“Hey, looks like you’re pretty much ready for the end of the world?”, one of the two mountain bikers at the trail junction up ahead yelled in my direction, about a hundred feet down the trail from them.
I and my fully packed mountain bike were, for sure, an unusual sight on this trail in El Corte de Madera Creek Preserve, one of the many green oases just a thirty-minute drive away from the heart of Silicon Valley.
The handlebar, seat post, and frame bag had attracted the attention of the pair of fellow bikers up ahead in their fifties. Despite their age, they looked like they are still hanging out on these trails every weekend.
“You got a shotgun back there? Looks like you could go camping up here!”
“Actually, I am,” I responded. I was on my second of three days bikepacking down the San Francisco Peninsula. I had started the previous day in San Bruno, made my way over Sweeney Ridge to the Pacific Ocean and down the coast to Half Moon Bay. Today was going to be the longest (and toughest, as I would soon find out) day, from the seaboard back up the ridge and through the trail networks of various Open Space Preserves.
Eventually, I made it up to the junction, had a quick chat and then continued on Manzanita Trail which would ultimately bring me to Skyline Boulevard, the main thoroughfare on top of the ridge, and onwards to another park and another trail.
My setup had already earned me intrigued looks just minutes after I stepped off Caltrain No. 146 in San Bruno, about twenty minutes south of San Francisco.
“Where you heading?” the bearded driver of a pickup truck shouted out to me as we were both stopped at a busy, six-lane intersection. “It is just you? Oh, right on, man!” I got an approving nod from his buddy in the passenger seat. The light turned green, and we went our separate ways.
I had done plenty of mountain bike and road rides on the Peninsula before and what drew me back to it, again and again, was the sense of remoteness, almost impossible to grasp when living in an urban area of 8.75 million people. The stretched out, extreme and physically slightly uncomfortable version of this was what I ended up finding during those three days and roughly one hundred miles.
The Pacific presented itself precisely in the way that tourists, who flock to this area every summer, see it all too often. Hoping for clear blue skies, perfect for instagramable selfies with the California coast as the backdrop, they optimistically opt for the Ford Mustang convertible as their rental. And commonly dismiss the suggestions on TripAdvisor to make sure to bring a sweater and, if you got the space, a light jacket.
On the way to the top of the first ridge, the misty and windy conditions were foreboding what was to come later along the coast. Dropping down the trail at Pacifica, it was overcast but dry. The wind blew from the northeast and was therefore in my back. The ocean views and the calming sounds of the waves crashing against the shore compensated nicely for the less-than-perfect conditions. It ended up getting a little wetter the closer I got to Half Moon Bay, however nothing I was concerned about. The weather, in the end, wasn’t the problem on this trip.
Mozying along coastal trails and past weathered cypress trees on the second day, I eventually had to make the turn to head east and back up the mountain ridge separating Silicon Valley from the coast. It was such a different world on this side of the range, I came to realize. On the empty country road on my approach to the parking lot of Purisima Creek Redwoods Preserve, I passed by various ranches, with the occasional horse or cow grazing just a few feet away from the road. From the lush green forest and moist air on the Purisima Creek Trail to the fire roads in El Corte de Madera and further south the single tracks at Russian Ridge and Skyline Ridge, it was a whirlwind tour of all the different climate zones and types of terrain the Bay Area has to offer.
Some distance, sadly, had to be covered on asphalt. Most of it on the tarmac of Skyline Boulevard, the personal weekend playground for people with deep pockets to show off their Porsches, Ferraris or their latest Ducati. Most likely one would find them at Alice’s Restaurant, the only lunch place along this road, meandering along the top of the ridge. It’s location also explains it’s popularity with multiple parties on the waiting list on a Saturday at 2 pm. To my luck, seats at the bar were still available, and a hearty lunch was consumed.
The second day seemed to drag on forever and my navigation aid, with its constant beeping when it lost satellite reception in the dense woods, wasn’t making it any easier for me. I secretly wished I had said shotgun to put my Garmin out of its misery but, alas, I still needed it to guide me out of this forest. Running out of nerves and energy, which may have led to me pushing up the bike a few hills, the all-too-familiar highway junction at Saratoga Gap came into view. It had gotten way later than I had anticipated and I was seriously contemplating taking the eight-mile downhill on Hwy 9 to Saratoga and back to civilization, ending this ordeal right there.
But no, Castle Rock State Park, with its coastal redwoods and Douglas fir, was the goal for the day. After some more toiling on the Saratoga Gap Trail, I managed to get there, found myself a campsite at one of the walk-in campgrounds and devoured my freeze-dried dinner just as the sun was setting.
Like in a good movie, the third day proved to be the grand finale to this adventure. All the uphill I had conquered the previous day, I eventually reaped the benefits from with a single track downhill, gently graded, through Sanborn-Skyline County Park under finally blue skies and warm temperatures. By the time I reached the crossing over busy Highway 17, connecting the San Jose Area with Santa Cruz, I had to realize that I was out of the woods.
Cruising along Los Gatos Creek Trail, surrounded by other cyclists, runners, and families with kids taking a walk on a Sunday afternoon, I found myself at the train station in Downtown San Jose sooner than I secretly hoped. The happiness of having completed this adventure dominated, however on the train ride back to in San Francisco, I still marveled at the solitude and sense of remoteness I got from these parks and trails so close to my doorstep.
I followed Valas Valancius’ SF Pensinsula Traverse route, however cutting out some of the steep and thorny sections in the Montara Mountains and ending in San Jose (as opposed to Almaden) for logistical reasons. His route description and the comments left by other readers are an additional valuable resource to consult before attempting this adventure.
I opted to use Caltrain to get me to the starting point and back from the destination in San Jose. Living in San Francisco at the time, I took a train from the 4th and King Street station and starting the ride from San Bruno Station. From San Jose Diridon Station, I took a train back to San Francisco.
There is always a chance of construction work impacting schedules, especially on weekends. It is advisable to check the Caltrain website for any station or route segment closures.
Given how densly populated the Bay Area is, opportunities to refuel are naturally quite abundant at the beginning and end of the route. One thing of note is that on Day 2, after leaving the coastal section and making your way inland, the only real option to get food along the route is the area around the junction of Hwy 35 & 84, with the always popular Alice’s Restaurant.
If you don’t want to be forced to leave the route in order to restock, make sure to carry enough provisions to last you through the rest of Day 2 and the first half of Day 3. Once you made it down to Los Gatos, there are plenty of options to replenish any lost calories.
I undertook the ride on a Salsa Timberjack hardtail mountainbike with a bikepacking setup. That being said, a gravel bike with wider/knobby tyres would work as well, given that the off-road/trail sections are not particularly technical.