Friday, December 24, 2010

El Sereno

The week before Christmas was very rainy, so when I started my vacation yesterday I wanted to ride my bike, and needed to find somewhere that wasn't washed out.  I decided to head up El Sereno, the mountain just behind Los Gatos. It's an MROSD preserve, and therefore doesn't routinely close after rain, and besides much of the path is exposed and should dry quickly.

That's where I'm heading: El Sereno, as seen from Kennedy
The weather was clear and relatively warm, and after much dithering involving light coats and heavy shirts, I eventually decided that a normal T-shirt would be enough. Two days before Christmas, and I'm riding in a T-shirt.

Feeling full of oats as I set out, I headed for Los Gatos over the hilly Kennedy Road rather than the flatter Blossom Hill Road. I think a lot of bike riders avoid the flatter route because it has lots of traffic and no shoulder, but that doesn't bother me too much.

I don't recall the last time I crossed over Kennedy in this direction. Normally I'm either taking Blossom Hill to save my energy, or leaving the road midway to take the Kennedy Trail. For whatever reason, coming this way I noticed all the gigantic mansions (some, sadly, for sale) that start just after the crest of the hill.

Overlook Drive
Coasting into Los Gatos, I was reminded that it was actually a workday, and downtown was thick with traffic.  I passed through reasonably nimbly and started heading uphill on Pennsylvania Avenue and then Overlook. Overlook turns into a one-lane privately maintained road up here, hugging a ridge. What it overlooks turns out to be Almendra Creek.  After the recent rains, you could hear the creek running 100 feet below.

Switchback on Sheldon
Overlook continues around the ridge, but to get to El Sereno you take Sheldon road, heading left up the ridge. Sheldon bends around for while and has several steep ramps. At the top of Sheldon (about 1200 feet elevation) is a gate to the preserve, and no parking. There's no parking on Overlook, either. I don't know how one would go about hiking El Sereno -- you'd have miles to walk just to get to it.

The trail that starts here is called the Aquinas trail. Even the covered parts were dry and firm, with only one or two spots of standing water and otherwise no mud.

Switchback on the Aquinas Trail in El Sereno
It starts out on the wooded northern face of a ridge for about a half mile, then rounds a corner and assumes its characteristic form: westward, exposed, with a view toward the south.  This valley is drained by something called Trout Creek, and is surrounded by this ridge on one side the ridge traversed by Montevina Road on the other.

The Aquinas Trail from Montevina,
with San Jose in the background
The trail occasionally peeks over the ridge for great views of the valley.  I could see Oakland and Mount Diablo to the north, the whole expanse of San Jose, the Santa Cruz mountains and even some fuzzy hints of Monterey.
The whole Santa Clara Valley, from El Sereno
I've ridden up El Sereno in the summer, baking in the sun and seeking out any available shade.  Today was quite the opposite.  Even with the strain of climbing, the T-shirt was a little too little for the weather, so the sun was welcome.

All in all, the trail climbs about 1200 feet in four miles, so it's not steep by any standard. The most challenging part for me is the mile just after the junction with the Serenity Trail, partly because it's slightly steeper and partly because it's late in the ride. The trail doesn't cross the actual peak of the mountain; it meanders around it. The top of the ride is the very definition of nondescript -- there's no crest, no sign, no trail junction, nothing to mark it. The trail up here is largely flat, so it's not even clear where the top might be.

The start (or end) of Montevina Road
Before you know it you run into the junction with the Montevina Ridge Trail, and realize the top's behind you somewhere. At this point you can head north, which takes you over to Bohlman, or south, which takes you to Montevina Road. The last time I did this I went down Bohlman, so this time I went down Montevina.

One last switchback, on Montevina Road
Montevina heads down the ridge toward the Lexington Reservoir, largely shaded by woods. I kept up a good speed on good pavement, but there was a surprising amount of traffic considering that there are only a handful of houses up here. At one point I found a little terrier walking up the road, but couldn't check its tags because it shied away. Meanwhile, a giant black SUV was heading down the hill toward us. I flagged it down, figuring it would need plenty of stopping distance, and might not notice the speck of a dog until too late. That tiny little animal, about the size, shape and intelligence of one of my shoes, stood in the middle of the road and barked at the SUV. That SUV never did pass me on the way down; maybe the dog never let it by.

Lexington Reservoir from Montevina
Montevina bottoms out at the highway and follows it south. At Bear Creek I crossed the highway, and found a problem. If you take a right here, heading south, you're on Old Santa Cruz Highway, headed for Summit Road. But taking a left dumps you on the highway; I had erroneously thought the road continued around the reservoir. Instead, there's a dirt trail. Normally that would be preferable, but after a week of rain it was muddy, and I really prefer not to leave ruts.  Well, there was nothing for it; I owe some trail work, I guess.

Water-level view of Lexington Reservoir
This time of year the water level is pretty low, and you can walk out pretty far on the shallow western edge. I would think that, when the reservoir is full, this area would be flooded. But would those trees survive that? Maybe the level's not so low after all.

The trail ends on Alma Bridge Road, where my tires emptied their mud onto my shirt. I followed this road across the dam and onto the Jones Trail. "Buffalo" Jones arrived before the gold rush, and disappeared shortly afterward. In between, he operated Jones' Road, one of the first roads linking Santa Cruz with the Santa Clara valley, possibly as a toll road. He claimed to have built it, but it may have followed an old Spanish mission road. In any case, in this area it was so steep that full wagons couldn't pass -- they had to partly unload at the bottom and make two trips. I was reminded of this as I climbed the preposterously steep opening ramp of the trail. I'm not sure it's the same path, but if it is, you can see why they looked for alternatives. Near the top of the trail you can see the ultimate alternative, the highway, some 300 feet below. It looks almost straight down from there.

After this it was an uneventful trip back over Blossom Hill (this time on a busy Blossom Hill Road around rush hour). About 30 miles in total, and the computer reports 3600 feet of climbing. That may not be too far off, since I did some extra climbing around Kennedy.

Sunday, December 12, 2010

Kennedy Trail and El Sombroso

Sometimes I ride to explore new areas, but other times I just ride.  Yesterday was one of those other times.  The weather report showed a nice sunny day, and I decided to ride up the Kennedy Trail to El Sombroso.  I've done that ride before, and was wondering whether I might be showing any improvement of form.

It had rained overnight, and was quite foggy when I left in the not-too-early morning.  I expected the fog to burn off before I climbed up to it.  I brought a coat, but before I had even started climbing I was comfortably riding in my T-shirt.

Getting to the trailhead from my house is a good warm up, since you have to climb Kennedy Road up to about 800 feet.  The first part of the trail is flat and was worrisomely muddy.  I don't like leaving tracks let alone ruts, so I was glad to see that the trail was firmer once it turned upward.

The Kennedy Trail up to the junction with the Priest Rock trail is about 4 miles long and climbs about 1800 feet, for an average grade of about 8.5%.  But that's a little deceptive because there's a drop near the start of the climb and a false top near the end.  In between, the trail climbs 1600 feet in about 2.7 miles, for a grade over 11%.  That may not sound like much, but when you're lugging as much weight as I am, it's huge.

The early part of Kennedy Trail, cruelly dropping

In some sections, the trail was muddy enough to stick to the tires, and my traction wasn't great.  I mention that only to say that everything else was perfect -- cool but not cold, some fellow riders but not too many, breezes but no wind.  Couldn't ask for better.

The oak in Kennedy Trail, in fog
(plus exposure matching problems in the mosaic)
In the middle of the ride is a flat section with a huge oak tree right in the middle of the trail.  On hot summer days this is a great place to recover.  Most weekend days, you'll probably even get a little company here, so you can commiserate in your suffering.

On this cool winter day, the fog was sitting at this level, so it was an even better place to spend a little time.

A lovely view of San Jose from the Kennedy Trail.  Or maybe not.

Shortly after the tree, a few hundred feet higher, the fog had thickened.  No views of the valley at all.  One of the little rewards for climbing a hill is the view at the top.  I was hoping this stuff would burn off, but it was already midday and it looked like the fog was winning the battle. 

One nice effect of the fog was that it masked the length of the climbs in this section -- you couldn't see the top and get dispirited.  I'm not sure the ramps in this section are really steeper than those lower down, but after all that climbing they seem so.

As I reached the junction with the Priest Rock trail, I had finally climbed out of the fog into crystal clarity.  The fog sat thick across the whole valley, leaving just the surrounding hills in view.

Los Gatos and El Sereno, from the Kennedy Trail
I've climbed up the Kennedy Trail to this point several times, and I'm justifiably proud that I can do it.  There can't be many people who could accomplish such a feat, right?  Well, let me introduce you to the annual Kennedy Trail turkey ride.  Early Thanksgiving morning, a bunch of riders climbs up Kennedy and traditionally enjoys a little snack at the top.  A bunch of riders?  The most recent ride attracted hundreds -- one estimate put it at 2000.  Young people, old people, men, women, kids.  I complain about carrying my fat keister up the hill, but people tow kid trailers up there.  At least one guy towed a cooler.  It gives one perspective.

A terrible ramp on the Kennedy Trail,
heading toward El Sombroso.
There was a couple at this junction deciding whether to head down to Lexington, or continue on toward El Sombroso, which they hadn't done before.  I described the trail.  The fact is, I don't much like this next section.  It has a couple of ramps that I had to walk up on this ride, and at least one long hill that I'll never climb.  I hate pushing the bike.  Plus it's up-and-down, so you can't even surrender -- there are climbs either way, so you're trapped.

The couple decided to try it.  In the picture here, if you zoom in, you can see one of them nearly clearing the hill I'll never clear.  On his first try.  Sigh.  To be fair, he had described coming up the Priest Rock trail as not particularly difficult, so he may be superman.

The first time I rode this route it was summer, and I had emptied my water bottles by the middle of this section.  The sun was high and I was broiling, stopping in the shade of every shrub just to keep my temperature down.  As I was feeling sorry for myself, along comes a runner.  At least 5 miles and 1800 feet from civilization, this guy is running the trail.  He's got to be 70, and is carrying no water.  He mentioned finding water further along the trail, and I had to break it to him that there's none to be had on any of these trails.  He patiently explained to me that he was talking about water from one of the many streams up here.  I aspire to that level of resourcefulness.

Eventually the trail gives up the up-and-down indecisiveness and settles on "up", very near the junction with the Limekiln trail.  The trail here parallels the power lines, which cross right over the top of El Sombroso.  Or as near the top as you'll get without some serious bushwacking, anyway.  There's a little spur trail up here, presumably built to service the power lines, that's constitutes the top of this ride at just short of 3000 feet.  From this less than bucolic spot you have good views of Umunhum and the Rincon Creek watershed, but no view of San Jose.  To see that, you'd have to get to the true peak, which is protected by forbidding scrub.

The Umunhum/Thayer ridge, from El Sombroso.
Mt. Umunhum Road is in the lower left, and the Sombroso/Thayer
ridge is on the right-hand side
The trail, which by this point is called the Woods Trail, continues counter-clockwise around the peak and heads down.  Actually, at this point there are only two brief uphill sections on the entire trail down to Hicks Road: one right away, near the peak, and the other at the very end.  Neither is steep at all, but tired legs feel every rise.

I've only ever ridden down this trail, never up.  It seems impossibly steep, and if that's not tough enough it's loose and rocky, too.  But people do ride up it, including a pair of riders I briefly talked to on this ride.  I must try that someday.

The trail isn't too bad, but it has the quality that a mistake on the descent could send you over a cliff.  So I tend to take it pretty darned slow.

The Umunhum "monolith", from the Woods Trail
It's on this part of the trail that you get the best views of the box on Umunhum.  The mountain is incredibly steep from this perspective.  Apparently you can climb Umunhum along one of the ridges, but not from this direction.  The preferred route starts on Barlow Road, but apparently there's an overgrown trail on the ridge from El Sombroso, too.  I looked for that latter trail as I passed; it's completely hidden from Woods Trail, and hiking reports say it's not really passable.  But it shows up clearly on satellite images, which tells you how misleading those enhanced images can be.

After the initial steep drop from El Sombroso to about 1800 feet, the Woods Trail heads generally downward at a gentle slope, past Barlow Road and toward Hicks.

The Woods Trail
According to a historical sign in Quicksilver park, the Woods Trail was once the Wood Road, built to feed wagonloads of wood into the mercury furnaces in the mines here.  Considering the years the furnaces operated and their appetite for wood, these hills must have been stripped bare.

I went down the north side of Hicks, which was uneventful except for a slippery patch of mud right at the U-turn that defines the bottom of that very steep hill.  I would have expected to see a pile of mangled road bikes off the side of the road, but happily there were none.

Quicksilver Park, from Hicks
The Guadalupe Reservoir certainly looked low. I suppose it hasn't had the chance to recharge yet, but the stream filling it is a trickle.

A good ride for me, and considering how exhausting it was, surprisingly short.  Just 24 miles or so, and the computer reports about 3700 feet of climbing.  It was probably closer to 3400, since I also explored some unfamiliar hilly roads on the way home. A good ride, but I'll need to be a lot stronger before I consider towing a cooler behind me.

Monday, December 6, 2010

Herbert Creek, Again

Last time I rode my bike up the Herbert Creek trail, I took a wrong turn and didn't get very far.  So I decided to try again.  Today would be about exploring all those spurs that I had spurned earlier.  And again, I didn't get very far.

Almaden Reservoir, with the Loma Prieta ridge in the background
The weather report has called for rain for days, but very little has appeared.  Lots of wind today, but little rain.  As I passed by Almaden Reservoir I had my raincoat in my bag, and was comfortable in my T-shirt.

Twin Creeks.  Well, one of 'em, anyway.
After Alamitos Road passes Hicks, it gradually becomes enclosed by woods.  The road steadily decreases in width from two lanes as it enters Twin Creeks to barely one lane (but still paved) as it heads up the river.

As I passed through, Twin Creeks was quiet.
The fork in Herbert Creek trail
At the fork in the road, I took the high road, the one I skipped in my earlier trip.  As you can see, the gate was open, almost inviting me in.  But that welcome didn't last long.  Perhaps 100 yards after this junction, I could see a set of cars parked all over the road.  Well, not cars -- trucks.  White trucks.  White pickup trucks are the standard vehicle around here, more numerous than people.

In this part of the world it wouldn't be unusual to see abandoned vehicles, but these trucks were obviously still shiny, and indeed there were people milling about. If I wanted to continue, I'd have to ride through, and I wasn't about to do that.

So the Herbert Creek trail, for which I had high hopes, didn't have much to offer.  I knew that the other trail ran into buildings after a few hundred yards.  But not having anywhere else to go, I headed in that direction.

Herbert Creek Trail
The trail was damp but not wet.  This area probably doesn't get too dry even in the summer, considering the moss on the trees.

A little ways up the road, there's a branch covering about 2/3 of the trail.  I remember seeing it there last week.  There's not enough room for a car to pass, so apparently no car has passed this part of the road in a week.  A motorcycle could make it, I guess.

When I got to the buildings I really did mean to pass through, but... well, they looked pretty well kept, and there were a lot of them.  They couldn't possibly be abandoned.

Just short of the buildings, there's a spur of trail that crosses the creek and heads up a ridge.  So having balked at the buildings, I tried that route.  Within a few feet it became clear that the trail had not seen recent maintenance, and that its grade meant it was a hiking trail, far too steep for a bike (or a bike ridden by me, in any case).  It headed southwest, diagonally up the ridge.  If it continues, it must reach the Loma Prieta ridge (after looking at some maps, this trail may just go up a ways to a barn, not all the way up to the ridge).  I was surprised to see that my Garmin device completely ignored this little side trip; I guess my hiking pace didn't register at all.

Eventually I gave up on that and headed back to the main trail.  Near the same position, another spur leaves the trail to the left, climbing up the opposite ridge.  I headed up that trail, but it comes very close to some mobile homes that are part of this little complex of buildings.  So I pretty quickly turned away from that, as well.

One last thing to check before I called it a ride.  On some maps, the trail that heads from the Twin Creeks area to the Loma Prieta ridge has a spur that reaches this Herbert Creek trail.  I think I found that connection, which takes the form of an overgrown trail, blocked from the main trail by a chain and several tree stumps.  So that seems to match up, but again this is a trail for hiking, not riding, so I wasn't going to be exploring that today.

All in all, very little new riding trail uncovered in this ride, although of course I found plenty of hiking trails.  I got up to about 1100 feet at the top, which was near the buildings.

Friday, November 26, 2010

Wrights Station

You probably haven't heard of Ralph's Mountain.  I don't recall how I did.  It's a dumb name for a mountain.  Although it doesn't appear on most maps or in the USGS database, it sometimes shows up on MROSD maps, and there's a single report of someone hiking up the thing.  Inspired largely by the hiking report, I decided to check it out, as an alternative to Black Friday nonsense.

View Larger Map

Getting to the top of Ralph's Mountain would be an accomplishment by itself, but I had ulterior motives.  Satellite images of Ralph's Mountain show an intriguing little scratch of a trail heading up a ridge, and nearly meeting the Thayer/Umunhum ridge.  So I held out some slim hope that this could be a backdoor to that area.

You may notice that the title of this post is not, in fact, Ralph's Mountain.  That's kind of a giveaway, but more on that later.

To get to the trail, you have to get to Summit Road.  For me, that's a good two-hours of riding (with 1300 feet of climbing), but the reward is lunch on the patio of the Summit Store.  If you're riding around the Summit area, you should contrive lunch at the Summit Store.  Today was a little cold, so I had a freshly made sandwich and a big coffee.

The trail up Ralph's Mountain
From there it was off to the base of Ralph's Mountain, which turns out to be the site of a former town called Wrights Station.  Before heading down the valley, I could see my target -- the switchbacks heading up to the top.  Didn't look too scary from here.  It also didn't look like a distinct, name-worthy mountain, which the hiking report pointed out.

To get to the trail, you take Morrill Road down to Wrights Station Road, and follow that down to the creek, a 700 foot drop.  Avoiding that climb, even at an easier grade, was what made the tunnel worthwhile in the first place.  I would have preferred to avoid it too, and could have, since the traditional road (and train line) from Wrights Station just follows the gentle grade of the creek.  But that road is blocked by the water company, for reasons that completely escape me.  I can understand why they feel they have to own the land around Los Gatos Creek, I suppose.  I just can't see why they have to prevent access to it.

I suppose I'm poorly disposed toward the San Jose Water Company.  First of all, I pay them a bunch of money every month, and while I'm not philosophically opposed to that, it's a not a healthy basis for a relationship.  Also, when I first tried to ride from my house to Santa Cruz, I naively tried to follow Aldercroft Heights Road, which they've also blocked.  In fact, it's the road that would connect to Wrights Station.  I had to turn around, too tired to try the proper route up Old Santa Cruz highway.  And now they've forced me to climb to Summit Road unnecessarily.  If my personal inconvenience isn't enough pathos for you, the company's acquisition of this land has an ugly history.

On the way down to Wrights Station, I had two thoughts running through my mind.  First, that my brakes were nearly shot.  And second, that I'd hate to have to climb this road.

Wrights Station Road eventually comes to a bridge over Los Gatos Creek.  This is where the town was.  It used to look like this; it's now entirely overgrown.  The historical photo shows the bridge and the tunnel in the background.  We're looking south, from a little way up the side of Ralph's Mountain.  That particular angle wouldn't be possible today, since the hill is entirely overgrown.

A mosaic of the Wrights Station tunnel entrance
The tunnel opening still exists, but apparently the tunnel itself was, as they say, closed with explosives a hundred feet in.  I didn't check.

On the right side of this photo, where the buildings on the right side of the old photo stood, is a 20 foot deep gulch.  The big white building on the left side of the old photo is now a little clearing for parking.  It's on my left and across the road as I take this photo.

This is another old shot of Wrights Station, taken from the road, facing north toward the creek.  It shows bustle.

Wrights Station tunnel
The tunnel was built in about 3 years starting in 1877.  During the construction, saloons popped up to serve the workers, and the area earned a rowdy reputation.  Once the tunnel was complete, Wrights Station became a shipping point for the farmers along Summit Road and up the Los Gatos Creek valley, shipping fruit to San Jose.  Eventually the highway killed the train, which stopped running in 1940.  The water company bought the area, knocked down all the buildings and pulled up the tracks, and the Army blew the tunnel in 1942.

Los Gatos Creek,
from the bridge at Wrights Station
There's still a bridge, and it's a pretty one, but the railings don't match the historical photo.  The position matches.  When I was there I didn't know that there had been a railroad trestle just downriver, so I didn't look for it.  This photo was shot upriver.

The water company's gate on Cathermola Road
Across the river, you can see the road that links up with Aldercroft Heights Road, conveniently gated.  Jerks.

Turning right after crossing the bridge, I headed east along the river, on something called Cathermola Road (there are variant spellings).  I passed by a turn-off up the hill, obviously not remembering the hiker's report very well.  But that's all for the best, because this area is a very pretty part of the world, and a pleasant place to pedal through.  Like all paths in this area, this one ends with two gates: one heading to a house, the other barring access further up Cathermola Road, which protects people from enjoying the Lake Elsman reservoir.  It's clear they would have gated the road even closer to the bridge if they didn't have to allow access to the house.  Jerks.

The road to Ralph's Mountain, blocked
Now I knew that the passed-by turn-off was the way to go, so I headed up there.  I almost immediately found a gate.  A pretty formidable gate.  It's enough to give a guy a complex, make him feel unwelcome.

At this point, I didn't know whether there was a house up there, and thought there might be another turn-off I'd missed.  So I didn't mind too much when I turned around.

I quickly realized that I hadn't missed anything, and that I'd have to climb back up Wrights Station Road.  There's something particularly galling about backtracking up a hill like that.  According to the topological maps it's much less steep than the trail I wanted to ride, but it felt steeper.  Steepness borne of bitterness.  The damned water company made me climb Summit Road twice.  Jerks.

There's definitely a house at the top of the gated turn-off, but it's far beyond where I would have left the road. There's another set of buildings closer in, and they are probably houses, but this map seems to indicate that the road would run through only institutional land.  It's tempting.  I really want to conquer Ralph's.

Once back on Summit Road it was mostly downhill going home, so I bundled up and wore out the remainder of my brake pads.  The ride was more than 40 miles, and the Garmin showed some 3500 feet of climbing, which again is overestimated -- I'd make it closer to 2400 feet.  I didn't do what I had hoped to do, but I had spent some time on the bike, had seen something new, and had a lovely sandwich.  Better than searching for parking at the mall.

Thursday, November 25, 2010

Herbert Creek

When I rode from Loma Prieta to Umunhum, I went by a trail that runs from that high ridge right down to Alamitos Road.  I'm pretty sure I once saw that trail from a plane, too.  And it shows up on most maps, but it always ends just shy of Alamitos Road.  Does it really go through?

I looked around for descriptions of the trail, but it's a hard thing to search for.  Along the way, I came across a map that showed that the MROSD had purchased an old house on Herbert Creek.  The map showed a road along the creek, heading toward Alamitos Road.  The purchase happened just a few years ago, so there must be a trail through that area.

View Larger Map

I had never been to the southern end of Alamitos Road, and now I had two things to investigate.  So on this Thanksgiving morning I bundled up (the thermometer read 30 degrees when I left) and headed south.  I rode past Almaden Quicksilver park, past the really-low Almaden Reservoir, and past Hicks.  And at that point, I was in new territory.

Alamitos Road ends in a little community called Twin Creeks, a collection of small cabins of identical design and color, arranged in cozy clusters.  It has the appearance of an old resort, and sure enough that's exactly what it was in the 1920s.  These days the cabins look their age, and by all appearances are permanently occupied.

Very near the entrance of Twin Creeks is where the Loma Prieta trail is supposed to emerge.  There are a pair of private paths that head south off of Alamitos Road, past a set of cabins, and off to picnic or sports areas, I think.  There were no fences in sight.  I'm reasonably sure that one or both of the paths link up with the trail.  But to verify that, I'd have to poke around too close to people's houses, and I wasn't going to do that.  I wouldn't mind riding past if I was coming down the trail, but nosing around would be creepy.

Nonetheless, one question more-or-less answered.  I'm sure one could ride down the Loma Prieta trail and get to Alamitos Road.

Continuing on Alamitos Road, now heading west, I passed more cabins as the road narrowed from a skinny two lanes to an unapologetic single lane.  Twin Creeks is generally wooded, and by the time the road narrows and starts to climb the valley a bit, it's fully enclosed in woods.  The road turns southwest to follow Herbert Creek, and is paved until shortly after it passes over a bridge.

The woods here are gorgeous, with the lovely little stream and bright green moss growing on the trees.  On all sides of the trees, I might add.  It was perfectly quiet.  The morning was still cold and there was certainly no sun to warm me up, but since I was climbing and didn't have to worry about wind, it was comfortable.

I came to a fork in the road, and chose the left fork, the low road.  It was the wrong fork.  This trail gradually turns south to follow some other creek.  I went along this path for a while as it climbed the valley, until I came across a building in the distance.  I didn't see anyone, but chickened out and turned around.

Had I followed the high road, I would have hugged Herbert Creek, and been mostly on MROSD land.  I realized that as I passed by, but I needed to get back home for Thanksgiving, so exploring that path will have to wait for another day.

The ride home was unremarkable except for the especially vivid shifts in environment.  From a lush, wet forest to dry chaparral to suburban artifice, all within a few miles.

Only about 20 miles today, with a maximum elevation of about 990 feet, at the turn-around point.  Only a couple of the miles were at all new to me, but they pointed the way to a few new possibilities.

Saturday, November 20, 2010

Soda Springs and Thayer

The rainy season has officially begun here in the Bay Area, because after about 5 months of zero rain, it's supposed to rain for the next several days.  In fact, it was supposed to start last night.  But when my lovely wife and I went out to breakfast, it was sunny and perfect.  Coming home, it was sunny and perfect... with ominous clouds on the horizon.  Still, it seemed like I could sneak in a short ride before it really got serious.  See, even during the rainy season it doesn't rain all that much, but it's always on weekends.  During the week it's fine, but the weekends are always wet.  So I felt like I really needed to take whatever chance I had.

View Larger Map

I quickly got ready, and within mere hours of returning from breakfast I was on the bike, headed for Los Gatos. I had on a waterproof coat, and a sweatshirt that I immediately knew was overkill.  I was cold inside the house, but as soon as I started riding, I was fine.

There was nothing more than sprinkles by the time I got to the Los Gatos Creek Trail, so I was a little surprised to see so many puddles on the trail.  It's a nice hard trail, but I guess it doesn't drain particularly well.

Soda Springs Road is a five-mile climb that starts next to the Lexington Reservoir and climbs up the Thayer/Umunhum ridge.  It's a two-lane, sometimes one-lane, paved road serving a few dozen houses, mostly near the top of the hill.  At the top of the hill, there's a gate.

But we're not quite there yet.  Climbing up Soda Springs it was almost perfect weather.  Sprinkles, cool but not cold.  I took this panorama shot looking back at Lexington Reservoir, and you can see the moisture boiling off El Sereno and its neighbors.  Clearly lots of moisture in the air, but hard rain was very infrequent, and I was hardly even getting wet.

Old stairs to Soda Springs Rd
Soda Springs Road passes through a patchwork of MROSD land with houses sprinkled around.  Some of the houses are newer, but several have seen a few seasons.  I was a little confused by this house, which has no parking and only this rickety stairway.  Having looked at the map, it appears that there's a driveway behind it that meets up with the road quite a ways away.

Nearer the top, the houses get more frequent.  I got to the intersection with Weaver Road and caught a blast of cold fog coming over the hill.  While resting I had a nice chat with a resident coming up to check his mail.  Sounds like a peaceful life up there, but an 8 mile trip to the grocery store.

Shortly after the chat, the real rain started.  I was immediately soaked, although I thought my sweatshirt might still be mostly dry.  This section climbs about 600 feet in a mile and a half.  I didn't want to stop in the heavy rain and I couldn't find any decent cover, so I just plodded along.

The gate at the end of Soda Springs Rd
My plan had been to get to the gate across Soda Springs Road (pictured here in a previous trip), rest and eat a bit, then explore a way around the gate that I saw on the satellite image.  I wasn't sure it would work; if it didn't, I'd turn around and possibly explore up Aldercroft Heights Road.  If it did work, the ultimate goal was the Umunhum area.  To get there, I was going to take the immediate right in the picture, which seemed a little less conspicuous to the houses.

You can't just climb over the gate, because they've covered it (and the nearby elements) with some something like pine tar -- incredibly sticky, and a little stinky.  I learned that when I initially leaned the pictured bike against the gate.  Yuck.

There are helpful signs as you approach the gate that tell you the road (and therefore your climb) are ending in 500, then 200 feet.  So I knew I was close when I rounded a corner and... it was open!  Holy crap!  The gate was open!  I rode right through, and immediately ditched my plan.  Visibility by now was pretty poor, and I didn't expect people to be out, so I wasn't as worried about the main road.  And that side road looked pretty sketchy.

This section of Soda Springs Road is a short, straight piece of road heading right up the ridge.  In this close weather, it just went up into clouds.  And it was damned steep.

It was at this point that my lovely wife called to check on me, and whaddaya know, I had service.  I stopped next to a large bush, out of sight of houses, and told the Missus it was going great.  I looked at a map, and realized that I had gone too far up Soda Springs Road.  I wanted to go over Thayer and into the Umunhum area, so I needed to take Loma Almaden Rd, which branches off of this road at some point that I'd missed.  I couldn't tell where, because at this point the phone locked up (moisture?), and I emergency-rebooted it.  But it wasn't coming back, and was just getting wetter, so back in the pocket it went.

Side note: I'm under the impression that Mt. Umunhum has been called Loma Almaden in the past, hence the name of the road.  And while we're at it, Mt. Thayer was once called Mt. Hooker (the same guy's name is also attached to Hooker Gulch, the valley and creek just to the south of this trail).

Loma Almaden, or at least the turn-off to it, was a tiny little track, easy to miss.  At one point it passes by a white van, which startled me.  I stopped and stared, and guessed it hadn't moved in a while.  That's probably true, since it appears on satellite images.  Still, at the time: creepy.  This track then meets up with what appears to be a better-maintained track that, I think, is clearly Loma Almaden Rd.

Loma Almaden Road
At this point I'm at about 3000 feet, visibility is no more than 50 yards, and there's no rain.  Only hail.  Small, drop-sized hail.  And this close to the top of the mountain range, the wind is blowing fiercely, coming up from the south.  The trail is pretty well protected, but in open areas the hail is hitting me hard, and coming up from below.  This doesn't seem proper, but I'm still reasonably comfortable, slowly climbing up Mt. Thayer.

Off to my right was Hooker Gulch and the Los Gatos Creek Valley, with Lake Elsman at the bottom and Summit Rd on the opposite ridge.  But I couldn't see any of it; it was just a cloud.

In one sheltered spot I decided to recharge by eating a Clif bar.  Having mostly eaten them in the summer, I didn't know that they become approximately rock hard in cooler weather.  I ate about half of it, and my teeth mostly survived.

The first gate on Loma Almaden Road
The first sign I was approaching Thayer was this amusing gate across the road, warning of dogs.  Dogs are too smart to be out in weather like this.  All along this area the path is still climbing, not particularly steeply.  Just after this sign a paved one-lane road forks left and climbs the hill, into the clouds.  On the ride I assumed this went to the Mt. Thayer antennas, but looking at the map it appears to be a home.  I'm glad I didn't climb it.  They probably don't get many trick-or-treaters.

On the ride, I thought at this point I had passed Thayer and now would soon be seeing signs of the Almaden Air Force Station.  I was tired and increasingly cold, and presumed there would be more climbing between here and there, but I was excited.

The impassable gate on Loma Almaden Road
That excitement ran into the next, much more emphatic obstacle.  A 6-foot gate with sharp spikes, covered with barbed wire and some sort of brownish goo.  The barbed wire extended up the hill to my left (which in retrospect was probably the peak of Thayer) and down the hill to the right.  As far as I could tell, there was no getting around it.  I was forced to turn around.

I had high hopes for using this route to get to Umunhum.  First, the climb is easier than Hicks.  Second, it seemed like it came through a back door.  Going up Hicks and Umunhum means that the camera gets a shot of you, which I suspect will summon a ranger eventually.  So this gate is a real blow to my chances of exploring the area.  Eventually it'll be opened up, but I won't live in this area forever.  And to be honest, I want to explore the "ghost town" of the old Air Force station.

Ah well.  Going back was downhill.  Travelling a little faster (but only a little, because a slip in the mud could send me over) and putting in less effort meant that I immediately started getting cold.  And here at 3300 feet, with wet wheels, and not yet on a steep road, I couldn't help but notice that I had to squeeze my (rim) brakes pretty hard to have any effect.  That might be a problem....

I avoided the van turnoff, not because of the van but because the left fork was much better quality, and that right fork was steep.  The left fork, as expected, turned into that side road that I had skipped earlier.  It's a nice little road.  When I got to the end I was happy to see the gate was still open, because I didn't have a plan B.  Maybe I should have investigated my original theory, but it was raining quite hard at this point, and I was cold.

Squeezing the brakes and not pedaling, I eventually realized that I couldn't feel my hands or feet.  In the 20+ minutes it took to get the bottom of Soda Springs Road, I had to stop several times to flex my hands and get feeling back again.  Somewhere along the line the sweatshirt inside my waterproof coat had become fully soaked, so I was uncomfortable and unhappy on the very slow trip down the hill.

I got to Los Gatos, the nearest place convenient to cars, and sent up the flare.  I used my now partly-functional phone to text my wife, who graciously agreed to pick me up.  The sun was now shining, and while it was certainly warmer at this lower elevation the wind was blowing in the next round of rain.  Waiting there on the sidewalk, I was hunched over and shivering, becoming increasingly aware that I was completely soaked through and looking like an idiot.

Car heaters, it turns out, are one of the world's great inventions.  So while that last part of the ride was unpleasant, I was soon warm again.  Later, after a long hot shower, I noticed that my bike clothes were still heavy with water.

The ride was about 28 miles, with over 4000 feet of climbing.  I'm not so sure about that; the maximum elevation was only about 3340, which is 3100 feet higher than my house, and I doubt there was 900 feet of meaningful climb elsewhere.  For most of the ride I had the Garmin 305 recording points every second, and I think that mode overestimates climbs.  The other mode (smart something or other) does much better.

Friday, November 12, 2010

Pheasant Road again, last week

Completism is a disease.  I had one of the most enjoyable rides of my life on Pheasant Road a few weeks ago, but then I looked at the maps and saw that there were a couple of trails I missed.  So I decided to complete the set.

View Larger Map

It was raining last weekend.  Not heavily, but an all-day rain.  That could have been a problem; I have a rule against causing any damage (particularly when I'm already breaking other rules), so if the trails were muddy I'd have to turn back.

My web searching had uncovered a description of a guided hike into this area a few years before.  That hike started at the gate SA04, rather than heading up Pheasant Road.  So the first challenge was to find that trail.  On the satellite image, it looked like it probably met up with Pheasant Road at its eastern-most turn, where I didn't even remember a trail.

This part of the story actually begins the previous day, on my Reynolds Road ride.  On the way back, I decided to hop over SA04 and explore.  The first thing one finds is a cleared area, possibly a future parking lot, with one vehicle parked there: a front-loader.  That same front-loader actually shows up in the satellite images, oddly enough.  It's been there for years?

The trail wanders by the cleared area and climbs the hill behind it.  At the top of the hill, you reach a fork.  This first day, I took the high road, the right fork.  That's the wrong fork.  It heads up through a set of indifferent paths that aren't really ridable and don't give you the impression of getting anywhere.  Plus, I was tired from the earlier part of the ride.  So I turned around.

The start of the long, steep trail up
The next day, in the rain, I took the left fork.  That trail descends to cross the bottom of a ravine, turns north, climbs a little, and reaches a sharp U-turn (shown in the picture here).  At this stage you're quite close to Hicks Road again.  I was feeling pretty good because I was exploring a new trail and nicely isolated and it was only drizzling.

I mention that because that good feeling was coming to an abrupt end.  From this point, the trail heads upward for a half mile at a roughly 20% grade (according to Garmin).  The trail is good, a former four-wheel track of which only one side is generally clear now.  It is soft with leaves and growth, and I just wasn't up to it.  Although I tried pedaling in a few different places, I ended up pushing my bike pretty much all the way up to Pheasant Road.

I hate pushing my bike.  It's much more tiring than walking or even riding, but I just couldn't manage the grade.  Generally there was just one semi-clear path, so I had the choice of walking through weeds with my bike on the clear path, or walking on the path and pushing my bike through weeds.  I got to Pheasant Road in a dark mood, thinking seriously about turning around.

The top of the trail flattens out a bit, and once I was back on my bike my mood lightened almost immediately.  I really enjoy riding a bike.  The trail intersects with Reynolds Road at the road's steepest point, but it's not as steep as the trail was, and it's at least ridable.

My goal at this point was a little tail of a trail at the southern end of the circle route I had taken the previous week.  I had seen the intersection, and it showed up on MROSD maps.

Part of the way there, I was resting my heart when I realized that I was hearing a very rhythmic sound from the woods.  It could have been someone or something walking through brush, but the sound seemed distant and therefore would have had to be loud.  And nothing's quite that regular, walking through brush.  I couldn't think of a natural process that would produce such a regular rhythm, and I never did figure out what it was.  But it unnerved me a little, and gave me the impression that I might not be alone.

When I got to the footpath off the main trail, I decided it needed some exploring too.  I left my bike on the trail and walked up the steep path, which then turned north and... just kept going for a little while.  Still somewhat unnerved, I was uncomfortable leaving my bike for too long, and I turned around before I figured out where that path went.  Based on maps and other hints, it looks like it probably heads up toward a rock formation, but I guess I'll need another trip to confirm.  Completism.

It was raining lightly but constantly.  Back here the tree cover is thick and the trail was dry.  After reaching the top of the trail at 1600 feet (partly walking the damned bike again) and then heading back down a bit, I got to the intersection with that little spur trail.

This trail is short (only about 1/8 mile) but steep (it gains ~130 feet).  Like the others it was soft, reasonably clear but only partly ridable by me.

The beautiful area near Cherry Spring
All trails go somewhere, right?  Particularly this sort of spur trail?  In this case, it leads to a clear, flat area that's pretty distinctive on a terrain map.  It's a very pretty little area, surrounded by trees.  Red leaves cover the ground, and the fallen trees have bright green moss growing on them.

A little creek flows through here.  This might be Hicks Creek, but it had been raining all day, and it might just have been some random unnamed runoff.

Cherry Spring.  Who knew?
So what does this trail lead to?  Was it just leading to this bucolic area, which might be a nice camping area if you're into that?  Maybe, but just beyond the end of the trail was a chain link fence, incongruous in this patch of nature.

There wasn't anything visible inside the fence, and I wasn't sufficiently intrigued to collect even more poison oak to investigate.  Nothing obvious on the satellite image, incidentally.  Update: a little searching indicates that Cherry Springs (the actual spring, not the pond) is right here.  I'm assuming it's in the fenced-in area.

So it's back down the trail, around the east side of the hill to complete the circle.  Arriving back at Cherry Springs Pond, I looked around for the last bit of unfinished business.  The MROSD map shows a trail that runs from the pond area to somewhere near the gate on Pheasant Road, but to the southwest of Pheasant Road itself.  That means it probably runs on the other side of the hill that Pheasant Road climbs.  In my earlier exploration, I hadn't seen any sign of such a road.

I rode around all the visible trails, but couldn't find this missing one.  Eventually I decided that it just had to be on the other side of one particular ridge, and started trying to find a way through.  Once I found an area clear enough to cross, it became obvious that I was indeed already on the trail, disguised by layers of leaves.  Or on a trail, anyway.

The best part of this trail
This new trail headed northwest, and was generally a level ridge trail.  But the valley falls away, so after a while you have a steep drop to the left, and basically cliffs to the right.  In the middle you have a trail that has seen neither traffic nor maintenance in years.  The picture here shows the trail near its southern end, and it just gets worse and worse from here.  I'm not complaining, mind you; no one invited me here.  I'm just describing.

Worse means generally thinner, with a single clear track that sometimes meets the edge of the cliff.  I was walking my bike in one section when the entire width of the clear track came within a foot of the edge, which was disguised by grass.  If you were riding in that area, the margin for error would be tiny, and the consequences severe.

In at least one place a rock slide has completely blocked the trail; I climbed over, stupidly, carrying my bike.  I dislodged a rock that just fell and fell, forever.  Having crossed the rock slide, I couldn't turn back without crossing it again, and I definitely didn't want to do that.  I figured that if I had to do it, I'd start by abandoning the bike.

Along the way one sees lots of rocky sections above the trail made of the same sedimentary stone that fell across the trail.  And it was raining.  But no further rock slides today.

The next obstacle was a tree that had fallen over the trail, then kept growing.  For a minute I thought I was going to have to crawl on my belly like a reptile, but I found a section I could wrestle my bike and myself through, with only minor scratches.

The tree, along with the general overgrowth of the trail, shows that this trail hasn't been clear in many years.  The housing development near Cherry Springs Pond dates back to before 1993; this trail may have last been clear back then.

The last part of the trail was the worst.  It's flat and clear, but goes very near the caretaker's residence.  I may have imagined it, but I thought I could hear voices.  So that violates my rules -- I don't get that close to people's homes.  It's creepy, and for all of these reasons I'll never ride that trail again, and encourage others to avoid it.

The trail exits directly into the gate across Pheasant Road, so I skirted it (acquiring even more poison oak in the process, I think) and rode home.  Again, a short ride of about 12 miles and 1800 feet of climbing.  Some fun exploring, but too much pushing the bike, too much risk, and too much interference for my taste.

Reynolds Road, November 2010

A little satellite imagery can be a dangerous thing.  On my Pheasant Road ride, I took a picture of the Hicks Creek valley and Reynolds Road.  Looking at that area on the map, there's a branch of Reynolds Road that appears to head pretty far up the slope of El Sombroso.  I wonder what's up there?

View Larger Map

Reynolds Road peels off of Hicks Road, and climbs about 700 feet in 1.5 miles.  From its heights you can enjoy views of the dump, and if that's too distant, there are almost always abandoned mattresses and sofas and so forth along the road.  After 1.5 miles, it turns to dirt and climbs again to a fork in the road at about 1300 feet.  On the left fork, you get a couple hundred yards before you get to a chain across the road.  There's a sign that reads Sycamore Springs Ranch, which as far as I can tell has no presence on the web.

I should point out that at the point at which the pavement turned to dirt, a sign told me that only authorized or resident vehicles were allowed any further.  So to get here, I had already respectfully disobeyed a sign.  Why not cross this easily-crossed gate?  Well, I'll tell you.  I'm willing to break the rules by riding onto closed open space (if you will), but I'm not willing to enter private property.  I keep thinking that, if it were my place and my kids were playing outside, I'd be pretty creeped out by some stranger riding through.

Having said that, I'm willing to enter private property if I stick to a road that I think is a thoroughfare (even if the law isn't on my side).  I have little patience for privatized roads.  So this could be that situation, but the satellite image makes the trail from this point look more like a driveway than a road.

So having got to the end of the left fork, I turn around and start exploring the right.  On the maps, it was clear that there weren't many houses up this way, and signs at the fork seem to indicate that there are exactly three. In this area you can look up the slope of El Sombroso, up the valley, and see a house perched somewhere up the ridge.  From here it looks impossibly far up, but there must be a road to it, and this is really the only candidate.

The right fork is lovely.  Reynolds Road has trees, and trees are great, but what with the trash on the road and the scrub near the fork, it's not the prettiest area of these hills.  The right fork heads through much deeper woods, past two of the three houses up here.  On the damp, windy day I was exploring, the woods were making constant noise.  Acorns (I think) were making uncannily loud cracking noises as they fell and rolled down the hills.  The trail here is wide enough for one vehicle, barely, and the leaves and grass on it didn't give the impression of heavy use.

Eventually, one gets near that house I spied from the fork.  I knew the road went right next to the house, and was getting anxious about riding under the noses of the occupants.  I was spared that experience by another gate across the road, where the path turned north.  It's about 1600 feet up the hill at this point.

That's a real shame, because it looks like there's probably another mile of trail beyond the house.  I'd love to go exploring those trails someday.

On the way down I took a panorama shot of the Hicks Creek valley, showing the hill that the Pheasant Road trail winds around.  In the valley you can just make out a little house.  This house, according to logic and a little search engine detective work, is a former residence recently purchased by the MROSD, and is now serving as a caretaker's residence.  The gated driveway very near the bottom of Reynolds Road is its entrance.

Another document on the the same site indicates that the MROSD recently bought the section of land at the far end of the left fork of Reynolds Road, past that Sycamore Springs Ranch house.  That doesn't help me any; the only path is through that private property I'm not willing to cross.  But the map in that document does indicate that the trail goes all the way up to that property, and maybe someday we'll be able to ride it.

A good leisurely ride, and a little more of the "personally unknown" explored.  About 12 miles, with 1800 feet of climbing.