Wednesday, October 3, 2007

Mt. Diablo Loop

Mt. Diablo State Park
10 mile loop
Elevation gain – 2,050 at least!
Hiking Time: 6 hours
Jo, Graciela and Julie

I wanted to find a new challenging hike that I haven’t done before. I started reading about Mt. Diablo and was hooked when I read that the view from the top encompasses more square miles than any other point in the United States and is second only to Mt. Kilimanjaro. Since Jo and I are climbing Kilimanjaro in 2009, I knew we should give Diablo a try.

On a clear day you are supposed to be able to see the Sacramento Valley, Sutter Buttes and Mt. Lassen to the north; the Sierras including Half Dome in Yosemite to the east; Mt. Hamilton to the South; as well as San Francisco Bay and Mt. Tamalpais to the west. Rereading the description I notice it says on an exceptionally clear day. I’m not sure we have those kind of days anymore.

Still, I was intrigued. I’ve heard of Mt. Diablo but have never been able to pick it out although I drive past it when I come back from Redding. Growing up with views of Mt. Shasta and Lassen – the bay area mountains always seem more like hills. At 3,849 feet Mt. Diablo has the widest view? We decided to investigate.

I checked the weather several times during the week. It said clear on Saturday. Friday it was cloudy and overcast all day and it even rained in Santa Cruz. I checked the forecast again before leaving work: Clear. All righty then.

The number of hikers fluctuated from 4-6 but on the actual morning three of us met in Scotts Valley at the transit center: Jo, Graciela and I. The hiking book had described this hike as “moderate”. Graciela was recovering from a sprained ankle. She was able to dance on Thursday and thought she would be up for the hike.

We actually left Scotts Valley about 9:30. Mapquest had said it would take 1 hour 45 minutes to get there, but I figured they were counting Bay Area traffic. Ha! As we were driving north on 680 I tried to envision where Mt. Diablo was. I knew it was the Danville exit and off to the right. We finally saw a peak with satellite equipment on top and said that must be it! It didn’t look like much.

We took the Diablo Road exit in Danville and drove by many expensive looking homes. We were getting low on gas, but didn’t see a gas station so we decided to just go for it.

You can drive all the way to the summit of Mt. Diablo which seems like cheating. Talking about the hike I would say “we are climbing Mt. Diablo – of course we’re driving to the top”. The drive itself is an adventure. Eleven miles of steep, narrow, curvy road with no guardrails, sharp drop-offs and lots of bicyclists. Fun! I didn’t see any of the spectacular views because I was keeping my eyes on the road.

At the top we stopped at the Visitor Center to soak up the great views. It really is quite impressive. I thought the views from Montara Mountain were something. This is even better!

There is a visitor center and Limestone tower. The tower was built in 1928 by Standard Oil with an aviation beacon on top. The beacon was first turned on by Charles Lindberg. Planes used the beacon for navigation until the bombing of Pearl Harbor. Then it was feared that it would help the Japanese so it was turned off. By the time World War II ended the beacon was obsolete. The beacon is turned on once a year on December 7th to commemorate the survivors of Pearl Harbor.

It is a beautiful building. When you go inside the tower you feel like you are in a lighthouse with windows all the way around and views in every direction.

There is an observation platform with telescopes pointing in different directions which you can use for a quarter. Unfortunately we didn’t have any quarters, but luckily Jo had brought her binoculars. It was cold and breezy and Graciela and Jo were bundled up with jackets on. It was a clear day with just a little smog in the distance. You could see for miles. With Jo’s binoculars you could see San Francisco and the Golden Gate Bridge. We weren’t quite sure whether we were seeing clouds or the Sierra to the east. It would have been good to use the telescopes. But even with the naked eye it was spectacular.

We walked around looking in all directions and then decided we better get hiking. It was already noon. We drove to the lower parking lot trying to find our trail. This hike was basically a loop around the whole mountain. We started on end of the parking lot and returned on a trail at the other end of the parking lot. There was satellite equipment by the beacon – but also by our return trail.

We switched into our boots and were off. We descended down the summit trail and then headed toward the North Peak. The trail was narrow and two mountain bikers came by. The first one flew by, but his friend was much more cautious and reasonable it seemed to us. He walked his bike over the steep narrow trail and then eventually rode off. The trail wound around the side of the mountain heading toward the North Peek – that also had satellite equipment on it.

One nice thing about this hike was that we could usually see the tower up on top of the mountain, so we knew where we were. Our trail intersected with Prospector Gap Trail which was actually a dirt road. The road started going down very steeply. It was a rocky road and slippery. Even with my hiking boots and stick, I would occasionally slip and slide. Graciela was wearing tennis shoes which weren’t appropriate for this trail. She kept slipping and eventually her feet went from under her and she went all the way down. Fortunately, she wasn’t hurt.

I decided she should hike with my stick – which gave her more support. This was a tricky road to hike down. We made very slow progress. Jo’s feet and ankles were screaming, she said and we placed each step carefully. We could see our road in the distance – the far, far distance. It was hard to believe that we were going to hike that far and this was just the beginning!

Jo noticed how all the pine trees were growing with branches on only half the tree. We decided is must be because the back side doesn’t get sun. Jo observed they would make good Christmas trees to stick in a corner. She contemplated having a Christmas tree farm that raised only “half” trees.

Another interesting tree had cotton like balls on it. The tree looked dead, but was covered with the balls.

We finally got to the bottom of the road and now we started climbing up. I could see what looked like a big rock and tree at the top of the hill and so I said – let’s have lunch at the tree up there. It turned out to be a great spot.

It was a bit of a climb to get up on the rock – but the view was great in both directions. We enjoyed our lunch and the view. We were looking at some town but had no idea what it was. Later we determined it was probably either Concord or Pittsburgh. The great thing about this spot was later we were able to see it in the distance and judge how much ground we had covered.

Refreshed after lunch we climbed off the rock.
Because of her shoes, Graciela ended up sitting down and sliding down the steep part of the trail. First we headed down, but the road wasn’t rocky or slippery. It was still misleading because Jo’s feet slipped from under her and down she went – very gracefully. She also wasn’t hurt. Soon we started heading up and up and up. It was a very steep grade that took us to Juniper Campground. Graciela was struggling at this point but still being a good sport about it.

From Juniper Campground we were just a mile away from the parking lot. The directions said you went through the campground past the bathrooms on the left. Jo said the map said the same thing, however I saw a trail going off to the right. It was signed as “Juniper Trail to Summit Trail – a Walk through Time”. All of these trails were a “Walk through Time” – we never found out why. I said let’s follow the signs and so we did. We had seen the satellite which we at first thought the car was parked near, but we were so turned around we weren’t even sure if there was a satellite by the parking lot.
The Juniper Trail was pretty with nice views. It was good to be on a trail again and off the road. It seemed we were moving away from the satellite and suddenly we were going down again. We knew what that meant. Jo was certain the parking lot was just ahead, but we came out on the road and our satellite landmark and building were far away. We pulled out the map and discovered that there are two Juniper Trails. The one we had taken took us far off course.

We crossed the road and there was a sign 2 miles to the summit. I asked Graciela if she wanted to wait here and we would pick her up in the car, but she wouldn’t hear of it. We started up the road. Suddenly Josephine said “Look at that!” It was a tarantula crossing the road. If you click on the picture it will be enlarged. It was quite impressive. For the next hour we would say, well, if we hadn’t taken the wrong turn, then we wouldn’t have seen the tarantula! Trying to make the best of it.

We followed the Summit Trail until it finally came back up to the road. We debated following the road – we knew that would eventually get us to the parking lot! But we saw a sign on the trail up ahead so we went that way. More uphill. The building getting closer and then more distant. Josephine and Graciela hurting even more. I kept running up ahead to see what I could see.

I thought it would be the parking lot – but we were back on the road. It said ½ mile to the summit – but we decided to follow the road instead because the grade was less steep. Again, I asked Graciela if she wanted to wait. Amazingly her ankle wasn’t bothering her, but her legs were really tired. We followed the road for a mile and eventually saw a trail crossing the road. The Juniper Trail!!!!! This was where we were supposed to be. It was another .20 to the parking lot – still uphill.

My mistake had added an extra three miles and an hour and a half to our hike! We didn’t get back to the car until 6:00 p.m. I thought we would be back in Santa Cruz by 6:00 p.m. But we had done it. This was definitely a challenge – not a moderate hike. We just hoped we wouldn’t run out of gas on the way down the hill.

The drive down was easier – mainly because there were only a few bikers. Driving down we appreciated just how large the park is – there are many campgrounds and picnic areas... The sun was going down as we came around the curves, sometimes a bit blindingly. When we got to Danville there was a gas station right before we got on the freeway.

We were all tired and hungry after the long day. We still had hiking food, but we all wanted something with more protein. We decided to wait until we made it back to Santa Cruz. I didn’t mention to Jo or Graciela just how bad my night vision is. We started hitting traffic outside of San Jose, but coming over Highway 17 wasn’t too bad.

We decided to go straight to Malones in Scotts Valley for a drink and some appetizers. Poor Josephine and Graciela could barely walk after sitting in the car for an hour and a half! The food at Malones was actually quite good. We all got different appetizers: chicken wings, portabella quesadilla and friend calamari with pesto and tomato parmesan sauce. Yum! We enjoyed them all. Turns out it was Karaoke night and the locals were singing away. We were happy to sit and listen and reflect on the hike. There is always a feeling of accomplishment when a challenge is well met. We can laugh about it now – right girls? :-)

Mt. Diablo was impressive. It was nice to be surrounded by those expansive views. I would definitely go back – but I’d follow the hiking directions very closely. It’s not a good place to get lost. On the one hand we always had landmarks to know where we wanted to get to, but this was often even more frustrating knowing how far we had yet to go.

We got back to the park and ride at 9:00 p.m. Twelve hours later than our rendezvous in the morning. Another adventuresome hike! We knew we would sleep well that night.

Many Lessons Learned: Fill up on gas before the trailhead. Some hikes do need hiking boots. Bring a stick when hiking steep trails. Moderate can be a relative term. Follow directions and maps rather than signs. You’re not lost if you can see your destination, you just have to figure out how to get there. Unanticipated challenges show how strong you truly are.