Iron Horse Trail
Iron Horse Trail is the longest paved trail in the Bay Area that I'm aware of, stretching from Pleasanton to Concord. The route shown on this page is my approximation of a "reasonable" Iron Horse ride and it covers the portion of the trail leading north from Danville, which adds up to around 14 miles one way. The length of the ride could be enough for a low-key workout for an experienced cyclist, while more casual bikers can still tailor this to their own needs by picking any portion of the trail they desire, without feeling obligated to complete the entire route.
The trail's website currently quotes its total length as 32 miles, though I can measure only about 26 miles on its main span. (I think a few trail segments branching off the main stretch and a handful of disjointed segments not yet connected to the core trail account for the difference between those figures.) Think about that: this is a paved, casual trail whose full out-and-back traversal would result in a half-century ride! Eventually, the trail will be extended to Livermore and its total mileage will reach 55 miles, according to the website. In fact, the trail already seems to have grown in length between the time I did this ride and the time I've posted it on this site: the website announces that a 1.8-mile stretch from the Dublin BART station south to Santa Rita Road was opened in August 2014.
Such a long trail cutting right through fairly populated areas owes its existence to an old railroad right of way. The website explains that Iron Horse Trail follows the path of a Southern Pacific rail line that went out of use in 1977. The trail also gets its name from its association with trains.
You would expect any trail that follows an old railway to have very gradual elevation change. That would be an understatement for this trail. You may observe from the elevation profile plot shown above that this entire ride takes place within about 300 feet of elevation difference, and there are no repeated ups and downs even within that modest range that would boost the total climb of the ride in any way. Other than the few bridges that the trail crosses and a handful of underpasses for crossing major roadways, the trail is pancake-flat.
A word about the starting point of the ride is in order here. My decision was to start the ride from Danville, because it's one of the densest centers along this trail and the trail passes right through the heart of its downtown district. I still think that was the right move, but I neglected to take into account that the day on which I planned my ride was July 4th. Danville is well known for its Fourth of July parade that goes right through its historic center and results in the closure of many streets in that area. Therefore, while my original idea was to use street-side parking right on Railroad Avenue, I was forced to modify that slightly and look for parking on an outlying side street instead. The Suggested Parking link points to where I've actually parked, while what I would normally do and would recommend is to park closer to downtown, within walking distance of all of its shops and eateries. Meanwhile, riding this trail would make the most sense for people who live close to it in the first place. So, for most people, the more natural thing to do would be to start a ride from the point of the trail that's closest to them.
Iron Horse changes character a few times over the course of this ride. Around Danville, it's in the form of a wide and semi-shady path. As you approach Walnut Creek, it turns initially into a path along a chain-link fence and then to a passage behind some business structures for a little while. Heading north from Walnut Creek, the trail gains a bit more breathing room once again and, past Pleasant Hill as it starts following the Walnut Creek Canal, it becomes a very open and airy creekside trail.
This is not only a paved trail but it's a pretty wide trail too. The trail width ranges between 10 and 20 feet. The quality of the pavement is quite good at the time I write this, and you can easily tell that the trail surface is maintained regularly. Things like tree roots or other surface imperfections (while not completely absent) were never a concern for me during my ride.
Iron Horse Trail is heavily used. You'll find plenty of joggers and other cyclists on the trail. The density of trail users is highest on the portions of the trail close to town centers. So, have no expectation of having it all to yourself. Of the portion of the trail featured on this particular ride, I think I can say that there is a general trend of diminishing crowding as you go further north, with Danville being the densest area on the ride and the northern extreme of the trail being virtually deserted. While I haven't tried the stretch of the trail south of Danville, I would expect those parts to be a bit less crowded than the vicinity of Danville.
Another thing the trail has a lot of is street crossings. Despite passing over at least a couple of footbridges specially built for the trail to cross major roadways, there are still a few other busy avenues that you'll have to cross at pedestrian crossings. Most of these arrive around Walnut Creek or further north. Meanwhile, the portion of the trail around Danville features countless minor street crossings. In one especially dense segment in Danville, you go through something like three street crossings per quarter mile, though this doesn't last long.
As if the impressive length of Iron Horse Trail weren't enough, this area provides numerous other casual trails by which you can extend your ride. Contra Costa Canal Trail intersects with Iron Horse at Walden Park, not far from the crossing of Treat Boulevard, and its website boasts of 20 miles of trail length. Meanwhile, near the southern end of Iron Horse, Centennial Trail could provide an additional 5 miles of (one-way) trail mileage and the Arroyo Mocho Trail connecting to it would add another 4 miles to this. You can study the online Pleasanton trail map as well as Google Maps to plan further wanderings in that area. In case anyone wishes to mix in some mountain biking with this casual ride, Shell Ridge Open Space and Lime Ridge Open Space are within fairly easy access of this route. Meanwhile, those with more serious ambitions could even include Las Trampas, Mount Diablo, or Briones in their plans.
© Ergin Guney
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