There’s a place in the Bay Area where you can mountain bike a volcano and under the ocean at the same time. Sound a little crazy? Why not throw in Crazy Pete and some Russians too? Local biking pamphlets may discuss the Johnny jump-ups, Cooper hawks, hound’s tongue and bobcats, but this article begins in the court of Peter the Great.
Crazy Pete was definitely not the tall czar who commissioned Russian exploration of the Pacific Ocean that eventually led to San Francisco’s most famed romance. In 1806, Nicholai Petrovich Rezanov sailed into Mexican San Francisco Bay and won the heart of Concepcion Arguello, the famously beautiful sixteen-year-old daughter of the Presidio’s commandante. Engaged to her, he died on his dutiful Siberian journey back to St. Petersburg, leaving his fiancé clueless to her death in a Benicia convent, fifty-one years later.
The Russians kept coming, however, soon establishing a trading post on the empty northern coast at Ft. Ross (“Russ”), just above the Russian River. Meanwhile, a cluster of Russian sailors were buried on a sandy knob near the Presidio, the discovery of which by some children around the time of the gold rush led to the nickname Russian Hill, shortly before the United States paid Russia 2 cents an Alaskan acre to vacate North America.
Geographical identification with the large Euro-Asian country culminates with Russian Ridge a two-mile long north-south divide that runs parallel to Highway 35, near the junction with Page Mill Road, just west of Palo Alto. The property was once part of Pony Tracks Ranch, which covered several thousands of acres owned by James Rolph, a former mayor of San Francisco for twenty years. Most notably, the affable Rolph served as governor during a San Jose mob lynching of two suspected kidnappers in 1933. “Sunny Jim” promised a pardon to anyone arrested for the crime, though no one ever was and the governor died of a heart attack six months later. The site of his summerhouse can be visited by bike, just south of Alpine Pond, across the road from the ridge’s parking lot.
In 1920, Rolph began leasing his northern hills to Paskey (his first name was lost, so why not Boris, like the chess champion Spassky?), an immigrant from newly transformed Bolshevik Russia, who ran dairy cattle on the property for thirty years.
When driving to Skyline via unpaved Alpine Road’s spooky forest to his summer place, Sunny Jim used to thrill his kids by shooting his pistol to scare away “Crazy Pete,” an unseen boogeyman. Who was Crazy Pete? He’s been variously identified, including as an Irish woodcutter who died in a mental hospital collapse the morning of the 1906 earthquake, well before Rolph’s ownership. Or the name could refer to Pete Martinez, a local logger known for crazily carving makeshift roads near Skyline.
Road bikers pass by Martinez Road as they near the top of Old La Honda Road. Maximo Martinez was an original pioneer who lived at what is now Portola Valley Garage, off Alpine Road, and owned the Corte Madera and Los Trancos creek drainages. His granddaughter later occupied the family house with her husband Pete Faber, who leased the Portola Valley grazing rights to another dairy cattleman, Manuel Ignatius Piers, a competitor with the aforementioned Boris Paskey of Russian Ridge back when local dairies were needed to deliver fresh milk. Another local odd-ball “Pete” was Peter Coutts, the intriguing Frenchman who arrived in the late 1800’s, purchasing land and building the mysterious brick turret off Old Page Mill Road before selling out to Leland Stanford and disappearing back to France.
I have a few Crazy Pete friends of my own, all connected by the lunacy known as the Markleeville Death Ride, a grueling one-day Sierra Nevada road bike event. Professor Pete has ridden it over a dozen times on his mountain bike. Chicago Pete trained by hiking Mt. Kilimanjaro (15,100 feet) prior flying from Africa a few days before the ride. One year Peet’s Pete, a namesake coffee hound, did the Climb to Kaiser and the Death Ride, totally almost 300 miles and 30,000 feet on back-to-back Saturdays. Maybe Crazy just goes with Pete as Wild goes with Bill.
Crazy Pete’s taken from Skyline begins as a narrow residential road that snakes downhill to eventually a rollicking single track highlighted by a small wooden bridge across a shaded, rocky pool on a tributary in the Coal Creek Preserve. Russian Ridge can be regained by tracing Sunny Jim’s old course up crumbling Alpine Road.
The high point of Russian Ridge is Borel Hill, a 2,572-foot tall summit named for Antoine Borel, a Swiss who expanded his older brother’s incipient California business, establishing a bank in San Mateo on El Camino Real and opening their first branch in Palo Alto. Borel also tried to establish the Spring Valley Water Company, which created Searsville Lake, the terminus of Corte Madera Creek.
The Russian Ridge bike trails also include an offshoot to Mindego Hill, a misspelling that refers to Juan Mendico, a Basque herder who homesteaded the open hills in 1859, just after the gold rush. The bike trail shadows Mindego Creek on the eastern slope of Mindego Hill, now 2143 feet above sea level but formerly a volcano that once erupted under the Pacific Ocean before journeying west as part of that great collision of tectonic plates that has plowed previous ocean floor of the Pacific Plate as it subducts the North American Plate. When the biking the trails of Russian Ridge, you are coursing over ocean mud and rock wrenched skyward. Given enough tilt and rain, that mud wants to return back to the sea by landslide, both large and small. Rivulets and creeks easily cut through the ancient sediments, which also form fairly smooth trail surfaces.
Existing on the Pacific Plate west of the San Andreas Fault, all of Russian Ridge including the rest of the Santa Cruz Mountains are moving slowly toward Alaska, that 1867 purchase across the Bering Strait, named for the Danish sea captain commissioned by Peter the Great to explore the northern Pacific Ocean. The prehistorical connection from Asia to America is also called the Bering Land Bridge. Across this now inundated landmass once migrated the Stone Age ancestors of the Ohlones, the former indigenous inhabitants of the ridge and, by anachronistic definition, descendants from the first “Russian” immigrants.
Russian Ridge has come into the public domain through generous land grants and purchases. The mountain bike trails offer spectacular scenery both of the madrone hills but also the lustrous ocean and bay. The preserves offer a wide variety of topographical knobby tire challenges, all within easy access from the Bay Area.
Published Cycle California, December 2009, Vol. 15, #11