Walk About Martinez

A hike up Pine Canyon on Mount Diablo, peregrine falcons, and a Swiss mountaineer this week in Walk About Martinez.

We went from cold foggy days to sunny blue skies and 75 degree weather by just waking up one morning last week. February can be simply stunning. If you were waiting for good weather to get outside, this is the week. The great temps and clear skies ran me out of town and up the slopes of our local mountain, dear Diablo. An oxymoron I know, but that mountain is part of any Central County kid’s childhood.  

My memories are filled with scenes from Rock City with its caves and death-defying climbs and the stunning view from the top on a crystal, winter day.  Just after a storm, the vistas stretch from the Farallon Islands in the west to the entire panorama of the Sierra Nevada to the east.  On rare, exceptionally clear days you can pick out Half Dome in Yosemite if you squint. On those days, I can see why John Muir named the Sierra “the Mountains of Light” — they gleam in snow-covered splendor. It is one of the great views of the world.

When I was a kid in the 1950s and '60s, the state park was less than 7,000 acres.  Then in 1971, the land trust, Save Mount Diablo, was started. Its focus was on preserving and protecting the lands contiguous to the state park. Its success as a land trust is legend, and the preserved area now tops 100,000 acres in 40 parks and preserves. What that means for this old hiker is endless entry trails for a walk up the mountain.

Many of the trails are relatively easy in the lower foothills, but if you want a challenge just turn uphill at any point. Head for the top and you’ve got world-class training possibilities. Some of the trails I'll be profiling over the next several months approximate the distance and elevation gain of base camp on Mount Shasta to the top, a climb of more than 3,000 feet in under 3 miles. Now that’s steep, and a fabulous workout. I’ve met many hikers training on Diablo to summit Mount Shasta, as I did several years ago.  

But today, the sun is out, and it’s a great time for a stroll up lazy, lovely, deeply wooded Pine Canyon, from Castle Rock Regional Recreation Area to Barbecue Terrace, a round trip of 12 miles. The first few miles are flat to rolling, but the last several miles give you a good grade to get that old heart pumping. There are water and restrooms at Castle Rock, and after six miles at BBQ Terrace, but none in between, so plan accordingly.  

If you haven’t hiked the old Stage Road that winds up Pine Canyon, you have a treat in store. Initially the trail travels just below Castle Rock, a wild array of crags, caves and canyons. This was the last refuge for a breeding pair of peregrine falcons, a raptor that nearly became extinct back in the 1960s because of DDT.  A pair still nests in a keyhole-shaped cave toward the top of one of the crags, and when I’ve hiked there early in the morning, I often see them roosting on these peaks, or soaring above. Mating for life, they are magnificent birds, the fastest animal on the planet at over 200 miles per hour when in a dive. They hunt birds in flight and when you see one make a hit, it is an astonishing explosion of feathers high overhead.  

Benches have been installed at two prime viewing sites, and if you only want to hike a mile or two, just sit and watch for the falcons. Bring a camera, and a telescopic lens if you have one. A mile farther on you’ll pass into Mount Diablo State Park at the branch of the Little Yosemite trail, a beautiful shaded picnic spot with several tables. Dogs are OK on trail in the regional park but are not allowed in the state park.   

If you don’t have a map of Mount Diablo, the one to buy is the recently published "Mount Diablo, Los Vaqueros and Surrounding Parks" map, put together by REI and Save Mount Diablo. I recommend this one rather than the state park map because it covers all of the surrounding regional and city parks and open spaces, giving you many points of access to the mountain.  

To get to Castle Rock, take I-680 south and exit at Treat Boulevard, which you follow toward Concord for a mile before turning right onto Bancroft. Follow Bancroft until it ends at a traffic circle and turn right onto Castle Rock Road.  Follow this to the end, park and hike into the park. The regional park map of the area is found at: www.ebparks.org/files/Diablo_Foothills-Castle_Rock_map.pdf.   

This trail is gorgeous and great for a stroll or a good old “sweat up a storm” hike.

Trail Stories:  I first met Smiles (her trail name) at the Pacific Crest Trail kickoff celebration in April last year at Lake Morena Park, just north of the Mexican border. Imagine 700 long-distance hikers, commonly known as “hiker trash” or “trail trash” because we get really dirty on the trail, and a sea of tiny single-person tents and tarps. The best of the ultra-light gear manufacturers in America brought their stuff, most of which was not available in stores, and the experienced hikers put together a weekend of trainings on all aspects of the journey we were about to embark upon, namely the thru-hike of the 2,653-mile Pacific Crest Trail, from Mexico to Canada. 

One fellow selling a bit of light camera gear had set up a table and was giving away the material to make pot cozies. Just like a tea cozy, these keep your pot of boiling dinner hot and protect your hands when you eat it straight out of the pot as we all did.  Smiles and I met making cozies. She had a grin from ear to ear, a beautiful Swiss/French accent, an infectious laugh and looked strong enough to break bricks with a karate chop.  

She was my age and a retired Swiss high-school gym teacher who I later learned still skied 130 days per year at Whistler or at her home above Lake Geneva in the Alps.  She is still competitive in the Super G and giant slalom and way out of my skiing league.

We started talking about the trail we were just beginning, and I told her a bit about our hometown hiking hero, John Muir, and his wilderness ethic and writings that had changed a nation.  She listened, and within a few minutes, she began to cry, speaking of the huge expanse of wilderness trail that was the PCT, and about how remarkable that was in the world today.  

There was nothing like this in Europe, she told me, and the great trails of the Himalayas, where she had traveled, run in and out of so many unstable countries that it is just too dangerous to attempt long thru-hikes. She marveled at what we as a people had accomplished in setting aside so much land for the preservation of our forests, deserts, mountains and animals.  

I didn’t hear any haranguing against America, only pure gratitude at what we had accomplished. And then I began to cry, too. It was a moment of connection, a brush of spirit at the beginning of a journey that was so touching neither of us forgot it, even though we wouldn’t see each other for 800 miles.  

When we eventually met again in Lone Pine, it was just before entering the High Sierra, which was buried under some of the deepest snow pack in years because of the unseasonably cold spring. We saw each other in the foyer of the Hiker Hostel and after a moment, recalled that fleeting, but intense talk of wilderness and pot cozies.  

Smiles is an experienced mountaineer but was considering jumping north to try and give the Sierra a month or so to melt. The only problem was that the snows were still deep on all the mountains north to Canada. I suggested she join a loose confederation of four of us who knew and trusted each other to tackle the Sierra together. She gave it about 20 minutes, as she had never really hiked with any of us, and then trusting to that fleeting connection at kickoff, changed her plans and joined us. 

We were lucky she did.  She knew snow like an Eskimo, what was avalanche prone and what was safe. And she was strong as an ox at stomping trail up the snowy passes and could cut the tops off cornices twice her height when we lifted her up. And her infectious smile almost never faded. We ended up hiking well over 1,000 miles together in one group or another, and crossed into Canada, months later, only one day apart.  

She remains a good friend and I received a Facebook message from her today that she has just taken 1st place in the longest giant slalom race at Whistler, and her Swiss team came in 2nd over all. All this at 57.  She’s amazing.

“Thousands of tired, nerve-shaken, over-civilized people are beginning to find out that going to the mountain is going home; that wildness is necessity; that mountain parks and reservations are useful not only as fountains of timber and irrigating rivers, but as fountains of life.” — John Muir

See ya on the trail.

Phred Jackson February 11, 2011 at 05:56 AM
We take so much for granted. Other countries, other states even, don't have the wealth of open space we have. It's amazing to be trekking thru the wilderness of Mount Diablo, turn a corner and be face 2 face w/ a big city a short distance away. We hiked Fernandez Ranch on Wed. Amazing views, gr8 oaks; I don't mind the golden hills but when still green they are breathtaking.
Scott Williams February 11, 2011 at 06:18 AM
All the hikers I met from other countries were really taken aback by what we have accomplished in the preservation of our great parks. According to Ken Burns, we invented the idea of "National Parks" an idea that has spread to many other countries now. And yes, the green of the hills is magnificent. I'd love to hike Fernendez Ranch with you if you have time.
bill nichols February 11, 2011 at 03:52 PM
Scott: The sight of Castle Rock from Highway 24 near Lafayette on a clear day is amazing - it looks like a medieval castle at the foot of the great mountain - just another little reminder of the natural bounty which surrounds us. Keep up the great work. Bill Nichols
Scott Williams February 11, 2011 at 03:57 PM
Castle Rock is aptly named, and really does look like that from a distance. Thank you too for doing such great work keeping up our local natural bounty. We hiked up Sheppard's Canyon Yesterday, and it was gorgeous.
Lisa Gorrell February 11, 2011 at 08:02 PM
Great photos, Scott! Sure enjoyed the story about Smiles.


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