Sunday, August 15, 2010

Alhambra Valley, Morgan Territory, Tassajara, Wildcat Canyon loop - access from EC, WC, Concord, Dublin, Lafayette BART

This 90+ mile loop (approx. 5,000 feet climbing) takes in remote and scenic Morgan Territory Road on the back side of Mount Diablo. You can access the route from BART stations in El Cerrito, Walnut Creek, Concord, Dublin, Lafayette, Orinda and Berkeley. Here's a map of the route.

Morgan Territory is one of my favorite roads in the Bay Area. Don't get to see it much because going around the back side of Mount Diablo is a big commitment from the East Bay.

If you are leaving from El Cerrito you want to get an early start. If it's hot in Walnut Creek it will be scorching on Diablo, and there's no shade for 20+ miles from the top of Morgan Territory into Danville.

My day starts with a nice flat warmup out through El Sobrante. If it's early take San Pablo Avenue to McBryde as there's little traffic before 7 am on a weekend and it's a nice smooth ride.

Once we get over the hill on Castro Ranch Road we follow a creek up a valley of sun-parched golden grasslands and old gnarly oaks casting oases of shade. It's a mellow incline all the way to Bear Creek Road, then it stiffens by the ostrich farm until the road pitches up at Pig Farm hill. This is a short, brutish climb from the west side.

The second, longer steep section is around the curve.

You can't really avoid going in the red, but save what you can for later in the day since Morgan Territory and Wildcat come at 40 and 80 miles. The run down the other side is fast, we skirt Martinez and Pleasant Hill into Walnut Creek.

Water fountain in front of the Larkey swim center if you need it. In back of the center a bike/hike trail heads southwest up to Acalanes Ridge open space, that's for another day. We continue east on 1st street to catch the Contra Costa Canal Trail. Although it's congested with runners and other users I think it is one of the better options for non-locals to cross Walnut Creek from the northeast to the west since there's really not much room for bikes on the main roads through town.

We peel of our warmers for an exposed section up Ygnacio Valley Road. This is a grim but efficient route. With a bit more time I'd try Canal trail east to the end, then catching the California Riding & Hiking trail to Newhall Park. I did this once before but got waylaid by goats-head thorns, leaving at least 7 holes in my tires. I got lucky, a local stopped to give me a second tube and then led me to the local bike shop, but if you see those darn things give them a wide berth unless you're on some kind of armored tire.

Pine Hollow Road is a quiet and smooth alternate to busy Clayton Road. We stop to fill our water bottles in the park at the intersection of Marsh Creek Road and Main Street, one block off Clayton Road. This is just about the last opportunity for water for a hot 25+ miles so don't forget.

Clayton Road climbs up to a low pass at Divide Reservoir, then drops down a long hill. Morgan Territory Road takes off to the right at the bottom. The first 3 1/2 miles are fast rolling through old ranches and new ranchettes. Then the road narrows, from here it slowly gets rougher and steeper for 6 1/2 miles of fairly well shaded stair-step climbing. I first learned of this ride from a short but sweet ride list on an obscure UC Berkeley computer-nerd website (International Netrek League?), where the description and this picture hooked me.

Photo credit I've done pretty much all the roads on that list except the main section of Tunitas Creek, and (fingers crossed) that one is coming up in 2 weeks.

After Morgan Territory Road narrows there's virtually no traffic. I saw about a half-dozen cars total in 2 times climbing it. Did see a tarantula the size of a salad plate that spooked the living daylights out of me near the bottom, and a four to five foot snake slithering into my path on a slow, steep hairpin which accelerated my already racing pulse up another notch.

The first four miles of this uphill are classic stair steps, a steady diet of 2 or 3 steep hairpins followed by a flatter recovery section. You can maintain a good pace by attacking the steep bits. But, be aware, around mile 7 the conveyor belt of short steeps is broken by a section of 8 or 10 hairpins with the steepest grades yet. Heart attack time. After that it flattens out again until the parking lot around mile 9, then there's a last couple of short steep pitches before the climbing is all over around mile 10. It's been dry as a bone both times I've gone, but I don't carry a camera and all the pretty pictures I can find online are from spring.

Photo credit Rene Rivers

As long as you don't tangle with the few cars the downhill is awesome. Long sight-lines so you know what's coming, high speeds, and challenging corners near the top that smooth out as you descend into twisty sections through the trees. After a right turn on Manning and 20 minutes into the wind through hot, open country on Highland Road, Dublin BART is about 5 or 6 miles off to our left at the intersection with Tassajara Road.

After the right on Tassajara it's hot with no shade, but the grade is not bad and it's still fairly scenic. We stop for water at Diablo Vista School and sit for a snack in the deep shade across the road on gated Hansen Lane. Tassajara continues slightly downhill and we make good time in the heat. The road pinches at Crow Canyon and the bike lane is shunted onto the sidewalk for a quarter-block on the north side of the intersection before rejoining the shoulder.  Strange routing, but the rest of the way along Tassajara the shoulder is wide so maybe it's a fair trade.

A left on Sycamore Valley Road to Iron Horse Trail gets you into Danville, or you can continue on Tassajara to a left on Diablo Road. There's a Peets in Danville at Railroad Avenue, just 1 block from where Iron Horse Trail hits Danville Boulevard.

San Ramon Valley Boulevard is a false flat going slightly downhill but your speed is generally limited by the countervailing wind. Depending on traffic I sometimes take a left on Las Trampas to use the Iron Horse bike path to bypass downtown Alamo, rejoining SRV Boulevard at Ridgewood.

Today we use the flat and relatively safer Castle Hill - Lancaster - Lilac  - Newell route rather than the shorter Hillgrade - Tice Valley option.

Through Lafayette we take a back route on Brook Street to avoid a couple of tight, congested blocks near the Safeway. Peets and Noahs Bagels are next to the Safeway if you need refreshments, and Lafayette BART is 2 blocks off our route. Most days I'd take the Half-Happy option back to Orinda, but I'm tired and instead opt for the easiest bike route from Lafayette to Orinda: up Mount Diablo Boulevard to Hidden Valley to the St Stephens path. Stop for water in town if you need it, there's nothing from Camino Pablo in Orinda until you are over Wildcat.

Wildcat Canyon Road is my backyard climb, and I leverage my experience to cajole my cramping legs up the the steep sections near the bottom. After the turnoff for El Toyonal it starts to ease and before long I'm at the top layering up for a last plunge back down into foggy Albany/El Cerrito. Awesome day, I wish Morgan Territory Road was just a bit closer because I could get used to the solitude and scenery.

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