Tuesday, June 9, 2020

Acceleration Through Time: Down from Mount Diablo Summit to South Gate by the Juniper Trail

The light beacon at the Mount Diablo Summit

This is the second part of the post about my hike up Mount Diablo. The beginning is here.

When I came to live in the Bay Area 20 years ago I was drawn to Mount Diablo just as many other hikers and nature lovers around the Bay are. My first hike at this park was going up to the summit with Pappa quail and a friend. That hike we had started within the park, at the Rock City picnic area. About two years later I hiked up to the summit again with a friend and colleague. The second time, about 17 years ago, I had started at the North Gate. Since then I had reached the mountain's high area many times, but with my car. Now I made it up to the summit for the third time using my feet only. It took me much longer than I expected - the intense heat slowed me down considerably. Moreover, the stunning display of wildflowers along the trail was more than a good reason to take a slow pace and explore the sights more closely. I took my time, but here I was, once again at the summit of the most outstanding mountain in the Bay Area. 

At the Upper Summit lot there were only tired cyclists who had made it to the top and were lounging on the benches and stairs before embarking on their top speed glide down the road. The hikers I saw going up before me were nowhere to be seen, perhaps they went around the Mary Bowerman Loop.  The visitor center was closed as I expected it to be, but I was surprised to find that the way up to the roof and the observation platform was not blocked off, so I went all the way up to take the 360°view from there.
View west: The Golden Gate
It was late in the afternoon. The day was still very hot but up at the summit a pleasant breeze eased the heat. I wanted to stay longer there but knew I needed to start on my way down fairly soon. Still, I lingered up on at the observation platform, enjoying my solitude and the magnificent view.
View north: The Suisan Bay and Sacramento River estuary
The sun's position has caused my east and south shots to be almost uniformly blue. The Sierra Nevada snow-capped tops were just barely visible in my photo. I decided to manipulate the color balance to bring them out, which is something I don't normally do.
View east: The Sierra Nevada mountain. Color balance manipulated. 
I had to do the same thing to my south view shot to bring out the summit of Mount Hamilton with the round domes of the Lick Observatory. Mount Hamilton is in fact the highest mountain in the Bay Area, higher than Mount Diablo by only about 400 ft. The effect of standing alone which gives Mount Diablo its impressive looks and "island" ecology characteristics, and of course its high profile in local folklore, both traditional native and of the modern times.
View south: Mount Hamilto, Color balance manipulated. 
One other thing very visible at the summit was that the earwigs I've seen and felt on my way up were indeed part of some swarming or an infestation. The observation platform was matted with earwigs it was hard to walk without stepping on any. Most of them seemed dead, or perhaps they were just stunned. I refrained from checking their vital signs by hand. More earwigs kept dropping from the sky on the flat roof, and when a few more fell on me I decided to conclude my view appreciation and get off the roof.
Earwigs at the Mount Diablo Summit

Going Down: Juniper Trail

I needed to sit and rest for a while before starting on my way down. All the benches around the visitor center were occupied by exhausted bikers so I crossed the small parking lot and sat on the stairs leading to the connector trail between the Upper and the Lower Summit lots. I sat there for nearly half an hour, enjoying the bloom of a nearby canyon larkspur, snacking, hydrating, and chatting with a biker who was about to start his way down. He told me that he came over all the way from Sacramento to bike up the mountain while no cars were allowed on the road.
Canyon Larkspur, Delphinium nudicaule 
It was half past five when I eventually got on my feet and started down the connector trail. Almost immediately I had stopped because I noticed what looked to me like an unfamiliar species of lupine. As it turned out, it wasn't a lupine species despite the similarity of the leaves.
Indian Beardroot, Pediomelum californicum 
At the Lower Summit parking lot I needed to take another decision: should I go down the Summit Trail whence I came up? Or should I go down the Juniper Trail which overlapped the Trail Through Time and had different views and scenery? I decided to go down the Juniper Trail despite it being a half a mile longer route. I did not regret my choice despite having to press the clock lower down.
Juniper Trail upper trailhead
The Juniper Trail drops immediately into a steep slope covered by a thicket of small oak trees. The trail switchbacked to level the steepness but the actual challenge was the cover of dry leaves and thin gravel which made the trail very slippery.
Upper Juniper Trail
Exposed rocky areas separated the groves of oaks, allowing more sunlight through and supporting different vegetation communities. Once again I saw the western thistle, this time much closer to the trail. I selected an individual that shows nicely the hairs or 'cobweb' that characterizes this species.
Western Thistle, Cirsium occidentale
Down to the Juniper Campground, the Juniper Trail descends on the north-0facing slope of the mountain, where the vegetation is denser and greener. I've seen there a number of plants that I haven't seen coming up the south-facing Summit Trail.
Broad-leaved Lotus, Hosackia crassifolia 
On this side of the mountain the pipestem was still blooming as well. Summer is a few steps behind getting to the north side.
Pipestem, Clematis lasiantha
The trail leveled for a short stretch and I walked out of the woods and into a clearing. §the clearing wasn't all clear - a few large Coulter pines grew there, well spaced from one another. Some of them appeared dead, possibly victims of the boring beetle, but most of them seemed fine.

Coulter pines bear massive cones with very yummy pine nuts. It was too late to find any good pine nuts in the cones on the ground (I very rarely find any, the squirrels are quicker), but I did take a photo of one of these heavy cones.
 A cone of Coulter pine
After that the trail cascaded through some weathered ledges of greenstone. From previous hikes of this trail segment I knew I should see there the Brewer's rock cress and the western dog violet. I did find them where I have seen them blooming in previous hikes, but this hike was not at their bloom season.
Brewer's Rock Cress, Boechera breweri 
The greenstone out of which cracks these plants grew is a metamorphic rock of volcanic origin. It is also part of the complex geological story of Mount Diablo, as illustrated in the information posts along the overlapping Trail Through Time.
The heart-shaped leaves are of Western Dog Violet, Viola adunca
Below the greenstone ledges the trail plunged once again into the oak forest. Every now and then there was a small gap in the trees that was filled with tall, green undergrowth. Along this trail segment I saw many coast larkspur which I haven't seen at all along the Summit Trail. The larkspur was at the early stages of blooming and it was hard to find a plant with a good number of fully open flowers.
Coast Larkspur, Delphinium californicum 
Small patches of chaparral separated the oak forest areas. Chamise and gooseberry were the dominant members there, and the gooseberry was already past its bloom time and was sporting its underripe, spiky fruit.
California Gooseberry, Ribes californicum 
At one spot there was a large enough gap in the vegetation to allow a good look at the view down below to the north. I could see the Sacramento River and the big field of wind turbines north of it.

Further down the trail I came upon the Mount Diablo globe lily once more. I was no less happy to see it as I was coming up the Summit Trail. I don't think I can get tired of enjoying the sight of this special flower.
Mt. Diablo Globe Lily, Calochortus pulchellus 
As it turned out I haven't yet escaped the infestation of earwigs. Out of the trees they were still falling from the sky every now and then. At that point I was no longer bothered by that. It's raining earwigs, what of it? Totally normal. I brushed them off and moved on.
An earwig (male) on a Hop Tree, Ptelea crenulata 
The upper part of the Juniper Trail leads to the Juniper Campground. I've never stayed there overnight but I wandered through the campground several times during last hikes or sightseeing trips to Diablo State Park.
As I walked through the picnic area adjacent to the campground I saw something moving in the bushes. Then it came out to the open - a mature raccoon, female, bold and brazen, in broad day light. She approached me and stared at me with expectation. I snapped a few shots and backed away slowly. A part of bikers stood by and told me the raccoon was thirsty and that they gave her water. She was probably hungry too, and wanted to get food from humans. I didn't give her any and eventually she went to explore the nearest garbage receptacle.
Rocket Raccoon
I quickened my ace and crossed the campground to the other side where I picked up the continuation of the Juniper Trail.
The mountain slope over the Juniper Trail
Once again I was in an open grass area. The wildflowers there were mustards, vetch, and some California poppies that were already in the process of closing for the night. There were numerous trap spider wens hanging from grass stubs close to the ground, waiting for pray. Earwigs, perhaps?

A wide dirt road named Deer Flat Rd. continues east away from where the Juniper Trail splits southward. Four years ago I led my family hiking group from the Juniper Campground down the eastern slopes of the mountain, all the way to the North Gate Road. This time I turned south onto the lower Juniper Trail, which was now a narrow foot path of a mild grade doing through open grassland and small groves of trees.
The Juniper Trail
The Juniper Trail actually curves around the campground before continuing downhill. As I walked past the campground it occurred to me that I needn't have crossed it all the way to pick up the trail. I also remembered that I've been there one, in the flat area south of the campground that the trail passed through - it was the launch site of hang gliders. I was there many years ago with my family, watching hang gliders take off.
The Juniper Trail
Past the campground  the trail sloped mildly down through low chaparral of mainly chamise shrubs. The view was vast and grand but I had to pick up my pace and make time - the shadows were getting long. I hurried down but then had to stop and answer the phone - my young chika called to find out where I was and what was taking me so long. At that point I had to tell her that I won't be back home before nightfall.
After finishing the conversation I increased my pace. I was now racing the sun, seeing who will get off the mountain first.

The Juniper Trail
Not to say that I didn't pause here and there to look at some more wildflowers. Here for example, I found some wallflowers that were still in bloom. All those I've seen earlier on the Summit Trail were already done blooming.
Wallflower, Erysimum capitatum 
Coming down near the end of the Juniper Trail, the trail dips into a small creek area deeply shaded by laurel trees, some of them nearly horizontal, weighed down over the slope and the trail itself. I had to stoop a bit to pass under some of those low-arched boughs.
California Laurel, Umbellularia californica
It was pretty dark under the laurels, giving the impression of an early sunset. Once stepping out on the other side, the light was still bright enough. The sun has not yet set. It wouldn't be long now, though.
Blue Dicks, Dichelostemma capitatum 

Summit Trail on the way out: From Oak Knoll to the South Gate

The Juniper Trail connects with the Summit Trail not far from the higher intersection of the Summit Trail with the Summit Road, where I had over from the dirt road to the chaparral foot path on my way up. This time I turned downhill ad found that that trail segment that run inside a deep creek valley, was already dark. On the other hand, it was no longer hot.
The Summit Trail
I was no longer walking down. Rather, I was galloping. I could see the line of daylight retreating and I wanted to catch up with it. There were very few things that could have caused me to pause, certainly not wildflowers, all of which I have already seen on my way up. But the mushroom I haven't seen earlier.

The evening is when the quail come out into the open. I have heard their calls while walking up the mountain but it was on my way down that I finally got to see them.
California Quail
I caught up with the sun right just above the Mountain House hole site. there I also came between a pair of quail. the female was down by the trail, calling frantically to her male, who stood on the picnic table on the other side of the trail. Then the female calls became desperate, so I moved on hoping that the two would reunite behind my back.
California Quail, female
I continued past the ranger's residence, pausing very briefly to take my last wildflower photo of that day - a soap plant I had missed going up.
Amole, Chlorogalum pomeridianum 
Once again I was striding downhill in a sunny area - the open ridge with the coat of rippling grass. The grass shone in the soft evening sunlight and the tree groves looked almost black down the slope where the sunlight no longer reached. There were no longer any bicycle righters on the road, nor ranger cars. I was all alone and it was very, very quiet all around. The sun was nearly touching the horizon and I still had about three mies to get to the south gate.
The Summit Trail 
I hike alone often and don't normally get to thong about possible dangers but I admit that I wasn't all that thrilled about the possibility of being alone on Mount Diablo after nightfall. Random thoughts of coyote packs or mountain lions, or even wild pigs had crossed my mind. What I actually saw were lots of ants busy dragging dinner across the trail. A big improvement over earwigs.

I also disturbed a sole scrub jay who took advantage of the no humans time and went foraging in the middle of the trail. It flew away as I came galloping down the trail and shouted at me from its safe place on a pine tree branch.
Scrub Jay
I was almost running now, down the Summit Trail and the Staircase Trail, trying to keep pace with the receding daylight. As I crossed the South Gate Road I decided to continued along the road itself to get to the Live Oak Campground. It appeared to be a shorter distance than the hikers path of the Summit Trail there. I don't know hoe much time this saved me. Probably not more than five minutes or so. On the road however, I did see a sole wild turkey, snacking before roost time.
Wild Turkey
At the Love Oak Campground I had another surprise - a doe in the bushes and two fawns were crossing thread to join her. One of the fawns even pause to look at me for some time. My camera is fairly sensitive bu even so, most of my photos of that encounter came our blurry. It was getting too dark for photography.
I picked up the Dan Cook/Summit Trail and continued downhill, letting gravity take me down and bare slowing myself with my legs and poles. Wanting to spare my knees I used my hips to control my speed and half way down the steep Dan Cook Trail I was having pain in my lower abdomen and had to slow down my pace. I was surprised to see two people going up the trail. The nodded to me and I nodded back, not asking if they lived in one of the few residencies pithing the park. I assumed they were residents.
The sun beat me. When I saw a gap in the trees I saw that the sun had already set while I was under the canopies. All that was here to see was the red line of the horizon.
There is an hour of twilight between the sunset and the night's darkness. That hour was sufficient for me to make it to the South Gate and out of the Mount Diablo State Park. The last mile of walking to my car on the neighborhood road I did in the dark. It was after 21:00 when I got myself behind the wheel and regretted not to have brought my sandals to change into - my feet were very sore.
Despite the pain and my exhaustion I felt elated. I felt good about summiting Mount Diablo again, and this time from the very bottom, but this achievement came only second in my heart. On my way up and down I had walked through the natural history of the mountain and saw an astounding variety of wildflowers and other things. I felt I was truly on top of the world.

Many thanks to members of the California Native Plants Society for their help in identifying plants!


  1. Oh my! ticks, earwigs and walking in the darkness?! and you went up over a km in elevation!
    I'm glad you got home safely, and this really looks like an amazing adventure!

    1. I miscalculated how long this hike will take me. I was very slow going up and needed to almost run on the way down. I got out of the park before complete darkness. The trail is very clear, even if it was completely dark I don't think I'd have trouble finding the way out. So an adventure, yes, but not a dangerous one :-)

  2. The Western Thistle is very beautiful and it was nice to see all these animals (not the earwigs!) but the end of this hike sounds too risky...

    1. I was surprised to see so many earwigs. They are usually shy insects that don't like to be out in the open. I don't know what caused this infestation and why they were all out like that. I need to read about them a bit. They aren't among my favorite wildlife though.