Journey-man’s Journal by Scott Feuer
Tales from the Trail — Black Diamond Mines Regional Preserve is one of my favorite local destinations nestled in the rolling hills between Clayton and Antioch. It is an extraordinary place to hike during spring and you’ll learn some amazing local history. Perhaps you pack your tent and sleeping bag for an overnight campout in our wildflower covered hillsides.
With over 65 miles of trails and two backpack campsites, the Preserve offers hikers of all ages an opportunity to explore the diverse flora and fauna through grasslands, foothill woodlands, mixed evergreen forests, chaparral and riparian ecosystems.
And the best part, to my surprise, is the rich history of mining towns that once boomed in these hills. Back in the1860s five mining towns (Somersville, Nortonville, Stewartville, West Hartley, and Judsonville) were founded to extract low-grade coal to power California’s railroads, ships, and industry of the 19th Century. By the 1920s coal mining switched to producing silica sand to make jars, bottles, and other glass products for 20 more years. Today the towns are long gone, but the cemetery, mine shafts, and a unique visitor center (located inside the mine tunnels) can be explored while hiking the many trails that traverse the rich history of the area.
The Preserve’s main entry is from Antioch, but I preferred to hike in from downtown Clayton over Peacock Ridge via Black Diamond Mt. Diablo Regional Trail. Although this route adds about four nondescript miles to the round-trip hike, finishing at the historic Clayton Club Saloon for an ice-cold beer certainly rewards the experience. Interestingly however, this segment of trail is actually the old Black Diamond road that miners use to take to obtain supplies and socialize in Clayton’s saloons and inns back in the day.
It’s a steep steady hike, but worth it when reaching the top to enjoy the spectacular views out across Concord and Martinez. The best vantage point is a hidden little rock outcropping near the power line transmission towers directly atop Peacock Ridge. Be sure to navigate up to this spot as you will not be disappointed.
From here, I recommend continuing along Black Diamond Trail a couple more miles to Ridge Trail to appreciate perhaps the best views in Black Diamond Mines. On Ridge Trail, veer right at the many trail lookout points along the ridge.
Incredible panoramas of Mt. Diablo’s “backside” to the south and Black Diamond Mines’ Rose Hill Cemetery and the Delta to the north put the hike in perspective.
Merging with Stewartville Trail junction you have two options. Continue west down to the visitor center if your day hiking for the shorter loop or east down Miner’s Trail to Stewartville’s backpack camp if overnighting with your reserved permit.
The 10-mile jaunt from Clayton to Stewartville Backpack Camp is completely worth it. There are not many places to backpack overnight locally, and the opportunity to sleep under 150 year-old olive trees planted during the heyday of Stewartville in complete darkness is undeniably unique. During one solo overnight trip, my mind started playing tricks on me.
Earlier in the day I had visited the old cemetery and read about the hauntings and other supernatural stories associated with the old abandoned towns prompting unnerving thoughts that evening as the sun went down. Alone and tucked inside my sleeping bag, the wind gently rustled the thick olive tree canopies above my tent. Thoughts repeatedly ran through my mind of all the miners and their families who lived here years ago battling all the hardships and diseases that plagued many of them to their deaths. With every sound of rustling leaves, I freakishly wondered if they were still here as ghostly spirts roaming the hills. I didn’t sleep much to say the least. While the supernatural taunting kept me awake for much of the night, it was the natural events that shook me to the core.
About 2:30 in the morning I was completely startled by an intense, viscous coyote attack on some helpless critter just up the hill from my tent. I jolted out of my sleeping bag to the terrifying sounds of multiple coyotes howling and growling as they took down their helpless prey. It sounded like they were only yards away. It scared the you-know-what out of me. The attack lasted only seconds but the howling continued.
Soon after, another pack of coyotes from the other side of the valley started howling. Back-and-forth it progressed; coyotes on each side of the valley seemed to be communicating in long cries to each other in celebration of their kill. With me in the middle of this acoustical mayhem, I wanted no part of it. I laid there helplessly waiting until dawn. Thankfully, I emerged from my tent unscathed.
If I unwillingly convinced you to forgo camping, day hiking to the visitor center and Rose Hill Cemetery are a must. Hike the Chaparral Loop Trail across amazing sandstone rock formations and intense spring wildflowers. Walk through the Rose Hill Cemetery which served the five towns as a Protestant burial ground for the coal field families. It was upsetting to learn that most interments were young children that suffered epidemics of diphtheria, scarlet fever, and smallpox as families endured the hardships of coal mining. The Greathouse Visitor Center has a wealth of information, old photographs, and interpretive displays of the coal field families who once lived and worked here. Tours deep into the mine tunnels are also available with reservations.
The return hike back to Clayton is mostly downhill once you scramble up the worn sandstone trail from the visitor center. I enjoy this last stretch of downhill trail and treat it like a reentry into today’s civilization while reflecting on what life would be like walking into Clayton to socialize after a long week working the coal mines.
At the end of the hike, cross Clayton Road and walk down Main Street to the Clayton Club Saloon for well-deserved beverage and taste history in person. This saloon has been serving the community since 1873!
I recommend you get out on the trail this spring and experience our local history before the summer heat arrives. For more information on Black Diamond Mines Regional Preserve browse www.ebparks.org/parks/black_diamond/ .