Distance: 36 miles out and back
Elevation gain: 4750 ft
(A Best of the Best ride)
This is a grande dame of a ride, one of the three iconic climbs in the Bay Area—Hamilton, Tam, and Diablo. It’s quite long—18.2 miles one way—but don’t be afraid of it. The story goes, 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 4-6%, never steeper. And there are two nice descents along the way up to rest your legs. It’s all through pretty East Bay grass/oak hills, and the road contour is interesting after the first few miles (toward the summit, positively hyper). If I wanted to do one ride to see the East Bay outback hills at their best, this ride would be the one. And the observatory at the top is simply fascinating.
Still, this is not my favorite East Bay ride. The pitch is a fairly monotonous, the miles preceding the descent to Grant County Park (see below) are a grind, the whole thing goes on a bit too long, and the descent is truly fine only about 1/5 of the time. It’s a good ride, but Diablo, Calaveras, and Morgan Territory are better, unless you’re into Big.
(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 beginning of Mt. Hamilton Rd., where it takes off from Alum Rock Rd. There is no flat road anywhere near, so warming up is difficult, but the pitch of Mt. Hamilton Rd itself is mild enough that you can warm up on the climb. The first miles ascend rather monotonously up a sidehill to a ridgetop, at which point you get a nice 2-mile descent to Joseph D. Grant County Park, a pleasant green valley (if it every rains) between the hills with trails, campgrounds, bathrooms, and water (at the headquarters about 1/4 mile in). It’s a nice place to kick back and eat your PB and J.
After Grant the road contour is continuously interesting. The first few miles you climb on rough chipseal which isn’t a problem on the way in but is a definite damper on your joy on the return descent. A second (and last) 1-mile descent drops to a bridge, and the rest of the ride is cherry—sinuous serpentining up through pretty oaks on a glassy surface with nice vistas below and frequent glimpses of your destination, the Observatory, on the summit ahead of you. The road becomes more and more twisty, until there is a spot where you can see below you ten distinct segments of Mr. Hamilton Rd. at once (counting the one you’re standing on). It’s just after the switchbacks in the photo below.
The Observatory itself is fascinating, so definitely plan at least a couple of hours there. There are exhibits on the old telescope and how it was built and transported up the mountain, the telescope itself (straight out of Jules Verne), a charming inner courtyard where I love to sit and breathe the negative ions from the water fountain, and a gift shop.
The Observatory is very bike-friendly. Continue on through the parking lot around to the right and you’ll find a bike rack, a sign reading “Please remove or cover cleats,” and a door to good bathrooms, a Coke machine, and a drinking fountain. The fountain even has a water-bottle-friendly spout. Go straight through the second door to get to the courtyard.
The Observatory is often closed to the public, so check visiting hours if you’re interested, but the restrooms, drinking fountain, and Coke machine are open 8-5 daily.
The ride back has its highs and lows. Of the 16 or so descending miles, only about 3 of them are great. The first couple of miles are too twisty to be unqualifiedly joyful. You’re on your brakes most of the time, often hard on them, and you’ll do a lot of 12-mph corners. Then the road straightens out just a little, and that makes all the difference—it’s sublime for the three miles to the bridge. After the 1-mile climb, the descent to Grant Park has nice contour but it’s marred by very rough chipseal, and after the 2-mile climb out of Grant the descent back to the car is too straight and too shallow to be more than merely pleasant. Both climbs on the return are more than mere bumps, but they’re both mellow and nothing to fear, even with tired legs.
Adding miles: The Sierra Road ride is a stone’s throw to your north. A short car trip to the south is Metcalf Rd., made famous in the 2013 Tour of California as the last 3K of the time trial. It’s a lot like Sierra, a seriously steep climb people ride for the glory of it.
A lot of people who ride Mt. Hamilton do it as part of a long semi-loop: ride BART to Fremont, ride to Mt. Hamilton Rd. and up to the Observatory, then just keep on going, down the back side of the mountain to Mines Rd. and the Dublin BART station. This is the dry side of the mountain, so the landscape is stark.
Afterthoughts: Most of the ride is shadeless, so try to avoid hot summer afternoons.