Mountain Climbing in San Francisco

No, of course you can’t really climb a mountain in San Francisco.

Intentionally, Diane and I don’t live in “the city”. Choosing suburban life after owning a newly built beautiful home in Calgary, Alberta, it seemed only natural. Sacrificing home ownership grates on me every day as the filing date slowly approaches for MM2H, the Malaysian Social Visit Visa and we begin our experimental early retirement in Southeast Asia. With just over six months remaining, it occurred to me how overseas readers might enjoy a story about San Francisco, the famed City by The Bay

 Diane and I live here until we flee for Malaysia in 2015.

Diane and I live here until we flee for Malaysia in the spring of 2015

Unfortunately, Walnut Creek, California lies about 25 miles west and with a $20 price tag just to get there, house husbands living on their wife’s salary for another six months don’t spend an awful lot of time in San Francisco. Convincing city people why suburban life has its rewards is often daunting. Recently, I underwent surgery to repair a hernia and the rehabilitation created a perfect opportunity to share a little piece of our suburban utopia before embarking to the chaos and excitement of Malaysia.

By the fourth week after surgery,  I felt strong enough for a real challenge. My surgeon told me to climb Half Dome, a famous landmark and rock climbers paradise in Yosemite National Park. She even wrote it down on my patient discharge instructions. Unfortunately, the mountain she referred me to lies five hours from my house.

climb half dome

My surgeon told me to climb one of California’s largest peaks

Thankfully, we have Mount Diablo State Park, a gem located just minutes from my suburban home in Walnut Creek, California. Granted it’s not much of a mountain by most standards but the peak of Mount Diablo is 3,849 feet high. At the top there are sweeping views of San Francisco and the Golden Gate Bridge to the east and the Sierra Madres to the west.

Even though Malaysia fascinates me, I must admit that Mount Diablo is my favorite landmark in The Bay Area. You can see its peak as far away as Sacramento as you drive home from Lake Tahoe. The park has an amazingly diverse trail system and offers a lot of opportunities for hiking, cycling and other outdoor activities for an area so close to a major urban environment.

 The Wimpy way Up

The Wimpy way Up

Most people drive to the top on a twisty eight mile road. Others choose the cycling route. I prefer hiking. Thanks to back entrances I can avoid the $8.00 entrance fee and hike almost 3,500 feet straight up in about two hours and 25 minutes if I go straight through. It’s more challenging than it seems as the ascent covers the entire elevation gain in only 5.4 miles. I like a route that features a mix of single-track switchbacks and fire trails.

Scaling Mount Diablo in summer is an almost impossible task unless you are training for a camel trek through the Gobi Desert. Often sweltering hot in August even though it’s foggy and freezing only 35 miles away at the coast, The San Francisco Bay Area has the most bizarre micro-climates anywhere in America which typically feature a 35 degree temperature difference from the coast to the inland valleys. But climate change has made 2014 a very strange year. I awoke one morning to an unseasonably cool morning with cool breezes so I decided to go for it.

The climb starts on a dead-end street. Ensuring I had lots of water, two protein bars and some fruit I was happy to see only one car parked and figured I’d see very few hikers once I got off the beginning fire trail. Usually packed in spring and fall and especially on weekends, the trails are amazingly peaceful and deserted on summer weekdays.

In spring there are lots of wildflowers and sometimes in winter some of the trails are barely navigable due to high flowing streams. Not this year. California remains in a drought of epic proportions. To understand how serious, read this. It’s rained about 10 days from January to August and the terrain is dangerously dry and dusty. Even so the trees absorb moisture from morning fog and nothing really looks dead. Summer is probably the most boring time but the quietest for sure.

Wildlife abounds but can sometimes be hard to spot. On this day two very large deer trotted a few steps in front of me but they were too fast for me to get a picture. Officially the list of creatures (seen below) is very large but I’ve never seen anything more interesting than deer and rabbits.

  • Mountain lions
  • Bobcats, grey foxes and coyotes
  • Skunks, raccoons and long tailed weasels
  • opossum and black-tailed deer
  • Jackrabbits, cottontail and brush rabbits
  • many types of rats and  mice
  • gophers, squirrels and shrews
  • feral cats
  • 13 types of bats

My chosen route divides itself into four parts. Each section gets increasingly more difficult until you reach the last mile which is not as steep but very rocky and challenging. The first mile is a flat and easy fire road which eventually climbs about 400 feet to a junction.

At the major junction you can opt for the wide open fire roads but they are boring. A quick right turn gets you to Middle Trail, an awesome 1.5 mile stretch of single track that offers lots of shade, occasional sweeping views as you get higher and lots of wildlife sounds.

After you conquer this part you reach Prospectors Gap Road and the hardest part follows. A fire road winds .86 miles but ascends almost 1500 feet in that time giving your calves and quads areal workout. This is where you want to make sure the water supply hasn’t run dry. There’s little shade and during periods of extreme drought the rocks are so loose it’s easy to lose your footing, especially on the way down.

I had no real plans to hike to the top. It had been about two years since I’d done this excursion. But it’s kind of addicting. Many people hate hiking alone. I’m not one of them. Every time I ascend this trail I love it more than  the last time. It’s one of the few reasons that makes urban congestion, commutes and high prices worth it. I don’t stop very often or I lose my incentive. Although I hike slowly my endurance is very good and at age 49 it makes me feel very alive.

the end almostIf you make this crazy stretch of climbing you’re rewarded with a bird’s-eye view of east and west. This is Prospectors Gap, named for the mining activity that once existed. A sign explains the history. It’s easy to stop here because fatigue sets in by that point. But you can see the little house at the summit and you know it’s imperative to scale the last mile, aptly named Summit Trail. There’s also a trail heading to the smaller North Peak but I’ve never been impressed with “almost the top”.

The last mile is easily my favorite. As expected I scaled the entire hike without seeing one single human to this point. This usually changes on Summit Trail where you often see those wimpy hikers that have opted to drive to the top and do some exploring. Boring. The only way to hike Mount Diablo is to start at the bottom and climb straight up.

Summit Trail has switchbacks that offer views of the Central Valley farming communities like Stockton. Depending on conditions you might see the mountains that skirt Lake Tahoe. The view remains to the west until you finally make a right turn and hit the homestretch. I approached an area scorched by wildfire in 2013 and thought how amazing it is that there’s never been a major devastating wildfire that I’m aware of anywhere in Mount Diablo.

The Oakland Hills burned to the ground in 1991 taking dozens of houses and causing several deaths. But that’s due to man’s desire to live among places where nature can rage. I have no sympathy for millionaires that lose their Malibu Houses  built on precipices that are subject to floods, landslides and annual fires.

Passing the scorched area, I crossed the road for the first time . This means only a short .44 mile jaunt to the top. As I approached the top I felt great and hardly missed the gym at all. Glancing at my watch I was OK with the 2 hour and 47 minute timeframe. This is about 20 minutes more than my usual time but hey, I was nursing an injury.

At the summit there is a small museum that I hadn’t visited in a long time. Perhaps I once read all the signage but once you hike the mountain you let the tourists and unfit enjoy the museum. My main goal was purchasing a cold drink which thankfully they have . The store employee was too busy chatting on her phone about her family wedding in South America to attend to me so I just dropped two bucks on the counter and guessed that would be enough. Good help is hard to find.

After enjoying the view at the very top I pounded down my protein bars, drank my Vitamin Water and prepared myself for the hardest part; the hike back. Did I mention that even if your legs still feel OK when you reach the top this will quickly end on the descent down?

Some of the trail is so steep that you have to stop yourself and hold on so you don’t lose footing. Running is not a good option when the soil is either super dry in summer or slippery in winter. After I started down the steep part it took about 10 minutes until; the calves, quads and bottoms of the feet were begging for mercy.

sign 2I actually recommend a solid pair of hikers which of course I no longer own in Walnut Creek because they are insanely too hot and heavy for my feet. I hike with a pair of North Face cross trainers that are just supportive enough for trails but not really ideal for real mountains. How I will ever learn to hike in the blistering heat of Malaysia’s blistering rainforests is beyond me.

The descent seems like it never ends and I found myself cursing out loud and wondering why the trail seemed to add a few miles while I was at the top. Finally, the bottom was in sight and I inched my way back to the car. The next four days were an adventure in leg pain that I may have never felt before. I’m thankful Half Dome was in fact too far for me.

I made it. A feeling of accomplishment did sweep across me despite the aches and pains. I’m not sure if it really helped the muscles heal as suggested but it was fun trying.

 <center> The rather luxurious hotel in our home town

The rather luxurious hotel in our home town

Should you ever find yourself in Walnut Creek (I have no idea why you would), we have three very nice four star hotels. The most luxurious is the Renaissance Club Sport which is also the home of an awesome spa and large health club that charges way too much money. You can find yuppie moms, professionals and other upper class residents of the county patronizing the club.


Those that pay upwards of $200 a month for gym memberships find themselves in that evil trap of living above one’s means to keep up with neighbors and co-workers.At $39 a month, our local gym serves all our needs without any fancy trainers or exclusive spas. Suburban wives can enjoy themselves while their husband’s slave away at the office well past age 65. You’ll find Diane and me on the beach sipping margaritas.

For more information on rehabilitation of a hernia for active people, click here.

For information on hiking the real Half-Dome, click here.

2 thoughts on “Mountain Climbing in San Francisco

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s