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Mt. Diablo: misty history, clarion views

Times Staff Writer

MT. DIABLO is a mountain riddled with myths. Which is to say that much of what has been said about this Northern California peak is false.

The biggest and most repeated falsehood is that from its 3,849-foot summit visitors can see more of the Earth’s surface than from any other high point except Mt. Kilimanjaro in Africa.

You don’t have to be a geography nut to know that Alaska’s Mt. McKinley or any of Colorado’s mighty peaks easily top that claim.

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Visitors have also spread another tall tale that Mt. Diablo -- it means Devil -- was named by Spanish explorers who found a dead priest staked to the summit. The truth is that Spanish soldiers named it “Monte del Diablo” or “Devil’s Thicket” because they thought the Native Americans who deemed the mountain sacred evaded capture with the help of evil spirits.

Park rangers theorize that this is what happens when people love a place but can’t find the words to describe that special appeal. They exaggerate. They embellish. They make a mountain out of a molehill.

So off I went to Mt. Diablo State Park, 30 miles east of San Francisco, near Danville, on a warm February morning to experience this indescribable appeal.

A two-day storm had just ripped through the Bay Area, and gray clouds darkened the mostly blue skies. The paved road to the summit was closed because of icy conditions, so I threw on my backpack and began my march to the top, following a marked, single-track trail outlined on my park map.

At the trail head -- elevation 3,000 feet -- lush green plants covered the still-damp ground, beneath towering oaks and Gray Pines. But the summit, only two miles away, was a vision in white. Frost coated everything, including the radio towers on the peak. The difference in climate between the start of the trail and the summit couldn’t have been more dramatic.

At the crest of the first hill, the undisturbed snow that covered the trail showed I was the first to venture up the path since the storm. Ice coated the pine needles, turning the branches into crystal chandeliers that tinkled with every passing gust. Near the peak, the snow was light and fluffy.

A few hundred feet from the summit, the trail cut through a frosted thicket of pine and scrub oaks that formed a tight canopy, like a white tunnel, framed by green rolling grasslands and oak forests in the distance.

At the top, clouds swirled around the peak. Only when they broke briefly did I see the famed view: San Francisco’s skyscrapers and the Golden Gate Bridge to the west, the flat Diablo Valley to the east and the San Joaquin Valley in the distance.

The view was nice, but the journey to the top was the real prize. And there was more to come.

Ranger Jack Duggan later told me that Mt. Diablo held a special place in the lives of the Bay Miwok Indians, who believed Coyote, the trickster god, created their people on that mountain.

“So this is their Garden of Eden, the center of their world,” he said.

Near the park’s southern entrance -- off Mt. Diablo Scenic Boulevard -- Indian grinding holes riddle a campsite called Rock City. Duggan said there also are Miwok Indian caves, decorated with pictographs, near the southeastern end of the park, though he has never been there. He showed me the general location on a park map, which looked to be about a 3 1/2 -mile hike (some of it crossing private ranch land).

I headed out. After more than an hour of hiking over grassy hills and through oak-crowded canyon, I came to a knoll that overlooked a pasture with a dozen grazing cattle. On the other side of the pasture, a 30-foot-tall sandstone rock formation towered over a dense oak grove.

Those rocks, I thought, must be the Indian caves. As I hiked into the pasture, the cattle stood and turned to look at me. Their gaze made me nervous; there was no fear in their eyes. Defiance, maybe. But no fear.

“Good cows,” I called. “Good cows.”

I kept moving forward, but they held their ground. “Good cows!”

I quickened my pace and circled around them and into the oak grove.

Among the trees, I found the giant rocks -- as big as tractor-trailers -- pocked with huge, cavernous craters. The cavities had jagged edges and looked like the gaping maw of an angry rock monster. Though some of them were big enough to climb, they were still too small to match Duggan’s description.

It was getting late, and I had to make a hasty retreat to get out before the park closed at sunset.

Later Duggan told me I had found “wind caves,” created when water and wind ate holes in the sandstone. The wind caves were stunning but lacked the historical connection of the Indian tunnels.

So to the many unsubstantiated tales about Mt. Diablo, I’ll add mine: Somewhere in the southeast corner of the park, hidden in a dark grove of oak trees, the sacred caves of the Miwok Indians are guarded by an angry band of sentry cattle.

Cross at your own peril.

hugo.martin@latimes.com

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(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX)

Hitting the trail

DRIVE TIME

Mt. Diablo State Park, in Northern California, is 30 miles east of San Francisco. Take Interstate 580 east to California 24. Then take Interstate 680 south to Danville. Take the Diablo Road exit and drive three miles east to Mt. Diablo Scenic Boulevard. (The park also has a north entrance.)

BASICS

The park has more than a dozen hiking trails, twice that many fire roads, a Summit Visitor Center and museum (open 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. daily), art gallery and observation deck and the Mitchell Canyon Interpretive Center (open weekends and some holidays). There’s mountain biking as well as hiking and overnight camping. The park is open from 8 a.m. to sunset; day-use parking, $6.

TO LEARN MORE

California State Parks, (925) 837-2525, www.parks.ca.gov/page_id517. Mt. Diablo Interpretive Assn., www.mdia.org.


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