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.


  1. I visited (trespassed) the area. A local man told me the area used to be open to the public decades ago, and there was very little regulations. Apparently some teenager got killed doing something reckless and presumably the parents sued. The SJWC closed lake elsman and the road to the public. The summit of Loma Prieta is also closed to the public. What a pity

  2. Although, I should add, believe half of what you see and none of what you hear.

    1. I've been eyeballing that switchback forever, and also curse the SJWC for being so stingy with their access to such a beautiful watershed. There has to be well-established precedent for a public easement existing on Aldercroft Heights and definitely Cathermola. Wish I knew how to research that.

    2. I'm gonna hike it from my house in aldercroft heights up the creek to elsman. Will update.

    3. I too live in Aldercroft and have tried 2x to make it to wrights from the end of our road. The creek was too high last time. Got spooked the first time when i stumbled on some well walked on trails I think near the back of call of the wild.Trying again soon. Interested in a team effort?

    4. Hey anon, have you done this yet? This has been tempting me for a minute and a couple gates don't bother me as much as some of those locals up there...

      Been on my poach list for a while