In the Foothills of Mt. Diablo

There is something special about this place that keeps calling me back. I've been to this park numerous times in the last few months, and I've led others there too.  It's close enough to be accessible, yet remote enough to maintain its sense of wild. 

Because of the verdancy and spring energy of the place right now, I've been starting out my hikes with an intention, and more specifically, an expectation.  I intend to be overwhelmed with the beauty of nature. I expect to experience something spectacular and unexpected. I am open to seeing the chaos and change happening right in front of me. 

The first time I visited, it was a beautiful morning, but cool and foggy. Low fog is good for a photographer. I am able to minimize the harsh contrast of full sun, and the beauty of the hike is revealed slowly. Nature uses fog like giant stage curtains. The density hides, then teases, and finally reveals. Often, little shards of sunshine pierce the fog and dapple the hills with a dancing light.

I parked in the Orchard Staging Area. Surrounded by rolling hills and horse farms,  Diablo Foothills Regional Park is a popular place, but quiet in the early morning. Near the trailhead, horses whinny and snort, and it feels like the old west. Riders saddle up, and a little breeze brings the stables closer to me. The gate to the trail is on the south end of the parking lot. Right through the cattle gate, I took an immediate right, and climbed up the cattle pocked Castle Rock Trail. At the split, I noticed this old black oak, starting to awaken from his winter slumber, he still seemed to be in a fog.

I took a left and climbed up the Diablo Scenic Trail. An almost orderly oak forest stood tall on my right, while the hills off to my east were dark with fog and water heavy clouds. 

The fog made me feel like I was sitting with a theater audience before a show. The curtains are closed, but there is a buzz of anticipation and excitement.  Once, I made a mistake of thinking that the fog hid things.  Now I know that it reveals.  

A third of a mile up the trail is a bench. It's a good place to contemplate the mysteries and history of the place. First settled by the Bay Miwok natives, it was later claimed by the Mexican government in 1821. This was part of a ranch called Arroyo de las Nueces y Bolbones (Creek of the Walnuts and Indians).  

Stories and mythology abound here.  As I continued my hike, I came across El Corazon Roto, The Broken Heart. According to the legend, you can only see El Corazon Roto when you are ready, and in the proper light. It must be foggy, a kind of fog they call Niebla de la Desesperacion, The Fog of Despair. In bright light, the stone is flat and almost colorless. The pinks and reds that bleed through in the fog, and the hole in the heart, are the signs of a transitory state. The legend claims that if you see El Corazon Roto, the healing love you seek will enter your life soon. 

In this park, the oaks cover the hills as they have for countless generations. The beauty of the season is the revealed structure of the many leafless forms. The young have simple lines, while the old giants showcase the corkscrew curls of their distant reach. Hiking along these Oaks can be amusing. If you can speed up the progression of time in your mind, you can almost see them waving their arms and blinking at you.

Half a mile in to the hike, I started a steep climb up the hard, rocky trail. Bees and hummingbirds buzzed the flowering bushes along the edge, while off in the distance the valley opened up. Far away, the Castle Rock giants blinked their ancient eyes.

I took a left on to the Shell Ridge Trail. Up here is another memorial bench, with an interesting quote. If you make it to this bench, and take in the view, you will be validating the quote on the bench. 

Families of quail, squawking scrub jays, and northern mockingbirds took note of my visit. The jays annoyance made me feel aware of the distance between myself and the environment around me. However, we can sometimes experience moments of greater awareness and recognition in nature.  It happens when we allow ourselves to escape from the artificial boundaries we've created that separate us from the natural world. It is an experience that connects the senses like converging streams, and for as long as the moment lasts produces a flowing river of connection. 

I have these moments more often now, because I seek to invite them, and recognize them when they arrive.  The secret of escaping in to these moments is to open your senses. Visually, we become filled with overwhelming beauty. We hear the conversation of the creatures; breathe in the oak, the wildflowers, the mosses and the lichen. The fog and the air have a sweet taste, and everything we touch is an experience. Out in nature, all is alive, or is the structure or nourishment of new life.  

We see the change happening right in front of us, and we can’t ignore it. Is that old oak still in its ascendancy, or is declining now? The hills are green only for a moment. Boulders have tumbled here and there. Their resting place is temporary.  

Up along the ridge line, an observer rests silently, maybe knowingly. The face is blank but alive. The mossy beard changes with the light and fog, and the face is revealed only to the aware observer. Is the face an accident of nature or the aged creation of distant ancient hands? 

Off in the distance, other hikers give some scale to the scene. It is a humbling reminder of our physical significance on nature’s scale. We can let go of our hubris out on the trails. It serves no purpose other than remind us of nature’s indifference to it. 

This area has interesting boulders and rocks, tossed and scattered a hundred or a thousand or many thousands of years ago. I follow the lines of the boulders, study their mosses and lichen. I seek shapes and faces in the trees and rocks. They're everywhere if you look.

 The rocks and boulders seem scattered around like forgotten toys. The trees wrap their roots around the buried boulders for stability, and even absorb minerals from the leeching rock. Sometimes it appears that the trees are using the boulders to guide their growth.

Shell Ridge trail has hearty climbs and steep descents. Every step is an opportunity to balance. I slid on the surface layer a few times, especially during steep descents. The trails pass through beautiful oak groves full of black oak, coast live oak, canyon live oaks and others. Oaks are a necessary and vitally important part of the food chain, and acorns were a major component of the native Ohlone and Bay Miwok diets. 

I walked down a steep hillside. Up on my left, a small herd of cows looked at me lazily. I turned around and saw a few interesting trees. I put down my tripod and bent over to compose a shot. Out of the corner of my eye I saw movement. 

When I focused, I saw a beautiful Bobcat. I sensed it was female, but don't know for sure. I didn't move. I wasn't frightened at all; it was only a bit larger than a house cat. She paused for a few moments, seeming to ignore me. The only movement I made was to take a few steps to my left, for a better view. I only had a wide angle landscape lens, so I couldn't zoom in any further. I stood there and let her be, and just appreciated this beautiful gift. 

The cat stood, framed by the dead branch of a tree. I took a few pictures and moved little. She became comfortable with my presence, and to my surprise she settled down. I watched her for a while as she looked around. I stayed as still as the oaks around me, moving only slightly to press the camera shutter. 

She was such a graceful and confident little cat. I don’t know exactly how long I watched her there, but she heard them before I did. She stood up lazily and sauntered off up the hill, as a loud cacophony of hikers approached from the other direction. 

The bobcat was in the valley, and I continued on to climb the Shell Ridge trail back up to the ridge line. I took some time to view the unveiling of the hillsides. By now the sun's rays were puncturing the fog, breaking through in points to illuminate the valley below.

I watched in awe as a hidden brush painted the hills with light, adding a glow here and there and smudging it back over again with the fog. The invisible artist put on a live show for me, and I took it in. It's what I do every time. 

Diablo Foothills Regional Park

Route of this hike:

From the Orchard Staging Area

Start at the Castle Rock Trail

Immediate Right on Castle Rock Trail along the fence

.09 miles, keep left at split

.12 Left on to Diablo Scenic Trail

Oak Forest on the right as you climb

.28 Right to climb up Diablo Scenic Trail

.33 Bench with scenic vista

Climb here

.48 Start of steep climb

Views of the valley of the oaks and Castle Rock in the distance

.54 Bees and hummingbirds all over the flowering shrubs

.61 Top of hill

Left on to Shell Ridge Trail

.66 Walk along the ridge line and then sit on the bench and enjoy the views of Castle Rock and the rolling hills

.71 Keep Right at the split

.75 Quail startled, and they chatter

.84 Right on to Shell Ridge Trail

.94 Ridgeline, views and poppies

.97 Face Rock, Start Descent, Views of Castle Rock

1.17 Beautiful Oak Forest and views of rolling green hills

1.28 Bobcat, valley floor, squirrels

1.38 Left at split to stay on Shell Ridge Loop Trail

Ground is sandy like a beach

Start climb again

1.54 Farm house in distance

1.69 Keep left at split

Climb here

Busy squirrels on hillside

1.78 Right on to Shell Ridge Trail

1.93 Rolling hills in the distance

2.01 Keep left on Shell Ridge Trail

2.28 Keep Right at split

2.41 Left at Castle Rock Trail

2.53 End