Category Archives: SF Bay

Del Puerto Canyon Road

Distance: 49 miles out and back
Elevation gain: 3200 ft (from RWGPS)

This is another of those “best in the area” rides—not a life-changing ride but one worth doing if you’re in the neighborhood.  It’s in the midst of a network of southeast Bay Area roads that cyclists ride all the time and which I find sterile and barren: Mines, San Antonio Valley, Tassajara, Highland, Altamont Pass.  All rolling grassy hills.  But in the midst of this desert is Del Puerto Canyon Road.

On a map it looks like it would be featureless like all the others, but it’s through a little canyon of considerable charm.   It winds niftily along a little creek (dry in summer), which means riparian plant life, canyon walls, lots of turns, and some shade.   It’s also predominantly next-to-flat  (the first 16 miles average 1-2%, and almost all the elevation gain is in the two miles before the summit), which the others aren’t, so it’s ideal for a day when you don’t want to work.   Where RWGPS gets that elevation gain total, I don’t know.  You can in fact control the effort precisely—the pitch goes from flat to imperceptible to moderate to steep, and you can just turn around when you’re worked as hard as you want to.

In addition, DPCR has one virtue that no other ride in Bestrides can claim: it’s 50 feet off Hwy 5, so from now on when you’re making that tedious drive from SoCal to NorCal or vice versa you can pull off midway and do a refreshing little out-and-back on the bike.

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Purissima Creek Road

Distance: 8.3 miles one way
Elevation gain: 550 ft

The San Francisco Peninsula has a spine running down its center.  On the east side of the spine is Palo Alto, Silicon Valley, Stanford, and a crush of people.  On the west side is a lot of deep, dark woods, open rolling hillsides sloping to the ocean, and the laid-back hamlets of Half Moon Bay and Pescadero.  It’s one of my favorite areas of California, and the stretch of Hwy 1 along there (Half Moon Bay to Santa Cruz) is second only to Mendocino in my book.  There are few roads on that western slope, but what’s there is great riding.  Bestrides has two rides in the area, this one and Pescadero/Tunitas Creek Road.  P/TCR is a epic adventure; this one is a little jewel.

This is an easy, perfect little rambling climb and descent that winds sweetly through all the classic features of the region: small, hand-tended fields of row crops set off by the local black earth, unpretentious horse or dairy farms, rolling coastal hills, eucalyptus groves, and a few redwoods.  The tiny road’s contour is constantly varied and interesting, the road surface is good, and there’s nothing up there except a few homes and  the largely unknown Purissima Redwoods Open Space Preserve, so you should have the place to yourself.  It rides equally well in either direction (a bit harder clockwise).  The route is one continuous road, but it has a different name at each end—it’s Purissima Creek Rd. at the south end, Higgins Canyon Rd. at the other.  Midway through the ride you pass by the Preserve, a nice place to hike if you brought walking shoes.  It’s a little harder than Mapmyride thinks it is (I clocked 1010 ft of vert), and you’ll do one noticeable climb, but it’s still about as easy as it gets.

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Mt. Hamilton

Distance: 36 miles out and back
Elevation gain: 4750 ft

(A Best of the Best ride)

(Note 2021: Lick Observatory is closed due to Covid, though there reportedly is a water refill source near the gate.)

This is a grande dame of a ride, one of the three iconic climbs in the Bay Area—Hamilton, Mt. Tam, and Diablo.  It’s quite long—18.2 miles one way, all but a mile or so significantly up.  It’s much more sustained climbing than either of the other two icons, and it’s considerably over our 100 ft/mile benchmark for climbing difficulty.  Still, it’s easier than the numbers make it look.  When they built the Lick Observatory at the summit, starting in 1876, they needed to haul massive equipment up the road by mule, so they had to make the road at a shallow enough pitch that the mules could handle it.  So it’s a constant 5-7%—not a moment of 8% in the whole 36 miles.  And there are two nice descents along the way up to rest your legs.  Nevertheless, it’s work, just because there’s so much of it. You’ll be climbing, with two brief breaks, for something like 3 hours.

The route is all through pretty East Bay oak-strewn hills, and the road contour is constantly rewarding (endless serpentining) after the first couple of miles.  The vistas of San Jose, the southern end of SF Bay, and lands to the south start out grand and get more incredible as you ascend.  The descent used to be hampered by poor pavement, but the road from the observatory to Grant Park has just (in 2021) been repaved and now it’s all flawless and world-class.  And the observatory at the top is simply fascinating. All in all, a bucket-list ride, marred only by the fact that 16 miles of essentially unaltered 6% climbing gets a little monotonous.

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Morgan Territory Road

Distance: 15 miles one way
Elevation gain: 1460 ft

(A Best of the Best ride)

This is one of my favorite rides, in part because it’s less well-known (and so less trafficked) than the nearby icons (Diablo, Hamilton).   It has an absurdly pleasing profile: a mellow gently rolling warm-up through picturebook hobby farms, a just-long-enough, just-steep-enough stair-step climb up through dense woods, followed by a Best-of-the-Best descent that will make the hair on the back of your neck stand up.

It’s one of a trio of East Bay rides that are similar in general contour: Palomares, Calaveras, and Morgan Territory.  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.

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Mt. Diablo

Distance: 24.4 miles out and back
Elevation gain: 3580 ft

(A Best of the Best ride)

Mt. Diablo is another of the three iconic Bay Area climbs.  It’s less tranquil than Mt. Hamilton and less scenic than Mt. Tam, but it’s grand nonetheless.  No other ride gives you such a distinct sense of “climbing a mountain.”  It’s a long climb but never brutal until the last 100 yards.  It’s an iconic ride, and there isn’t a serious cyclist in the Bay Area who hasn’t done it, many times.  The view from the top is a tourist attraction, and for good reason—they say on a clear day a person looking north and east can see further than from any other spot on the planet except Kilimanjaro.  You can see the mountains around Lake Tahoe.

That being said, it’s not a ride I do for the scenery, though some love it.  The foliage is standard East Bay hill shrub and grass, and the vistas, while large, are mostly of East Bay urban sprawl.  There are nice wildflower blooms in season.

The ride is approachable from the north, via North Gate Rd., or the south, via South Gate Rd., and they’re both supposed to be good routes—the north route being steeper and shadier—but the south route is the preferred one and it’s the only one I’ve ever done, both ascending and descending.  The first half of the descent (from the summit to the Ranger Station) is as good as anything you’ll ever do—if you manage the traffic.

Mt. Diablo, as much as any ride in Bestrides, is affected by traffic.  Diablo is a magnet for tourists, hikers, mountain bikers, and rock climbers—and their cars.  On summer weekends, the place is a zoo.  If you were ever going to get up early and be on the bike by 7 am (or call in sick and ride on a weekday), this is the time.  In the early morning it’s like the road is closed to cars…and in fact it may well be, since there’s a gate across the road that’s typically closed at night (the park “opens” at 8 am). Riding this ride with no or very few cars triples the pleasure, and changes the descent from good to grand.   Despite the crush, the hill is very bike-friendly—there are signs at most blind curves reading “Do not pass bikes on blind curves,” for instance.

There is also the weather to consider.  The summit can be foggy, windy, and cold even when the weather at the base is benign.  The last time I rode Diablo, it was sunny, still, and 67 degrees at the bottom and 47 degrees, with a blasting wind and freezing white-out fog, at the top.   I took more clothes than I thought I’d need, and still froze.    This doesn’t mean you shouldn’t ride in such conditions—cold and fog keep the car tourists and hikers away, so on that 47-degree day I never saw a car in my lane during the entire descent.

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Sierra Road/Felter Road

 Distance: 12 miles one way
Elevation gain: 1700 ft

Sierra Road, a name that brings shivers to Bay Area riders, was made famous in 2012 when Chris Horner flew up its 18% pitches (OK, RWGPS says it tops out at 14%, but my legs say different) to lock up the win in the Tour of California.  He rode those pitches at around 13 mph.  I had ridden up the same slopes earlier that morning to watch the stage finish—at 4 mph or less.    This is one of the toughest climbs in our list, a true feather in your cap, one of two climbs in Bestrides where I’ve been known to stop to recover (the other being Welch Creek Road, in the Adding Miles section of the Calaveras ride).

It actually isn’t all that wonderful a ride.  It’s too steep to be fun, and the landscape is mostly barren grassy hills and vistas of San Jose bloat.  But it’s a marvelous challenge, and the descent on the backside, Felter Road, is superb.  For those more interested in scenery and riding pleasure than bragging rights, a better ride is Felter alone as an out and back, which I discuss at the end.

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Calaveras Road

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.

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Palomares Road

Distance: 20 miles out and back
Elevation gain: 1770 ft

This ride is one of a trio of East Bay rides that are similar in general contour: Palomares, Calaveras 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.

Two words of warning: 1. Palomares is by far the shortest of the three, and the most domesticated, but it’s also the steepest—the mile that precedes the summit on the north side is 9-13%—MTR and Calaveras never see such a pitch.    2) it probably has the most climbing miles, because you climb the hill twice, once from each side.  I racked 2250 ft of gain in 19.5 miles.

Palomares is as simple as a ride can get: start at the beginning of Palomares Rd. near Hwy 580 and ride to its end, then turn around and ride back.  It’s a perfect little ride: you do a little flat stuff to warm up, then climb gently, then climb a bit more steeply to a summit, then descend down through an exciting curvy series of esses to the end, all of it through pretty hobby farms and wooded creek canyons.  Then you get to do it all in reverse.  Piece of cake.

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Grizzly Peak Boulevard to Redwood Road

Distance: c. 44 miles 
Elevation gain: 4510 ft

(A Best of the Best descent)

There’s a line of hills and ridges that make up the spine of the East Bay from Tilden Park in Berkeley to Fremont.  Along that line is a series of four nearly-contiguous rides, all outstanding: this ride, Palomares Road, Calaveras Road, and Sierra Road.  The Best of the Bay Century (see the regional introduction) strings them all together, with filler.  As always, I’m going to give you just the good stuff, working north to south.

This ride is really four different roads.  The first, Grizzly Peak Blvd., is, along with the Wiggle Loop and the Golden Gate Bridge Loop, the only riding on our list that’s city riding on purpose (i.e. not as filler).  In the beginning it’s densely populated residential, and the traffic is dangerous.  It’s not relaxing.  But there’s a magic to the Berkeley Hills that leads hundreds of cyclists to brave the dangers every day, and every time I go to the East Bay I can’t wait to jump on my bike and get up there.  The views of the Bay are unbelievable.    The second road, Skyline Blvd., is less built up, and the views are even better.  The third road, Redwood Rd. is the antithesis of Grizzly Peak Blvd.—a sublime, solitary, and thoroughly unexpected ride through the bowels of a primaeval forest (hence the name).  You’ll expect to see Ents.  And finally the fourth road, Claremont Ave., is a Best-of-the-Best, breath-taking plummet, short, steep, just curvy enough to keep you on your toes, with a bonus of brand-new glassy pavement on the top half (as of 10/21).

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Golden Gate Bridge Loop

Distance: 18 miles one way plus ferry ride
Elevation gain: 490 ft

This is a flat, easy recreational ride with lots of company through many of the Bay tourist’s favorite haunts: the San Francisco waterfront, Pier 39, Fisherman’s Wharf, the SF Marina, Crissy Field, the Bridge, Sausalito, the Mill Valley-Sausalito Mike Path, Tiburon, and the Bay ferries.  Each of these is a treasure worth hanging out in and exploring.  The centerpiece is the Golden Gate Bridge: the most photographed man-made object on Earth.  So this ride isn’t really about “cycling,” which is why you’ll be sharing the route with a few hundred wobbly tourists on rental townies.   If you want to expand the loop to include more work, there are five excellent ways to do that, detailed in the Adding Miles section.

I know riders who say they wouldn’t be caught dead riding on the Golden Gate Bridge.  Granted, you’re riding on a sidewalk that’s usually full of hordes of pedestrians stopping to gawk and take selfies, not to mention hordes of cyclists riding rental bikes and staring out over the water as they ride.  To these naysayers I say in the nicest possible way, What the hell is wrong with you?   Crossing the Bridge under your own power is the archetypal Bucket List experience.   Just go do it.   Walk it if you’d rather.  I’m a cyclist, so I’m riding it.

The Bridge is open to cyclists every day of the year during daylight hours, but beyond that the schedule is shifty.   The Bay (east) side is closed to bikes on weekend days because of the crowds.  The ocean (west) side is open to bikes on weekdays after 3:30 only.  At least I think so.  The rules governing bikes on the Bridge are a bit complicated.  If both sides are open to you, you must make a decision.  The west side is much less crowded, but the views are only grand, not cosmically marvelous like on the east side.  I’m pretty sure that the “no bikes on the east side on weekends” rule isn’t strictly enforced (like the Pirates’ Code, it’s more like a guideline) so if you want that Bay view you might try to poach it.  Or ride the west side and accept second-best.  Or ride on a weekday.   The east side isn’t usually crowded in the morning (see photo below).

Navigating this route is pretty tricky throughout, so take along some mapping capability.  For the City portion of the loop, the SF Bicycle Coalition has made a great bicycle map of San Francisco, and it will guide you.  For the Marin leg, there’s the Marin Bicycle Map.  Remember, google maps won’t show you any of the bike paths, which is half the ride.

Time management is critical on this ride, because on some days the Tiburon ferry stops running in the late afternoon, and if you miss the last one it’s a long ride back (or a trip to Sausalito to catch the ferry there).  Check the ferry schedule for the last run of the day, and calculate backwards to find your starting time, remembering to factor in lots of time for a leisurely pace and lots of lingering and snacking.  I would guess you’ll want at least 4 hours elapsed time.

About a quarter of this loop, the leg from the Pier 41 ferry dock to the Bridge, duplicates a leg of our other SF ride, San Francisco’s Wiggle Loop.

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