MOUNT DIABLO -- From his backyard 2,100 feet up Mount Diablo, Jason Hart has a million-dollar view. Alamo, Walnut Creek and Concord are spread out before him between the ridges and peaks.

In the daytime, he can see the buildings and homes stretching into the distance. At night, civilization is alight down below.

"I look out over a landscape where you know there are a lot of people out there," he said. "But the sounds I go to bed to at night are a pack of coyotes yapping and owls hooting."

Hart is one of 11 park employees who lives and works in Mt. Diablo State Park.

Statewide, the California Department of Parks and Recreation has 538 employee homes or trailer pads in its parks, said parks spokesman Roy Stearns.

Workers with their own trailers are charged $32 a month rent per occupant. For a house, rents range from about $185 to $250 a month.

On Mount Diablo, employees work at ranger stations, patrol the park and maintain the grounds. In exchange for low rent they must be on call to help visitors in need of assistance, or rescue, 24 hours a day.

As a child, Hart said he was a "park brat" who grew up in the state system. His father was a ranger, and he followed in his footsteps and became a state park worker.

Today, he is the Mount Diablo maintenance chief. He, his wife, 2-year-old son and cat live in a 760-square-foot home built in 1948.

Summit Museum, the campgrounds and many park trails were built from 1932 to 1942 by the Civilian Conservation Corps.


Advertisement

Park workers live in "postwar park rustic" homes of wood and stone, built between 1948 and 1953, or in their own modular homes, said Breck Parkman, the senior state archaeologist.

Hart said it is a privilege to live with such scenery, but it has its trade-offs.

He is on call whenever he is at home. If a waterline breaks, it's his job to respond. If the wind is howling and a tree falls on Summit Road, or there's a landslide, he and his crew make sure the road stays open. If a hiker gets lost at night, or a camper has a medical emergency, it's a team effort to ensure the visitor makes it home safely.

Between 40,000 and 50,000 hikers, cyclists and campers visit Mount Diablo each year, so workers living in the park are often interacting with the public.

Hart said knocks at the door can come at any hour, mostly from visitors desperately seeking a toilet. He points them toward the nearest public restroom.

Another trade-off is the twisty 10-mile drive down the mountain to go to the store or his son's day care.

Hart's nearest neighbor is park Superintendent Roland Gaebert whose home, at 2,300 feet, is the highest on the mountain.

"My house comes with two guarantees," Gaebert said. "In the summer, it's incredibly hot because it's not air-conditioned. In the winter, it's incredibly cold because it's not insulated."

One thing that's not guaranteed is hot water. The park's water supply flows from 14 mountain springs.

"This morning, I had a half-water, half-air shower," Gaebert said. "Sometimes, we don't have water at all."

Hart, Gaebert and park Ranger Carl Nielson, who lives at Diablo's base, agree that mountain wildlife keep life interesting.

"You've got to have a certain appreciation and tolerance for critters," Gaebert said.

They share their living space with coyotes, bobcats, gray foxes, raccoons, deer, turkeys, feral pigs, rattlesnakes, centipedes, tarantulas and plenty of other mammals, reptiles, birds and bugs.

Gaebert has had to shoo a bat out of his home, and once discovered a nest of hundreds of baby scorpions in his floorboards.

Hart recalled when he nearly stepped on a rattlesnake by his front door. In the past year, he has removed seven baby rattlers from his yard.

"You have to be careful of tarantulas crossing the road," he said. "Last July, one got into the house and walked across the living room floor."

Hart said one day he and his family watched from their door as a coyote and her pup ate berries from juniper trees in their front yard.

Nielson said you have to look and listen whenever you step outside, but he wouldn't trade living and working in the park for anything -- the wildlife, the scenery, those winter days blanketed with snow.

"We're sort of an exclusive bunch," he said. "I consider my backyard to be 20,000 acres."

Hart and his wife think about moving closer to life's conveniences. But for now, they're staying put.

One October morning, Hart stepped out his front door to see the full moon in a pink dawn sky -- and the ridges below floating in a sea of fog.

"They say we're paid in sunrises and sunsets," he said. "As long as I can appreciate every part of my job, I will continue doing this."

Contact Jason Sweeney at 925-847-2123. Follow him at Twitter.com/Jason_Sweeney.