Saturday, June 04, 2005

MT. DIABLO STATE PARK: Eagle Peak's Island in the Sky


So where does a live-hard gamboler go in the Bay Area who is short on time, doesn’t want to waste a lot of time and energy driving, and yet demands a tough adventure with unparalleled scenery?

It hardly seems probable, but right in our back yard, in hill lands straddling the boundary of the Bay and the Central Valley, it is entirely possible to immerse yourself in a rugged mountainous landscape and escape the urban pressures of congestion, pollution, and gridlock. Just go check out The Mountain.

That would be Mt. Diablo. Or Tuyshtak, evoking the name given to the famous Bay Area formation by Chochenko Ohlone speakers. It means "at the day." Rising to a summit of 3,849 feet from its base at about 500 feet elevation, and with no competition in the immediate vicinity to speak of, Tuyshtak truly dominates from miles around in all directions.

Everyone is always shocked and impressed when told that the 360 degree view (on a clear day of course) is surpassed in sheer distance visibility (up to 200 miles) only by 19,340 footer Mt. Kilimanjaro in Tanzania, and that our "little mountain" (as Kit Carson is reputed to have uttered on espying the peak from a prominence near Carson Pass in the Sierra Nevada in 1844) has one of the largest "viewsheds”—a whopping 40,000 square miles!—in the Western United States.
It’s no wonder that Ohlone peoples north south east and west all turned to Tuyshtak for spiritual renewal and sacred cosmological allegory as the birth place of the universe. Or that it was later plotted as the fixed meridian for surveying vast portions of California land. And there it sits, the dominant Bay Area landmark. . .known and loved by many, but ignored and taken for granted by the vast majority.

Tuyshtak, to be sure, is a playground, a recreational wonderland for two-legged critters, but equally or more important, the 20,000 acre State Park (83,000 acres of open space land) is an ecological treasure-trove, an island in the sky providing habitat for more than a hundred species of animals and 650 different flowering plants. Mt. Diablo State Park harbors twelve species of endangered plants and animals as well, unfortunately, or maybe that’s fortunately; why, just the other week, the Mount Diablo buckwheat (Eriogonom truncatum), a plant presumed globally extinct for nearly 70 years, was discovered in remote reaches of the park by U.C. grad student Michael Park.

Tuyshtak is a rugged, scenic, primitive, geologically fascinating mountain, with a long cultural history of occupation and use. I love Tuyshak, always have. But hiking or biking there kicks ass every time. The goddesses of Diablo exact their price for the privilege of sharing her natural wonders, splendors and secrets.

The mountain’s broad contours encompass so much diverse land that you could choose a different hike each week and still not have hiked all its terrain in six months. My choice for this hike is Eagle Peak, at a seemingly modest 2,369 feet. I had never hiked it before and figured now was as good a time as any before it got too hot. But the route up was dry as a bone in the desert. . .and it’s only early June!

Mary was game to my suggestion. Sounded like a good rollick. What do we need for the six mile round-trip? Well, the usual—go prepared. Bring plenty of water and food, something warm. But did she wear her hiking boots or bring her sun block? NO! Did I? NO!. . .and, naturally, both were sorely needed as we climbed nearly 2000 feet on a rocky, unstable, slippery, downright scary trail in places. Tuyshtak is full of such challenges—you’ve really got to be desirous of tackling these trails, and you must do it with the utmost respect, or Tuyshy will kick your tushy without mercy. (Anecdote: on the way down, this hiker stumbled past us as I was snipping sage, and indicated his immediate need for food and water. He had underestimated Tuyshtak’s power to debilitate; for one, you’re pretty much totally exposed except for brief stretches through lower forests; and for two, it’s always higher, farther, and harder than you think, and of course, you didn’t bring enough food or water, dummy. Luckily, I still had 16 ounces of water to spare for him, plus an apple and a soy jerky stick that brought him back from the near-dead. We saw him later on picnicking at the Mitchell Canyon staging area, and he profusely thanked us for rescuing him. . .and did he offer us any of HIS food in gratitude? NO!—Go figure!)

Eagle Peak begins its unrelenting climb at a juncture just off Mitchell Canyon Trail. At first, it’s a lovely little uphill, winding stroll through oak, chaparral and grasslands, gradually turning to pine forests, scrub meadows and bare ridge lands. We encounter many wildflowers in bloom and lots of sweet fragrant plants—black sage and chamise most notably. Butterflies and bumblebees abound. Birds fly about and chirp up a storm—Mt. Diablo is one of the world’s (yes, the world’s) premier birding spots. Views of the surrounding countryside and civilization are juxtaposed, and then lost as the mountain envelopes us in pure, sweet nature.

At Twin Peaks (1,733 feet), we stop to rest, eat a bit, and admire the jaw-dropping views of the mighty Diablo massif to the south, consisting of Mt. Olympia (2,946 feet), North Peak (3,557 feet), and the main impressive West Peak, at 3,849 feet. Below us, the valleys and ridges provide dizzying, sweeping views. Some swallow-like birds dart in and about small caves on the reddish rock. They circle and swoop, clearly concerned about our presence, probably protective of hatchlings.

We continue onward and upward for the most torturous 600 feet of the trail to Eagle Peak’s non-descript summit. Given that neither of us have proper footwear, I’m surprised that we make it to the top. It’s slick loose stones and dirt. One slip and you’re on your butt, or quite conceivably, over the steep hillside. Plus, the sun is just brutalizing us by now. We spend a few minutes at the windswept tor, then retreat to lower and more hospitable climes—we find a hollow in the rock to rest and recover, just short of being wasted by sun, heat and fatigue. Recovery complete, we head back down.

As there is no natural waterway on this hike, indeed no hint of water anywhere, we are quite grateful to splash and dip in Mitchell Creek’s modest stream waters at the staging area. Aaaah, just the cure we need to complete a tough but satisfying day of hiking The Mountain.

For all photos, view slideshow at:
http://pg.photos.yahoo.com/ph/tomario@sbcglobal.net/album?.dir=/860b&.src=ph&.tok=phyMMHDBrwE4uRQc

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