Gaze past downtown Clayton's 19th-century buildings toward Mount Diablo, and it's easy to imagine yourself in a mining boomtown 140-plus years ago. This time of year, when Diablo's slopes are green with spring, the Contra Costa County hamlet is one of the best spots in the Bay Area to enjoy both outdoor fun and the charm of a historic small town.
Start with the mountain, which looms above Clayton ― so close, in fact, that some trails lead directly from town into Mount Diablo State Park. The Mount Diablo Interpretive Association ( www.mdia.org or 925/837-0904) and the Save Mount Diablo organization coordinate a spring program of several months of free hikes, many starting and finishing near downtown Clayton. Other trails run into nearby Black Diamond Mines Regional Preserve.
The mines played an important part in Clayton's life ― they were, in fact, the reason the town got started in the 1850s. "It was a typical Wild West town," says Connie Rehr, curator emeritus of the Clayton Historical Society Museum (2-4 Sun-Wed and by appointment; 6101 Main St.; www.claytonhs.com or 925/672-0240). "Miners from Black Diamond Mines could walk into town. They could find plenty of entertainment."
Downtown Clayton is a little quieter than it was in the mining days, but this month it almost bustles during the Clayton Art & Wine Festival (10-7 Apr 30, 10-5 May 1; 925/672-2272). And you can stroll and admire the historic buildings anytime, including a church (today Endeavor Hall) and a number of homes. Two of these have been combined to house an elegant restaurant, Elysium ($$; dinner Tue-Sun, brunch Sun; 6115 Main; 925/672-1333). Other dining options include Clayton's Cup of Jo (7-3 Mon-Fri, 8:30-2 Sat; 6054 Main; 925/672-5105), for coffee and baked goods, and Skipolini's Pizza ($; dinner daily; Main at Diablo St.; 925/672-1111), a popular local chain. For true town spirit, check out the Clayton Club Saloon (from 11 a.m. daily; 6096 Main; 925/673-0440), where dozens of cowboy boots dangle from the ceiling. "The cowboys still come," Rehr says, "but mostly by motorcycle and pickup. Once in a while, you still see a horse tied up there."
East Bay visit
Clayton is about 30 miles east of San Francisco and about 5 miles northeast of Walnut Creek. From I-680 in Walnut Creek, take the Ygnacio Valley Rd. exit and continue 7 1/2 miles; turn right on Clayton Rd. and go 1 1/2 miles to the town center.