South of San Francisco, the Peninsula and South Bay offer a myriad of options for combining riding and sightseeing. More famous for tech - Apple, Google and Facebook - than singletrack, Silicon Valley does though sport many diverse parks and preserves, most clustered along Skyline Boulevard (Highway 35). This twisty, scenic road runs along a ridge of hills that separate the Valley from the Pacific. It's these hills that block the infamous San Francisco fog from reaching much beyond SFO International Airport, giving the Valley a gorgeous summer climate.
The riding varies in technical complexity, scenic value and in distances - both horizontally and vertically. It's best in summer and fall, but there are good spring and winter options. I've concentrated my suggestions based on accessibility from San Francisco, quality of riding and overall diversity.
Much of the land available for riding is managed by Mid Peninsula Regional Open Space District. While they look after a huge area of land (62,000 acres across 62 parks), mountain bike access is generous but with strictly enforced rules. It pays to respect them. Not only because the fines are steep and the chances of being caught are high, but more importantly because continued access remains somewhat fragile. User conflict and ecosystem impact are high on the list of concerns and support for mountain bikes is not strong within the governing organisation. So please ride like a responsible local and follow the rules.
Popularly known as Skeggs, this area is around 45 minutes out of San Francisco. Travel south on Highway 35 and park at Vista Point, about 8 miles south of the intersection with Highway 92. The trailhead is 100m north of the parking lot on the west side of the road. There are usually paper maps available here.
El Corte de Madera is arguably the best riding in the Bay Area. It's what keeps the Downieville fans from going stir crazy over winter, gives the 'real' mountain bikers a landing pad and keeps many ex-pat kiwis from going home. Skeggs serves up primo benched singletrack, long descents, some fun technical patches, challenging climbs and healthy distances amidst stunningly beautiful forest. The package includes regenerating and old-growth redwoods, Manzanita that smells amazing in the summer heat, banana slugs, deer, bobcats, giant salamanders and many, many fellow mountain bikers. Large sandstone features, a giant redwood and the memorial and wreckage of a commercial airline that crashed enroute from Sydney in the '50s all add to the points of interest.
Nevertheless the trails are the true attraction. As El Corte de Madera's access is from the top of Skyline, all rides start with descents. Which means all rides finish with an ascent, mostly a tough one. So save some energy for the final 30-45 minutes. The trails are generally dual direction but there are some that lend themselves to gravity so plan a route that maximises the super fun descents such as Giant Salamander, Blue Blossom and Steam Donkey. Methuselah, Resolution and El Corte de Madera all work well in both directions.
Some suggestions: The Perimeter: a 2-3 hour loop, with a little over 1000m of climbing. Includes long descents, the most technical trail in the park (South Leaf Trail) and a lot of up and down towards the end. Head down Resolution (keep an eye out for the scar of the plane crash), left on El Corte de Madera, North Leaf, South Leaf, Virginia Mill, Lawrence Creek, Blue Blossom, right on Gordon Mill, Crossover, Crosscut, right on Timberview, Manzanita to car park.
Clockwise Loop: 1.5-2 hours. Scenic, fun and a nice finish. El Corte de Madera, North Leaf, Methusalah, Giant Salamander, Timberview, Manzanita with an add-on option of Resolution and left on El Corte de Maderato retrace your initial footsteps to the car park.
Anti-clockwise Loop: 2+ hours. Bomb Sierra Morena to the road. Head south along the highway for1km, left on Bear Gulch and head west for another km until you see gate CM05 on your right. About 100m down the trail, turn left (don't go straight ahead) and continue down Springboard trail, past the first intersection to the top of Blue Blossom. This is quintessential California trail and probably the most popular in the park. At the end of Blue Blossom turn up (right) Gordon Mill, Crossover, left on Crosscut, left on Timberview and follow this fire road down. You'll pass a side trail (no bikes) that leads to an Old Growth Redwood. After another three quarters of a km of fast descent (mind the speed traps) there's an obvious clearing. Giant Salamander is on the right. A swooping, beautifully built trail weaving through Redwood and Douglas Fir. At the end of Giant Salamander you'll hit Methuselah. Turn right for a fast exit to the top of Manzanita and the parking lot or left to head out on a less direct route via North Leaf, El Corte and/or Resolution.
Most trails at Skeggs hold up well to the winter rain (although some become intolerable, and few are closed). When the marine layer fog sucks in, it's brutally cold no matter what else is happening down in the Valley. There can be a 10-15 degree difference, and often wet and with a fierce wind. Other times (especially autumn) a temperature inversion is common - 30°C + at seven in the morning. Speed restrictions apply and rangers are always around on weekends. There are often large walking parties to navigate past or through. On the plus side, poison oak and ticks are scarce. A post-ride tradition is lunch and a beer at Alice's, a roadside diner at the top of route 84. From here you can return to I280 and San Francisco by heading down 84 to Woodside.
Waterdog is a small area in Belmont City. It packs a good biking punch for its size, with multiple technical trails and challenging, fun variations to string together. You can easily kill an hour and a half here. Beware the high numbers of walkers, runners,dogs and poison oak. Wear long clothes and try to avoid the peak timessuch as Saturday morning and Sunday afternoon.
Try this loop: Park at Hidden Canyon parking lot and head out on Upper Creek Trail. Join Finch trail and get in a low gear for a switchback climb. Zen your way down on Finch Trail to join Canyon Creek. There are multiple routes and if you get lost, go with the flow. At the end of Finch, take a left to keep going down Canyon Creek, which brings you back to the start. Continue by heading up Elevator Trail (hard!) and carry on clockwise around the perimeter on John Brooks Trail. Dive off John Brooks to take Berry Trail and dip to the lake. This has a fun whip-tee-do - a totally cheap thrill. A brand new trail now runs around Waterdog Lake - either direction works to add ten minutes more singletrack. Go up the access road to T-bone into Lake Road Trail. Take this to the left. It runs around the perimeter to join John Brooks again. Pick up Chaparral to take you back towards the parking lot and look for Ohlone as a final option. It's impossible to get too lost and all the trails have their good points so simply explore until it's time to head to Palo Alto for a refreshing frozen yoghurt (Fraiche), an excellent icecream (Rick's) or a cocktail and top class Vietnamese food (Tamarin). The burgers and fries at the Palo Alto creamery are a particular favourite.
This is an extensive area encompassing Monte Bello, Russian Ridge, Windy Hill, Long Ridge, Coal Creek and Upper Steven Creek. All of these areas are easily accessed by vehicle and there are multiple choices for short 'n' easy or longer rides. Almost all trails are open to bikes and it's clearly signed where they are not. There's very little that can be described as technical but the beauty of the wild flowers in spring, fast swooping trails and incredible views, more than make up for a lack of challenging trail. My preference is for longer rides, usually from the bottom of the Skyline Hills with a start at Alpine Road or the Windy Hill parking lot. Take plenty of water, a hearty snack and aim to string together a bunch of these preserves. My favourite route encompasses Coal Creek, Monte Bello, Skyline Ridge, Upper Stevens Creek and Russian Ridge. Allow 4-6 hours with stops. Print or download the maps to your phone from the Mid Peninsula Regional Open Space District website.
Drive west from Palo Alto towards Portola Valley. Carry on past Robert's Market (great spot for a post-ride sandwich) and park up in the obvious parking area. If full, there's usually space up the street on the right hand side past the lot. Ride up Alpine Road until it turns to trail and keep going until you meet Page Mill Road. Once you cross the road, you enter Monte Bello OSP. The trail leads you towards the Monte Bello parking lot, passing White Oak trail en route. Follow your nose through the parking lot and head down the bike trail to Canyon Trail. After a bit, turn left and climb on Bella Vista. In summer this exposed trail is littered with lizards and the occasional snake. It is the only place (outside ofAuckland Zoo) that I've seen a tarantula. After some climbing you'll be close to the top of Black Mountain. Pause for a spectacular view of the entire Bay Area. From the Pacific to Diablo, from Mt Hamilton to Mt Tam. There's a walk-in campsite tucked in the shelter of some scraggy oaks.
Carry on Old Ranch Trail and be prepared to lose some brake pad depth on the Indian Creek Trail descent back to Canyon Trail. Head south on Canyon Trail (beware this is a popular speed trap area) and continue along the Canyon (aka San Andreas fault) to Grizzly Bear trail. From here there's an option - head up Grizzly Bear for ashorter loop or continue on to Stevens Creek and the monster climb that is Table Mountain.
Table Mountain starts with a dual use singletrack but eventually bikes are banished to an uphill-only fire road. Join the Upper Stevens Creek County Park trail system and, after crossing Highway 35, pick your way throughthe trail system of Long Ridge OSP. From Long Ridge to Skyline Ridge (via Chestnut, Tree Farm, around Horseshoe Lake, up Sunny Jim and past Alpine Pond) to Russian Ridge.
Russian Ridge is famous for its wildflowers in spring. If you have the energy to add another short loop, try Hawk Trail and Ancient Oaks as a loop. Cross Skyline Boulevard, and zip down Cloud's Rest to join Meadow Trail and back to Alpine. Watch for traffic at the bottom of Alpine on your way back to the car.
Beware: At the time of writing, Alpine Road had been closed due to a slip and washout. The county has deemed it mortally dangerous to go around the fences they've placed across the trail and sidle round a small hole in the ground. There's a diversion in place but it involves a horrible grovely climb.
A way to shorten this ride and reduce the vertical meter demand is to drive to the top of Skyline. All the preserves have good parking areas and thereare some worthy hiking options that are not open to biking. Los Trancos has a fascinating short walk on a highly fractured area of the San Andreas Fault. There's an excellent interpretive brochure pointing out sights such as how far the fault moved in the Loma Prieta quake of 89.
A day trip or weekend in Santa Cruz is fun, and not just for the riding. Soquel Demo Forest is a favourite for locals (beware car security) with Wilder Ranch and around UCSC a blast. Santa Cruz town itself is a destination with its boardwalk and pier. This is the home of Santa Cruz bikes and the town oozes mountain bike cred. When the fog's in it's a bit miserable, but like Wellington, you can't beat it on a good day. Just down the road in Monterrey is one of the world's best aquariums and a 'must see' in the greater Bay Area. Adrive back to San Francisco via Highway 1 and Halfmoon Bay is a terrific jaunt and offers some spectacular northern Californian coastal scenery.
Too hot in summer, spring is ideal for this extensive area. It's become fairly wild, untamed and definitely a couple of extra streets back since the California State Park system ran out of money. Some fiercely loyal locals banded together to keep the park open and, so far have succeeded in maintaining access. It's a fabulous place for long, open grassland rides and offers stunning wildflower viewings in spring. You'll be lucky to see anyone. Take plenty of water.