Saving Mount Diablo
Thanks to a close-knit group of enviromental activists, Mount Diablo's protected open spaces keep getthing bigger. Here's a look at prime territory they've rescued over the past 30 years.
In a small, unassuming office in Walnut Creek, three people are
scrambling to save pieces of Mount Diablo and its pleated foothills
from the voracious jaws of development. They are the staff of Save
Mount Diablo, a nonprofit organization that has spent 34 years
preventing our precious open space from being overrun by houses,
flooded by reservoirs, or consumed by quarries and dumps.
Back in 1971, Mount Diablo was home to just one state park of only 6,788 acres. Today, there are 29 parks and preserves, and an astounding 87,000 acres of public lands in and around Mount D. That’s thanks to Save Mount Diablo and what its director of land programs Seth Adams calls “an extraordinary environmental coalition” that includes the East Bay Regional Park District, the Sierra Club,
and the Greenbelt Alliance.
Using money raised from donations and fundraisers, Save Mount Diablo buys parcels of land that are then handed over to public agencies for long-term protection. The organization negotiates with everyone from venerable ranching families to major developers, and packs a powerful punch when the need arises.
“Smart developers would rather save time and money by making a deal with us,” says Adams. “But sometimes we have to go head on. Then we apply every bit of pressure we can. A hundred years from now, nobody’s going to know who preserved the lands around Mount Diablo. But they’re going to be incredibly happy that we did.”
We asked the folks at Save Mount Diablo how to best appreciate some of their favorite conservation triumphs. What follows is a set of great hikes, accompanied by notes on the plants and animals you might encounter on the way. So grab your hat, your binoculars, and some water, and go discover for yourself the wondrous lands of Mount Diablo. More detailed trail maps are available at Mount Diablo State Park visitor centers and from the East Bay Regional Park District at trailheads, by mail, and from its website, www.ebparks.org .
Mount Diablo State Park
Always keen to fill a gap in public access, Save Mount Diablo was drawn to Three Springs, east of Clayton, because it was surrounded by Mount Diablo State Park. Unable to afford the owner’s steep asking price for the 83 acres, Save Mount Diablo was contacted by a local man interested in buying just five of the acres to build a house for himself and his wife. The solution was obvious: Share the cost; share the land. The man negotiated a better deal, and in 1992 the organization bought 78 acres for one-eighth the original asking price, and passed it immediately to Mount Diablo State Park.
Ascending the lush northern slope of North Peak, this dramatic and rugged area is shielded from the sun. Thanks to its namesake springs, it is heavily wooded, with copious plants, wildflowers, and animals.
The hike: Sattler Trail. At the foot of North Peak in Clayton, this moderate, three-mile round-trip begins at the Corner Piece, Save Mount Diablo’s first-ever purchase. This area hides a sycamore-canopied stream and an old springhouse. The Mount Olympia trail at the end of Sattler is a favorite for horseback riders. Access Sattler Trail from the gates beneath the power lines on Marsh Creek Road, five miles east of Ygnacio Valley Road.
What to look for: Mountain lions. Most active at dawn, dusk, and night, this elusive cat leads a solitary life hunting deer. Look also for an unusual shrub, the Osage orange, which was introduced by homesteaders and still grows along the streams here. Come fall, it sports a large, green, brain-shaped fruit that was once used by settlers to repel insects.
Riggs Canyon and the Silva Ranch
Mount Diablo State Park and Morgan Territory Regional Preserve
Save Mount Diablo pulled out all the stops to rescue 3,300-acre Riggs Canyon from development and a proposed quarry. A four-mile chasm between Mount Diablo State Park and Morgan Territory Regional Preserve, the canyon was at the center of a fierce campaign that lasted 16 years. At one point, neighboring landowners raced to buy intervening land parcels to block public access. Acquired in eight separate pieces from 1986 to 2004, Riggs Canyon includes some wonderfully remote pieces of land. Morgan Ranch, the first acquisition to connect the state park with the Morgan Territory Regional Preserve, was so far-flung that the location of its 1989 sunset dedication ceremony had to be marked out by three massive searchlights.
The 427-acre Silva Ranch is in the upper part of the canyon, and was the second-to-last piece of the Riggs Canyon acquisition puzzle. For the ranch’s 2003 dedication ceremony, Save Mount Diablo and the East Bay Trail Dogs, a local organization that builds and maintains trails, created the Tassajara Creek Trail.
The hike: Tassajara Creek Trail. This 5.6-mile round-trip takes you up a wooded canyon, then loops along stunning, windswept ridges. Park a half-mile from the north end of Finley Road (which is off Camino Tassajara, near the East Gate to Blackhawk). Hike north on Finley up the canyon, staying on the main fire road. The road curves west of Bob’s Pond; follow it to the west side of the pond, where the Tassajara Creek Trail starts. This is a moderate hike with some steep sections.
What to look for: Woodland wildflowers, such as fritillary and trillium. A native bulb plant, the fritillary (also known as the mission bell) has green, bell-like flowers and can be found on north-facing slopes near chaparral or in woodland areas. On the way to the trail, notice the huge natural basin, known as Morgan Amphitheater, that’s scooped out of the Morgan Territory cliffs.
Lower Sycamore Canyon, Knobcone Point to Oyster Point
Mount Diablo State Park
Boulders, cliffs, and chaparral spill down from the Black Hills to make this diverse area one of the park’s most awe-inspiring. The fight to save it began back in the 1970s, when Save Mount Diablo waged its first major battle against Blackhawk developers.
Ansel Adams’s uncle, Ansel Mills Easton, created the original 1,200-acre Blackhawk farm in 1916. The ranch eventually grew to 6,500 acres, a third of which was ultimately sold to the state park system; the rest was set aside for development. Save Mount Diablo fought for years to preserve an additional 2,052 acres, and celebrated five land acquisitions in 1999 at a ceremony attended by then-Governor Gray Davis.
The sandstone rock formations of Knobcone and the fossil-laden ridges of Oyster Point are complemented perfectly by Lower Sycamore Canyon. Preserved in 1996 by Save Mount Diablo and now owned by the state park, the canyon’s 274 acres are awash with wildflowers in spring and russet hues in fall. Its namesake sycamore trees, famous for their patterned, flaky bark, grow alongside wildflowers such as delicate, lanternlike Mount Diablo globe lilies.
The hike: A six-mile round-trip, this moderate hike uses three trails to form a loop. Begin at Curry Point (off Mt. Diablo Scenic Boulevard/Southgate Road in Danville). Head east along Knobcone Point Road, and take in views all the way to the Sierras before dropping into Sycamore Canyon to the right on Devil’s Slide Trail. Then go up Sycamore Creek Road to Blackhawk Road and back to Knobcone Point Road.
What to look for: Peregrine falcons. Save Mount Diablo helped reintroduce this large, grey falcon, the fastest bird in the world, to Mount Diablo in the early 1990s. Look for it and other raptors riding the thermals around the rocky cliffs of Knobcone and Devil’s Slide. Sulfur springs and winter waterfalls can be found in Lower Sycamore Canyon. If you venture to Oyster Point, look for the oyster fossils for which the area is named.
Lime Ridge Open Space and adjacent property
The oak-studded hills of Lime Ridge Open Space roll from downtown Concord all the way to Walnut Creek. Most of its 1,700 acres were rescued with the help of a 1977 regional bond measure and, since then, by land acquisitions negotiated by Save Mount Diablo. But it wasn’t until 1997 that most of this area was opened to the public.
Discovered in 1850, the lime here (used in cement and plaster) accelerated construction in California. The land’s mining history has left its scars, but the area now buzzes with wildlife. Rising to a 1,001-foot, chaparral-cloaked peak that affords extraordinary views, Lime Ridge is home to flurries of songbirds, as well as to deer, coyotes, bobcats, eagles, and reptiles, including the non-venomous gopher snake (sometimes mistaken for a rattlesnake) and the rare yellow-and-black California tiger salamander.
Save Mount Diablo is beginning the task of raising $1.45 million to purchase the Mangini Ranch, which would be the newest addition to this open space. Its 207 acres will come close to connecting Lime Ridge Open Space to Mount Diablo State Park.
The hike: Paradise Valley Trail. This six-mile round-trip hike begins at the Montecito staging area at Cowell and Ygnacio roads near Lime Ridge in Concord. Take the Paradise Valley Trail to Lime Ridge Trail to Crystal Ranch Trail, and follow the ridgeline. The highlight is Paradise Valley itself. Lime Ridge is a harsh, dry place, so this valley, filled with oak woodland, is a magnificent surprise. Its eastern ridge is especially engaging at sunset, when it blushes with rose-colored light.
What to look for: Bats. Watch from afar as the flying rodents venture from the jagged crevices of the quarry in the evening. Keep an eye out, too, for lime-mining artifacts, such as old water pipes, embedded in the soil.
Morgan Territory Regional Preserve
Most of this 4,000-acre preserve is newly protected and relatively unexplored. Before 1986, Morgan Territory was a mere 970 acres, perched by itself four miles southeast of Mount Diablo State Park. Save Mount Diablo board member Bob Walker played a key role in the expansion of the park. Every time he led one of his dozens of hikes to the area, Walker had someone write a postcard to the East Bay Regional Park District board of directors urging them to buy the land. With the help of state Proposition 70 and the park district’s Measure AA, the preserve was eventually stretched west across Highland Ridge and into Riggs Canyon, where it now touches Mount Diablo State Park. When Walker died in 1992, one of Morgan Territory’s ridges and a trail were named in his honor.
Draped across two colossal ridges (the 2,581-foot Highland Ridge is 10 feet taller than Marin County’s Mount Tamalpais), this preserve boasts even better views than those from Mount Diablo’s summit because, of course, they include Mount Diablo. Wildflowers decorate the fields in spring, providing a colorful foreground to vistas that can reach as far as Mount Saint Helena in the north and the Sierras in the east.
The hike: Coyote and Volvon Loop trails. This moderate to strenuous five-mile loop around Bob Walker Ridge begins at the south end of Morgan Territory Road’s staging area, near Livermore. Take the single-track Coyote Trail through rolling grassland and oak groves to the Stone Corral Trail. This will take you north to the Volvon Loop Trail, which will deliver you back to the staging area. Take in incredible views of Mount Diablo’s peaks and the Central Valley along the way.
What to look for: California condors. There have been two recent sightings here of North America’s largest—and incredibly rare—bird. Also watch for the distinctive bumblebee moth. Often mistaken for an overweight bumblebee, this insect can be found here in spring and summer, fluttering among trees, milkweeds, and flowers that line streams’ gravel beds.
Cowell Ranch and Briones Valley
Cowell Ranch State Park
Rolling north from Round Valley and Los Vaqueros to Brentwood, Cowell Ranch is one of California’s newest state parks. It’s so new, in fact, that the only way to hike into its 4,000 acres of gentle hills and grassland valleys is with a Save Mount Diablo guide.
While in the well-meaning hands of the Cowell Foundation, the ranch was thrown into a conservation storm when the foundation sought development permission from Contra Costa County, which would have increased the property’s value before its sale. The foundation’s 1987 proposal for 5,000 houses alarmed conservation groups, including Save Mount Diablo. The urban limit line tightened in 2000, leaving much of the ranch outside the development boundaries, and pushing the foundation to forge a deal allowing 481 acres to be built upon and 4,000 acres to be made into a new state park.
The lovely Briones Valley—not to be confused with the central county’s Briones Regional Park—sweeps spectacularly across the ranch, while Marsh Creek slices vertically through its hills. Described by Save Mount Diablo as an “endangered species hotspot,” Cowell Ranch hosts one of the area’s largest populations of eagles, hawks, falcons, and owls.
The hike: Guided trips. Save Mount Diablo leads hikes here in spring and fall. This area had been private for 170 years, so hikers will be among the first modern-day trekkers to venture here. Typically, the trips are easy four- or five-mile loops across Briones Valley and into the hills toward Round Valley. There are no trails yet, allowing hikers to feel like true explorers. The scale and isolation of the land, and its uninterrupted views to the Sierras, make these hikes special. Visit www.savemountdiablo.org or call (925) 947-3535 for information on upcoming hikes.
What to look for: Burrowing owls. Using abandoned ground squirrel burrows, these owls line the walls of their adopted dwellings with cow manure, perhaps to mask their chicks’ smell from predators. About eight inches tall, with rounded heads and spotted brown-and-yellow plumage, these birds are often mistaken for squirrels as they peek out from their underground abodes.
Garaventa and the east side of Black Diamond Mines
Black Diamond Mines Regional Preserve
Considering this preserve was once home to the largest coal-mining operation in California, it is a happy surprise to find it so ecologically healthy. Set among Pittsburg, Antioch, and Clayton, its windswept ridges and secluded valleys belie the remaining maze of tunnels that once delivered nearly four million tons of coal (or “black diamonds”) to the light of day.The gorgeous and isolated Garaventa property was purchased in 1997 by the East Bay Regional Park District to fill a “doughnut hole” surrounded by the existing preserve, and opened to the public in 2004. Like Round Valley (see page 67), Garaventa was spared life as a landfill when a coalition of environmental groups, including Save Mount Diablo, and local residents fiercely rejected the proposal in a 1990 election.
Celebrated by Save Mount Diablo as “an outstanding example of environmental recovery,” today the 5,985-acre Black Mines Preserve teems with wildlife, and spring carpets its meadows with one of the Bay Area’s most breathtaking wildflower displays.
The hike: Homestead and Stewartsville trails. The Homestead Trail offers an easy, 3.6-mile loop through grassland and oak woodland, around the summits of two canyons, and then back along the canyon mouths. For more of a challenge, the Stewartsville Trail is a steep and strenuous 5.25-mile loop up and around the remote drainage of Sand Creek, past Star Mine toward Central Mine, and then up to an oak-wooded ridge, where you can take in wonderful views before heading back down. Both trailheads begin at the end of Frederickson Lane in Antioch.
What to look for: Birds. There are more than 100 species here, including golden eagles, red-tailed hawks, and peregrine falcons. Also look out for the yellow Mount Diablo globe lily.
Los Vaqueros and the Adobe Valley
Contra Costa Water District lands
There was an upside to losing 1,600 acres of oak-studded valley to Contra Costa Water District’s Los Vaqueros reservoir back in 1988: A staggering 18,500 acres, including the reservoir, was also acquired, in part to protect water quality. Now, however, the water district hopes to tear down the reservoir—despite having completed it just six years ago—and to make another that is six times bigger, drowning precious neighboring land, including the stunning Adobe Valley between Livermore and Brentwood.
Save Mount Diablo moved quickly but could not block passage of last year’s advisory ballot measure permitting research on the expansion to continue. For now, Adobe Valley is still there, cradling blue oak groves and chaparral that ring with symphonies of birdsong, while herons, kites, osprey, and the occasional bald eagle soar above.
The hike: Adobe Valley and Los Vaqueros trails. This 7.2-mile, easy round-trip hike begins at the Los Vaqueros South Marina. About nine miles north of Livermore, take Vasco Road to Old Vasco/Los Vaqueros and follow it to the end. The Los Vaqueros Trail follows the reservoir edge before passing baby oaks that are part of an oak restoration program. After 20 minutes, you’ll have left the reservoir, and the Adobe Valley opens up ahead. Take the Adobe Valley Trail on the left for a wonderful view over Round Valley before returning the same way.
What to look for: San Joaquin kit foxes, American badgers, and raccoons all live here. Late in the day, a sharp eye will also spy black-tailed jackrabbits.
Chaparral Spring and Clayton Ranch to Oil Canyon
Save Mount Diablo and Mount Diablo State Park District holdings
But for Save Mount Diablo, these parcels of land could well have been hidden from the environmental radar. In 1994 the organization pushed aside various development proposals to acquire picture-perfect Chaparral Spring, east of Clayton. Save Mount Diablo was the first to recognize that saving the spring’s 333 acres was a crucial first step in bridging the gap between Mount Diablo State Park and Black Diamond Mines Regional Preserve. Since there was no identified park agency to take over the property, Save Mount Diablo secured two $50,000 loans on a total price of $625,000 and purchased the land. The East Bay Regional Park District soon followed suit, rescuing the adjacent 1,030-acre Clayton Ranch and, recently, two more land parcels, expanding the preserve south from Oil Canyon.
Trees are the crowning glory of Chaparral Spring. Blue oaks hug hillsides, ridges, and canyons.Valley oaks keep watch over the valleys, their leafy boughs arching to the grass. California buckeyes bloom at the edges of meadows with pinkish-white flowers in spring, and drop their shiny, auburn nuts in fall. Save Mount Diablo even has a special program that allows devotees to adopt a tree, grove, or acre here in honor of a loved one.
The hike: Guided trips. Save Mount Diablo leads hikes here in spring and fall. Typically six miles round-trip, these moderate to strenuous hikes take you through eclectic landscapes and past a great ridgeline pond to spectacular views of Morgan Territory and Mount Diablo. For more information, visit www.savemountdiablo.org or call (925) 947-3535.
What to look for: Bobcats, coyotes, Cooper’s hawks, and golden eagles grace these lands. Also keep an eye out for two of the region’s rare species: the bright yellow Mount Diablo sunflower, which grows
only in the foothills of Mount Diablo, and the beautiful black-and-yellow-striped Alameda whipsnake.
Vasco Caves and Brushy Peak
Vasco Caves Regional Preserve, Brushy Peak Regional Preserve
Owned by the East Bay Regional Park District, these two new preserves are ecological and historical treasure troves guarding some of Contra Costa’s best-kept secrets.
Southeast of Los Vaqueros near Livermore and overlooking the Central Valley, the Vasco Caves Preserve recently doubled in size to 1,400 acres, thanks in part to a $1.5-million grant from the Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation. Too rich in fragile resources to be opened to the public yet, the preserve can be visited only via hikes led by the East Bay Regional Park District.
Opened to the public this summer, Brushy Peak is the black-capped peak northeast of Livermore that extends public open space south to Interstate 580. Reputedly a hideout for the legendary Mexican bandit Joaquin Murrieta in the early 1850s, Brushy Peak’s 1,500 acres of rolling green hills are cleaved by huge, rocky outcroppings and boast a bustling bird community.
The hike: Guided trips. The East Bay Regional Park District offers guided hikes to both preserves. Typically, hikes to Vasco Caves travel a rigorous two-mile loop to view the sacred Native American sites and the caves. Visit www.ebparks.org or call (510) 636-1684 for information.
What to look for: Vernal pools. These miniature wetlands are created when hollows in the land fill with winter rain water. As the pools dry through spring, flowers burst into bloom in concentric swirls of yellow, purple, and blue. Come summer, the pools disappear completely; the flowers die, but life lingers on in eggs left by the endangered fairy shrimp.
Round Valley Regional Preserve
It is hard to believe that what is now hailed as the most beautiful valley in the East Bay was once on track to becoming a very big garbage dump. Located near Brentwood, Round Valley was proposed as a landfill by Contra Costa County back in the late 1980s. The Murphy family, which had owned much of the valley for more than 100 years, was so incensed by the idea that it sold 689 acres to the East Bay Regional Park District at a bargain price. On the front line of Contra Costa’s dump wars, Save Mount Diablo threw itself into everything from grassroots activism to election campaigns, helping the East Bay Regional Park District acquire 2,070 of Round Valley’s pristine acres, which it opened to the public in 1998. This stunning, hidden gem is surrounded by towering ridges and crossed by a sinuous, valley oak–lined creek. It offers a glimpse of how the East Bay once looked, before freeways and shopping malls dotted its landscape. According to experts, the valley probably was once a seasonal home or trading post for California Indians.
The hike: Miwok Trail. A 6.17-mile loop, this is a great hike to do in the late afternoon of a sizzling day. From Marsh Creek Road (1.6 miles east of Deer Valley Road) near Antioch, travel by foot or by bike up the canyon to the valley alongside Round Valley Creek, loop gently around the valley itself, and return via the same stream canyon. Or, if that’s too easy, take the Hardy Canyon Trail back, adding another three, steep miles.
What to look for: Red-legged frogs and San Joaquin kit foxes. The threatened amphibians, whose legs are crimson on their underside, bathe in shallow pools. They can venture considerable distances from water, and are sometimes found sheltering under logs. The endangered San Joaquin kit fox frequents freshwater marshland. With a distinctive black tip on its tail, this shy fox becomes most active as night falls.
When not writing for Diablo, Walnut Creek resident Hannah Craddick is hiking, probably in Round Valley or Paradise Valley.