Calaveras Road

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

Note 6/19: Several riders have alerted me that Calaveras Road is now an alternative route for traffic on the South Bay freeways during commuter hours and should be considered unridable at those times.

Calaveras Road (“skulls road” in Spanish) has the best, most interesting road contour in the East Bay—better than Mt. Diablo, better than Mt. Hamilton.  It’s like the Palomares Road ride on steroids—same concept but longer, harder, and wilder.  Instead of going through manicured hobby farms, it spends most of its time in undeveloped country, the first half climbing up through an oaky wooded draw and the second half rolling along an open, grassy sidehill with big views across Calaveras Reservoir.

This is another of those rides where you start at the beginning of the road and ride until the road ends, then turn around and ride back.  There’s something so tidy about that.   It isn’t hard—1400 ft vert in 14 miles.  And if you want harder, there are two excellent add-ons: the 6-mile climb up Felter Rd. (moderate to hard), and the 4.7-mile Welch Creek Rd. spur (brutal)—see Adding Miles for both.

For further discussion of how this ride compares with Palomares Road, and with Morgan Territory Road, which it also 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.  Those first 3 miles are a busy working road, heavily trafficked by huge trucks from the sand and gravel plant about 2 miles in, but once past the plant the traffic should dwindle to next to nothing and the riding and scenery are all excellent for the rest of the route.

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, then roll up and down and back and forth below the ridge line until a very short 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.  The minor flaw in this paradise is the road surface, which is never bad but has a lot of fore-and-aft cracks filled with dribble tar.  This road is almost carless—I met 5 cars in 28 miles once past the sand and gravel plant—so you’ll be tempted to get cocky on the descent and start taking the whole road.  Do not do this—I promise you, you will meet at least one car on that descent.  Once you’re off the hill, 3 miles of near-imperceptible descending (and more gravel trucks) take you back to your car.


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 details on Felter, see the Sierra Road/Felter Road ride.


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.

Welch Creek Road

Welch Creek Road

19 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.

  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.

    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.

  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.

  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!

    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.

  5. 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.

    1. Jack Rawlins Post author

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

  6. 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.

    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.

  7. 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.

  8. 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.

    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.

  9. Joe

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


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