Morgan Territory and Vasco Road Loop
This is a long but manageable route deep in the hill country of the East Bay that cuts through some of the more interesting landscapes of the area and traverses one of its most secluded roads. In fact the ride takes you all the way to the eastern boundaries of this hilly area and reaches the edge of the Central Valley before turning back in. There is a good amount of climbing, too, though not more than what could be considered "modest" for a ride of this length in such a hilly terrain. The location may also allow you the opportunity to fit in some plans for nice food or wine in Livermore after the ride.
Ever since I drove through Vasco Road for the first time in the early 2000s, I've been thinking about trying a bike ride that includes it. It looked like this narrow road that twists through grassy, bare hills and is flanked by the alien-looking landscape of tall windmills lining the hilltops would make for a fantastic ride setting. This ride is supposedly the realization of that idea. Unfortunately, there is a big twist in this. Since I originally sampled it, Vasco Road has been re-routed and widened drastically. In fact, the original route of the road and its current form north of I-580 have no overlap at all if you don't count its first three miles north of the freeway. Today, long sections of the road have three or four lanes of traffic and are considerably more straight. What's more, most of the new route deviates from the old one completely and is separated from the earlier road by as much as four miles over much of its length. I still wanted to try riding the new Vasco Road, even though I knew all of this, since the road still passes through roughly the same landscape and, therefore, could at least act as a weak approximation of what it had been like in its earlier incarnation.
In its older form, Vasco Road was pretty notorious for car accidents. (I don't have any specific information about incidents involving bicyclists.) Apparently, this road is a major artery for local commute traffic. The heavy traffic arising from this, coupled with groggy drivers rushing to get to work on time on a curvy road and possibly in morning fog seems to have been a recipe for repeated head-on collisions. The road has, therefore, undergone multiple modifications in the last couple of decades to make it safer. While it has lost some of its narrow, curvy charm as a result of this, one could argue that today's wider road with a good amount of paved shoulder space makes it safer for cyclists, even if the traffic flow is now faster.
The other notable road on this ride is Morgan Territory Road. You could argue that it's not merely an accident that this road's name has a vague frontier-like feel. It passes through some of the most secluded portions of the East Bay; areas that have seen almost no change since the early settlement years of the state. The fact that this is a one-lane road for 10 miles of its length should tell you something. There is no other road that is so narrow for so long on any of the road rides represented on this website.
The starting point I'm pointing out for the ride is "Vasco Plaza", a strip mall on North Vasco Road. Naturally, this parking lot is for the customers of the businesses in the plaza, but I don't think they'd mind as long as you buy your morning coffee there before the ride (there's a Starbucks) or have a post-ride meal at one of the restaurants there like I did. (See below.) If you don't intend to do that and would, therefore, feel bad leaving your car in the shopping plaza's parking lot, you shouldn't have difficulty in finding street parking as an alternative on the nearby side streets.
There are two significant climbs on this ride. The first one of these is a short one that is near the beginning of the ride as Vasco Road crosses over the hills separating Livermore Valley from the Central Valley. If you don't count a small hill arriving just as you're leaving the outlying Livermore neighborhoods for open countryside, the first time the slope exceeds 5% grade on this ride is just before the 2.5-mile mark. At the steepest point of this climb, the slope is around 8% grade but that's only for a moment. The rest of the uphill stretches almost never exceed 7% grade during this first spell of elevation gain and usually hover at or below 5%. Moreover, while this uphill stretch lasts for about four miles, the climb here is broken up by two sizable descents on your way up. In the bigger picture, this climb is little more than a good warm-up.
This climb is also where you begin to encounter some of the sights that make the scenery of Vasco Road interesting. These otherwordly, hilltop rows of minimalist windmills spread across a terrain of rounded, grassy, empty hills is what made the original Vasco Road appear so striking to me; try to picture the sight of them on either side of a narrower and more curvy road going through a narrower valley. This scenery flanks the route as you crest this first climb and also for much of the descent on the other side. As you get closer to the flat terrain of the Central Valley near the end of that descent, most of the windmills dwindle along with the rolling hills themselves.
For a brief period, Vasco Road becomes a flat and fast thoroughfare at the edge of Central Valley farmlands. This is interrupted when you turn onto Camino Diablo Road. I should point out that this turn happens at a wide and busy intersection with traffic lights and is not one of the pleasant experiences on this ride. What's worse is that the left-turn green light never came on for me at this intersection even though I waited through a couple of cycles. This may have been fixed by the time of your ride, but it was either because the traffic sensors at that intersection weren't set up for bicycles or because they were malfunctioning at the time of my ride. I was, therefore, forced to turn left against a red light, but an alternative would be to cross left at the pedestrian crossing for which there are buttons at the corners.
Camino Diablo Road is a serene, pretty, and quiet country road. You effectively use this road to shortcut a visit to the intersection of Vasco Road with Marsh Creek Road. It comes as a welcome break from the heavy traffic and trucks on the last portion of Vasco Road covered on this route. After 3.5 miles on this road through grassy, treeless terrain, Camino Diablo merges onto Marsh Creek Road, which makes up most of one side of this roughly triangular ride route and takes you all the way to the beginning of Morgan Territory Road.
The general character of Marsh Creek Road is initially little different from Camino Diablo Road. It's still a sunny country road through mostly grassy terrain, with good pavement and hardly any paved shoulder space. While it's fairly straight over its first six miles or so, Marsh Creek Road changes its overall direction after that sixth mile and starts following the bed of its namesake creek. This part of the road is substantially curvier and gets more so the further you go west, back into the East Bay hills. The tree cover also begins to return along this stretch, though you never really enter a forest setting and I wouldn't say this stretch has enough shade to be of any help to those doing the ride on a hot day.
When Mount Diablo's North Peak enters your view, it's a signal that your time on Marsh Creek Road is coming to an end. Soon, Morgan Territory Road starts off the left. Other than a major change in direction, the early parts of Morgan Territory Road are not very different from the latest miles you covered on Marsh Creek Road. Your first four miles of Morgan Territory Road are on a similar country two-lane, passing by a sparse sprinkling of ranches and country homes through sunny landscapes with only patchy tree cover. After that begin the isolated miles of this road where it continues as a narrow, unmarked, one-lane road for 10 miles, as I've already mentioned. Traffic is close to non-existent on this stretch, especially if you don't count other cyclists. The pavement quality also declines and becomes more inconsistent in this long stretch. Much of Morgan Territory Road winds through a strip of relatively dense riparian woodland along Marsh Creek. If you have a need for shade, this is the only part of the ride where you have any real hope of finding it.
The other thing that happens as you head further into Morgan Territory Road is an increase in the slope. You'll notice this on the elevation profile plot above too, but the part of the ride that begins when you turn onto Camino Diablo Road is effectively one long and very slow "approach climb" heading up to the ride's second significant climb. This is the tougher climb of the two, by far. The slope slowly picks up as Morgan Territory Road approaches the higher reaches of Marsh Creek anyway, but things take a distinct turn toward the more serious as soon as you arrive at the gates that make up the unmarked trailhead of the "Morgan Territory (western trails)" ride listed on this site. Though there are brief breaks along the way, nearly the next 2.5 miles after that point is a fairly tough stretch. The road departs from the creek and starts climbing along the hillside, with the tree cover thinning out along the way. The overall grade of this portion of the road comes to less than 6%. The thing is that this grade is not very even, and there is no shortage of short spots where the grade exceeds 10%. Some of the steepest sections come very close to the end of the climb. When you see the well-signed parking lot of the Morgan Territory Regional Preserve, it's your indication that the climb will be over in a few more moments.
When Morgan Territory Road slowly begins a descent after the end of that climb, you're back in grassy, open country. Residences start showing up on either side of the road too, and the sense of wilderness is somewhat lost (though the road itself remains a one-lane for quite a few more miles). This descent on Morgan Territory Road becomes more beautiful the further down you go. At one point on your way down, long views over soft, rolling hills open up toward Livermore Valley. If you do the ride when the grass is green, as I was fortunate enough to do, any snapshots you take will be postcard-pretty around that location. The road starts a scenic, fast, narrow, and winding hillside descent after that spot that is unforgettable. For many riders, this may be the highlight of the ride. These are also some of the steepest stretches of this route, which is why the counter-clockwise traversal of this route (as shown here) is the best way to avoid the route's steepest climbs—a fact that's quite apparent from the elevation profile of the ride as well.
That gorgeous descent eventually brings you back to the flat bottom of Livermore Valley, where you'll quickly know you've arrived when roads become ruler straight again and aligned along the cardinal directions. The map of the route looks like you'll need to take a long succession of alternating left and right turns to find your way from here back to the beginning of the ride, but this portion of the route is actually surprisingly easy to follow. Most of those turns are either kinks in the main road rather than intersections, or they are intersections with a very distinct main direction of flow. As long as you can remember to turn left at the very first T-junction you encounter and not to miss the left turn onto May School Road from Livermore Avenue, you'll be fine. That last one onto May School Road is the only one that might sneak up on you, but the intersection is marked and is clear enough as long as you remember which road name to look out for.
For a meal after your ride, if the eateries at the shopping plaza from which the ride begins doesn't sound good enough for you (I ate at the sushi restaurant in that plaza after my ride and did not regret it), the only other recommendation I can make is to get to downtown Livermore, though it will take some driving (four or five miles from the beginning point of this ride). I haven't spent enough time here to have multiple "favorites" I can point out, but there is no shortage of enticing options. One restaurant here of which I've been a repeat customer is First Street Alehouse, and it's an easy recommendation to make. It's a big place, yet popular enough to still make it difficult to get a table on busy days. On weekends, be prepared for a wait before you get a table, though the wait should be reasonably short if you show some flexibility in where you're willing to sit. The menu seems focused mainly on comfort food and pub fare, with burgers (which looked good) apparently their specialty. While I'm not a big beer drinker, if the frequency with which the Pliny the Elder beer is mentioned on MTBR is any indication, then it's probably a detail worth mentioning for some riders that this particular pub is one of a limited number of places where this fine brew is served.
© Ergin Guney
blog comments powered by Disqus