The Devil's Mountain

Jonesey atop Mount Diablo

When it comes to Autumn/Fall, California, (or at least the part I’m most familiar with) is different to other places. In most of the world, this is a time when the green goes away, and autumnal colours ranging from gold to red bring beauty. Here, almost the reverse is true. Yes, many trees shed their leaves, but there are palm trees, pine, and other evergreens, not to mention cacti and other succulents.

the brown hills

More than that, though, the whole area suddenly explodes in green, the opposite of most of the world. The local grasses spend the dry time of year (which is to say, almost all of it) wearing a scratchy yellow/brown. The hills look as if they’ve been dusted with mustard apart from an occasional wildflower. But once the brief rainy part of the year arrives (usually for only a few weeks, starting in October or November), the grass wakes up with a start and suddenly a vivid, unexpected green is everywhere. For a month or two, the rounded hills we are surrounded by look like Tolkien’s Shire, and you half-expect to see little round hobbit-doors in the side. I'll try to get a good picture of the green hills to contrast with the photo on the left here nexxt time I'm afoot in daylight when it's not raining.

Dominating the area, whether in seasonal green or the usual sandy hues, is Mount Diablo. Now, if you can see the Alps, the Rockies, or Everest out of your window, you won’t find this too impressive. (It's bigger tan South Mountain which we lived on the side of in NJ though) At just 3849 feet (plus a little bit, which I’ll talk about shortly), there are many taller places. But right here the other hills are no competition, and it’s said that on a clear day you can see more land and water from the top than from anywhere else in the 48 contiguous states. They say that under perfect viewing conditions you can see 200 miles. Here's three pics - one from Benicia marina, one from the BART station in Walnut Creek, and one from downtown Benicia.

Diablo from Benicia marina

Diablo from Walnut Creek

Diablo from downtown Benicia

Looking west from Diablo you can easily see San Francisco, and on a clear day it’s said that you can see all the way to the Farallon Islands, 26 miles out to sea beyond the Golden Gate Bridge, and even further than that. The islands, by the way, are out-of-bounds to people, being bird sanctuaries. You are likely to see them if you go on a whale-watching cruise.

Mount Diablo itself is the centre of a State Park, about 20,000 acres of it. And nearby are about 3-4 times that area in other State parks. Diablo does dominate the surrounding area – when we moved to Pleasanton in 2014, we could see Mount Diablo whenever there were no buildings, etc. in the way. Now that we live in Benicia, although we are around 30 miles further north, it still dominates wherever there’s not something in the way.

Despite seeing it for several years, and driving past it on many occasions, I had never visited it until a few months ago. It’s still growing, at a rate which means it’s now about a millimetre taller than when I went there.

The name in itself contains a lot of local history, not all of it pleasant. To begin with, you’d imagine it was a name given by the Spaniards before the other Europeans turned up – but you’d be wrong. Here’s the story: yes, it does go back to Spanish rule, but the name was never meant for the mountain. It seems that the Spanish were pursuing a bunch of Chupcan locals, no doubt with lethal intent, but the locals eluded them. The Spaniards decided that the Devil must have helped them out, and they named the place where the locals disappeared monte de Diablo, which actually means “thicket of the devil”. Later, English-speaking settlers seem to have been too lazy to actually check this out, and made the obvious assumption.

There’s another story of the name’s origin, a very fanciful one promulgated in the 19th century by General Vallejo. The town next to ours is named after him, and in fact our own town is named after his wife. That doesn’t mean however that he was particularly truthful: He claimed that he actually encountered the Devil on Mount Diablo. The story was repeated in a book by his son which was published in 1910. Reading this on an information board alongside a Californian, I was struck by the fact that she considered that to be a long time ago, whereas I was actually quite shocked by how recent that was. Californians generally are not used to thinking in terms of centuries rather than decades.

One thing which is displayed on various information boards throughout the park is that Mount Diablo has been sacred to the Native Americans forever. I was expecting that they would tell us what the First Nations people called it – but that information was nowhere to be found. Eventually I found a plaque that said they all died off before anybody asked them. Tragic as this seems, it seems to be complete misinformation (although I couldn’t find a name in Volvon, which was the local tribe) – a quick search on the internet revealed the following offerings: Tuyshtak, "the dawn of time", and Sukkú Jaman, "the place we trade for dogs", and Supemenenu, for which I could find no translation. The name Kawakum, supposedly meaning “Laughing Mountain” in Volvon, appears to have been arbitrarily made up in the 1860’s, though I couldn’t find out why.

More recently, there have been moves to change the name – in this century, Arthur Mijares was of the opinion that, since the devil is real, the mount was named after “a living person”, which it seems is against the rules in the U.S. He suggested the mount should be named after Ronald Reagan instead. His petition was considered, and rejected.

We drove into the park, and headed for the summit. It’s not hugely steep for the most part, but it is a long way. We saw a number of hardy souls cycling the whole way, which looked exhausting. We stopped off a couple of times on the way up, to look around. One of the sights was a series of small holes in the rocks, which had apparently been formed by the local tribes when they were grinding acorns and so forth – like a pestle and mortar. There are a large number of these “grinding holes”, and it is easy to imagine them in use. Most of the holes are about the size of a clenched fist. We never got to see the wind caves, which are in a different part of the park.

I am told that there is a lot of wildlife in the park. But apart from birds, I see nothing. I’m not a bird aficionado but I recognize a number of the common species, from jays to woodpeckers. There’s red-tailed hawks, turkey vultures and I think some sort of kestrel, all spotted without making any great efforts.

I hear that there are mountain lions, wild pigs and rattlesnakes, and in September/October there’s an opportunity to see the male tarantulas migrating to seek lady tarantulas (they’re about the size of your hand). They live in burrows, which they line with their own silk, and the males live about 6 years, the last six months of which they are mature enough to mate. The lady tarantulas it’s said can live up to 30 years or more. Of course, some of them don’t get to that age – various things eat them, and there’s a species of wasp which stings them into immobility and then takes them home to lay their eggs in so the larvae have a food supply. The tarantula is still alive for quite some while. Hmm, never felt sorry for a tarantula before…

At the summit of the highest peak is the visitors centre and observation platform. There’s pictures, and a display about the geology, wildlife, history, etc. Plus the obligatory gift shop. Walking upstairs, you can actually stand on the natural peak of the mountain, and then go up a couple more steps to the observation deck. I could see into San Francisco quite easily, and after a while I worked out where our old stomping ground of Pleasanton was situated. The new home town is much easier to find – follow the bridge over the Carquinez Straights, look left past the refinery. Things got kind of misty about twenty-thirty miles or so away in most directions, so we didn’t get quite the spectacle that you sometimes do.

On the observation deck is a rotunda and atop that is a beacon, which used to be lit to help airplanes, and is now only lit once a year on Pearl harbor day, as a commemoration. So far it has always been lit by a survivor of the Pearl Harbor attack, but obviously there’s a limit to how long that will continue.

Seeing the information at the visitor centre, and reading some stuff after the visit I realise there’s a helluva lot more to the park than I managed to see – it looks like there’ll be return visits in the future.

Oh, here's a picture which isn't of Diablo - this is looking the other way from Benicia at sunset... but I thought it was pretty enough to include anyway. The bridge you can see in the distance is leading to Vallejo, the twon named after the general in the story above.

NOT Mt Diablo - Vallejo bridge.

I’ve not included a lot of photos, it’s very easy to find some on the net, taken by much more skilled camera operators than I. for instance here

and even more so, here: is worth a look too.