There are many ways to reach the top of Mount Diablo, and it’s worth doing so. On a clear day, more land and water can be seen from that point than from any other park in the continental U.S. That’s according to one of the placards inside the brand-new exhibit space inside the visitor center at the top of the summit, some 3,900 feet up.

Our group met about two-thirds of the way up the mountain at the Juniper Campground, a well-marked and broad area with parking spaces, facilities, overlook stations and access to several trailheads. To get there, we had to start below the fog, ascend through it and then emerge into a beautiful day. Over the course of the next six hours, we headed up to the summit, over to Eagle Peak and looped back around. Nearly 8 miles and 2,200 feet climbed overall.

On my first trip to Mount Diablo, I was with a few hikers when we sort of got lost, and ended up scrambling through brush on our hands and knees for about a half-mile to reach the summit. It was a combination of our lack of familiarity with the area and the sense that the shortest distance between two points is a straight line that caused us to leave the trail. Nevertheless, we survived, and it was a lot of fun. I’ve been back to the mountain once or twice since then and encountered no drama or more lost instances, mainly because I now understand the layout – the multiple peaks, the necklace of trails that ring the summit and the general orientation.

There would be no leaving the trail on this most recent hike though, even if we wanted to. One of the joys of hiking can be a bit of exploration, heading off the path to check out a cool view or a raging waterfall or a gut instinct. My hiking group is fun like that – spontaneity, but not in a dumb or dangerous way. That was squelched a bit on Saturday by a surprise visitor in our midst. We had been hiking for a couple of hours as a group, and had stopped to gather at the summit when a stranger in our group let us know that he was in fact a senior-ranking state parks official who had decided to surreptitiously hike with us. (Surprise! Stunned would be an appropriate description of our reaction.)

Earlier in the hike, a few of us had chosen path A instead of path B to vary our route by barely 100 feet, and he advised us that we had been wrong to do so. Sometimes we bring wine on these hikes and crack open a bottle to toast our good fortune at lunchtime, nothing out of hand but just pleasant socializing. While we had discussed doing it on this hike, he let us know that we shouldn’t do it. He also advised us on other do’s and don’t’s of responsible hiking. It was all well-intentioned and the official was not rude about it, but I (actually we) felt that he could have let us know at the start of the hike that he had an “official” agenda. It was a bit like being in college and going out to a bar with some random friends and having one of the assembled group pipe up – midway through a boisterous third round of drinks – that he happens to be the dean. Oops. Sorry, Mr. Kotter…

Hiking around Mount Diablo brings plenty of signs of the Miwok Indians who settled here, and the well-done visitor center has background information and artifacts on display. It’s possible to drive to the summit ($10 park entrance fee, or better yet, be smart and buy an annual pass through this terrific group) and do some short hikes leading around the mountaintop if that’s more your speed. If it’s a clear day, it’s worth it to see the Sierras, Mount St. Helena and plenty of other places.

In any case, temperatures are fluctuating dramatically these days. We started in a cool chill, warmed up fairly well and then headed back into the coldness as the hike ended. Thanks to the recent rains, the paths at Diablo were muddy in enough places that steady footing was tricky. But we survived.

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