“Is that the Sierra over there?” I asked.

“Has to be,” Vindu replied.

We were on that great rarity at Mount Diablo State Park – a relatively flat stretch of trail — and had just finished a mildly excruciating climb from 600 to 2400 feet in a little over three miles. Vindu’s friends Kim and Rebecca were 30 paces ahead of us. What we needed more than an expanse of easy trail was an excellent view to soak in while our heart rates returned to normal.

There was a faint, but distinct, thin white line far to the northeast of us. Couldn’t have been clouds: none had come through since Friday. This was the view I had long heard was available to the unaided eye if the conditions were just right. In two and a half years of hiking I had never seen it, till Sunday.

Well more than a hundred miles away as the crow flies. Two hundred miles of driving to get there in person. They are awesome up close, but oddly enough, they’re even more awe-inspiring when only barely discernible across a vast distance.

We had a strong soaking rain in the Bay Area late last week, and some strong winds Friday and Saturday. Then 24 hours of no storm systems moving in off the coast. All this coinciding with a day I happened to hike Diablo made it a rarity indeed. The view in every direction was so devoid of airborne bits of grit and grime that it was like getting new glasses with a stronger prescription. We get good vistas all the time around here, but great ones like this are as rare as snow in these hills.

Of course my cheap digicam wasn’t even remotely up to the task of capturing white strands of snowcapped mountain range on the other side of the state, so you’ll just have to make do with my description.

We started out at the Mitchell Canyon trailhead and took the Little Giant Loop, which is around eight miles with 1800 feet of elevation gain. One of the nicest sections of the loop is the Middle Trail, a tree-covered single-track that zigzags up a steep hillside for about a mile and a half. The switchbacks help a bit, but it’s a butt-kicker. You can add injury to insult by hiking a few more miles to the Diablo Summit via Prospector’s Gap road, but we took an easier route to a place called Deer Flat and back down Mitchell Canyon to the trailhead. We broke for lunch on an awesome rocky knob looking out over the Diablo summit. Again, the Sierra was there, beyond Sacramento and the Central Valley.

If there was any downside to the impossibly blue skies, it was that I didn’t get to capture any swell swirling-cloud action on camera. Had to settle for the leafless-tree-foreground, expansive-vista background that has served me so well in past outings.

Many of these pictures feel like ones I’ve taken before, so feel free to skip over any that seem too familiar.

Pine needles

Good ol’ pine needles against a field of blue.

Leafless branches

I may well have photographed this actual branch on a previous visit. Great thing about hiking is it never looks quite the same way twice.

The ridge heading up toward Mount Olympia

A typical scene from the Middle Trail looking out over the ridge toward Mount Olympia. Rest stops tend to be quite rewarding, vistawise, along this route.

Grassy meadow

We paused at this grassy glade and soaked up the scenery. Amazes me to see so much green in the middle of January.

The ridge near North Peak

Makes you wonder what forces in the earth’s crust could leave such ridges in the landscape, eh?

Vindu enjoys the view

Vindu soaks in the view a Murchio Gap. There Sierra peaks are the tiny bit of white at the horizon barely visible at this resolution; the mountains are a bit more discernible in the high-resolution version
(this is a huge file, so give it time to download.)

Rebecca pauses

Rebecca ponders the view.

Three layers of terrain

Three examples of Diablo terrain: Rocks, foreground; forest, center; mountain ridge, background.

Kim's ready

Kim’s ready to hit the trail again.

Once more, for effect

Another fabulous dead tree, for effect.

Only in winter

Live, but leafless.

The rocks

The rocky sides of Mitchell Canyon on the hike back to the trailhead.

Mount Diablo is the biggest thing in the Bay Area. It dominates the landscape from just about every vantage point. That bigness translates into dozens upon dozens of trails; I’ve hiked perhaps a quarter of them.

Something always happens that makes me want to come back.