Wednesday, June 6, 2012

Empire Grade

Yesterday I climbed Empire Grade for the first time.

View Empire Grade in a larger map

Empire Grade isn't the most convenient road for me. It's far away, and of course it's another climb. Until recently I couldn't manage to climb over the hills to Santa Cruz and then back again, so adding another climb on the far side was out of the question. But lately I've had more range, so I thought I'd give it a shot.

Holy Cross Church
I started out at about 9:30, and followed my normal route up Old Santa Cruz Highway, then into Capitola on the Soquel/San Jose Road. I enjoyed the breeze along the beach, and briefly watched the omnipresent surfers near Opal Cliffs. After lunch, I headed up the San Lorenzo River trail to Mission Street. High Street, which turns into Empire Grade, begins at the site of the Santa Cruz Mission, now Holy Cross Church. There's a small replica of the original mission on the site, but one thing I missed is that apparently one of the original buildings is still standing. Maybe next time.

After stopping for a few pictures, I crossed the pedestrian bridge over Route 1 and headed up the road. High Street starts climbing immediately, at a gradual grade, and quickly enters the extended grounds of UCSC. Shortly after the west entrance, the road makes a steep climb up to about 1000 feet. In fact, this turned out to be the most difficult kilometer of the ride, averaging a grade of 9%.

A monster on Bonnywood Way
At that point it levels off, until a mile later the road takes another steep climb up to 1800 feet. Along this steep stretch, on Bonnywood Way, there was a giant dragon off the side of the road. At least I think there was; perhaps I was lightheaded from the climb.

The road then levels off again until, at the intersection with Ice Cream Grade and Felton Empire Road, it begins a more gradual climb up to its peak near 2600 feet.

According to a history of roads in the Bonny Doon area, Empire Grade was constructed by the Empire Mining Company in 1872. Empire Grade was the main road, but as it's a long way down to Santa Cruz, eventually roads to Ben Lomond and Felton were built to serve the farms and ranches on the ridge.

Skyline ridge, from Empire Grade
Empire Grade offers few views until, near its highest point, the trees clear so you can see the Skyline ridge and surrounding hills. The top of Ben Lomond Mountain is occupied by some sort of prison, which may have a nice view of the bay.

I probably should have continued to the dead-end of Empire Grade, while I was here, but it was getting late and I still had a long climb ahead of me. Instead, I descended the steep and twisty Jamison Creek Road, which starts off a little rough but becomes a smooth, two-lane road. It meets up with Highway 236, which took me to Boulder Creek. After getting a drink at Johnnie's, I started up Bear Creek Road.

The Tour of California followed this same path, from the top of Empire Grade up to the top of Bear Creek Road. I watched from the top of Bear Creek Road, but seeing those guys descend Jamison Creek Road would have been a treat.

This was my first time climbing the south side of Bear Creek Road. I climbed the last part of it once when I took a wrong turn, and I've come down the road several times. Nonetheless, climbing the road was entirely unfamiliar. I was hitting the road around 5 PM, but there wasn't much traffic heading north. Still, this is a pretty lousy road to climb, with too much traffic and no shoulder. The lack of shoulder is especially troublesome because there are steep sections on which it's hard to maintain a steady line.

Once I crossed the Tour of California's KOM point, I quickly descended the other side of Bear Creek Road, and returned home the usual way, over Kennedy.

Elevation profile
Yesterday's ride was a little over 84 miles, with 7500 feet of climbing. I was out for 9 hours, and on the bike for 8. A long day, but I got to see two new climbs, which is worth it.

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