At Mt. Diablo State Park, there’s a place where the hub principle is in play to the Nth degree – Murchio Gap. Named after Dominic Murchio, a 19th-century Italian immigrant whose holdings occupied a large chunk of Diablo’s Mitchell Canyon, Murchio Gap marks the nexus of no less than four trails – all highways to hiking heaven.
Your springboard is Mt. Diablo’s Donner Canyon trailhead, located on Regency Drive in Clayton – a mere 30-minute drive from downtown Brentwood.
Journalistic integrity compels me to mention that Murchio’s rewards come with a price. Unlike the sales pitch of the clothing-store commercial of yesteryear, you don’t “fall into” this Gap. It requires a climb. The Donner Canyon trailhead stands at 540 feet above sea level; Murchio Gap at 2,330 feet and 3.25 miles away. So lace ’em up, take a deep breath and enjoy the journey.
For the route from Donner Canyon to Murchio Gap offering the most panoramic vista, strike out southbound on Donner Canyon Road to Meridian Ridge Road (1.3 miles) and hang a right. From there you climb another mile and a third on Meridian’s spine to its intersection with Prospector’s Gap Road. Steer right, and a short and shallow ascent hoists you to Murchio’s hallowed hub, where a cove of rocks invites you to catch your breath, hydrate and refuel before sallying forth on the next leg of your adventure.
Now that we stand at the celebrated navigational nexus, a decision is required. Let’s examine those four converging trails:
Looking to loop back to where you started? The shortest route is Back Creek Trail, a single-file descent switchbacked through fragrant sage, chamise and buckbrush into the canyon carved by Back Creek. To your right rise the roller-coaster undulations of Meridian Ridge; to your left towers Eagle Peak’s trapezoidal profile. Along the way, two lovely avenues – the Meridian Point and Tickwood trails – link Back Creek Trail to Donner Canyon. Back Creek Trail bottoms out at a cozy confluence of rocks, tree roots and creek – the perfect spot for a heel-cooling break.
For a return from Murchio Gap that maintains your elevated status longer than the Back Creek route, the single-file Eagle Peak Trail is your ticket. A gracefully bowed ridge connects Murchio to Eagle, where from the apex (2,369’) you can drink in a view west past the East Bay hills to the San Francisco Peninsula and North Bay – a memorable experience at sunset. The view north sweeps over the San Joaquin River to the hills of Napa and Solano counties.
Eagle Peak is a brutal perch when the prevailing northwesterlies come howling, but the descent along the east-facing Eagle Peak Trail provides maximum shelter – and the perfect avenue for a moonlight hike: the rising full Moon illuminates your path the whole way.
Care to check out Diablo’s western vistas? The Deer Flat connection provides tantalizing options. From Murchio Gap, drop down Meridian Ridge Road .75 miles to the fork at Deer Flat Road. If you’re done for the day, tack right and descend Mitchell Canyon, where Mitchell Creek makes merry music in spring, and the canyon offers some of East Bay’s best colors in autumn.
The leftward route, Deer Flat Road, swings around Diablo’s west face and hooks up with Juniper Trail’s single-file ascent to the mountain’s Summit. Be warned: the Juniper option means you’ll be taking a 12-mile trek, minimum. But among the rewards of the lower Deer Flat Trail is a traipse past billows of purple bush lupine and narrowleaf goldenbush.
Feel the hankering for an eastward odyssey? Prospector’s Gap Road, which you encountered on your way up to Murchio Gap, hoists you 1.7 miles to the namesake gap (2,955’) between Diablo’s Summit and North Peak. Along the way you can curtail your expedition by pivoting left onto Middle Trail and moseying down to Falls Trail, a splashy choice in spring.
Hardy hikers who make the climb to Prospector’s Gap are faced with a nice dilemma: left to North Peak (3,557’) and Olympia Summit (2,946’) – returning to the Donner Canyon trailhead – or right to Diablo’s main Summit (3,849’) and that aforementioned 12-mile excursion. Either way, the view east is one to savor – especially at sunrise, when the mist-enshrouded undulations of Morgan Territory far below glow in pale violet. A hundred miles beyond, the snow-capped Sierra range snakes across the horizon.
The most elevated and isolated of the four routes radiating from Murchio Gap, Bald Ridge – this writer’s favorite sanctuary on the mountain – escorts you on a winding, single-file, 1.25-mile trail to Prospector’ Gap along rolling, rocky vistas through prime wildflower territory. On a clear day you can spot the silhouette of Mount Saint Helena at the north end of Napa Valley.
Take advantage of Bald Ridge’s isolation and keep an eye peeled for deer, coyotes and bobcats. Although the trail’s ascent to Prospector’s Gap is more gradual than Prospector’s Gap Road’s long, steep finale, it does present some short, challenging ups and downs. If you own a walking stick, bring it.
Friendly advice to mountain bikers: there’s a reason why three of these four trails are marked No Bicycles. If a screaming careen down Back Creek Trail can put you in the hospital, Eagle Peak and Bald Ridge trails can put you in the morgue. Take a tumble on those, and your crash helmet will be using you for protection.
First-timers to Murchio Gap – 50th-timers, come to think of it – will benefit from a little cartography. A good map of Mt. Diablo State Park (sixth edition) is available at REI in The Streets of Brentwood lifestyle center on Sand Creek Road. If you’re one of those souls who finds a hiking trail – any trail – impossible to resist, if you’re drawn to it as a salmon to the stream of its spawning, scribble a big bull’s-eye onto Murchio Gap on that Mt. Diablo trail map. And happy navigating.
How to get there
From East County, two main routes get you to the Donner Canyon trailhead:
• From the Brentwood, Oakley and Discovery Bay area, head west on Marsh Creek Road. Your first stoplight (all the way from the Highway 4 Bypass) is Regency Drive in Clayton. Take a left, park at the dead-end, hop down the ravine and enter Mt. Diablo State Park through the entrance southbound onto Donner Canyon Road.
• Those in the Antioch/Pittsburg area can take Kirker Pass Road south to Clayton Road. Hang a left and go east on Clayton Road, which becomes Marsh Creek Road. Your last stoplight before departing Clayton is Regency Drive. Take Regency right, park at the dead-end and breeze through the entrance southbound onto Donner Canyon Road.
To get a peek at Mt. Diablo’s basic layout, click here and scroll to the bottom for the trail map.