Archive for the ‘Ride reports’ Category

Bear Fire brings back memories of an epic ride

October 20, 2017

I head down upper Favre Ridge in fall 1994. Jeff Vance photo.


Back in 1994, almost 23 years to the day, I went on a ride that can only be described as “epic,” covering new roads, where the Bear Fire is located, and exploring a train tunnel from the previous century in a remote forest.

Fire fighters say the Bear Fire terrain is steep and remote. That’s an understatement. Having studied a topo map (no Internet back then), I suggested to Jeff Vance that we try riding down through Las Cumbres, a secluded housing development off Skyline Boulevard south of Castle Rock State Park.

We rode down a steep paved road and then got onto a dirt road (Favre Ridge) that was unsigned and didn’t look like it had been used in eons. At that point we were just letting gravity guide us. I figured as long as we kept riding south we’d wind up on Bear Creek Road eventually.

Jeff Vance follows on upper Favre Ridge.

The road was steep at first but then gradually got less so as we descended into the bowels of Santa Cruz Mountains, swallowed up by redwoods, oaks, manzanita and dense brush. At the time there were few houses and they were concealed up long driveways.

Eventually we wound up on Bear Creek Canyon Road, near where the Bear Fire originated, and from there climbed through the dust to Bear Creek Road.

But the fun had just begun. We continued over to Hwy 9 and rode up Zayante Road where we would search for the long lost Mountain Charlie tunnel, built for the South Pacific Coast Railroad in 1878-79. It’s not a long tunnel, but a strategic one as it dropped trains into the Zayante Creek drainage where they linked up with the Felton-Santa Cruz line.

I knew the general location of the tunnel, but finding it was no easy task. We got onto the railroad right of way that followed the creek, but it was covered with fallen trees and poison oak. We picked our way through for a mile before finding a rideable right of way deep in the redwoods.

From there the ride went smoothly (following a gentle grade) and before long we were staring at the tunnel entrance, lined with concrete and the year “1909” pressed into the arch. The tunnel was reinforced after the 1906 quake by Southern Pacific Railroad.

South Pacific right of way near Mtn. Charlie tunnel, in remarkably good shape.


We clambered into the tunnel as far as we could go and peered into a black abyss. The tunnel, and others, were blasted shut in 1942 for safety reasons after the railroad was decommissioned. A cave-in made any exploring out of the question.

Not wanting to backtrack, we followed a road uphill that eventually took us to Mountain Charlie Road. We had to ride right by several houses, but it was our lucky day.

We continued back home via Mountain Charlie Road.

Jeff checks out the tunnel entrance.


Looking back, the Las Cumbres route never became a regular ride for various reasons, mainly because it didn’t go anywhere interesting, the view was unremarkable after the first mile and it was not a “friendly” area.

The Mountain Charlie tunnel, I have read, had yet another cave-in and there is a huge slide over the right of way that makes access even more difficult than it was. With age catching up to me, it’s just as well.

The history of the South Pacific Coast Railroad tunnels has inspired me to write my second full-length novel, a continuation of my first, China Grade. The main character, after working on the transcontinental railroad, is hired to help build the Summit Tunnel (#2). The novel is called Wrights. Available in 2018 on Amazon.com.

Chestnuts worth the ride to Skyline

October 19, 2017

Chestnuts ready for the ride home. Chestnut knife shown at inset.


Although the Bear Fire is not yet out, I didn’t notice any smoke this morning, so I headed up Hwy 9 to Skyline to fetch some chestnuts.

Aside from all the garbage accumulating on the roadside, I didn’t notice anything out of place. In fact, for the first time in months, there isn’t any road work, at least not work with stoplights to control traffic.

At Skyline all I saw was a sign saying the road is closed four miles to the south. Is that due to the road repair from last winter’s slide? I figure that’s it and not the Bear Fire, although I wouldn’t recommend going that way until it’s officially extinguished.

Skyline Chestnuts is four miles north just off Skyline Boulevard, on Midpeninsula Regional Open Space District land. Follow the sign.

I had already visited last Saturday, the official opening, and noticed the trees were yet to be dropping all of their giant, prickly seed pods. Today was a different story. Peak season is upon the orchard.

I purchased three pounds along with a knife used for scoring the chestnut. What a fantastic tool! It’s a must have for anyone who likes chestnuts.

Of course, no ride to Skyline is complete without a descent on Page Mill Road. I flew down, although not nearly as fast as Jobst Brandt used to do it when he was in his prime. There was no keeping up with him.

After trying toaster oven, boiling, and steaming, we prefer steamed chestnuts. They get softer that way. The ones from Skyline are super sweet, better than the Asian variety and equal to the European, of which some of these trees are of the lineage, in addition to the North American native.

As for the Bear Fire, I once rode down from Skyline starting at Las Cumbres right into the present location of the burn. That was back in 1994. More on that ride next.

Shoulder widening a welcome addition on Watsonville Road

July 30, 2017

Widening on Watsonville Road is a welcome improvement.


I’ve never been a fan of riding on busy county roads like Watsonville Road between Morgan Hill and Hwy 152, and it looks like Santa Clara County road planners know why.

It’s narrow with no shoulders and traffic moves at the speed limit — 45 mph — which translates to 55 mph in the real world.

Imagine my surprise this morning when I saw a two-foot wide shoulder addition to each side of Watsonville Road. It’s mostly between Uvas Road and Sycamore Drive, popular routes for weekend cycling.

I’m not sure if Uvas Road got the same treatment, but from what I can find online, it’s a countywide effort. I also noticed some widening on one side of McKean Road near Oak Glen Ave.

Autonomous vehicles will one day make all this street widening unnecessary — we’ll need much better road striping — but for now it’s a welcome change. At this rate though it will be decades before all the roads are widened so, as I said, it won’t be needed as we slowly adopt autonomous vehicles that will forever make cycling safe on our busy roads.

I don’t think this is pie-in-the-sky thinking. For sure, it’s going to be much more difficult than making all commercial airlines autonomous, but it’s doable as long as people go along with the plan.

My fear is that, just like gun owners, there will be a large segment of the population that believes their personal freedoms are being robbed and they’ll swear, “over my dead body I’ll give up driving.”

I’m optimistic that this sentiment will not play out to any meaningful degree. Once people see the advantages of driving without fear on roads with smoothly flowing traffic and the ability to sit back and snooze, they’ll be on board in a heartbeat. I hope I live to see the day.

Everything is “under construction” these days

July 22, 2017

Panoramic view of Dumbarton Bridge. Will the railroad bridge ever be used?


I figured I’d ride over to Dumbarton Bridge this morning, taking my familiar route along the Sunnyvale-Mountain View-Palo Alto baylands — but things didn’t turn out that way.

Everything in the Bay Area, as we all know, is “under construction.” I’m seeing buildings being torn down and new ones go up at a dizzying pace, reshaping what used to be known as Silicon Valley. The Valley is no longer about silicon, but social media, search engines, virtual reality and iPhones.

The San Francisquito Creek Trail, starting at the Baylands Athletic Center in Palo Alto, is closed until January for flood control improvements.

I had to take one of the least desirable streets in Palo Alto, E. Bayshore Road, then north on Pulgas Avenue back to familiar territory.

After taking some pics of the Dumbarton Bridge, I decided to make my way back on the north side of Hwy 84, not quite sure what it offered in the way of a side road. There’s a dirt road for a ways, but you’ll need to get back on Hwy 84, which has a wide shoulder.

In a short distance you can turn right at the light onto a path that dumps into the Facebook parking lot. I wound my way through here and decided to check out the famous sign at the main entrance.

Sure enough, a steady stream of Facebook users had the same idea, so I waited for my time to snap a photo. That sign is nothing more than the old Sun Microsystems sign with some panels slapped over it.

Facebook. It’s a love-hate relationship for many people.

As I headed back to Menlo Park and Palo Alto, it was hard to believe that start-up Facebook occupied the old Avocet headquarters on University Avenue once upon a time. Not the building owned by Palo Alto Bicycles, but the one right across the street. It’s a small world.

At least one thing hasn’t changed — the charm of riding through tree-lined streets in Menlo Park and Palo Alto. It brought back memories. Sigh.

I took the always popular Bryant Street — Ellen Fletcher’s legacy — we call Bike Boulevard and headed home through the remnants of Silicon Valley on Central Expressway.

Cyclists outnumber cars on Saturday’s ride

July 16, 2017

First of three bridges over Purisima Creek on the descent.


Is it possible? Cyclists outnumber cars in the Santa Cruz Mountains on any given Saturday?

It’s true and the disparity grows by leaps and bounds, at least based upon 40 years of personal experience.

I saw bikes everywhere on my ride up Kings Mountain Road, down Purisima Creek Road, up Tunitas Creek Road. I saw five road bikes riding UP Purisima Creek Road. Good luck with that.

Decades ago I could ride up that logging road, but I was young and the road was in perfect shape. Now my legs can’t generate the watts needed to make it up the steep climb (18 percent in places) on loose dirt.

It wasn’t just cyclist on the trail, but hikers by the dozens, their cars spilling out from the puny parking lot and lining the paved road on the coast side of Purisima Creek.

As I climbed Tunitas Creek Road into the sweltering heat I saw more dozens of riders, most going up. Gone are the days when I was the only one out there along with Jobst Brandt and friends.

On the descent of Kings Mountain Road I saw a lone cyclist riding uphill, followed by six cars! The driver behind the cyclist no doubt lacks experience driving in the mountains. On that straightaway it would be easy to get by. When I encounter bike followers I slow to a crawl on straightaways. It doesn’t take long for the driver to get the message it’s OK to pass.

The good news is that Purisima Creek Road has been cleared of several mud slides and a road bike can get down it without dismount.

Of course, the coast weather left no doubt as to why it’s the place to be on a hot day. Glorious.

Red hot pokers, or torch lily, grow near the coast. They’re native to Africa.

Mt. Umunhum Road paving the way to summit

July 9, 2017

Mt. Umunhum Road at Hicks Road shows signs of paving for the grand opening in September.


After a 37-year wait, it looks like I’ll live to experience the ride to the Mt. Umunhum summit, legally.

NOTE: The grand opening event is not open for bicycles. Access to the mountain is restricted to buses, orchestrated by MROSD. Bicycle access begins on Sept. 18.

Mark your calendars for Sept. 16-17. Midpeninsula Regional Open Space District plans a grand opening event, reservations required.

Today I rode by and it’s a good sign to see the road closed for repaving. It was badly broken up in some sections and not at all fun where the potholes were hidden in the tree shade higher up.

From what I’ve seen in recent photos, the view will be nothing like what I encountered back in the 1980s when the air base occupied the summit, looking like a ghost town. Buildings have been razed, the land returned to nature, with the exception of the concrete obelisk.

There’s a lot more that could be done up there to improve access and connect roads, but this is a start. I don’t expect to be around to see those connections blessed by the MROSD, but at least future generations can enjoy the rides to more distant roads.

Jobst Brandt, who grew up in Palo Alto, began riding up here in 1957 and never stopped until poor health got in the way. He welcomed dozens of riders to start the journey from his house to see the mountain, myself included, and now having seen it up close we are all appreciative that the mountain is finally open for public use.

Gazos Creek Road turns to dust

July 2, 2017

The always wet section of Hwy 236.


As I was riding on Hwy 236 across wet pavement and through soupy fog, I wondered if Gazos Creek Road would be muddy? I needn’t have worried.

There’s something about this stretch of Hwy 236 about two miles off Hwy 9. It’s the wettest place in Big Basin State Park. It must be a combination of the altitude and location.

As I rode on the little-used North Escape Road, I saw an unbelievable sight — another cyclist, coming up. I think that has happened maybe two times in all the years I’ve been riding here.

It should come as no surprise though, because the park was already packed with cars at 9:30 upon my arrival. It must be the 4th of July holiday crowd. In my four decades riding here, I have noticed a dramatic increase in traffic in recent years.

That’s a mighty big tree section a couple miles from park headquarters.


Fortunately the crowds had no intention of cycling on Gazos Creek Road, although I did see a total of six riders on the eight miles of dirt from park headquarters to the paved Gazos Creek Road — a record.

This being July, I was not surprised that the road had become a sand pit in many sections. Par for the course. With adroit bike handling I managed to avoid most of the dusty sections. It stayed that way for the first six miles before the big descent at Sandy Point.

Gazos Creek Road in the narrows after the steep descent.


I didn’t see any serious road damage from the past winter’s heavy rains. A few places had been cleaned up, but even they didn’t look bad. I think the park rangers do most of the maintenance, although San Mateo County claims the road at the Santa Cruz County line, about two miles out from park headquarters. It’s closed, with gates at both ends, but since most of the road is in the state park, the county hasn’t made any effort to chase away cyclists.

While the sand pits made riding less than ideal, the descent went without a hitch, the loads of rock ballast dumped here in years past now a memory. I still see short stretches of pavement in steep spots, laid down by a landowner who needed to transport some particularly heavy items to his property.

Back on pavement, I glided down the road following the delightful Gazos Creek. A half mile before the right turn to Cloverdale Road I passed a mudslide that required heavy equipment to fix the road.

Gazos Creek Road did not escape the winter’s wrath.


As I continued up Pescadero Road in pleasantly cool weather and high overcast some youths invited me to try blackberries they were picking on the side of the road. I took them up on their offer and we got to talking about blackberries. I learned that there is a variety, Himalaya (5 leaves in a cluster), that is crowding out the native California blackberries (3 leaves in a cluster). They showed me the Himalaya, a much heartier looking plant that yields a lot of berries.

I checked my blackberries growing in the garden and determined they’re the California variety.

Some days the weather and physical abilities click and all is right with the world. Today was one of those days.

Canada Geese, Gooses, Goose, whatever, pay a visit

June 26, 2017

Canada Goose flock makes way for me and the bike on the Alviso levy.


Did you know the Canada Goose lives between 10 and 24 years in the wild? These guys are spending their summer vacation out on the Alviso levies. They’re usually none too happy to see me.

Zayante Road digs out

June 24, 2017

Clever! Zayante Store’s biodiesel fuel pump has been put to good use. Guess what?


One of the roads hammered in this winter’s rains was Zayante, a secluded route that goes from Felton to Summit Road. I decided to check it out, knowing that the road is open.

I came in at Quail Hollow Road, my usual route these days. I saw several locations lower down where the road has been eroded, but it got worse just past the fire station deep in the redwoods that marks the last of the steep climbing.

I had already seen numerous places where the road is caving in during my climb from Zayante Market. But just before the hard right turn that climbs steeply, the place where Zayante Creek crosses under the road, the hillside on my left had slid out. Then higher up I saw more evidence of mud on the road. It must have been quite a mess.

Residents have maintained their sense of humor despite roads collapsing around them.

I’ve been riding Zayante Road every year since 1980 and this is the worst I’ve seen it after winter rains.

I continued on up Summit Road with the intention of riding down Black Road and home via Lake Ranch Road, which passes by McKenzie Reservoir on its way to Sanborn Park.

However, I never would have thought that trail could be closed from the winter rain.

I’ve also been riding here since 1980 and never had any problems with the road sliding out. The signs said otherwise. I’m certain I could have gotten through, but decided to continue down Black Road and take Los Gatos Creek Trail.

Skyline Boulevard, Hwy 35, is still closed. I wonder when it will be fixed? While it was a bad winter, the winter of 82-83 was equally bad and I don’t recall as many roads being closed. I lay partial blame on the lack of maintenance. If culverts aren’t cleared, bad things happen.

Lake Ranch Road closed? That’s what the sign says.

Sinkholes and the like

June 14, 2017

One of my favorites. Ken Kesey got to know this road pretty well.


Saturday’s ride brought refreshing, cool air and clear skies, the kind of weather cyclists dream about in the Santa Cruz Mountains.

I stayed away from sinkholes and other unseen hazards to complete my ride.