The Diablo Range, a mountain range in California, contains some of the state's best scenery, but it rarely gets deserved attention from either tourists or locals. The "hills" of the Diablo Range feature of the state's wildest country yet are surprisingly close to one of the country's most populated metropolitan areas.
The Diablo Range is one of many north/south mountain ranges on the western side of California. Well-known peaks in the range include 1 Mission Peak, 2 Mount Diablo, and 3 Mount Hamilton. Mount Diablo is especially worth seeing; it can be seen from miles away due to its prominence. Generally, the mountains in the range consist of ridges, which are high enough to make a difficult hike but not high enough to be considered a major mountain range by U.S. standards.
The eastern side of the East Bay extends into the mountains, and the 4 Tri-Valley is between two parts of the range, with the friendlier peaks to the west and wilderness to the southeast. To the north of the Tri-Valley is Mount Diablo. To the east of 5 Livermore, a city in the valley, is Altamont Pass with its wind turbines and dry hills.
The mountains are made up of ridges, as stated above. These ridges vary in height, but as a general rule are separated by canyons, with creeks usually at the bottom of the canyons. The creeks may flow year-round, especially if they come out of a reservoir. Alternatively, they may flow seasonally, when rain falls, or may almost never turn into streams. The creeks that exist also vary in size, with the Alameda Creek—which flows through Niles Canyon—being moderately wide for a significant portion of its distance.
While Mount Diablo stands out as a mountain on its own (it is one mountain with two peaks), most of the mountains in the Range do not have such prominence and are buried either in ridges or behind other mountains. Diablo, like many of the ridges and mountains in the range, is not beautiful; those who seek the beauty of this region will need to find the hills and valleys, not the highest points. The Diablo Range can be dramatic, and viewing the mountains from the distance can make you feel as though you are out in the Old West; however, you're actually within a short distance of one the most modern urban areas in the world.
Flora and fauna
The hills in the Diablo Range are covered in medium-length, yellowish grass during most of the year; grass usually turns green following precipitation in winter and spring. Oak trees are scattered all over some hills, but are completely lacking on others. Sometimes, a hill will be like a forest on one side and nearly tree-less on the other. California poppies are quite common in some parts of the range, but they do not last long.
Deer live in some places, but they are not common overall. Animal life is limited; snakes, rodents, and certain kinds of birds (like turkey vultures) are the most common creatures. There are some eagles and the rare California condors (see Pinnacles National Park article) as well.
The cities of the East Bay, with perhaps the exception of 6 Discovery Bay, are all either inside or near the Diablo Range. Similarly, 7 San Jose and some of the other cities on the east side of the South Bay are close to the Diablo Range. An example of a settlement that is truly inside the range is 8 Clayton. East of the mountains and on the western side of the Central Valley is 9 Tracy. On the western side of 10 Pleasanton and the eastern side of 11 Hayward/12 Castro Valley are some housing developments going into the hills. However, as the focus here is visiting the Diablo Range as if it were a park and not as a metro area, cities in the area are not the focus here.
- See also: Diablo Range#Get around
- See also: Alameda County#Get in
You'll want to enter the range by car so that you have a vehicle to use once you're inside the mountain range itself. The following options are roads that lead in from the outside of the range to the Tri-Valley area, which is a good starting point if you then want to get to parks and mountains. For other parts of the range, there are other roads that can be used, but they will not be covered in this section.
In the north, there are some freeways that go through the Tri-Valley area; for example, I-580, which goes over the range (meaning that you can use it to enter the range from either east or west), and I-680, which goes from Silicon Valley to the Tri-Valley, and then goes north from there. You can come across the Sacramento Delta and enter the mountainous parts of the East Bay from the north by taking I-680 south. Generally, if you're looking to enter the northern part of the range via interstate, you take I-580 from the west and east, and you take I-680 from the southwest and north.
A more scenic way to enter the mountain range is the section of California Route 84 between Niles (Fremont) and Sunol. Route 84 goes through Niles Canyon, the location of Alameda Creek and a railroad. Since this part of California Route 84 follows the bottom of the canyon and links important city areas, it is not the easiest drive in the world, with heavy traffic common despite the challenges of the drive. However, the road is two-way from start to finish, and is quite straight and quick in some places. The road should definitely be avoided during flooding or a serious rainstorm, since there are high banks with steep hills alongside the road, making landslides dangerously likely. The canyon, however, is truly beautiful, with the creek at the bottom, the mountains on each side, and the railroad. (There are a couple railroad bridges along the canyon, though these in beauty do not match the surroundings.) Additionally, to the east of Niles Canyon, a section of 84, goes east from I-680 through hills near Pleasanton and Livermore. This road, though, is generally not such a pleasant drive, as it is an expressway most of the way.
If you're coming down from the north (for example, from Brentwood), a worthwhile option is Vasco Road. Like 84, it's popular with commuters, unfortunately, and isn't quite a country lane anymore, but it does go through the northern part of the Diablo Range in a region that otherwise is not too developed. The northern and southern ends of the road go through cities, but the long middle section is still very much in the country. North of Livermore is a turn-off road that leads to 13 Los Vaqueros Reservoir, a popular fishing destination.
Fees and permits
Fees and permits will vary depending on where you are going within the range. There are few specifics, as different parks and trails within the range have different requirements, varying from no payment at all to permit-required. However, there are plenty of places you can see and explore without any permits, so do not bother to acquire them unless you have some special interest to visit a place.
There is a membership of the East Bay Regional Parks District, but this is pointless just for a short-term visitor, so just pay fees at parks where required.
When visiting any of the parks, make sure you follow the open hours, so you don't have a pointless drive to a park that is not yet open or is already closed. Do not assume that the wildlife parks are open all day (24-hours) long, as they are often not. One method used is open hours from when the sun comes up until when it comes down, which means varying hours depending on the time of year. Not all parks in the area are the same.
- See also: Diablo Range#Get in
A good base for exploring the Diablo Range is the Tri-Valley, as it is a wide, populated valley inside the range that offers many roads leading into the mountains themselves; these include Mines Road to the south and many other roads leading in various directions to parks and other sightseeing destinations. U.S. Route 101 goes to Morgan Hill and San Jose, which are west of the range, and I-5 goes from north to south, east of the range. From any of the roads in suburban areas, you'll have to take various roads to get into the mountains.
You can't drive north/south through the whole range because the terrain is simply too rugged, and generally there are not enough people living in the mountains to justify highways of any sort. You can do a few roads, like Mines Road (mentioned in #Do), and other roads in the northern part of the mountain range, for transport to particular points in the range, but mostly you should take roads like U.S. 101 or I-5 if you want to get from one part of the range to the other. For example, if you were going from Mount Hamilton to Henry Coe Park, you would use one of the major roads that goes west, parallel to the mountains.
Roads in the mountains are variable: some of the roads out in the wilderness, like the Mount Hamilton Road, are best taken slowly, while suburban roads are, on the whole, well-maintained and designed. There are sometimes one-lane roads, like Laughlin Road to Brushy Peak Regional Park. Apply the same cautions you would normally apply to one-lane roads. On the other hand, some country roads are excellently kept, and form some of the safest and most pleasant drives you can experience: good examples include Wetmore Road and Arroyo Road in the Sycamore Grove/Del Valle area on the southeast fringes and outsides of Livermore.
The Tri-Valley has a good network of surface streets, avenues, and boulevards that can be used for getting around the towns.
As this is California, and quite an expensive region of the state, gas prices are high.
By other methods
- See also: United States without a car
Generally, you can throw public transport right out, since getting to country parks requires driving. For sightseeing, however, which is covered in the next section, there are some alternative options available.
As there are large distances at stake in the Diablo Range, and getting from place to place often requires distances, walking is also out of the question. Of course, there are plenty of hiking opportunities throughout the Diablo Range, but those are recreation rather than travel. The Tri-Valley looks small on the map, but it is actually large on its own, and the extent of the mountains around it is of course much more. Do not take for granted distances, which is why cars are so important here.
As with any scenic region, the main reason to come to the Diablo Range is to view the scenery. This mountain range has an atmosphere, a lonely atmosphere, triggered by what you see. Mountains after mountains, largely unbroken by man-made structures with the exception of a few ranches and country roads here and there, has quite an effect on human perception of the size of the world.
Miles of mountains, ridges, grasslands, and oak trees are present in the range — basically, everything in the picture shown. If this is the kind of scenery you enjoy, you will enjoy scenic viewpoints in the Diablo Range. Of course, many of these points require hiking, so if you're not a hiker, you will not have such an easy time finding great viewing points. It is common for roads to go through canyons, and not so common for them to go along the tops of mountains.
Mount Diablo is rather an interesting mountain for viewing, since its appearance varies greatly depending on the side from which you see it, and unlike many other mountains in the Diablo Range, it is easily recognizable. The best view of Mount Diablo is from the south, around Pleasanton and eastern Dublin. Mount Diablo's neighbor, North Peak, is similar in height and grandeur.
To view Mount Diablo from a distance, just find an open area near Pleasanton or eastern Dublin and look for the largest mountain to the north to see the peak. You can also view your surroundings from the mountain; go to the top of the mountain and get the view below by driving the road that leads almost all the way to the top (it's not a short and easy drive, though). See Mount Diablo State Park for information about going to the mountain.
Mount Hamilton isn't always so easy to spot from a distance; however, if you're in the San Jose area, look for a mountain with small, white spots on top — those white spots are Lick Observatory, roughly the location of Mount Hamilton. However, the observatory, while it contains some huge, white telescopes and is like few other places in the area, is quite a long way from San Jose and therefore is not easy to spot if you've never looked that way before. It's definitely much better to view down from the top of Mount Hamilton than to view up from below — the view is absolutely stunning, and the visitor center's dramatic location near the viewing point makes it, also, worth a visit. It is one of the best places to visit in the Diablo Range, but there is a long drive to the mountain along California Route 130 east (or San Antonio Valley Road going west).
Del Valle Regional Park
There are a few vistas which, like Hamilton, stand out above the others. One of those is at Del Valle Regional Park southeast of Livermore. To get there, drive Arroyo Road south from Livermore. The road goes out of the city to vineyards and, later, a valley. This valley is in itself quite special, even though the road goes along the valley floor, which is largely filled with parks: Sycamore Grove Park occupies one side of the valley, along with Veterans Park and an adjacent trail, and a golf course occupies the other side. The golf course includes some scattered ponds and vineyards that make it appealing. Beyond this, the road takes you through a valley that gets narrow, like a canyon, and then widens; you should see a parking lot at your left towards the end of the public part of Arroyo Road. A wide trail leads across the valley before climbing a ridge; at the top of the ridge, Lake Del Valle is on one side and the Tri-Valley is on the other. The view is excellent both ways and is worth the hike if you are fit enough to do it. The trail continues along the east shore of the lake, but the best viewing point is, for sure, at the top of the ridge.
Sycamore Grove Park
Another group of viewing points is in Sycamore Grove Park. Some of the trails in this park go into the hills south of Livermore and provide some views of the Tri-Valley from the southern angle. These hills require some work to climb but are not giant mountains. At the top of a couple of the hills, the trails conclude with a circle, and from one in particular, there is a bench that provides good views of the Tri-Valley.
Mission Peak and the Tilden-Redwood-Gavin corridor
If you hike to the top of Mission Peak, there are some great views of Fremont and surroundings from an elevation of approximately 2,500 ft (760 m). The hike up to the top is no easy one, however, and it involves a lot of climbing on the way up and a lot of descent on the way down. Mission Peak isn't too enjoyable, though, except for the view you get when you finally make it to the top of the mountain, or unless you take one of the less popular trails.
There is a corridor of regional parks running down the hills east of the main East Bay cities (Oakland, Hayward, and Fremont). These have some views of the city areas, but the views come with a price: these parks are very close to an area with millions of people, so you don't get the lonely experience you get farther inland from the Bay. This article is dedicated to that lonely experience, but these parks are easier to reach, unless there are traffic problems in the cities, so they are good places to visit if you are looking for views of the cities of the Bay Area.
Vargas Regional Park
Vargas Regional Park, a park opened to the public during the 2010s, offers some views of the East Bay, along with surrounding hills. It has its foot in multiple veins of Diablo Range scenery: the dry, country, out-in-the-middle-of-nowhere feeling common in country areas of the range, and the feeling of being in the hills but near the cities on the other side. The more west you go within the park, the closer to the major cities you get.
When this park is open, it's not a bad place for bird watching and cave-viewing, but it's not open much of the time. It's not far from Los Vaqueros Reservoir.
- See also: Hiking in the East Bay
The Diablo Range is a good place for hiking. The East Bay Regional Parks District (EBRPD) has put a lot of work into creating many regional parks that have good trail networks. Meanwhile, there are also non-EBRPD parks with hikes worth doing: examples include Joseph Grant Park, Los Vaqueros Watershed, and Mount Diablo State Park. There are a few city parks and trails in the Diablo Range and vicinity.
Hikes vary greatly in difficulty, depending on the part of the range and, therefore, the sizes of the nearby ridges. Some of the lowest hills are only a very short climb, while the highest involve climbs of well over 1,000 feet (300 m) from a starting point that is, in turn, well above sea level. The rugged terrain of parks farther out into the countryside tends to be harder going, while the parks adjacent to cities have easier hikes; but this is not always true. EBRPD park maps display contour maps, which you can use to figure out which trail takes the flattest route.
On the whole, hiking is a joy in this region. The climate is friendly, and there are numerous hiking options.
The parks in this region are recreation, but the focus is hiking, horse-riding, and cycling; this is true of the ones listed below, especially Henry Coe. These are not really "do-what-you-like" parks; it is expected that hikers will respect the park. There are numerous parks in the area; these are the ones a tourist should visit to a get a taste for the area.
- 1 Henry Coe State Park may well be the best place for experiencing the Diablo Range, especially if you an ambitious hiker/camper. The park consists of one ridge after another, for miles and miles, and shows that even near the Bay Area, there remain large wilderness areas that are unaffected by the millions who live in San Francisco and neighboring cities. The park is east of Morgan Hill.
- 2 Del Valle Regional Park goes around a long reservoir; it is an EBRPD park. There are many trails, particularly east of the lake, from flat paths alongside the lake to more challenging routes that go into the oak woodlands and ridges. There is also swimming permitted at the southern end of the lake. Del Valle is in the East Bay southeast of Livermore.
- 3 Pinnacles National Park is perhaps the most important park in the whole of the Diablo Range. It's truly a gem of a visit, and has what it takes for a national park. There is a useful park map and brochure you should get if you plan on visiting, which you should. It is near California Route 25 and is one of the more southerly destinations included in this article.
- The Ohlone Wilderness Trail goes through the mountains south of Del Valle Regional Park.
- While the Arroyo del Valle Trail of Sycamore Grove doesn't actually go into the hills, it goes close to some of the hills in the range and there are some trails that branch off from it that go into these hills.
- An especially popular hike is the one that leads to the top of Mission Peak, in 4 Mission Peak Regional Park. The problem is that the hike can be a complete nightmare because so many people do the Mission Peak climb. Parking, especially on Saturdays, is difficult, so if you are going to climb the mountain, pick carefully the day you ascend. At the top, there are views of the Bay Area. The main point, however, is that the hike is crowded, so you should not do it if you are the kind of person who either dislikes crowds or wants to avoid a degree of stress.
This part of California has a large and important cycling culture; cyclists are a common sight on rural roads and in parks. If you want to cycle for recreation, however, check the route first; there are some relatively easy roads, but Mount Hamilton Road, for example, lacks a decent shoulder and is a challenging climb. In some towns, there exist paved trails for cyclists, but when cycling in parks in rural areas, make sure the trail surface is appropriate for cycling, as some have a lot of gravel or rocky path surface. Wider trails will generally be more appropriate than the narrow trails that steeply climb hills.
Sometimes, there are recreational events in which roads are closed or at least limited to traffic for cycling events.
If you are not a hiker, there are some interesting options available for driving through the area—for fun, of course.
- One of the best options is the road to the top of Mount Hamilton, also known as Lick Observatory, which begins in Alum Rock (San Jose). It's a challenging drive to the top, but actually that isn't the best part; the best part is the San Antonio Valley Road that continues into the wilderness east of Mt. Hamilton. Farther down the road there's a junction where you can either go east to Patterson or north to Livermore. At the intersection, quite surprisingly considering the remote location, there's a restaurant. The road north from this junction, toward Livermore, is called Mines Road. The road up Mount Hamilton is in the California highway system as California State Route 130.
- On a weekend, Patterson Pass Road, which goes from Livermore to Tracy and vice versa, is an enjoyable drive. It's more-or-less a one-lane road some of the time, and it goes into the hills, so take your time.
- Morgan Territory Road, up to the Morgan Territory Preserve staging area, is a worthwhile drive if you want to hike at that park. It goes up, into the hills; take Livermore Avenue north out of Livermore to get to the turning for Morgan Territory Road.
Thanks to the hills of the Diablo Range, there are various ravines, canyons, and valleys that create the potential for reservoirs. The high populations of the San Francisco Bay Area need water, so the Range is the setting of several reservoirs, to name a few: 14 San Antonio Reservoir, 15 San Luis Reservoir, Los Vaqueros Reservoir, and of course Lake Del Valle. Los Vaqueros provides the option to rent a boat and explore the lake; Del Valle has a marina and conducts boat trips. Additionally, there is swimming at Lake Del Valle, but in only a small part of the lake. Boating is an easier, though during winter, more chilling, way to explore the range. Los Vaqueros Reservoir, for example, is miles long, and includes some interesting sites, such as dead trees submerged in the water. There are, however, some curved shorelines; there are sometimes boat tours in the lake.
Swimming options are limited, as some of the small, historic lakes in places like Henry Coe State Park are not the best quality of water. There are few places, such as Lake Del Valle, that have "designated swimming areas" — places where people more normally go to swim. Algae is, however, a concern.
The Diablo Range's terrain and landscape make it a good place for picnics, as insects are limited in the mountains, there are often oak trees for shade, and benches constructed by the park management make for a more comfortable and enjoyable outdoor meal. Mosquitoes can be annoying late in the evening, but during lunchtime, park areas are relatively free of the insects. Always be prepared that someone may already be using the bench, but benches are often empty.
You will not want to sit on the ground itself for a couple reasons: first, it's usually stony (contrary to what the picture in #Stay safe implies), and second, in grassland areas, ticks and snakes are possible. You can always put coats or jackets on the ground to make yourself more comfortable.
In cities, expect grocery stores to be well-stocked with goods.
There are plenty of hotels in nearby cities (such as those in the East Bay and the Tri-Valley), so lodging is not a problem. As this is California, and an expensive part of the state, generally, expect hotels to be expensive, and plan accordingly.
There are campsites, including one in Del Valle Regional Park. These vary from just some open ground with picnic tables and a (disgusting) restroom facility to Del Valle's more full-blown campsite with parking spaces for camping vehicles.
The advice in #Eat is worth carrying over here; the ground isn't wonderful, so you should bring towels or other objects to cover the ground. Some parks have designated camping spots out in the countryside (Del Valle and Henry Coe are two), but it is wise to keep to those. If you wander off a trail, you put yourself at risk if you find yourself in danger, particularly in parks with a lot of open space.
As covered in #Sleep, there are sometimes public toilets at various, usually picnic or campsite-related, locations, but these can be absolutely disgusting. Do not be surprised if weeds are growing next to the door-frame, the soap doesn't work properly, and the inside is dark. Unfortunately, this is the price you pay for not doing business in the place you're staying before you start hiking. If you are having a picnic, eat the food before you use the restroom, if possible.
Some mountain areas are remote, so do not expect to get help quickly. If you are concerned about your safety, there are smaller parks close to cities (like Sycamore Grove Park — see the article for the Arroyo del Valle Trail) where concerns of this nature will be much reduced.
Dangerous animals that live in the area are mountain lions and rattlesnakes.
Rattlesnakes are known for being a problem in this region. The best way to avoid rattlesnakes by staying away from the edges of trails, if possible, so you will see the rattlesnake before it is dangerously close to you. (The worst time for rattlesnakes is the summer.) Although not all snakes are dangerous, and there are "good" snakes in the Diablo Range, if you're not a biology expert, it's best to be careful about all snakes in case you come in contact with a rattlesnake. If a rattlesnake is on the trail, and it is near you, step away from it — if the snake is front of you, go backwards along the trail, if possible, so you are safely away from the snake. Do not assume that, if a snake is a few feet (a meter) away, you are safe. If you keep distance from the snake, chances are that the snake will cross the trail and go into the grass; once he's well into the grass and several feet from you, you can resume along the trail.
The other animal-related safety issue is the mountain lion, which is the Diablo Range's equivalent to the black bear, in terms of danger. To avoid close contact with mountain lions, stay in open areas when possible; it's good to look around every so often, especially if you hear a suspicious ruffling of bushes or grass. If you do find yourself near a mountain lion, the advice usually given is that you should make yourself seem larger and more powerful than the mountain lion by reaching out with your arms and legs and by holding up large objects. Also, as is often the case with wild animal encounters, the mountain lion is probably as scared of you as you are of them and stay as confident as possible, and this fact is worth remembering.
Particularly in the lower regions of the park, extreme heat can be a problem, as temperatures can pass 110 °F (43 °C) in June, July, August, and September. In the park's highest elevations and Ohlone Regional Wilderness in particular, there can be snow, but temperatures never get bitterly cold in Del Valle or Ohlone (no negative degrees Fahrenheit) and the quantity of snow is rarely enough to be dangerous, even on the rare occasion when it does snow.
If it's a really hot day, do your activities fairly early in the morning and make sure you're done with them by 10-11 AM at the latest, depending on the expected temperatures. On a normal summer day, temperatures will still get hot at the peak, during the afternoon, but are unlikely to pass 100 °F (38 °C), so you should plan your activities depending on how used to the heat you are.
Respect is a very important issue in many wild areas, but the Diablo Range's parks are especially conscious when it comes to respecting wildlife. Litter is not common in the mountains, and you should not do it either. These parks are designed for people to hike and respect nature, not vandalize it. On the whole, a strict attitude is taken, and rightly so, to what you can and can't do, especially in parks with reservoirs. While few parks ban dogs outright, rules pertaining to dogs are often complicated and strict. Cycling is very popular, however, and cyclists go off the path and create their own trails sometimes. However, the East Bay, especially inland, is a region with high standards and expectations, so you should not push the rules, whether it comes to cycling, dogs, or any other issue.
California has a strong environmentalist presence, but many people in the region unfortunately care little about the beautiful scenery that surrounds them. It's a mixed bag, however, and development, especially in the hills, can be a controversial issue around elections and not one in which it is wise to be involved as a visitor. Even attempted permission for a small housing development receives wide-scale opposition, so work is being done to "save the hills," but again, this is an issue not to be pressed, as varying people have vastly different views that are often strong.