The Black Mountain Loop—Adventures In Self Abuse


I've gotten in the habit of finding long loop rides tht I can make from home, where you never ride twice on the same road. I don't need to worry about parking, it adds some route finding challenges, and it's fun. When looking over a map the other day, I noticed that Black Mountain was the highest spot in the area. Black Mountain: 2797 ft. My house: 15 ft. Looks like the makings of a fun ride.

Or so I thought.

Here's the map showing the approximate loop, starting at Arastradero in Palo Alto, running south through Los Altos and Cupertino, past Stevens Creek Reservoir, then north for a quick uphill ride on Monte Bello Road to the summit, down the other side, and finally a quick ride down Page Mill Road. Looks easy, so off I go.

One of the important aspects of a loop is locating appropriate places for refreshments. Here's one such store near the beginning of the ride, on Los Altos Avenue. Your basic general store, called the Adamant Market. I don't know why they're adamant, though.

Since there's no way to ride straight up Black Mountain, I must scurry around it at a safe distance. Every block down the quiet streets provide glimpses of the mountain. It certainly doesn't look very intimidating from these pastoral Los Altos streets.

Not being one to take the obvious route, I wander through Los Altos and Los Altos Hills, looking for a more interesting way to get to the top. Here's another view of the mountain from Los Altos Hills. It seems so close from here, that there must be a direct route straight up from here. No such luck.

After weaving in and out and up and down the streets of Los Altos Hills, I stumble onto a gate of Rancho San Antonio Open Space Preserve. Finally, I can get off the pavement. Unfortunately, the only path bikes are allowed on here is a dirt road that leads down. There goes my elevation gain. My spirits rise briefly when I discover the road turns straight towards Black Mountain. My good mood is short-lived, since bikes are not allowed past a certain point. The preserve map shows a trail running straight to the summit, but no bikes are allowed on it. I do see some quail tending to their very tiny chicks near the "you're not welcome here" gate, so the detour isn't a total loss.

I point my bike back towards where we came from and head out of the preserve. Here's another no bikes sign near the south entrance. Okay, I get the point. Just south of the preserve, I stumble onto a large cemetery. Hoping that there's an exit on the far side of the cemetery, I enter (looking as respectful as one can in bike clothing). Alas, no exit, so I fill up my water bottle at one of the many spigots and head back out (uphill again).

I descend to Foothill Blvd and turn right towards Stevens Creek Reservoir. On Foothill, there are a couple of convenience stores in case one needs further refreshments. [For bike stuff, you can turn left at Foothill and go to Chain Reaction Bicycles.] Foothill becomes Stevens Canyon Road as it winds past the reservoir. This is a nice enough ride, except for the constant rumble of trucks heading to the Permanente Quarry. Once past the Quarry, it's a quick turn to the right for the climb up Monte Bello Road and on to the summit of Black Mountain. There's a nice view of the reservoir here at the turn.

[In hindsight I should mention something about Monte Bello Road (here's a topo map of the road). It's pavement most of the way up, until you reach a gate. Then it's a dirt road to the summit. I figured it wouldn't be very tough. I was mistaken. The road is 3.4 miles long, with a 2600 ft. elevation gain. That gives it an average grade of 15%, which is more than this humble cyclist is used to. If I had paid more attention to the map, I would have noticed this little detail. But I suppose that would have taken away some of the adventure.]

The grade of Monte Bello Road is like the Eveready Bunny--it keeps going. And going. And going. Plus, it's hot. At least there are some nice things to see along the way. There's the Picchetti Winery, a good place to rest and find some shade. Their sign says "Tasting Room Open", so it might be worth dropping in some time. My trusty turtle and riding companion, Munroe, is caught by the camera eyeing the sign with desire. He probably has the right idea. I wonder how the Picchettis would greet a sweaty and panting bicyclist. Never mind.

As I climb further on this never-ending road, vistas of the Silicon Vally below appear. Here's one. Too bad it's such a hazy day.

While doing my best impression of a hill climber in my lowest gear, a road biker rider glides past and gives greeting. I ask him for a tow rope, but says he forgot to bring one today. Just my luck. I see another driveway and a sign that simply says "Ridge". This must be Ridge Winery, which makes some of my favorite zinfandel wines. What a crappy sign for such a great winery! Further along now, and I see Monte Bello Winery, with vines covering the rolling hills. If I weren't so exhausted, I could appreciate the scenery a little more. Two hawks glide silently past me without even a flap of their wings, as if to say "there's an easier way to the top, Terry."

After what seems an eternity of relentless climbing, I come to the gate at the end of the paved section. The dirt section is gravel mostly, and it's no longer as big a climb. Thank goodness for that--my legs don't have much left in them. My odometer reads over 30 miles so far, and I haven't yet reached the summit. I had no idea the ride would be this long, but stubborness drives me forward. Finally, the summit is in sight. Only one more push to go.

The top, finally. Time for a rest and a look around. Black Mountain gots its name because of all the heavy, dark vegetation. But on this side of the mountain, it's rolling grass. Who knew? Here's a panorama view looking west. If it were a clear day, I could see ocean out there. But the vast expanse of hillsides will have to do. The grasses atop the hills to the west are still green, but they've mostly turned brown where I'm standing. The closer to the ocean, the cooler and wetter it gets, and the longer the grasses last.

No time to dawdle, for I have to make time if I'm to get home. The dirt road drops from the summit and follows the ridge line up and down (more down than up, thank goodness). I'm so tired that just hanging on in the downhill sections is getting difficult. Both hands are numb, as are both feet. I pass the hikers-only trail that I saw from the other end at Rancho San Antonio, many miles ago. Eventually, the dirt road lets out at Page Mill Road, where it's cool, somewhat shady, breezy, and exclusively downhill. Time for a high speed ride down some winding pavement, then an easy pedal on home.

I pedal as if in a drugged stupor on the way home, with one final insult hurled at me: a headwind (the bane of afternoon rides around here). I push through it, managing to eke out a pathetic 13mph. Now that I'm home, its all I can do to get inside and collapse. I want to take a shower, but standing up makes me want to vomit. I'll just lie down, drink some water, and wait. After a half hour, I can get up without losing my lunch. Shower feels good. I check my weight loss: down 4 lbs during the ride. I drank over 60 ounces of water, and I still lost 4 lbs. Maybe that explains the way I feel. It was pretty hot during the climb, after all.

I remember to check my final mileage: 41 miles, with a total vertical between 3500 and 4000 feet. I'm an idiot. That's way too much. Adventure has its price, I'm afraid.

Next time, I'll check the mileage and the topo maps more carefully.

Terry Morse