Bay Area Peak Experience, Part I

Fremont Peak

Fremont Peak

The San Francisco Region is surrounded by mountains ascended by lightly traveled two-lane roads, perfectly suited for road bikers.  Below is a list of the more prominent peaks.  (The elevations reflect mountain tops and not necessarily the highest point where your tire may stop).

Mt. Hamilton, 4209 ft.

Mt. Hamilton is actually a ridge of several summits, including Copernicus Peak at 4367 feet.  The nineteen-mile road to the top from Alum Rock Avenue was graded in 1876 and is reported to have 365 curves, some gentle and some 180-degree switchbacks, especially near the top.  Racers make it in around 70 minutes men, just under 90 minutes women.  A weekend rider does well to beat two hours.

In August, 1861, a few months after the Confederates had taken Ft. Sumter in South Carolina, unrelated, two geologists and a personal friend headed up the massif overlooking San Jose, commissioned by State Geologist, Josiah D. Whitney, yes, that Whitney, to scout the top.  Closing in on the summit, their invitee Laurentine Hamilon rushed to the top, waving his hat for the others to see.   When Whitney declined the honor of having the mountain named for himself, the geologists honored Reverend Hamilton instead, who died only three years later in a pulpit giving his Easter sermon.

Mt. Hamilton Road west has a fairly easy gradient, designed to haul building materials and telescope to the summit for the construction of an observatory, still there and offering the daytime bicyclist is a visit to the 19th century edifice with daily tours of the telescope room, a working seismograph and gift shops with astronomical interest.

Considerably steeper is the 9% eastern road to the top, used in the Amgen Tour of California.  Dessicated and deserted grazing lands with isolated ranch gates and shrinking ponds flank the road to the east, as well as a surprising cowboy sandwich/bar at a lonely crossroads in the San Antonio Valley, seemingly miles from anywhere and appreciated by all stopping there.

Mt. Diablo, 3849 ft.

In 1805, Spanish soldiers chased a bunch of local Indians into a heavily thistled thicket, called a “monte,” on the flanks of the rising landscape. The soldiers named it the “monte del diablo,” or thicket of the devil and mapped it as such.  As the maps lived on, the designation took over the entire mountain. 
Diablo Road leads out of Danville, connecting with Mt. Diablo Scenic Boulevard near the Athenian School. After a twisty private road, recently paved to accommodate the Amgen race, the official South Gate entrance appears.  The State Park fee gate, free for bikes, is up ahead, just before a grade break at Rock City, with its bold climbing formations are about midway of the 6-mile leg to joining the 7-mile North Gate road out of Walnut Creek.  

At the ranger kiosk juncture, bikers gather before the final 4.5-mile ascent begins, culminating in a final 18% charge up the last few hundred feet.  On top is a grey-stone observation station actually encompassing the rocky summit point.  Unfortunately, a leaking rooftop platform has caused the closure of one of the world’s best viewpoints.  Cold drinks and snacks however are sold inside at a State Park run counter.
43 minutes from Athenian School is the published men’s record.  80 minutes from the South Gate bar is a strong, steady time, but racing to the top excludes a welcome gel and water break midway at the juncture.

Loma Prieta, 3790 ft.

Loma Prieta, or Dark Hill, reversed, overlooks the southern Santa Clara Valley.  Located on the San Andreas Fault, it’s the tag name of the 1989 earthquake that stopped the World Series and dropped down a section of the Bay Bridge.

The route to Loma Prieta takes off from Summit Road, south of Highway 17.  Past the well-stocked Summit Store, the road splits off with the left fork Mt. Bache Road leading to the peak.  The mountain was originally named in honor of surveyor Alexander Dallas Bache, assigned by Congress in 1843 to map the nation’s East Coast.

Mt. Bache Road connects to Loma Prieta Road, which climbs a final four miles, 12% grade in part, to a saddle with another Summit Road.  The poorly surfaced road to left leads about another mile to the gated top, closed due to extensive electronics equipment situated there. Just biking the rough road from the saddle to the mountain base can be adventure enough while still producing a great view of the huge valley below.

Fremont Peak 3173 ft.

This mountain is too far south for most Bay Area bicyclists.  It’s best to drive the twelve-mile road’s start in San Juan Bautista, although you can bike there as well on various routes headed south of San Jose.      
The 11-mile road to the top rolls through a scenic one-way canyon before a steep climb takes you to a ridge where things even out again to a staging area before the stony summit.

Fremont Peak was once called Gavilan Peak, Spanish for Hawk, with the “v” in Gavilan pronounced as a “b”.  In 1846, John Charles Fremont and some sixty armed mountain men camped on top while Mexican forces gathered below to forcibly evict the intruders from Alta California.  Rather than press the issue, the American adventurers descended the south facing slope instead, eventually camping in Oregon to await the Bear Flag Revolt, that began later in the year in Sonoma.  

John Steinbeck wrote about the Gabilan Mountains “full of sun and loveliness” in his book East of Eden.  What he called “Fremont’s Peak” was also the last place he visited with his standard poodle, gazing at the Salinas Valley below and distant Monterey headlands, before venturing across country in Travels with Charley.

After descending, if you can get a car ride back to the Bay Area, your group might enjoy seeing the sights of the quaint town,  visiting it’s simple chicken and cactus lined streets as well as the famous Mission, situated at the scarp-edge of the San Andreas Fault.

Published Cycle California, July 2013, Vol. 19, #6