The East Bay Regional Parks District boasts 121,397 acres of land preserved in 73 parks, and I have visited no more than a handful of them. In an effort to trim this ignorance, I recently reached out to two East Bay friends.
Margaret Campos and Beth Ludwig, two hiking buddies from Walnut Creek, know the territory. I called them with a simple request: Please take me on a hike to your favorite EBRPD preserve.
I had heard of it and seen it on the map, but beyond that, I knew nothing about Margaret’s and Beth’s choice: Black Diamond Mines Regional Preserve. Heeding their warning that weekends were busy at the preserve, I was waiting in line at the gate on Somersville Road in Antioch when it opened at 8am.
We set out from the parking lot at the end of the road that is only a matter of steps from the Somersville Townsite, one of the five coal mining towns that thrived from 1850 to 1905 when miners extracted four million tons of low grade coal from the Mount Diablo Coalfield. While the coal was an inferior quality, the mines were close to San Francisco where ships, railroads, and industry hungered for fuel. When Mount Diablo coal was eventually replaced by higher quality coal and petroleum products, sandstone mining flourished for awhile. Now, the hills belong to the cattle and sheep.
We followed the Nortonville Trail up to the Rose Hill Cemetery perched on the bare grass slope and clearly visible from below. Few things stir the imagination like an old cemetery. Dating from 1865, scores of people are buried in Rose Hill, but many plots remain unmarked, remnants of vandalism that occurred prior to 1973 when EBRPD acquired the property.
Across a little divide above the cemetery, we dropped down to the Nortonville Townsite. Except for some mine tailings and several information placards, one would hardly imagine that Nortonville was ever there, much less a once-bustling community of 1,000 persons.
Over the next two miles, we rose steadily above the bare grassy slopes into a thicket of manzanita and blue oaks, and finally into a lovely forest of Coulter pines, a species at the very northern boundary of its habitat. Over there, lovely views of Mt. Tamalpais. To the north, a wide view of the Delta. A bit farther right, a great view across the Central Valley. With clearer air, we certainly would have seen the Sierra.
After the long descent back to the Somersville Townsite, we walked up to the Greathouse Visitor Center, which is in and underground chamber at the end of a tunnel cut by miners in the 1920s. Alas, that visitor center does not open until March.
We came to walk the trails and enjoy the countryside, but much of the bustle at Black Diamond Mines Regional Preserve centers around the mining history and attractions near the Somersville Townsite. There is plenty left to do on a second visit.