On Diablo, no need to top it off

Mister Rogers, that maven of moderation, once wisely told his toddling television charges, “I don’t think you have to see the whole circus every time you come,” a suggestion that parents of young children everywhere wholeheartedly applauded.

Well, I’m going to don my cardigan sweater and tell you, in soothing, well-modulated tones, that you don’t have to hike all of Mount Diablo – go clear to the summit, that is – to enjoy a great trail experience on the East Bay’s gorgeous, twin-peaked geologic wonder.

This month’s Fresh Tracks, therefore, will focus on just a slice of this devilish mountain’s lush northeastern flank, starting at Donner Canyon, ascending via the Middle Trail and traversing Eagle Peak before wending its way back downhill to civilization, or its next-best thing, the Contra Costa County suburb of Clayton. (I kid, because I used to live there. But, by all means, fire off angry emails, nose-out-of-joint Claytonians.)

It’s a 7.5-mile jaunt that winds through a half-dozen genera of trees that blissfully provide shade before it gives way to a palette of wildflowers. It tops off not at the summit but certainly high enough to afford computer-monitor-wallpaper views of the bay, parts of the Delta and the vast sprawl of Contra Costa housing developments and the pulsing artery that is Interstate 680.

Friends had warned me – and the über-handy third edition of “The Mount Diablo Guide,” by the Mount Diablo Interpretive Association confirmed – that winter and early spring on Donner Canyon can be a wet, mucky time, hell for those who recoil in horror at getting their pant cuffs soiled. But a mid-March trip found the canyon and nearly the entire northeast quadrant of the mountain mostly dry and tamped down, the creek that runs through it reduced to a burble.

Spring flowers were already in bloom, the buckeye trees bloated with buds on the verge of flowering, butterflies alighting on a buffet of wildflowers and bee aswirl on the chemise-choked brushlands up near Eagle Peak.

It would’ve been nice to have seen a little more water flowing in Donner Creek. But, even parched, the canyon’s riparian vegetation still qualified as verdant, so you were treated to the eye candy along Donner Creek Fire Road without the accompanying stick-to-the-shoe slop the road turns into after a series of storms. Call that a win-win.

Another plus: By starting your trek at the start of Donner Creek Fire Road at the Regency Gate trailhead, you avoid paying the $10 park entrance fee. Parking, however, is limited at the dead-end cul-de-sac of Regency Drive, where a few empty housing tract lots provide curbside spaces. But get there early, lest you be forced to park a little ways up on Regency and incur the wrath of Claytonians, who cast an evil eye on those with the temerity – no, the sheer gall – to park in front of their homes.

From the start, you must pay attention, because there’s a Robert Frostian fork in the road not 10 feet from the trailhead. Go left on the wider Donner Creek Fire Road path; you’ll hit the other path (the Back Creek Trail) on the loop back. You would really have to try to take the wrong path, so clear and visible is the signage.

The first mile on the Donner Creek Fire Road is peaceful and not taxing, with only a slight rise in the road as you wander through meadows. You pass an ever-morphing sentinel of trees.

Along the way, you’ll pass a trial on the left leading to the site of the John Donner Cabin. Two things to know: 1) There’s not much left to see, but it’s only a short detour; and 2) No, these weren’t the survivors of the infamous Donner Party in the Sierra.

After that serene first mile, during which you cannot help but crane your neck and gaze upon the summit and the north peak, the climbing commences.

You knew it was coming. Even in Mister Rogers mode, eschewing the top, you still will climb aplenty (2,200 feet, according to my GPS watch) in the 4 1/2 miles to Eagle Peak, before the 3-mile glissade back down.

One way to take your mind off your screaming hamstrings is to dissociate by noting the changing landscape. By the time Donner Creek Fire Road ends at the T-junction of the Meridian Ridge and Cardinet Oaks trails, you have left most of the stately trees behind. By the time you reach Middle Trail, you’ve ascended into true chaparral country.

The Middle Trail, at 1.5 miles, is the longest continuous uphill you’ll encounter. But it goes by fast because the single-track snakes through dense manzanita, toyon and yerba santa. And, by late morning, when the sun starts asserting itself, you can smell the sharp musk of the the omnipresent gray-green chaparral, as well. Higher, the color changes to deep red (indian warrior flower) and lighter red (paintbrush) and a blue I first thought was lupine but turned out to be something called shooting stars, I learn from the trusty third edition of “The Mount Diablo Guide.”

At the end of the Middle Trail, where it leads to Prospectors Gap, you can be a masochist, turn left and ascend the final 2 miles to the summit via North Trail. (Fair warning: This will add 4 miles, out and back, and 1,000 feet more of elevation gain.) Or you could turn right on Prospectors Gap and follow its undulations to the junction with the Eagle Peak Trail.

It’s rough going, weaving in and out of what old-time cowboys called “brushfields” of chemise and then a half-mile climb through rocky outcroppings before reaching the peak (2,369 feet).

If you think you’ll have an easy downhill path, you’re half right. The first half – on the Eagle Peak Trail – is steep, rocky and generally slow-going. But the final 1.5 miles after the junction with the Mitchell Rock Trail blissfully flattens a bit and features a smoother path.

Because you won’t be spending all day on the mountain, you’ll have plenty of time to grab a bite in Clayton. Being a former local, may I suggest either the Guadalahara Grill or Skipolini’s Pizza, where the burritos and pizzas are huge. To paraphrase Mister Rogers, you don’t have to eat all of the entree to have a nice dinner.

Call The Bee’s Sam McManis, (916) 321-1145. Follow him on Twitter @SamMcManis.


Trail Length: 7.5 miles

Elevation gain: 2,200 feet

Directions to trailhead: From Sacramento, take Interstate 80 West to Interstate 680 over the Benicia Bridge. Take Highway 4 toward Pittsburg/Antioch. Exit at Railroad Avenue in Pittsburg. Go 4 miles south (Railroad turns into Kirker Pass Road, which turns into Ygnacio Valley Road.) Turn left on Clayton Road. Follow it through the city of Clayton until the road turns into Marsh Creek Road. Turn right on Regency Drive and follow it until it dead-ends at the trailhead. Park on street.

Route: From the trailhead, veer left onto signed Donner Creek Fire Road. Go 1.3 miles on Donner Creek Fire Road. Turn right on Meridian Ridge. Go for less than 0.1 of a mile and make a sharp left on the Middle Trail. Go 1.5 miles until it ends at the junction with Prospectors Gap. Turn right and go 0.9 of a mile and make a right on Eagle Peak Trail. Go about 3 miles and make a right onto Coulter Pine Trail. Follow that about 10 feet, and make a right (check signage) on the Bruce Lee Trail. Follow 0.2 of a mile to a four-way junction. Cross a stream and go sharply left on the Back Creek Trail for 0.6 of a mile back to the trailhead.

Difficulty: Moderate. Lots of climbing on the Middle Trail and Eagle Peak; rocky downhill on Eagle Peak

Exposure: Mix of sun and shade

Toilets: No

Parking: Free, on street

Probability of getting lost: Very slim. Extremely well marked.

Will there be blood? The extreme downhills can be tricky.