Calaveras Road

Distance: 30 miles out and back
Elevation gain: 1470 ft

This 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.

For discussion of how this ride compares with Palomares Road and Morgan Territory Road, which it resembles, see the introduction to Morgan Territory Road.


(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.

View from Calaveras Rd.

View from the Calaveras Rd. ascent

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.

View from Felter Road: the Calaveras ride rolls along the hillside to the left of the reservoir

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.

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The Calaveras climb

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.

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Welch Creek Road

“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.

Welch Creek Road

Welch Creek Road

23 thoughts on “Calaveras Road

  1. pravn

    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.

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  2. tkspitzer

    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.

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    1. Jack Rawlins Post author

      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.

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  3. oakland-17

    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.

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  4. nibbles

    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!

    Reply
    1. Jack Rawlins Post author

      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.

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  5. luis

    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?

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    1. Jack Rawlins Post author

      No, Calaveras can still be ridden from the south end for 7 miles before encountering the road closure—the nearly flat 7 miles.

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  6. Thomas E.

    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.

    Reply
    1. Jack Rawlins Post author

      I wonder if the traffic was “although” it was a holiday, or because it was a holiday.

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      1. Phillip G

        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.

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  7. Randy D.

    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.

    Reply
    1. Jack Rawlins Post author

      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.

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  8. Alex

    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.

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    1. Alex

      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.

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    2. JP

      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.

      Reply
  9. Caleb

    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.

    Reply
    1. Jack Rawlins Post author

      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.

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  10. Joe

    This ride is still great on a weekend. Rode it on a Sunday (yesterday) and traffic was pretty minimal.

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  11. David

    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.

    Reply
    1. David

      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.

      Reply

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