Montebello Road - Stevens Canyon Loop
11% SINGLETRACK32% FIRE ROAD57% ROAD
This is a mixed ride that will be familiar to many experienced South Bay riders. The loop, which requires a mountain (or cyclocross) bike, combines a challenging road climb with a long trail descent as its reward, as well as including a non-trivial two miles of singletrack in the mix. All of this is put together in a package that includes good (though not great) views from the higher elevations, sweeping meadows, dense woods, one of the prettiest creeks you'll see around here, a fast road descent, and very little traffic on the road segments. So, while it might not be a ride that features the "technical singletrack gold" that many advanced riders may crave, it still has quite a lot to offer.
The first part of the ride is a serious climb on Montebello Road that starts without giving you much time to warm up. I think I can safely say that this is the most challenging road climb of this length that I know of around the South Bay. There are plenty of steeper roads, but none of the steeper ones in this vicinity are this long. Since this is a dead-end road for motor traffic, you will see very light traffic on this road. You're likely to encounter more road cyclists than cars, actually, because this road seems to be popular also with road bikers as an out-and-back ride segment. You'll also be passing by something like three wineries on your way up Montebello Road, at least a couple of which feature wine tasting and picnic opportunities. That might be something worth considering for inclusion in one of your rides here.
The climb up Montebello Road lasts for almost 5.5 miles and you gain 2000 feet of elevation. The climb is broken into two by a flattish one-mile section in the middle. The first two miles of the climb that is before the respite in the middle averages just under 9% grade overall. The climb after the flattish middle part is slightly longer but gentler at 7.5% average grade. But, what will really make themselves felt are the short stretches that exceed 15% grade. A few of these even reach 18% or more. The climb is mostly over once you leave pavement behind, but you still have to pedal in a few places all the way to the summit of the ridge, including a final burst of climbing just before the peak where the grade touches 18% one more time as a last hurrah.
The portion of Montebello Road open to public traffic ends at a locked gate. You continue past this gate on the "trail portion" of Monte Bello Road. (By the way, this odd spelling distinction is explicitly made on the trail map for Monte Bello Open Space, though it's hard to say if it's intentional or merely a mistake.) Starting with some remnants of pavement that's slowly disappearing, this road quickly turns into a wide and smooth fire road. Shortly, you'll be inside Monte Bello Open Space Preserve. This fire road keeps following the spine of the ridge and passes right by the summit of Black Mountain. This is a flat summit, though. It's just the high point in the highest segment of the meadow atop this ridge. You'll notice a brief spur off to the side on the GPS track shown on this page, where I've moved a few feet out of the trail to visit the cluster of rocks that's roughly at the summit. The flat ground means there are no good views toward the bay from this spot, but views to the west are okay, and you can even see the ocean on days when it's not blanketed by the marine layer.
Continuing on from that spot, you won't have much distance to go before you leave Monte Bello Road by turning left onto the first fire road you encounter, which is Indian Creek Trail, and then taking the first singletrack you shortly see departing from that trail off to the right. After this, the rule is to "always take the left option" until you reach Canyon Trail, in case you need to follow this portion without a map or a GPS receiver. This will be your descent down Bella Vista Trail and the first singletrack segment on this ride. It's a wide singletrack and often it's a bit off-camber. However, it's still twisty enough to be fun over this 1.5-mile descent. The trail doesn't have any tree cover and, while its views to the west are merely of the neighboring ridges, the scenery of the upcoming lengths of the trail weaving through the folds of the hillside in front of you is a pleasant accompaniment to part of this descent. Moreover, at its higher elevations, the descent has a few "airy" spots on Old Ranch Trail (before you connect to Bella Vista) where views to the bay and San Francisco join the views to the west for a brief moment.
Once you reach Canyon Trail near the bottom of the valley, you might consider yourself to be well into the "descent half" of this loop. Essentially, you'd be correct. However, the early part of the ride down Canyon Trail is not an unbroken descent and has a number of ups and downs, as you can tell from the elevation plot above. These short uphill stretches might feel unwelcome if the climb up Montebello Road has depleted most of your energy or if you've already switched your mental state to anticipate an unbroken descent. It doesn't take very long, though, for these temporary uphill blips to be behind you and for the ride down Canyon Trail to really turn into an unbroken descent, though a gentle one.
Canyon Trail is a fire road (with the exception of a brief segment, to which I'll come shortly), but it's a relatively rugged one that's moderately fun to ride. You'll find some mildly rutted segments (thought that could change from year to year), some loose rocks, a tight curve or two, and some steeper-than-average dips along the way. For the speed demons among you, this trail lends itself to a fast descent, especially if you help gravity with plenty of pedaling. But, do keep in mind that this is a multi-use trail and you're always likely to encounter riders or hikers coming in the other direction, and Canyon Trail features plenty of curves that have limited visibility.
There is one potentially confusing junction that you'll reach on Canyon Trail. At least it was confusing before some new signage was added. You'll know this by a "Palo Alto City Limits" sign followed immediately by a narrow and shallow ditch that the trail crosses. In the rainiest months of the year, this ditch can sometimes become a minor stream. At this junction, you'll be faced with a singletrack trail leading to the left, and a wider option that looks like the continuation of the main trail heading slightly to the right. The wider option on the right is actually the beginning of Table Mountain Trail. If you mistakenly head right from here, the fact that you'll almost immediately arrive at a creek crossing should remind you that you made the wrong pick. Canyon Trail is the singletrack that's leading away from that junction and is now actually pointed out by a sign.
That junction is also the beginning of the second singletrack segment on the ride. This singletrack portion will initially climb moderately and then descend at an equally moderate grade for a brief distance. Shortly after the trail avoids an old washout/ditch via a short and tight bypass segment around the left, it will end by dropping you at another creek crossing. This time the creek crossing is a sign that you're on the right track. This 10-foot-wide (or so) creek is a very ridable crossing for practicing some water fording on a bike. I typically see it with no less than 4 inches and no more than 10 inches of water depth. I also hadn't ever seen it completely dry during my four or five years of riding this trail fairly regularly, until the day I did this particular ride. On the day I did this ride in a dry-ish November, the creek had no flowing water and not even a puddle remaining at the crossing spot.
After that creek crossing, it's not long before you reach the gate where Monte Bello Open Space ends. The section of the trail before this gate varies between a wide singletrack and perhaps a "half fire road" in width. Past the park's gate, you'll go through a brief confusion of twists, dips, and curves that arrive in quick succession, beyond which the beginning of pavement is only a short descent away, as you cross a bridge with a metal grate surface. After this comes the gate where the portion of Stevens Canyon Road that's open to general traffic begins.
This brings you to the last leg of the loop which consists of another substantial road segment. This road will be descending for a touch over 4.5 miles at a very mild and diminishing grade, but very high speeds are possible if you make an effort with some extra pedaling. The very lush and very picturesquely rocky bed of Stevens Creek is an accompaniment to a substantial portion of this distance. That's saying nothing about the beautiful, leafy, and narrow canyon that this road follows in general. As you get closer to the end of the ride, the descent will peter out and you'll need to pedal a little bit for some elevation gain, but you'll find yourself back at the spot from which you started before any of that pedaling starts feeling like real exertion.
I should point out that it's also possible to do the trail portions of this ride (as an out-and-back route) without having to endure the major climb up Montebello Road. That option is listed as a separate ride on this website.
This ride is situated in an area with an abundance of biking opportunities, so the list of possibilities for altering or extending the route described on this page is extensive. For increasing the paved miles of this ride, heading up Mt. Eden Road for a semi-suburban loop that connects back to Foothill Boulevard is an easy option. You could also turn onto Redwood Gulch Road on your way back to take it to Highway 9 before you find your way back to your starting point, though that would add significantly to the challenge level of your ride, because the steepness of Redwood Gulch Road is no joke. Foothill Expressway is also easily accessible from the starting point of this loop, if a long but flat road ride is what you'd prefer. Meanwhile, there are at least as many options for extending the trail riding on this route. The easiest would be to add more meandering in the trails within Monte Bello Open Space before heading down Canyon Trail. White Oak Trail is particularly worthy of a recommendation as a fun singletrack descent. More trail mileage awaits you in other neighboring parklands, such as Russian Ridge, where the next best selection of singletrack in this vicinity can be found; Skyline Ridge Open Space, which can be reached by heading up Skid Row Trail from Monte Bello Open Space; Coal Creek Open Space; and even Long Ridge and/or Saratoga Gap, as long as you can stomach the addition of a memorably tough climb up Charcoal Grade, which is reachable from Canyon Trail via Table Mountain Trail.
© Ergin Guney
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