(Note: as of 10/22/23 Wildcat Canyon Road is still under construction and is closed to cars, but not bicycles, at Inspiration Point.)
In this route I’ve strung together four of my favorite little East Bay roads. The stellar bits are connected by some residential riding that’s surprisingly pleasant and one 4-mile grind of a climb, for which I apologize up front. It all begins with Wildcat Canyon Road, the hoariest of chestnuts for Berkeley riders, the ride you do once or twice a week when nothing bigger is afoot. You’ll see a lot of e-bikes and townies in the first couple of miles, because it’s easy, but there’s plenty of work further along in the route.
Begin at the intersection of Grizzly Peak Blvd. and Wildcat Canyon Road, which is the same starting point as our
Grizzly Peak Blvd. to Redwood Road route. There is no formal parking nearby, but there is always curb parking on GPB to the south, and most riders are going to get there by climbing Spruce from the Shattuck area anyway.
Ride down Wildcat Canyon Rd. From the gun, it’s simply perfect, a gently meandering road with constant variety of contour and a perfect surface through lovely woods sprinkled with tasteful, expensive houses and with occasional vistas of the Wildcat Canyon watershed on your L. Notice a geographical anomaly: you are “descending” from a ridgeline “down” to the creek at the canyon floor, but in fact you gain 120 ft. elevation in the process. This means that, however wonderful the ride to the creek is, the return ride you’ll be doing in 2-3 hours will be a quantum leap better because it’s imperceptibly downhill.
Wildcat Canyon Road
“Descend” to the creek. You’re riding through Tilden Park, which is rich with wonders, and there are a number of things worth exploring along this route—a merry-go-round, Lake Anza, and the Botanical Gardens (at the creek crossing) among others.
Climb gently from the creek to Inspiration Point, which is on the spine of San Pablo Ridge between Wildcat Canyon and the San Pablo Creek watershed. There are fine hiking trails and good dirt roads open to mountain bikes and gravel bikes along this leg.
The Wildcat Canyon descent
Inspiration Point is only minimally inspiring, because shrubbery has been allowed to grow up and block most of the view, but if you go 50 ft. to the left of the official viewpoint (the one with the informational placards) you can get a pretty good vista of the area to the north towards San Pablo Bay. There are also brick bathrooms, where the Nimitz rec trail takes off.
Wildcat Canyon Road descends from Inspiration Point to San Pablo Dam Road/Camino Pablo (the road changes its name at the WCR intersection). It’s a grand descent, through gorgeous oak canopies and with every curve unique and interesting. It would be one of my favorite descents if the road surface was better. It’s not awful, but it’s rough enough to make holding a line occasionally problematic, and that knocks it down from bucket-list to merely very very good.
Halfway down the descent from Inspiration Point to San Pablo Blvd is an absolute gem of a road. El Toyonal forks off Wildcat Canyon Road to the R at an unmissable intersection (not sure there’s a street sign, but it’s big—sometimes there’s a sandwich board at the intersection reading “free compost” and showing an outline of a horse). Take it (you can do it on the ride back if you don’t like interrupting descents). It doesn’t look impressive, and the first half mile will make you think you’re on the wrong road (an imposing gate, broken pavement, a ramshackle bridge, and a stretch of dirt), but persist and you’ll ride an absolutely perfect two-mile stretch of road (see photo below). It’s a mild climb leaving WCR and a crackerjack descent returning through pristine woods and car-free isolation (since the road is gated off at both ends). Ride to the houses (around the Vista Del Orinda intersection), turn around, and ride back to Wildcat Canyon Road. Friend of Bestrides Thomas put me on to this jewel, which I’d been riding past and ignoring for 25 years, and for that we are in his debt.
Neither of our maps includes the El Toyonal out and back, so if you want exact mileage and elevation totals add 4 miles and a hundred feet or so to our totals.
Bear Creek Road—some people like that sort of thing
Continue on down Wildcat Canyon Road. Cross San Pablo Dam Road. You’ll probably see groups of cyclists at the intersection, because you’re now on the Three Bears ride, the most popular big ride in the East Bay. I hate it. It’s almost all long, tedious, unvarying climbs and descents over a series of smooth, grassy hills in the blazing sun on a big shoulder of an even bigger road. My notion of hell. But we’re going to have to do a leg of it to get to something really good, so strap in, head down Bear Creek Rd., and grind out the next 4 miles, at which point Happy Valley Road goes off to the R.
Happy Valley Rd. is happy enough, but there is absolutely no valley to be seen. It’s a short, steep (but never fierce) climb on a tiny, fairly rough road through canopies of very pretty trees. It’s a favorite of mine. You’ll have it to yourself (if the construction that started in the summer of 2021 is completed).
Happy Valley Road
At the summit everything changes. The road goes smooth and wide (though not at all straight) through up-scale built-up residential. You’ll be tempted to let it rip, but if you do you’ll be in trouble, because the road is still steep and surprisingly twisty, and several of the corners punish the overly aggressive. It’s tons of fun, especially after the steep pitch moderates and you can really carry some speed.
Soon you reach the intersection of Happy Valley Road and Upper Happy Valley Road, which paradoxically is below HVR. You can go either way, R onto Upper Happy or straight onto more of HVR. They’re both very nice moderate, fast descents through residential streets on good surfaces. I’ve mapped it via Upper Happy, mostly because I love the name.
Upper Happy dead-ends into El Nido Ranch Road, the surface road running along the edge of Hwy 24. Take it R and stay on it through several name changes—El Nido Ranch, E. Altarinda Dr., Orindawoods Dr., Santa Maria Way—until it meets Orinda Way in downtown Orinda. This leg varies from big-road boring to pseudo-golf-course posh.
Take Orinda Way R to avoid a short stretch of Camino Pablo, which is busy and fast. When Orinda Way dumps you out on Camino Pablo, you’re stuck with it. CP has a mostly large and mostly pleasant shoulder/bike path, so it’s painless. Ride back to Wildcat Canyon Road and climb WCR back to Inspiration Point (if you skipped El Toyonal before, do it now).
This climb, which was borderline great as a descent, is now splendid. The road surface problems won’t bother you, but the scenery is just as gorgeous and the road contour just as interesting as it was an hour or so earlier. It’s a perfect pitch, just hard enough to make you feel like you accomplished something but not hard enough to hurt. Another of my favorite climbs. It isn’t car-free, but the cars are civil.
If you’ve done the climb from San Pablo Dam Road to Inspiration Point a dozen times and you’re sick of it, or you want something tougher, ride south on Camino Pablo to El Toyonal Rd. (the other end of it) and climb it back up to Grizzly Peak Blvd. ETR wanders among typical charming East Bay woodland homes and is often 9-10% pitch. When ETR meets the beautifully named Lomas Cantadas Rd., take LCR to Grizzly Peak Blvd. Worth doing once.
Back at Inspiration Point, you could keep retracing your steps and ride back to Grizzly Peak Blvd., but you don’t want to yet, because at the Inspiration Point parking lot is the trailhead to the Nimitz Trail (aka Nimitz Way), a 4-mile (one way) paved multi-use trail that is simply a hoot. I know, I hate rec trails too, but this one is special. It runs along or just below the spine of San Pablo Ridge, through dry but charming countryside, with frequent stunning views of SF Bay spread out before you to the west (benches provided for musing). The best Bay view is a mile+ in, at the Bertold and Inge Hannes memorial bench.
The Hannes Bench on Nimitz Trail, with The Bridge and Angel Island at 11 o’clock, Mt. Tam on R horizon
The trail climbs and drops and weaves just enough to keep you interested (680 ft. of gain in 8 miles). There’s a nice post midway that informs you that you are simultaneously riding the Nimitz Trail, the Bay Area Ridge Trail, the Juan Bautista de Anza Historic Trail, and the East Bay Skyline Trail.
At the end there’s a gate, the path turns to dirt, and there’s an abandoned Nike missile site to check out (unsigned but visible, up the hill to your R as you stand facing the end of the pavement).
The weather on the Nimitz is often windy, the Bay views are often obscured by fog, and it can be crowded. Still, do it. My last outing was a lovely Saturday afternoon in August, and the people were plentiful but no problem at all. Yes, they slow you down, which is not a bad thing—this is not a training ride. The crowds get thinner the further you go.
If you’re on a gravel bike, the Nimitz continues on excellent dirt from the end of the pavement all the way down the spine of the ridge until it peters out in Richmond. Now that would be an adventure. Also, a friend says that the trail to Grizzly Peak, which takes off from Nimitz about halfway out, is a great short hike with a great vista at the end.
Return to Wildcat Canyon Road and ride back to your car. One sweet surprise remains. As I mentioned, the leg from Wildcat Creek to the Grizzly Peak ridgetop turns out by some miracle to be an imperceptible descent, so you end the ride whizzing along at terrific speed through luscious curves, wondering where you suddenly got all that oomph. It’s as sweet a 2 miles as you’ll ever do on a bike, and when it’s over you’ll want to ride it again.
Shortening the route: Ride to San Pablo Dam Blvd. and turn around. Easier still: ride to Inspiration Point and turn around. Dead easy: ride to the Botanical Gardens and turn around. Add Nimitz to taste.
There’s a 20-mile route that bags the bulk of the good stuff from the long route: ride from our starting point to Inspiration Point; ride to the end of Nimitz and back: descend Wildcat Canyon Road to El Toyonal; ride El Toyonal out and back; ascend WCR to Inspiration Point and return to your car. It’s an easy 20 miles, since it skips the steepest section of the WCR climb, which is below the El Toyonal fork.
Adding miles: The beginning of this ride is also the beginning of our Grizzly Peak Blvd to Redwood Road ride.
The roads circumnavigating San Pablo and Briones Reservoirs are hot and boring, but the roads circumnavigating Briones Regional Park, immediately to the east, are nice riding. To reach them from our route, where Happy Valley Road ends at Deer Creek Rd., follow DCR, the surface road along Hwy 24, east to Pleasant Hill Rd., and take PHR to Reliez Valley Road. Ride Reliez and Alhambra Valley Road.