Priest Rock Loop
85% FIRE ROAD3% PAVED12% ROAD
This mixed ride starts from a well known South Bay town center and leads essentially to a mountain top. It takes you from Los Gatos to a peak named "El Sombroso" in the Sierra Azul Open Space. This represents a net elevation gain of 2600 feet. It should, therefore, come as no surprise that this is a ride that mostly climbing junkies will like. The climb is a little easier than the one on the neighboring Kennedy Road ride (with which this route intersects) but is less even. And this is not to say that it is an easy climb. It's not. It's still a torture fest.
The ride features good views. This is true near the highest elevations of the ride, it's true on your way down Priest Rock Trail, and it's even partially true on your way up as long as you remember to turn back for a look once in a while. So, it would be a good idea to try to do the ride on a day with good weather and good visibility.
In its form reflected on this page, the ride features a long "approach" segment from the Los Gatos town center. If all that you're interested in is the "core" ride (starting from Limekiln Trail and ending when you finish Priest Rock Trail), you can also start from a spot near Lexington Reservoir. There's a suitable parking lot right next to Lexington Dam. Actually, that one has most of its spaces reserved for trailers, though you'll still find a handful of parking spaces for cars. However, it's a paid parking lot. The fee was $6 as of 2013. Alternatively, you'll find some roadside parking straight across the road from this lot, but it has space for only eight or so cars. There is also a gravel clearing next to the road on the other end of Lexington Dam, but I'm not certain if that one is kosher for public parking.
Starting the ride from one of these closer parking options would reduce your ride length by about 4 miles and your total elevation gain by 400 feet. However, there are two reasons for my preference to represent a route that starts from Los Gatos. One is the possibility of finding plenty of options for post-ride food or drinks, without having to drive and park again. The second is that, for most locals, this is more likely to be an out-the-door ride, and this version of the route more closely approximates what they would end up doing. If you'll be using one of the free parking options in Los Gatos, though, pay attention to time limits. Most free parking spaces in town are limited to two or three hours between 9:00 AM and 6:00 PM.
Not counting the approach portion of the route, the ride consists almost entirely of wide, smooth, and non-technical fire roads. Limekiln Trail does get a little narrow and twisty a few times in its earliest stretches, and it's not like Priest Rock doesn't have any rough stretches that could qualify for the term "rock garden". But, overall, "technical" is not a word that comes to mind after having ridden this route. There will be plenty of difficulty arising from the steepness of the climbs (and potentially the descents, for some riders), but this is not a technical ride in any real sense of the word.
The ride starts out by picking up Los Gatos Creek Trail at the eastern end of the overpass of East Main Street over Highway 17. This is a wide gravel path that is hugely popular with a wide variety of trail users. You might need some patience as you cover this portion of the ride on a crowded weekend. There's only a single notable burst of climbing along this stretch of the ride (beyond the gentle ascent of the trail on average). It's a short slope where the grade reaches something like 20% for a couple of hundred feet. There used to be a "walk your bikes" sign for this stretch in the downhill direction, which disappeared a while ago and hasn't been replaced since. But, it's over before you know it. When you reach the dam, the route takes you climbing somewhat diagonally up and across the "face" of the dam. This is less than an 800-foot-long climb of up to 13% grade. After you reach the road atop the dam, you'll need to cover a bit over half a mile on paved roads before you make it to the next stretch of trails.
The "real ride" starts when you reach the beginning of Limekiln Trail on Alma Bridge Road. The trailhead isn't too easy to miss. It will be seconds away after you pass the split of Alma Bridge Road and Limekiln Canyon Road. In its early parts, Limekiln Trail goes through an uneven stretch or two and possibly the only thing on the ride that remotely approximates "technical trail features". Initially, Limekiln does not feel much like a sustained climb. In fact, you'll even be coasting downhill in a couple of short segments. It doesn't take long for it to start climbing in earnest, though. Short bursts where the grade of the slope exceeds %20 start arriving very quickly. The trail actually settles into a repeating pattern: start an extra-steep climb as you start curving to the right and the trail starts getting some exposure to the sky, end the steep part of the climb as the trail takes the next curve left and continue at an easier grade through a much shadier stretch, and then repeat from the beginning at the next right-hander.
Limekiln Trail becomes sunnier and tones down the repeated steep bursts as it nears its junction with Priest Rock Trail. After the junction, it starts a long segment that alternates between flat and downhill. This part is also much wider and is initially open to views of the adjacent Soda Spring Canyon. That interlude doesn't last, though, and the more serious part of the climb starts soon. This climb lasts for two miles, and its second half is the steeper half. In its worst part, it averages 17% grade over 0.3 miles. The overall average grade of the steeper second mile of the climb is 14.5%. For most riders who are not in competition shape, numerous stretches of this climb will need to be walked.
Once you reach the junction where Limekiln meets Woods and Kennedy trails, the prospect of continuing "further up" after suffering through the climb up to that point may not feel palatable. That's understandable. To be honest, there isn't that much that you'd be missing by omitting the visit to the El Sombroso summit from your ride. It's very unspectacular, being just a local knob that merely hosts a power line tower. Some of its views are obstructed by surrounding vegetation, too. You'll get a fairly close-up look at the peak of Mount Umumhum from there, and a tightly framed view looking west. The better views that include a wide panorama of the South Bay is actually available from a spot just before the final push up the last few hundred feet to the summit. On the other hand, though, at least on your first time doing this ride, why not go up all the way when you've already come as far as you have? It's only 0.6 miles and 150 vertical feet away from that last junction. To be honest, the final stretches of that segment has another very serious climb that lasts a couple of hundred yards, but what's another few minutes of hike-a-bike when you've already done as much as you have on your way up to this spot?
When you turn onto Kennedy Trail, the bulk of the climbing on the ride will be behind. But, don't take that to mean that you'll be doing very little pedaling. This stretch on Kennedy Trail seems to have nothing but short ups and downs. Some of these are short enough that simply carrying enough momentum from the preceding dip will take you all the way up the next hump, but some will take additional effort. In fact, brief spurts that you'll have to muscle your way up almost never end on this ride before you return to the reservoir. Meanwhile, this stretch on Kennedy is one of the more open parts of the ride and the frequent views to neighboring hills and to the upcoming stretches of the trail make this portion feel pretty airy.
As you reach the junction with Priest Rock Trail, don't miss a wide clearing on your left, mere steps before the junction. This smooth clearing might be intended as a helicopter landing pad. It serves equally well as a vista point, though, and has an expansive view. Not that the descent on Priest Rock is any less scenic. This wide and smooth fire road (which, in terms of trail character, is just like what you left behind on Kennedy Trail and on the upper half of Limekiln) is almost completely devoid of surrounding trees. As a result, you can often see a half mile down the trail as you do this steep descent. The trail seems to alternate between extra-steep dips and more moderately sloped downhill stretches. Some of those extra-steep stretches can be treacherous, so be careful with your speed if it's going to be your first time down this trail. Knowing that one of those spots on Priest Rock is named "Dogmeat", I'm still not sure if the name is inspired by the fact that that's what it will make your thighs and palms look like if you take a spill on your way down, or by the fact that it will make minced meat of your ambitions of making the climb without dabbing on your way up. In any case, this steep slope is the only potential difficulty factor on your way down Priest Rock back to its junction with Limekiln Trail. For experienced riders, on the other hand, it will provide the biggest thrills of the ride.
After returning to the junction with Limekiln, you continue on Priest Rock Trail as it changes character considerably. First, it will have you gaining elevation for a little while right after the junction. Then, when its descent resumes, it becomes more closed-in and less scenic as it starts twisting more tightly on its way down. It also punches through a number of densely wooded patches, as well as becoming more shady overall. I remember only one potentially confusing unsigned fork in the fire road in this stretch, and the correct side for the ride route is "left" (though you'll also know this if you look for the more well worn half of the fork). Nearing the end of this descent, you'll start catching views of Lexington Reservoir again. Following that, you'll be back on pavement before you know it. The rest of the ride from that point forward consists of retracing your steps back to Lexington Dam and then following Los Gatos Creek Trail back down to your starting point.
© Ergin Guney
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