Biking the Dark Side of the Moon (Santa Cruz Mountains)

Published Cycle California, November 2014, Vol. 20, #10

“It never got weird enough for me.”  Hunter S. Thompson

There’s a 35-mile road-bike loop in the mountains between Los Gatos and Santa Cruz that, as the saying goes contains riddles wrapped inside mysteries inside enigmas.  Though the area is close to ultra-tech Silicon Valley, the weird and unusual are tucked amongst the blackwater creeks and deeply wooded vales as obscure as the dark side of the moon.   

You first have to find Holy City, located just off Highway 17 south of Lexington Reservoir.  Once a sanctimonious ground zero on the Old Santa Cruz Highway, only one building, a blown-glass shop, currently survives of the old site.  A mini-museum of clippings and photos is visible through the shop’s window.  The town of 300, which had its own radio station, was founded in 1919 by William E. “Father” Riker, who proclaimed a lifestyle of The Perfect Christian Divine Way at his road stop.  Back in the days of tire blowouts and boiling radiators, you could stop there for gas, a meal and mineral water plus view the moon through a telescope for 10 cents.  The opening of Highway 17 in 1940 killed his New Jerusalem by relocating the snaking lines of cars, all the better for biking the shoulderless road.

In a couple curving miles, you reach Summit Road, which as you turn left, roller-coasters to Summit Store, fully stocked with outdoor tables, welcomed as a rest stop if it wasn’t so early in the loop.  San Jose-Soquel Road comes up on the right and starts out with surprising inclines before giving up a three-mile rollicking descent.   A few discouraging little uphills take you to a former stagecoach stop that is Casalegno’s Market, occupying the site since 1929.  At your mile 13, the store has an antiquated gas station entrance attached to the adjoining residence.   A V-like right hand turn takes you north on Laurel Glen Road.

After a steadily increasing climb, just when you least expect it, you come upon St. Clare’s Retreat, which, as the Internet relates, was begun by Franciscan sisters who fled their original convent in China as communists overran the country in 1948.  It now has all the look of a resort sanctuary, complete with swimming pool.  The road becomes Mountain View as it descends crazily to an intersection.  Your instincts are to turn right, which is Vine Hill Road but that’ll deliver you hopelessly to the pavement edge of northbound Hwy 17.  In keeping with the unpredictable, Vine Hill was the location of Alfred Hitchcock’s 200-acre mountain top estate, which he owned during his Vertigo-Pscyho-Birds years of 1940-1972.  Turn left instead on Branciforte Road and follow the creek four miles, midway passing the wonderfully named Dancing Creek Winery.  Narrow Granite Creek Road intersects at mile 19 of your loop.

Pass by it for now as the entrance to the Spot of spots awaits only a half-mile down Branciforte. If you or any of your bike mates have never checked out the Mystery Spot, it’s only a little bit of time and money.  Even the most jaundiced “can’t fool me” cynic amongst your group will head scratch in wonder.  Of course, it belongs in this forest.  Be advised however that the bumpy, pot-holed entrance road is treacherous, especially on the way back out. 

Retracing to the Granite Creek Road, you fork left for ferns and moss-covered logs lining a steady 3 mile climb until you pop out abruptly in a residential neighborhood.  Gliding downhill, you intersect a stoplight before the freeway.  The street to the right is the incongruously named Santa’s Village Road.  For every carsick kid hauled over the twisty highway road in the mid-50s into the 70s, visiting there was a must, beginning with a real North Pole perennially frosted at the entrance.  But it’s all gone now so turn left to catch the overpass into Scotts Valley, originally settled by Osip Volkov, a Siberian fur trader who jumped ship in Monterey Bay in 1815.  

Taking scenic Glenwood Drive north, you’ll find Mountain Charlie Road rising up from the left around your mile 27.  The road is narrow as it curves and ascends.  Two miles after the toughest uphill grind on the left is the Submarine House, a transported grain silo once used for storing Falstaff Brewery hops, now painted bright blue, rising between the sublime and ridiculous amongst an orchard of lemon trees in the foreground with distant ridges behind.
After three more miles of uphill push, you reach a log cabin that’s beyond rustic, built long ago near the original site of Charlie McKiernan’s even older house.  Mountain Charlie was an Irishman homesteading and bear hunting in the days post-gold rush.  In 1854, he survived a mother bear attack with a hole bitten into his skull just above his left eye.  Two Mexican silver dollars were pounded into the fractured gap and he was nursed by the Kelly family, helped by 8-year-old Barbara, whom he wed in 1862 when she turned 16.  Wearing his hat low to cover the horrendous scar, Charlie and his partner Hiram Scott contracted with the county to build the road between their two homes, with Scott’s in the namesake valley below.  Charlie collected tolls and his wife operated a stagecoach stop at their house while raising seven children.   The coastal railroad ended that enterprise and his former property now supports a Christmas Tree Farm, with the grizzlies long gone, but so is the railroad.

Mountain Charlie Road drops to Highway 17, crossing it by overpass and then falls further to the Old Santa Cruz Highway where a left leads back to Holy City, mile 35 completing the circuit.

Mountain Charley’s was once a boisterous saloon in downtown Los Gatos until it closed due to a love-triangle murder between owners.  Now it’s a burlesque nightclub called Charley’s (wouldn’t he be surprised?) which isn’t open during the day but the Black Watch down the street is, which somehow seems a fit setting for a Gonzo-ride-ending Irish coffee, something that was never available at dry Holy City, which didn’t have a saloon but also didn’t have a church.  Anyone could see the regular side of the moon, telescope or not.  To see the other side, you have to bike.