It seemed endless, all of the air around me had quickly vanished, the water in my bottles lukewarm, the sun hoisted itself to the apex and was not letting up any time soon. I was frustrated, beaten, and I was only 30 minutes into my ride.
I reclused back into the convenience of my sister’s air conditioned home. It was the middle of July, the temperatures peaking above 100 degrees and shade sparse throughout I knew that today the mountain had won. It was time to pack up and head back to the cooler temperatures of San Francisco.
(Rating and Strava route link is located at the end of the article)
Fast forward 2 years and Mount Diablo has somehow become my favorite climb. It takes conditioning, patience, focus and steady pace to peak this rising mound of land.
Covering approximately 90,000 acres, Mount Diablo has 520 miles of trails, 100 access points and over 400 miles of fire access roads.
What’s most unique about this climb is the location of the mountain itself. Wedged in between Danville and Walnut Creek the mountain sits quietly along a converging earthquake fault just east of San Francisco growing slowly at 3-5mm per year.
The loop starts from The Coffee Shop located in downtown Walnut Creek. A nice spot that serves, breakfast, lunch, dinner and what ever espresso drink that your palette desires, they also served oat milk, for you oat fiends.
A quick ride via BART will bring you within 1 mile of the starting point, just get off at the Walnut Creek station via Pittsburg/Bay Point line and head south via California Blvd or Civic Drive. If you plan on driving there’s parking directly across from The Coffee Shop that charges a mere $1 per hour to park.
Although this Strava Route has an established moving time of almost 7 hours it can be done in about 4-5 hours by the more advanced cyclists, especially if riding in a group.
The loop heads north through Walnut Creek neighborhoods wrapping you around onto Walnut Ave, which eventually connects you to the foothill of Mount Diablo. This gives you 5 miles to warm up your legs before you begin your ascent towards the peak via North Gate Road.
The uprising of land was named after a group of Spanish soldiers who we’re outrun by a group of Chupcan Native Americans and never seen again. They called it the “thicket of the devil”, eventually translating it into Monte del Diablo, which was eventually washed down to Mount Diablo.
Sacred to many California Native American people, the mountain is actually known as the point of creation in Miwok and Ohlone mythology.
The elevation gain begins as soon as you cross the north gate. With slow rolling hills to kick off the ride you’ll have 1 opportunity to fill up on water near the junction to South Gate, which will put you at around 2,000 feet (600 meters).
During summer months the temperatures can reach upwards of 110 degrees (43 celsius). Water is essential along with a minimum of 50-100 carbs of food depending on your weight. If you have insulated bottles, use them. If not, and regardless, I would recommend filling them up with ice and then water if you’re doing this ride during summer months.
The climb continues pass the South Gate Road junction as you make your way around several switchbacks before you hit the final grade, which surmounts to 17% for 100 feet. It’s fun.
The view at the top gives you a 360-degree look at the Bay Area. On a good day after light rain you can easily see the snowcaps of the Sierras.
Diablo has a very calming feel to it, it’s very isolated and it’s rare to see more than a few passing cars. The road is friendly and there are plenty of cycling pull out spots and picnic areas to stop and rest.
With a slight humming sound of the busy world behind you, you become enveloped in your own battle with gravity, heat, and the self.
The descent is unforgiving, there are plenty of cues that should give fare warning that you should be slowing down around particular corners.
Steady pace will get you to the top, but the mountain is unforgiving with its change in gradient, climate and vegetation . Pinecones the size of footballs loom above your head with western poison oak scattered on the shoulders of the road and newly developed cracks in the road slowly expanding and widening, waiting to bite into your wheel.
You’ll see plenty more signs that say “SLOW DOWN AVOID CRASH”. There’s a reason for this, many cyclists have gone off the road or collided with cars descending this route.
I can say that I learned how to corner on this mountain, with several close calls that really made me think about my own cornering skills and the etiquette of descending new and old climbs.
Here are a few tips on descending …
- Stay RELAXED.
- Never bomb a mountain on your first descent. The goal with the first climb is to learn it’s shape, its curves, and the speed you can push it to within your own cycling skills.
- Always break before the corner.
- Take the apex.
- Keep an eye on where you want to exit.
- Stay low on the bars.
- Never cross the yellow line unless you have visibility of what is beyond.
A majority of the climb is exposed to the sun but there are many corners with deep shade where a crack or a lurking pinecone can ruin the rest of your riding season; or even your existence. With that being said, be patient and take your time on the way down. The descent stretches out to over 13 miles via South Gate as you make your way towards to Danville so there’s plenty of time to enjoy the free fall.
The route eventually merges onto Alameda Diablo and then sends you down Danville Blvd where you’ll be able to stretch your legs for almost 5 miles of flat before connecting back up to The Coffee Shop.
I ended my loop with the meal above, ran me around 16 bones with tip at The Coffee Shop.
Get at it kids.
Rating: 8/10 during Spring and Fall – 9.5/10 during Summer. Biggest piece of advice I will give, if you’re riding Diablo during the summer, leave before 7, there’s a reason why it’s called Diablo.
This is a ride that can get very hot and uncomfortable. I recently heard a story from a friend who lives at the foothill of the mountain. Him and a friend were up scouting campsites for a future campout with their kids and family when they decided to go to the top for a view. As they were taking in the view they saw a man coming up the final hill on Diablo. When he reached the top, he collapsed off his bike. The people who were in the vicinity helped but they were not able to keep him alive. I actually heard another similar story while working for Rapha from a ride leader who went did a Dirty Kansa ride and saw a man collapse on a climb and die of a stroke. In instances like this, I think the biggest lesson is to always listen to your body. If you ever feel water or heat deprived it’s best to throw in the towel and you feel normal again. Quite often the body and mind can continue, but the heart cannot.