Mt. Hamilton

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

(A Best of the Best ride)

(Note 3/21: The last few miles to the summit are being repaved, so they are closed to all traffic—bikes included—and the bulk of the road is heavily trafficked with large trucks, so it might be wise to do this ride later.  See Tom B.’s comment below.  jr)

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—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 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 a gravel pull-out for parking at the intersection, and there is plenty of curbside parking available in front of houses in the nearby neighborhoods.  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 during the rainy season) 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.

IMG_4743After 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.


Lick Observatory, your destination, in the distance

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.

Switchbacks near the top

Switchbacks near the top

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.

Shortening the route: Start at Grant Park.

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 route takes you right past the turn-around spot of our Del Puerto Canyon Road ride.  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.

20 thoughts on “Mt. Hamilton

  1. corvetti

    This was the most concentrated uphill ride we’ve done yet, but the grade is never that steep, so it’s completely doable. Cool observatory at the top, with endless views. Try not to do this midday when it’s super hot out, though, because there are large stretches where there isn’t much tree covering. That said, we did it mid-day when it was 100 degrees out, and we still had a great time.

    1. patcresmar

      As usual, excellent description. Just one thing to add–it can get pretty cold at the top, even if it’s warm below. Thank goodness for the gift shop, which sells hot cocoa!

  2. Luis

    Does anyone know if I can ride to the top of Mt. Hamilton? A bike shop owner told me today that the road was closed due to winter storm damage. (Asked on 5/5/17)


    1. Nibbles

      You can certainly ride up to the summit, BUT, you need to take the quimby road detour.—quimby-road-west.html

      Quimby is a pretty but seriously steep climb (steeper than Sierra, for sure) that filters out many a casual would-be hamilton rider.

      You ascend to the summit of quimby, then descend a mile or so (600 ft) to grant park. The rest of the ride is the same as described by Jay.

  3. Luis

    – I got lucky, highway 130 opened the day before, on May 6th (2017). That means you don’t have to go up Quimby, and can do the ride that as Jay suggested, which is what I did. Just how bad is Quimby, in case I really want to suffer?

    1. Jack Rawlins Post author

      Mapmyride indicates it’s 3.3 miles, 1750 ft and steady, which is only a little over 10%. If that’s true, it can’t compare with Sierra Road.

  4. Maurizio

    Yes, just did Quimby, probably average 10% climb, max 20%. definitely not for the casual rider. However, once you know it it’s fun in a challenging way

  5. Ralph

    Great description. I’d add that the west side’s descent is perfect… if you’re into the terrifying, slot-car, tight cornered, smooth road kind.

    One of the better Bay Area rides is going the other way. Start on Mines Rd and go over the east side. I generally do it once or twice a year. I’ll either get a drop-off or take BART to Dublin. Then you can grab BART back or Caltrain if you are based on the west side of the bay (my case).

    Note: Water is an issue on the Mines side. There are only two reliable water opportunities. A fire station (47625 Mines Rd, Livermore, CA 94550) just before you get to the the 130 junction. At 130 junction there is a little country do-drop-inn restaurant/bar called “The Junction” (47300 Mines Rd, Livermore, CA 94550). Highly recommended. Good food. Nice people. You’ll need food and water.

    It’s a big day for anyone. It could be a painful one for most people.

    1. Jack Rawlins Post author

      In my recollection, “terrifying, slot-car” is an apt description of only the first couple of miles of the descent.

  6. Nibbles

    Last Sunday a buddy and I got dropped off at Patterson and rode back to San Jose. Del Puerto Rd. is a delight, and the miles between the Junction (which as our luck would have it was closed) to the base of the east side climb up Mt. Hamilton are about as remote as anything I’ve ever ridden. In fact, a lot of it reminded me of the eastern part of Nacimiento road.
    The east-side climb is punishing, to say the least. 4.6 miles averaging 9% isn’t terrible per se, but hurts a lot more after 40 long, mostly uphill miles.
    IMHO the descent from the Mt. Hamilton observatory to the bridge is without peer anywhere in the Bay Area.
    It’s a long day, but you end knowing you traversed the entire Diablo range, and that’s a neat accomplishment.

  7. Gman

    I ride it almost exclusively at night, several nights a week, sometimes timing it to get to the top just as the sun is coming over the Sierras and sometimes leaving around midnight when the traffic below Grant Ranch quiets down. Either way, I have the whole mountain to myself, except for the occasional mountain lion or pack of wild boars. Often tarantulas will be out on the road. You do have to be alert because animals, and the odd driver, don’t expect you at that time. I’ve almost crashed into a huge cow-sized boar while descending, by the gate, and once came across a full-grown lion just sitting in the middle of the road. When you’re all alone it can be a little spooky. But nothing beats it.

    1. Jack Rawlins Post author

      Not sure you aren’t pulling my leg, but OK. I’d guess that most of the rides in Bestrides are pretty traffic-free at 3 AM. I’m not sure it’s the Sierras the sun is coming up over, but they’re somewhere to the east for sure.

      1. Gman

        I’m assuming it’s the Sierras. On a clear day you can pick out Half Dome from that last left-hand corner just below the big telescope, when you first get a good view to the east.

        1. JP

          Gman, your description of riding that route in the dead of night is amazing to me. What an adventure. Are you commuting to a job in the Bay Area when you do that?

    1. Jack Rawlins Post author

      Yes. The area around the beginning of Mt. Hamilton Road is solid residential, but parking isn’t restricted and you can find curbside parking in front of someone’s house easily. See Tom B.’s comment below.

  8. Lachlan Smith

    Any thoughts on the safest way to ride from the Guadalupe River Trail to Mt Hamilton Rd?

    1. Jack Rawlins Post author

      No. All options seem thoroughly unpleasant. One word of caution: if you take a route that sends you up Quimby, you’re looking at one of the fiercest pitches in the Bay Area.

  9. Tom B

    There is a gravel pull-out for parking right at the intersection of Alum Rock and Mt Hamilton Roads, which only had a couple of cars on a Thursday morning at 11am.

    Beware of the road closures and roadwork currently (3/21) going on. At mile 16.5 the trucks (which had been passing me ever since crossing the bridge at mile 11) had the road blocked off while they were laying new asphalt in the final 1-2 miles before the summit and weren’t letting bikers through. Looking up the road, they had just poured oil and gravel and it would have been dangerous and probably would have trashed my bike to some extent, so it was the right decision to turn around. Such a tease with the observatory within a stone’s throw. The trucks (triple-axle haulers) were not an issue until after the bridge when the road became more twisty. They were doing their best but still were coming halfway or more into the oncoming lane when they rounded the many blind corners, and I really had to be careful on the upper part of the descent. (The construction crew had mentioned that a descending cyclist narrowly missed being hit head on by a truck the day prior). Up until the disappointment of having to turn around, I was loving this ride. I didn’t want the final 6 miles of the descent to end, so smooth and straight on great surface. I look forward to making it all the way to the summit next time, and will definitely wait until after the construction is over.


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