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 (though not as rough since a recent resurfacing), the best isolation, and the best backside descent. Morgan Territory’s pavement used to be poor on the north side of the summit, which didn’t bother the ascent but put a damper on coming back down that way. Thankfully, in recent days perhaps a third or one half of the north side has been resurfaced (Spring 2023—thanks, David) makes riding the north side of MTR as an out-and-back a real possibility. See details in Shortening the Ride below. If you’re riding on a weekend and are just going to ride to the summit and back, do Calaveras or MTR. 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.
(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.)
Start at the intersection of Morgan Territory Rd. and Marsh Creek Rd. Roll for a few miles through said hobby farms. In about 4 miles you shift from hobby farm valley to a narrow creek canyon lined with pretty oak woods. A sign reads “one-lane road next 6 miles”—yum. The climb has a wonderful variety in the beginning. No pitch lasts longer than 100 ft. You never get bored or tired, and you’re deep in the trees so it’s shady and quiet and wonderful. The ups get steeper as you go, and the last 2+ miles is steady, fairly hard work. If you meet more than one or two cars, alert the media.
After the mild but obvious summit you ride past a little settlement of four or five houses, then fasten your seat belt because you’re about to spend some time at speed. From here on out the road surface is glass. The descent is in two parts. The first part switchbacks steeply down off the hilltop. This part tests your 40-mph cornering ability. You may well meet a car here, but you can see the road well ahead of you, so you should get warning. At the bottom, the road turns R and straightens out and you think the excitement is over, but it isn’t. The road drops faster than you think, so you can hold 35 mph or more, and the contour, instead of going back and forth, now goes up and down like a wavy slide at a funhouse, with a few curves thrown in. It’s unique in my experience, and literally breath-taking. You finally roll out, spent, and dead-end at Manning Rd.
There are a number of ways to get to and from this ride, none of them particularly easy. If you want to do a loop, you have two choices, both involving a lot of miles. 1. The southwest loop, which I know (I’ll describe it from the end of the ride, but you can begin it anywhere), is to go R on Manning, R on Highland, R on Tassajara when Highland dead-ends, L and under 680 when Tassajara ends, R on Danville Blvd. to Main St. of Walnut Creek, R on Ygnacio Valley Rd. (it’s huge and the traffic is truly life-threatening—there are signs telling cyclists to ride on the sidewalk) for far too long, then R on Clayton Rd., which becomes Marsh Creek Rd., which leads to Morgan Territory Rd. Some of this is pleasant country riding through grassy hillocks and farms, and some of it is downright unpleasant. 2. The loop I don’t know is to go the other way and loop back to the east and north: from Morgan Territory Rd. work you way over to Vasco Rd. and go L on Camino Diablo, which becomes Marsh Creek Rd. It looks good on a map, but I’ve been advised not to do it because the traffic is intense (see comment below).
I loop the ride via BART (see the introduction to the Bay Area region). I BART to Concord and ride Concord Blvd, which turns into Oakhurst Dr., which runs into Clayton Rd, which becomes Marsh Creek Rd, which takes you to Morgan Territory Rd. You could BART to Walnut Creek, but then you end up riding out Ygnasio Valley Rd., which is a deathtrap. From Concord you could ride directly out Clayton Rd., but Concord Blvd. is much, much quieter—almost pleasant in fact. However you go, getting to Morgan Territory Rd. isn’t easy—from the intersection of Oakhurst and Clayton to MTR you will climb 1000 ft.
From the end of MTR I go R on Manning, R on Highland, L on Tassajara, R on Dublin Blvd., and L down a side road following signs to the BART station—watch for the BART sign as you approach Dougherty—for a total of 43 miles. This leg varies from pleasant country riding (Highland) to boring mega-mall with good bike lane (Dublin). A reader recommends taking Collier Road off Highland instead of continuing on to Tassajara, which I haven’t tried, but it won’t save you any miles.
Shortening the route: From either end of MTR, ride up to the summit and back. The north side is twice as long (10 miles one way), more wooded, and much curvier; the south side is shorter (5 miles one way), straighter, steeper, with open grassy hills, and with a much faster descent. The south side pavement is pristine; the north side has been recently cheaply repaved over 1/3 or 1/2 its surface, which means 1/2 to 2/3 of the road surface remains OK to poor. It’s definitely rideable, and at times thrilling, but it will be no one’s favorite descent. Coming down, the first 2 miles are too steep, too twisty, and too full of totally blind corners you can’t safely cut (you will meet at least one car, I promise) to be much fun. After that the road straightens and levels out just enough to be a real hoot for the next 3 or so miles. Then you roll home. The way the new pavement comes and goes is annoying. Come on, County Road Department, pave the whole thing, for heaven’s sake.
Adding miles: There’s nothing I’’m keen to ride near either end of this ride. You’re a few miles from the Mt. Diablo ride—Loop #1 above takes you almost past the front door.