Joe Mathews: To truly see California, go climb a mountain

It’s a hot and angry September, and your boss or your spouse has just told you to take a hike. But where?

Hiking usually means mountains, and California has more than its share of bucket list summits. Half Dome draws the tourists. Mount Whitney is the tallest. Mount Shasta is the prettiest. And few experiences are more mystical than a tram ride up San Jacinto.

But for most Californians, these are not middle-class everyday peaks. They are destination mountains, desired because they stand so far apart from where most of us live and work. So, while we admire their greatness, we cannot see ourselves in them.

No, the three greatest mountains of California stand lower, but closer. They do not make most tourist guides, and many Californians have not heard of them all. But they offer panoramic views that allow us to look at ourselves, and thus help define us.

This summer, I made a point of going to the top of all three. First was my hometown peak, Mount Wilson, part of the San Gabriels, from which I peered over Pasadena, where I grew up, from 5,710 feet. My mother, not a religious sort, once suggested that if there was a God, He lived inside the mountain, which still seems as good an answer as any offered by organized religion.

Mount Wilson has the best view of Southern California’s sprawl, but it also defines the narrowness of our vision here. These San Gabriel Mountains and other ranges wall off our region, making us, in the words of the late author Carey McWilliams, “an island on the land.” You literally can’t see the rest of California from Southern California. So we are stuck looking at ourselves. And at our stars, if you stop by the historic Mount Wilson Observatory.

A week later, I made a far lesser climb, in La Jolla, to the top of Mount Soledad, which stands just 822 feet above sea level. But the view from that spot, from the Pacific to the mountains to the whole of San Diego, was somewhat grander.

Mount Soledad’s summit is perhaps best known as home of a landmark cross, the subject of a court battle over whether it represents an unconstitutional establishment of religion. My own revelation up there was less about the savior and more about San Diego.

Los Angeles and San Francisco are on the ocean, but those cities are oriented away from the Pacific – L.A. toward the inland valleys and San Francisco toward the bay. To see San Diego from atop Soledad was to see how this is California’s true seaside city. The buildings and people strain to face the natural harbor.

I had visited Soledad and Wilson before, but I had never been to the top of the third peak, Mount Diablo, 3,849 feet above the East Bay suburbs.

If Mount Diablo remains a mystery to you, you ought to remedy that, and fast. As I learned after paying $10 to enter (it’s a state park) and making a 40-minute drive to the summit from the town of Danville, there is simply no better – and no more important view – anywhere in California.

Indeed, the 360-degree panorama is so encompassing it’s hard to even list all of what lies before you. The highlights: the Golden Gate, the peninsula, eight bridges, the Santa Cruz Mountains, the Cascades (with binoculars), the Central Valley, the Sierra, and in the foreground, the majesty of the Delta, our stressed-out water source.

Mount Diablo might be the closest thing California has to a geographic center. In 1851, the top of Diablo was chosen as the starting point for official land surveys.

Today, Mt. Diablo remains a rare, and underappreciated, reference point for a state that can be hard to understand. That doesn’t mean that California made sense to me as I stood on top of the mountain. It would take lifetimes to know all the places you could see from the top.

But, like Jeffrey Lebowski’s rug or our university systems, Mount Diablo really ties the place together. California is all about divides and separations. But here, not too high above the fray, we meet.