5% SINGLETRACK92% FIRE ROAD2% PAVED1% ROAD
I can't say I've traversed every single trail available in Joseph D. Grant Ranch County Park, but based on the parts of the park that I have seen, I think it's fair to say that this park provides the same thing as many other open space preserves east of the bay in terms of biking experience: nothing but frequently steep fire roads traversing a partially wooded terrain of rolling hills. Of course, that formula has a lot to offer to many nature lovers. If you fit that designation, you'll get a lot out of this ride. If you're the kind of mountain biker who wants wicked singletrack and challenging technical trails, you won't.
The landscape you'll encounter on this ride is actually among the prettiest you'll see anywhere in the hill country east of the bay. Moreover, the higher elevations of the route are mostly treeless and frequently very open, providing views toward the neighboring valleys and peaks, as well as presenting open vistas of your own trail sometimes snaking along for the next half mile or so ahead of you. Perhaps what's more crucial is the fact that all of this is in a location that is a good approximation of a wilderness setting. This means that you never run the risk of encountering the view of a subdivision after turning a curve or ending up overlooking a gas station when you crest a ridge; things that are likely in plenty of other scenic East Bay ride locales.
The ride starts out by heading southeast flatly along the edge of Halls Valley that forms of the heart of the Grant Ranch property. In fact, this portion has a couple of stretches with a gentle downhill grade where you can pick up speed, as long as you follow Lower Hotel Trail to bypass a small rise that Hotel Trail almost pointlessly climbs and descends in a straight line.
That breezy episode doesn't last longer than two miles, however. As soon as Lower Hotel Trail ends by connecting back with Hotel Trail, your first taste of the ride's tough climbs arrives. You gain almost 700 feet in this stretch that's less a mile and a half in length. You spend most of your time struggling with grades a little above 10% in this segment, though you almost never make it to 20% (topping out often at no more than 18% even in the worst spots). At least this climb is among the prettier parts of the portion of the ride route that is south of Mount Hamilton Road, as it takes place on grassy areas with pretty sights.
That first tough episode of the ride ends when you arrive at a cute pond labeled as "Eagle Lake" on the topographic map. From that point on, you are on Foothill Trail for a while. Foothill Trail is less even in its climbs, though this is not to stay that it's easier. On the contrary, the ride's steepest short stretches arrive on this trail. The trail starts out from Eagle Lake with a steep dive toward a creek crossing. This descent is very steep (-28% grade) but what really takes your breath away will be the ridiculously steep climb out on the other side of the crossing, which easily reaches 30% grade if not a little more. Foothill Trail repeats that same trick of throwing slopes at you exceeding 25% grade a couple more times. This makes you almost resent the few downhill spots that you also encounter on this trail. Meanwhile, Foothill Trail is the first part of the route that takes place under moderate tree cover, which means that one thing you might be relieved from if you happen to do this ride on a hot day will be the sun's heat, at least.
After you turn onto Bonhoff Trail, the most ridiculous slopes are left behind, but not all of the serious climbs. Meanwhile, the tree cover also holds steady on this trail for the most part. Bonhoff Trail takes you to a crossing of Mount Hamilton Road, which marks the end of one portion of the ride and the beginning of another. The separation is not merely a mental one either. The part of the ride that takes place south of the road contains almost all of the ride's tree cover (which is not much) and most of its craziest slopes. Moreover, when you hit the open grasslands that make up most of the part of the ride that's north of the road, views suddenly open up all around you. On your first time doing your ride, this amount of scenery might even be a bit distracting (in a good way). As you head up this still substantial climb on Cañada de Pala Trail, you can often gaze at the peak of Mount Hamilton on your right, and at the observatory buildings there. And don't forget to look behind you occasionally either, as some of the most compelling views are in that direction on your way up.
If you happen to be thinking about cutting the ride short at this point, you will have two good bail-out options available around here. You can take either Yerba Buena Trail or Los Huecos Trail to return to the main ranch area and leave out the remaining climb to Antler Point. A quick word of warning, however: don't think of using Halls Valley Trail as a third possible shortcut back down, because that one allows bikes only in the uphill direction. Of course, if you cut the ride short around here, you'd be forsaking some more of the open and pretty scenery that is to come further up. If you wonder if it might not simply look like "more of the same" when you get further up, well, the scenery is from a bit higher up so it's a little better but, yes, ultimately it's a bit like more of the same.
Around the highest point of the ride route, you'll have the option to traverse a spur onto the 0.4-mile Antler Point Trail, which happens to be the ride's only singletrack mileage worth speaking of. This actually happens to be quite a sweet singletrack and it takes you to a nice and high vista point from which you can see the South Bay. If only there were a few more miles of such singletrack available in this park! That would make this park one of the gems of the South Bay as a mountain biking destination.
Shortly after you start heading down via a fast fire-road descent beyond Antler Point Trail, you'll pass by the site of the Pala Seca Cabin that currently holds no more than some cinderblocks, a few corrugated sheets of metal, and some charred remains. This used to be an old, humble shack described as having been used as a base camp for hunting and fishing back in the day. President Herbert Hoover is listed as one of the prominent guests that Mr. Grant used to entertain here. Unfortunately, it burned down in 2014 while it was undergoing some renovation work. It wasn't exactly one of the nation's greatest historic treasures, obviously, but it used to be a nice detail that added a point of interest to this ride route. Such a pity. This is what it looked like the last time I saw it intact.
As you keep descending on Cañada de Pala Trail, it initially settles in next to a creek bed in a nice, little, shallow valley, before passing by a marshy meadow. Another short uphill effort after that brings the subloop at the northern end of the ride route to completion and you head back to the junction with Los Huecos Trail you passed before in order to use it for your descent.
Los Huecos Trail deserves some attention from less experienced riders. Parts of this trail are quite steep. In fact, there was a steep-descent warning sign for bicyclists at one spot on this trail the last time I did this ride. Of course, for those who don't mind steep descents, these will make the final descent of the ride more exhilarating. This is one of the rare parts of the ride where you might actually need to put some bike handling skills to use. Occasional views of Grant Lake that awaits you at the bottom of the valley are also a nice accompaniment to this fun descent, in addition to the rest of the open scenery along most of this trail.
When you make it to the lake, what's left is only a short ramble over flat trails to find your way through in order to get back to your starting point. If you find that taking Mount Hamilton Road back to the park's main entrance is an easier way of navigating back to the start at this point than trying to get there via Yerba Buena Trail and Hotel Trail, there's no harm in doing it that way either.
Historic Grant Ranch itself is right near the main parking lot of the park. So, if you're left with some extra time, you might want to take a closer look at its buildings and at the visitor center. There are some information panels there with plenty of interesting photos about the history of Grant Ranch and of Mount Hamilton Road, as well as some vintage carriages and ranch equipment on display. I can't speak too much about how much the ranch buildings themselves make available for public viewing, because I haven't spent much time around them so far.
© Ergin Guney
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