It was slightly after noon Sunday when I found what I was looking for.
Aided by a pair of decent binoculars I focused my hunt to the southeast.
My target was the 500-room Great Wolf Lodge and indoor waterpark resort on Manteca’s western flank. It took a while searching for landmarks to direct me toward it, but I’m fairly sure I found it by the unique shape that sets it apart from mammoth rectangle box-like distribution center structure composing a maze near the Mossdale Crossing railroad bridge.
Three hours earlier as I headed west on the 120 Bypass as Great Wolf came up on my right I was able to see my destination — three fairly prominent “bumps” on the horizon.
Those “bumps” in the Diablo Range of the Coastal mountains going south to north were Mt. Diablo (3,849 feet), North Peak (3,571 feet) and Mt. Olympia (2,946 feet). They also happen to be the three highest peaks in Mt. Diablo State Park.
From where I sat on the summit of Mt. Olympia, two California Golden Poppies blooming from a crevice among rocks swayed in the breeze as dozens of bees zipped by, the Great Wolf resort was some 40 miles away as the crow flies.
In the past on a clear day from any of the three summits that I never tire of going back to thanks to how the wildflowers, creature movements, wild grasses change along with the calendar I have been able to make out the Mossdale Crossing railroad bridge. Everything else, even with binoculars, seemed a melting pot of indistinguishable sameness.
Even though my heart — and arguably soul — is more at home in the Sierra above the 9,000-foot line where the views are never-ending, I admit to every time I drive toward the Coastal Ranges I find myself gazing longingly at the peaks including as I cross the Airport Way bridge and look to the southwest to see the forbidden fruit — Mt. Boardman. It’s the tallest peak in San Joaquin County at 3,583 feet. It is under private ownership and therefore not accessible to the public.
My goal Sunday was four-fold.
I wanted to step up my conditioning so I could squeeze in plenty of high Sierra hikes this spring, summer, and fall.
I wanted to savor spring starting to unfold in earnest.
I wanted to enjoy as much solitude as possible.
And I wanted to visit an old friend.
Tackling the three peaks, in reverse order of height met all four requirements.
Depending upon who is doing the measuring, coming in from the east side via access gates along Marsh Creek Road gives you 4,000 net feet of elevation gain within a 10-mile round trip hike. There is no place within a 50-minute drive where you can access hiking trails that provide that much gain in that short of mileage.
The manzanita and most trees had started budding and sprouting leaves while the first wave of spring color that Mt. Diablo State Park is known for were in early bloom. Toss in hawks riding the currents near the ridges, lizards scurrying across trails, and even bees doing busy work and it was a welcoming picture of nature waking up from a cool March that extended nature’s winter slumber.
Until I got near Mt. Diablo where you can drive to the top via the southern entrance near Blackhawk, I came across five other souls — literally just a handful of people.
As for the old friend, besides a large chunk of the 200 plus miles of trails in the state park that I’ve traversed Mt. Diablo is the most prominent geographic feature visible from a large swath of western San Joaquin County running from Airport Way near the San Joaquin River bridge to Thornton on Interstate 5 just before crossing into Sacramento County.
There are 41 hard trails crisscrossing the 20,000 plus acres within the boundaries of Mt. Diablo State Park. They range from 5.5 to 27.6 miles. They take you from elevations as low as 341 feet to as high as 3,848 feet.
I admit I’m somewhat surprised by the number of people in Manteca — and in San Joaquin and Stanislaus counties — that have never made their way to Yosemite National Park or Mt. Diablo.
You can access a lot of the beauty of both — including the marquee attractions of both by simply driving and then get out of your car for short and virtually flat hikes.
This is the prime time to enjoy Mt. Diablo even if it is simply a drive to the summit and a leisure walk around the top.
The closest vehicle entry point is off of Interstate 680 north of Dublin/Pleasanton at Diablo Road. That will lead you to the South Gate where there is a $6 per vehicle entrance fee.
Pandemic conditions will prompt temporary closures during the course of the day when the vehicle count reaches a certain level. That’s due to the closure of some parking including the Upper Summit Parking Lot due to COVID-19.
There is still the Lower Summit Parking Lot that is a short uphill hike to the summit. And while the museum and nature interpretative center - a very effective and educational presentation by the way - are closed, you can still use the observation deck where the views stretch for 200 miles on a clear day.
When conditions are right his can see Mt. Lassen, the Farallon Islands 28 miles beyond the Golden Gate Bridge and Half Dome in Yosemite Valley. There are coin operated telescopes on the summit observation deck. I forgot to check to see if they were in working order on Sunday. If you have a pair of binoculars, bring them along. It’s great fun trying to pinpoint familiar landmarks you can’t see with the naked eye.
There is a water issue due to the drought so bring your own water. Check the park websites for the latest conditions that are fluid due to the pandemic. Like anywhere else in California COVID-19 protocols need to be followed.
To give you an idea of what you are missing in your own backyard if you’ve never ventured to Mr. Diablo or Yosemite National Park, over the years I have driven visitors from North Dakota, Georgia, and Illinois over the Altamont Pass after they landed at San Francisco International.
Each time they are amazed at how “high” our mountains are when we crest Altamont Pass at 1,008 feet.
Given they were friends of grandchildren they were teens or in their early 20s. They were all mesmerized when we drove through the Bay Area on the way to the beach when we passed tech giants like Facebook. They were stunned when walking the streets of San Francisco.
But in each case when they asked to go hiking and I took them to Yosemite and/or Mt. Diablo the thing they say that stayed with them the most was the hike due to commanding views and unique and stunning scenery and geology.
Twice I’ve taken teens that are more at home in a gaming chair than on a hiking trail to North Dome at 7,590 feet in Yosemite National Park. From there it feels as if you can reach out and touch the face of Half Dome which is almost as amazing as being able to look down 3,500 feet over the edge and take in the eastern part of the Yosemite Valley and look across to see Glacier Point or take in the world famous Morning Wall of El Capitan that serious climbers from all over the world travel to tackle.
One asked if that was the highest I’ve ever hiked. When I told him I had gone almost twice as high four times hiking Mt. Whitney at 14,505 feet and several times had literally walked through clouds at one point to reach the summit he replied, “wow, it must be great to live in California.”
He was right.
All we have to do is to remember to get out and enjoy what is in our own backyard whether it is nature’s handiwork or man’s creations.