Rock City and The Legendary View from Mt. Diablo, California

Story by staff writer Judy Clement Wall. Photos Copyright © Judy Clement Wall.

Here’s what happened. (Beware the travel story that starts with “Here’s what happened.”)

One morning, I hear a guy on NPR say that if you stand on top of Mt. Diablo, you can see more of the earth’s surface than from any other peak in the world with the exception of Africa’s legendary 19,340-foot Mt. Kilimanjaro. I’m stunned. Mt. Diablo is only 35 miles from my house. I know it’s big – the jewel of the Diablo range, which stretches from the eastern San Francisco Bay Area south to the Salinas Valley. Mt. Diablo’s peak is visible from most of the Bay Area and much of northern California.

View of Mt. Diablo from Lafayette, Hwy 24 (Wikipedia)

View of Mt. Diablo from Lafayette, Hwy 24
(public domain photo courtesy of Trurl66 at the Wikipedia Project)

But at only 3,849 feet, how can it possibly have a view like that? I look it up and learn the reason is our unique geography. According to the state park’s literature, Mt. Diablo rises solo very abruptly from its surroundings, and the land all around it – the San Franciso Bay Area and Central Valley – is nearly flat.

Intrepid explorer that I am, I head out at the first opportunity to see for myself our geographical anomaly, and I take my camera so you can see it too. My husband drives, my son is in the back seat, and I, in my excitement, am spouting facts I’ve read about Mt. Diablo.

I tell them that the mountain’s name comes from the 1805 escape of some Chupcan Native Americans, who fled into a nearby willow thicket and seemed to disappear. The Spanish soldiers pursuing them named the area “Monte del Diablo,” meaning “thicket of the devil.”

I tell them how it’s different from other mountains because it was formed by the compression and uplift of shifting tectonic plates. Much of Diablo’s sedimentary rock has been tilted, turned upside down and pushed up, which means the oldest rocks are on top. I tell them that the mountain is located between converging fault lines and that, as a result, it grows a few millimeters each year. (Look out Mt. Kilimanjaro.)

“And the view!” I say, for the zillionth time. “People report having seen Mt. Shasta, 240 miles away.”

Imagine my disappointment when we finally arrive at the summit, I jump out of the car, camera ready, and run to the railing only to find the fantastic, amazing, second-best view in the world is obscured by smog.

View from Mt. Diablo

The view through the smog

I rush around the summit, in and out of the information center, from one lookout spot to the next, but the smog sits firmly, depressingly, on all horizons.

View from the information center | Mt. Diablo

View from the back of the information center

Disappointed, I grab a pamphlet and we head back down. I read that it’s best to visit the summit after a rainstorm when the air is washed clean. I vow to come back, and that’s about the time my husband sees the Rock City sign. We pull into the little parking lot, and I’m hopeful we can salvage the adventure even though I can’t quite decide if the name Rock City is cheesy or cool.

Stepping onto the trail makes it clear right away: Rock City is both cheesy and cool. Located about half-way down from the summit, it’s an area covered with enormous boulders. Smooth and round, they lie on the side of Diablo like marbles tossed by a giant.

Boulders at Rock City, Calif.

Like giant marbles tossed by a giant

The path through them is other-worldly, with staircases carved into boulders and wonderful narrow passages that wind in between.

Rock staircases, Rock City, Calif.

I loved these wonderful, winding Dr. Suess staircases

It’s a strange and striking sight, made all the more so because just about every reachable inch of every boulder is covered with carvings.

Rock carvings | Mt. Diablo

Peaceful rock carvings

There are lots of hearts encircling lovers’ initials, lots of peace signs and proclamations, and name after name after name. I’m amazed by the sheer number of them, the compulsion people feel to leave something of themselves behind, some sort of evidence: “I was here.”

I’m one of those people who believes we should strive to leave wild spaces as pristine as when we found them, so, of course, it troubles me . . . all the carvings, all the noisy, violent insertion of man onto nature.

But there’s something else, too, something so very human in the desire people have to mark their passage, to record forever their time in this place. Taking this picture, I think, “Before I got here, maybe years before, Mhak, Brian, Jared, Sheba, Zack and Kayla stood where I am standing, and right here, in this very spot, Nana loved Ron.”

Rock graffiti | Mt. Diablo

Me sitting on a heavily engraved rock

I leave without having carved anything into the stone, but I’m touched by this place. I’ve felt a sense of wonder (sadness, love, recognition, frustration) wandering this weirdly beautiful intersection of nature and man, and I’m left with much more to think about than if I’d gotten my perfect view.

Note: I’ll head back to Mt. Diablo after the first autumn rains.

Judy Clement Wall at Patrick's Point, Wedding Rock, Humboldt, California

j at Patrick's Point State Park, California


Judy Clement Wall (aka j) is a freelance writer who lives, works and plays in the San Francisco Bay Area. She’s in love with the California coast; everything from combing the beaches of San Diego to hiking the coastal trails of Humboldt County. You can read and link to more of her work through her blog, Zebra Sounds.



  1. Pingback: Stick men, shovels and strange detours | Zebra Sounds

  2. Oh well, didn’t turn out like you planned but it looks like it turned out great.

  3. Even with the smog that view is pretty awesome. And the rock city looks amazing.

    Hope you managed to get back there when the smog’s cleared.

    Jo x

    • Interestingly (or sadly) my trek happened the day after the new proposed clean air standards were dropped. Sigh…

      I’ll definitely go back after a rain though. Stay tuned.

  4. Judy – what a fun story! I’m sorry you were socked in with smog…but I love cheesy and cool places. I’m a firm believer that everyone needs a little bit of cheese in their life every now and then…

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