ Gap, I could see the observation deck atop Mt. Diablo. Way up there. Yep. Here we go.

The real summit was indoors

I was prepared for another uphill slog, but the narrow trail to the summit wasn’t as bad as I expected. It meandered sideways along the mountain, leading south and then west. It was also popular. I passed more people on this trail than any other in the park. But maybe the park was more popular after noon.

The sky became overcast hiking to the summit.
The sky became overcast hiking to the summit. Here, the observation deck stands slightly to the left.

The forecast hadn’t called for rain, but I kept a weather eye out anyway. Clouds were rolling in, and before long I found myself under a bland, overcast sky. I put on my long-sleeve shirt to block out the wind, and hiked on.

The trail was long, but not steep. Shortly before 3pm I reached the summit parking lot and visitor’s center where I had started almost six hours earlier.

Summit trail was enclosed.
Summit trail was enclosed.

The center was open now, and I bought a peanut butter-flavored snack and a bottle of cold gatorade from a gruff park ranger before looking around.

The obligatory nature exhibits were informative and well-maintained. The center even had a fireplace — which said something about the weather.

But for me, the highlight was The Summit. Climbing stairs to the second floor, I discovered that a clever architect had built the center around the actual rock of the actual peak. And so, seven hours after I arrived, I officially set foot on the top.

Ben at the summit, strangely indoors.
I finally stood on the summit, which was strangely indoors.

Back again

Juniper Campground was still a mile to the west. The downhill grade was a gentle stroll through woodlands under an overcast sky. On the way, I smelled charcoal. Even with fire warnings, was someone grilling illegally? But I soon found the lingering scent was coming from a burned stretch of forest.

A fire-blackened forest west of Juniper Campground.
A fire-blackened forest east of Juniper Campground.

My feet were glad to change from boots to sandals for the drive home. Traffic wasn’t unusually bad on the highway back to San Jose, and I made it home in time for dinner.

So yeah, the hike was long and challenging. I could’ve done more to prepare. But you know what? I made it. And now, back in SJ (elevation 82’), I think I’ll go for a walk.

For next time

  • Spend more time in the south, exploring Rock City and the Wind Caves.
  • Bring a windbreaker to fully enjoy the summit.
  • The park opens at 8am, but the summit visitors’ center opens at 10am.
  • Bring a real map. The park brochure doesn’t cut it.
  • Bring more food — in quantity and variety — for hikes longer than eight miles or climbs over 1000 feet.