Mt Diablo, rising 3,864 feet above the Bay Area, is a 20 minutes drive from home. We have driven many times to the summit, but never had I imagined that I would climb it on foot. We had a late start and arrived at the Mitchell Canyon parking lot around 11:45. We visited the park store to pick up a map and chatted with the park officials about our plan for the summit. They recommended we take the Eagle Peak trail back for it’s wonderful views. They were also confident that we would finish the hike in 7-8 hours. Given it was about noon, we decided we had plenty of daylight left.
We planned to do the popular Summit Loop; Mitchell Canyon Road -> Deer Flat Rd -> Juniper Trail to the summit and then North Peak Trail -> Bald Ridge Trail up to Murchio Gap on the way down. Here we would take the Eagle Peak Trail instead of the Back Creek trail to take advantage of the beautiful vistas that the park officials had promised. Starting up Mitchell Canyon Road, we enjoyed a mostly-gradual climb along well-maintained fire roads up to Deer Flat, which we reached around 2:30.
We took plenty of breaks along the way to enjoy the views and to examine the giant cones that were everywhere!
At Deer Flat, we were already at an elevation of 2800 feet and were feeling good about the summit push, the last steep mile up Juniper Trail. Juniper Trail ends at the Lower Summit parking lot, and when we reached there around 4:30 we were exhilarated! It’s a short climb from the lower parking lot to the summit. Reaching the summit felt so good, even though it’s just a small parking lot that is usually full of cars and people. We enjoyed the views, shared a snack, and headed back down the North Peak Trail at about 5:15. Given it had taken us about 5 hours to climb, we figured the descent would take about 3 hours.
However, as soon as we started down, I started slipping and sliding and realized that my old Asics had barely any grip left. I had to step carefully, with Sri holding my hand and supporting me on the steepest parts of the trail. Not only was it scary, it was extremely slow progress. We reached the Bald Knot (a lovely peak with stunning views at about 2645 feet) at 7:00 and realized that we had about an hour of light left! We were a bit worried now and started going down as fast as my slippery shoes would allow. The evening shadows were getting long when we reached Murchio Gap. It was now clear that some of our descent was going to be in the dark. And we didn’t have headlamps or a flashlight!
We hurriedly looked at the map as the trail split into two – Eagle Peak Trail and Back Creek Trail. Sri pointed out that Back Creek descended steeply at first and then became gradual, which meant there would be less climbing in the dark. Eagle Peak on the other hand was mostly flat for the first few miles but would require a steep climb in the last mile or so which would certainly be in the dark.
We rushed down Back Creek trail and immediately started wondering if we had made the right decision. The trail is a creek bed, with plenty of loose rocks that require careful navigation. As we half-slipped, half-climbed our way down in the diminishing light, I tried hard not to think about the sheer drop on one side. When the sun set, we still had 1.6 miles to go. I tried to follow Sri’s hazy figure and footprints on the trail. He, far more confident than me, even stopped to take some pictures in the fading light.
Finally, just when the light completely faded from the valley, we hit the fire road! What a relief! Now we could walk faster and more surely in the dark.
It was 10:00 by the time we reached our car, having hiked in the dark without lights for about 2 hours. Luckily we found the fire road just in time. We were hungry and tired but exhilarated with our 14-mile adventure. And I fell in love with Mt Diablo some more. The biggest takeaway though was that I desperately needed a good pair of hiking boots.