Mount Hamilton is the highest peak in the Bay Area. Since it's surrounded by numerous other high peaks, it's not not as visually impressive when seen from a distance as, say, Mount Diablo, but still it's simply the highest peak around. When there's a winter storm around here that's cold enough to result in snowfall at high elevations, Mount Hamilton is typically the first place to get some. So, one would expect a bike ride to this peak to be a pretty tough one. It is, though probably to a lesser extent than you might think.
There are multiple routes you can follow to pedal to the peak. What's shown on this page is probably the most popular way, which follows Mt. Hamilton Road (Route 130) from its beginning all the way to the observatory. There's something that feels appropriate about climbing to the peak of "Mount Hamilton" via "Mt. Hamilton Road". Plus, this happens to be most reasonable way of getting there. The trip to the peak is 18 miles long, with 15 of those being uphill miles. That's certainly a lot of climbing but, as I've hinted at above, it's a very reasonable climb in one particular aspect: the average grade never exceeds 6.5%. We owe this to the fact that the road was designed for the building and supply of the observatory at the peak back when horse-drawn carriages were being used for this. The moderate grade seems to have been a requirement for reliably hauling sensitive equipment to the observatory by carriage. As a result, you don't need big pedaling muscles at any point on this ride. All you need is stamina, and lots of it.
One alternate route for getting to the peak that is shorter and gets considerably better views in the earlier parts of the climb involves reaching Mt. Hamilton Road via Quimby Road. This results in a 15-mile climb instead of 18 miles, but don't let that fool you into thinking that's the easier option. Quimby Road involves much steeper slopes. On your way up, the road averages a pretty even 10% grade over 1.3 miles earlier on during the climb, which is followed by a hellish 1 mile that averages over 13%. Even the return over the Quimby Road route is more painful; you replace one of the two climbs during the return on Mt. Hamilton Road (the climb back up the "first descent" on your way up) with a more brutal return climb if you use Quimby Road: you encounter a 1.5-mile climb gaining 600 overall feet where the grade averages 9.5% over at least half a mile of that distance, in exchange for the climb you would have done on Mt. Hamilton Road that is a little under 2 miles in length and less than 350 feet in elevation gain, with the grade very rarely exceeding 5%.
It's also possible to climb to the peak from the eastern side. The only way I've heard of this being done involves approaching it over the very scenic Mines Road, though the map shows one or two other possibilities. However, doing that would result in a route that's easily more than twice as long as the ride you see on this page, so it should only be considered by those looking for a truly serious challenge.
As I've mentioned in passing above, not all of the distance to the peak is uphill. The climb is broken by two descents, which unfortunately add to the overall elevation gain of the ride. The silver lining of the descents is, they mean that not all of the 18 miles to the peak are an uphill struggle; three of those miles are descending. Another advantage of this is that, if you do the ride on a cold day, these two segments where you climb during the return allow you to break up the freezing, long descent and warm up a little during a couple of spells.
If you expect to see great views on a mountain climb to a high mountain peak by starting from the outskirts of the South Bay, you will, but maybe not to the extent that you might hope. Views toward settled areas are available only in the earliest part of the climb (up to the beginning of the first descent). These early views are a little set in from the main mass of settlement in the area, but the road does become a nice, twisty, hillside climb with completely open scenery on one side. After the road starts descending behind the first row of hills fronting Santa Clara Valley, only views of semi-wilderness are available. (While the South Bay can be sighted from the peak, it's a distant view.) There's nothing wrong with views of wilderness and the countryside is very pretty in this area, but I personally find these types of views to be less "examination-worthy" and less amenable to games of spotting reference points.
While we're on the topic of views, a few comments on what can be seen from the peak: Since this is the highest peak in the surrounding mountain range, you'd expect long views to be available in all directions. They are technically there, but a few things work against them. The neighboring Copernicus Peak obstructs any short range views toward the east, and views to the southeast are dominated by the nearby Mount Isabel. So, you don't have many wide-open vistas to gaze at, though you can spot Mount Tam on one side and the Sierra Nevada range on the other. Still, I would much prefer the unobstructed views you get from the peak of Mount Diablo to what can be seen from Mount Hamilton. Incidentally, there were clouds surrounding the peak on the date of my ride to the peak, so the photo set linked on the left does not represent what can be seen from the peak very well. To get a feel for that, see this second set of photos of the views from Mount Hamilton shot on a different date.
During the climb, the quality of the pavement suddenly switches from smooth to rough just past the five-mile mark, though this may have changed by the time you read this. At first sight, I thought this could be for improved traction in the upper portion of the road all the way to the peak, due to the occasional snow that Mount Hamilton receives. That assumption was proven wrong when the asphalt quality reverted to something smoother near the beginning of the second descent on your way up. That 5.5-mile stretch is just a portion of the ride where you'll have to endure more vibration and bumpiness. The rest of the mileage on Mt. Hamilton Road has good pavement, thankfully. Traffic is moderate up to the beginning of the first descent on your way up; it's light and keeps getting lighter as you continue past that point toward the peak. The road is usually moderately narrow (except for one spot where it's reduced to a single-lane for a moment while still quixotically maintaining the pretense of two lanes, judging by the double yellow line that remains unbroken). This doesn't leave cyclists much spare space over most of the ride. But, the amount and speed of the traffic didn't make me feel unsafe during the ride.
When you reach the peak, in addition to checking out the views, you probably want to spend a little time in the observatory, which is effectively the reward at the end of your long climb. This particular route only visits the main Lick Observatory building that sits right at the peak of the mountain. You can enter this building from its "main" entrance (the entrance you see when you first reach it), but going around the building to a side entrance more commonly used by cyclists will give you more direct access to the vending machines, restrooms, and a water fountain. It may help you to know in advance that cyclists are asked not to enter the building with cleated shoes; you're expected to either cover them up or take your shoes off.
While at the observatory, you may also catch a free guided look at the Great Lick Refractor telescope that's at the opposite end of the same building. If the gift shop happens to be open, it's worth a look; in addition to neat stuff related to astronomy and the observatory, one clever type of merchandise available for sale at the shop is warm clothing, which might help those who do the ride in the winter and realize mid-ride that they underestimated the cold.
One other thing open to visitors at the peak is the visitors' gallery of the 120-inch (3-meter) Reflector telescope, which the website states is one of the major installations used in the search for extrasolar planets. Detailed visitor information is available through the observatory's website. Those without prior familiarity with the history of Lick Observatory may tend to take it as merely a minor local observatory, possibly geared mainly toward education. Its role in astronomy is actually much more significant than that. Lick appears to have been the first mountaintop observatory in the world. I also remember reading a book explaining how astronomers realized for the first time that the Milky Way is not the extent of the universe and that it's merely one of many galaxies based on pioneering observations done at Lick. Even today, its website lists the observatory's active role in supernova observations and the search for extrasolar planets, among a lot of other research.
One interesting bit of trivia about Mt. Hamilton Road that I discovered when I read the Wikipedia content about it is that it contains exactly 365 curves, based on a somewhat less-than-strict definition of a "curve". It's a cute fact that feels appropriate for a road that was initially built for an astronomical observatory.
© Ergin Guney
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