5 mile partial loop up Donner Canyon, then past a series of waterfalls.
There are a few steep sections of fire road, and many short steep stretches
on the trail.
Distance, category, and difficulty:
This 5.0 mile partial loop hike is moderate, with about 1300
feet in elevation change. Although the featured hike is not long, I found
it more difficult then expected. Trailhead elevation is about 540 feet,
and the hike's high point is about 1700 feet. The hike has a few steep sections
that are really tough when conditions are muddy, and trails wander up and
Mostly exposed, with some pockets of shade.
Dirt fire roads and trails.
Too hot in summer. Best in late winter and early spring.
From CA 24 or Interstate 680 in Contra Costa County, exit Ygnacio Valley
Road (exit 46b, at the 680 split). Drive east on Ygnacio Valley Road about
7 miles, then turn south (right) on Clayton Road. Drive south on Clayton
Road (which becomes Marsh Creek Road in Clayton) about 3 miles, and turn
right on Regency Road (this road is easy to miss -- begin looking for it
after you pass the junction with Marsh Creek Road). Drive to the trailhead
at the end of the road.
Get driving or public transit directions from Transit and Trails:
GPS Coordinates* for Trailhead:
(* based on Google Earth
data, shown as degrees, minutes, seconds)
Gas, food, and lodging:
Gas, stores, restaurants, and pay phones about 3 miles north near Ygnacio
Valley Road. The state park has several drive-in campgrounds, but these
are reached from roads near the top of the mountain, not from this trailhead.
Side of the road parking at the edge of a residential neighborhood. No entrance
or parking fees at this trailhead. No maps. No toilet facilities. No water.
No designated handicapped parking, and trails are not wheelchair accessible.
There is no direct public transportation to the park.
Most trails are multi-use. A few are open to hikers and equestrians, and
some and hiking-only. No dogs. Technically, the park is open from 8 a.m.
to 45 minutes before sunset, but this trailhead, with street parking, permits
you to get an early start and stay a bit later.
The Official Story:
Mount Diablo page
Mount Diablo Ranger Station 925-837-6129
is described and mapped in 60 Hikes within 60 Miles: San Francisco,
by Jane Huber (yup, that's me, the creator of this website). Order
this book from Amazon.com.
Download the park
map pdf from CSP's website.
Mount Diablo (& Surrounding Parks) map, published by
Mount Diablo Interpretive Association, is invaluable (order at http://www.mdia.org).
Afoot and Afield: San Francisco Bay Area, by David Weintraub
this book from Amazon.com) has a great map and descriptions of a Donner
David Weintraub's East Bay Trails has a good map and descriptions
of this hike (order
this book from Amazon.com).
Geology Trails of Northern California, by Robin C. Johnson
and Dot Lofstrom (order
this book from Amazon.com) has a nice geological description of this
Donner Canyon in a nutshell
-- a printable, text-only guide to the featured hike.
View 88 photos
from this hike.
Go to Bay Area Hiker Home page
you've ever been hiking on Mount Diablo in the summer, you
may have found the mountain to be well-named. It gets devilishly hot and
dry here, and a day spent hiking on the sun-baked slopes can leave you
feeling dehydrated and worn-out. It's difficult to integrate the image
of Diablo's dry, brown flanks with the lush green vegetation and waterfalls
that winter and early spring bring. Even more incredible is the sight
of snow on Diablo's tallest peaks. Most people drive to the summit to
frolic in the snow, but it's also a good plan to hike in the quiet northeastern
section of Diablo a day or two following a winter storm. You probably
won't hike far enough uphill to encounter snow on the trails (unless you
hike uphill past Deer Flat), but you'll have great views of the white-dusted
Mitchell Canyon is Diablo's most extensive
trailhead, where you'll find plenty of parking, restrooms, and access
to the park's north flank. Get there by turning onto Mitchell Canyon Road
from Clayton Road, just before you reach the town of Clayton. You can
start at Mitchell Canyon and hike east to Donner Canyon, but the Regency
Trailhead (such as it is) is where most visitors begin a hike to
Donner Canyon and falls. From either of these trailheads you can also
hike to Eagle Peak, or explore
Back Creek Canyon. If you're craving a challenge, hike to North Peak,
or Diablo Summit from either of these trailheads. There are plenty
of trails to choose from, but regardless of the route, you'll face a considerable
climb and then descent. You can also create a few easy out-and-back or
loop hikes, combining Donner Canyon Road with Tick Wood Trail and Back
Wood Road, or Donner Canyon with Hetherington Loop, and Bruce Lee Trails.
This featured hike, to Donner Canyon
Falls, is only 5 miles long, but has some steep sections of fire road,
and some very steep, but short, stretches of trail. A trekking pole is
handy here. This is a very pretty hike in winter and spring, with lots
to admire, including a diverse variety of native plants and birds. In
2001 when I first hiked here, there was quite a bit of water in the falls,
but in 2005, the flow was disappointing -- the falls are at their
best following sustained rains.
Begin at the Regency Trailhead. Walk
around the gate on the north side of the road, and descend 250 feet
to an unmarked junction. Turn
left. Huge buckeyes share grassland with deciduous oaks; in winter
the buckeyes are easy to pick out, as they put forth leaves before the
oaks. Walk toward the park boundary, a visible gate. Once inside the park,
one trail departs to the right (to Back Creek Road) and 2 to the left.
Take either trail to the left, signed Donner Canyon Road (these
trails converge shortly). In winter, both legs of this wide fire road
may be muddy. Donner Canyon Road follows along Donner Creek, which is
lined with stately blue oaks and buckeyes. After just 0.15 mile,
at a signed junction, a trail sets out, toward Mitchell Canyon Road, on
the right side of the trail. Continue on Donner Canyon Road: the
two legs rejoin and run together a few feet further. On a clear day, you'll
have nice views of Diablo's high peaks as you walk along this gently graded
multi-use trail. At about 0.29 mile, at a signed junction, a trail leaves
from the right side of Donner Canyon Road, on the way to
Bruce Lee Trail. Continue straight on Donner Canyon Road.
Another signed junction, this one on the
left side of the trail, with a path to Clayton Oaks Road, is reached at
about 0.35 mile. Continue
straight on Donner Canyon Road.
You might see California buttercups brightening
the grass in winter along the trail. A few coast live oaks and gray pines
join the blue oaks. At about 0.90 mile, a path to Donner Cabin Site departs
on the left at a signed junction. Continue straight on Donner Canyon
At about 0.95 mile, you'll reach a junction with
a path to Tick Wood Trail on the right side. Continue straight on Donner
Canyon Road. Around a corner at the one mile mark, you'll reach a
signed junction with Hetherington Loop Trail (an option if you'd like
to get off the fire road; this path runs parallel to Donner Canyon Road
and ends uphill just before Cardinet junction) on the left. Continue
straight on Donner Canyon Road.
Abruptly, the grade picks up. Ascending through
the mud can be a tedious and slow process after heavy winter rains --
according to Geology Trails of Northern California, this sticky
muck is a Mesozoic mudstone known as Knoxville Formation. A consolation
is ever-increasing views of Donner Canyon and the peaks. As the trail
crests and the uphill grade eases, you may notice a dramatic shift
in vegetation. Deciduous oaks and buckeyes are replaced by plants in the
chaparral community, most notably ceanothus, toyon, poison oak, sagebrush,
yerba santa, and manzanita. You might see chaparral currant, hound's tongue,
and shooting stars blooming in February. Gray pines are an increasing
presence, towering above the fire road. At about 1.27 miles, Tick Wood
Trail sets off to the right at a signed junction. Continue straight
on Donner Canyon Road.
The fire road dips and meets the other
end of Hetherington Loop Trail at a signed junction at 1.36 miles, on
the left side of the trail. Continue straight on Donner Canyon Road.
The fire road climbs rather steeply, then ends at signed Cardinet Junction
at 1.52 miles. Turn left onto Cardinet Oaks Road.
The fire road, open to cyclists, equestrians,
and hikers, drops to cross Donner Creek. In the thick of winter runoff,
you may find yourself wading through ankle-deep cold rushing water. Once
on the other side, the trail begins a steep ascent. Climbing through pine,
sagebrush, toyon, and ceanothus, if you stop to catch your breath you
may enjoy a long view back toward the trailhead and beyond to the north.
along the trail in winter. Finally, at 2.00 miles, the harsh switchbacks
deliver you to Falls Trail at a signed junction on the right side of the
road. Turn right.
This trail, closed to cyclists, seems no
more than a glorified deer path. It winds uphill across a grassy hillside
dotted with sagebrush, poison oak, toyon, and bush lupine. Most of the
trees are gray pines, there's also quite a bit of California juniper,
Look for early wildflowers including fiddlenecks and popcorn flower in
February. You may see bobcat or coyote scat. Across the canyon, in the
winter you'll get your first glimpse of the falls. Falls Trail passes
beneath a large formation of Franciscan chert (visible from the other
side of the canyon as well). The path descends and draws near to Donner
Creek, and the falls. A side path drops closer to the falls, but stay
on the main trail. During the peak of waterfall season, water rushes through
the gorge as you walk along the steep bank, providing a lively and soothing
soundtrack. After skirting a bare, rocky spot, you'll cross a feeder creek,
and then drop down to cross Donner Creek. A steep rough path heads straight
uphill. Look right for the actual trail, which begins an ascent. Creekside
plants obscure most of the views back uphill to the falls. Falls Trail
takes a moderate grade through patches of native grasses, toyon, cercocarpus,
chaparral honeysuckle, hop tree, and ceanothus. A break in the vegetation
permits a sweeping view back out of the canyon to the north. The trail
descends to cross another, smaller creek, then starts back uphill. A small
grassy knoll, surrounding by ceanothus is a great spot for a lunch break
(unless you're with a large group). From here you have what I think is
the nicest view of the second creek (and falls) you crossed. Look back
across the canyon for that large reddish rock (you passed just beneath
it), and you'll have an idea of your journey so far. Now continuing a
familiar pattern, the trail dips down to cross a creek, and then climbs
back uphill. Some short but steep sections make tax your legs. On one
February hike I noticed thousands of ladybugs, hibernating in close quarters
on the ground as well as on shrub and tree branches. There's another creek
crossing and climb, and the lack of shrubs and trees have created a nice
grassland habitat for winter and spring wildflowers. You might see hound's tongue, milkmaids, zigadene
in February and March, and others later on in the season. Ceanothus and
toyon begin to encroach the trail, and you'll find all views obscured
as you reach a signed junction with Middle Trail at 3.00 miles. Bear
right on Middle Trail.
Middle Trail is open to hikers and equestrians.
Manzanitas emerge and dominate a short stretch. As you head out of the
canyon, there are expansive views back to the falls and Diablo's summit.
Toyon, chamise, and California bay add variety to the manzanitas. Middle
Trail takes on a dark tunnel-feel as tall and thick vegetation crowds
the path. You might see flowering currants in winter. Emerging into more
sparse and sunny slopes, manzanita, toyon, and chamise line the path right
up its terminus, at 3.42 miles. At this signed junction with Meridian
Ridge Road, turn right.
The broad fire road descends quickly to
end at a previously encountered junction with Donner Canyon Road, at 3.50
miles. Turn left and retrace your steps to the trailhead.
Total distance: 5.0 miles
Last hiked: Saturday, February