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Varied and Athletic Loop on Mount Diablo's North Side
I've been meaning to get back to the north side of Mount Diablo for a while now. The north side of El Diablo may be the best hiking spot in the East Bay due to challenging elevation gains, spectacular spring wildflowers, jaw-dropping views and waterfalls. This hike doesn't pass any waterfalls, but features the other characteristics.
The hike begins at the Mitchell Canyon Visitors Center in Mount Diablo State Park (closed on Saturday March 21, 2020 due to the COVID-19 shutdown). Head south on Mitchell Canyon Road which is an unpaved fire road. You won't see any vehicles here unless Cal Fire is responding to a fire in which case you won't be hiking here. You may notice some gray pines (AKA foothill pine and digger pine though the latter is now considered derogatory) on the right and thick chaparral on the left. The trail is flat and easy here, but fun is right around the corner.
Mitchell Canyon Trail gains about 400 feet over its first 2 miles, and this stretch is popular with families with children. The canyon begins to narrow, and the trail begins to climb as you approach the 2.5-mile mark. The first views of Eagle Peak soaring to the north are in this stretch. You are now hiking on a series of switchbacks with some pretty steep stretches. Notice the California buckeyes which grow as shrubby trees with bright green leaves in spring and summer. Lupine and poison oak were noticed on my trip today.
The trail finally offers some relief as you reach Deer Flat at 4 miles where there is an open area with a couple of picnic tables, a horse trough and a hitching post. There appears to be a few campsites here, though they were unoccupied when I was there. Views of the Sacramento River delta and the northern cities in central Contra Costa County (Concord, Walnut Creek, Pleasant Hill and Martinez) are spectacular. A clear day would offer great views of Napa Valley and the mountains beyond.
You have now reached the southern terminus of Mitchell Canyon Road with the Deer Flat Road on the right and the Meridian Ridge Road on the left. Take Meridian Ridge as it heads east with little elevation gain before a final uphill insult to Murchio Gap reaches a junction with the Eagle Peak Trail on the north and the Bald Ridge Trail heading southeast up towards Mount Diablo's summit. Note that it is about 3 miles and 1500' AEG to the summit from here. Continue on the road which turns into Prospector's Gap Road at Murchio Gap. Views to the northeast of the eastern cities of Contra Costa County (Antioch, Pittsburg and Oakley) are great. Note the vast windmill farms in the delta beyond. Back Creek Trail which we'll see later heads down to the north from Murchio Gap.
Travel about a third of a mile further along Meridian Ridge until it sharply turns left to the north, and then steeply descends along the top of a ridge. The footing here is fairly hazardous, especially after blasting your legs heading up Mitchell Canyon. Basically, you can take Meridian Ridge down from Murchio Gap if you want views and Back Creek Trail down if you want some ridge top views before dropping into a deep canyon overflowing with buckeyes, chaparral and wildflowers.
Meridian Ridge Road reaches a junction with the single-track Meridian Point Trail after 0.8 mile. Meridian Point Trail heads moderately down into the deep Back Creek Canyon. It is here where the wildflowers start to show their stuff. See upcoming photoset for more on the flowzers. Today was a good day in that department.
Take Back Creek Trail for 0.8 mile to the Bruce Lee Road which continues further down to the north. You reach Coulter Pine Trail about a quarter mile later, and your elevation gain and loss are basically over for the hike. Taking Coulter Pine to the left is the quickest way back to the trailhead, but it appears to go through more trees with few views. I'll have to investigate further. I took Bruce Lee Road another quarter-mile until it ends at Murchio Road, and turned left. This variant is recommended because of the wide open views to the north. It's just you, grass, wildflowers, and probably a bunch of other people. You'll need to head back uphill about 0.4 mile on a short spur trail to reach Coulter Pine Trail as it finishes to the east/right at the trailhead.
Check out the Official Route and Triplog.