If At First You Don’t Succeed…

A Tale of Defeat, Perseverance and Success!

Highland Ridge Trail, Morgan Territory Regional Preserve




Recently, I took an ill – advised stab at a trail I hadn’t hiked for 3 years. I knew better – before I started out I was already tired. It was warm, I was just not “feelin’ it” and besides, baseball was on TV that afternoon. It was the perfect setup for a quiet afternoon at home, just hanging out with my wife and the hounds.


But I have this “thing” about wasting a perfectly good sunny day. I get wound up tighter than a Washington timber industry lobbyist on Arbor Day. So against my better judgment, I decided to take the drive up to Morgan Territory and follow the road past the parking lot a couple of miles, to the trailhead for the Highland Ridge / Diablo Regional Trail. Even after I’d parked, set up my trail wheels and strapped down my pack, I wasn’t convinced I should jump on the trail this day. Yet off I went, on a trail that starts abruptly and just gets harder the farther you travel. I made it about ¾ of a mile in; cussing all the way, wondering why someone seemed to have added more incline to the hills. I bailed, and began to wonder if this trail had defeated me, that maybe I should scale down my expectations of myself and stick to flatter, more sedate locales. I was even more tired driving back down the hill than I was coming up.


Fast forward, two weekends later. Somewhere between hellish – hot weekdays and a warm Sunday was one gorgeous, slightly overcast, mid – 70’s summer morning. My previous attempt at Highland Ridge was weighing heavily on me, and it was clear I wouldn’t rest until I gave it at least one more try, after plenty of rest. The weather today might be a sign, I thought, that this was the day to throw everything I’ve got at this trail.


I felt wonderful. I was more positive in general, and simply not in a mood to let some little hill beat me up. With knobbies and day pack on, I set off once more toward Highland Ridge. There were a ton of surprises in store this day, some unexpected, some just purely delightful to take in. The East Bay Regional Park District had, using much foresight after meeting me a few years back, set up wheelchair accessible entrance gates not only at Morgan Territory’s main parking area, but farther north at the entrance to the Highland Ridge Trail. Both sides of the road had been opened to wheelchair users as nutty as me, as the trail itself is not “accessible” using the ADA definition. Both sides are steep, well maintained dirt roads with just enough difficulty to make things interesting. I’ve used the gates to travel through Morgan Territory in a loop, and to try this particular trail on both sides of Morgan Territory Road. So I set off on the west side of the trail which, if my little map of the area was accurate, would lead directly to the boundary of Mt. Diablo State Park.



That was enough a draw for me. I tend to be rather extreme when it comes to hiking, and following the map along the course of Highland Ridge, I found several trail markers indicating this was also the Diablo Regional Trail. The map doesn’t mark the trail as such. This is a multi – agency trail which sets up the possibility of beginning a  hike at Round Valley Regional Preserve on Marsh Creek Road, following the trail into and through Morgan Territory, and over the chaparral ridges into Mt. Diablo State Park – and beyond. It’s not a day hike, but a very intriguing backpack trip, one I’ll be trying in the fall. A local backpacker’s destination? Right in our backyard? And no one knows about it? 


I took off across the road to the west side, where a little rise brought me to the entrance gate. The trail instantly displayed its “up” side, as it got steep without giving me a chance to loosen up. I know why I got tired that last time! Here’s a word of advice when starting out – if you are poison oak sensitive, stay clear of the edges of this first stretch of trail. It’s nicely shaded by a variety of oaks and laurels, but most of the low brush is poison oak. Stay on the middle of this wide fire – road type trail, and you’ll have no problems. I recommend leaving your dog on a leash until breaking out of the canopy, too. Hounds being hounds, they will without a doubt wander off trail sniffing all the deer, squirrel, and other critter odors found on a trail into the poison oak - and all your precautions will be for naught. Wait for another ¾ of a mile before entertaining the idea of letting the pup, or kitty if you’re so inclined, off leash. This stretch may be the steepest part of the trail, but the pitches are short and easily attained with little bursts of effort. I remember my first time here, right after a November downpour some years ago. Runoff was flowing right over the trail in low spots beneath the trees. But how wonderful the smell! Add those laurels to almost any scene, any time of year and the aroma of the forest is motivating, almost intoxicating.


Several dips and rises follow until a gate’s reached. Plod right through the gate, making sure to close it after you – during certain times of year cattle are out on the west side of the preserve, and you don’t want to be the one known as the cause of The Great Morgan Territory Stampede, do you? From the gate, a short, steep stretch eventually levels into an open, small meadow which is perfectly lovely in Spring. The first time I happened upon it all was green, with a wonderful mix of wildflowers and grasses. Today it’s dry and wavy in the warm breeze. I know many who hate the Diablos in summer because it’s so dry and seemingly dismal, especially when it’s hot. But I enjoy the smell of the dry grass in the breeze. It’s usually windy up on this trail, by the way. That same wind is a comfort to a warm hiker. Resting beneath a tree to catch a minute of shade, I feel great – quite unlike the previous trip. With each grade I plow up, I feel more confident that I was only having a bad day a few weeks prior; as my energy is suddenly abundant. So I pressed on through a little intersection, and up past the meeting with the Clyma Trail. Maintaining course past Clyma and up the hill, I’d already gone several hundred yards farther than the last aborted try. I’d forgotten just how neat this next short hill was, and as I crested this short ridge the breeze picked up earnestly. It felt great.


Looking north was a postcard image of Mt. Diablo and North Peak, below them the Clayton Valley. This view would provide a great shot of the mountain at sunrise, should you be photographically inclined.


A nicely placed downhill allows my sore shoulders to let up for a minute, and as I pass a crossing of the Raven Trail (one of my favorites for sighting Golden Eagles in fall, by the way), a pleasant sight comes to focus beneath the trees – it’s the Morgan Backpack Camp, a not very well known, close to home getaway for those without the time to drive hundreds of miles on a weekend for a overnight hike. Reservations are required, and the recommended method of access is to be dropped off at the trailhead or the main parking area, depending on your desired trekking mileage.  It’s not prudent to leave a car out on Morgan Territory Road overnight – I know I’d sleep better if my car were safe at home. For more about this campsite, call the EBRPD Reservations office. They can refer you to the park HQ for more detailed information if you wish. The number is 1 (888) EBPARKS (1 (888) 327 – 2757).  The campsite includes a pit potty, but no potable water source, unless you carry a water filter with you. Any staff member at Sunrise Mountain Sports or Dom’s can help you purchase a good filtering or other water treatment option. There are no open campfires permitted, for obvious reasons as you look around at the thousands of acres of dry grass. Camp stoves are allowed. Call the District to check on conditions while making reservations. Your tent can be set up on a flat which is full of ground squirrel excavation, so I can’t vouch for comfort at this time. But I’ll bet a good sleeping pad or mattress would make for a restful night. What’s more awesome is that your tent will perch on top of the stone foundation of the 19th century home site of the Cardoza family. If ever there were an opportunity for good night time ghost stories, this would be it. It’s an exciting place if quiet and peacefulness excite you, or you’re moved at the prospect of an up close and personal visit from a critter that makes the area its home. Night time visits from coyotes are always welcome in my little world.


There’s an equestrian water trough, too, and remnants of equine droppings would lead me to believe that horsemen and women are the prime users of this campground. But I can’t confirm that until I spend a night or two out there. It’s a pleasant place to rest beneath an old valley oak, and I accept that opportunity without protest. The trail seems to get serious from here up, but I’m feeling great, in stark contrast to the previous outing. I can see what appears to be Highland Ridge some ways up the trail. The relatively cool temps, a solid, cooling breeze and my energy level provide enough impetus that I accept the challenge and head back out.


The trail up the hill looks long. It’s not as bad as it looks, though, as it twists up toward the ridge. Lizards and grasshoppers, a symbiotic relationship if ever there was, line the trailside. Occasionally, I stop to check the stems of the tall grass, to look for praying mantis specimens. Sure enough, a few small, less than 2” long individuals are found. This has the making of a fine tarantula viewing place in the fall, too, It’s quiet and sparsely traveled – I crossed paths on this beautiful day with no other hikers, not a single one. A recluse’s Heaven! The churn up the hill is tempered by cool, strong winds all the way up the hill. Each turn provides a different view to the north and east, and they’re great places to take a moment and enjoy the view. On an early, clear morning, you could look east and see the Sierra crest with the naked eye.


A few short pitches offer some small anxious moments, but I push over them and eventually reach the ridge top. At that location, a fenced off section indicates the EBRPD has land - banked some property for future expansion of Morgan Territory. There’s a trail leading a bit higher to the true ridge top, which looks to be over the 2,000 foot elevation level. A grove of immature oaks is just off the trail, so I pause in their shade to take stock of my day – it’s 4 o’clock, there are still 4 hours of daylight, and 1.5 miles, approximately, to the State Park boundary. I take a short roll down a gentle slope to try to gain the lay of the trail ahead. It’s a roller, with some steepness (at least for me) which is a minor concern this late in the day. Pressing on is a delightfully bumpy little downhill followed by a series of rolling hillocks. In what seems like only a few minutes, I reach the boundary post where Morgan Territory ends and Mt. Diablo begins.


Getting back was simply reversing the order in which I arrived. A nice view to Finley Road below, and suburban Danville marked the first time I’d seen this little valley from this trail.  It was then that the hardest part of the day began – the part when I realized I had to get home. The return effort was provided mostly by gravity, and I stopped a few times only to enjoy the company of a small King snake that was crossing the road. It was remarkable that I’d seen not another hiker on this trail, but that accentuates your need to prepare for a day hike like this. Calling it a “day hike” sounds relatively innocent; but the same rules apply while preparing for a walk like this – do you have enough water (no, that 16 oz. bottle isn’t going to do it!)? Sun screen? A first aid kit? Are your shoes and clothing up to the jaunt? All are questions that must be asked, as it’s not altogether likely your cell phone will be reliable on many parts of this trip. As dialed in technologically as we seem to be these days, well, that’s how remote you’ll feel if you place too much reliance on your electronic doo - dads (GPS excepted). It was an exciting day for me, as I was able to reinforce that my previous experience was an aberration and not a portent of things to come. I’ll do it again soon, and make a campout of it. Hope to see you out there!


Directions: From central Livermore or Hwy 580, take Livermore Ave. north until it turns into Manning Rd. Follow Manning to the first right turn, which is Morgan Territory Road. Follow this road almost 2 miles past the park entrance, to a wide spot with trail accesses on both sides of the road – both sides also have wheelchair accessible gates. Pull off the road onto the gravel siding and start from here. If you’re not familiar with the Preserve, stop on the way at the main parking area and pick up a map. They are not available at the Highland Ridge trailhead.