The horses fidget as we swing into our saddles. We're hemmedin by the ridges of the Sunol Regional Wilderness, misty and almostpurple in the early light. A recent gusty rain has scrubbed thedust from the oak leaves; now the air feels as clean and crisp as aWinesap apple.
These perfect conditions are par for the course this time ofyear. With summer's burning days a distant memory and hills asgreen as Ireland, winter is ideal for riding or walking in theDiablo Range.
The Diablo Range is one of the dominant landforms in the BayArea, but strangely one of the least appreciated. It's best knownfor its namesake, Mt. Diablo, which rises 3,849 feet above WalnutCreek. But the entire range runs more than 100 miles, from SuisunBay down to San Benito County. And in a rapidly urbanizing region,it remains a refuge for people seeking open space and solitude.
Still wild On this morning I've joined the Sunol Wilderness Pack Stationon its guided Valley Loop Ride, narrated by an East Bay RegionalPark interpretive student aide, Dino Labiste. While Labisteexplains the cultural history of this place―it was firstsettled by Ohlone Native Americans, then by Spanish land grantees,and finally by homesteaders and ranchers―we ride deep into ashaded cleft in a grass- and oak-covered hillside. Alameda Creek isrunning fast and high on its banks; it's easy to imagine it filledwith the salmon Labiste says once spawned here.
"The Diablo Range is pretty wild," Labiste tells us, twistingaround in the saddle. "During the ranching years much of thewildlife was displaced―the last grizzly bear was seen in the1800s, 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, evenbobcats. ... We don't really know what all is out there. It's anice mystery. "
Saving a mountain range What is no mystery is how so much wildlife and wildernesssurvived in the Diablo Range, in the heart of the heavily developedEast Bay.
"This all had to be acquired bit by bit, parcel by parcel," saysSeth Adams, director of land programs for Save Mount Diablo. As hespeaks, Adams surveys a map of the northern Diablo Range just eastof Oakland. He loves this map, with its vast blocks of greenindicating the 83,000 acres of undeveloped land north of I-580 inContra Costa and Alameda Counties―including parcels not yetopen to the public.
When Save Mount Diablo formed in 1971, just 6,788 acres werepreserved in one park―Mt. Diablo State Park. But as East Baysuburbia and spillover Silicon Valley tech began to gobble up landnear the Diablo Range's northernmost end, various groups tookaction, among them the East Bay Regional Park District and theTrust for Public Land. "Unlike some greenbelts that grew by justtransferring big chunks of federal lands, nearly everything herewas in small ranches, old homesteads, or old railroad deeds," notesAdams. "It grew helter-skelter."
Helter-skelter, perhaps, but no less majestic. If some suburbanopen spaces are glorified city parks, the preserves of the DiabloRange feel completely untamed. Consider massive Mt. Diablo itself:A state park, it's well known and heavily visited in summer. But inwinter, it feels decidedly less civilized―take a trek to thesummit and you might even see a smattering of snow.
Clustered around Mt. Diablo are more key wilderness parks thattogether 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 havescrubbed the sky clean―and you can scan an area as large asOhio. Scramble over the camelback ridges of Diablo FoothillsRegional Park, or head for Black Diamond Mines Regional Preserveand stroll past remnants of long-vanished towns of the DiabloRange. Or just commune with the winter hawks soaring on theupdrafts in the wilds of parks like the Morgan Territory.
Back in Sunol, we watch the red-tailed hawks overhead andremember Labiste's parting comments about some local guys who werebackpacking in the Diablo Range and on their second day out saw twomountain lions. That's the thing about these foothills: just aboutanything wild―and thrilling―could be out there.
Sunol Regional Wilderness Winter is Sunol's prime time―gone is the heat that canruin a hike in these steep canyons. Stop in at the old green barnvisitor center (10-4 weekends) for information about the natural andranching history. Oak groves, open meadows, and lots of steeptrails mark the wildlands of Sunol Regional Wilderness.
WINTER WANDERING: Join the Sunol Wilderness Pack Station on the Valley LoopRide ($15; reserve ahead), a half-hour guided ride into oakwoodlands. 10-5 weekends; (925) 862-0175.
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