Published Cycle California, April 2015, Vol. 21, #4
Every year that my bike group has trained for the Death Ride, we’ve always included biking up Fremont Peak, outside of the Mission town of San Juan Bautista, between Gilroy and Salinas. And every year, it’s kicked our butts. Want to know what’s the Death Ride like? Go bike 3000-foot Fremont Peak. The ride up from the Highway 156 stoplight compares to the Monitor Pass. Doing 5 round-trips would give you comparable mileage and ascent to the Death Ride’s 5 passes, minus the Sierra altitude.
This June, three of us pedaled up in 95 degree weather and, as always, once was enough. Thankfully the lower oak-filled San Juan Canyon Road is shaded, that is until you cross the watershed divide onto a treeless, sun-beaten hogback where the road climbs a mile long 10% grade. Afterwards, the asphalt still rolls upward but at a much easier grade atop a long ridge where you bike blindly toward the peak ahead, out of view until you’re well into the State Park at the end.
Back in the rancho days, the name was Gabilan Peak, meaning “hawk.” A plaque on top tells the story of how John C. Fremont took his collection of 60 well-armed mountain men into Alta California for an unofficial look on behalf of Washington D.C. Told to leave by the local Mexican officials, they resisted by fortifying themselves on the peak while the Monterey military force gathered below. Under Army orders not to provoke an action, Lieutenant Fremont left with his ramblers before dawn, dropping down the mountain’s southside into the San Joaquin Valley and parts north before returning in time for the Bear Flag revolt.
For the bicyclist, the only descent is back the way you came, but not before you can bike up a maintenance road short of the peak itself to get a view of the Salinas Valley and distant Monterey Bay. It’s the same view that John Steinbeck had before he left forever with his dog Charley to travel across the county, as written in his last book.
San Juan Bautista is Old California’s version of quaint. We parked off the main street under a huge pepper tree next to a white-washed stucco wall with cacti and chickens on the other side. Uphill was the mission where “living history days” were being re-enacted, something that occurs the first Saturday of every month. The old-time Plaza Park was lined with makeshift tent camps and characters in costume, making the rustic town feel even more archaic. The front of the church sits on a San Andreas Fault escarpment above a dirt stretch of the original El Camino Real and a vast expanse of produce fields beyond. It’s still pretty much the same as depicted in the 1958 movie Vertigo, minus the special effects bell tower.
Rather than just go up and down the mountain, we headed north on 1st Street, recently paved smooth with wide bike lanes. The road winds past Earthbound Farms where Anzar Road enters on the left. Two Anzar brothers arrived in SJB in 1833, with one a priest and the other leaving many local descendants over the years, giving their name to nearby Anzar High School, mascot the Hawks. We took that left as the road narrows and passed by McAlpine Lake & Park, an otherwise hidden American enclave. After going under 101, we turned left on Cannon Road, undoubtedly a respelling of canyon, written cañon in Spanish. The quiet road sneaks between hills and is patch-bumpy as it drops down through a fantastic eucalyptus forest before becoming Rocks Road. Back in the day, bandits such as Joaquin Murietta hid behind immense boulders to rob stagecoaches traveling the isolated El Camino, now a divided four-lane highway too crazy busy to cross, as we found out.
As pathfinder (which was Fremont’s nickname), I failed miserably as we had to backtrack uphill but not the whole way before we turned right on a single-lane residential road to eventually catch the Highway 156 overpass back to SJB. At the town stoplight, we turned right toward an old-time California road sign, black letters on white background indicating that Fremont Peak is only 11 miles away.
Below the sign is a Juan Bautista de Anza National Historic Trail sign, the kind that proliferate all over the Bay Area’s main roads. Ahead to the right is a turn onto the Old Stage Road to Salinas that becomes dirt closed to vehicles but not mountain bikes. Juan Bautista was born in Sonora, now Mexico but then New Spain. He descended from a Basque family rooted back home in an “anssa” or “pasture amongst elder trees,” hence “de Anza.” In 1776, Juan Bautista led over 100 Sonoran soldiers, dependents and colonists toward San Francisco Bay, twenty-one years before the Mission of the same name was founded on June 24, the church’s feast day of St. John the Baptist. Anza may very well have taken that same route, without any grueling side-trip up the peak. We kept left, crossing an ancient section of old concrete highway on our challenging journey up the top and then breezed back to the charming relic of a town.