(Secrets of Old La Honda)
Biking Portola Valley means following The Loop. Bike The Loop and you'll discover Old La Honda Road (OLH). From a small bridge just off Portola Road, it’s the shortest way up to Skyline Boulevard with least amount of auto traffic. The short stretch of road has an unseen history of a ruined timber baron, a Gatsby-like mansion owner, members of Jesse James' gang, plus assorted loggers and stagecoach drivers.
The old bridge, with its fake stucco boulders alongside, is the traditional starting point for timing the average 8% 3.3 mile climb to the Skyline stop sign. Ducking under 20 minutes for men or in low 20s for women is excellent. Taking 30 minutes still requires a strong ride.
At one time, the property on the right was owned by Edgar F. Preston, a San Francisco attorney who, in 1881, built a mansion and a winery off Preston Road, with the street name posted on a stone column. The old winery burned down in 1930, owned at that time by August Schilling, a German immigrant who arrived in New Orleans at the age of 16 in 1870.
Schilling eventually went to work for Folgers Coffee, founded in San Francisco in the Gold Rush era. “The best part of waking up is Folgers in your cup.” Schilling best started his own import company and became eventually known as the Spice King, purchasing the property in 1914. Schilling had Preston's house extensively remodeled and the grounds reshaped into stone pathways and bridges. He was a lavish entertainer in an era when socialites escaped the summer cold by guesting with the wealthy amongst the redwoods. His once glorious mansion was torn down in disrepair in 1953.
That same year, 1953, bodies buried in the prior century were exhumed from a cemetery created downstream of Searsville Lake and reburied in Menlo Park's Holy Cross. The cemetery had been created a hundred years earlier along with a church by Dennis Martin on his cattle ranch. Martin was the timber baron of Searsville on the valley floor, located across Portola Road. In the upstream ravine, he had a sawmill built in 1852. As the creek only flows seasonally, farther uphill his crew excavated a pond, still there, as a reservoir for steam generation to power a second saw mill. Within a few years, the San Francisco financial boom spawned by the gold rush went bust. Real estate prices crashed, building halted and Martin had to sell off his mills.
OLH parallels a deep gully on the left before bending where a green sign on the right reads “Dennis Martin Creek. Martin later lost title to his Searsville property due to a court ruling over contesting land grants. Unable to borrow on property he no longer owned, his fortunes continued to fall and the former Irish immigrant died a penniless laborer in San Francisco in 1890.
Logging continued uphill. As the trees were consumed, in 1876 the road was improved as a commercial venture called the Redwood City and Pescadero Turnpike. The cost to maintain eventually proved too much and the enterprise was turned over to the county, as was done with the other local toll roads.
As OLH winds its way up the ridge, several roads appear, all apparently old logging roads, now private and leading only to residences. In order, they are Home Road, Meadow Road, Lower Lake and Upper Lake. Except for paved Upper Lake, from which you can actually see a lake below, they all have pebbly surfaces and lead only to homes. Through the trees on the right, a huge gap opens over the watershed containing both branches of Dennis Martin Creek.
Farther uphill is paved Orchard Hill, a bald knob just off the forest, where sit a handful of private homes. Beyond the last house, the road continues uphill, layered with debris and steep, also private. Several saw mills once operated off this road, called Morshead on old maps. Former Morshead Ranch below is now El Mirador Farm.
OLH narrows as it cuts deeper into the redwood glade. An address 600 is posted on a redwood. At a heady pace, there’s about 6 biking minutes remaining to the top. Graveled private Martinez Road enters from the right. When Mexico held California, Maximo Martinez was granted by a rancho encompassing the redwoods below. Martinez Road once continued to Skylonda but a slide has wiped any driving surface. Summit Road soon appears on the right. It once threaded to the rambling backwoods tract accessed from Skyline Boulevard. Both roads are now private and closed.
Across from Summit Road, from the left is the street sign for Upenuf Road, named for the leveling spot where walking passengers could now re-enter the stage. The road runs into a private driveway followed by a chained-off parcel, prohibiting access to the reconnection with OLH. The top of Morshead Road soon lies just below to the left, ending at a wired gate. A final turn leads to several mailboxes, lined up like a murder of crows, opposite the Skyline stop sign where the Summit Saloon once quenched thirsts.
Ahead, OLH dives into more forest and soon provides, when clear, a spectacular panoramic view undulating west to the eternal horizon of ocean.
Continuing on the narrow trace, you will reconnect with Highway 84 and soon La Honda, the road's namesake. John Sears, for whom Searsville and the subsequent lake are called, relocated to the La Honda Creek area in 1861. Local folklore has it that three outlaws, namely Cole, Jim and Bob Younger, all were hired by Sears to help build a store at the current site where Sears Ranch Road meets La Honda Road. However, Sears reportedly built his store and hotel in 1877, one year after the Coles were shot up during the Northfield robbery attempt while assisting cohorts Frank and Jesse James. The Bandit Store story was supposedly started by the brothers Oscar and Walter Ray, ranchers who, in the early 1860s, might have employed Cole Younger, having deserted the Confederates and avoiding criminal prosecution. Supposedly, Cole's brothers also later fled the law to La Honda, along with his sister Mollie, who married a family cousin in San Jose. Perhaps the Youngers worked on the Ray or the Sears ranch houses and not the later store.
To reach their redwood hideaway, they would have ridden their horses up and over the log-haul route now known as Old La Honda Road.
Published Cycle California, November 2013, Vol. 19, #10