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.