One of my rules is: always visit the graveyard.

There used to be as many as seven coal mines in these hills near Antioch in northeastern Contra Costa County. The towns that sprouted up around these mines are long gone now. What remains is Black Diamond Mines Regional Preserve, primarily a history park that happens to have some trails. You can tour an underground mine on weekends but if you show up on a Monday, gates block the entrances to all the mining attractions.

But you can get into the graveyard, where you can see things like this:


Note the age — 81 — and the year of her passing — 1874. She was born at the end of the 1700s; her parents were probably alive during the American Revolution. In her lifetime Napoleon invaded Europe, steam engines and the telegraph were invented, the American Civil War was fought and most of the original Americans were driven from their lands (though Custer would meet his end a couple years later).

A long life is admirable; a short one is heart-breaking. This was somebody’s baby girl:

A toddler's tombstone

The woman living into her 80s is the rarity here. Lots of men dying in their 40s, women dying in their 30s, and children dying when they should’ve been learning to walk and talk.

Their lives were not like our lives. I’m guessing the ghosts of the Welsh miners who left hellish jobs in their hometown mines to find new hellish jobs halfway around the world in California would laugh out loud at the notion of walking these hills for recreation. In their minds the hills were just something in the way of the seams of coal — or black diamonds.

The hills are not especially high, which makes for fewer death marches on the trails, most of which are old mining roads. I did a small loop around the visitors’ center — a rugged little one-miler, if I do say so — and a bigger loop, around five or six miles — along the Black Diamond Trail to Coal Canyon Trail (note: any trail named after a canyon is worth a look) and back to where I started. The park has over 60 miles of trails, supposedly, so there’s a lot more to see.

Let’s look at some pictures that have nothing to do with dead people:

Morning sun on the hillside

Oddly enough, the rain that drenched the rest of the Bay Area yesterday — it even snowed on Mount Hamilton — spared Black Diamond Mines, at least while I was there. I took this one just as I arrived at the park. It was overcast all day but I had no more than a few occasional sprinkles. It was cold by our standards, and the wind blowing over the bay was bone chilling at times but otherwise it was passable hiking weather.

Rocky hillside

The park has a fair number of rocky outcrops like this one.

Weather coming in

More of that weather blowing in.

Give us green

All this green in January. Not complaining.

Even more green

Even more green!

Jim's Place

A spot on the map marks “Jim’s Place.” Sure enough, it’s a hole in the ground. Nobody knows who Jim was, just that he lived here.

Used to be a town here.

The town of Nortonville used to be here. Note, these sign boards are handy to hide under when it’s drizzly.

So there’s a first look at Black Diamond Mines. I’m heading back next weekend to do the mine tour.

The hiking rates as about average from what I’ve seen so far. Lacking high peaks and water features, it’s mostly hills and oak woodland, which I can see in abundance in the East Bay without driving more than 60 miles.

Speaking of the drive: if you’ve never been up here, take Highway 4 to the Somersville Road exit and head south on Somersville into the park. Don’t expect to see any signs pointing the way — for a park that’s on the National Register of Historic Places, it has remarkably little signage. If you go the wrong way like I did yesterday, figuring what the heck, there’ll be signs, you’ll probably end up asking somebody for directions.