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.

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