This 12.6 miles hike is moderate with a respectable 3,200 feet in elevation gain, a cemetery, mine shafts, a canyon, and some chaparral. The East Bay is rich in history and has some unique parks, often under-utilized. You’ll be able to find solitude just a short drive from anywhere in the Bay Area. Don’t forget the water, the sunscreen, and a headlamp.
Along the San Joaquin River in the foothills of Mount Diablo lies the Black Diamond Mines Regional Preserve. Starting in the mid-1800s and lasting into the early 1900s, the area housed California’s largest coal mining operation. As coal-mining declined, sand, used in glass-making, became the commodity of value. Eventually the sand mines closed as well and the region became used for ranching.
Within the boundaries of the park you will find the sites of three mining town: Somersville, Nortonville, and Stewartville. Virtually nothing remains of these towns though. Buildings were moved to neighboring areas in the 1900s and what artifacts remained were picked up during more recent archeological studies.
Rose Hill Cemetary
One landmark does serve as a clear reminder that people once lived, and died, in this area. The Rose Hill Cemetery, along the Nortonville Trail, was our first stop. Though much of the gravestones had been damaged by vandals or removed by selfish jerks, some of them were restored and re-placed in the cemetery by the park rangers. Reading the gravestones confirmed the claims of the park brochure. Mainly the remains of children were interned here and the majority of the cemetery’s permanent residents were of Welsh origin.
Coal Canyon Trail
Continuing on we entered the Coal Canyon, along the Coal Canyon Trail. We had the trail all to ourselves. The canyon climbs a few hundred feet through with steep cliff sides below a sufficiently shady canopy. We spotted tailings piles from the old mining operations.
After exiting the canyon, we come across a unique feature known as Jim’s Place. This is an underground dwelling, complete with a sunroof and a ventilation shaft for a stove. The place was rather reminiscent of a hobbit hole, without all the food and luxuries. We continued down the Black Diamond Trail and then took a little side trip down the Cumberland Trail to the Air Shaft. As the name suggests, this is a shaft which was used to ventilate a mine. Definitely worth the quarter mile, but we’ve seen better.
Back on the Black Diamond Trail we took in the views of, well almost nothing. We could make out the peaks of Mount Diablo in the distance, and catch glimpses of the river, but the scenery was filled with the now golden grasses synonymous with much of the Bay Area countryside. The nice part was that there was nobody around.
Chaparral Loop Trail and the Greathouse Visitor Center
We didn’t see people until we returned into the vicinity of the parking lot on the Chaparral Loop Trail. Not much imagination went into naming these trails, because, as you may have guessed, this trail led through chaparral vegetation. You’ll see more visitors in this area because the majority of the “attractions” are nearby. There’s the Greathouse Visitor Center; very much worth visiting as it is located inside a very large chamber of an old mine. You’ll be impressed with just how much rock must have been moved to create it and the intricate network of adjoining tunnels. There’s also the Eureka Slope, a 290 foot long shaft. The Stope, another huge chamber from which sandstone was extracted, and the Powder Magazine, used to store the TNT are nearby. Finally there’s the Hazel Atlas Portal; this is an entry into a mine where you can actually take a guided tour. We didn’t, but it might be worth another trip.
What really saddened us was the extent of vandalism to the areas. Cliffs were covered in graffiti and names carved by individuals who apparently thought they were somehow cool or maybe unique for chiseling their moniker into the rock. Right between the hundreds of other names! Several trees, and Manzanitas, which are one of my favorites, had every inch of them covered with listings of who loves whom.
Ridge Trail to Miners Trail: Stewartville Townsite
Leaving the Chaparral Loop Trail and other visitors behind (we saw only one other individual until we returned to the parking lot), we climbed the Ridge Trail and then descended the Miners Trail to the Stewartville Townsite. How is it that a town existed here? The area seemed so inhospitable and Sand Creek was, again as the name implies, just sand. Maybe the times were wetter?
Near the townsite, along the Stewartville Trail is a backpack camp. There’s an outhouse, some shade, and non-potable water, though I’m not sure I would trust it being available at all times. At the very least bring a filter. At worst, you may need to carry your own water. Check with East Bay Regional Park District for current conditions.
Star Mine Trail: Prospect Tunnel
As we headed onto the Star Mine Trail, an incessant noise overhead caught our attention. A plane was flying stunts overhead. Barrel rolls, loop-the-loops, and other aerobatic maneuvers. While interesting to watch, the loud engine plane was a bit irritating to listen to.
Along the Star Mine trail we came across…you guessed it…the Star Mine. The shaft was barred, but the concrete frame of the opening had a star stamped to it. Is this how the mine was named, or was the stamp an afterthought? This was apparently one of the last active mines in the area.
At the junction with the Stewartville Trail, a spur trail will take you to the Prospect Tunnel. Don’t skip this one. You can walk down the tunnel about 200 feet at which point you’ll encounter a gate, beyond which you’ll see the reason for its existence. A cave-in made the remaining 200 feet of the tunnel unsafe. I’m fairly sure that the first 200 feet are not the safest either. If the second half caved in, what prevents the first half from doing so? I recommend that if you’re hiking with companions, leave someone at the entrance while venturing in. And bring a headlamp. You’ll want it to get a better look.
That’s it for the “sights”. The remainder of the hike consists of connecting the Stewartville Trail, to the Corcoran Mine Trail, to the Ridge Trail, then back to the Stewartville Trail and finally the parking lot. There’s a bit of a climb involved out of the valley of Sand Creek and the day was HOT. The temperature sensor on my watch claimed 102 degrees F. I believe it. The only thing keeping us alive was the cool breeze. That and water. Don’t forget to bring plenty. Maybe the temperature explained the lack of hikers. The thermometer in the car read just a bit over 90. Not as hot as the watch, but hot nonetheless. Even the water from the drinking fountain back at the parking lot was warm-ish.