Exploring Pine Canyon - Diablo Foothills Regional Park

There aren't many years when, during the Dog Days of Summer, a hiker can comfortably spend much time out in the hills surrounding Mt. Diablo. But with a heavy marine layer keeping temps sane, I took the opportunity to visit Diablo Foothills Regional Park for a roll on one of my favorite short, easy hikes.

Diablo Foothills is only minutes from downtown Walnut Creek, which makes it a favorite among local hikers, bikers and equestrians.

To add value and thousands of acres of explorability, Foothills connects directly to Mt. Diablo State Park as well as Walnut Creek's Shell Ridge Open Space. The hike today will take us from the parking area at the end of Castle Rock Road and through wonderfully shaded Pine Canyon along the Stage Road Trail. You can take it from here and avail yourself of the possibilities that arise as you leave your car.

The trail starts as a paved road leading to and through another regional park facility, Castle Rock. Castle Rock is a reservable group site or a drop in recreation area. For details and to make reservations for your company picnic or event, call 1 (888) EBPARKS (1 (888) 327 - 2757). As I roll through Castle Rock, I revel that it's only mid - 80's on an August afternoon. Perfect! The canyon awaits.

As the paved road ends, a soft dirt trail takes over. Once through the next gate, you'll start up a short hill over rock slabs and pebbly bits. I get great traction on bare rock, and tend to stay on those slabs as often as I can. It's quiet this early afternoon, and rounding a corner, I notice a doe just off the trail. She looks at me, turns and runs off. Sometimes I have that affect on animals. I stop for a minute, and take in the feeling of being far away from civilization. It's quiet, except for the birds and bugs. At a "Y" in the road, bear left on Stage Road.

I've had several great photos taken at Diablo Foothills. You'll find a few on my home page here at ebparks.org. I've taped TV segments here because Diablo Foothills gives me a chance to play on rocky roads as well as show off Pine Canyon. The novice hiker can put on some easy miles here, with the chance to see just about anything out of Nature's coloring book. Rolling past a very obvious hole in the rock to the right of the trail, I get to play on the sandstone before dropping into the shaded heaven of Pine Canyon. Once past the rocks, you'll find an almost endless canopy of deciduous shade trees lining the trail. It's an easy push, though, which gives me more time to watch for birds and animals. This is a great trail to stop, look and listen frequently - the array of visiting critters is extensive.

As for those birds - today's star were the quail, big families of them running across the trail in many places. Clusters of them featured this year's crop of youngsters. Quail are fans of brush and low trees. Plenty of both will be found on either side of the trail. The creek is dry through Diablo Foothills in the warm, dusty summer. That makes stream crossings easy for me. I have fun in spring when the creek's flowing, but have to admit I was ready for an easy series of crossings this time of year. Some pools still survive, and when you come across them you'll find a good showing of tadpoles as well as an occasional garter snake. All the while, you'll be serenaded by small songbirds and the loud yakking of Scrub and Stellar's Jays shouting from the trees. As quiet as it can be here, stop by the side of the trail for a few minutes and take in all that's singing, walking, soaring, chirping...combined with the wind cruising through the trees it can have a symphonic air.

Stage Road continues on a relatively flat topography, through the stream bed several times and past huge rock formations to the immediate north. Up there, you'll see gliding raptors - red tail hawks and many others - floating in the breeze. Pick an open spot and look up. From hawks to falcons to golden eagles, all call Diablo Foothills their home. The wildlife in the foothills is abundant. A lot of the appeal of this trail is simple - what might I see today?

As I moved closer to the Mt. Diablo gate, I looked down to see a tiny, dark snake moving across the trail. It was only 8 inches long, and as I closed on it got a look at the orange band around its neck - this was a regular Diablo resident, the Pacific Ring Necked snake. It's harmless, but while its topside is a dirt - colored brown, its underside is ablaze with bright orange, to match its neck ring, I presume. They are beautiful snakes, and quite benign in their demeanor. I labeled this snake my "find" for the hike.

The round trip from car to the State Park entrance gate and back is almost 3 miles. It's a perfect wake up hike, for you early risers who want to be at one with trees and nature first thing in the morning. It's also a perfect pre - dusk hike, as the twilight brings out a different community of residents with which to share your experience. As always, pack plenty of water, snacks, sunscreen and a camera. Keep in mind that as you reach the State Park gate and the picnic tables just before you leave the Foothills, you may be so struck with your time here that you keep going. Pine Canyon is a wondrous place, an easy hike, a fine site to sit and listen to the sounds of life going on all around.

The last feature I have to address will be immediately obvious - it's the wonderful smell of the air. Lest I seem spoiled sometimes by the fragrance of the Sierra pine and fir forests, the dry grass coupled with several species of deciduous trees will quickly remove the suburban traffic odors from your memory. Just in case you're having trouble deciding what time of day to go, the smell is much stronger, and more to my liking early in the morning. It's motivating - trust me on that.

As always, every hike need not be difficult to be tremendously rewarding. Stage Road at Diablo Foothills is a favorite because of the immensity of experiences one can engage in just a short distance. Each time you go you can expand out to some of the loop trails into Mt. Diablo and Shell Ridge. This is a park that will call you back for more - a longer trail, a different look, another time of day, a new season. Each time you visit, something new will be there to greet you. I hope your visit is as good as mine. See you on the trail!