Biking the Heights (Los Altos Hills)

Published Cycle California, October 2014, Vol. 20, #19

Los Altos in Spanish means “The Hills” but most of the town itself is very flat, fine for bicycle-touring quiet neighborhoods.  For a more challenging bicycling experience, Los Altos Hills, which translates “The Hills Hills,” has plenty as the redundant name suggests.  LAH is just across Foothill Expressway from LA.  Within the zone between Foothill, a former railroad line converted into an expressway in 1963, and I-280 exist some of the shortest and steepest climbs around with several about 1/4 mile long with average grades between 9%-11%.   Per Strava, postings, the maximum grades are as follows:  Alta Tierra 26.0%, Anacapa 25.5%, Viscaino west 25% and east 22.6%, Westwind west 17.5% and east 15.5%.  La Barranca goes under I-280 with a 17.9% max grade up to Elena.  A few blocks from El Monte is Quinnhill, 23.5% at one point but looks impossibly uphill starting from University Avenue (still officially within Los Altos).

The west (mountain) side of I-280 has longer roads, even more challenging.  Just past Foothill College, El Monte Road fans into three roads:  Elena, Altamont and Moody, of which only Altamont and Moody connect to the LAH segment of Page Mill Road.  Altamont averages over 7% and crests at just over a mile, then rolls another mile to Page Mill.  George Washington Moody, the road’s namesake, once had visions of a building a railroad up Adobe Creek Canyon.  Instead, he settled for a stage stop, now the site of Hidden Villa.  Just past the popular retreat, the 3-mile-long road turns sharply to begin a half-mile 11% average pitch up to Page Mill.  

Page Mill Road was built by William Page as a haul route from his over Skyline sawmill to his now long-gone lumberyard near Palo Alto’s California Avenue railroad station.  The LAH segment of Page Mill is between Arastradero and Moody Road.  Going uphill, you can turn left onto Via Ventana, a right on Briones and then again on Altamont to rejoin Page Mill.  It’s a little longer (3/4 mile instead of 1/2 mile), climbs more overall and steeper (15.3% instead of 9% max) but has less traffic and more stair stepping than staying on Page Mill.

Elena offers three alternative ways to connect with Altamont, each around a mile, including Taaffee (13.9% max), Natoma (8.2%) and Natoma-Black Mountain (8.6%).  There’s the whole other side of El Monte as well, including two different uphill routes, Tepa Way-Summit Wood (11.4% max) and Stonebrook Drive (8.8%), leading to a former quarry, now estate homes flanking a spectacular lake, with a way through to Magdalena.  Besides these well-traveled hills are plenty of other climbs waiting to be explored.

Los Altos Hills has no businesses except for the bookstore at Foothill College, built in 1961. LAH has no post office or library.  In 2013, Forbes ranked the town as the 2nd most expensive zip code in America based on a median house price of $5.4 million (Atherton was $6.67 million).   Besides sitting on real estate gold, LAH residents also have the best assortment of short bursts of stand-in-your-pedals hills.  

If off to road bike the area, you have until October 5th to visit the bicycling exhibit at the history museum behind the library of Los Altos, on San Antonio Road.  The exhibit, Pedal Power, opened in April and closes October 5.  I visited it recently, viewing amongst other things:  Greg LeMond’s training bike for 1981, a Ritchey bike built by Tom Ritchey, a bamboo bicycle, a Swiss Army bicycle and a time-line history of the bicycle, beginning in 1790.  All the exhibits have wonderful videos attached, including interviews with those involved.  Unlike LAH, Los Altos has plenty of commerce including three bike shops from State Street to Homestead Road, each with not-surprisingly close-by coffee shops.