Mt. Diablo – Hiking up Devil Mountain

By Vidya Pradhan

One legend has it that the priest of a Spanish exploration group was found dead at the summit of this mountain, after some negotiations with local natives went sour.  The more conventional explanation is that the peak derives its name from the 1805 escape of several Chupcan Native Americans from the Spanish in a nearby willow thicket. The natives, who were surrounded by the Spaniards, seemed to mysteriously disappear, and the Spanish soldiers thus gave the thicket the name "Monte del Diablo", meaning "thicket of the devil." Over time, it  became corrupted to Mount Diablo, or Mountain of the Devil.

This beautiful mountain, located in Contra Costa County, is visible from most of the San Francisco Bay Area and much of northern California. On an exceptionally clear day, it is possible to see Half-Dome in Yosemite National Park, about 125 miles to the east, with a telescope.( info courtesy Wikipedia)

Half-Dome is where our intrepid band of middle-aged hikers had been training towards for the last 10 weeks, and it seemed fitting that Mt. Diablo be our last long hike before the big day. At 15.5 miles round trip with an elevation gain of about 3500 feet, Mt. Diablo was the closest we could get to the Half-Dome experience near our homes in the East Bay.

Unlike our twenty-something selves who would have blithely set out for the famed steel cables of Half-Dome without a second thought, our combined medical dictionary list of aches and pains, including bum knees and plantar fasciitis, meant that we would have to train at least semi-seriously. The added benefit was a familiarization with some lovely trails in the East and South Bay.

We decided to start at the parking lot off of Mitchell Canyon Road. Normally, this lot does not open till 8 a.m. and we were prepared to park in the residential area a half-mile away, but fortune favored us as an elderly park attendant decided that day to open the gates at 6:15 a.m. Armed with power bars, sandwiches, electrolyte solutions and a couple of maps, we set off on the Mitchell Canyon fire road from the parking lot. A sign, just on the right as you face the park, points out that the trail to the summit is 7.3 miles.

The meandering path rises very gradually and painlessly as it goes through a variety of topography. There are open meadows and narrow single-file paths. Mostly, it is a shaded and cool trail as we stayed on Deer Flat Road throughout.We stopped a few times for water and food breaks and about 5 miles later we were at the Juniper Campground.

The campground ( as well as the Mt. Diablo Summit) is accessible by car as well and many folks had driven up and pitched their tents right next to their cars. Lots of kids goofed around in the warm weather, and there were so many Indian Americans that we joked about finding some parathas for lunch there.

There is a paved road all the way from this campground to the summit but we opted to retain the hiking flavor and go straight up the mountain. This was the hard part. The narrow trail goes up fairly steeply and is pretty rocky. There’s plenty of poison oak in all seasons so make sure you wear clothing that covers the arms and legs, even in warm weather. Bushes intrude into the path and we ended up with minor scratches. But this is clearly a trail made by park officials, because at various points are plaques describing the history and geology of the area. The most prominent testimony to the watery past of the mountain is the greenstone, created when lava from underwater volcanic eruptions cooled.

After about 2 miles we reached the summit. On a clear day, it is possible to see the mountains of the Sierra Nevada and Mount Lassen more than 180 miles away. Owing to the earth's curvature it is not possible to see the larger Mount Shasta.

At the summit is a visitor’s center housing an observation deck and natural history exhibits. The observation deck gives 360 degree views of the range. There is what appears to be a lighthouse on the deck, though we were unable to get any more information about it. The ranger manning the center was new, raw or untrained, since he was unable to help us out with either our poison oak or trail queries.

Rested and refreshed and having made use of the restrooms at the summit, we started back. In retrospect, we should have taken the same route back, but we decided to do a loop back to Mitchell Canyon, and got lost before we were out of the Summit parking lot. We were unable to locate the North Peak Trail but decided to follow our maps and hope for the best. After many missed turns and questionable choices, we followed Back Creek Trail almost all the way down. This trail is rocky, steep, narrow and obviously a water laden one during the wet season and it was unaccountably hard on the toes, even with the hiking boots we wore.

Eventually, tired and dusty, we landed up at the Mitchell Canyon staging area, which, in June, looked exactly like the dusty fields of North by Northwest when Cary Grant is chased by the crop dusters. After further consultations between the members of our group who were good at reading maps, we trekked another 0.61 miles back to the parking lot. We had hiked for about 8 hours.

Our weeks of training did pay off, since we reached home tired but not half-dead. Half Dome is considered much tougher, and if we survive next week, you’ll be sure to hear about it!

Tips for day hikes in the East Bay –

– Dress in layers. It often starts off cold but you’ll be stripping in the first 45 minutes.
– Cap and sunglasses are a good idea but make sure these can be firmly secured as it is really windy nearly everywhere in the area.
– Carry at least 32 oz of water and 16 oz of electrolytes. Hydrate every 30 minutes whether you feel thirsty or not.
– If you feel your energy flagging, eat something. Trail mix, power bars, Energy Goo, PB&J sandwiches are all good ideas, though I would have killed for some poori bhaji on the long hikes.

– Invest on good shoes or hiking boots, but not just before the hike. They need to be broken in. A good gripping sole is key.

– Coming down the hills is a lot tougher on the knees and toes than climbing. Poles or walking sticks can be very useful.

– Stretch often, even during the hike. The payoff is regaining the use of your muscles sooner instead of being stiff and sore the next day.

– Carry sunscreen and bug repellent if you are susceptible.

The trail we took (or were supposed to!)-

Directions: From Walnut Creek ( I-680), take Ygnacio Valley Road east to Clayton Road. Turn right on Clayton Road and right on
Mitchell Canyon Road. Park in the staging area.

Follow the Mitchell Canyon fire road to Deer Flat. Turn right at Deer Flat Road and take to Juniper campground. Go through campground to Juniper Trail, turn left and follow it to the summit. Return by taking North Peak Trail at Devil's Elbow just below the parking lot. Note: North Peak trail is a single track open to bicycles. Follow it to Prospectors Gap Road and turn left. At Meridian Ridge Road turn right and follow it to Donner Canyon Road and turn left. When you come out into open grassland turn left on the first fire road back to the Mitchell Canyon staging area.
Restrooms and drinking water can be found at the parking lot, Juniper Campground and at the summit.

Next week: Surviving Half-Dome ( contingent on survival, of course !)

Pictures courtesy Jaya Murthy 

3 thoughts on “Mt. Diablo – Hiking up Devil Mountain

  1. Roi Peers

    Enjoyed your blog. Mitchell Canyon and Back Creek trails are great wildflower loctions in the spring. Come back. Also go to the website http://www.mdia.org and you can read about the “light house”…actually an aircraft beacon from the early 1930’s and turned off during World War II.

    Roi – MDIA

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  2. Nathindra Prasad

    I hike quiet a bit here in Washington. If any one of you are up this way and wants to experience the back county’s of Washington, do no hesitate to contact me.

    Till then-1 foot at a time.

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  3. Nikhil

    Really Cool. Like the Cary Grant connection. I can imagine the grass getting all golden and being chased by an plane..lol.
    We are doing the Mt. Olympia trail this weekend. Keeping the big Mt Diablo one from Mitchell Canyon Road for later.

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