I hadn’t been to Mount Diablo since my trip up Eagle Peak in November. But today was one of the first clear days after two weeks of daily rain, so Elizabeth and I took advantage of it with a quick morning hike to Mount Diablo’s Falls Trail.
When we started at 8:30 in the morning it was 46 with a clean blue sky marked only by a handful of puffy white clouds. The trees and grass were still wet and glistening from last night’s rain.
Everything felt fresh and new. And, in a way, it was. We are in the middle of the wet season and the hills are emerald green with young grass. The flowers are starting to bloom and the trees are ready to bud.
The trail was muddy, but the mud did no more than wet the bottoms of my shoes.
We started in the grasslands and savannas next to Donner Creek, where the valley oaks and blue oaks were still leafless. I’d walked along the creek plenty of times in the dry season, when it’s little more than a trickle you can just hop across. But today it was thick and full, reaching near its banks.
We stopped at an old cabin site next to the creek. All that remained of it was a small square foundation and a patch of daffodils. The flowers had apparently escaped from their garden and become naturalized, and now they were blooming with striking white and yellow flowers. They were evidence, Elizabeth said, that a woman had once lived in the cabin.
The rising sun stayed behind Mount Diablo. Gray pines formed spindly silhouettes against the sky uphill. Next to the trail, in the chaparral, was toyon, with its bright green leaves and bright red berries. The berries had been on the toyon for months, and by now most of them had been eaten. Next to the toyon was yerba santa: similar to toyon, but shorter and with darker, glossier leaves.
Higher up the trail, we had to cross Donner Creek. It was full enough that we considered taking off our shoes and fording it. But a network of logs and rocks strewn across it let us get to the other side with our feet dry.
While trying to cross the creek I saw the boughs of a redwood upstream. I nearly lost my balance and fell into the water. I’ve seen thousands of wild redwoods, and Mount Diablo is just too dry, too far from summer’s coastal fog, for them to grow. The nearest I’d ever seen one was in Redwood Regional Park, 15 miles to the west. Before today I would have wagered that the entire 180-mile Diablo Range, which includes Mount Diablo at its northern end, didn’t have a single wild redwood growing on it. But there they were: two redwood saplings growing next to the creek. I wondered how their seeds got there.
We turned onto the Falls Trail. Unlike the trails we’d taken so far, which were actually just dirt roads, the Falls Trail was an intimate single-track hugging the grassy hillside. A cool breeze came down from Donner Canyon ahead of us.
The falls were in the canyon somewhere. They grew louder as we hiked, but we couldn’t see them through the thick chaparral. But the next bend in the trail revealed them: a white streak, 10 feet tall, among the dark olive shrubs. Some more walking and we saw another set of falls, downstream from the first, and just as impressive, if not as tall.
The steep mountainsides were covered in short, thick vegetation. The morning air was still misty and water seemed to be everywhere. We felt as if we were trekking through a tropical cloud forest rather than the East Bay hills.
I’d assumed, without really thinking about it much, that we would walk by exactly one significant waterfall. Now I wasn’t even sure we’d get to do that. The terrain in the canyon in front of us was so rugged and folded that this might be the best view we’d get.
As I’d suspected, we couldn’t get close to the waterfall. The trail only got as close as a cliff where we could peek down at the fall. Well, there was a steep, loose, muddy path down the side of the cliff that might have given a better view of the falls, but we weren’t going to try it.
Content with our look at the fall, we continued our hike. Farther down the trail, we again heard the sound of rushing water.
Were there more falls? Through the woods we walked up to a stream flowing over a few feet of jagged gray rocks. Beautiful. We stopped to take them in.
We were halfway done with the loop. Time to walk back. In less than a mile, we would be on the dirt road again. No more falls, I thought.
We crossed the stream and climbed out of the canyon. But one more descent and we were next to a new set of falls. This was followed by another climb, another descent, and then more falls. I lost track of how many falls we saw.
As we finished the loop, we turned around to look back at the canyon. The falls were in a fantastic setting: steep green hillsides cut by lush ravines and punctuated by red-rock crags. What a great hike.
We’re nearing the end of the wet season, when the lengthening days and passing storms bring wildflowers. White and pink milkmaids bloomed near the falls. Indian warrior was popping up everywhere beneath the chaparral. Next to the Indian warrior were plants with long, thin leaves, but no flowers yet. Maybe they were star lilies, which I remembered seeing growing with Indian warrior on the other side of the canyon last spring.
We’d been in Mount Diablo’s shadow all morning. But now, on our hike down, the sun came over the summit and warmed our backs as the temperature moved up into the 50s. We even saw some buttercups that we’d missed on the way up. We finished our hike at 11:30, well rewarded for waking up early on a Saturday.