Visitors take in the expansive view from the top of Mount Diablo. (Asal Ehsanipour/KQED)
Mount Diablo is one of the Bay Area’s grandest landmarks and often the first glimpse of home you might see after a long drive. The mountain sits on the eastern edge of the Bay Area, in Contra Costa County, and its peak is visible from most spots around the Bay. At 3,849 feet, Mount Diablo stands apart from other mountains nearby, not just because of its prominence, but because of the legends that surround it.
Years ago, listener Mark Isaak heard a rumor about the view from Mount Diablo’s summit: “I’ve heard that the spot on the earth from which you can see the most land — not just ocean, but actual land — is the summit of Mount Kilimanjaro. But that the summit of Mount Diablo comes in second. Is that true?”
Taking in the View
“The view when you come up here is really amazing,” says Sharon Peterson, Mount Diablo State Park’s interpreter. “How it compares to Kilimanjaro is up for debate, but I'm partial to the view from Mount Diablo, and I think most people are pretty amazed by it.”
At the Mount Diablo Summit Museum and trailhead viewing deck, Peterson says that 40 of California’s 58 counties are visible on a clear day. As little as 1% of some counties can be seen, but still, it’s an impressive tally.
“You can see the Golden Gate Bridge today,” says Peterson, pointing west. “You could see both towers with the naked eye. And if I give you the binoculars, you can see it for sure.”
Turning north, Peterson points out the Sacramento and San Joaquin rivers merging to form the California Delta. South, she describes a sweeping view of the Diablo Range and Livermore/Pleasanton. Finally we look east, where through the haze we catch a glimpse of the snow-capped Sierra over 100 miles away, rising above the Central Valley.
On a clear day you can see Yosemite.
“With binoculars you can see Sentinel Dome. There is a rumor that persists that you can see Half Dome, but it’s blocked by one of the land features in between,” Peterson says.
Despite the view’s magnificence, Seth Adams, land conservation director for Save Mount Diablo, is adamant that the Mount Kilimanjaro myth has no merit: “It's absolutely not true that Mount Diablo has the largest view in the world except for Mount Kilimanjaro,” he says.
Adams has spent a lot of time myth busting the Kilimanjaro claim.
“I never quite believed it,” he says. “It just didn't have the ring of truth to me because it's a small mountain. Common sense would tell you the taller the mountain, the bigger the view.”
Considering the myth has been repeated countless times, he says it makes sense people would believe it. Adams traced the myth back to the 1850s and '60s, when geologists like Josiah Whitney first surveyed the mountain.
Whitney wrote, “It is believed that there are few, if any, points on the earth's surface from which so extensive an area may be seen as from Mount Diablo. The whole area thus spread out, can hardly be less than 40,000 square miles.”
The legend snowballed from there.
Botanist William Brewer, who visited the mountain in the 1860s, wrote, “The view was one never to be forgotten. [...] Few views in North America are more extensive — certainly nothing in Europe.”
An article published in the Contra Costa Gazette on April 18, 1874, said that the view from the summit “[showed] more of the earth’s kingdom than is visible from any other known spot on the globe.”
The claim about Mount Diablo’s view was repeated for decades, through the end of World War II, when recreation at parks and mountains picked up popularity. Mount Diablo became a go-to tourist spot as the Kilimanjaro claim circulated in travel guides and hiking maps, by railroad companies and auto associations. Even the Contra Costa Development Association published materials in the 1940s describing the mountain as “the world’s greatest view! More territory visible than from any point in the world.”
As visitors flocked to Mount Diablo for the views, entrepreneurs saw a chance to make a buck.
“More than half of Mount Diablo was locked up successively by two big real estate land speculators named Robert Noble Burgess and Walter P. Frick,” Adams says. “Both of them printed brochures by the thousands that included the claim of Mount Diablo having the largest view in the world.”
Boasting that claim was a smart business move for Burgess, who had bought a portion of the mountain in 1912 and subsequently built the Mount Diablo Scenic Boulevard taking visitors to the summit. In 1917, he had a dream of building thousands of homes on the mountain's western flank, and those amazing views helped push his agenda forward. Burgess eventually went bankrupt and the deal flopped, but the brochures had done their work.
“You can definitely credit the brochures for spreading the misinformation, but it’s just too good to claim the largest view in the world,” Adams explains. “And understand that California was a promoter's dream.”
Which brings us to another promoter, the Oakland entrepreneur Walter P. Frick. Initially Frick, who had been Burgess’ business partner, hired a publicist to help him spread the rumor that Mount Diablo’s view was the greatest on earth, which came in handy as he built an 8-foot beacon tower known as the Eye of Diablo. However, the engineers Frick worked with at Standard Oil Company were skeptical of the claim’s validity.
The 1928 Standard Oil Bulletin subsequently added a footnote to their brochure promoting the view as the world’s grandest, “Except for a point in Africa.” The reference to Mount Kilimanjaro was clear.
From there, the legend shifted from Mount Diablo having the largest view in the world to the second largest. That new myth persisted until 1994, when engineer and mountaineer Edward “7.389056099” Earl mathematically debunked the theory.
Using topographical atlases and aeronautical charts, Earl set out to determine the viewshed from the summit of Mount Diablo compared to others in North America.
A viewshed is the area visible from a specific vantage point, including land or water. According to Earl’s calculations, Mount Diablo’s viewshed is between 13,000 and 21,000 square miles. That might sound like a lot, but Earl concluded that from other, taller North American mountains, it’s possible to see over three times as much.
With a 19,341-foot elevation, Mount Kilimanjaro soars five times as high as Mount Diablo. In practical terms, a mountain as small as Mount Diablo couldn’t possibly have a greater viewshed than Mount Kilimanjaro — even if it is an isolated peak.
“He conclusively showed the Mount Diablo viewshed claim was bogus,” says Adams with a laugh. “But it doesn't really matter because the claim had already done its work. Mount Diablo became famous. It became beloved. And as I said, Mount Diablo may not have the largest view in the world, but it certainly has the most extraordinary view in the world.”
Luckily for visitors, extraordinary can’t be measured with math.
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