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?
The route calls for a 13-mile loop 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, during which you might be dodging tarantulas looking to mate. It’s best, really, to be aware of the climbing 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.
Weekend Hike: Mount Diablo, Mitchell Canyon staging area to summit and back
Trail: 13 miles
Elevation gain: 3,500 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 just before Kirker Pass turns into Ygnacio Valley Road. Go 1 mile to Mitchell Canyon Road and turn right. Mitchell Canyon ends at the trailhead. Parking costs $10, 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 at Deer Flat and go 1.5 miles to the Juniper campground. Pass through the parking lot and, at sign on the left, take the singletrack 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.
Toilets: Yes, at Mitchell Canyon Staging Area, Juniper Campground and Summit.