Donner Canyon and Waterfalls,
Mount Diablo State Park,
California State Parks,
Contra Costa County
In brief:
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 down considerably.

Exposure:
Mostly exposed, with some pockets of shade.

Trail traffic
:
Moderate.

Trail surfaces
:
Dirt fire roads and trails.

Hiking time
:
3 hours.

Season
:
Too hot in summer. Best in late winter and early spring.

Getting there:
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:
http://transitandtrails.org/trailheads/530

GPS Coordinates* for Trailhead:
Latitude 3755'19.15"N
Longitude
12155'35.49"W
(* 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.

Trailhead details:
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.

Rules:
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:
CSP's Mount Diablo page
Mount Diablo Ranger Station 925-837-6129

Map/book choices:
This hike 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 (order this book from Amazon.com) has a great map and descriptions of a Donner Canyon hike.
• 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 hike.

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

If you've ever been hiking on Mount Diablo in the summer, you may have found the mountain to be well-named. TrailheadIt 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 peaks.
     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. Grade picks up on Donner Canyon TrailYou 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.Donner Canyon Road
     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.Falls Trail
     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 Road.
     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. View north out of the canyonAs 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. Paintbrush blooms 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.Falls Trail
     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. FallsCreekside 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. Donner Canyon and snow topped peaks
      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 13, 2005