It hasn’t rained enough this year.
Oh, I can hear the yelps now. Friends have threatened to renounce their acquaintance with me when I suggest taking a leisurely walk during a mild downpour. Then they go on snarling about traffic jams, the mudslides that sweep away roads and houses, and the wetness of it all. Rain is fine, they assure me, but only in small measured doses when they are safely stowed away underneath their covers.
All right, admittedly, I’d be the one standing on the deck of Noah’s ark looking for more storm clouds. So when spring breaks, I wring the last drop from Nature by striking out in search of waterfalls. The not-so-distant El Nino winter of 1998 turned the mildest creeks into cataracts and falls into surging torrents. This year, the waterfalls are tamer but still beautiful, and many will last several more weeks. And for friends who like cascade convenience, Falls Trail on Mount Diablo not only makes for a nice half-day circuit, you get three waterfalls for the hike of one. Such a deal.
Mud permitting: The winter paradox of sensational falls, which can measure up to 100 feet, is glopping through the dirt to get there. Yes, and herein lies the hypocrisy: Love the rain, hate the mud. Also, given mild acrophobia, I don’t get too enthused about scrabbling along slippery paths the width of a dachshund and dropping down the few sheer drop-offs along the way. The trade-off for milder waterfalls constant green and delicate wildflowers isn’t so bad.
The only slogging is along Donner Canyon Road, the starting point from Regency Gate trail head off Regency Drive in Clayton. Even much of that route, shared by hikers and horses, can be avoided by walking along Hetherington Loop. The loop whets the appetite, so to speak, for waterfalls, since it parallels the rushing Donner Creek. This part alone makes for a relaxing tree-shrouded walk. If you do get muddy, you can always look for a flock of kids standing knee-high in the water to see where you can soak your feet.
Paper trail: There is no excuse for getting lost, not with the Mount Diablo Interpretive Association. This organization publishes pamphlets describing hikes of varying intensity and the trail map of Mount Diablo State park; it organizes hikes and it puts everything in cyberspace. So to get to the Falls Trail, MDIA advises taking Donner Canyon Road and Hetherington Loop Trail, up Cardinet Oaks Road to Falls Trail and a return loop on Middle Trail. Only a fool could get lost.
The park does have decent signposts, but a map would still be a good idea. I left mine at work, and my hiking friend and I ended up making the full Hetherington Loop circuit. We returned to Donner Canyon Road and headed up toward the hills. The dry wide path can get steep; we passed a horse hoofing it rather gingerly downhill.
After crossing a small stream, we turned up Middle Trail, a narrow path that wraps around slopes studded with bushy trees. Here, a distant vista of hills, town buildings and blue water gradually emerges, then the path spirals up into secluded valleys studded with bushy trees.
We began to catch up with the hawk that had been soaring overhead. Just as we entered its stratosphere, we spotted the first waterfall across the valley. The second fall-sighting followed almost immediately, then the third one surged into view. The path descended again as we neared the first two falls, and that’s where we saw three or four hawks gliding in Donner Canyon.
Drinking up the views: The falls, which looked to be about 15 to 20 feet the day we went, are best viewed at a distance; up close, the trail intersects at the shallow portion of the creeks. Waterproof high tops would be helpful. The crossings are relatively easy and shallow, and yes, the water is cold. There aren’t any picnic areas, but a plateau above the second fall makes for a good viewing platform. Although we missed the junction, apparently if you follow the creek 100 yards along Wild Oat Canyon, you can sit behind the rushing waters in an alcove.
A walking stick might come in handy for some of the steeper areas, although they last for only short distances. Heading back around toward the Regency Gate junction, the trail shifts away from hugging the valley into woodier surroundings; I could practically jog on the dirt path. Mapless as we were, we took a left and a right along Cardinet Oaks Road to get back to Regency Gate.
For more details: The Falls Trail Loop is described in the MDIA pamphlet “Moderate Hikes in Mt. Diablo State Park,” also available online at www.mdia.org. You can get more park information by calling 925-837-2525, while weather conditions can be obtained at 925-838-9225. The park is open 8 a.m. to a half-hour before sunset. The County Connection 110, which does not run Sundays, stops some distance from the northeast park entrance. Call County Connection for an updated schedule at 925-676-7500.