One hazy day last week I set off with my friend Brad to hike the Hanna Grove Trail in Walnut Creek’s Shell Ridge Open Space. It’s not a long trail, maybe a mile and a half between Comistas Drive and the Briones - Mt Diablo Trail, but it’s one of many connecting the suburbs of Central County with the greenbelt lands that surround Mt. Diablo. Besides, I’d never been on it before.
The trail was dry and it was shirt sleeve weather, the kind of winter day that is the reason so many of us live here. Shoots of grass were poking through last year’s dry tufts, and the pastures were alive with the energy of the recent rains and growth.
When I was a kid, and that was a very long time ago, Mt. Diablo was a little State Park surrounded by ranches in its foothills and miles of orchards in the valleys. Concord had a population of 12,000 in 1952 and it was a long drive on country roads through never ending fruit trees, to the little towns of Walnut Creek and Martinez. Then the houses began to spread, beginning at the center of each town and moving outward. Slowly the orchards and farms succumbed to the subdivisions and nearly all the Diablo Valley, the San Ramon Valley and the Alhambra Valley were changed from producers of food, to homes for people. The Baby Boomers were here, and I was one of them.
During this time of incredible growth, however, unlike what happened in Los Angeles where nearly everything seems to have been paved over, there was a counter movement. Here we began to actively preserve land through the expansion of Mt. Diablo State Park, the creation of new East Bay Regional Parks, City Open Space preserves, Federal acquisitions and thousands of acres of land purchased by Save Mt. Diablo and the Muir Heritage Land Trusts, all destined for public use.
The Hanna Grove is one of many entry trails, connecting with other paths on lands preserved by those agencies. Interlacing seamlessly from one jurisdiction to another, they traverse a skirt of parks circling the base of Mt. Diablo so vast in area that you could hike for weeks and never hike them all.
We chose to walk a 9 mile loop beginning in Walnut Creek’s Shell Ridge Open Space, through the wonderfully preserved 111 year old Borges Ranch, then onto the Briones - Mt Diablo Trail in Diablo Foothills Regional Park and finally into Mt. Diablo State Park for a few miles on the Wall Point Trail. We would then loop back down the Old Stage Road along Pine Creek, through Castle Rock Regional Recreation Area and back to our starting point.
The Hanna Grove Trail begins on Comistas Drive in Walnut Creek, which is just beyond North Gate High School, off of Castle Rock Road. Parking is not allowed at the trailhead, but is permitted at the far end of Comistas.
Initially paved and bordered by homes, the trail quickly transitions to an old dirt road surrounded by hills and trees. The forest is mostly blue and valley oaks, still leafless, spare silhouettes against the ridge lines. It’s an easy path with a gentle rise, wrapped in the softly rolling Diablo Foothills, that simply invites a quieter experience. Here and there a bench has been provided. We were a stones throw from suburbia, but the quiet was only broken by the sounds of birds and our own talking.
Before we knew it, we had reached the Borges Ranch, a mile and a half or so from our start. In 1899, Walnut Creek pioneer, Frank Borges, bought 700 acres at $4.50 per acre and built a cattle ranch here. Now on the National Register of Historic Places, it’s run by the city of Walnut Creek to give young and old alike, a taste of what life was like in our hills a hundred years ago. It is replete with farm animals, courtesy of 4H, old farm equipment, a blacksmith shop and everything it took to keep a cattle ranch going. For a visit, it would be easy to access it on the Hanna Grove Trail rather than simply driving up. Along with the exercise, you get the experience of approaching a place slowly with your own muscle bringing you up over the rise for your first glimpse of your destination.
Brad and I were out for a hike, so we only took a cursory glance at the ranch and the old Caterpillar Tractor from 1922, and headed on down the road. Not far from the ranch, the Hanna Grove Trail ends at the junction with the Briones - Mt. Diablo Trail, where we went left, southeast, toward the mountain.
In the summer this section of trail would best be hiked in the morning or evening as it is over open grassland with few trees, but right now with the cool of winter and the green just beginning to show, it is the perfect place for a leisurely walk in the sun. Even through the overcast we were warmed out in the open of those sheltering hills.
The trail leads on through several long valleys, connected by low passes and enters the Diablo Foothills Regional Park. Mt Diablo rises to the east and to the west, China Wall forms a line of crags and rocky teeth set into the ridge. It is an up-tilted layer of ancient ocean strata, harder than its surroundings, and it protrudes, a nearly solid wall of giant standing stones. It looks like a ruined section of its namesake, the Great Wall itself, riding the landscape from hill to hill and inviting closer investigation.
Our trail eventually led into Mt. Diablo State Park where we reentered the trees. We turned east on Wall Point Rd. and then again onto Dusty Rd., looping back north on Stage Rd. along Pine Creek in a dense forest of oaks and bays. The creek was still barely flowing from the lack of rain this year, but the ferns, cattailed ponds and willow brakes are evidence to the riparian nature of the place. This is the trail for a hot summers day. If you plan your hike right you can hike most of the way to the top of Diablo in shade, starting up this canyon.
But today we simply enjoyed the green of the place and a quiet lunch at the Little Yosemite Trail picnic benches. We hiked on down through Castle Rock Regional Recreation Area and completed our loop by rejoining the Hanna Grove Trail just below the Borges Ranch. The last mile and a half was an easy ending to a lovely midwinter hike, through a patchwork of parks, a beautiful quilt of preserved lands and trails spread at the foot of Mt. Diablo.
The new, 6th edition of the Mount Diablo State Park map details this area well, as does the Mount Diablo, Los Vaqueros map put out by Save Mt. Diablo, REI and the EBRPD.
"In every walk with Nature one receives far more than he seeks." John Muir