San Francisco Area Hikes

Mount Diablo State Park: Mitchell Creek-Eagle Peak Loop
By Jane Huber
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Key Info
Length : 7.8 miles
Configuration : Loop
Difficulty : Strenuous
Scenery : Chaparral, creek, views of the park from Eagle Peak
Exposure : Almost all full sun
Traffic : Moderate around the trailhead and on Mitchell Canyon Road, light farther afield
Trail Surface : Dirt fire roads and rocky trails
Hiking Time : 5 hours
Season : Any time but summer; exceptional wildflowers in spring.
Access : Pay a $2 fee (self-register) at the entrance gate.
Maps : Obtain the official park map, or better yet, the Trail Map of Mount Diablo State Park and Adjacent Parklands , published by Mount Diablo Interpretive Association, at the Mitchell Canyon Interpretive Center (open weekends). No maps are available when the Interpretive Center is closed.
Facilities : Rest rooms and drinking water available at the trailhead
Special Comments : A trekking pole is handy for the Eagle Peak traverse. Check for ticks from late spring through autumn, when the grass is high. Dogs are not permitted.

In Brief
This creek to peak Diablo tour begins at Mitchell Canyon and climbs on fire roads, easily then steeply to Murchio Gap. Here the fun really begins on a rollicking single-track excursion over knife-edged Eagle Peak. From the exposed peak top, enjoy views of the park, then continue downhill at an often steep grade, back to the trailhead.

Depart San Francisco on the Bay Bridge and use the toll plaza as the mileage starting point. About one-half mile past the toll plaza, bear right onto I-580 East. Drive 1.5 miles, then exit onto CA 24. Drive east about 12 miles on CA 24 to the I- 680 split, then exit onto Ygnacio Valley Road. Travel east on Ygnacio Valley Road about 8 miles, and turn right onto Clayton Road. Drive south about 1 mile, then turn right onto Mitchell Canyon Road. Continue to the trailhead at the end of the road, about 1.5 miles.

Mitchell Canyon is a popular staging area for long Diablo hikes. From here you can make an all-day excursion to Diablo's summit, a 14-mile round-trip from 590 to 3,849 feet and back again—one of the Bay Area's toughest day hikes. The trek to Eagle Peak does not have the same cache as the bottom-to-top hike, but I prefer the shorter loop. When the long trek to the top of Diablo nears the summit area, you'll commonly cross paths with loads of visitors around Juniper Campground and hear and see cars on a trail running parallel to Summit Road, jarring contrasts to the quiet found on most of the mountain. Eagle Peak is peaceful and lonely, far from the developed parts of the park, and provides excellent hiking with awesome views.

Begin from the trailhead on the signed Mitchell Canyon Trail. As you pass through the gate, pick up the Mitchell Canyon Trail Interpretive Guide, an excellent accompaniment to the first 2 miles of this hike. The broad fire road starts out climbing gently through grassland dotted with blue, coast live, and valley oak. At 250 feet, Mitchell Rock Trail begins on the left, the return leg of this loop. Continue straight on Mitchell Canyon Trail. In spring you may see sticky monkeyflower, Chinese houses, paintbrush, and Ithuriel's spear in bloom along the trail, blended through a mixture of oaks, pines, and chaparral plants, including sagebrush, California coffeeberry, poison oak, and pitcher sage. At 0.6 miles, the Black Point Trail departs on the right. Continue on the Mitchell Canyon Trail, where the trail's namesake creek runs along the left side of the fire road, and pockets of riparian trees willow and alder are common. Swallowtails were out in abundance on my May hike, along with variable checkerspots and mylitta crescents, flitting to and fro. In spring look for Mount Diablo fairy lanterns, a yellow globe lily found only on and around Mount Diablo. On other Diablo hikes I had seen a few of these fairy lanterns, but all along the length of the Mitchell Canyon Trail I saw dozens and dozens of them, as well as staggering amounts of wind poppy, a beautiful four-petaled orange flower.

On the right, Red Road drops down from Black Point at 0.9 miles-once again, continue on the Mitchell Canyon Trail. As the canyon broadens slightly, views begin to unfold uphill to the left of rocky, steep-sided Eagle Peak. The fire road begins to climb with a bit more purpose, somewhat shaded by coast live oaks and a few big-leaf maple, buckeye, and California bay. At about the 2-mile mark the grade picks up significantly, and although there are some nearly level stretches, the climb is a long, sustained one. Stay alert for cyclists descending. On warm days every bit of shade and cooling breeze are welcome. With the creek left behind in the low reaches of the canyon, the surrounding slopes are dry, and host many chaparral plants, with coulter pine, sagebrush, ceanothus, goldenbush, cercocarpus, poison oak, toyon, sticky monkeyflower, and black sage prominent. There's plenty to look at along the trail, particularly in spring, when a variety of flowers bloom, including linanthus, paintbrush, lupines, onions, mule ear sunflower, and clarkia. Views continue to open up to Eagle Peak on the left, and out of the park back to the north.

The ascent, following a series of sweeping curves, seems never-ending, but abruptly the grade tapers off slightly, then the fire road sweeps right and reaches a flat on the right at 3.4 miles. Two picnic tables provide welcome rest spots. When you're ready, press on uphill at a moderate pace through oaks and pine to the Deer Flat junction at 3.5 miles. Deer Flat Road continues to climb toward the summit on the right, but our route, Meridian Ridge Road, swings left.

The fire road descends through oaks, pine, poison oak, and California hoptree, offering a break from all that climbing. The relief is short-lived though for once the trail crosses Deer Flat Creek it begins to ascend steeply. The Deer Flat Creek Trail off to the left at 3.8 miles, offering an alternate route to Murchio Gap. Continue on Meridian Ridge Road, ascending past a grassy slope on the right, where California poppies bloom in big patches in April. The trailside vegetation shifts to chaparral, with lots of yerba santa, manzanita, pine, and chaparral pea enjoying the sunny exposure. The climb ends at Murchio Gap at 4.2 miles, where trails depart in every direction: the Deer Flat Creek Trail doubles back to the left, and traveling clockwise, the Eagle Peak Trail begins next; then the Back Creek Trail, the continuation of Meridian Ridge Road; and the little Bald Ridge Trail, across the road to the right. Turn left onto the Eagle Peak Trail.

The slight path skirts a rock outcrop, climbing through ceanothus, chamise, yerba santa, black sage, goldenbush, and hoptree. As the Eagle Peak Trail starts to descend, loose rock on the path presents a challenge-if you've brought a trekking pole you'll definitely be glad. When you reach the saddle there's a brief level respite as the trail punches through thickets of chamise. Look to the left for a view of the Mitchell Canyon Trail's snaking uphill route, and back to the right for views of Diablo's summit area. As the trail begins to climb again, you'll enter a rocky and grassy area, where juniper and pine are common, and in early May, tons of clarkia, buckwheat, and jeweled onion brighten the grass as it begins to fade to gold. The ascent over these exposed slopes is sharp, with a couple of very rocky sections. Finally at 5 miles, you'll arrive at the top, 2,369 feet (unsigned, but obvious). There's remarkably little real estate here, and the peak slopes drop sharply off this knife-edge ridge. You'll surely want to pause and enjoy the views, which encompass the entire northern part of the mountain, including the summit and North Peak, as well as rolling ridges on the right and left, and hills well off into the distance. In winter, with strong binoculars you might be able to see the waterfalls dropping out of Donner Canyon. On my May hike I observed a horned lizard that scampered a few feet from me, almost perfectly camouflaged in the surrounding tan pebbles. Birdwatchers and butterfly enthusiasts could spend some time on this peak, watching hawks and swallowtail butterflies soaring or fluttering overhead.

The trail clings to the ridge top, then drops off to the left, beginning a descent. There are more steep rocky patches to traverse, as the Eagle Peak Trail swings through some shaded areas where you might notice currant blooming in winter. Mostly the hillsides are cloaked in an army-green coat of chamise, black sage, and toyon. Continuing down the sloping ridgeline, a second peaklet is crossed, and the trail just keeps dropping. At 5.9 miles the Eagle Peak Trail swings sharply right, descending off the east side of the mountain. Here, continue straight, now on the Mitchell Rock Trail.

The narrow path rises, then drops to the side of a red outcrop on the right. Some pine shade the trail as you make a transition into a mixture of grassland and chaparral. Look for a good variety of flowers in spring, including California poppy, coyote mint, butterfly mariposa lily, Chinese houses, paintbrush, milkweed, owl's clover, and blue-eyed grass. Although the trend is firmly downhill, there are a few short easy uphill stretches. The trail veers off the ridgeline into pure grassland, and other than a few forays through chaparral patches, stays that way all the way downhill. You'll pass Mitchell Rock, a pillow basalt outcrop, on the left. By mid-May, thigh-high grass crowds the trail as it weaves downhill, reaching a junction with the Coulter Pine Trail at 7.6 miles. Turn left, continuing on the Mitchell Rock Trail. After a few feet you'll reach a junction with a trail on the right leading to the Bruce Lee Trail. Continue straight on the Mitchell Rock Trail, and descend through blue oaks and grassland to a junction with the Mitchell Canyon Trail at 7.8 miles. Turn right and return to the trailhead.

Published: 25 May 2004 | Last Updated: 15 Sep 2010
Details mentioned in this article were accurate at the time of publication


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