Mount Diablo (North Gate Road climb)
In case you've somehow failed to hear this already, the summit of Mount Diablo is one of the highest peaks around the Bay Area. (Only Mount Hamilton and a few peaks surrounding it are higher.) In fact, since Mount Diablo is a free-standing mountain rather than being "yet another peak" along a set of high ridges, it's probably justified to call it the "largest mountain in the Bay Area" despite the fact that its peak is not the highest. Moreover, for the same reason, it carves a much more imposing figure on the horizon from many points in the Bay Area. Wikipedia explains that a real estate promoter once hyped the view from the peak of this mountain as being the second greatest surface area that can be seen from any peak in the world. While that claim was not true, it's still impressive enough in having one of the largest "viewsheds" in the western United States.
This ride represents one of the two basic ways of approaching a Mount Diablo climb for road cyclists, with the other option being via South Gate Road. Out of the two possible routes, this one feels like the quieter one in my opinion. At least the way I normally do it, the South Gate Road climb involves some pedaling on suburban avenues before you get to a real mountain road, whereas on North Gate Road, as long as you start from somewhere around where I did, you will be in the backcountry within a few minutes of beginning the ride.
If you need to know which of the two road routes up Mount Diablo is the easier one, it's not easy for me to answer that question because I haven't done the two rides close to each other. It's a bit of a toss up. If I were forced to pick one, I would have to say that the North Gate Road option feels a hair easier, and the lower mileage and elevation gain numbers seem to support that. But I'd consider that difference debatable.
This ride starts from virtually the very beginning of North Gate Road on the outskirts of Walnut Creek. As I mentioned, this enables you to find yourself on pretty backroads almost right from the start. If you'll be driving to do the ride, your parking options will consist of street parking. North Gate Road appears to allow unlimited parking but some of the sleepier side streets like Doncaster Road (which I used) seem a little more parking friendly. This is not a dense area, so you shouldn't have trouble in finding a spot, but if you do, Walnut Avenue also features a very generous width and easy parking just a couple of blocks away, but there is a two-hour time limit there.
Shortly after you finish the first mile of the ride, you will go through the entrance gate of the Mount Diablo State Park. You'll see cars stopping here to pay an entrance fee, but you'll be glad to know that entrance is free for bicycles. So you can roll right through.
I'll state the obvious here and emphasize that this ride is a pure mountain climb. As you can tell from the elevation profile, the elevation gain begins immediately. Thankfully, things are very mild for about the first 2.5 miles of the ride where the end-to-end average grade is barely over 2%. This works as a pleasant warm up. Once the grade picks up, other than a couple of negligibly short segments that are downhill or flattish, it's never interrupted until you reach the peak. The distance to the peak from the starting point I've picked is a little under 12.5 miles. If you leave out the "warm-up" portion at the beginning to focus on the real climb, you'll be looking at a touch over 9.5 miles over which the end-to-end average grade comes out to a reasonable-sounding 6.5%. Reasonable as that number may be, not all parts of the road to the peak stick to that value very closely (though, most notably, a 3.5-mile segment that starts around the 5.5-mile mark of the route does maintain this grade very evenly). What you'll notice more are the portions of the climb that are steeper than this average. The first of these that will probably be noticed by many riders is the first half mile of the climb after what I called the "warm up" portion ends. This stretch of the climb averages 7% grade, though its second half is a touch steeper than its first.
The toughest feeling portion in the lower elevations of the climb is a quarter-mile section that averages a little over 9.5% grade. This arrives shortly after the 4-mile mark of the ride. Things don't get that bad again until you finish the first nine miles of the ride. Shortly after you reach that point, you cover a half-mile section that averages 8.5% grade end to end. That part doesn't feel like fun. Even the last bit of steeper-than-average portion on the climb, which is a bit over one mile that ends at the Devil's Elbow curve, doesn't feel that bad and averages only a touch over 8% grade overall. Actually, calling that last segment the "last bit of steeper-than-average portion" is technically a lie. The last 500 feet of distance to the peak, which consists of the one-way driveway to the parking lot at the top, is easily the single steepest stretch of the entire ride and its grade exceeds 15% at its worst spot! But, it's so short that it can simply be walked if need be, which is what plenty of people do.
As I explained, when you start from where I did on this ride, North Gate Road doesn't take very long before it leaves suburban neighborhoods behind and nestles into the shallow valleys of small creeks as it slowly ramps up it slope; first along Arroyo del Cerro for a very short while, and then following Little Pine Creek for a longer distance, according to the topographic map. This is beautiful, open countryside, though the low setting along creek beds means that distant views take much longer to open up, at least in comparison with the climb via South Gate Road. In fact, you don't begin to see any reference points on the other side of Shell Ridge until nearly the end of the sixth mile of the ride. After that, the views get better and better though. This is really a ride worth doing when the weather is clear of any low clouds or fog. Check out the photos to see what I mean.
North Gate Road carries very light traffic. It appears that most people who drive to the peak take South Gate Drive. This makes North Gate Road particularly friendly to bikes. In terms of general character, the road is no different from South Gate Road or Summit Road: it's a moderately narrow mountain road with a dashed yellow line down the middle as its only lane marking. The road eventually connects to Summit Road at the same intersection where South Gate Road does, so traffic becomes noticeably busier from there on up. Still, I don't find any of the route to the peak to be significantly risky for cyclists. The speed limit is very low (often 15 or 20 MPH) and most drivers don't seem to be in any hurry or after any thrills. There were also a number of signs along the route at the time I did this ride that repeated the message "do not pass bikes on blind curves" to drivers.
As of the time of my ride, the surface quality of North Gate Road is noticeably worse than that of Summit Road (and I think worse than South Gate Road too). There were plenty of cracks along many stretches, and considerably more patches than on Summit Road. Naturally, you don't notice this as much when you're crawling uphill in the first half of the ride. On the way down, though, it does take away something from your enjoyment of the descent. As fun as the descent still is right now, if this road is resurfaced at some point, this descent will become a real blast from beginning to end.
Once you reach the summit, you'll definitely want to spend some time in the visitor center, at least if this is your first time there. Not only are there informative exhibits there about the mountain, its history and ecology, as well as observation decks atop the building with views in every direction, but there is also ice cream, candy bars, granola bars, and soft drinks available here (downstairs), not to mention the fact that the actual physical peak of the mountain is exposed in one spot inside this particular building. So, you may want to bring a lock with you, unless you'll be okay with leaving your bike unlocked outside while you're in there. The last time I visited, there was also a fountain outside where you can refill your bottles as well.
Needless to say, the views from the peak are phenomenal. Try to pick a particularly clear day for your ride (shortly after some rain, perhaps) and they should be quite simply jaw dropping. I've read claims that Half Dome at Yosemite is within line of sight of this peak (and used to state that on this page for some time), however, Wikipedia asserts that it isn't but that Sentinel Dome in Yosemite is. If you plan to spot it, here's a helpful hint: Aim for a (corrected) heading of around 93 degrees...
The descent in ubroken. If that sounds thrilling, yes, it certainly can be. But there's more to consider. If you do the ride on a chilly day, what feels like refreshing cool air as you sweat your way to the peak could start feeling downright freezing on the way down, especially considering the significantly cooler temperatures you're likely to experience at the higher elevations. Just consider the fact that (other than any stops you may make on the way down) you'll be buffeted by wind speeds of whatever your descending speed will be for something like half an hour if not more. It might help to know that the gift shop at the visitor center happens to sell sweatshirts that might be a lifesaver if you find yourself at the peak and a little underdressed for the weather conditions.
© Ergin Guney
blog comments powered by Disqus