Cover Story - June 10, 2005
Escape to Mount Diablo
Two novice campers explore the joys of our local state park
by Casey Reivich
It's hard to believe peace and tranquility are only a stone's throw away. Even though we are at the foot of Mount Diablo, it's probably not the first place that comes to mind to go camping. For a real rugged, woodsy experience we want to go to Yosemite or Mount Shasta. But Mt. Diablo State Park? That's only 10 minutes away! The Danville Weekly wanted to find out what it would be like to camp at Mount Diablo. Would it feel more like camping out in the back yard and less like being in the wilderness? When my editor first gave me the assignment, I was excited. I am not a camper. In fact, I've never actually camped before, but I like to hike and be outside so I thought I would enjoy it. I happily accepted the assignment, picturing myself as an intrepid outdoorswoman - pitching tents, spotting rare animals. It then dawned on me, however, that my husband, Noah, and I didn't own one piece of camping equipment. No tent, no sleeping bags. I figured we could just sleep in the back of our car. Luckily, a colleague at work was an experienced camper and loaned me two sleeping bags, mats, a tent, cooking equipment and two lanterns. Planning a camping trip to Mount Diablo is quite easy. In the summer, if you're going to camp on the weekend, which we did, it's recommended to spend an extra $7 to make a reservation through Reserve America. If you camp during the week, a reservation is probably not necessary. It's $20 per night to camp at the park, which includes the price of bringing one vehicle in to the park; a second car is an additional $6. You can go to Reserve America's Web site www.reserveamerica.com or you can call (800) 444-PARK (444-7275). The reservation doesn't guarantee campers an exact site, but it guarantees that a site will be available. There are three family campgrounds: Juniper, Live Oak and Junction. Each site can accommodate up to eight people. Juniper and Live Oak have picnic tables, fire pits or stoves, and restrooms with showers and flush toilets. Junction campground is available on a first come-first served basis only. It does not have showers or flush toilets. For larger groups, there are five group camps throughout the park. These group campgrounds have pit toilets and no showers. But campers from all campgrounds are welcome to use the showers at Juniper and Live Oak. There are a few ground rules to camping at Mt. Diablo State Park. Campers must call the park at 837-2525 or 837-0904 ahead of time to check on the park's fire status. The park closes when the fire danger is extreme. Campers should also leave the vino behind: Alcoholic beverages are prohibited at the park. The campgrounds are set up mostly for tent camping, but they can accommodate RVs and tent campers up to 20 feet in length. We chose to camp at the Live Oak campground. A lot of families camp there because it's a shaded campground that is close to the rock formations and wind caves in Rock City. Juniper campground, while more exposed, is 3,000 feet above sea level. The view from that campground is spectacular. State Park Ranger Carl Nielson later told me that because Juniper is above the fog, it is sometimes warmer than Live Oak, which can be foggy. Saturday was sunny and beautiful, a perfect day to camp. Unfortunately, Noah and I got a late start to the day, but we knew the first priority of our camping trip: food. We went to the grocery store and bought hotdogs, baked beans, charcoal for the pit and the holy trinity of graham crackers, marshmallows and Hershey's chocolate. I was particularly excited to share this American snack with my British husband. He had never tried a s'more before and only imagined it to be as strange and unnatural as that other American concoction: the peanut butter and jelly sandwich. We were packing the food and soon realized we had no way to keep things cold. We had been loaned a small thermal sac, but we didn't have any icepacks and even if we went out and bought them they wouldn't freeze in time. We improvised and filled baggies with ice and just hoped they'd keep the food cool. We finally rolled up to the Southgate kiosk at around 3:30 p.m., quite a bit later than we had planned. Our car was packed to the hilt. It must have looked as if we were moving to Mount Diablo. The ranger at the gate had our reservation and gave us a warm welcome to the park. Live Oak is a short distance from the Southgate entrance. It was more private than I expected. If you wanted to keep to yourself there was plenty of room, but you were also close enough to be social. By the time we rolled in at 3:30 p.m. most of the campsites were taken, but Noah and I eventually found a great spot. All of Live Oak is well-shaded and the campsites are nestled on a slight slope that leads up to Rock City. The campground was bustling with families and Boy Scout troops. Noah and I pitched our first tent. Luckily the ground was soft, due to rain earlier in the week. We had forgotten a hammer for the pegs, but we were able to push the pegs in with our feet. I expected tent assembly to be complicated and confusing, but we put it together easily. Actually, Noah assembled it while I read the directions. After setting up, we decided to go for a late afternoon hike. We saw signs to Summit Trail, which sounded perfect. Maybe we wouldn't make it to the top, but at least we'd see some great views on the way up. We were so busy admiring the lushness of the trail, the wildflowers peppering the hills, and the beautiful views of the land below lit intensely by the low afternoon sun that we neglected to notice how easy the hike was on our legs. For a trail to the summit, we weren't getting much of a workout. Suddenly, after about 45 minutes, the trail dumped us out onto a road that we took to the Southgate. After examining our map, Noah and I realized we had been hiking down the mountain instead of up! On our way back to Live Oak, we realized that we had forgotten two crucial items for our upcoming dinner: a knife and a spatula. An Eagle Scout probably could have figured out how to improvise the meal without a knife and a spatula, but it was obvious at this point that we were no Eagle Scouts. My husband and I hemmed and hawed, then figured because it was only 6:30 p.m. and the park closed around 8 p.m. that we had time to run home and get the necessary items. For a second, I felt terribly guilty. If the point was to get away from it all and really have the camping experience, wouldn't we break the spell if we left the park, got on the freeway and went home? But I figured that was the advantage of camping so close. If you forget something crucial like a spatula, home is only a 10-minute drive away! When we returned from our short jaunt out, the park ranger, who had welcomed us earlier in the day, looked a little puzzled, but he was nice enough not to say anything. While Noah set up the charcoal pit, I walked around to see who else actually camped at Mount Diablo. Anne Zebur was camping with her daughter and son-in-law and their family. Zebur lives in Oakland and it was her first time at Mount Diablo. While she herself did not camp that often, her daughter and son-in-law were experienced campers. They typically camped at places like Mount Whitney and Mount Shasta. Boy Scout troop 146 was visiting from El Sobrante. They were at Mount Diablo to rock climb. The boys had to cook their own food, set up their own tents, and remember to leave no trace after they left. In the morning the Scouts were rappelling down Sentinel Rock. "Mount Diablo is an incredible resource," said troop leader Joel Baron. Alison Bridger and Mathiue McGillvray of Berkeley were staying at Live Oak for two nights. "It's our first time here. We drove to the summit center and hiked to North Peak," they said. "We haven't been camping for a while. Mount Diablo is close. We wonder if we should come again." Becky Ledford of San Mateo and Scott Hluhanich of San Francisco had heard of Mount Diablo from various hiking books. "It's close, which is nice. There are extensive trails, and sometimes you just need to get out of the city," said Hluhanich. Ledford and Hluhanich also appreciated being able to reserve a spot at Live Oak. They thought the site itself was secluded and protected from the wind. They did, however, feel that some of the trailheads were not marked out well. Luckily, they were helped by a friendly park ranger. "The park ranger we spoke to was awesome and very helpful." The only local campers I met that day were Tony and Pamela Ertassi from San Ramon, there with their daughters Rachel and Renee. "It's close. It takes 15 minutes to get here, but we still feel like we're far away," said Tony. The Ertassis were relaxing outside their tent trailer and let me have a look inside. It seemed like the only way to camp. The trailer had a heater, beds for the parents and the children, and a sink. As my husband and I ate dinner, we were both struck by the simplicity of camping. We were sitting in near darkness with only a small lantern illuminating the table. There is something about eating outside on a cool crisp night, with the smoky smell of charcoal and wood burning that stirs the appetite. Our hotdogs and baked beans were perfectly satisfying. We toasted marshmallows and I made up Noah's first s'more. He loved it at first bite. I could only finish two s'mores, but Noah happily ate about three or four. We washed up in the bathrooms at the bottom of the campground. At the end of a busy day, we were glad we were sleeping in a tent with warm sleeping bags rather than the back of our car. At 7 a.m. we woke to the sound of squawking children. The kids were already up playing in Rock City. The showers at Live Oak were clean and easy to use. The water was warm, and there wasn't a line to use them. Once we finished breakfast and packed up the tent we explored Rock City. We could see immediately why children have such a blast there. It is a natural wonderland. I climbed Sentinel Rock and looked out into the canyon. It was going to be another beautiful day. Ranger Nielson told me later that there is a lot of history at Rock City. Beyond the name etchings from campers past, sometimes you can spot Native American mortars in the bedrock. The Native Americans who used to live at Mount Diablo would grind their acorns in these mortars. No trip to Mount Diablo is complete without winding up the road to the summit. The summit was crowded that day. Noah visited the summit museum, which has information on the history and ecology of Mt. Diablo State Park. From the summit we could see the Golden Gate Bridge, the skyline of San Francisco, the ocean and the snowcapped Sierra. It is truly an awesome view. Noah and I had a fantastic camping experience at Mt. Diablo State Park. It's hard to believe such a natural treasure is only 10 minutes away. The next time we camp at Mount Diablo we will explore the park even more - and we won't forget the spatula! Other recommended hikes and sites Sentinel Rock in Rock City: After you've explored the wind caves, climb to the top of steep Sentinel Rock. There is a staircase and a railing. Fossil Ridge: See if you can spot the fossils at Fossil Ridge. Fire Interpretive Trail: The trail is accessible at the lower lot of the summit. It goes completely around the upper elevation of the mountain and offers 360-degree views. Wildflowers: It's the tail end of wild flower season, but you can still spot Mariposa Lilies, California Poppies, and Chaparral Currant on the trails. Fauna: Look for wildlife like coyotes, gray foxes, bobcats, and deer. Tips for camping at Mount Diablo Bring insect repellant and sunscreen: Repellent will help with those pesky mosquitoes at night and will help keep ticks away. There's plenty of sun at Mount Diablo. Be sure to put on sunscreen. Avoid poison oak: Poison oak is common at Mount Diablo. Follow the rule, "Leaves of three, let it be." Check for ticks: After a hike, check yourself for ticks. Wildlife: Foxes, coyotes and bobcats are usually harmless. Mountain lion sightings are extremely rare, but they do live on Mount Diablo. If you see one, do not run. Make yourself look big and make noise. Store your food in a locker or your car: If there isn't a food locker at your campground, store food in the car. Do not store food in your tent. You don't want a raccoon coming into the tent! Always keep your kids close.