Tuesday, March 29, 2011

Mount Hamilton

About a month ago I rode my bike up Mount Umunhum, and then the next weekend I rode up Loma Prieta, with a side trip to Mount Chual.  I thought it would be clever if I rode up Mount Hamilton the next week, which would make all the highest peaks in the area in consecutive weeks.  But that weekend the road was closed for snow.  I tried the next weekend, but got a flat that ate up my slim time window.  The next weekend it was just too rainy.

The old telescope at the Lick Observatory
So that brings us to yesterday, when I finally got myself up there.

I've ridden up Mount Hamilton once before, so to change up a bit I was thinking about riding over the hill and on to Livermore.  I ride too slowly to get back in daylight, so I'd have to call for a ride from there.

It took me a while to get going on Sunday morning, and by the time I pulled into the parking lot at Alum Rock Avenue, it was about 11:30.  You know you're getting a late start when you see lots of people coming back just when you're setting out.

As I started I got my first surprise, which is that my little Garmin device was reporting low batteries.  It turns out I hadn't put it back in its cradle after my last ride.  I wondered idly how long it could continue in that mode, and then found out: a mile and a half.  After that it was blank, and I was blind.  In the grand scheme of things that shouldn't have made a difference, but I've grown to like watching the altitude change, and I like tracking the ride afterward on the computer.  Part of the achievement, it turns out, is accumulating that record.  It's the gamification of recreation.  Lame as it sounds, I lost enthusiasm, to the point that not too long afterward I actually turned around and headed back downhill.  Thankfully I came to my senses before having to re-climb too much, but in any case I've learned my lesson: the GPS thing lives in its cradle, always.

Motivation aside, I felt pretty good going up, and on that first section I actually passed a couple people.  That never happens.  It was overcast and pleasantly cool, but not threatening rain.

A hawk (maybe?) on Mount Hamilton Road
There's a portion of Mount Hamilton Road, let's say the mile following the intersection with Clayton, where there is frequently a bird of prey hunting along the hillside.  I say frequently; I think I've seen one each of the three times I've been up this way.  Maybe the same bird.  I stopped to try to get a picture and it flew all around me.  It was brown, had a wingspan of perhaps three feet, and was much closer than it appears in my pictures.

A fixer-upper on Mount Hamilton Road
Sunday was the first non-rainy day in a couple of weeks, and looking at the forecast I'm tempted to say that it marks the beginning of the long dry summer.  But on this spring day, after all the rain of the winter, the hills were lush and every shade of green.

When I got down to the valley, I did a (very) little exploring around Joseph D Grant Park.  By that I mean the area near the entrance kiosk, because as I came to realize, the entire valley and halfway up the surrounding hills, as far as the eye can see, is the park.  And that whole park used to be owned by Mr. Grant.

Joseph D Grant Park, from the East
Six months from now it will not have rained again, and this whole area will be a dormant brown.

The entrance to the park is at about 1600 feet elevation.  The next section of road climbs to about 2300 feet, to a spot called Twin Gates.  It's called Twin Gates, as far as I can tell, because there are two gates there. At first glance this doesn't seem to be the sort of notable feature worth commemorating with a name, but I know little of such things.

I stopped here and ate a sandwich that my wife was kind enough to pack for me.  Never before has baloney tasted so good. I sat around reading the map I had picked up at the park entrance, and learned that even up here, I was still in the park.  Thanks, Mr. Grant.

Smith Creek
From Twin Gates the road descends a couple of hundred feet to Smith Creek, which normally trickles but today was roaring.  From this bridge, the road goes relentlessly up to the observatory.

What people tell you about the climb up Mount Hamilton is that, because you can see the observatory for such a long time, the climb seems even longer than it is.  I suppose that's true, but I felt it much less on this climb than my first.  Still, I found myself looking up at the observatory, seeing the roads criss-cross up to it, and muttering curses under my breath.

A long time and several restful stops later, I finally made it up the steep driveway to the observatory.  I went inside, got some M&Ms for strength, listened to a docent talk about James Lick and the old telescope, and went back outside.  By now the weather had closed in.  It was damp and cool, and of course I had long since cooled down.  Happily, a student was raising funds by selling hot chocolate, and that helped a bunch.

Some deer hanging out near the Lick Observatory
Lots of snow remaining on Mount Hamilton

A mere 47 miles to Livermore.
Not happening, not today
After a long time walking around the grounds, looking at the sights and taking a few pictures, it was time to set off.  In fact, it was 3:30, and the overcast sky made it seem later. I rode around the mountaintop for a bit, and saw a sign that ended any thought of going on to Livermore.  I'd never make 47 miles in daylight, and I didn't want to ride through unfamiliar territory with spotty cell coverage at night, dressed largely in black.

The Lick Observatory
Looking down on Mount Hamilton Road from the observatory.
The docent claims that, depending on how you count, there are
perhaps 365 turns on Mount Hamilton Road.
So after bundling up against the cold, I headed down.  The first section down to Smith Creek was bitterly cold.  I welcomed the end of that descent and the start of the climb back to Twin Gates.  After that it was pleasantly cool, not cold, and apart from almost running into a bunch of wild turkeys, the rest of the ride was uneventful.

I know this ride is about 40 miles, and I know I was out about 6 hours, in total.  I have no bogus climb or calorie numbers because my 305 went on strike.  Whatever the calorie count was, I'd have to subtract 250 for each of the two packets of peanut M&Ms I had at the top.  They were worth it, though.

Sunday, March 6, 2011

Loma Prieta and Mount Madonna

Looking for a nice, long, full-day bike ride, I decided to follow in the footsteps of some other riders and see what the road between Loma Prieta and Mount Madonna held. It looked like I could get there and back in about 65 miles, which is a long ride for me on a mountain bike (especially considering the climbs), but in the range of feasible.

Yesterday dawned clear and warm, and I hit the road at about 9:30. I went through Los Gatos, smelling and envying breakfast at Southern Kitchen and becoming aware of the kerfuffle about Dittos Lane. I went up the Los Gatos Creek Trail and past the Lexington Reservoir. From there it was up Old Santa Cruz Highway to Summit Road. The defining characteristic of this part of the ride was that I was frequently passed by road bikes (not in itself unusual), all of whom were women.

It takes me a good two hours to get up to Summit Road, and I got to the Summit Store right around noon. Perfect. The Summit Store was busy with bike riders, Girl Scouts selling cookies, and a weekend motorcycle gang (who bought a lot of cookies, I noticed). I had a lovely sandwich (a Full House, with turkey, avocado, bacon and mayo) and a rest. It looks like I spent a half an hour lounging on the patio.

Well rested and with a worryingly full belly, I started up Loma Prieta Avenue. Despite the beautiful day, and the many riders I'd seen so far, once I left the Summit Store I didn't see another bike rider for the entire rest of the day. Odd.

I've described Loma Prieta Avenue before, but to recap: After a mean bump at the beginning, the road is straight and increasingly steep. The steepness is emphasized by the straightness of the road, I think -- you get the impression that if you stop pedaling, you'll roll back to the store. After climbing from 1600 feet at the store to about 2000 feet the road starts winding, and you see a sign telling you that the road forward is unmaintained. Up to this point the road has been on a ridge, but now hugs the southern flank of the hill as it climbs to 2400 feet and the end of Loma Prieta Avenue.

A short dirt track takes you from the end of Loma Prieta Avenue down 100 feet to Mount Bache Road. In my case, I was joined by a pair of barking dogs for most of the trip.

The naming of roads, much like their maintenance, is lackadaisical up here. I ran into a utility van trying to find a residence on Loma Chiquita Avenue, and Google Maps was telling him it was near this intersection with Mount Bache Road. This particular Loma Chiquita was, he said, a map phantom, so I told him that there was another Loma Chiquita that started near the Loma Prieta summit, past only two "no trespassing" signs. Lots of roads up here are called Loma Prieta something or other, and as we'll see, Summit Road is a popular name.

Watsonville and the Monterey Peninsula
from Loma Prieta Way and Summit Road
So it was that I went from the end of Loma Prieta Avenue to Loma Prieta Way, which climbs quickly from 2300 to 2500 feet and then levels out for a bit. After the level section you climb 500 feet in a mile, after which the road is level at 3000 feet until the junction of Loma Prieta Way, Loma Prieta Road, and Summit Road.

The spring at Loma Prieta?
At this point the rational thing to do would be to continue on Summit down to Mount Madonna, but if I've come up this far I'm not going to bypass the peak of Loma Prieta (or as close as I can get, anyway). Plus I had an ulterior motive. So it's up Loma Prieta Road to (near) the peak, then around the west side of the mountain. Although it wasn't hot I had run out of water, and I entertained the idea of refilling at the little fountain that, in my imagination at least, is the source of Los Gatos Creek. I want to be the sort of person who's that resourceful, but frankly even before I got there I had decided that I wasn't thirsty enough to risk it, and in the event the water was barely trickling out.

I've been up here twice before. The first time, I turned around and headed back home. The second time, I rode over to Mount Umunhum. This time, I wanted to explore the trail that leads to the other two peaks/antenna farms up here: Crystal Peak and Mount Chual. These three peaks are the tallest in the Santa Cruz range; Mount Umunhum is number four.  Google Maps labels this road Loma Prieta Road (again); Bing Maps doesn't include it at all.

Snow on Loma Prieta Road
The trail begins at the northwest corner of Loma Prieta and bends around its northern slope. It therefore is shaded, and retained a little snow from the recent storms.

Silicon Valley from just in front of Crystal Peak
Umunhum is on the left; Mount Chual on the right
This road offers an unobstructed view of the valley that you don't get elsewhere on Loma Prieta or Umunhum. Unfortunately it doesn't give let you access to any of the peaks; they are all fenced-in antenna farms. So that's four for four: none of the highest four peaks in the Santa Cruz mountains are legally accessible.

Looking east from Loma Prieta Road.
The trail at right is Summit Road.
After getting as close as possible to Mount Chual (and fixing a flat along the way), I headed back to the intersection with Summit Road, and then down Summit Road toward Mount Madonna.

Or at least I had assumed it was down. Summit Road rolls a bit, but hovers around 2900 feet for miles. My legs were wobbly already, and this just took the life out of them.

Burned trees on Summit Road
Summit Road has some nice views, and proves it is indeed on a ridge by offering views both north and south. One reason those views are so clear is that this area is still recovering from the huge Summit Fire of 2008. The fire, the effort to contain it, and the clean up have left scars up here that apparently will take quite a while longer to heal. Of course it doesn't help that similar fires recur so often.

Summit Road is mostly a washboard dirt road, with occasional stretches of crumbling semi-pavement and deep, water-filled holes. Even on the flat parts, it's hard to maintain much speed.

Bogus restrictions on Summit Road
Immediately past Maymens Flat Road, one finds an entrance to Uvas Canyon County Park, heading toward the amusingly-named Knibs Knob. Less amusing is the gate across Summit Road claiming the road is private and, in particular, forbidden to bicycles. There is every reason to believe that restrictions like this are generally bogus, but this one is unusual in that it was actually struck down in court. Or so the story goes, anyway. Nonetheless the unwelcome signs remain, and if there's an authoritative source for the court case, I haven't found it (Update: On a great long-time Santa Cruz rider's blog I found a copy of the decision in the appeal, which confirms the openness of the road but with very specific, narrow reasoning). As for the specific restriction on bicycles, well, that just can't be right. I trundled along.

The radio tower, finally in close-up
Before you even start down Summit Road, you can see a skinny radio tower rising up in the distance. I knew the road passed by the tower, but the problem was that it never came closer. You can see it from everywhere, and it's always in the distance. It's like climbing Mount Hamilton -- you can see the Lick Observatory forever, and you just never get any closer.

Summit Road, finally in the woods
Past the tower, you finally get to the sort of rich wooded area that you hope for on these sorts of rides. The road bends around a bit and finally starts dropping -- you lose 500 feet in a mile and a half. Shortly after you pass through the signs marking the end of the bogus private road segment, the road becomes real -- paved, a line down the middle, and roughly straight, right down to Mount Madonna County Park.

White fallow deer in Mount Madonna County Park
The park itself looks like it probably has some nice trails, but I couldn't tell because they're off-limits to bikes, and my legs were shot anyway. In fact I was too exhausted to really enjoy the beauty of the park itself, although I remember the strong, very pleasant scent of pine that dominated.

I rode up to what I think is the high point in the park, where I found no view (accessible to a bike, anyway). I did, however, find a pen full of something called white fallow deer. A marker explained why this park has captive deer; apparently they were fashionable exotic pets at one point, and these animals are the descendants of some deer given by William Randolph Hearst to the estate of Henry Miller (presumably the cattle king, not the writer).

By this time the sun was heading down, and I had officially checked off the last goal of this ride. So it was time to head home. I had originally planned to ride up Uvas Road past the reservoir, and back home. But I knew that would mean a lot of up-and-down, so it would take a while. And if it got too dark and I wanted a ride, it had little cellphone coverage and was difficult to get to by car. So at this point, still in the park, I asked my wife to come and pick me up in Morgan Hill.

The intersection of Summit Road (number two)
and Mount Madonna Road (number two)
So that's the revised plan -- ride down to Morgan Hill. First, I retraced my steps out of the park, to the intersection between Mt. Madonna Road, Summit Road and Pole Line Road. This is another example of the haphazard road names around here. The road I've been on all afternoon is sometimes called Summit Road, but other times Mount Madonna Road. In fact at one point, the labels on Google Maps cycle several times through Summit Road, Mount Madonna Road and Loma Prieta Way. So the road I want here is also called Mount Madonna Road, but is perpendicular to the one I just came down. It's hard to miss, though -- a huge tree is in the middle of the intersection.

Mighty Mount Madonna Road
Mount Madonna Road (this version, anyway) finally drops off the ridge that I've been on all day. It's a skinny dirt road that drops from about 1700 feet to below 500 feet in less than three miles. I think the grade is about 8.5%, but of course I was descending so for me it was negative, and no problem. On this remote little stretch of dirt I saw no other bikes, but three cars. I hope they were sightseers and not just lost, following lines on a map that seemed like real roads.

A thin waterfall near Mount Madonna
If they were sightseeing, then this was a nice road for it, probably the prettiest little stretch on this ride. Near the top, the road is enclosed by woods and therefore permanently damp. At one point there was a stream falling down the hill in a series of waterfalls. Unfortunately most of my pictures of it were blurry in this dark little corner, but it was quite pretty.

Mount Madonna Road bottoms out on a bucolic road called Redwood Retreat, which follows a stream called  Little Arthur Creek to Watsonville Road. By the time I got to this intersection, it was 5:30 and dusk. Watsonville Road has plenty of traffic, a small shoulder, and all the cars had their lights on. Meanwhile I was drained, riding along this (slightly) rolling road with short bursts of pedaling and as much coasting as I could muster. I cursed the occasional headwind. I rolled into Morgan Hill, found a cheap taco place to grab a bite, and waited for my wife to rescue me.

In the end I was out for almost nine hours, which might be a record for me. I rode 56 miles, and the Garmin says I climbed 5300 feet. I don't know how accurate that is, but it felt like twice as much.