Mount Diablo Base to Summit (13 mile loop hike)
In a nutshell
|Mount Diablo Base to Summit|
|Total elevation gain||3323 ft|
|Time||6 hrs 40 min|
|Conditions||Some clouds, high of 71°F|
|Fee||$6 cash-only parking|
[Note: This trip report describes my experience, which might be similar to or wildly different from yours. The time listed is how long it took us, not a recommendation or guideline.]
Trailhead: Mitchell Canyon Interpretive Center & Ranger Station (Clayton, CA) in Mount Diablo State Park.
Route: 3.7 miles on Mitchell Canyon Rd (fire road) (3.7 total) → 1.6 miles on Deer Flat Rd (fire road) (5.3 total) → 0.2 mile road walk across Juniper Campground (5.5 total) → 1.2 miles on Juniper Trail across Summit Rd & several big parking lots (6.7 total) → 0.2 miles on Summit Trail to the Summit Visitor Center & lookout (6.9 total) → 0.5 miles back on Summit Trail back to the first parking lot and down toward Devil’s Pulpit (7.4 total) → 0.9 miles on North Peak Trail (8.3 total) → 1.5 miles on Bald Ridge Trail (9.8 total) → 3.1 miles on Eagle Peak Trail (12.9 total) → 0.3 miles on
Coulter Pine Trail Oak Road (fire road) back to the visitor center (13.2 total)
A couple years ago, before I did my first John Muir Trail section hike, I had the realization that while I thought of myself as an outdoor person, I didn’t actually get outside all that often. This was not a fun thing to realize, and I felt motivated to change it.
That very weekend, Russell and I did a first mini-hike to jumpstart getting back to nature: the 0.7 mile Mary Bowerman Loop around the summit of Mount Diablo, a one hour drive away from our place in Oakland.
That’s right, we drove to the summit, parked our car, and then walked less than a mile.
The views were breathtaking, the geology was interesting, and the crowds were only slightly larger than I could handle. It was a great reminder of how much natural beauty there is in the East Bay, and it provided the boost I needed to start prioritizing the outdoors more. I made a plan in the back of my mind to return and climb the whole mountain one day.
This Sunday, I finally made that happen.
None of the Mount Diablo trips in my 101 Hikes in Northern California book seemed to go from the base of the mountain to the top. I remembered hearing that climbing to the summit was a 10+ mile hike, so I googled around until I found one around that distance. This trip report detailed a 13 mile loop that looked just fine, so I scribbled down the trail directions on an index card, and loaded up my pack.
My goals for the hike were:
- Spend a lovely sunday outdoors with Rusty.
- Do some PCT training.
- Test out some of my new gear in actual trail conditions.
I wanted to see how my new pack, a MLD Burn pack with S-shaped straps, felt loaded with my PCT gear. I lined it with a Hefty trash compactor bag, using my closed cell foam (CCF) sleeping pad as a framesheet, and threw in as much of my PCT gear I could rustle up in the wee hours of daylight savings Sunday: the bivy sack, stuffed down quilt, extra clothes, and tarp. I packed 28 oz of food for the two of us, and then added some Snickers and Fritos after stopping at a gas station along the way. Two full 1L water bottles completed the load.
I also wanted to see if I got the same side-of-heel blisters I had been getting occasionally with the Altra Lone Peaks during runs, and how my new lacing system performed on more rugged terrain than the Lake Merritt running path.
The third component of this hike’s gear test was trying out my PCT hiking clothing: running shorts with liner cut out, new sports bra, new short-sleeve merino wool shirt.
We munched some bars in the car on our way out to the trailhead at Mitchell Canyon Interpretive Center & Ranger Station, where we paid the $6 cash-only parking fee. We arrived a little after 11 am and spent a few minutes taking advantage of the trailhead restrooms and looking in at the maps inside the station. There were two rangers on duty, and they let us know to look out for poison oak along one of the trails (Bald Ridge Trail), and that there was water at the summit.
The first few miles of this hike are along Mitchell Canyon fire road; sometimes fire road that means rutted and dusty, but in this case it was quite pleasant, not too wide, and fairly level-surfaced.
We saw some turkeys dancing for each other, the toms’ tail displays furled and bobbling. There were several large traps baited with grain along the road —
perhaps catching turkeys for study? Update 1/2/15: Several readers have pointed out that these traps are for wild pigs, not turkeys. Joyce, a volunteer docent with the Mt. Diablo Interpretive Association, adds:
“The wild (non-native) pig population on Mt. Diablo is growing rapidly. Wild pigs are destructive to the landscape and although they are nocturnal and seldom seen by humans, they can be dangerous if encountered.”
Thanks for the information, Joyce (and T. Edwards)! All the traps we saw were empty.
An early part of Mitchell Canyon Road followed Deer Flat Creek, which was small yet steady. At one point there was a muddy slick on the road, and amid the horseshoe prints were raccoon tracks.
This part of the trail started shady with a gradual incline, then grew more exposed the higher we climbed. The grade got pretty steep as we ascended past a myriad of wildflowers to Deer Flat, where there were three picnic tables calling our names.
We snacked on flattened bananas, fig newtons, and old trail mix; before leaving, we added water to our dehydrated beans in peanut-butter jars so they could rehydrate as we walked.
After Deer Flat, the trail wound up and up, then kicked us out on the west side of the ridge, yielding our first views of the bay and Marin County.
After the lookout, we headed up Deer Flat Rd, trailing a hiker or trail runner whose legs showed every muscle in stark relief — an aspiration anatomy lesson for hamstrings and quadriceps if I ever saw one. He quickly pulled ahead of us and we never saw him again. Quelle surprise.
Deer Flat Rd trundled up the mountain before dropping us out in the Juniper Campground loop. We walked through the campground, past some functioning port-a-potties which Russell took advantage of, and initially missed the trailhead for Juniper Trail. There is a parking lot for this popular trailhead, and we walked all the way to the end of it, past dayhikers and their SUVs (and Priuses), before doubling back and locating the trailhead off to the left.
Juniper Trail is a nice single-track trail that kicked my butt. I kept my pace slow and steady as we climbed out of the wooded area by the campground, and hiked alongside a charred area from the September 2013 Morgan Fire that burned over 3000 acres in the park.
After a short but sweaty climb, the trail took us past a large communication tower and into a vast parking lot. We refilled our water bottles at the Sunset Picnic area drinking fountains; we had to hold the buttons down for a good 5-10 seconds before water came out.
We had now reached the point we drove to in 2012. We took the Summit Trail that winds up between the two one-way roads to the summit, up and over rocky crags that I almost tripped on. Several crows flew up from below and zoomed over our heads — what a treat.
The summit was busy with cyclists and tourists of all stripes. Russell overheard other visitors discussing ice-cream sandwiches, and in a move that should surprise no one, ever, we responded by buying our own and inhaling them before heading up the tower to take in the views from the top.
After descending from the stone tower, we sat down on a little wall near the official summit plaque, and wolfed down our rehydrated split pea soup and curried lentils, topped with Fritos for texture and calories (160 cal/oz — hard to beat!).
I threw on my windshirt as we sat and ate, and snuck a couple Snickers bars into my belt pouches for the hike back.
The ranger inside the Summit Visitor Center was gruff initially when I asked to look at a map to locate the trailhead for the North Peak Trail. He softened up when we mentioned we were heading back to the Mitchell Canyon entrance, and told us how to get down to the trail. Despite his directions, we still walked right past our trailhead, having to double back after ascertaining that the trail we passed was the only one in the right general vicinity.
Pathfinding tip — to get to North Peak Trail from the summit, take the trail right by Sunset Picnic Area that is labeled “to southern edge of park” or “Devil’s Pulpit”. That is an extension of the Summit Trail, and it will pop you out at a small parking area on Summit Road where you can pick up the North Peak Trail.
I paused at the North Peak trailhead to snap a shot of the hillside as part of a Morgan Fire recovery documentation project, before continuing down the trail.
The ranger at the summit had strongly advised against taking the Prospector’s Gap fire road (too exposed and steep), but when we got to an intersection where we expected to see Bald Ridge Trail, all we saw was Prospector’s Gap (and two other fire roads). I wondered out loud where the Bald Ridge trailhead was, and a nearby hiker with a big camera yelled to us that it was a few yards down the Prospector’s Gap road.
Thanks, camera guy! Bet your macro flower shots are way better than mine…
On Bald Ridge, we looked for poison oak, and didn’t see any in leaf, but avoided brushing up against bare twigs to be safe. I have never gotten poison oak before, and don’t wish to, but not enough to wear long pants like Russell. Two days post trip, I have no rashes, so it appears that my shorts gamble paid off.
As we headed down the North Peak Trail, I got a second wind and did a little trail running. It started when I guessed that it would be more comfortable to run than walk down some of the steeper sections of the trail. I’ve always liked downhill more than uphill (hey, I’m close to the ground), but I took inspiration from Russell’s enjoyment of powering up hills, and tried running up a few too. What a rush!
We reached the junction with our intended trail, Back Creek Trail, and I remembered what I could of the map I’d looked at before coming. The previous hiker had suggested going down Back Creek Trail, but then the route on the map appeared to go cross-country over to Eagle Peak Trail. With poison oak around, I didn’t much feel like off-trail in shorts, so voted for taking Eagle Peak Trail instead, as I knew it would get us to the right spot, eventually.
This was also a mini rebellion against playing it safe, for me. Here was an easy, low-risk time to make a spontaneous call and be a little more adventurous.
Good thing I had that second wind, because the climb up to Eagle Peak was a bit of a doozy. Not too hard, but with more scrambling than the summit climb. A pair of young women at the summit took our picture, saving us from Selfie Limbo once again.
After Eagle Peak, the trail continued down the ridge towards the northern edge of the park. By this point, Russell’s plantar fasciitis was flaring up, and we picked up the pace to get off the mountain and home to warm showers.
The views from this part of the trail were of Concord and the housing developments around the northern edge of the park. As we got closer to the foot of the mountain, we could see the Zion Peak base rock quarry. Turkey vultures circled over head.
After passing the Twin Peaks and Mitchell Rock, Eagle Peak Trail ran into
Coulter Pine fire road Oak Road (Coulter Pine trail is the trail to the right), and we followed that back to the visitor center.
Six hours and forty minutes after starting up Mitchell Canyon fire road, we arrived back at the visitor center, got in our car, and drove home.
Shake it down
So how did this hike match up to my pre-departure goals of fun, training, and shakedown? Great!
Yup. It was fun. Love being outside, love being outside with Russell. Wasn’t too crowded. Was the perfect time of year to see wildflowers and not wilt in the heat. Clouds and a high of 71º kept me from overheating on the uphills.
Win-win all around.
I used my run-tracking web app, MapMyRun, to chart our hike once we were home, and came up with the following stats: 13.2 miles with a total ascent of 3323 ft.This is a comparable distance and elevation change to the latter days up and over a pass on the JMT, so the hike met my goal of being decent training for the PCT.
I want to do some longer mileage hikes before my start date, to get my body used to moving for more than 7 hours over the course of a day. For high intensity, though, this hike did just fine.
My new pack did great on this hike. I didn’t weigh the pack before leaving, but I’d estimate it around 12 lbs with 4 lbs of water, 1 of food, and 7 lbs of gear that I scrounged up. I’ll be carrying more weight for many parts of the trail, so next I will test it at 20 lbs and 30 lbs (boo, heavy water carries). My biggest question about the Burn was how it was going to feel on my shoulders with at least some load — and it felt good.
At some point I realized that I hadn’t cinched the waist belt enough to transfer load to it, and that I’d been carrying on my shoulders alone. I cinched it harder (hang in there, winter belly!) and could then get fingers under the shoulder straps easily.
The only bummer was that I couldn’t reach the water bottles in the side pockets. I could get them back in with intense contortions, but not out. Stay tuned for a first look review of the MLD Burn pack coming up.
The clothing performed great on the hike, as evidenced by the fact that I didn’t think about it at all until the trip home, when I realized I hadn’t thought about it… A good outcome in my book.
A few times my toes felt jammed up against the front of my shoes on descents, so I will adjust my shoe lacing again to see if I can get rid of that. Maybe tighter around the midfoot? Suggestions are welcome. I didn’t get any blisters, though, which was great.
Overall, this was a fantastic hike. It was strenuous — those climbs up the fire roads and Juniper Trail are no joke — and I would try harder to leave earlier in the morning next time. It’s highly worth it though — all that work earns some of the most spectacular views in the area (even more so when the sky is clearer).
I think this is the perfect time of year to be out in the East Bay hills. The rain has perked up all the spring growth, and there aren’t crazy crowds of visitors yet.
Rating: A+ (Go, do it now!)