Buck Crockett // Grand Epic
After an epic, I find myself reflecting on topics I think about while biking in the mountains: mushrooms, colorful plants, old trees, rocks, ancient people, and conservation. Before a Grand Epic, I question if it's possible and my focus is much more narrow like the root of a tree. Next, I translate that question of possibility into a problem statement and the idea begins to grow. In this case, we have a 107-mile route connected by a mosaic of land preserves on the eastern slopes of the Santa Cruz mountains. This route contains 14,275ft elevation gain.
A typical day of mountain biking in Soquel Demonstration State Forest for me is around 21 miles and 3,000 ft of elevation gain. The Big Epic would be about 5 times more than my normal mountain biking day in terms of miles and elevation gain.
This odyssey would be the biggest gravel ride of my biking hobby so far. My rough math worked out 15 hours of riding would mean about 8mph. This ride was theoretically possible for me to do within the daylight hours of the open spaces we would be riding through. My next step was to assemble a crew. The last two years of COVID-19 have reduced my time cultivating riding relationships with fellow bikers in the San Jose, California region. My work expanded and the little time I had for riding was typically solo. So I emailed and texted all my riding contacts to see if anyone was interested in such an adventure and they all let me know I was crazy, the ride was too epic, and they were not into such a sufferfest.
All except for two friends, Marshall and Kristoff. I met Marshall through the kayaking community and in the past, we did many weekend kayaking trips together. We even did an 8-day Grand Canyon kayak self-support in December 2016. The grand epic would be our second time biking together. Kristoff and I met through a local Facebook bike group, pre-COVID. I was looking for folks to ride gravel in Calero County Park at 5am during the summer and he was one of two people that were interested in this type of dawn patrol. Both of these guys are solid epic bike day partners. They are easygoing and nice, even on long days in the mountains where you are chipping away in the depths of the pain cave. They are both also solid bike mechanics and each understands the fundamentals of bicycle drivetrains and components. Marshall built his gravel bike frame with steel tubes and a TIG welder. Each one of these guys is more than capable of fixing a mechanical issue on a bike, if it can be fixed, even after you have been riding so long that anything logical in the brain starts to feel cloudy. Nonetheless, I figured that either Marshall or Kristoff would bail so I did not tell them that the other person was coming until about 5am the morning we were meeting up to start the ride. The two were in separate friend circles and had never met before the ride; Marshall mostly being a road bike rider in San Francisco and Kristoff mostly being a mountain bike rider in South Bay. I am not sure why they both remained committed to such an epic ride. Perhaps they were pulled so profoundly by a thirst for an adventure they felt compelled to join the quest of the great epic 2022 gravel ride. So it was the three of us, each attempting to put down their biggest and longest riding day ever.
The target meeting time was 5:00am on Saturday, April 2, 2022. Marshall was late driving from the Mission District in San Francisco so the official starting time was 5:46am. We were already behind schedule, losing nearly an hour of our planned riding time of 15 hours to complete the route by 8pm that night. Group roles were quickly established. Kristoff became our navigator because he was the only one with a bike computer with the route uploaded to it. Marshall's bike computer did not charge correctly overnight and moving the route to it without wifi was not working at such early hours of the Saturday morning. My cell phone had the route in GAIA GPS, however, it did not mount well for following turn-by-turn directions like the bike computers did. So Kristoff guided us through a maze of empty city streets in the morning darkness.
Through the first miles of conversations, Kristoff and Marshall got to know each other a bit and I got to catch up with both of them on life since the COVID-19 pandemic. This was my first time hanging out with them since the pandemic started two years ago. We cycled and talked about our lives as we rode south toward Belgatos. Kristoff is an electrical engineer, Marshall is a design engineer and I am a systems engineer of sorts. Our related engineering work created lots of space to nerd talk about the things in our professional lives we are passionate about. As the pre-dawn twilight began to eat away at the morning darkness we turned off Blossom Hill Road and onto Harwood Road. Harwood Road climbs steeply for about 500ft in a short enough road segment that we faced our first punchy climb. I hiked-a-biked the steepest section towards the top, being mindful to pace myself for the long day ahead by keeping my heart rate and wattage low. My thinking was that it was important to start slow and never push too hard at any point in the first 90 miles. Also, my bike has a single 42-tooth front chainring; my chainstay also has 42 teeth on its biggest ring. I guess my drivetrain has figured out the answer to one of Douglass Adams' core questions in his book, The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy: “What is the answer to life, the universe and everything?” For practical purposes, my gear inch range is 113.4in on the high end and 27in on the low end. This means the bike moves forward a max amount of 113.4in in its highest gear after a single rotation and 27in in its lowest gear. Ideally, the low gear would be lower than 20in, with a fatter back tire and I would hike-a-bike less on the steeps. That's the context for the drivetrain and needless to say I have made it work for me. Marshall and Kristoff hiked a lot less and used their front derailleur and dual front chainrings for maximum mechanical advantage, both climbing and descending.
As we entered Belgatos Park, the crimson sunrise was starting on the western horizon beyond the Diablo range. We stopped briefly to take it in before descending on gravel. Belgatos Park is the smallest of the preserves we traveled through, at only 17 acres. Oak Ridge Trail is on a south-facing slope and its wildflowers bloom early. White Horehound (Marrubium Vulgare) is an invasive grassland species that has white flowers in spring but otherwise looks a lot like mint blended in with the grass-covered hillsides like green Horehound candy drops sprinkled across a cake with green frosting. This flora holds the morning dew and makes the singletrack a little slick on the switchback turns. This segment was less than two miles and we were back on the paved road system continuing south toward Calero Park. We went from Shannon Road to Kennedy, to Camden Avenue, and onto Calero Creek Trail.
Calero Creek Trail is a 1.2-mile gravel ribbon on public land between the western flanks of IBM’s research campus property and the eastern border of flat, fallow agricultural land. Many species of birds carve a life out of this place. The oak trees and shrubs that line this creek create a wetland of sorts that is an ideal habitat for many species. You can find Ruby-crowned Kinglets (Regulus calendula), a small but mighty songbird, White-tailed Kits (Elanus leucurus), a territorial raptor that eats on the rodents in these parts, and Ash-throated Flycatchers (Myiarchus cinerascens), which like to summer in this region, all on this trail. Passing through this area at daybreak, the birds welcomed our two-wheeled trio with their morning songs. Leaving the creek behind, we turned south on Fortini, Road bound for a quick tour of our next county park.
Calero County Park is 4,471 acres on the eastern slopes of the Santa Cruz mountains. A solitary Valley Oak tree (Quercus lobata) sits on top of a ridgeline hill above the Almaden Trail we are on. In the morning light, its sprawling branches grow in wavy arches perpendicular to its trunk like an acacia tree on the Serengeti. With about 100 miles to go, the landscape is peaceful as we continue our journey along with the 2022 big epic.
Back on pavement, we rode west through the historic district of New Almaden. It should really be called old Almaden or the Hacienda because there is nothing new about this place. It is a cold morning as the narrow valley traps cold air. We smell the chimney wood smoke from ramshackle cottages built along the banks of the Alamitos Creek. The history of this community goes back to the 1840s, if we start the timeline by the death date of a cholera baby laid to rest in a cemetery on the southside of the creek. We stop quickly at my house, just a stone's throw away from the entrance to QuickSilver County park, to refill water and shed morning insulation layers, then hit the road again in preparation for the next climbing segment.
The route turns to bumpy gravel as we enter the Almaden QuickSilver County Park with its 4,152 acres. The roadbed is reinforced with angular mine tailing from the last 150 years. Kristoff sets the pace and we flow through this segment at a fast clip. Over about 10 miles we ride clockwise around the Capitancillos Ridge passing many mines along the way. Before the mines were created, the land in this park was a Mexican land grant given in 1842 by a Governor named Juan B. Alvarado. When the privately operated quicksilver mines started to be developed, litigation over private versus public ownership went all the way to the Supreme Court in December 1862 with United States v. Andres Castillero. In the end, the Court decided that the mine on the hillside we were biking up belonged to the government and the furnace on the valley floor used to cook the mercury out of the oar was the mining company’s. Fast forward 160 years and the lands have passed back into government ownership. The mining roads are now closed to motor vehicles. These are now trails for the public to walk and ride on. Thirty miles into the ride, we have set a course west toward the next county park.
Riding across Hicks Road, we enter Sierra Azul Preserve. It is 19,300 acres in the Santa Cruz mountains. We flow quickly around the southern curve of the Guadalupe headwaters drainage then start climbing northward. Our legs burn hot like steam engines as we climb a steep gravel road of 18% gradient on the approach to the summit of El Sombroso, elevation 2,999 ft. I hike my bike in the shadow of Mt. Umunhum (3,486ft) to the south. Marshall and Kristoff wait for me at the crux and we hike together as our feet struggle to find traction on the loose talus that covers this steep road segment. Two e-bikers zip right past us as we climb, motors humming against the strain of the mountain.
For the native Amah Mutsun people, this land was their creation point on earth. Umanhum translates to the place of the hummingbird from Mutsun to English. The deeper meaning is that for these people the universe was created here. These tribes made a life in this region for generations until the late 1700s when Spanish occupation began and their hunter-gatherer culture was killed off. Many things contributed to the decline, such as disease, slavery, war, and clashes within the growing agricultural civilizations of the Spanish Missions and later American settlers.
Soon we reached the top of our climb and stopped briefly at the summit of El Sombroso and then began our rolling descent of the Kennedy ridgeline. The steep gradient of the road has allowed it to be eroded by water in the rainy season. Deep ruts for a gravel bike must be jumped over at speed to prevent impact. A full-suspension bike rolls over this type of terrain with ease. On a gravel grinder, it is hyper-focus line picking where the rider actively tracks the bike in between the ruts, rocks, and bumps. On the second roller, I jump a bump in the road made to reduce erosion. The handlebars sink when I land and for a split second, I think they are broken. I brake lightly trying to maintain control of the bike to prevent myself from crashing. The back end slides out of control for what seems like a long time; I stay on top of it and gain some traction as the breaks do their job and my speed slows. Now that I have control of the bike again, I move my eyes from the path ahead down to the handlebars and confirm that they are not broken, just down tilted at the fork stem attachment. Deep breaths, and hike-a-bike up the steep side of this roller. Marshall and Kristoff are still ahead. I catch them at the top of Kennedy ridge and we descend together slowly through a crowded segment of this trail. We turn onto a paved roadway and then take Kenney into the town of Los Gatos for our first and only resupply.
We made it to Los Gatos around 11:30am. 9.5 hours left to go. The community is affluent and quaint and the town is bustling. Down the road from Manresa, the Michelin starred restaurant the area is known for, we stop at the 7-11 across the street from the old high school. Cheap trashy food to help offset the calorie deficit we were building on our quest. I buy two strawberry milks, each with 23 grams of protein, 290 calories of energy, 39 grams of sugar, and a lot of salt. That's about three times the sugar of a single Clif shot for about the same price. For my non-liquid diet items, I purchased two chicken tenders and three taquitos each with its own variety of processed dankness. Marshall got chocolate milk and Gatorade, and Kristoff got only one chocolate milk. This put me as the winner for the most variety of cheap foods and calories for this resupply. Next, we stopped at Cafe Dio for coffee, water, and a better atmosphere to eat some food and take a short break.
The milk was delicious and my body felt a kick of energy from the caffeine in the coffee. We hit the road again and wound our way through urban streets as we approached our next nature preserve, St. Joseph's Hill with 273 acres. We climbed Jones trail-road, heading west again. I hiked my bike on the steep sections and I began to feel a bit nauseous from the concoction of crap I just put in my stomach. Fortunately, I did not eat and drink everything from my resupply. I saved one taquito and one strawberry milk. My food strategy for long days on a bike is all about eating as much as possible in terms of protein, calories, salt, and fat without making myself sick. It's a tricky balance and it's all about trying to eat small amounts of food constantly and using a liquid diet, such as milk, strategically.
The gravel road through St. Joseph was crowded with mid-day hikers. We moved slowly on the downhill section to respect them and their place in nature. Green Toyon (Heteromeles arbutifolia) shrubs flank both sides of the path and oak trees grow above them. We left this small preserve quickly as we transitioned onto Alma Bridge Road and began a loop around the Lexington Reservoir.
This reservoir was built mid-century in 1952 and has a 450-acre surface area when full. Before the tech industry, silicon valley was an agriculture hub and storing water was a core strategy for supporting the economy. Beneath the reservoir lay two ghost towns sacrificed for the parasitic expansion of mankind. Kristoff leads the way and Marshall drafts behind him. I am still working to keep my food down. Looking out at the water I watch crew team rowers in longboats pull their way across the water. The road has big windy sweeps around Limekiln Canyon and Soda Spring Canyon, topography that's exhilarating on any bike. I lean into the corners, tuck forward on the downhill and begin to close the gap between me and my friends. On the western end of the reservoir, we head north again and climb the road up to a segment of the Old Santa Cruz Highway then descend through the second-growth redwood forest heading east again. Turning on Black Road, we are at an elevation of 665ft and begin a 1,200ft paved road climb to our next preserve. The road is steep and we are hot in the midday sun. I take the lead and shift the chain into the most optimal climbing gear and I wish I had a bigger cassette. Still, I push on through as we pass Christmas tree farms. Nearing the top of the climb we pass through more second-growth redwood stands. The air is cooler beneath the shady canopy of these giant trees. Passing beneath them out of the hot sun is like nature's aid station
We transition back to gravel as we enter Sanborn County Park Preserve, 3,453 acres. We travel north on the John Nicholas Trail and agree to have a rest at a small picnic table next to a small rancho reservoir at the base of our next climb. Kristoff and Marshall take the lead again and I stop next to a massive old-growth Coast Douglass fir (Pseudotsuga menziesii var. menziesii). At around 300ft tall with a trunk the size of a small car, this tree has been a guardian of this next realm within our Grand Epic journey for between 500 and 1000 years. It predates the tech boom, the agrarian age, the Spanish colonization, and many generations of the nomadic tribe natives that came before us as present-day bike riders. I begin to ride again and think about how this tree was one of the lucky ones to find its way into the protective boundaries of the open space preserve. So many great old-growth trees were cut down by humans before we switched to heating our homes with oil and gas and building them with Douglass fir. Their massive stumps remain in the present time, a tombstone reminding visitors how humans can create and destroy wilderness.
Perhaps the next generations of conservationists will protect the second-growth redwoods better than the last ones. A generation is 25 years, which is a small amount of time compared to a Redwood tree's (Sequoia sempervirens) lifespan, which can exceed 3,000 years. If we divide the 3,000 years a Redwood tree can live by the 25-year mark of a single generation, we land at 120 generations. Alternatively, we can add 3,000 to 2022 and land on the year 5,022. What is the probability a present-day redwood sapling will make it to old age and therefore become a future garden of the Santa Cruz mountains? As a species, Homosapiens have largely failed to protect these unique trees that only grow in this single location on earth. Deep down I hope that changes and I feel small knowing I will not be around to find out.
Rounding the tiny reservoir, I see Marshall and Kristoff getting off their bikes at the table. Kristoff recharges his bike computer with a small power brick. We eat more food as we mentally prepare ourselves for the remaining miles and around 7,000ft of climbing. I have less than 5, 10,000ft bike days under my belt, most of which were a touch over 10k. Soon our bodies will be exploring the envelopes of our climbing limits as we finish the second half of the ascent up to the skyline ridge of the Santa Cruz mountains.
Chapter 3: The rollers of Skyline
The windy single-track segment of John D Nicolas Trail is perfect for a mountain bike. My carbon BH cyclocross bike frame that's been transformed into a gravel grinder with a Lauf leaf spring fork in the front, a 40c wide knobby tire up front, and 33c wide tire in the back, makes for a bumpy ride on anything but the smoothest single track. It carries me past a creek in a lush, green fern forest. We wind around larger sandstone boulders carried downhill during flood events present on a geologic time scale. The rock itself looks to be part of the Vaqueros Formation and San Lorenzo Formation. These rocks formed 20-50 million years ago in what geologists refer to as the Miocene and Oligocene. The living plants that grow out of this creek bed root in an alluvial fan geologically deposited over many millions of years.
Passing through this segment we continue our climb upward. I hike my bike and Marshall and Kristoff leave me behind as we wind up the switchbacks of this early part of the trail. Halfway through the climb, they are waiting for me and I push myself to ride the last handful of switchbacks to the summit. The switchbacks themselves are quite enjoyable as they are cut at a lower gradient than some of the hike-a-bike sections we have already passed through during the day. Near the top, I finish the water in my hydration bladder. That puts me at about one gallon of fluids so far. I check in with the crew and we plan to stop at the new parking area at Castle Rock State Park to refill water and eat more food. On a long road ride, it is easy to eat while riding. On this gravel ride, it is not feasible. We find ourselves actively riding the bikes. Soon we reach the summit and head north on the trail system that's built next to Highway 35.
The trail is flowy in spots and covered in cobbles and tree roots in others. This creates active and engaging riding the entire time. Metallic brake pads squeak on the downhills and the dusty derailleurs click and clack as they lift the chain up the back sprockets on the uphills. We are over 50% done in terms of miles now and I can feel hot spots on the pads of my hands where they contact the handlebars. A tiny house-size sandstone boulder named Indian Rock is next on our approach. Climbers lounge around it as they rest between bouldering sessions. Kristoff says “I wish I had suspension” as we bump down the next segment, carefully picking lines to avoid cobbles and roots where we can. At the end of this short bumpy downhill, we climb again until we see an opening in the trail system that allows us to access the highway and travel off route to a parking area.
Castle Rock State Park has 5,242 acres. This newly opened parking area has electric car charging, bathrooms with flush toilets, WiFi, and three picnic tables, as well as a water system connected to a water filling station. These are all signs of the quality execution of the state park infrastructure improvement project. In California, funding for parks falls under the Natural Resources Agency that had an $11.2 billion budget in 2022 for all 27 of its departments, including state parks. That seems like enough money to run every state park in the state and yet many lack basic amenities such as soap in the bathrooms. Castle Rock State Park has struggled to stay alive in its own right. Back in 2011, it faced closure due to a funding shortfall under Governor Jerry Brown's administration. In the end, legislation was passed as part of California Assembly Bill 42 that made it possible for parks to obtain operational funding from non-profits, after which the park was bailed out with a quarter-million-dollar donation from the Sempervirens Fund. Since that time, the Portola and Castle Rock Foundation was created to help inspire the protection of Castle Rock and Portola Redwoods State Parks.
Portola Redwoods is due north of Castle Rock and is 2,800 acres in size. This history is important. Conservation is complicated and places worth protecting such as these will not stay accessible for future generations without the ongoing advocacy of the people that feel connected to them. A full day of bike riding immersed in this network of preserves fuels my passion for conservation. I wonder if other folks that visit these places will find their own reason to care about them as I do.
Sitting on the cold concrete in the shade cast by a picnic table, I eat sardines and pilot bread. A can of sardines has 200 calories and 20 grams of protein! Pilot bread is 100 calories of carbs. Marshall looks hungry and I offer him a sardine and 1/2 a Pilot bread. He graciously accepts the ration and eats it in two bites. We hustle through the food and water stop and in 20 minutes we are back on our bikes, riding north again. It’s 2pm and we have 6 hours to go. Hopefully, we can make it to Fremont Older Open Space Preserve before the gate closes at sunset.
Across the highway again and back on the trail system in Sanborn County Park. As we approach the north-western border, we hear the loud pop, pop, pop of recreational gunfire from a shooting range about 100 yards away. It is unnerving and we ride fast to put more distance between the guns, their bullets, and our bikes.
Northward we ride through the leaf-covered single track in what feels like a tunnel of oak trees. Despite the fatigue, I am enjoying how engaging this segment is. We pass the intersection of Highway 9 and Highway 35. We're in a new preserve now. Saratoga Gap is 1,540 acres. The trail climbs steeply and then drops into a verdant green drainage. Despite my best efforts, the bumps are hard on the back wheel. I visualize the wheel bearings getting crushed like a hammer each time I hit another big rock or cobble at speed. The smallest barring in the assembly is on the hub side of the rear wheel. It's always the first to go after rough rides like this. Kristoff and Marshall are in lead again and waiting at the top of the next climb where the gravel single track intersects a gravel road.
I catch my traveling companions and we ride for less than half of a mile in Upper Stevens Creek County Park, 1,280 acres in size. We hit a small segment of a relatively small preserve and it is just as good as the last one. Heading west we cross Highway 35 again. This highway divides Santa Cruz County from Santa Clara County.
Long Ridge Open Space Preserve, 2,035 acres, greets us on the west side of the mountain crest and we set a course north towards the Turtle Rock Overlook, elevation 2,693 feet. The oak trees and coniferous Doug fir forests transition into open grassland. Blue stocks of Miniature Lupine (Lupinus Bicolor) bloom in a sea of green grass, the first orange California poppy flowers of spring (Eschscholzia californica) grow intimately amongst the Lupin and green grass. The land is mystical and the trail provides our pathway through it. We crest a hill in the final approach to Turtle Rock where we can see beyond the mountains now, far out west, beyond the continental shelf. Stratus clouds float above the great Pacific Ocean; an overlook such as this makes the perfect place for a micro stop.
My front wheel is wobbling more than it should and I tighten it with a 12mm hex key. The logic centers in my brain begin to feel foggy. Kristoff asked what time it was and I said 2pm. I check my phone. It's 4pm. Check the topo. We still have a long way to go. We must make it to Freemont Older before the gate closes at sunset, maybe 2.5 hours until then? Can we make it? With a brain made fuzzy from the 10,000 feet of climbing and ~85 miles we have already put down, I am not sure. No more stops, we got to keep the wheels moving if we are going to make it. Hastily, we continue northward. The trail weaves through patches of open grasslands and more coniferous forest stands. We reach a high point next to a road system called Portola Heights then descend quickly and steeply to the bottom of another lush drainage. The back wheels slide locked by the disk breaks, rotors receiving pulses from the calipers. The bike and the rider in a dance. Within a thin veneer of balance and control, we drive our gravel bikes down the bump line. No one crashes, no one flats! Fuck that was close.
Marshall and Kristoff wait for me at the next turn, no worse for wear, and above the feather-like ferns that grow along the babbling brook of Peters Creek. Shaded by a redwood canopy, this place is magical. It’s spring and the ground outside of the thin ribbon single track is covered in Miners Lettuce (Claytonia perfoliata). I take a mental note to come back to this place about two weeks after the first fall rain to look for Oyster Mushrooms (Pleurotus ostreatus) and Lion's Mane (Hericium erinaceus). We head north again on Peters Creek Trail, which takes us out of the canopy and back into the open grasslands again. We climb gradually up the Chestnut Trail. Castanea Ridge Road marks the boundary between Long Ridge (south) and Skyline Ridge (north).
Crossing this road we enter Skyline Ridge Preserve with 2,144 acres. The single track is now a gravel road and we climb gradually up a small hill before descending briefly west around Horseshoe Lake. In the shade on the southside of the lake is a stump from a tree that was cut on the side of the road. I remember this stump from another trip on this same road a few years ago. During that trip, I found a sizable flush of Honey Fungus (Armillaria meallea) growing on this stump. Honey Fungus is a plant pathogen that is parasitic in ecology, however, it can and will still eat on a host after it has killed it, making it a facultative saprophyte as well. This mushroom is edible in choice and a delicacy in many mushroom-loving countries such as Russia, Poland, and Ukraine. Ironically, it is illegal to collect and eat mushrooms in the Open Space preserve, even the fungi that kill trees are strictly forbidden from collecting for sustenance.
The forest is dry during our journey, the fungi are not fruiting, and the geese are honking on Horseshoe Lake. Kristoff stops at the bridge that crosses the outlet for the lake to take a photo before we begin climbing a steep and punchy hill. Marshall is the only one spinning a crank at this point. Kristoff and I hike-a-bike because after a certain amount of climbing, steep hills require more watts and a higher heartbeat than we're willing to put out.
Hitting a false summit we continue our climb. A mountain biker on a day trip quickly passes us, I smell his freshly applied deodorant on his relatively clean body. I know our trio must reek from the pasty salty sweat that covers our bodies this late in the day. We are now tired enough to get passed easily. The topo shows this climb at about 500ft of gains and it feels like more than that. Soon we reach the apex of the hill, hot from the late day sun, and quickly descend. The road turns to pavement briefly before switching to the single track. We head east out of the park and onto the road system again. To the north is Russian Ridge Preserve with 3,491 acres. We passed the parking lot for this preserve right before crossing Highway 35 and beginning our descent on Page Mill Road.
Chapter 4: Black Mountain and Beyond
This short paved descent, smooth like butter, the brief reprieve from bump trail vibration, is wonderful. The oak trees arch tunnels over the road in spots, and the cool air feels light on the skin. After about one mile we exit the road and head southeast on Upper White Oak Trail. We are approaching our last big peak for the day, Black Mountain, which rises high above the land that surrounds it: Monte Bello Open Space Preserve with 3,133 acres.
The trail system is well maintained and we make quick time on the smooth gravel. Onward to Canyon Trail we descend for just a bit due south. We stop in the shade next to Bella Vista Trail before our final ascent of Black Mountain. Everyone eats more food and drinks more water. I drink my last strawberry milk. The 23 grams of protein and 39 grams of sugar send a notable jolt of energy into my tired body! It is a little after 6pm and we do not waste time. I start climbing up the trail and my friends quickly follow.
We have about 750ft of climbing on a smooth single track that is perfectly graded. Everyone spins gradually through this segment and we pass the Black Mountain Campground. A light breeze blows south with the trade winds. The sun is beginning to set in the west behind the Santa Cruz mountains, into the Pacific Ocean. The top of the peak has been graded flat with heavy machinery making room for a large water tank and communications equipment.
Being the first to bag this final peak I yell, “WE MADE THE SUMMIT!” 2,767ft! Marshall and Kristoff are right behind me. It is hard not to feel emotional. We know we have to keep moving to stay on track and hopefully make it to our final preserve before the gate closes; yet, we take a bit of time to soak in this wonderful summit. Looking north is San Francisco; east on the peninsula sits the massive arched aircraft hangars of NASA’s Ames campus and its giant runway for the old space shuttle. Apple Headquarters looks like a silver spaceship in Cupertino. Stanford's red-roofed buildings contrast brightly in the late daylight. Its bell tower seems old against its modern surroundings of Palo Alto. To the south, far off into the distance, we can see the tiny concrete cube of Mount Umunhum. Between our bikes and the cube that marks the summit of Umunhum lies all the mountains we have traveled today. It feels crazy and it is. We link arms and take a group photograph. One for our own record books, then we get on our bikes and ride.
We ride down the steep gravel road that makes Indian Creek Trail and the metal bits in the brake pads squeak away on the descent. After dropping about 1,000ft in elevation in about two miles, we head due south on Canyon Trail. It's bumpy loose gravel and we like it on the downhill. Below 1,400ft, the ecology changes and we enter Upper Steven Creek Preserve once again, this time on the eastern boundary. It is green and lush on the trail built next to the creek. The road and trail have more cobbles from the ancient depositional environment of a historical streambed, which in ancient times must have raged down this canyon during flood events. Next we cross Stevens Creek. Everyone hikes their bikes across the stream, an ode to our growing fatigue. We talk about stopping for water one last time and then keep on biking.
Soon we cross a sign that lets us know we are leaving Palo Alto County and shortly after that we transition onto Stevens Canyon Road! It is smooth like butter after the gravel we have left behind us. I tuck forward to reduce the drag to get as much efficiency on the descent as possible. Marshal sits up tall, stretches, and shakes out his arms before falling behind to catch the air like a broken sail. Kristoff leads. We drop from 1,000ft elevation to 600ft elevation before turning east on Stevens Canyon Road. We choose to skip the last option for a water refill and quickly spin around the Stevens Creek Reservoir.
This Reservoir is pre World War II with a construction date of 1935. It looks big and yet only has a surface area of 92 acres.
Past the lake, we take a right and head south into Steven Creek County Park with 1,063 acres. The gate is still open! We roll past the Chestnut parking area and the road becomes gravel, curves and turns west, and drops in gradient gradually into a creek-craved canyon. At the intersection of the Tony Look Trail and Coyote Ridge Trail, we take a short break before the next climb. We enjoy the hundred-mile snack break. I eat some peanut butter and it tastes like creamy energy and I love it. With less than 10 miles to go, we should have this ride in the bag. We're on the margin. Any mechanical issue would result in us being in the preserve after dust, which is strictly prohibited by the land manager.
I lead the way up Hayfield Trail heading south again, hiking my bike. I am not sure if we can finish this last loop before the sun sets and the darkness returns. Slow, steady hope is all that's left. At this point in the ride we are all quiet, tired and just grinding through the last handful of miles.
Halfway up the last big climb, we officially cross into our last new park of the trip: Fremont Older Open Space Preserve, 339 acres. Soon we hit the ridgeline and turn west and ride toward Nob Hill, elevation 1,138ft. Its ridgeline rolls to the base of Nob Hill and when we arrive, we regroup before turning on to our next trail. Kristoff jokingly says we could climb it if we want to and we all have a laugh because at this point we have climbed over 13,500ft and no one is interested in any extra climbing. Toyon Trail becomes flowy singletrack as it curves and takes us northwest.
Soon we turn onto a gravel road, Hayfield Trail, and climb again toward Hunters Point. The sun is starting to set as we arrive and we start a slow loop on the flowy Seven Springs Loop Trail. We drop about 200ft and slowly climb out of the drainage. Small songbirds sing their nightly songs in oak trees. The shady forest is dense and comforting in the evening light. At the end of the climb, we descend a gravel road for a few hundred yards and stop at the Cora Older Trail. We are back in open grassland now and the last wedge of the sun is making its way below the horizon, its photons creating a red glow in cumulus clouds that sit over the mountains to the west. Kristoff takes a photograph and leads our fast descent to Prospect Road. Here we all put on our red flashing lights as dusk settles in.
Kristoff guides us through the urban corridor using his bike computer. I assume we are done with gravel and about one mile later we hop on another gravel trail that follows a railroad line. The railroad grade is about 0% plus or minus 1%. After over 14,000ft of climbing, spinning spokes on flat gravel requires less wattage than my legs have become accustomed to on this epic ride. We transition onto Cox Avenue and take the paved bike lane deeper into Saratoga. We cross an overpass over Highway 85 and the lanes are surprisingly clear of traffic. Turning onto Saratoga Avenue, we focus on urban riding as we pedal the last few blocks into the REI parking lot. A siren from a random ambulance blast as we pull into the shopping center, an indicator that we have left the mountains and returned to urban life.
The lights in the parking lot shine bright as they did when we began our quest in the dark hours of the morning. My heart is heavy with emotion as we collectively finish this Grand Epic ride. 107 miles and 14,275 feet of climbing is a new record for each of us. We fist bump in celebration. I sync Strava like the data nerd I am, and it reports 109 miles! Kristoff pulls a cooler out of the back of his green Subaru and asks if we want a beer. “Fuck Ya!” I say. Marshal laughs and we toast in celebration of the completion of this journey. The beer is bitter, cold, and full of carbohydrates! Liquid energy that my body loves. I open my cooler, drink a 4oz Tupperware of 2% milk then hand out sparkling water to my companions.
It's late, about 7:15pm, and we are all so tired. We just want to rest. So we rack our bikes on our respective motor vehicles and drive home, back to our normal lives.
What excites me most about the Grand Epic route done on a bike is the sheer volume of parks a traveler can see in a single day of riding! It is an incredible combination of roads and trails that link all of these preserves together. Riding with Marshall and Kristoff allowed us to share this grand experience as bikers and friends. I am grateful for their willingness to try something so crazy with me and further cultivate our local cycling community. From a conservation perspective, this trip fueled my passion for environmental advocacy. I dream that other folks will visit these places and choose an active role in trying to protect and maintain them long-term. The Santa Cruz mountains and the human civilization that has evolved around them hold a vast amount of knowledge worth learning about in the areas of history, geology, ecology, mycology, and environmental philosophy. Through the eyes of a traveler passing through a landscape, these places become my classroom. The more I learn, the more I question my tendencies toward an anthropocentric worldview.
I hope other visitors will take time to think about their sense of place while exploring nature. I hope that future travelers connect with these places and work to protect them. I hope that more everyday people step out of their comfort zones and try something crazy like a big epic bike ride.
Below is a sheet with the size of the parks the Grand Epic travels through. Note that Castle Rock State Park is off the route but a worthy water and rest stop. Also, Russian Ridge Preserve is also off the official route but it borders Skyline Ridge and Montebello Open Space, making it an easy park to add to the epic for an ambiguous traveler.