North Gateway to Mount Diablo
Mount Diablo is the massive mountain that towers over the East Bay about 15 miles east of Oakland. Diablo Foothills Regional Park and adjoining Castle Rock Regional Recreation Area (both part of the East Bay Regional Park District) provide easy access to the myriad outdoor recreational activities in the area. The biggest bonus, however, is that parking is free!
This hike features an easy amble along Pine Creek beneath huge trees and the sandstone monoliths that make up Castle Rock. There are also sections that meander through the classic oak savannah. One of the cool things about this hike is that it has not only flat and easy stretches, but very difficult uphill stretches that lead to outstanding vistas of the entire Bay Area. You travel the Castle Rock Trail for about a mile before the obvious route becomes the Stage Road. There are a number of trails that branch off to the west into Diablo Foothills Regional Park, but those will be for another hike description. The beginning of this hike is in Catle Rock Regional Recreation area (which features a swimming pool, basketball courts, picnic areas, and most closely resembles a city park) before entering Diablo Foothills Regional Park. This area has lots of coyotes, and it would be surprising if you don't hear them near sunset.
The hike heads due south out of the parking areas near a large livestock operation, and the first 2.5 miles are along a flat fire road underneath the huge riparian trees along Pine Creek. Sycamore and various species of oak provide year-round shade. Pine trees are rare in the East Bay, but a good number of gray pines (also called foothill pine) grow in dispersed stands just above Pine Creek's riparian zone. There is a bench about 1.5 miles in on the west side of the creek and trail that provides a sweeping view of Castle Rock. It is common to find people here watching their friends climb Castle Rock.
Castle Rock is a grouping of sandstone monoliths. Eons ago these rocks became sandstone before being tilted vertically. They are very popular with both rock climbers and birds of prey. You'd be hard-pressed to find a natural area in the Bay Area that doesn't have large numbers of turkey vultures, red tail hawks, Cooper's hawks, and American kestrels. This area is no exception. Continue south for about a mile to Pine Pond which isn't much more than a bog that's full of tall reeds. This stretch of trail crosses Pine Creek a few times, and there are also some tricky spots where you have to skirt around shoe-sucking mud. You also enter Mount Diablo State Park in this stretch.
Burma Road, another fire road, heads uphill to the east from Pine Pond to its junction with Little Pine Creek Road. Go left if you want to reach the top of Castle Rock, but more adventurous hikers should turn right (east) to continue along the Burma Road. The terrain here is the open oak savannah that is a stark contrast from the dark forest along Pine Creek. Raptors soar overhead, voles scurry underfoot, and cows are common. The views open up as you climb higher and higher. You will have climbed 600 vertical feet from the parking area by the time you reach Burma Road's junction with the North Gate Road. A few hundred yards above this junction is a great place to take a break because the views are breathtaking, and you'll soon be hiking a stretch of trail that will take your breath away in a different fashion. There are a few parking pullouts here, and is a popular landing spot for hang gliders and parasailers.
The next stretch features a climb of about 500 feet in .4 mile after a short jaunt from the road. Do not attempt this if the trail is muddy because you will not make it. Coming down would be even more dangerous. You reach a wide open, but small summit at Poker Table Flat, and there are large, flat rocks that provide a nice place to rest a bit. Burma Road continues north, but the best route is to continue roughly the way you were going along the Angel Kerley Road as it gently meanders uphill above the working Diablo Ranch. This is a nice stretch because you pass through open oak savannah along the ridges, and deep riparian forests along the drainages.
You again hit the North Gate Road approximately 1.3 miles past Poker Table Flat. You will have climbed to 2,2000 feet above sea level from the trailhead which is only a little more than 300. The views here are spectacular, and you have about 5 miles ahead of you on the downhill return to the trail head.
There are lots of options on this hike:
1) From the junction of Burma Road and Little Pine Creek Road take the latter to its junction with the Castle Rock Trail. That trail takes you to the top of Castle Rock where from its lofty spires you can look down upon the forest along Pine Creek, and most likely observe birds of prey hanging out on their lofty aeries. The Castle Rock Trail officially ends at a barbed-wire fence 1.3 miles from Burma Road. The area beyond here is private property, and is posted as no trespassing. The reason is that there are frequently bulls in the pasture beyond. You may be able to get permission from the cattle ranching operation, but probably not.
2) .35 miles above Poker Table Flat you can turn left (north) onto the Mothers Trail for a short .6 mile jaunt to its junction with the Burma Road. Go left (west) on the Burma Road, and follow it as it loops back to Poker Table Flat for 2.8 mile adder to make a small lasso loop before heading back.
3) The Buckeye Trail branches off to the southwest from Burma Road just west of its junction with the North Gate Road for 1.15 mile to its junction with the Stage Road. Then take Stage Road .45 mile back to the bottom of Pine Creek Canyon before continuing back to the trail head.
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