Monday, September 5, 2011

Santa Cruz and Mountain Charlie Road

A while back I rode my bike to Felton, with the idea that I'd take Mountain Charlie Road back home. In the event, I tuckered out and had to call for a ride. Yesterday, confronted by a beautiful day and strangely motivated by watching the Vuelta a Espana climb the comically steep Angliru, I decided to try again.

This time I hedged my bet considerably by driving to the Lexington Reservoir. This cuts 8 miles off the front and end of the ride, and eliminates a good 600 feet of climbing. I very much prefer to ride from my house, but on the other hand I've never crossed over the Santa Cruz Mountains and then made it back. So I drove to the end of the Old Santa Cruz Highway, to the parking area near the Bear Creek Road overpass.

View Mountain Charlie Road in a larger map

What with watching the Vuelta stage and being generally lethargic, I didn't get started until about 10. The sun was out in Los Gatos but it was still cool as I climbed up the Old Santa Cruz Highway to Summit Road. I took the left, and for the first time I can recall I had no excuse to stop at the Summit Store, so I zipped past and headed down the Soquel/San Jose Road toward Capitola.

Summit ridge, with the Thayer/Umunhum ridge in the background,
from the Soquel/San Jose Road.
In retrospect, this ride touched on a great deal of the history of the roads between San Jose and Santa Cruz. The Soquel/San Jose Road, for example, approximates the route of the old San Jose Turnpike, which was built in 1863 to compete with Mountain Charlie Road. But I get ahead of myself.

Capitola Beach on a gray day
The Soquel/San Jose Road drops off the ridge on nice pavement with wide turns. It would be a great ride except that it lacks shoulders and has considerable traffic. It falls for about 6 miles, then runs for another 5 flatter miles into Capitola.

As I rode into Capitola, I went from sunny skies into a gray mist near the ocean. The whole oceanfront was pleasantly busy as I rode along Cliff Drive. In particular there were a lot of surfers in the water -- I'd guess at least 100, and several times that number milling about on the beach and on the road. As it turns out, that was probably due to the surf being unusually high due to a Pacific storm.

A surfer heading out in Capitola
Surfing near Capitola
This ride along the beach was a little reward to myself. I had a good time watching the surfers and the surrounding crowds. It was a completely different in every way from the rest of the ride -- cloudy, crowded, and cool, where the rest of the ride was sunny, solitary and sweaty. Those major differences in environment give a sense of scale to the ride; when you're riding through thick forests later on, the time at the beach seems a lifetime ago.

By this time it was about 1 PM, and my thoughts turned to lunch. I had some food pellets with me, but with the whole of the waterfront available I was sure I could do better. As I rode on Murray Street I passed a place called Betty Burgers. Burgers, open tables outside, perfect. I had a great burger, sitting outside in the emerging sun to ward off the 57-degree temperatures.
The Santa Cruz  Boardwalk, from across the San Lorenzo
Fully loaded, I set off on the return trip. Following some wise advice I rode up the San Lorenzo river path to its end at the Cabrillo Highway, then took Plymouth to Emeline, under Route 1, and back to Plymouth, which turns into El Rancho and parallels I-17. After the leisurely lunch and long, cool, slow ride through town, I found the short ramps on El Rancho the most difficult climbs of the day.

El Rancho turns into Mt. Hermon Road as it crosses I-17 into Scotts Valley. I stopped at a gas station to fill up my water bottles, then headed north on Scotts Valley Drive. Where Mt. Hermon is like a highway rest stop, full of national chains and oriented toward cars, Scotts Valley Drive has the feel of the main drag through a small town.

Scotts Valley Drive meets up with Glenwood Drive, which begins a gentle climb. Apparently Glenwood Drive was the main highway between Los Gatos and Santa Cruz from 1916 through 1934, when the highway was realigned toward the current Highway 17.
Looking west from Glenwood Drive
Glenwood Drive is a very pretty road, and a gentle climb. It meets Mountain Charlie Road at about 900 feet of elevation. I knew that, very near the intersection, there was a disused tunnel entrance, but as I passed through I missed it.

Let's talk a bit about the history of Mountain Charlie Road. If you look at the history of the Bay Area, you could be forgiven for thinking that the world was created in 1848. Before that there were thousands of years of Indian inhabitants, but little change. There were decades of Spanish missions and sprawling Mexican ranchos, but the Mexican population was tiny and their lasting impact on the area was minimal. Throughout this time roads were used mostly for communication -- people waking or riding from mission to mission, for example. Think: single track.

But then came the American expansion, driven by the discovery of gold, and commerce. Commerce means wagons full of stuff to sell, and that requires wider and flatter roads. Initially road building was itself a commercial venture, and before too long we had Zacharias Jones' road, the Mountain Charlie Road, and the San Jose Turnpike. Eventually these roads would be purchased by the county and made public, and as time went by they were replaced by increasingly level and direct routes.

Mountain Charlie Road
Mountain Charlie himself was born Charles McKiernan in Ireland, and arrived in the area as a "forty-niner", shortly after the discovery of gold. A few years later he settled in the Summit area, ranching and killing off the grizzly bears that were plentiful in those days, but threatened ranchers. His legend was born when a bear turned the tables and made off with part of his forehead.

Mountain Charlie died in 1892, and his road is beginning to show signs of wear. It's a one-lane road all the way up, serving sparse houses along the way. The pavement near the bottom is especially rough (I wouldn't want to come down this way), and there are patches of sand and gravel throughout.

The lower parts of the road head steadily up at a moderate grade. It runs through a heavily wooded area punctuated by occasional houses (including one modeled on a submarine). Once you get to about 1300 feet, somewhere near Old Japanese Road, you start seeing steep pitches followed by level sections. On one of those pitches, standing on the pedals, I spun out on a sand patch. I guess it couldn't have been too steep, though, because I was able to resume.

A precarious tree.
Could this have been originally
exposed by Charlie himself?
Giant redwood on
Mountain Charlie Road
Steps off of Mountain Charlie Road
Mountain Charlie runs sporadically along a ridge that gives you alternating views east and west. After Riva Ridge Road, Mountain Charlie Road flattens out, running through heavily shaded woods to Summit. The silence is broken only by the incredible roar of nearby Highway 17.

I knew that somewhere along here I must be going by the site of Mountain Charlie's cabin and site of his fight with the bear, both marked with historical markers. I missed 'em both. I'll have to catch them the next time.

When I got to Summit, I could have crossed Highway 17 and then down the other part of Mountain Charlie Road. But I wanted to try riding through Redwood Estates instead, which meant turning left on Summit and climbing another 200 feet.

Houses in Redwood Estates are perched irregularly on the hillside cheek by jowl, as the terrain allows. They are served by a confusing network of steep, serpentine single-lane roads. Actually, the roads only look confusing on a map; once I turned off of Summit into Redwood Estates on Woolaroc Drive, it always seemed pretty obvious which way I should go. All the roads are skinny and steep, and with lots of people out and about, I was hard on the brakes the whole way.

Fixer-upper garage near Holy City
I stopped briefly at the store near the bottom of Redwood Estates, then dropped down the last hill to Holy City, on the Old Santa Cruz Highway. From there it was a short fast trip back to the car.

So now I've almost made it over and back again. At the end of the ride the Garmin read 47 miles and some 4600 feet of climbing, which probably should have been closer to 3200. By starting at the reservoir I had cut out 600 (real) feet of climbing, which is a large percentage of the total. I don't know whether I would have made it from home, but I'm close, and getting closer.

Elevation profile and 100-meter grades.
See a note about data for details

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