The horses fidget as we swing into our saddles. We're hemmed in by the ridges of the Sunol Regional Wilderness, misty and almost purple in the early light. A recent gusty rain has scrubbed the dust from the oak leaves; now the air feels as clean and crisp as a Winesap apple.
These perfect conditions are par for the course this time of year. With summer's burning days a distant memory and hills as green as Ireland, winter is ideal for riding or walking in the Diablo Range.
The Diablo Range is one of the dominant landforms in the Bay Area, but strangely one of the least appreciated. It's best known for its namesake, Mt. Diablo, which rises 3,849 feet above Walnut Creek. But the entire range runs more than 100 miles, from Suisun Bay down to San Benito County. And in a rapidly urbanizing region, it remains a refuge for people seeking open space and solitude.
On this morning I've joined the Sunol Wilderness Pack Station on its guided Valley Loop Ride, narrated by an East Bay Regional Park interpretive student aide, Dino Labiste. While Labiste explains the cultural history of this place―it was first settled by Ohlone Native Americans, then by Spanish land grantees, and finally by homesteaders and ranchers―we ride deep into a shaded cleft in a grass- and oak-covered hillside. Alameda Creek is running fast and high on its banks; it's easy to imagine it filled with the salmon Labiste says once spawned here.
"The Diablo Range is pretty wild," Labiste tells us, twisting around in the saddle. "During the ranching years much of the wildlife was displaced―the last grizzly bear was seen in the 1800s, and tule elk were hunted until the early 1900s."
But a lot has come back
recently. "There's an elk herd down near Mt. Hamilton now," says Labiste, "and you could easily see coyotes, deer, even bobcats. ... We don't really know what all is out there. It's a nice mystery. "
Saving a mountain range
What is no mystery is how so much wildlife and wilderness survived in the Diablo Range, in the heart of the heavily developed East Bay.
"This all had to be acquired bit by bit, parcel by parcel," says Seth Adams, director of land programs for Save Mount Diablo. As he speaks, Adams surveys a map of the northern Diablo Range just east of Oakland. He loves this map, with its vast blocks of green indicating the 83,000 acres of undeveloped land north of I-580 in Contra Costa and Alameda Counties―including parcels not yet open to the public.
When Save Mount Diablo formed in 1971, just 6,788 acres were preserved in one park―Mt. Diablo State Park. But as East Bay suburbia and spillover Silicon Valley tech began to gobble up land near the Diablo Range's northernmost end, various groups took action, among them the East Bay Regional Park District and the Trust for Public Land. "Unlike some greenbelts that grew by just transferring big chunks of federal lands, nearly everything here was in small ranches, old homesteads, or old railroad deeds," notes Adams. "It grew helter-skelter."
Helter-skelter, perhaps, but no less majestic. If some suburban open spaces are glorified city parks, the preserves of the Diablo Range feel completely untamed. Consider massive Mt. Diablo itself: A state park, it's well known and heavily visited in summer. But in winter, it feels decidedly less civilized―take a trek to the summit and you might even see a smattering of snow.
Clustered around Mt. Diablo are more key wilderness parks that together form a corridor for wildlife and a haven for day-hikers, picnickers, backpackers, and wildlife watchers.
Hike to the summit of Mt. Diablo now―when windstorms have scrubbed the sky clean―and you can scan an area as large as Ohio. Scramble over the camelback ridges of Diablo Foothills Regional Park, or head for Black Diamond Mines Regional Preserve and stroll past remnants of long-vanished towns of the Diablo Range. Or just commune with the winter hawks soaring on the updrafts in the wilds of parks like the Morgan Territory.
Back in Sunol, we watch the red-tailed hawks overhead and remember Labiste's parting comments about some local guys who were backpacking in the Diablo Range and on their second day out saw two mountain lions. That's the thing about these foothills: just about anything wild―and thrilling―could be out there.
Sunol Regional Wilderness
Winter is Sunol's prime time―gone is the heat that can ruin a hike in these steep canyons. Stop in at the old green barn visitor center (10-4 weekends) for information about the natural and ranching history. Oak groves, open meadows, and lots of steep trails mark the wildlands of Sunol Regional Wilderness.
Join the Sunol Wilderness Pack Station on the Valley Loop Ride ($15; reserve ahead), a half-hour guided ride into oak woodlands. 10-5 weekends; (925) 862-0175.