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  • RANDY PENCH / rpench@sacbee.com

    Wendell Doman of Walnut Creek runs down the Summit Trail near the top of Mount Diablo. Today's Great Trek covers a 13-mile loop that takes you to the top of the mountain.

  • RANDY PENCH / rpench@sacbee.com

    A hiker heads down the Mitchell Canyon fire road.

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Great Treks: Uphill both ways. The trail up Mount Diablo will leave you breathless, and so will the views

Published: Thursday, Oct. 13, 2011 - 12:00 am | Page 1D
Last Modified: Sunday, Oct. 16, 2011 - 2:36 pm

Your first sighting of Mount Diablo comes just outside of Dixon while driving west on Interstate 80. Far from awe-inspiring, it mostly looks like a brown smudge, something a blast of windshield-wiper fluid could erase.

As you get closer, the mountain becomes more distinct. Its twin peaks jut through a veneer of wispy clouds. Its pine and oak trees, carpeted by chaparral, create a sharp contrast to the encircling suburbia. Its beauty lies in its simple grandeur, and its accessibility. Nothing flashy about this utilitarian mountain, 3,894 feet at its summit, welcoming to all via car, bike or foot.

By the time you've crossed the Benicia-Martinez Bridge and head toward the Mitchell Canyon staging area in Clayton, Diablo positively looms. You have to crank your neck up to get a look. That's when it hits you: You have to climb that?

Not so easy as it seemed on the freeway coming in, does it, bub? The lazy part of you wants to swing around to the North Gate entrance in Walnut Creek, motor on up and consume all those carbs you planned on saving for all that huffing and puffing.

But this feature is called Great Treks, not Great Drives. So trek you must.

The route calls for a 13-mile loop (don't fret; easier options abound, too) up and down this deceptive beast of a rock. Trails such as this need to be approached with a water- bottle-half-full mindset: Yeah, so the first 6.8 miles are uphill to the summit, the map informs you. Gee, so that must mean the final 6.2 miles are downhill, right?

Well, the water-bottle-half-empty crowd, those realists who bothered to read the elevation charts, will tell you that there are some decent climbs amid the otherwise severe downhill descent. It's best, really, to be aware of that before starting out, lest you get demoralized seeing uphills late in the trek after a steady diet of trudging ever upward in the first half.

The best advice for the vertically averse: As you leave your car at the trailhead, don't look up. Just take it one switchback at a time, one dusty shoe in front of the other.

Once you actually muster the nerve to get on the first segment, the Mitchell Canyon fire road, you find the climb is not that bad. Steady but gradual. Doable. You can exhale. (Actually, you'll already be exhaling a lot by this point, because it's not pancake-flat.)

The first two miles unfold on a wide, decently groomed trail lined with oak and pine trees and, babbling on your left, Mitchell Canyon Creek (albeit at just a trickle in the hotter months). You don't really need to hunker down and plow ahead – yet.

At this point, you are the lobster in the pot with the burner turned to a bathwater-low setting. There's debate among scientists as to whether lobsters feel pain once the heat gets turned to boil – the latest Norwegian study says "yes" – but you definitely will feel the burn in your legs and lungs at the two-mile mark.

The next two miles are a long uphill slog to the signed trail junction. Feel free to catch your breath. The views of inland Contra Costa County can be your excuse, or you can use the picnic tables at the 3.8-mile mark as reason enough to sit and rest a spell.

Runners who willingly do hill training on this segment are too insanely obsessive to dawdle, of course. They will be happy to know the trail flattens at the junction and even has a slight downhill tilt – for about two-tenths of a mile.

Then the climbing begins again, in earnest, for another 1.5 miles to the Juniper campground. This can be a lonely stretch, bereft of shade. The views of the Tri-Valley area off the right side of the ridge distract the mind from the serpentine path that keeps going up.

By now, you welcome anything that will quicken your pace and take your mind off the climbing. Anything except predators, that is. A half mile below the campground, in the brush about 30 feet ahead, you spot a large brown dog on the left side of the trail. Quite a long tail, you think. Wonder what breed.

You stop dead in your tracks. That's no dog. There's no dog owner anywhere around and we're about 3,000 feet above any houses. Mountain lion? You saw the signs warning of this deadly cat at the trailhead. You bend to pick up the largest rock you can find. Then you stand tall and take a few steps forward. A closer look shows – whew – it's just a coyote. It turns and looks at you, then lopes off into the brush.

Shaken, you press on. Coyotes are said to be skittish and will avoid human encounters, though you never know. Since you aren't running with Texas Gov. Rick Perry – who once shot a coyote on a jog – you don't drop the rock until you're past where Wile E. wandered off. Fearing a four-legged stalker, you keep looking behind you nearly until you reach the campground.

Water and restrooms provide a reprieve from the climbing, and you'll need the rest for the final 1.5-mile push to the summit. This segment of the trail can be hard to find. Go through the paved parking lot almost to the exit of the campground. There will be a kiosk and map on your left that leads to a single-track trail. The sign reads "Juniper to Lower Summit."

The single-track is a nice change of pace and scenery after the fire roads. You'll cross the paved road snaking to the summit about a mile into this final push. Be sure to tut-tut at folks who chose to drive up. You've earned the right to be smug.

At last, you hit asphalt and reach the summit. Only it's not the real summit. It's the lower summit parking lot. The absolute tippy-top is a quarter-mile farther up on the paved road. That's where you'll find the visitor center and – on clear days – see views of Yosemite to the east, Sacramento to the northeast, Mount Tamalpais and the bay to the west.

Back down at the lower summit parking lot, you begin the second half of the trek by finding the Summit Trail, which leads straight down to the North Peak Trail at what locals call the Devil's Elbow junction. Signs point the way.

The undulating, single-track North Peak Trail is a highlight. As you head left toward Prospector's Gap, you feel like you're a mountain goat on a steep hillside, looking down on cliffs and large boulders and, in the distance, North Peak – about 300 feet shorter than the summit.

At Devil's Pulpit (unmarked), you've descended about 400 feet in half a mile. Veer left and enjoy the sloping meadows. The Mount Diablo Interpretive Association says wild pigs often run rampant in this stretch, but none is evident.

The downhill becomes more severe – and occasionally treacherous, given the scree strewn about – once you reach Prospector's Gap. You lose about 1,000 feet in less than a mile, but the jarring in your joints is considerable. The descent continues once you turn right on the Meridian Ridge Fire Road, sort of a connector to various trails.

As you careen ever downward, be careful not to miss the trail sign on your left for the Back Creek Trail. You turn on that trail, which puts you can into a more sane single-track descent. The trail runs parallel to Eagle Peak (2,369 feet) and is popular among birders. It's blissfully shaded by blue oak and valley oak trees. The Back Creek Trail, which goes by too fast, spits you out onto the Bruce Lee Trail. Go left and head back to the Mitchell Canyon parking lot.

The hellacious uphills? The coyote? The joint- jangling downhill? The heat of the midday sun?

Yeah, Mount Diablo lives up to its name. As you, the Sacramento flatlander, drive off, be sure to look at the receding peaks in your rear-view mirror and think, "Yeah, I climbed that."

MOUNT DIABLO

Segment: Mitchell Canyon staging area to summit and back

Trail: 13 miles

Elevation change: 7,698 feet

Directions to trailhead: Take Interstate 80 to I-680 to Highway 4. Exit at Railroad Boulevard in Pittsburg. Drive 4 miles over the foothills. Railroad turns into Kirker Pass Road. Turn left onto Clayton Road. Go 1 mile to Mitchell Canyon Road and turn right. Mitchell Canyon ends at the trailhead. Parking costs $6, but those with a California State Parks "poppy pass" can park for free.

Route

• From the trailhead, go 4 miles on the Mitchell Canyon fire road. At the junction, turn right and go 1.5 miles to the Juniper campground. Pass through the parking lot and, at sign on the left, take the single-track trail "toward the lower summit." At the summit parking lot, go right on the Summit Trail, then left on the North Peak Trail for about 3 miles. Turn left on Prospector's Gap, then right on the Meridian Ridge fire road. Turn left at the single-track Back Creek Trail for 2 miles to the Bruce Lee Trail, left back to the trailhead parking lot.

Easier route (7.6 miles)

• Out and back on Mitchell Canyon fire road, turning around at the picnic tables near the Deer Flat Road junction

Easier route (4.3 miles)

• Back Canyon Loop: Directions to trailhead: Take Clayton Road (turns into Marsh Creek Road), turn right onto Regency Drive, dead-ends at trailhead. Park on the street. Take the Back Creek Trail to the Meridian Ridge fire road, turn left onto the Donner Creek fire road back to trailhead.

More difficult route (14 miles)

• On the descent of the Diablo Summit Loop described above, stay left on Prospector's Gap, which turns into Meridian Ridge. At the junction, turn right onto the steep Eagle Peak Trail, go left at Mitchell Rock Trail to the Bruce Lee Trail to the trailhead.

Difficulty: Strenuous (summit trail and Eagle Peak option), moderate (Mitchell Canyon shortened route and Back Creek)

Water and toilets: Yes, at Mitchell Canyon Staging Area, Juniper Campground and Summit.

Poison oak probability: Medium.

Other varmints: Mount Diablo is notorious for ticks. Check yourself after the trek.

Will there be blood? The fire roads are well groomed, but there are jutting rocks and steep downhills.

Probability of getting lost: Slim.

Make a day of it: Downtown Clayton is trying to retain its down-home feel, even though the town has grown tremendously from housing developments. There is great pizza to be had at Skipolini's in Clayton (1033 Diablo St.), but the joint doesn't open until 4 p.m.

• For an archive of Great Rides and Great Treks go to sacbee.com/greatrides or sacbee.com/greattreks

SEND US YOUR IDEAS

Great Rides and its companion, Great Treks, are Outbound features that invite readers to enjoy the region's outdoors by bicycle and on foot. Have a suggestion for a route or another kind of great outdoors experience? Send an email to fitness@sabee.com.

© Copyright The Sacramento Bee. All rights reserved.

Read more articles by Sam McManis



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