This week marks my first spring break experience as a graduate student. Initially, I thought that any “break” in grad school was really just a euphemism for “no class, so more time to get more work done.” I was surprised, however, to find that many of my peers (at least those who weren’t in the field or writing up their dissertations) took the break somewhat seriously. I received What’s App text pictures of their bicycle excursions abroad and hikes along gorgeous vistas from various state parks.
I had received offers to drive to the Sierras or to hike the Lost Coast trail with friends, but lately, I’d been itching for an experience of solitude and independent reflection on a backpacking or hiking trip. The only problem is that I don’t have a car, and so have always relied on friends with vehicles to get me to the trailhead or crag.
How can I live less than a 20 minute drive from high ridge walks and deep redwood forest groves yet feel totally stranded in the middle of my urban surroundings? What do I have to do to get myself and a backpack to a regional park and/or a campground sans private transportation (or a fancy lightweight bike)? To find out, I did what any good grad student would: research.
I came across this Bay Nature article from 2009 about taking BART to a campsite in Mt. Diablo State Park. The author, Ryan Branciforte, provides some great highlights about the trip, but details are sorely lacking. Frustrated, I looked for PDF maps, went on a wild goose chase through UC Berkeley libraries for an equally unhelpful East Bay park guide, and finally resorted to Google maps walking directions (arguably, and surprisingly, the best and most accurate method).
The fact that parks and wild spaces are difficult to access—physically and in terms of accurate information—is no accident. Environmental conservation has a long, ugly history of associated racism and continues to exclude people of color to this day (see: Black Faces, White Spaces by Carolyn Finney, “Woman of Color in Wide Open Spaces“; see also Outdoor Afro for positive examples of how to form POC community in outdoor spaces). But, more on this later…
I’ve been asked for the “beta” on how I put together my version of the hike that Branciforte sketched in his article. So here goes (for the quick directions, skip to the bottom of this post; if you’re into the semi-naturalist narrative, read on):
I head out at 8AM on what promises to be a beautiful spring day—sunshine and 70 degrees. Still, I come prepared: 2 warm layers and a rain shell, 90+ SPF (light-skinned tradeoffs…), a liter of water, a headlamp, Swiss army knife, hat, sunglasses, my useless East Bay regional park guide, and a lunch of tuna fish, mandarin oranges, and a nut bar. I stop by the store for some crackers (Dr. Kracker—tastes a bit like cardboard, but is a good, sturdy, calorie-packed option for longer backpacking trips), an avocado, a ProBar, and cheese. A woman behind me in the checkout line is purchasing a few bottles of water and I fleetingly think about getting some myself. By the end of the day, when I’m parched and thinking about nothing but an icy Gatorade, I’d be kicking myself for buying a messy, unripe rock of an avocado and passing up the opportunity to bring more water.
Around 8:20, I get on the Pittsburg/Bay Point BART to the Walnut Creek station. I had been
planning to walk from BART to the trailhead at Howe Homestead Park, which Branciforte describes as a “short stroll through a residential area.” I check Google maps for the route only to discover that the “short stroll” was still a 1.5 mile walk, which would add 3 miles to my hike, round trip. Edging on 9AM and knowing I have many miles ahead of me that day, I decide to cut out the half hour of urban hiking and take a Lyft line instead (one stocked with candy and bottles of water which, again, I neglected to take). This time, I took the quick and dirty shortcut. In the future, however, I would bring my bike on the BART and ride to the park. There is a community center just around the corner from where I started that likely has bicycle racks.
Howe Homestead Park to Briones-Mt. Diablo Trail:
The hike begins on Kovar Trail. Starting from the small parking lot for the park, take the gravel trail up into a neighborhood park. At the first fork you hit less than .10 miles into the walk, head left. If you need a bathroom or water before your hike though, take the right fork. The trail leads past some community gardens before heading uphill and east, scuttling very close to backyard fences. After traversing up the hill for a few tenths of a mile, the trail crests a shallow saddle. The trail to the right is the Summit Ridge Trail. To continue on Kovar, follow the middle trail that dips down to the other side of the hill (the trail to the left appears to just go to a view point).
I took the Summit Ridge to get some early morning views. While this trail does connect back to Kovar, a word of caution: the end of this trail is pretty sketchy—a very steep, rocky and narrow descent. At about .7 miles, you’ll reach another parking area and trailhead. There is a water fountain here. Drink some water and re-fill here—there is no water on the trail and much of the hike is very exposed.
I was grateful that there is pretty good signage and outposts with maps along the way. After looking at the map (and missing my opportunity to get water), I take Fossil Hill Loop Trail northeast. Stay left at the fork that appears and head down hill toward Bramhall pond. Keep going north (uphill) for another .1 miles to get to Briones to Mt. Diablo Regional Trail. Head east (right) on this trail and chill in the Shell Ridge Open Space portion of the hike, knowing that you have about 4 more miles of coasting along the same trail. You’ll encounter a number of trails heading north and south but each fork is marked with a trail post. Follow the signs for Briones-Mt. Diablo trail, which generally keeps E/NE.
Briones-Mt. Diablo to Wall Point Road
Typically, this would be a walk through golden hills. Because of the drought-ending downpour we had this winter, however, my walk was remarkably and brilliantly green. I enjoyed dipping occasionally into low ravines near Indian Creek and catching glimpses of the sun filtering through early spring leaves and a tall grasses (these were also the only areas where I would have liked bug spray). Near Willow Spring pond, the landscape gets marshy and grasses grow to chest height. Perched among the cattails, I saw and heard the abrasive call of many red-winged blackbirds.
After veering up hill and passing under some electric lines, I reach another map station that details the trail to Borges Ranch. This also marks the beginning of about a 1.5-2 mile stretch to cattle grazing territory and the journey out of Foothills Regional Park. At this point, I had been hiking for about 1 hour, 15 min and was just starting to feel my feet and some stomach rumblings. I decided to push through the cattle gate and keep going to look for a rest spot, not realizing that grazing country is the last place you really want to stop for a break. This was my least favorite part of the hike. Tree cover drops to almost none, I was constantly hopping over muddy patches and cow pies, and the trail was so uneven after being cut up by cow’s hoofs that I had to watch my feet to make sure I didn’t roll my ankle on a clod of dirt. Most uncomfortable, though, was confronting the cows themselves. Although they were pretty quick to move out of my path, their skittish energy had something of a ripple effect across the entire field. Herds of cows within a half-mile radius would all pause in their grazing to watch me. Maybe this makes me sound like a big chicken, but there’s something incredibly eerie about being alone in a field of dozens of 1-ton pound creatures that are all silently watching you with attentive, intelligent eyes. (I swear they knew that I’d eaten steak the night before. Needless to say, I skipped my usual post-hike burger that night.)
Three screechy cattle gates later, 5 miles from where I started, and officially in Mt. Diablo State Park, I reach the loveliest stretch of fields and rolling hills yet. At first, I thought I was standing next to another power line, until I realized that the steady buzzing I heard around me was the sound of bees pollinating the spring flowers, with crickets intermittently chiming in as well. Besides being quite hungry, what stopped me in my tracks here was the unmistakable sound of wood thrush song (in this case, I believe it was the Swainson Thrush). This is, without a doubt, my favorite sound on the planet. Whether I hear it in the quiet depths of a redwood grove or an open meadow like this, wood thrush song has an echoing, warbling quality to it that makes it seem quite ethereal. I head off the trail toward a large, shady oak tree to lunch and watch the nuthatches defy gravity, hanging upside down on tree branches. Although clearly buzzing with insect life, I was surprised to find that this meadow spot was not buggy. From my perch under the trees, I was also able to observe the curious rock formation called China Wall; it looks as if a dragon’s tail is poking up through the earth’s surface. It forms a perfect gateway for the Summit Ranch trail heading south.
After a leisurely lunch, I continue along Briones-Mt Diablo Trail for a little less than a mile when I hit the junction with Wall Point Rd. Now being officially in Mt. Diablo State Park, the signage improves, detailing the mileage to the next major junctions. I take the left fork for Wall Point Rd. to Summit Trail for the next 3.8 miles.
Wall Point Rd to Summit Trail
After passing through yet another cattle gate, the landscape changes markedly from grassy hills to chaparral and manzanita dotted scrub. The path widens and I pass many more mountain bikers. The slopes get steeper, beginning the foothill climb up the back of Mt. Diablo. By now, it’s high noon in the heat of the day, I’ve realized that I don’t have enough water, and it’s several tenths of a mile between shady spots. However, the views only get better, and I stop to turn to watch the receding skyline of Walnut Creek and the intense green hills (and disgustingly huge mansions) of Diablo and Danville to the south.
In a shady, poison-oak filled hollow and .8 miles from Summit Trail is a fork with Secret Trail toward BBQ Terrace Road. Had I been going to do an overnight trip, I believe I would have taken this fork. BBQ Terrace Road ends, on the map at a few campgrounds, including Wildcat tent campground.
I march onward until the next junction some .3 miles later, where I had the option to take a ridge trail for .3 miles to meet up with Summit Trail, or continue for .55 miles along Wall Point Rd. Since I wasn’t summiting Diablo that day, I decide to take the tiny dirt trail up the spine of a grassy, windy hill. It is incredibly steep and I pause frequently to breathe and look around at the view. Pushing up and around a slight bend in the trail, I catch the barest glimpse of the snow-capped Sierras to the east before plunging down to meet South Gate Road and the Summit Trail. At this point, it’s almost 2 PM and I need to head back if I want to make it home before 7. If you choose to summit Mt. Diablo, take Summit Trail another few miles to the top and let me know how it is!
Instead of going back up the ridge trail, I follow Summit Trail, taking a trail marked “Staircase Trail” to get back to Wall Point Road. This is probably ill advised, since it was quite steep and I had to do some brush-whacking at the end. If you do this though, when you reach the
wide road at the junction, go right. This is Wall Point Road.
Keep walking and take these directions in reverse to get back to Howe Homestead Park. The wildlife highlight of my trip was right at the very end when I made it back to the parking lot at the community center. I was compelled to cut off the trail early when I heard the gobbling giggles of a huge rafter of turkey toms. They were fluffed up and preening, trying to attract the attention of some very unimpressed looking hens.
Meadow and hill-walking, gentle ascent through Diablo Foothills Regional Park in Walnut Creek to Mt. Diablo State Park. This is an 18-mile round trip hike that can be modified as an overnight trip or cut short. Regardless, an early start is advised.
What to Bring:
- Hat & sunglasses
- At least 2 liters of water per person
- Electrolyte tabs
- Bug spray
- Extra layers
- Snacks and lunch
- Maps/charged smartphone (there is service along most of the trail)
- Take BART Pittsburg/Bay Point to Walnut Creek
- Walk, bike or Lyft to Howe Homestead Park
- (See above image for route)
Howe Homestead Park to Briones-Mt. Diablo Trail:
- Take Kovar Trail, keeping north through the city park
- At hill crest:
- The trail to the right is the Summit Ridge Trail
- To continue on Kovar, follow the middle trail that dips down to the other side of the hill
- The trail to the left appears to go to a view point
- At about .7 miles, you’ll reach another parking area and trailhead.
- Take Fossil Hill Loop Trail northeast, staying left at first fork
- Pass Bramhall pond, walking North to the junction with Briones-Mt. Diablo Trail
Briones-Mt. Diablo to Wall Point Road:
- Follow signs to continue along Briones-Mt. Diablo trail for approximately 4 more miles
- Pass through 4 cattle gates
- Pass by Devils’ Spine rock formation
- Reach Wall Point Rd to Summit Trail junction
Wall Point Rd to Summit Trail:
- Go North/left at the junction, following trail posts for “Wall Point Rd. to Summit Trail” for about 3 miles
- At the 3.2 mile mark, you will have the option to take a small, quite steep ridge trail with stunning views that is .3 miles from the next junction with Summit Trail or continue along Wall Point Rd for another .5 miles.
[I did not take these trails, so these are my recommendations based on maps and articles]
- At the 3-mile mark, there is a junction for Secret Trail to BBQ Terrace Road. Take this trail to meet with BBQ Terrace, where you will go East/left toward the campgrounds.
Other hikes and info:
- Transit & Trails Options
- Diablo Foothills Info:
- Alt hike: http://bahiker.com/eastbayhikes/diablofoothills.html
- Alt hike: Borges Ranch to Castle Rock (w/ pics)
- Diablo Foothills Regional Park Map: http://www.ebparks.org/parks/diablo_foothills
- About Briones-Mt Diablo Trail
- Plant Guide