So I had slalomed along Morgan Territory Road for nearly 5 miles, past working ranches, abandoned corrals and sprawling homes way out of my price range, and didn’t see another driver the entire way. Good thing, too, because eventually the road narrows to a single, anorexic lane over two bridges barely wide enough even for my slim sedan.
This, as advertised, was as maybe as rural and solitudinous as you can get in the sprawling Bay Area. The far southeastern flank of Mount Diablo, spanning from the outskirts of Clayton to the lip of Livermore, promised trails free from the outdoor-loving hordes that flock to trailheads in Danville, Walnut Creek and Clayton proper. You’d be more likely to find creatures trekking on four legs than two in these parts – and we aren’t talking horses, either.
At least that’s what the new and definitive “Hiker’s Guide to Mount Diablo State Park” implied. It’s published by the Mount Diablo Interpretive Association, whose minions have scoured every inch of these twin peaks, so you can trust its judgments and, more important, its maps and directions.
When I finally made it to the trailhead, Red Corral, so named because the rutilent paddock lies across the road from the gate, I was prepared for what the guide called “very limited parking” and the admonition to “not block the adjacent road gate that is used by private landowners.” In this case, limited parking meant a sliver of a dirt pullout. Again, just enough for a single slim sedan.
I had just locked my door and was zipping up a fleece layer when a white pickup truck came a-bumping down the hill to the gate I did not block but came very close to nudging. The truck stopped. Down came the window.
Uh-oh, was I busted?
“You goin’ walkin’?” the G-droppin’ driver asked.
“But it’s 34 degrees out!”
“OK then,” he said, smiling wryly. “Have a good walk.”
My guess, from his amusement, was he didn’t see too many trail users at the public access near his property.
Which is precisely the appeal of this month’s special misanthropic edition of “Fresh Tracks.” Actually, I prefer to think of it as being alone with one’s thoughts while you’re huffing and puffing on the challenging vertical slopes of the East Bay’s lovely mountain. Five of the guide’s 50 hikes start on the lesser-traveled east side, which boasts four trailheads.
I was drawn to the Red Corral trailhead because, well, it’s the farthest away from civilization. Plus, I wanted to combine two of the guide’s hikes, the 4.3-mile Amphitheater Loop and the 5.6-mile Tassajara Creek Loop, into a hybrid 7.8-miler I’ll christen the Amphitassaj Theacreek Loop. You get the best of both treks in one – the unique geologic “bowl” of cliff and rock highlighted by Native American grinding stones (the Amphitheater) and the gorgeous 2.6-mile stretch of the Tassajara Creek Trail that in spring blooms brightly with flowers, that in summer shades you with a dense oak forest and, in winter, shields you from the wind that often buffets the area.
Be warned, though: The extended route adds about 300 feet more climbing, bringing the trek’s total elevation gain to just over 1,700 feet. That’s not insignificant in a 7.8-mile jaunt.
For good or ill, most of the climbing comes in the first 2 miles. You may only be on the hem of Mount Diablo, nowhere near the peak, but you’ve got to expect some “major vert,” as the youngsters say.
Here is where I have my only quibble with the guide book. It warns you of the climb up Morgan Creek Road at the start and is dead-on in describing the “gentle” rise on the next segment, the Jeremiah Creek Trail, but it woefully underplays the 0.7 miles of lung-searing uphill that is Highland Ridge Road. As you make your way up the undulating fire road, you keep thinking, “Oh, it must top out just ahead,” only to turn another corner and find the uphill gets steeper.
But you’ll be able to catch your breath on the rolling Tassajara Creek Trail. You can even stop, if you want, at the picnic table at Bob’s Pond. (Sadly, in another nod to the drought, even in mid-December, Bob was bone dry.)
When you do so much climbing early on, you comfort yourself by thinking that you’ll eventually hit major downhill. That’s the case in the final mile, Morgan Ridge Road. It’s a steep downhill all the way, at times too steep for my complaining middle-aged knees. It was on Morgan Ridge, however, that I finally encountered another sentient being: a coyote that briefly checked me out, then scampered off.
A fellow misanthrope, I presumed.
Tassajara Creek/The Amphitheater
Trail length: 7.8 Elevation gain: 1,710 feet
Directions to trailhead: From Sacramento, take Interstate 80 to Interstate 680 to Highway 4 east. Exit at Railroad Avenue in Pittsburg and go south. Road turns into Kirker Pass and then Ygnacio Valley. Turn left onto Clayton Road. Go past the city of Clayton and the road turns into Marsh Creek Road. Turn right on Morgan Territory Road and go 4.7 miles. After crossing two narrow, one-lane bridges, continue on Morgan Territory Road for another 0.4 of a mile. You’ll see a red corral on the left side of the road and the sign and gate for the trailhead on the right. Parking is limited at a pullout.
Route: From the trailhead, go straight on Morgan Creek Road – be careful not to make an immediate left onto Morgan Ridge Road – uphill for 0.5 of a mile. Turn right onto the single-track Jeremiah Creek Trail (look for post at the junction) and go 0.7 of a mile to a four-way junction. Keep going straight onto the fire road marked “Highland Ridge.” You will climb steeply for 0.7 of a mile, almost to the park boundary. Turn left on the Tassajara Creek Trail; follow it 2.6 miles. Be mindful near the end of the Tassajara to look for the sign marked “to Old Finley Road.” (If you continue straight, you will hit the unsigned Riggs Canyon Road, a major wrong turn.) You’ll follow that slightly downhill to the left, cross the creek and in 0.3 of a mile emerge at Old Finley Road. Turn right on Old Finley; go 0.3 of a mile to the Amphitheater Trail on the left. Follow the Amphitheater for 1 mile. Turn left on Crestview Road and climb for 0.7 of a mile. Turn left at Morgan Ridge Road and go 1 mile back to the trailhead.
Dogs: (No signs prohibiting)
Mountain Bikes: On fire roads