Journey: 52 Hikes and more

Hike 27 – Getting the Devil off my back on Mt. Diablo’s Summit, February 13, 2010

I took a bite of my sandwich.  Ouch!  My jaws hurt.  They felt like they were caught in the middle of a fist-fight between Muhammad Ali and Mike Tyson.  Ali was smashing the left side of my face and Tyson the right.  And my legs felt like they had been run over by a fleet of Porsche 911s.

Granted, the Ali-Tyson fight part was unlikely to happen, and the Porsche part was not true either, but that could have happened.  What is indisputable is that my jaws really hurt.

Hours before all this, I woke up without the aid of alarm clocks.  It was nearly 5 AM.  Refreshed after a peaceful nights sleep, I was feeling good enough to hike and looking forward to flexing my legs.  But since I had been sick the last few weeks, I did not have too much time to plan a hike, so I decided to take on the familiar Mt. Diablo summit.

Since I live under Mt. Diablo’s shadow, it constantly nudges me and challenges me.  Therefore, each year I have no choice but to climb it multiple times.  Also, I like to climb it as early in the year as possible to “get the monkey off my back” for a few months at least.  It’s some strange mental issue for me that psychologists would surely love to explore at my expense.

As part of my preparations for the hike, I made myself two “exotic” sandwiches in the morning.  The ingredients were:

  • Whole-wheat white bread,
  • Blueberry-jalapeño preserve purchased at the Hubbell Trading Post in Arizona, the oldest and continuously operating trading post in the southwest, and
  • New Zealand sharp cheddar cheese

Besides those, my reward for getting to the summit was a Heath candy-bar; English toffee covered with chocolate, mmm… delicious!

Thankfully, the weather forecast had not changed overnight.  It was going to be foggy in the morning and sunny in the afternoon.  It would be a good hike and I hoped I could make it all the way to the top.

At 7:10 AM I pulled into the Regency Drive dead-end.  The temperature was a cool 44 degrees and no other cars were parked there.  I was starting about 40 minutes later than planned but at least it was bright enough to be outdoors on what promised to be a glorious day.

Soon I was on the Donner Canyon Road with Donner Creek gushing by loudly.  I figured the waterfalls would be flush as well.  My route allowed for some flexibility and if I felt up to it, I could include the waterfalls loop on my return.  I decided to make that call only when I got to the crucial intersection on my way back from the summit.

The trail looked great; dry and packed with only a few loose pebbles.  During the summer months, the trail dries up and turns to dust and releases embedded pebbles.  This makes climbing the steep sections difficult and increases the likelihood of slipping, falling or twisting ankles.  The packed trail allowed me to keep my eyes peeled wide for coyotes and mountain lions.  My head kept rotating 360 degrees like an owl.  I figured there was a good possibility I might spot some wildlife this early in the morning.

Soon I passed the site of the Donner Cabin and noticed a smattering of yellow and white daffodils, hobnobbing in the breeze.  I wondered about the Donners and why they chose this site for their cabin.  Proximity to water made sense, but why else?  Were they miners, ranchers, farmers?  The cabin site appeared to be in what might have been the middle of nowhere back in the day.  A little research some days later told me that John Donner was a rancher who had settled here in the 1800’s.  The soil here was of poorer quality, suitable for ranching, not farming.

Right after the Donner Cabin site, the trail got wet and muddy.  A detour climbed up the side of the hill to avoid the water.  It was ugly and not really good for the trail but there were no other options.  This section was a few hundred feet long.  I hoped that this was the worst I would encounter and thankfully that turned out to be the case.

Soon I got to the Middle Trail junction.  It was decision time.  I had to figure out if I was going to hike up the Middle Trail or continue on Meridian Ridge Trail.  The Waterfalls Loop and the Middle Trail were not as well maintained when I’d hiked it a month back.  With recent rains, I feared things might be worse.  Taking the Meridian Ridge Trail however would add about half a mile to the route.

My instincts leaned towards the Meridian Ridge Trail because it had better drainage and was wider.  Also, it is exposed, therefore more likely to be dry.  I did not want to have to turn back on Middle Trail only to take the Meridian Ridge Trail, so Meridian Ridge Trail it was.

As I continued on, I noticed a grey fox or a small coyote in front of me running up the trail.  It moved too fast for me to grab the camera, and I mainly saw it’s rear end.  I have seen grey foxes and coyotes here before and given what little I had seen, I cannot say for sure which one it was this time.  Either way, my quest to encounter wildlife on this outing was satisfied.

Hiking along the Meridian Ridge, I noticed that the fog was beginning to move in again.  Soon, Prospector’s Gap was totally engulfed.  I wondered if the weather folks were wrong again.  The day had begun clear and the weather was supposed to get better as the day progressed.  I did not see any threat of rain yet, so that was a good omen.

Meanwhile, the Meridian Ridge Trail was dry as expected.  I could hear water gushing down the waterfalls and eventually I was able to see them.  The lighting was too poor to get good photographs with my small point and shoot camera.

The trail soon turned steep, and I wished I had company.  Company helps pass the time and conversations magically ease out the steep sections.  This section was a heart breaker and I wanted to abandon the trail and go home.  I suspect my less than optimal health was weakening my resolve.  Meanwhile, the fog had kept rolling in and now even the canyons and valleys were covered.  The sun was gone too and it was getting cold again.

At 8:30 AM, I got to Prospector’s Gap Road and could not believe that I had made it this far.  It had taken me 80 minutes to cover about 3 miles with another 2.8 to go.  Naively I thought I would be celebrating at the summit of Mt. Diablo by 9:50 AM.

The trail now eased up a bit and I enjoyed the easy down and up sections for a while.  Soon I got to the Middle Trail junction.  With an eye on the return journey, I explored the Middle Trail a little bit.  As far as I could tell, it was dry and clear.  Meanwhile the waterfalls in the distance were really loud and inviting exploration.  Hopefully a ranger in the visitor center at the summit could give me information on the condition of the Middle Trail and I would then decide if it was worth taking.

I passed a sign at Big Spring announcing the elevation at 2,073 feet.  I had climbed about 1,500 feet on my hike so far.  The elevation at Prospectors Gap is around 3,000 feet and the summit is about 3,900 feet, so I figured I had about 1,800 feet of climbing ahead of me.  I like to break hikes into shorter sections to keep myself motivated and to avoid thinking about the magnitude of the hike.  It is easy to digest a hike that way; one bite at a time.

I recently read a book called “Halfway to Heaven:  My White-knuckled – and Knuckleheaded – Quest for the Rocky Mountain High” by Mark Obmascik.  It is a hilarious account of a middle-aged mans quest to climb each of the fifty-four 14,000+ feet peaks of Colorado.  In this book someone gives him advice on how to tackle mountains by asking the question, “How do you eat an elephant?”  The answer, “One bite at a time.”

The Prospector’s Gap Road was cold, foggy and windy.  As it turned steep, my enjoyment of this section dwindled.  I was feeling lonely and missing company desperately.  In the book Obmascik mentions his struggles to find climbing partners and I’ve been thinking about and missing my hiking buddies.  Some have passed on and others were too far away to join me.

The cold and sore throat had definitely taken a lot out of me.  Since they were now affecting my attitude, I tried to distract my mind by thinking about food.  I promised myself a sandwich break at Prospector’s Gap.  A sandwich with the exotic preserve from Hubbell Trading Post might do the trick.  I love the south-west and thoughts of the beautiful plateau across north-east Arizona and parts of New Mexico entered my mind.  Life for people there is tough, yet they endure.  Surely I could tolerate a bit of discomfort today because my reward would be worth it.

The last section of Prospector’s Gap Road was really steep.  I stopped often to catch my breath.  Not only would I enjoy my sandwich, I promised myself that I would drain my first bottle of Gatorade too.  In the back of my mind I knew I was lying, because there is no place to sit at Prospector’s Gap and it often gets too windy to stick around too long.  It is not the ideal place for a rest break.  But further up there are rocks and views and I would stop there.

At 9:35 AM I stopped on some rocks past Prospector’s Gap and had a snack.  The sandwich was totally squished and looked and tasted like nothing recognizable.  But, it was nourishment and I needed it.  I drained the first bottle of Gatorade and started on the second.  When I finally stopped, I was alarmed by how much I had finished.  Hopefully I would be able to refill the bottles with water at the summit.

Soon I got to some switchbacks and the rocks scattered around the area.  I’ve always liked this place.  When the weather is clear, this is a great spot to take a break.  Also, it is very close to the summit and things seem to get easy from here on.  Unfortunately, today everything all around me was cocooned in a blanket of fog.  I saw no point in stopping and sitting here; it would only make me cold.

A few minutes later I reached the Devil’s Elbow.  I now had about half a mile to go and encountered a number of Porsche 911s screeching up the hill.  I figured there was some event involving them at the summit.  I fantasized that a ride down to the trailhead in one of those would be awesome!

With less than a tenth of a mile to go, my legs were beginning to resist all forward movement.  It took every bit of effort I had to complete this last section.  As I exited the trail, I saw about seventeen Porsches in the parking lot.  This looked like a gathering of a bunch of Harley riding bad boys, except that these were Porsche drivers.  I decided to view the proceedings from the safety of the viewing deck on top of Mt. Diablo and avoid the risk of having someone crack a beer bottle on my head or be held responsible for starting a fight in the parking lot.  😉

It was 10:25 AM and I was at the summit of Mt. Diablo.  So much for hoping the last 2.8 miles would take 80 minutes.  It had taken me 115 minutes instead.

In the distance I could see the snow covered Sierra Nevadas.  But everything else around was covered in fog.  This was the first time I had experienced such a foggy blanket.

One of the thrills about climbing Mt. Diablo is that one can never predict what views will be visible from the top.  Each time it has been totally different.  On exceptionally clear days, it is possible to see Lassen Peak to the North, Yosemite to the East, Mission Peak and Mt. Hamilton to the South and Mt. Tamalpais to the West and even the Fallaron Islands further out at sea.

I took some pictures on top with Om Nom Nom, my silent hiking partner.  I have a friend who works in the Marketing Department for a company called TechSmith in Lansing, Michigan.  Among other things, they make some award-winning screen capture software called Jing.  Om Nom Nom is the mascot for one of their products.  She sent me Om Nom Nom to take on my hikes and to post pictures of him.  Here’s one:

At the visitor center, the ranger informed me that the Middle Trail would be fine to hike on and was probably dry because it is higher up on the mountain.  He cautioned me on the sections around and below the Cardonet Junction.  I told him that I had experienced that sector earlier today and that only one section near the Donner Cabin site was really bad.  Beyond that things were fine.  With that, I refilled my bottles and head back.

Just below the summit, I had to cross the road at a couple of places.  Meanwhile, the Porsche party was heading down too and on a blind turn, I nearly got run over by the first one.  Even though I was walking on the other side of the road, these cars were making a blind turn and they often strayed on to the wrong side of the road.  I jumped aside and let them all pass by before continuing on.

Most of the return hike now was cold and covered in fog.  My left knee had been bothering me a little bit the previous week, so I was carrying hiking poles with me this time.  Since I knew that parts of the trail were steep, I knew the poles would come in handy on the downhill sections.  Besides, someone we knew had recently blown out a knee in a skiing accident, so I wanted to be careful with my knees too.

The poles helped me stabilize myself on the steep sections and allowed me to navigate them with ease and speed.  About 35 minutes after leaving the summit I was back at Prospector’s Gap.  The climb up meanwhile had taken me about an hour.

Now my legs were protesting even the slightest climb I encountered on the Prospector’s Gap Road.  They were OK with the flat and downhill sections but gains were killers.

Around 11:30 AM I got to the Middle Trail intersection.  I decided to give my tired legs a break and sat and had my second sandwich.  Ow!  My jaw hurt as I bit into the sandwich.  Again, it looked and tasted like nothing, but I was glad to feed myself and enjoyed the break.  I took a few more pictures of Om Nom Nom here before proceeding on the Middle Trail.

Approaching a sharp bend on the trail, I suddenly heard a loud and strange sound.  Was it some kind of bird or animal with a bad throat?  As I got closer, it sounded more like someone cutting wood.  Soon I encountered a trail volunteer using a small hack-saw patiently sawing through a 6-inch diameter branch of a tree that had fallen across the trail.  I had no doubt it would take him hours to cut up the tree with that small saw.  After that branch he had a few 9-inch diameter branches to get through before he could even think of tackling the much thicker trunk that would still be blocking the trail.  While power tools are allowed and often used, he did not possess any.  I thanked him for his efforts and for volunteering to clear the trail up, and continued down.

Meanwhile, I continued to put the hiking poles to good use.  Sometimes they would get caught up in branches on this narrow trail, but were still very handy.  Since I was hiking down fast, I slipped and tripped many times but never fell or twisted my ankles thanks to them.  Meanwhile, the sound of waterfalls was really loud and as tempting as they sounded and looked from a distance, I knew there was no way I would be able to cover the waterfalls loop today.

I met more trail volunteers on the Middle Trail and thanked them too for their volunteer efforts.  Back on the Donner Canyon Road, I started meeting many hikers now.  Based on the questions they asked me, it seemed that the majority were here for the waterfalls loop.

At 12:50 PM, with the thermometer reading 61 degrees, I returned to the car.  My hike was over and the monkey was off my back for a while.  The parking area however was overflowing with cars lining up looking for parking spots.  I was glad that my hiking day was over; not beginning.  With that thought and a satisfied smile, I turned the ignition key and steered the car towards home.

Here’s a map of the hike courtesy of Google Maps:

Here’s a link to a brochure and trail map from the California State Parks website – http://www.parks.ca.gov/pages/517/files/mtDiabloBrochure.pdf

Here’s a slideshow of pictures from the hike:

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