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.

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