An Insider’s Guide to Mount Diablo: One of the Bay Area’s Best Adventure Playground

As you drive through Concord, California, a solitary mountain dominates the horizon: Mount Diablo. This geologic show-stopper, which was sacred to the Miwok Indians who once lived here, was established in 1851 as the baseline and meridian for two-thirds of the land surveys in California and Nevada. Today, it prevails as a Bay Area landmark brimming with ways to enjoy nature, especially for adventure enthusiasts lucky enough to live nearby.


Mount Diablo is the eponymous centerpiece of Mount Diablo State Park, rising some 3,849 feet from sea level as the third-highest peak in the San Francisco Bay Area. Yet, views from its peak are arguably the best, extending more than 200 miles on a clear day. And though it would be tough to tally them up, 40 of California’s 58 counties are visible from Mount Diablo.

Here is an insiders look at how to explore the state park—which is an easy, 20-minute drive from downtown Concord—and its signature peak, whether you drive or hike to the summit or stretch your adventure into an overnight camping trip.

History

Geologists believe Mount Diablo was born 1 to 4 million years ago from a prehistoric sea, evidenced by fossils of ancient marine animals imprinted in rocks quarried from the area. Its name came along in the late 1700s, when Spanish soldiers explored the area. According to the Concord Historical Society, the soldiers nicknamed the peak Monte del Diablo, the word “monte” describing a dense thicket of willows at the north end of the valley that the soldiers believed was possessed by evil spirits, hence the name, “Monte del Diablo”—thicket of the devil. Monte was later misinterpreted by English speakers as “mount” or “mountain,” and the name Mount Diablo stuck.

Mount Diablo became part of the California State Park system in 1921, and it has long attracted Bay Area hikers, cyclists, equestrians, and nature lovers. Each year, about 700,000 visitors enjoy its magnificent landmarks and activities. Here are some recommended highlights.


The Summit and Visitor Center
A trip to Mount Diablo’s summit is a destination in itself. Whether you reach the top by car, foot, or bike, be sure to spend time at the Summit Visitor Center. Constructed in the late 1930s from sandstone from the park, the center houses engaging exhibits of photos, art, and videos that chronicle the mountain’s history. It also provides information about its ecosystem, which sustains 400 species of plants and an abundance of wildlife, including the once nearly extinct peregrine falcon, grey foxes, coyotes, deer, rabbits, and more.

But the real star of the show at the Visitor Center is the actual summit of Mount Diablo itself. That’s right: The peak is actually housed inside the building, on the second floor, accessed by a circular staircase. Another must-do for visitors is the spacious observation deck, with stunning panoramas and telescopes that offer close-ups of landmarks in Northern California and beyond. To the west is the San Francisco skyline, and beyond that, the great white shark feeding grounds of the Farallon Islands. To the southeast, see if you can spot the James Lick Observatory on Mount Hamilton (4,213 feet) or, to the south, Mount Loma Prieta (3,791 feet) in the Santa Cruz Mountains. And to the north, you may even be able to see Mount Saint Helena in Oregon (yes, the one that famously erupted more than three decades ago) or Lassen Peak in the Cascades, towering at 10,466 feet.

The summit also boasts a signature of its own: a famous beacon known as the “Eye of Mount Diablo,” which once aided early transcontinental aviators. It’s now illuminated every December 7th to honor those who lost their lives at Pearl Harbor.

Don’t leave the summit before checking out the Mary Bowerman Loop Trail. Less than a mile long, it starts just below the summit parking area and has benches along its route, perfect for soaking up the terrific views.

Rock City
A Mount Diablo favorite is Rock City, where visitors of all ages can enjoy a playground of natural geological wonders showcasing the mountain’s evolution, including sandstone caves and boulders that beckon for scrambling and exploring. You can also meander the surrounding trails and climb Sentinel Rock for one of the park’s most formidable views. The Grotto Picnic Area is a relaxing spot for lunch, and a site at the nearby Live Oak Campground can be reserved for overnight adventures.

While many of Mount Diablo’s sites are accessible by car, the park is excellent for hiking, with dozens of trails for every level. The ultimate Mount Diablo experience—and the way to really earn your views—is to climb from base to summit from the Mitchell Canyon Staging Area in Clayton. Start early: The 13-mile round-trip journey, which is best suited for experienced hikers, makes for an ambitious but satisfying day, and you’ll bag a couple of additional peaks (including Twin Peaks and Eagle Peak) before you actually summit Diablo.

Mitchell Canyon is also the starting point for many shorter trails. The 5-mile Donner Creek Loop will delight winter hikers with waterfalls, and you can also hike from scenic Mitchell Canyon to Eagle Peak loop, which clocks in at 7.4 miles.

If the summit is calling but you don’t have time to start from the base, you can choose from other shorter-distance routes to reach it. One is the steep 7.6-mile out-and-back hike from Rock City. For the definitive Mount Diablo experience, the Mountain Loop Trail is a must do. Starting and ending at the Juniper Campground, this connection of trails circumvents the summit along varied, sometimes calf-burning terrain. You’ll discover stunning vistas on every side of the mountain and pass through groves of manzanita, pine, and juniper while birdsong breaks the silence and hawks soar overhead.

Biking

For cyclists, summiting Mount Diablo is a popular goal, and on most weekends, the paved road to the summit will have as many bikes as cars. The junction where North Gate and South Gate roads meet is a favorite spot for roadies to convene for the rigorous 24-mile round-trip ride, which is a grind to the top (the 5 percent grade steepens to a grueling 13 percent for the final short stretch to the summit).

But once you reach it, the summit is a fitting spot to get out of the saddle, refuel with snacks and water, and soak up the magnificent views you’ve earned. From there, it’s a well-deserved descent back down.

Off-road cyclists will also find plenty to keep them busy in the park, since mountain bikes are allowed on paved roads, maintained fire roads, and select trails. A strenuous, 6-mile route that requires some technical skill makes the loop from Juniper Trail to Devil’s Elbow on Summit Road, down North Peak Trail to Prospectors Gap, Meridian Ridge, Deer Flat, and back to Juniper. For a shorter ride with moderate climbs, take Curry Point to Balanced Rock via Knobcone Point fire road.

Since Mount Diablo is such a popular spot, cyclists should try to start their ride early, when there are fewer cars and pedestrians, especially approaching the summit (an early start is especially important in the summer for roadies, since there’s limited shade.) And all cyclists should have plenty of water and snacks, wear a helmet, and keep a spare tube, patch kit, and trail map handy.

Camping

Overnight camping at Mount Diablo is a convenient option for outdoor enthusiasts craving a back-to-nature wilderness escape without having to venture far. The park has three designated campgrounds—Juniper, Live Oak, and Junction—plus five group camping areas. Each campground provides a picnic table, fire pit or stove, potable water, and restroom. All except Junction can be reserved up to six months in advance.

Planning Your Visit

When to Go

Mount Diablo is open year-round, but visitors should keep in mind seasonal conditions. Wildflowers are at their peak in the spring, and views from the summit are particularly impressive after a winter storm, when the air is clear. (In addition, winter may even bring snow to the peak of Mount Diablo—which will almost certainly bring more visitors chasing the flakes.) The rainy season in winter and early spring rewards hikers with beautiful waterfalls. During the warmer months, hikers should watch out for rattlesnakes and scorpions. (And if your crowd doesn’t flinch at creepy crawlers, be sure to check out the tarantula trek that takes place in early fall, when the hairy arachnids are mating.)

Entrance Areas : If you plan to drive your car into the park, there are two main gates, the South Gate Road entrance on the Danville/Blackhawk side of the mountain, and the North Gate Road entrance on the Concord/Walnut Creek side. The $10 entrance fee can be paid with a debit or credit card when the kiosk is staffed. If you plan to leave your car outside the park, there are two staging areas requiring a $6 cash/check-only parking fee—the Mitchell Canyon Staging Area in Clayton and the Macedo Ranch Staging Area in Alamo.

Visitor Center Hours : The Summit Visitor Center is open seven days a week from 10 am to 4 pm. The Mitchell Canyon Visitor Center is open on weekends and some holidays from 8 am to 4 pm in the summer and 10 am to 2 pm in the winter.

Dogs : It’s probably best to let Fido sit out your visit to Mount Diablo, since dogs are not allowed on any trails or fire roads. They are allowed, on leash, in developed areas of the park only.

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