Friday, May 29, 2020

The Hidden Treasures of Mount Diablo's Back Side

Date: May 23, 2020
Place: Old Finley Rd. Mt. Diablo State Park, Clayton, California
Coordinates: -37.851333, -121.847075
Length: 4 miles
Level: moderate

The original plan we had for this long weekend was to backpack with friends, but then the COVID-19 arrived and messed up this plan. encouraged by the opening up of some parks and public lands, I thought it would be nice to go on our own and Pappa Quail suggested a regular camping trip. Apparently this was not to be because our cat got injured and as soon as we brought him back from the vet I returned all of our camping gear back to the shed.
Pappa Quail tried to cheer me up, saying that we would go an day hikes instead but on Saturday morning I found it very difficult to move my family away from their screen entertainment.
Our hike as captured by my GPS
Eventually we went out - Pappa Quail, myself and the younger chika. (the elder insisted on having alone time at home). I chose the destination - the back side of Mt. Diablo State Park. We drove through the single lane winding road through the Morgan Territory and squeezed our car into the narrow strip of dirt road shoulder by the trailhead (there's no actual parking area there). We took our cameras and plenty of water and started up Morgan Creek Rd. up the dry Jeremiah Creek.
Morgan Creek Rd.
My original thought was to go to Mitchell Canyon again, as I do nearly every spring to see the spectacular spring bloom there, including that of the endemic Mt. Diablo Globe Lily. The park, however, like other state parks at this time, is closed to cars and I didn't feel like walking all the way there from the nearby neighborhood. Besides, it gave us the opportunity to see another side of the park which we haven't yet hiked at.
I didn't see any globe lilies on this trail, but not far into the trail I already saw some pretty wildflowers.
Chinese Houses, Collinsia heterophylla
On of the best flowers I like to find on these shaded East Bay trails is the fritillary. Fritillaries however, bloom in March, so naturally I didn't expect to see any fritillaries. Well, as a matter of fact, I did find a few. Not blooming of course, but their fruit is very distinctive and beautiful.
Fruit of Fritillaria

It was a hot day and the lizards were very active, even in the shade of the oaks and laurels. I was very grateful for this shade, it eased our ascent up the creek slope.
Western Fence Lizard
As long as we followed the Jeremiah Creek the trail ascended mildly. Then the trail separated from the creek line and sloped up at higher grade. Moreover, the shading trees were left along the creek and now we were walking right under the sun.

In the half-shade cast by a few thin-leaved oak trees bloomed a patch of clarkia, the first I've seen this spring. I was happy to see these bright pink beauties.
Red Ribbons, Clarkia concinna
Another familiar late spring bloomer I saw there was the Ithuriel's Spear, tall enough to tower over the grasses.
Ithuriel's Spear, Triteleia laxa
The trail made had a few twists and turns but generally lead us uphill to the southeast direction. As we climbed higher the view opened up. It was already the beautiful summer scene in those East Bay hills, of yellow grass with patches of dark green live oaks, and deep blue sky overhead.

It wasn't all just grasses and oak trees though. Every now and then we passed a bush or a patch of tall dead annuals of last summer. Little birds chirped in and between these and Pappa Quail would pause to take photos.
Lesser Goldfinch, female
Even the ubiquitous dark-eyed juncos captured his attention.
Dark-eyed Junco
Pappa Quail was up ahead and I trailed behind, keeping a view of my young chika who walked up slowly, fitting with a stick in her hands and telling herself fantasy stories. I started thinking that soon we'll need to take a break when suddenly Pappa Quail let out a sharp call - he\d seen a coyote cross our path and running down the grassy slope toward a nearby tree.

The coyote stopped by the tree and looked back at us. We got together and watched it silently for some time. It sat down in the grass, looking at us still, and appeard as if it was waiting for us to move on, so we did.
We arrived at the top of the Morgan Creek Road and sat down for a well deserved break to drink, eat our snacks, and make the next trail choice. There were two possible loop trails we could hike in the time that we wanted to spend in the park, and I was outnumbered 2:1 for the final decision to take the shorter loop. So after our break we turned left (south) onto Highland Ridge Road.

This trail segment was fairly level and although not as shaded as the creekside one, was going through a nice grove of healthy oak trees with an undergrowth richer than savannah grass.
Sticky Monkeyflower, Diplacus aurantiacus
Much of that undergrowth was of course, poison oak. There was no problem avoiding it though, as the trail was a wide dirt road.

A gap between the trees allowed us a view ti the southeast. There I could see the high rise of the online Wilderness and Rose Peak. This backpacking trip still awaits me.

There were buckeye trees at peak bloom dispersed between the oaks. I love their chandelier appearance at this time of year.
California Bauckeye, Aesculus californica
From Highland Ridge Rd. we turned right onto Crestview Rd. for a short distance. The view was indeed spectacular. From this trail we had a nice, clear view of Mount Diablo itself. I had no idea at the time that on the following day I'd be hiking to the summit from outside the park all by myself.
Mount Diablo
The view from Crestview Trail also indicated how high we really were over the Tri-City Valley to the southeast.
Another thing I noticed from that viewpoint was a large rocky area down at Tassajara Creek to the northwest. It seemed to me that the loop trail that we didn't go on would go right through that area and I regretted aloud that we didn't take that longer loop trail.

Pappa Quail replied to my complaints with a shrug. he was busy focusing on something else.
Turkey Vulture
After 1/5 of a mile we turned right a gain onto Walnut Trail, a narrow footpath that descended steeply to the Tassajara Creek below.
Walnut Trail
We didn't go down all the distance to the creek but turned right again, onto Amhitheater Trail, that meandered along the slope's contour above the creek itself.
The grass was completely dry and I didn't have much hope of seeing wildflowers there but I was soon surprised by a beautiful patch of harvest brodiaea at peak bloom. All the flowers had at least one pollinator inside it, usually several. One of then however, harbored a small predator inside - a crab spider, waiting for its meal to come flying in.
A Crab Spider (and tiny beetle) on Harvest Brodiaea, Brodiaea elegans
Behind the patch of brodiaea I spotted another flower and my heart skipped a bit - it was a mariposa lily!
While I was paying close attention to this magnificent flower Pappa Quail and my chika had already moved quite a distance onward. Suddenly I heard them shout for me to come quickly. I shouted back that I saw a mariposa lily but I'm not sure they've heard me because they kept on urging me to come over.

I thought they had sighted something that might run away so I headed over quickly only to find out that they saw an entire patch of those mariposa lilies .... magnificent, yes, but not the kind of sight that runs away.
Yellow Mariposa, Calochortus superbus
The trail curved around the hill's contour and pasted through an oak savannah area of interior live oaks and blue oaks. We enjoyed what little shade they offered.

The oaks are home to many wildlife species. We didn't linger long enough to appreciate much of that but the birds at least, made there presence known.
California Towhee
The oak savannah areas were interrupted by patches of high chaparral of which the chamise was dominant. It was also chamise peak bloom time, but the loom wasn't as full as I've seen it in other years.

Even though the chamise didn't wear the snowy look, its minute, delicate flowers were still captivating.
Chamise, Adenostoma fasciculatum
We reached one of the tributaries of the Tassajara Creek. The trail run along the dry tributary where large boulders of graywacke stone poked through the grass. Once again we were walking between oaks, with the occasional Coulter pine here and there.

Large graywacke rock poked through the grass like huge gray monuments. They were either smooth or had irregular cracks  and chipped surfaces. One of the flatter rocks had numerous round holes. Two sets  of these, in fact. I gasped at the sight - these were grinding rocks! It was here that the local native people, the coast Miwok gathered to pound their harvest of acorns into a fine meal that would sustain them throughout the year. I had the chance to see a single grinding stone here and there, one even at the nearby Morgan Territory Regional Park, but the only place where I've seen so many of them together before was at the Indian Grinding Rock State Park (a territory of the interior Miwok).
Miwok Grinding Rock
While I was looking at the grinding rock Pappa Quail and he chika had moved on. They didn't come back to look at my sighting but Pappa Quail asked me if I was happy now that we chose the shorter loop trail after all. Yes, I was.

I wanted to spend some more time in the grinding rock place but it was getting late and Pappa Quail was urging me to get going. A short distance from the rocks we connected with the Old Finley Rd. and turned right (east). Once again we were out of the trees and in open dry grass savannah. There were less flowers there but I did find a few coast larkspurs, smaller than their healthy size.
Coast Larkspur, Delphinium californicum
The dirt road led us uphill in a mild slope cutting through the curves of soft, rounded hills. Everything looked summer dry, but then - a patch of green mustard in full bloom. The bright, lively yellow of the mustard blossom rimmed by the fresh green of its foliage stood out nicely against the straw- colored slopes.
Old Finley Rd.
I didn't see any surface water where the mustard patch was, but I guess there was more of it there through the rainy season, and closer to the surface. A single male red-winged blackbird did his courtship/territory show in the mustard, trilling his song to no one in particular.
Red-winged Blackbird
After we passed the mustard patch I turned around and the liked the view behind me. It is now the photo heading this blog post.
There's a trail intersection at the crest of the hill where we needed to go straight on Old Finley Rd. I was hoping to take a break at that trail intersection but when we got there we found no shade and no convenient place to sit so we continued on a little further to where the trail got closer to the trees once again.

A hawk and a few vultures circled the sky. They are big birds, but not big enough to provide good shade.
Red-tailed Hawk
Further down by the trail I saw a patch of brilliant purple bloom. I knew this plant even before coming close - it was a patch of European Vetch, an aggressive invasive weed like the mustard we saw earlier, and like the dry grasses that surrounded it.
European Vetch, Vicia disperma, non-native, invasive.
Had the Miwok of 3000 years ago came alive now they would not have recognized the vegetation - so much it has transformed since the Spanish settled here.
Old Finley Rd.
Eventually we came near the trees again and sat down for a short break. As we got up to go again Pappa Quail noticed a single turkey crossing the path below us. The wild turkey too was brought to California by the American settlers who wanted game to hunt. The turkeys thrive here and are a common sight in the East Bay hills.
Wild Turkey
The road descended faster and once again we were walking in the shade of the oaks. At this time we were walking faster, stopping for less sightseeing. The shadows were deepening but the heat wasn't letting off yet.
Old Finley Rd.
I noticed a movement in the trees down the slope and called Pappa Quail's attention to it. I'm not sure he saw exactly what I saw but he did see a cute little nuthatch there.
White-breasted Nuthatch
Old Finley Rd ends with a gate at the park's boundary beyond which is private property and a big 'Keep Out' sign. S narrow foot path splits off and follows the fence back to the trailhead where we were parked. This little trail was the hardest to tread of the entire hike - it was eroded and slippery and flanked by poison oak that grew right into the path. I needed to walk down it very carefully. 

But there, between the leaves-of-three I also found the loveliest blue dicks flowers I've seen on that hike. It was a pretty sight to finish with a pretty hike in a less known a part of Mt. Diablo Park.
Blue Dicks, Dichelostemma capitatym
Mount Diablo State Park is a very surprising place. Within the park there's an amazing and diverse nature as well as human history. It has an extensive trail system of which I know only a little because I usually return to the same trails again and again. This time I had the chance to see a part of this park that's away from the beaten path and it was a very good one. 
Inspired, I was back in Mt. Diablo State Park on the next day too.


  1. I hope the cat is OK...
    the Crab Spider on Harvest Brodiaea is great

    1. The cat is fine now. It took about a week of medicating him but he's ok now. I slap loved best the crab spider inside the brodiaea!