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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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?

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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.

Thursday, November 11, 2010

Pheasant Road, October 2010

If you look at a map of Hicks Road, near the dump, you'll see something called Pheasant Road.  If you look at a terrain map, you'll see it heads up into the Santa Cruz mountains, onto the shoulders of El Sombroso.  If you look at a satellite image, you'll notice that while there's a house near the bottom of the road, toward the top there's nothing.

I saw all that, and because I also looked at the highest resolution satellite image, I also saw that there was a gate across the road, maybe a third of the way up.  I can't claim I was surprised.

Still, I wanted to explore the area, so on a beautiful cloudy October day I rode my mountain bike up to the gate.  At the top is a driveway and a gate.  The gate, much to my surprise, had MROSD markings, as opposed to private property markings.  That's an important factor in both my rationalization, and my practical chances of getting caught.

As it turns out, if you're willing to deal with a little poison oak you can get around the left side of the gate.  From there it's a pleasant, well built road heading southwest, and gradually up.

Midway up this section you come across a tree stuck right in the middle of the roadway.  I'm glad the road builders had a bit of sense of humor so this tree didn't have to come down for the sake of this completely unused road.  Still, it's hard to imagine what they were thinking.  It's also a reminder that asphalt is pretty porous.

A little farther up, one comes across a patch of brand-new, deep black asphalt.  I was breaking a rule or two, and consequently nervous.  The new asphalt made me more so.  Was something being built up ahead?  There was nothing on the satellite images, but those were taken years ago.

Arnerich Road, from Pheasant Road
The new asphalt is next to a little clearing with a great view over the houses on Arnerich Road.
Cherry Springs Pond
The road takes a sharp turn and heads up steeply.  This section is very rough and broken, which may explain why the previous section was repaved.  It ends at a little T-shaped body of water, clearly visible on the maps, that turns out to be called Cherry Springs Pond.  All around this area the woods are cleared.  As it turns out, what I'm looking at is a failed housing development that got as far as clearing some land (and presumably building the artificial-looking pond), but not as far as actually building houses.  This must have happened prior to 1993, based on Google Earth images.  Later, it was sold to the open space district, and remains its own sort of ghost town.  A ghost neighborhood, perhaps.

At this point I was pretty much done with what I wanted to accomplish.  But what a glorious day.  Cloudy, a little foggy up here at 1100 feet, and I felt great.  A little jazzed about breaking the rules.  The paved road continues up past the lake a bit.  How far?  Well, let's find out.

As it turns out, not far at all.  The pavement ends just behind the next hill, but the road continues unpaved, and steep.  It reaches a second cleared area, which on the satellite image looks like a large oval with a road around it.  In reality the oval "road" is just dirt surrounding slightly looser dirt.  I rode around it just to see if there were any surprises.  There weren't.

If this area was cleared in 1993, why hasn't it been reclaimed?  Do no seeds blow onto this apparently fertile dirt?  Nearer the pond there is the appearance of cut grass, like a fire prevention measure, but here it's just dirt.  At my house, dirt equals weeds, but I guess that doesn't apply here.

The trail continues on and so did I, south up the mountain.  But as I was so slowly making my way along its sometimes steep ramps, a thought kept nagging: Someone built this trail for a reason.  It has to go somewhere.  I was hoping that, whatever that "somewhere" was, it wasn't inhabited.  That seemed pretty likely, given the overgrown trail, but one never knows.

Past the big dirt oval, the path heads uphill.  Partway up it passes by an even smaller path that heads up onto the ridge.  I think that smaller path, which was far too steep for me to ride, heads up to a rock formation.  Because I was too nervous to leave my bike for long, I'll never know.

A little further along, the trail comes to a water tank.  Maybe that's where it was heading?  The trail does indeed end there... or does it?  No, it looked like it ended, but it heads up a hill that, given the soft conditions, I had to push my bike up.

After winding around for a while, the road comes to a steep downhill.  If I go down, I'll likely have to come back up, and having just been shamed into walking my bike up the hill, I decide to take the better part of valor and turn around.  That's enough for today.

Did I mention it was a beautiful day?  That and a few hundred yards of descending can really do wonders for one's ambition.  So when I got back to the pond, I decided to take the path that goes around it the long way.  If I'm going to go to the trouble of coming here, I might as well hit all the paths.

The trail around Cherry Springs Pond
The path around the lake is ridiculously perfect.  It's well constructed, flat, with a light coating of leaves and a nice canopy overhead.  Having ridden down the path and back, I'm no longer worried that there's someone squatting out here.  I'm all alone in this beautiful wood, on a glorious fall day.  I'm exploring some place I've never been.  And it's not even uphill!  I'm sure I must have been grinning like an idiot this whole time.

The trail soon meets an open area, and it's pretty clear that it dips left, closer to the lake, and goes around.  But it also heads to the right.  Where does that go?  Only one way to find out.

I continue on, and find myself riding south along a ridge line, with a view to the left (ie east) of the Hicks Creek valley, and Reynolds Road on the next hill.  To the left is a pretty steep drop, and to the right is a steep climb.  In the middle, one happy bike rider.

This section is basically flat, and eventually reaches an intersection.  By now I've twigged; this likely meets up with the trail I was on.  I go to the right at the intersection, and indeed it meets up at the top of the hill, the one I didn't want to climb back up earlier.  Now I've climbed this damned hill (about 1500 feet) from both sides, and I'm cooked.

This could have been a housing development
Did I mention that it was a beautiful day?  That and the brief but refreshing descent give me the energy to explore the remaining cleared area.  By now the clouds had broken up a bit, so we had puffy clouds, blue skies, and still cool temperatures.

Pheasants on Pheasant
The last exploring done, I went back down the road, squirmed past the gate, and was soon confronted by a reminder of why they call this Pheasant Rd.  After waiting for them to pass, I coasted home.

It was a short ride -- only about 12 miles all told, but with all my exploring, it took a good two hours.  About 2000 feet of climbing.  Possibly the most enjoyable ride I've ever had.

Once I got home, I looked up information on the area to try to make sense of what I'd seen.  That's when I found out about the failed housing development, and also saw a map of the area in some MROSD meeting minutes.  The minutes pointed out that the house near the bottom of Pheasant Road is was purchased in the last few weeks by the MROSD, and has been occupied for some time by a ranger.  The map showed the path I had ridden, in the same distinctive shape as my Garmin had drawn.  It also showed a few more trails that I hadn't come across.  Hmmmm....

Over Loma Prieta and Umunhum, August 2010

Inspired by the old ride reports from the rec.bicycles newsgroup, I'm going to describe a recent ride through the Sierra Azul open space district.

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If you've spent time in San Jose, you may have noticed a mountain on the southern edge of town with a giant cube on its peak. The mountain is Mt. Umunhum, and the box is the remains of a radar dish platform, the focus of an abandoned air force base. Since I moved here a few years ago, quite close to Umunhum, it has been a curiosity, and I've ridden up to it several times. The actual base is closed, and the approach is marked with serious-sounding "no trespassing" signs, but I've at least got up to the gate a couple of times.

Meanwhile, if you look at a map of the area (or better yet a satellite image), you'll notice that there's some sort of road between Umunhum and Loma Prieta. And you can get to Loma Prieta via Summit Rd. And you can get to Summit via Los Gatos. At about 45 miles, the route from my house over Loma Prieta and Umunhum and back home is at the ragged edge of my range.

So it looked like a nice way to spend a day. I set out on my epic journey in late June... only to find that the Los Gatos Trail was closed, and my plans dashed (I didn't yet know that you could get to the Lexington Reservoir through St. Joseph's). So I detoured into a different ride. A week later I tried the same thing, but drove to Lexington Reservoir to skip the closed trail. This time I got to Loma Prieta, but balked at the remaining climbs and returned to the car.

About a month later, in early August, I set out for real. I rode my mountain bike, partly because the roads near the summits are dirt, but mostly because of the lower gears. I'm hauling a lot of weight up those hills.

I rode through Los Gatos, down the Los Gatos Creek trail, and then on Alma Bridge Road to the southern part of the reservoir. I rode up Old Santa Cruz Rd to Summit, and I recall thinking at the time that I was, even then, basically climbing Loma Prieta. Summit Rd is at about 1500 feet in this area, and I started at about 250, so I was about a third of the way up. But I was taking it pretty slow; I was almost two hours into the ride and hadn't quite covered 20 miles.

Travelling southeast on Summit Rd, as I was, you can occasionally look to your left and see Mt. Thayer, Mt. Umunhum and the ridge heading off to Loma Prieta. Mt. Umunhum looks especially close, and it's seems odd at this point that you're riding right past it. I had the idea that this route was generally a circle, but in fact this section -- southeast to Loma Prieta, then back northwest to Umunhum, is pinched.

Thayer and Umunhum, from Summit Rd

Next stop was the Summit store, where I got a great deli sandwich and some sort of fake fruit drink. There's really not much better than sitting around on the patio of the Summit Store on a beautiful day. It wasn't hot (it hasn't been all summer), and earlier on Summit Rd. I had seen the day's last fog still hanging around the treetops. At the table next to me a bunch of road bike riders were swapping stories. I could have stayed much longer.

Loma Prieta Ave
Eventually I packed half my sandwich and headed back to Loma Prieta Ave, which in this area is a one lane road that hops up onto a ridge, passing by a Christmas tree farm, a little vinyard, an orchard, and so on. It's also a straight relentless climb, which I must admit is my main memory of it. That's a shame, because it's a charming little one lane road, with nice views of the valley to the south. And in the grand scheme of things, it's not even very steep.

Loma Prieta Ave starts curving around into an even more charming section that follows the hillside. There's a sense of solitude in this section, and great views across the valley.

Skyline Ridge, from Loma Prieta Ave
Shortly after this section, Loma Prieta Ave turns into a private driveway, and a dirt path leads down about half a mile to a little cluster of houses near Mt. Bache Rd (according to this note, Loma Prieta was briefly called Mt. Bache in honor of the accomplished surveyor). You drop 150 feet on the dirt road, which would be welcome except you just know you're going to have to climb it again. At this point Mt. Bache Rd. turns into Loma Prieta Way (according to Google maps, anyway), and starts immediately with an intimidatingly steep ramp. After a little more climbing, the Loma Prieta Winery passes by on the left. I must remember to try their wine.

By this time, the road is back up at 2500 feet or so, and is more or less flat. What follows is, for me, the hardest part of the ride -- about a mile that brings you up 500 or so more feet. Not the steepest climb in the world, but for my old legs this comes late in the game.

Monterey, from Summit Rd
A few flat miles later, you reach a decision point. On the one hand, you have Summit/Mt. Madonna Rd, which heads generally downward toward... well, Mt. Madonna. I haven't done that, yet. The Loma Prieta Rd, on the other hand, turns to dirt, and heads past the first "No Trespassing" sign. The steepness of this little section is perhaps more intimidating than the sign.

From this point, you can see all the way to Monterey Bay, not to mention down Summit Rd and whole valley. While I was there, a helicopter was making slow passes over the valley. Mysterious.

Anyway, up the hill, and the last couple hundred feet of climbing.

I had been to the top of Loma Prieta once before (and most of the pictures here are from that earlier trip). It was very disappointing to me that the road doesn't get particularly close to the top. I rode up toward the top, only to find yet another gate, a couple hundred feet below the summit.

Los Gatos Creek?
But this time that didn't bother me much, because I had bigger fish to fry.  I rode around the peak, past another gate, and saw a little spring that may be near the source of Los Gatos Creek. I didn't try drinking from it, but it flowed pretty well and looked clean.

Riding around the peak clockwise, on the cleverly named Mt. Umunhum Loma Prieta Rd, you actually reach the highest point of this ride near the northern end, near another dirt road that heads toward Mt. Chual and Crystal Peak, the other antenna nest up here.

This road between Loma Prieta and Umunhum is a nice, wide descending dirt road. Having heard all the stories, I was a little nervous riding through this area. No more than a quarter mile from the high point of the ride, you get your first surprise: a collection of cars at an intersection, signs of life, followed pretty quickly by yet another gate. One wants to get beyond that gate quickly, I can tell you.

Immediately past the gate, the road does a U-turn. But that's not entirely obvious, because a trail heads off almost straight. According to maps, this trail leads down toward (but not quite to) Alamitos Rd, near the Almaden Reservoir. I haven't explored that trail yet, and I'm glad I didn't accidentally do it on this trip.

The road through here is really dug into some woods, so although you're basically on a ridge you don't get much in the way of views. That changes as you turn northwest, and you get a great view of the Los Gatos Creek valley. I know I must still have been nervous on this part of the ride, because I didn't stop and take pictures of a really spectacular view.

Cathermola Rd peels off from this road heads down into the valley. Immediately afterward, you begin the 300 foot climb back up toward Umunhum. At the top of this climb, according to the maps, you have the choice of going left or right around the little shantytown immediately before Mt Umunhum road.

When thinking about this ride, I studied the maps and read some other ride reports. Bill Bushnell, writing in about 2005, recommended going right to avoid going too close to the dwellings. So I knew, when I got to that point, that I would head right.

In the event, there were a couple of cars parked right at the junction. And not junkers, either -- cars that looked like they could actually move themselves. The main road continued left, but the path to the right was small, overgrown, and easy to miss. As I rode down it, I wondered more than once whether it was even passable anymore. Technically it wasn't, for me -- in a couple of places I ended up carrying my bike through waist-high bushes.

At this point I've already crossed several gates and blithely ignored plenty of signs. I could rationalize all that. But on this clearly disused trail, you really feel like you're skulking around, definitely doing something wrong. It ain't the high road anymore. But I wasn't about to turn back, either.

There's a point, and you can see it on a satellite map, where you suddenly come upon a couple of old trailers connected by blue tarps, sitting directly next to the trail. I think it was here that my Garmin registered my highest heart rate. But I never saw or heard anyone.

The end of Mt. Umunhum Road
Over one last gate, you get to Mt Umunhum road, in all its military/industrial glory. I rode up to the gate, just to remind myself of the arrangement. Once again, blocked a couple hundred feet from the top.

Turning around, it's almost literally downhill all the way home, and apart from stopping twice to let my rims cool, completely uneventful.

In the end it was about 42 miles and took 6:20 (an hour of which was resting), with almost 4800 feet of climbing.