Mountain Biking Old California Part I

Published Cycle California, September 2018, vol. 24, #9

Back before vineyards spread everywhere that houses didn’t already take over, the hills of California belonged to cattle. Where hills are too steep for neighborhoods, cattle still roam as they did in Old California. Thankfully, such land has been donated or affordably purchased for open space preserves that allow mountain biking on primarily former ranch roads. Three obscure and little attended public open spaces lie within striking distance of San Jose. Spring is the time to check them out when the hillsides are green and temperatures cool.

Serra Vista OSP

Sierra Vista sounds like the name of a subdivision but the trails within the preserve of the same name drop down into Upper Penitencia Creek. That name conjures up the image of a isolated penitentiary stashed up a mysterious canyon. But actually the name comes from an adobe house of confession and penitence that was established in mission times. If you don’t know what penitence is, chances are you don’t know what contrition is either. There’s a religious connotation with both words that is connected with sin. In the world of crime, penitentiaries became prisons. To be penitent is to be regretful.

The Sierra Vista trails start at the crest of Sierra Road in the northeast San Jose hills. The combination of single tracks and roads drops 8% down over two-and-a-half miles to the creek that feeds Alum Rock Park. The park is California’s oldest municipal park, established in 1872. Mike Culcasi and I biked it on a clear March day and are only possible regret was the steep climb up the Calaveras Fault Trail back to Sierra Road. Not having punished ourselves enough, we took the Boccardo Loop Trail (didn’t Boccardo write The Decameron?), with a ripping 14% one mile descent with a two mile 9% grade back to the parking lot, completing our day’s ten mile ride.

(For the record, Giovanni Boccacio wrote the ribald 14th century book. James Boccardo, born 1911 in San Francisco with parents from Genoa, was a noted trial lawyer and philanthropist who funded the trail corridor in his name.)

More remote than Sierra Vista is Rancho Cañada del Oro, or the Valley of Gold Ranch, another open space preserve. It’s a very romantic name but a recent one, not that of the original Mexican land grant. The cañada is tucked away in Morgan Hill and drained by Llagas Creek. Llagas is Spanish for “sores” and is this case refers to “wounds,” specifically the crucifixion wounds of Jesus that were received by St. Francis for the last two years of his life. The arroyo, or creek, was named by a Franciscan priest from the order that founded the California missions.

Clockwise from the parking lot to the south, Cañada del Oro offers several routes, including two that are mile-and-a-half 8 % climbs over a combination of three trails, with Catamount Trail at the top. A catamount is short for “cat o’ the mountains” and could refer to a mountain lion down to a bobcat. The only catamount I spotted was Culcasi, who descended like a catamount on our steep drops while I held a death-grip on my brakes. Biking just under eight miles, we explored only a portion of the park on a spring day of golden sunshine.

Vargas Plateau

Vargas Plateau is not a location in a Clint Eastwood western. Located in the City of Fremont hills on land was originally acquired in 1909 by Antonio Francisco Vargas with adjoining land later by his brother Manuel and nephew Edward. It’s become a recent open space preserved accessed only by the exit off I-680 on the Sunol Grade. Two loops are involved with the first being a short three-mile swing through cattle-gates and past cattle (and their droppings) onto the shoulder of a slope with a glorious view of Niles Canyon to the north. Rejoining the trail, the next loop takes you down the Cliffside Trail that overlooks the residential Canyon Heights neighborhood, vertically separated from our path by a splay of the Hayward Fault. The ranch road winds down the cliff-like escarpment in lengthy switchbacks to avoid the sheer drops.

The trail finally reaches a gate at Morrison Canyon Road. The choices that Nick, Julian, Si and myself had to make was either four miles back the way we had come, with a 10% mile in the middle, or ride just under two miles using the single lane road, a steady 8% and paved. An out-and-back never feels quite satisfying and so we chose to complete our loop by using the pavement. The roadway was almost too narrow for a car and bicycle to pass each other in case of conflict but no vehicles appeared and we completed the day’s eight-mile ride.

The Bay Area has thankfully many mountain biking areas. These three open space preserves: Sierra Vista, Cañada del Oro and Vargas Plateau, are three of the least known and most remote, all with challenging uphills and skidding downhills. “In Old California” was a 1942 movie starring John Wayne. He would not have been out of place in any of the three preserves if we’d spotting him riding up from one of the steep draws.