Dutifully, you settled for pavement when the winter rains didn’t slicken the asphalt into shallow black rivers. You pedaled along machine-laid roads, although you’d pause at the hilltop to look forlornly down muddy slopes, trying to discern the zigzag tread prints that had long before washed away.
Feeble beams of spring sunshine haven’t had much time to dry out waterlogged terrain between shower spurts, but the time is almost at hand to roll out the new mountain bike, get on your fat tires and reacquaint yourself with the downhill drop.
The acknowledged birthplace of mountain biking is Mount Tamalpais, where thrill-seekers navigated near-vertical trails in the 1970s. But prepubescent daredevils heady with their first rush of adolescent hormones long traversed fire trails on balloon tires before adults got into the game. Rob van der Plas, author of multiple bicycle books including “The Mountain Bike Book” (Bicycle Books, $10.95), attributes the first prototype for the fat-tired, flat-handlebar cycle to Ignaz Schwinn’s 1933 creation on which newsboys carted the dailies.
The road was hardly smooth as mountain biking became more popular. Acrimonious differences among Mount Tamalpais trail users reverberated across the Bay. Local land managers in the East Bay were tempted to close off roads to cyclists as many Marin County jurisdictions had done. But compromise was brokered by the likes of the East Bay Bicycle Trails Council (EBBTC), the second oldest mountain bike advocacy group (Marin’s Responsible Organized Mountain Pedalers, or ROMP, preceded it by a scant two months).
The negotiating talents of Michael Kelley, who founded the East Bay council and later started up the International Mountain Biking Association, and other groups worked to involve cyclists in land-use processes. Today, a community has been built up from the solitary sport of off-roading; members continue to cooperate with groups representing horseback riders and hikers in land-use decisions and in soliciting access to areas such as Los Vaqueros watershed.
If you want to learn about grueling downhills, excruciating climbs and deft handling, we’ve provided a list of advocacy groups where you can get knee-deep in bicycle issues. Oh, and we’ve also culled some recommended trails for some actual riding. Pack up your warning bell and bike helmet and be ready to cruise killer topography. Don’t forget to call ahead to see what El Nino has left behind.
Contra Loma Regional Park-Black Diamond Mines Regional Preserve
Getting there: Black Diamond Mine ranger, 925-757-2620. From Highway 4 in Antioch, exit Lone Tree Way, turn right on Golf Course Road and right on Frederickson Lane to Contra Loma Park.
Frank Esparza, treasurer for the Delta Pedalers, suggests a beginner’s route and “pretty good technical climb” on Stewartville Trail in Contra Loma Regional Park. The route takes less than a mile to reach Black Diamond Mines Regional Preserve, and just a bit more before passing by mine openings such as the Underground Mining Museum. Turn left toward Star Mine Group Camp, which has restroom facilities, to follow the Star Mine Road to Star Mine. Double back onto Stewartville Trail.
If you’re feeling spry, instead of returning to the start point, make a left and take either the Lower Oil Canyon leg or the Upper Oil Canyon leg. The latter is more of a climb, but ends in an overlook surveying the valley. The entire trip covers 6 to 8 miles, and at this time of year, plant life including mustards and lupines is flourishing.
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Ride coordinator Rynie Quan adds another dimension besides elevation and mileage to her route. With the same approach on Stewartville Trail, take the right fork to Ridge Trail. Cut back on Stewartville Trail and take it all the way to Rose Hill Cemetery, where you make the transition to Nortonville Trail. Turn left to Black Diamond Trail, which becomes pavement for a little more than a half-mile.
This intermediate-level, 18-mile ride can easily be prolonged at the Black Diamond Trail, where a left onto Cumberland Trail continues you on the path to Mount Diablo.
Briones Regional Park
Getting there: Park ranger, 925-229-3020. Highway 24 west, Orinda exit. Turn left onto Camino Pablo Road to Bear Creek Road.
Level: Beginner to intermediate.
The occasional hoof print and outright bovine encounters can make you feel you’re trespassing in a dairy pasture rather than a enjoying grand outing, especially when rutted trails and rains turn the grounds soft and pliable. The valley slopes here seem to be among the most untouched in the region.
Park at the Bear Creek Staging Area and take Bear Creek Road to Abrigo Valley Trail. The trail narrows steeply near Wee-Ta-Chi Camp, where views of the Benicia Bridge and three mountains, Diablo, Tamalpais and St. Helena, emerge on a cloudless day. Continue for more than a half-mile until you turn right onto Briones Crest Trail. Take a left onto the Spengler Trail loop, which wraps into Table Top Trail. That takes you back to Briones Crest Trail near Briones Peak.
Getting there: Ranger, 925-837-2525. Highway 24, exit Ygnacio Valley Road (south). Head east on Ygnacio until the town of Clayton, turn right on Clayton Road, then right on Mitchell Canyon Road to park.
We spoke with Grant Petersen, who established his formidable reputation from a decade-long stint at Bridgestone, still the Volkswagen of bicycles even though it hasn’t been made for about four years. He started up his mail-order Rivendell Bicycle Works (925-933-7304) in Walnut Creek a few years ago. He recommends the old standby of Mitchell Canyon Trail to the summit. “I like Mitchell Canyon more than anything else. I like it because it’s not adobe or clay, it drains really well, and even in wet weather you can ride it and not pick up a lot of mud.” That also means less trail damage.
It’s a dry-weather route, with waterfall vistas in the spring. Even in temperate seasons, Petersen says it’s never crowded. “I’m amazed that you can go out on really accessible trails on weekends on really beautiful days, trails that people in the Midwest would kill to ride, and not see anyone, ” he observes. “I think it’s a good thing.”
The trail connects to Deer Flat Road. From there, head up to Juniper Campground to Summit road pavement. It blends into North Peak trail with its sharp curves along ominous Devil’s Elbow. Cyclists who have negotiated the Elbow tell harrowing tales of their survival, then go back again. Create your own lore, then cut left on Prospector’s Gap Road, swoop right to Meridian Ridge Road, then test your fear of headlong descents for the brief free fall down Donner Canyon Road before finally returning to Mitchell Canyon.
Joaquin Miller Park
Getting there: Joaquin Miller Community Center, 510-482-7870. Highway 13, exit Redwood Road, right on Skyline Boulevard and bear left onto Joaquin Miller Road, right on Sanborn Drive.
The Oakland park opposite Redwood Regional Park boasts a 15-mile network of narrow and single track. “We do a lot of trail maintenance work there, ” says Eric Muhler, president of the East Bay Bicycle Trails Council. “The whole park is amazing because, contrary to East Bay Regional Park District policy, they allow everybody to share trails. … People have really learned how to cooperate. It’s a model of narrow trails where everyone is happy.”
Muhler recommends a loop of Sunset Trail to Big Trees Trail. Passing through redwoods, the 5-mile route turns into Sequoia Bay View Trail, which joggers and hikers like to use. From here, many cyclists dismount and walk their bikes up the Cinderella Trail’s extremely steep canyon segments. “I can ride them about 10 percent of the time, and the rest of the time I walk them like anybody else, ” Muhler says. Cinderella cuts back to the Sunset Trail, where a stunning view embraces the Bay Area.
Getting there: Ranger, 925-862-2963. Interstate 680 south, exit Sunol Boulevard, right on Castlewood Drive, left on Foothill Road to the Oak Tree Staging Area.
A hilly terrain covered with oaks, buckeyes and, given the proper conditions, poison oak, this is where you go for an ego resizing. Atop the ridge, you can survey the immense landscape with Kilkare Canyon west and the Diablo Range east. You can allow yourself one moment of smug superiority as you gaze down at a distant freeway grade that ranks as one of the Bay Area’s most congested. That should be long enough for the thigh burn to subside to a gradual throb.
From Oak Tree Trail, go right onto Ridgeline Trail. If you see a unidentified flying blur in the distance about a mile or so into the ride, it’s probably just a golf ball from the Castlewood Country Club. Go left again onto Thermalito Trail, which is the beginning of your return route. Oak Tree Trail will come up on your left.
Angel Island State Park
Getting there: Hotline: 415-435-1915). Take the Bay Bridge, exit Fremont Street. Follow the signs to Fisherman’s Wharf. The Blue and Gold Fleet (415-773-1188, Ext. 7) leaves from San Francisco Pier 41. Limited bicycle space; first come, first serve. Ferry weekend departure times: 9:30 a.m.-2 p.m.; return: 10:05 a.m.-4:40 p.m. Ferry fee: $5.50-$10, includes park entry. Bicycle rentals: $10/hour.
Pristine real estate, albeit with the occasional El Nino washout, where the only tires that touch the roads belong to ranger trucks, sightseeing trams and bicyclists spiraling up toward the peak of Mount Livermore. You can only go about 450 feet up before you’re required to lock up your bike and hike to the summit.
Despite the state park’s tourist trappings, delicious solitude and Bay waters surround you for most of the way. The remaining buildings, cannons and Nike battery missile of the outpost’s martial past oddly reinforces the peacetime conversion.
Currently, bicycles only have access to the paved Perimeter Road because of the storms. Even the Sunset Trail restricted to hikers is closed off. Check with park staff about conditions of fire roads, which are to open up by summer.
Mount Tamalpais State Park
Getting there: Marin Municipal Water District Ranger Station, 415-459-5267. Mount Tamalpais State Park, 415-388-2070. U.S. 101 south, exit Mill Valley (Highway 1).
Level: Beginner to intermediate.
Described by Kelley as the “crucible of mountain biking, ” this state park encompasses more than 6,000 acres. It can still be hostile territory, given the two decades of ill will among trail users. All of mother’s etiquette training must emerge in full force when exploring Mount Tam.
Be careful of your speed; radar gun checkpoints have been known to crop up.
The Delta Pedalers will be making their pilgrimage to this birthplace of mountain biking (see sidebar). If you want to go on your own, Old Railroad Grade is considered the classic trail. The Mount Tamalpais Scenic Railway once passed through this route. Kelley suggests starting your bike ride through Mill Valley on East Blithedale, which becomes West Blithedale. The actual grade begins past Blithedale Park.
Double Bowknot and the remnants of the railroad appear right before the 3-mile point. At 5.2 miles, civilization reserved for cyclists emerges in the form of West Point Inn, which dispenses refreshments and provides restroom facilities.
You can continue the trip down Old Stage Road another former public transport route, but for stagecoaches all the way to the Pantoll parking area and to Muir Beach. Kelley suggests continuing to East Ridgecrest Boulevard at the right, where you will find Eldridge Grade. Another side trip brings you to the 2,571-foot mountain peak. Here you can lock up your bike, indulge in more libations and walk about the summit.
Instead of retracing your route, you can take the Eldridge Grade descent, but it’ll be slow progress because of the grade and speed limits.
Getting there: Point Reyes National Seashore, Bear Valley Visitor Center, 415-663-1092. Interstate 580 north, crossing the Richmond-San Rafael bridge. Exit Sir Francis Drake Boulevard and head west.
Level: Intermediate to difficult.
A mountain biker for years (he still owns the first mountain bike model that Specialized churned out in 1981), Kelley favors the 11-mile fire road high above Marin County. Atop the ridge, you can see Napa to the east, Bolinas Bay to the south, Point Reyes to the west and Tomales Bay to the north.
Multiple entry points to the Ridge Trail can shorten or lengthen the 22-mile round trip. Kelley sometimes parks at the west end of the Samuel P. Taylor campgrounds, and begins on Jewell Trail. This joins up with the Bolinas Ridge Trail near the town of Olema for a 35- to 40-mile excursion.
Another route, but one that doesn’t access redwood groves, is to take Shafter bridge to Ridge Trail, then around to Jewell Trail and back to Samuel P. Taylor. You’ll see open pasturelands, Inverness and Point Reyes.
A straight ridge ride would be to start from Tocaloma, which is at the bottom of Olema hill east of the trailhead. Bolinas Ridge Trail heads uphill and south. You can also drive through several towns until you reach Fairfax and turn left on Bolinas Road. Trail parking is about 11 miles from Sir Frances Drake Boulevard. You’d take the trail going downhill north and greet the car shuttle with fervor, else it’s uphill on the return pass.
This article originally appeared in the Contra Costa Times