Distance: 30 miles out and back
Elevation gain: 1470 ft
This ride is one of a trio of East Bay rides that are similar in general contour: Calaveras, Palomares Road, and Morgan Territory Road. They’re all about-five-mile climbs, at first gentle, then moderate, up through pretty wooded canyons along creeks. To tell them apart: Palomares is the simplest and has the most domesticated ambiance; Calaveras is the easiest (though none is Mt. Diablo hard), has no backside descent, has the best open hillside views, is the only one of the three that has great riding contiguous to it, and is ridable only on weekends (because of car traffic); and Morgan Territory has the roughest and narrowest pavement, the best isolation, and the best backside descent. Morgan Territory’s pavement is poor on the north side of the summit, which doesn’t bother the ascent but puts a damper on coming back down that way. If you’re riding on a weekend and are just going to ride to the summit and back, do Calaveras. If you want to climb to a summit, descend the back side, then turn around and ride back, do Palomares. And if you’re in for a bigger adventure (or a BART ride), do Morgan Territory.
Calaveras Road is, most of the time, unridable. Calaveras Road is now an alternative route for traffic on the South Bay freeways during commuter hours, so you can expect to meet literally hundreds of cars on a small, twisty road then. In addition, during working hours an aggregate plant fills the first 3 miles of the ride with huge, noisy, dusty gravel trucks. Therefore, this is perhaps the only ride in Bestrides.org where I tell you, unless you want to ride it before 7 AM, ride this road only on weekends. On Saturday and Sunday, the road is transformed into a recreational bike path. You’ll see upwards of 80 bikes, many of them hybrids or other strollers. One rider said to me of Calaveras, “On the weekends we own it!” You’ll meet 20-25 cars, but for 4/5 of the route either the road is very wide for a two-lane or you can see them coming from afar or both.
Calaveras Road (“skulls road” in Spanish) is an absolutely delightful ride (hence the 80 bikes). It’s scenic as hell (half oak-canopied creek canyon climb, half open, grassy hillside with big vistas). It’s remarkably easy for a climb—1400 ft of vert in 14 miles—and it has the best, most interesting road contour in the East Bay—better than Mt. Diablo, Mt. Hamilton, or Palomares. In addition, the road surface for the first half of the ride is glass (they redid it 2017-2018) and the second half is excellent chipseal. As if that weren’t enough, the route touches two excellent, challenging add-ons: Felter Rd. and Welch Creek Rd.—see Adding Miles for details on both.
(To see an interactive version of the map/elevation profile, click on the ride name, upper left, wait for the new map to load, then click on the “full screen” icon, upper right.)
Park at the northern end of Calaveras Rd. There’s a lot of good dirt shoulder in all directions. Much like the Palomares ride in the beginning, you start out fairly level for about 3 miles. The scenery in these first miles is ordinary, with one exception: right past the start of the ride you pass a stretch of road lined (on your R) by the rare and striking cork oak. The gnarly bark is unmistakable.
Next you do about 4 miles of constantly varied, moderate climbing (never over 6%) through shady oaks with steadily improving views of the creek canyon on your L, up to the reservoir level, then climb some more to get up above it. If you notice someone with a spotting scope, stop and ask them what they’re looking at—there’s a pair of nesting peregrine falcons across the canyon.
Once past the unnoticeable summit, you roll up and down and back and forth below the ridge line through patches of oaks and stretches of open grassland with fine views of the reservoir basin on 3 sides of you, until a very short, steep drop to a dead end at Felter Rd. That last short drop isn’t particularly fun, and it’s a real grind coming back, so unless you have a strong Zigarnik I give you permission to skip it.
The ride back is just as good. The first 8 miles of rollers gains about 600 ft, so don’t exhaust yourself on the ride out. After that, it’s a very nice 3-mile descent that’s of a pleasant pitch. If there’s one knock against this ride, it’s that the descent is so mellow the thrill factor is low—I rarely got over 25 mph. Once you’re off the hill, 3 miles of near-imperceptible descending (and more gravel trucks) take you back to your car.
If by chance you get to the turn-around T and are desperate for water, turn R down what is still Calaveras and shortly you will hit Ed R. Levin County Park, which has drinking fountains.
Adding miles: This is another Best of the Bay leg, so you’ve got rides from our list to the north and to the south.
Going north, six miles down very trafficky, narrow Niles Canyon Rd. takes you to the turn-around point for the Palomares Road ride.
Our ride’s turn-around point is at Felter Rd., the northern half of the Sierra Road/Felter Road ride. Felter to the Sierra Road summit is a great out-and-back, more built-up with hobby farms than Calaveras and much more work ascending (1400 ft of vert in 6 miles, vs. 1400 ft in 14 miles), with several 8-10% pitches and some moments of 11-14%. For that reason the descent is literally hair-raising, a thrill ride if there ever was one. For details on Felter, see the Sierra Road/Felter Road ride.
“Nibbles,” a Bestrides reader, tipped me off to Welch Creek Road, a 4.7-mile (one way) out-and-back beast on your L off Calaveras, just north of Geary Road. It’s a gorgeous, delightfully gnarly climb. The scenery is prettier than Calaveras, and the road is half the size, so you’re right in the midst of it as you crawl up a narrow creek canyon. Check out Nibbles’s excellent description below. It’s absurdly steep—c. 2000 ft in 4.7 miles, which pencils out to about 10% average, with plenty of 18% stuff. Probably the hardest 4 miles of climbing I’ve ever done—took me almost an hour. Much of the ride down is too steep to be fun, but the flatter parts are as playful as a young colt. A must-do ride at least once. To my surprise, there are a few houses at the end of Welch Creek Rd, so a car or two is possible but statistically unlikely. One reader differs, because there seem to be popular hiking trailheads accessed via WCR.
Excellent coverage of the area’s rides. I have read these pages on the calaveras and felter/sierra/hamilton roads with pleasure since I am very familiar with them (calaveras on several bike rides and hamilton on car and hikes). I would like to ride up the formidable Sierra someday. I stopped at the summit riding up from Felter as mentioned here, partly owing to concerns regarding the steep descent.
Finally did this entire ride. Really enjoyed it. Great in Feb. when the hills are green. Last time was out there they were brown and I had already ridden quite a way to get there so I only went part way up. This time I drove and parked. Parking in downtown Sunol has its advantages. No trucks on Sundays but quite a few cars and motorcycles.
The Palomares ride you compare it to is my main workout ride, and I really like Morgan Territory too. Obviously I’m an east bay guy and don’t stray too far from home. This is quite a bit easier than going up the back side of Palomares, which is a really dangerous road, due to the narrowness, traffic and loose gravel.
You’d know better than I–I’ve done Palomares perhaps 3 times–but I’ve never had any problems with either traffic or gravel anywhere on it.
Just rode both Calaveras and Palomares as part of the Primavera century (I rode the 85m route). My first time doing either of those rodes. I would rate Calaveras as the highlight of the whole ride. It had near-zero traffic on a Sunday.
i would add that welch creek road, is a fine addition to the calaveras road ride, it is beautiful, intimate, and so narrow you can touch the ferns on the hillside. The first 2/3rds of the climb are completely shaded, and run parallel to a (seasonal) brook, and then once out of the canyon, the views open up tremendously. Pavement is pristine and traffic is almost non-existent. Only possible downside is the grade that can hit 20% for some stretches, but that only means you slow down to a pace that you can actually notice the flowers that line the slopes in spring, or the rusty maple leafs in the fall.
As a descent it’s not too bad given the steepness, because it is mostly straight, but it is something you endure rather than enjoy. But totally worth it for the climb!
Thanks for the tip. I did the ride on your recommendation, and very glad I did. I know what you mean about the 20% descents, but there are some flatter stretches where the ride back is delightful.
does that mean that this ride is pretty much kaput, since the blockage runs from the north to the south on calavera for a few miles, in the middle of Jay’s layout?
No, Calaveras can still be ridden from the south end for 7 miles before encountering the road closure—the nearly flat 7 miles.
I rode this yesterday, and would like to emphatically second the suggestion to try Welch Creek Rd. It’s a beast of a climb—known to sadists throughout the Bay—but the steepness comes and goes in a stair-step fashion that allows a bit of recovery and keeps the climb varied. The scenery is incredible, narrow and dense canyon at first but then grassy hillside with sweeping views.
I would be very, very cautious on the Welch Creek descent. Blind corners abound, and the steepness makes it difficult to control your speed. The road is one narrow lane, and cars drive in the center of it. Although it was a holiday, I encountered about 5 cars over the course of the climb and descent. Some honk their horn as they go around corners. I must say though: when you can see the road ahead of you and can descend with confidence, it’s an absolute hoot.
I wonder if the traffic was “although” it was a holiday, or because it was a holiday.
You say the traffic might be because instead of despite it’s being the weekend. It’s quite likely because. Welch Creek Rd. is the access to the parking for several trailheads in the northern section of Sunol Regional Wilderness. If you’re into hiking as well as biking, I highly recommend Sunol, especially in the springtime—one of my favorite destinations in the East Bay.
The repaving has made the shoulder drop off 8-10 inches in sections. Combine that with large trucks from the aggregate plant blasting by and it becomes very scary in the initial section. The upper portion quiets down but don’t expect car-free. We combined this with the Iron Horse Trail and Foothill Dr for a 60-mile out-and-back. I am curious if it would be calmer coming from the Milpitas side. It’s not a ride I would do again unless I drove and parked my car well up the road, beyond the gravel pits. Thanks for the Welch Creek suggestion.
I’m guessing the traffic from the aggregate plant varies from slight to awful, depending on what projects are underway. You can certainly drive past the plant and park (you won’t lose anything precious), and it would certainly be quieter from the other end.
Rode this from north to south today (Monday) at 3:30pm. PLEASE BE CAREFUL, especially around the one-lane section by the reservoir. 99.9% of the car traffic was heading north (towards Sunol/Pleasanton) and they made the road basically un-rideable for folks who value their lives. Unless you have a hefty life insurance and/or no fear of death, I would retire Calaveras Rd. as a ride unless you can be certain it will be car-free or close to it. 90% of the drivers take the blind turns too tight and they seem to think this is a one-way road. As beautiful as this road is, be sure the traffic will be light or you will find yourself in a death trap.
I hope it was just the time of day, 3:30-4:00 on the Monday after Easter. Would love to hear about from others about when it is safer. Hopefully no one ever experiences the traffic conditions I did. Close to 100 cars, with a handful of truly reckless wannabe racers skidding into the turns.
I’m sorry, but (the new traffic on Calaveras) is true. I’ve done Calaveras Road 3 times since it was reopened in January 2019. First time, in January, was still acceptable, although daunting: going towards Felter Road, I saw hundreds of cars coming towards me, and I knew I’d have to deal with that traffic on the way back. But this was still mild. Fast forward a few months later, late May 2019, during the week around 3.30 pm, an ocean of cars, worse, a traffic jam on Calaveras Road. Can you imagine, a traffic jam on Calaveras Road? It occurs at the beginning of Calaveras, where it meets 680. There’s a stop sign, and when I rode towards Milpitas, there is 1 to 1.5 *MILES* of cars bumper to bumper. I decided to give up and do Welch Creek Road. I had to park my bike on the side of the road, because there were so many cars coming towards me it took 5 minutes for me to basically cross the road…
It’s heart-breaking to see that traffic has killed this wonderful ride. Perhaps other riders have done it on a weekend, but I doubt it’s that much better.
If you value your life, never ride this after 2 pm on a weekday.
They paved paradise and put up a parking lot. Damn.
Unfortunately, I think GPS apps are now diverting northbound traffic onto Calaveras Road when there are slowdowns on the 680.
This weekend Google Maps diverted me to this road to avoid a wreck. I wasn’t the only one, there were hundreds of cars. The whole time I was thinking, “This would be a perfect road to ride on without traffic.” I saw one cyclist traveling south.
I wonder if this is a regular occurrence now.
I’ve heard this from a number of riders now, so it must be the New Normal. Tragedy. Another rider reported that he rode Calaveras at 6 PM and “probably had ~70 cars pass (him) heading North, usually in clumps of 5-10. That volume died down to more like 10 cars total by the time (he) headed south an hour or so later.” So an early-morning or late-evening ride might still be possible.
This ride is still great on a weekend. Rode it on a Sunday (yesterday) and traffic was pretty minimal.
Rode last weekend (7/13/19) from the north end of Calavaras onto Felter up to the Sierra Road intersection. Very nice ride. I counted a bit over 30 cars in both directions on Calavaras, most of them on the busier north end, so eminently rideable on the weekend. The Felter leg definitely makes it a bit more of a workout while only adding about 7 miles total.
Did Welch Creek Road. The third mile averaged 15%+ with a steady pitch at 18%+. I ran into two vehicles on the way up, which tempered my enthusiasm on the descent—a few blind turns where you don’t want to surprised on a narrow single lane road. Anyone who likes to climb and lives out here should try it at least once.
So there must be a stretch of just 12% then.
I like to loop Calaveras counter-clockwise via Niles Canyon and Milpitas-Berryessa Streets on the weekends. Bay Area traffic kills both Calaveras and Niles Canyon during the weekdays, but on an early weekend morning both roads are relatively serene.
I start at the south side ascent. If you’re rolling by 8 AM, there’s almost no traffic from there to just before 680. Just after you cross under the overspass, there’s also a little shop at the intersection of Paloma/Niles Canyon and Pleasanton Sunol Road where you can recharge with coffee and snacks (unsure if cash only though).
Niles Canyon is a fast two-lane highway with little or no shoulder, but the canyon is quite pretty. There is a slight negative grade in the westward direction, so you should have little to no trouble keeping 17-20 mph here. If you’re here early enough, westward traffic is pretty light, and drivers are usually courteous. I wouldn’t recommend trying Niles Canyon eastward, though, as the slight grade will make it an unpleasant grind with all of the cars whizzing by.
Once you’re off Niles Canyon, there are no great options for getting back to the start. I ride south on Mission for 7-ish miles, then turn left onto Paseo Padre until it turns into Warren and dives under 680. From there it’s another short stretch through big and busy Warm Springs Blvd, then left on Scott Creek back under 680. Fly down Park Victoria Drive, make a left on Evans for a final bit of rollers, and you’re back at the start of Calaveras. This bit is nothing special in terms of scenery, but it’s mostly quiet in terms of traffic besides Mission and Warm Springs Blvd.
The loop described above is 37.5 miles with roughly 3,600 feet of climbing.
I agree with you on the Eastbound portion of Niles Canyon Rd. I think it is a death trap and refuse to go Eastbound beyond Palomares Rd.
Calaveras Rd reminds me of the road to Hana in Maui. It is absolutely stunning and is now my favorite ride in the bay.
As a former commuter who used to drive (motorcycle) Calaveras as a way around 680 traffic, I totally agree it’s a weekend-only ride. I make a 57-mile loop of it counterclockwise from Union City. I ride to Milpitas and up Calaveras. Then turn left at the Felter road fork to hit “THE WALL” which is a real PITA (pain in the ass–ed.) but it’s short and once past it you are rewarded with the winding and often fast miles along Calaveras reservoir. The scenery is fabulous. I’ve seen bald eagles and even had an interesting encounter with a mountain lion who was as surprised as I was when I came around the bend. Stop in Sunol for lunch or just keep going through Niles Canyon. I call it 9 miles of smiles to Niles for a beer before the last 6 miles home. One of my favorite east bay rides.
I did the ride Sunday 5/24/2020. I was there at 8 am on a Sunday and it was great—barely any cars, no trucks. This road is split by the Santa Clara/Alameda County border. Beautiful new pavement on the Alameda side, older but still great on the Santa Clara side. By the time I was getting back to my car the road was filling up with cars and bad drivers passing bicyclists in the wrong spots. Do yourself a favor: go before 9:00AM.
Plenty of deer. On the way back nearly rode over a baby rattlesnake chilling in the shade in the middle of the road.
Went up Welch Creek yesterday and can confirm there is no fire damage, on or visible from the road. Also met no cars. The Calaveras leg itself (from Milpitas) had 2 cars total for the entire out and back, but there is visible fire damage from the Alameda county line to the summit. North of the summit is still unscathed.
I’m not sure which day of the week you rode Calaveras, but I’ve heard that the pandemic has reduced traffic on the freeways so much that traffic overflow onto Calaveras is way down, so it’s probably ridable on weekdays again.
I rode Calavaras on Friday, 10/15/21. I started from the W. Dublin BART station at around 7:05am and got on Calaveras a little before 8am. Once I passed the quarry the coast was clear. One car passed me heading south right after I passed the Sunol park entrance on Geary Rd. After that it was empty until I passed another cyclist heading north after I crossed into Santa Clara county. I finished my ride at the Milpitas BART station and rode BART back to Oakland. I’ve done this route 4 times now since October of 2020 and only once on a Saturday. I encountered more cyclists and just one car by the reservoir on that particular Saturday morning. A few cars heading to Sunol park but that wasn’t a surprise for a weekend.
Even at 8am on a Sunday, February 6, 2022, Calaveras road southbound was incompatible with human life. Drivers were doing 80mph in sports cars. There’s no shoulder. Like others have said, it would be amazing without cars, but it’s way too sketchy now. I’ll stick to Palomares.
Just got finished riding Calaveras Road for the first time in a couple of years and was met by a wall of north-bound commuter traffic on 3.2.22 (Wed.) at around 4 pm. It was a very unsafe situation for any south-bound traffic, auto or bicycle.