A devil of a climb

Peak of the devil: Despite Its Hellish Name, Mount Diablo Offers a Heavenly Vista
The Sacramento Bee, March 13, 2002


Sometimes, the real treasures are right under your nose. Sacramentans who are accustomed to heading to the Sierra to hike, bike or take in the view should try turning westward.

Rising from the Central Valley an hour to the southwest of Sacramento, Mount Diablo is a treasure hidden in plain sight. Though the 81,000-acre natural playground draws a million visitors a year, the state and regional parklands surrounding the peak still feel wild and remote.

And this is Diablo’s time of year. The hills are green; blooming wildflowers attract painters, camera buffs and butterflies; and some of the mountain’s 100 miles of trails feature seasonal waterfalls.

This Saturday, the Mount Diablo Astronomical Society launches its annual season, during which visitors may stay after the state park’s usual sunset closing and look at the stars through the society’s telescopes.

But these pleasant conditions won’t last. Despite the mountain’s elevation – the summit is 3,849 feet – like Sacramento it is hot and dry once summer comes. So the next few months are the time to go.

And a day trip to Mount Diablo has an added appeal: It can start or finish in Walnut Creek, a bustling and charming town of 80,000 that has evolved into the cultural center of Contra Costa County, known for its shopping and restaurants, perfect for a pre-hike sandwich or post-hike meal.

But the mountain remains a mystery to many Sacramentans. Indeed, says Seth Adams, director of land programs for the nonprofit group Save Mount Diablo, even many residents of the Bay Area have overlooked the peak’s pleasures.

“I know a number of people down here who have never been on the mountain,” says Adams.

Still, while we may be able to ignore it from Sacramento, they can’t miss it from the towns of the Diablo Valley: Walnut Creek, Danville, Alamo, San Ramon, Pleasant Hill and the biggest, Concord. There, the mountain is the defining feature, a communal icon, and houses with views of it are particularly coveted.

Just as popular are the views from the top, which reach from the Sierra to the Pacific and boast an unexpected distinction: from the 1930s government-built native-stone building sitting on top of the mountain, a clear day allows a view of 35 of California’s 58 counties.

A legend has grown over the years that Diablo’s view is rivaled only by that of Africa’s Mount Kilimanjaro. But Adams says that’s not true, attributing it to the hyperbole of an early-20th century real estate speculator. Still, any view that can encompass sightings of Mount Lassen, the Farallon Islands, the Golden Gate Bridge and even Half Dome in Yosemite is certainly worth a drive.

And that view is visible to anyone who is able to walk up two flights of stairs from the parking lot to the top of the mountain’s interpretive center.

But that’s too easy: The mountain is carved with trails for hikers of all levels of expertise. Don’t forget to take plenty of water, and remember to keep an eye out for ticks, rattlesnakes and poison oak. There is a $2 vehicle entry fee at the gate (which closes 45 minutes before sunset) and dogs are not allowed on trails.

One option is to start halfway up, at the Lower Summit parking lot, near the junction of the North Gate and Danville roads. There is a trail, part fire road, part single-track, that goes to the top in about 2.5 miles, with views all the way.

Mountain bikers won’t find Diablo to be as welcoming as the hills elsewhere in the Bay Area, partly because many of the trails are actually fire roads that climb the mountain steeply and are slippery. The climb up to Prospector’s Gap between the north and main peaks is particularly steep, for advanced riders only.

Road bikers actually fare better here than mountain bikers, because the paved roads to the top of the mountain have generous inclines, long runs down, and precious little traffic, even on weekends. A ride to the summit on last year’s Fourth of July weekend was interrupted by fewer than a dozen cars in two hours.

Getting to Mount Diablo is fairly simple. The mountain can be approached from a handful of angles, though most of those to the north and east – that is, on the Sacramento side – are a bit tricky, and won’t really save you much time.

The quickest and easiest way is to take Interstate 680 south from the Cordelia Junction past Fairfield on Interstate 80. Once you approach Walnut Creek, exit at North Main Street and head south to Ygnacio Valley Road. Go left on Ygnacio, east to Walnut Avenue and follow Walnut south to North Gate Road, which will take you to the top of the mountain.

Although the mountain closes at sunset throughout the year, there is a public astronomy program put on by the Mount Diablo Astronomical Society, which invites the public to look at the planets and stars from the Lower Summit Parking Lot one evening a month from March through October. The first viewing of the year comes this Saturday after sunset. (Arrive at the park 45 minutes before sunset to view the sky through the society’s telescopes.)

After a day on the mountain, there’s another treasure hidden nearby: Walnut Creek. The city has eschewed the sprawl that has consumed much of Concord and other nearby towns, and worked hard to preserve its downtown ambience. The result is a great walking town, which, because of an influx of affluent residents, is chockablock with great restaurants.

In fact, in a town with parking garages hidden behind every other shop facade, you can continue your hiking in an urban setting, and will have no need to get back into your car until you’re ready to leave town.

The central crossroad of downtown Walnut Creek is Main Street at Mount Diablo Boulevard, where Pottery Barn, Nordstrom, Restoration Hardware, Il Fornaio, P.F. Chang’s, Crate & Barrel and California Pizza Kitchen are all visible from the intersection.

As is, of course, Mount Diablo.

Burrito and hamburger places proliferate for the budget-conscious, and there are a number of sushi places. But best for hikers on their way up the mountain are several terrific deli counters. One, on Locust Street a block over from Main, is an outpost of the Oakville Grocery, beloved of visitors to Napa’s wine country, and with a wealth of roasted veggies, lasagna and custom sandwiches to go. And there’s a Peet’s Coffee & Tea right across the street.

Genova Delicatessen, an old-fashioned Italian deli with all the usual picnic fixings, is just a couple of blocks up Diablo Boulevard, next to Marie Callender’s. Just take a number, grab a provolone and salami sandwich, and head for the mountain. Another option is the new Andronico’s Market, on the corner of Olympic and North California, a block south of Mount Diablo Boulevard.

On the other hand, if you’ve spent the day on the mountain and are looking for something a bit more substantial, there are a handful of fine restaurants on Main Street, capped by neo-Italian Prima Ristorante, which features dining in a sidewalk loggia, and features so many different wines that it added a wine shop next door.

Other fine Italian places sit on either side of Prima: an outpost of the San Francisco opera district, Caffe Delle Stella offers terrific food at prices lower than Prima’s, and Amalfi Trattoria offers its own, funkier version of fine Italian just to the south.

If Italian is not to your taste, within the same area there’s Afghan (Roya Afghan), Chinese (P.F. Chang’s), Greek (Pomegranate) and Mexican (The Cantina), or even a Mel’s Diner. And Bradley Ogden’s Lark Creek Cafe sits right on Locust, next to the Oakville Grocery. A bit farther out Main to the north is the Black Diamond Brewery, with a selection of microbrews.

Keep in mind that the town has become the nightlife center of Contra Costa County, which means reservations are required on most weekend nights.

At a Glance

Mount Diablo resources

Mount Diablo Interpretive Association: www.mdia.org

Mount Diablo Visitor Center and Summit Museum:

(925) 943-1945

Mount Diablo State Park headquarters: (925) 837-2525

Reservations for group camping: (800) 444-7275

Reservations for group picnics: (925) 837-2525

Save Mount Diablo organization: www.savemountdiablo.org

Information on stargazing on Mount Diablo: (925) 927-7222, (925) 837-0904, or visit http://members.aol.com/mdas101b/private/index.htm

Mount Diablo Information Page: www.ccdemo.info/MtDiablo/MtDiablo.html

A personalized description of one rider’s favorite mountain bike rides on Mount Diablo: http://www-cs-students.stanford.edu/~rsf/rides/MtDiablo.html

The city of Walnut Creek: (925) 943-5800 or www.ci.walnut-creek.ca.us