Bike Rides & Hikes

Fresh Tracks: Explore a Mount Diablo recently transformed by wildfire

Brand me a nature lover’s version of a rubbernecker – one of those nosy people who stops and gawks at grisly auto accidents – but, since September, I have pined to check out the fire-scorched south and east sides of Mount Diablo, to view up close the damage wrought by the mountain’s worst blaze since 1977.

That would mean, of course, having to ascend Mount Diablo, and close readers of Fresh Tracks will remember we featured a trek to the summit in October 2011. Yes, but recall, there are two peaks on the mountain and numerous trails to take. Much of the blackened hillsides and canyons on the south face can be seen by following paths detailed on that earlier hike, but the east side (where the fire was ignited, authorities say, by a target shooter near Morgan Canyon Road) leads to the slightly smaller North Peak. There you’ll find remnants of the fire’s full fury.

I figured this would be a sad sojourn, coming barely two months after more than 3,100 acres of vegetation went up in flames that could be seen throughout the Bay Area and smoke that reached as far north as Sacramento County. I’d heard words like “moonscape” and “denuded” bandied about. I was prepared for the worst.

In reality, the opposite was true. Far from Diablo being some post-apocalyptic nightmare, close inspection of the burned acreage along the trails showed nature’s resiliency.

Certainly, the slopes were littered with charred remains of oak trees, spindly stems of blackened chaparral that once covered the hillsides like a fuzzy green sweater and wide gashes of exposed soil that firefighters carved to create fire breaks.

Yet the heart lifts at sights such as an oak that was spared in a field, sprouts of green coming from root structures mostly reduced to ashes. Called a “biological diversity hotspot” by ecologists, Diablo looks as if it has absorbed the fire without threatening to seriously affect its 253 animal and 900 plant species.

In fact, some say the fire ultimately may be beneficial to the mountain’s long-term health.

“The areas burned are areas adapted to fire,” said Seth Adams, lands program director for the nonprofit Save Mount Diablo organization. “It’s not quite the same thing to say it needed it. Too much (fire) can result in the habitat changing to something else. But the mountain evolves for fire. Things are already resprouting, and there’s a whole class of plant species called fire followers that are sitting there in the soil for decades, and it’s only when there is a fire that they show up.

“We should have a pretty amazing wildflower spring, depending on what happens with the rain. The chaparral that was burned will do just fine. If there’s a tragedy in the situation, it’s in the big oaks we’ve lost. There were a lot of trees cut down, but a lot of trees will regenerate. … All in all, 3,000 acres is a pretty small fire, and it was in an area almost completely adapted (to) and evolved from fire. So, from our point of view, it was almost a perfect fire,” he said.

Adams, a longtime Diablo conservationist, isn’t engaging in spin. He acknowledges that considerable wildlife perished and other critters were forced to relocate to other parts of the mountain when their habitat burned. The biggest downside, he said, was the man-made damage. Though it couldn’t be helped during efforts to control the blaze, the bulldozed fire breaks that leveled swathes of the hillsides and canyons won’t be as quick to come back.

“What the State Parks and Cal Fire does is, wherever there are scars, they re-contour them and cover (the exposed soil) back up with the brush that was cleared as much as possible in order to get it back as quickly as possible to its native appearance,” Adams said. “When they make the bulldozer scars, it pushes the organic matter off to the side. That takes away the seed bank and creates the opportunity for invasive nonnatives to come in.”

Which, of course, is not good. Then again, the fire did rid many acres of the invasive yellow star thistle, the state’s most widespread and onerous invasive plant. So that is good.

Once you start the 4-mile, 3,217-foot trek to the North Peak – or, for those wanting a slightly shorter path, 3 miles and 2,606 feet elevation gain to Mount Olympia – you quickly notice that the trails have been transformed more by equipment than the elements.

That makes ascending Diablo from the east even more strenuous than normal. And, please note, this isn’t a hike or trail run for novices. You gain about 1,000 feet per mile on the ascent and must deal with some steep, slippery ascents on the way down. Some of the trails have been gouged by equipment and have lost that hard-packed firmness that comes from years of boots tamping down on dirt. Plus, some of the single track, especially on the ridgeline near Olympia and the North Peak, now is as wide as a fire road but clumpy as a plowed field.

But if you’re in reasonable shape, have the patience to figure out where bulldozing has displaced parts of trails and bear curiosity about Diablo’s resilient flora and fauna, it’s worth your time.

Not many hikers or runners begin their Diablo treks on the east side – Mitchell Canyon in downtown Clayton, North Gate in Walnut Creek or the trailheads on Danville’s south side are more popular – so finding where to park along Marsh Creek Road a few miles south of Clayton can be tricky.

There are two trailheads – one marked, one not – just before you reach the intersection with Morgan Territory Road at the abandoned Mount Diablo Mine. The unmarked trailhead is first. It’s simply a dirt shoulder on the right side of the road with a locked green gate. That is Sharkey Road. There’s no sign or trail marker, but there’s also no sign saying you cannot park there.

But, to play it safe, I traveled a quarter-mile farther east and parked at a larger pullout, this one with a “Entering Mount Diablo State Park” sign on a fence next to a gate. On the official state park map, it lists this as an acceptable place to park.

To begin the trek, follow the marked post saying “Marsh Trail to Sharkey Road.” You will climb for about 50 yards and make the first right on a wide yet dirt-clod strewn trail. (If you continue straight, the trail dwindles to wild grass.) The Marsh Trail, 0.4 of a mile, mostly runs parallel to Marsh Creek Road and leads you back to Sharkey Road. Though mostly flat, it’s rough going because it looks as if someone’s plowed over the trail. But once you turn left on Sharkey, you have a smooth, if steep, fire road to climb.

You’ve yet to see any heavy vegetation, burned or otherwise, because you’re in a valley with brown grass wafting in the wind. But once you make a right on the Olympia Trail, you’re rewarded with single track for a half mile that’s partially shaded by oak and brush. You will come to a junction and go only a short distance (right) on Wise Road, a fire trail, but if you just keep right and follow the signs saying Olympia Trail, you won’t get lost.

The next 0.4 miles on the Olympia and then 1.1 miles on the East Trail is where the climbing begins in earnest. But you’ll be distracted by some of the first sights of partially charred trees if you look ahead and, if you turn and look behind, a gorgeous view of the valley below and Keller Ridge on the north side of Marsh Creek Road.

Watch your footing on the East Trail, the narrowest of single tracks carved into a ridge, also with some low-hanging branches to bop you on the head. Follow the sign pointing to Mount Olympia and when you emerge from a winding single track and turn right at the apex of a ridge, you’ll be shocked by the difference in the landscape.

Both the ridge and the land below have been denuded. It’s mostly dirt of a brown-gray-black hue and jutting boulders that look scorched. Peering down, you can see a few trees peppering the blackened canyon, making you wonder about the capriciousness of the fire, how it could spare some trees and level others.

More disheartening to the trail user is the shape of this latter section of the East Trail, the final push to Mount Olympia. It’s obvious this was set up as a fire break, for there is no vegetation within a 30-foot width – just loose, freshly tilled soil. It makes for rough, slippery going, both up and down. After pausing atop Mount Olympia (elevation 2,946 feet), you’ll have a 1.1-mile, roughly 500-foot climb on the North Peak Trail to the summit.

Pausing at the peak, you get a panoramic view down into the blackness to the east and south. The fire consumed mostly areas of brush that had no campgrounds, houses or even many trails on its acreage. By contrast, the 1977 Mitchell Fire, which consumed 6,000 acres, Diablo’s second-largest recorded fire, hit the north and west side of the mountain, popular with campers and day users.

The impulse is to lament the loss, but remember Adams’ words: “Three thousand acres of habitat may have been lost, but it was pretty mature habitat and what we’ll get now is a mosaic of young regenerative habitat in which some species will do better than other species. In general, it’ll be a good thing.”