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Save Mount Diablo’s big score—decades in the works—means the mountain’s future just got brighter.


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Photography by Joe Budd

The Heart of Mount Diablo

I’m late, and Seth Adams is waiting for me. A solid guy with a brushy beard, close-cropped gray hair, and a steely gaze, Adams is the land programs director for Save Mount Diablo, a nonprofit group devoted to acquiring and preserving the region’s parklands.

My 10-minute delay is nothing compared to the decades Save Mount Diablo has spent trying to acquire Curry Canyon Ranch. The nonprofit’s pleas were denied by the original owner, and his many heirs took years before agreeing to the sale last fall. Understandably, Adams is eager to show off this vast open space we are to explore today.

The territory is more than a thousand acres of spectacular wilderness that rise from 800 feet to 2,200. It’s the largest and most expensive acquisition in Save Mount Diablo’s 43-year history, during which time more than 100,000 acres have been preserved. Situated between Danville and the Morgan Territory, Curry Canyon Ranch connects Mount Diablo’s foothills from three sides like a jigsaw puzzle piece.

Seth Adams / Courtesy of Save Mount DiabloAdams and I begin our hike at the site of the original Olofson Homestead. (The family bought the ranch in 1895.) There are plans to turn the existing home into an environmental education center and to replant the surrounding land, where a few pecan trees hang on. We walk along a crushed gravel path shaded from the warm sun by a canopy of sycamores. In a bed some 15 feet below, a shallow brook reflects the dappled sunlight.

“This is the kind of place where people want to be,” Adams says, pausing. “Listen to this creek, and realize there are seven million people within an hour’s drive.”

Moments later, taking in the undulating hills and distant ridges, he spreads his arms and says, “This is the heart of Mount Diablo. The place would be crippled without it.”

It’s useful to think of important acquisitions such as Curry Canyon Ranch as the limbs of the mountain. These ridges and canyons become corridors for wildlife and extend the mountain’s reach for natural resources. If Mount Diablo were merely an island in an urban sea, it would have to fight for precious water resources, diversity would plummet, and its slopes would be subjected to the corrosive effects of pollution.

Returning the land to a pristine state takes work. Nearby are trash bins the size of semitruck beds. They are just two, compared to the many that have already been hauled away, filled with the debris of makeshift encampments and even cars, whose crushed skeletons were used to keep the riverbanks from collapsing. Save Mount Diablo has a staff of 17, and hundreds of volunteers, including a group of high schoolers, who have done much of this restoration work.

“Their idea of clearing a junkyard is sweet paradise,” says Adams. 
 

Fun Facts
➝ In 1865, the California state legislature tried to change the mountain’s name to Coal Hill, but Clayton resisted.
➝ People ascending the mountain climb over older and older rocks—the opposite of the usual progression of mountains.
➝ The popular PC video game series Diablo was named after the mountain, as one of its cofounders grew up in the area.
➝ in 1806, natives crossed the carquinez strait to avoid capture by the spanish. Soldiers said it was only possible with help from the devil, “el diablo.”
➝ Geographers say you can see more of the earth’s surface from the top of Mount Diablo than any other peak in the world, except for Mount Kilimanjaro in Africa.

Two of the main peaks in Curry Canyon Ranch are Windy Point and Cave Point, and the ranch’s coolest attraction might be its wind caves.

We walk a crushed red sandstone path up toward the caves, passing rock walls painted with lichen, and make our way through a smooth-barked variety of manzanita found only in the park. The twisted cave openings are unworldly—they remind me of Edvard Munch’s painting, The Scream—and have been created by water dissolving the “cement” that holds porous sandstone together.

The area is too expansive to see only on foot, so we clamber into an SUV and drive to an overlook. On the way, we stop short a few yards shy of football-sized pinecones strong enough to puncture tires. They need to be cleared.

Now, we’re overlooking a sea of knobcone pines, whose small cones stay tightly closed for decades, waiting for a fire to release their seeds. “They all pop open simultaneously,” says Adams, “and the ground is literally covered with pine nuts.”

The grove we see below was germinated from the 1978 fire that burned from Clayton to Blackhawk, while a black band on the distant mountain records last year’s blaze. The trees are so tightly packed that Adams calls them “impenetrable.” A mountain lion, however, could make its way through. Sightings of these magnificent creatures are rare because their range is so huge—10 square miles at a minimum.

In the distance, we can just make out the golf course at Blackhawk Ranch, an area that demonstrates how Save Mount Diablo and developers can work together to find balance between urban and protected land. Still, when you compare what $7.2 million gets you in Blackhawk to the worth of Curry Canyon Ranch, “I think we got the better value,” Adams says.  

But that $7.2 million was obtained through private loans that must be repaid before Curry Canyon Ranch can be transferred to California State Parks and fully opened to the public. (Private tours are scheduled to begin in fall.) Raising donations to pay off the loan is now the nonprofit’s most urgent goal.

Adams is an Army brat who was drawn to UC Berkeley by his hero, environmentalist David Brower. Yet when Adams became Save Mount Diablo’s first staff member in 1988, it was more about landing a job than saving Contra Costa’s iconic mountain. “What did interest me,” Adams says, “was to preserve an area large enough to support a full range of wildlife. I only learned how special Mount Diablo was over time.”
 

Toward the end of the tour, Adams finds miner’s lettuce and plucks perfect sprigs of wild cilantro. As I chew the bitter herb, I take in the rolling hills. They are particularly lovely here, radiant in the sunlight, with the brilliant green of nascent grasses. A gnarly buckeye stands alone.

In the ensuing silence, I ask how the mountain benefits people who have no interest in coming here.

“Even if you look up at it from the freeway, it enhances your life,” says Adams. “It improves air and water quality. It increases property values. It means your kids will always have a wild place to go in the midst of development.”

And what sets Curry Canyon Ranch apart from the more than a dozen properties the nonprofit has purchased since it was founded in 1971? Adams mentions soaring peaks, cliffs, canyons, and cultural artifacts, as well as eight miles of fire roads that solve four trail gaps. But you can tell he finds his own answer unsatisfying.

“I don’t know yet,” Adams says. “I’m still getting to know it, and I know it more intimately than anyone else.”
Nicholas Boer


 

Land Deals

A few of Save Mount Diablo’s biggest acquisitions. Note: Save Mount Diablo’s properties are open to the public by appointment only. View a hike calendar here.

Curry Canyon Ranch

1,080 acres, northeast of Danville.
Preserved: 2013.
Price: $7.2 million.
Save Mount Diablo bought the land for $7.2 million, its largest and most expensive purchase, after decades of unsuccessful bargaining. The purchase solves four significant trail gaps.
 

Viera–North Peak

165 acres, Morgan Territory, next to Mount Diablo State Park.
Preserved: 2009.
Price: $980,000.
This property was marked as one of Save Mount Diablo’s top priorities when the nonprofit formed in the ’70s. It is one of the East Bay’s highest elevations, and offers views of the Sierra Nevada, Half Dome in Yosemite, and Mount Whitney, the highest summit in the United States.
 

Irish Canyon

320 acres, Marsh Creek–Morgan Territory area, near Clayton.
Preserved: 2006.
Price: $1.3 million.
This isolated canyon near the historic Mount Diablo coal field—the largest coal-mining district in the state from 1860 to 1914—offers views of Suisun Bay, Mount Diablo, and the San Francisco Peninsula. It also links five wildlife preserves and is home to 300 species.
 

Mangini Ranch

207 acres, between Lime Ridge Open Space and Mount Zion.
Preserved: 2005.
Price: $1.4 million.
Known for its greenery, narrow canyons, and beautiful loop trails, the land is also home to nearly 600 species, including more than 24 types of butterflies, 63 types of birds, and 160 plants.
 

Marsh Creek Properties

Nearly two miles, Marsh Creek Road.
Preserved: 2005.
Price: $3.6 million.
With some located on the volcanic dome, this collection of properties has a rich geological history. It is also home to wildlife corridors and vital nesting habitats.
—Stacey Kennelly


 

Field Guide

Baby Blue Eyes
Flower Photos: Michael Marchiano

Wild Columbine

Fiddlenecks

Yellow Mariposa Lily

Henderson’s Shooting Star

Bitterroot


 

Three Ways to See the Mountain

On your next visit, learn about the plants, animals, and rock formations around you.

Shutterstock1. Audible Mount Diablo

Many people hit the mountain to unplug, but consider plugging into audible guides for a private tour.

Save Mount Diablo offers seven free downloadable hikes that combine interviews, music, and the sounds of nature as they guide listeners around the park. Segments tell how to get to trailheads and what to look for around each bend. The smartphone and MP3 player tours even have photos for identifying plants and animals.

Former Sierra Editor Joan Hamilton hosts the tours, which include conversations with Save Mount Diablo’s Seth Adams, park ranger Carl Nielson, and Gary Bogue, former pet and wildlife columnist for the Bay Area News Group. savemountdiablo.org/activities_hikes.html.

 

2. Fire Recovery Hikes

Take a group hike with the Mount Diablo Interpretive Association, a volunteer nonprofit that helps maintain the state park. This year is expected to be especially beautiful, as last year’s Morgan Fire set the stage for rare postfire blooms.

On Saturday, May 10, join volunteer Phil Reed for a trek on Mary Bowerman Trail to explore the area burned last fall. Reed will point out how flowers and vegetation are recovering month by month. He’ll also host a second hike that day on North Peak Trail.

The next weekend, on Sunday, May 18, Jake Van Akkeren will lead a tour around the mountain, and will circle the park’s main peak as well as burn areas. Keep an eye out for those rare blooms. mdia.org.

 

3. The Mount Diablo Guide

Plan your own adventure, using the Mount Diablo Interpretive Association’s updated The Mount Diablo Guide.

The third edition of the guidebook, edited by MDIA’s Linda Rimac Colberg and Ruth Ann Kishi, includes revised maps and illustrations, color photos, and a detailed overview of the mountain, from its biodiversity and geology to the recreational activities it offers. It also includes information about the mountain’s geological and cultural histories.

The new edition was years in the making and was produced with the help of volunteers, naturalists, and local artists. Proceeds benefit the park. $14–$17 at Mount Diablo State Park entrances and visitor centers, and at mdia.org.
—Stacey Kennelly

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