Mt. Hamilton

Published Cycle California, October 2015, Vol. 21, #10

Gerard Lefarge

Gerard Lefarge

Mt. Hamilton is San Jose’s Mount Olympus, hovering with its white domes over Silicon Valley.  For bicyclists, the road to the top provides a pantheon-like Apollo to Zeus, providing distance, elevation, sun, shade, views, vales, science, stars and history.  In just under 19 miles, you climb 4500 feet above the valley floor highways into the pines.

By 1874, the real estate holdings of James Lick made him the richest man in California.  Suffering a stroke that year, he determined to construct his own monument, contemplating a Giza-like pyramid in San Francisco.   Instead, he was persuaded to donate much of his fortune for an observatory on the high ridge east of San Jose.  A road was begun in 1875, limited to 6.5% in order to accommodate mule-drawn wagons of construction materials.  The route was completed in the fall of 1876, just as Lick was passing away.  In 1887, construction finally began of the great observatory as Lick’s body was reinterred in the foundation. 

The pueblo of San Jose had been founded a century earlier by Spanish colonists.  The mountains east of town were termed the Sierra de Santa Isabel, named for the king of Portugal’s former wife, married in 1281, who joined the St. Francis Order on his death.  California’s statehood in 1850 required a state geologist, a position first served by Josiah Whitney, appointed in 1860, educated at Harvard and trained in Germany.  For the first geologic survey of the Bay Area in 1861, Whitney sent two geologists, William Brewer, 33, and Charles Hoffman, 23, both also trained in Germany.  As a young professor teaching at the Ovid Academy in New York, Brewer had met Presbyterian minister Laurentine Hamilton, fresh out of the seminary.  When Brewer and Hoffman reached San Jose, Hamilton, 35, was holding services at the First Presbyterian Church, having been assigned there two years earlier.  For the geologists’ hike up the mountain, Brewer invited his longtime friend. 

On August 26, 1861, the trio set out for the mountain.  On the eastern side of the continent, the Confederates were defeating an Ohio regiment in Cross Lanes, Virginia in the Civil War that was only four months old.  Headed toward the peak, Brewer, Hoffman and Hamilton descended a deep canyon, which became named Smith Creek in honor of William Smith, an English geologist who created the first geologic map of Britain.  They then began the 2000-foot ascent to the top of the ridge.  Weighed down by their instruments, Brewer and Hoffman lagged behind Hamilton, who raced the final paces to the top.

Brewer intended to name the mountain for Whitney, his boss, but the state geologist modestly declined.  A few years later, the state’s highest mountain (and that of the 48-states) received that honor.  Instead, Brewer named the mountain for his friend. The Reverend Hamilton died in his pulpit in Oakland in 1864 giving his Easter sermon.

Mt. Hamilton Road begins at elevation 400 feet off Alum Rock Avenue.  You don’t have to start the ride there.  Various side roads branch in before you reach Clayton Road, which is another approach intersecting at 2.4 miles from the Alum Rock start.  Grandview Restaurant, which lives up to its name, hangs on the right-hand slope at 3.7 miles with a grade break another half mile ahead at 3 Springs Road, where a collection of homes sits.  The first crest is at 6 miles at 1900-feet, below a PG&E tower, something to remember for the return.  From there, you descend, passing the juncture with Quimby Road, coming from the Evergreen Valley with its summit a mile up to your right.  Ahead is Joseph D. Grant County Park, which has a maze of mountain bike trails that crisscross the main road.  A parking lot on the left contains a drinking faucet and toilet.  Many riding parties regroup here, around 1600 feet.

The next climb is three miles to over 2300 feet and another parking lot before a short descent to a big left-hand curve on a bridge over Smith Creek.  A ranger station now occupies where once the Smith Creek Hotel existed.  From another era, the hotel had expansive grounds within the small valley at 2100 feet, well below the snow line that blankets the top at least once annually.  The wilderness creek bed leads upstream a couple miles in rugged canyon below a peak that is actually slightly higher than Mt. Hamilton and is named Mt. Isabel, retaining the original name given to the range by the Hispanic colonists of San Jose.

From the bridge, the road ascends a dead end Kincaid Road junction and a 5 miles remaining sign to finally reach the tee-intersection where unimposing office and residential buildings sit, a rather inglorious terminal to your heroic arrival. To the left, the road continues past a dome atop Copernicus Peak, named in 1895 by the observatory staff, and then down steeply, bridging Isabel Creek—that name again—eastward into remote territory and eventual emergence many miles away.  The Mount Olympus moment of Mt. Hamilton comes if you turn right at the tee for a short driveway climb to reach the Observatory, completed in 1888.  The building below the impressive hugely white dome is not always open, closed Monday through Wednesday (as I unexpectedly found out during one ride).   Otherwise, doors open at noon (with a non-stop ride from Alum Rock taking around two hours for a strong, steady climber).  A visit inside the ancient hallways is a step into the relegated past, comforting in an old fashioned sense before you partake the twisting descent back the way you came to rejoin the 21st century.