Sanborn County Park
68% SINGLETRACK32% FIRE ROAD
This is a longish, out-and-back ride on never-straight hillside trails under good tree cover that does a big descent and a return climb along the way. It follows a route that has become available to mountain bikers only a short time before I've done this ride in 2015. The amount of climbing involved in the ride is at a level I would consider "modest" for a ride of this length. There are tough climbs sprinkled throughout the ride route, but these are not persistent, with the exception of one section roughly a mile long. Considering the fact that the ride does not involve too much technical difficulty, especially not on John Nicholas Trail, this route would be a good suggestion to inexperienced riders as long as they are okay with the amount of climbing involved, and this is actually quite a fun ride in a gorgeous setting as far as beginner-suitable ride options go. However, don't make the mistake of thinking this is an easy ride from beginning to end just because I used the word "beginner". While it wouldn't qualify as a very tough option for seasoned riders, any beginner attempting this ride who's not in tip-top physical shape is bound to suffer in a few segments of this route.
Sanborn County Park had been a black hole on my mental trail map since I started mountain biking in the Bay Area around 2005 because it had no bike-legal trails for years. However, while the park remained relegated to a back corner of my mountain biking mind, a trail plan approved in 2008 appears to have opened the door for this park to join the roster of desirable mountain biking parks along Skyline Boulevard. An official park map dated 2009 still shows a grand total of zero bike-legal trail mileage in Sanborn. Later, a 1.7-mile segment of Skyline Trail in Castle Rock State Park (between Saratoga Gap and the boundary of Sanborn County Park) had been opened to bicycles some time in 2012—though that's probably related more to changes in Castle Rock State Park policy than the 2008 Sanborn plan—, which I hadn't tried until I did this particular ride because it was effectively a dead-end spur. Fast forward to 2015, and Sanborn (along with the part of Skyline Trail that's already bike-legal) becomes worthy of serious attention for more substantial mountain bike rides with the completion of John Nicholas Trail. This nearly five-mile-long trail descends from Skyline Trail to connect to Black Road after visiting Lake Ranch Reservoir; though, to be fair, its final two miles before Black Road already existed in earlier years in the form of Lake Ranch Trail. John Nicholas has been opened some time around November 2014 and formally dedicated in March 2015, as far as I can gather.
Perhaps more importantly, this new bike-legal trail arrived in the company of access rule changes that made the entire length of Skyline Trail in Sanborn Park legal for bike use. (My thanks to Henry Bugatto, a viewer of this site, for giving me a heads-up on the completion of John Nicholas Trail.) The news gets better than that, however: The 2008 plan for Sanborn includes the construction of several more new bike-legal trails and a few more access rule changes that will allow much more meaningful bike routes within the park's boundaries than this semi-awkward out-and-back, including loops and the possibility of reaching the park's center near Sanborn Road by bike via trails. Some of these may have already been completed by the time you read this. If not, stay tuned.
This out-and-back ride, as represented here, starts from the upper end of the route. This is not ideal. The better way to do the ride would be to start from the Black Road trailhead of John Nicholas Trail. The problem is that there is room for only about five cars at that trailhead. I've, therefore, found it preferable to show the ride here in its less preferable direction for purely logistical reasons. Finding parking available at the starting point I show here is orders of magnitude easier than finding a space at the Black Road trailhead. If you happen to do the ride on a weekday or very early on a weekend morning, one good idea could be to first drive past the Black Road trailhead to look for parking there and continue onto the upper end of the route only if no spaces are left on Black Road. I have to add, though, that the first two miles of the trail when you start from Black Road is a wide and relatively uninteresting fire road (though it takes place in pretty woodlands). While starting the ride from the top is inconvenient, it also allows you the flexibility to return early (from Lake Ranch Reservoir) in order to omit that less desirable section of this route, even if descending first and climbing back later will mean that less experienced riders will have to pay more attention on the way down to their remaining stamina if they aren't to find themselves stuck in a hole from which they don't have the energy to climb back out.
Conceptually, the one-way route of this ride could be considered to consist of three distinct parts: the nominally flat section in the beginning on Skyline Trail, which follows Skyline Boulevard very closely (about 2.5 miles); the unbroken descent/climb on the newly built portion of John Nicholas Trail (about 3 miles); and the mostly flat, wide fire road that used to be Lake Ranch Trail from Lake Ranch Reservoir to Black Road (2 miles). The first of these segments is the closest in character to Saratoga Gap Trail, for those who have already tried that one. This is true in terms of setting, attitude, as well as difficulty and technical features. (More on that below.) The part on John Nicholas Trail is the twisty and smooth descent, as well as being the grinding climb on the way back up. And the third part on fire roads between Lake Ranch Reservoir and Black Road is the somewhat pointless portion in my opinion. Unless you're interested in boosting your ride's total mileage, those who start the ride from the top end might just as well leave that part out. On the other hand, if boosting mileage is what you're after, continuing northwest on Skyline Trail beyond what's included on this route would probably be much more rewarding than those two wide, fire-road miles.
Although the new John Nicholas Trail is what makes this ride route possible and could arguably qualify as the "aim" of this ride, the more fun segment of the ride is Skyline Trail, because it's a little technical in some spots. Maybe 95% of this trail, too, is pretty smooth, but it has a handful of technical trail features every now and then that could help hold the interest of experienced riders better than John Nicholas Trail might. It's not for nothing that it feels like a direct continuation of Saratoga Gap Trail, because that's quite literally what it is. Skyline Trail merges with older fire roads for limited distances once or twice, but this does not hurt the enjoyability of this trail in any significant way, in my opinion.
As I've already mentioned, John Nicholas Trail is not technical. One important thing that it has going for it is that this trail was designed with the enjoyment of mountain bikers in mind, although this was not the sole consideration. At the moment, it's in the form of a "multi-use path" about four feet wide, most typically. This makes it a bit less exciting than a narrow hillside singletrack. It also means that the hairpin turns (of which this trail has many) are of a relatively easy variety, with a moderately generous turning radius. You will notice that some turns are quite nicely bermed, which could serve no trail users other than bicyclists, and you may notice that some of the twists in the trail are on a scale that are most meaningful for bikers as well.
The trail gets noticeably steeper as you get lower, meaning the beginning part of your return climb will be the toughest. As I've mentioned in passing above, the part that will make itself felt the most is about a mile in length. Though it features a couple of short breaks along the way, the uphill portions of this mile average grades in the ballpark of 12 and 13 percent most of the time, while a handful of spots ranging between 15 and 20 percent grade are sprinkled in as well.
At one particular spot on the way down, John Nicholas Trail goes through something like four hairpin turns that arrive in rapid succession within the space of 200 feet (of distance) or less. This interesting segment where the trail is partially held up by some rough stonework is unique among Bay Area trails as far as I can remember. I can't think of any other trail where four successive switchbacks are packed as tightly as this and follow each other in such little distance. If this cute segment doesn't already have a nickname associated with it, I'd bet it very soon will, and it's likely to become the most memorable feature of this trail.
Another interesting small stretch of John Nicholas Trail arrives at the end of the descent. This portion begins when you encounter the first bridge that the trail crosses upon arriving at the bed of a rugged and very pretty stream. The section between that first bridge and the third one that follows before too long is a tightly twisting portion where the trail follows a slightly raised line (probably) for drainage and stability as it shares this sheltered and lush creek bed with the flowing water and playfully squeezes past a giant boulder. This stretch almost has more of a Zen garden kind of sense to it rather than a mountain bike trail and is a second candidate for the most memorable trail feature on John Nicholas, though it, too, is over before you know it.
The moment you arrive at Lake Ranch Reservoir will be impossible to miss. The way the trail goes from singletrack to a wide fire road, emerging from shady tree cover into wide open skies, and the view on one side of the trail being suddently dominated by the cute reservoir lake virtually all at once will probably make most riders instinctively stop here at least for a brief moment. If you do the ride by descending first, as shown here, this spot might as well be where you turn around, as I already mentioned. In case you do decide to continue all the way to Black Road out of curiosity or a sense of completeness, then the route shown here and the linked photo set should be enough to show you what to expect of the remaining two miles after this point.
For those who are interested in extending this ride, there is only one possible option at the time I write this, not counting any repetition of a portion of this same route. Thankfully, that single option is a pretty good one: you can follow Skyline Trail further northwest from the starting point of the ride route shown on this page. If you do this, in three miles, you would reach the parking lot at the beginning of the Saratoga Gap and Long Ridge ride. If the six extra miles this adds to your round trip is not enough at this point, the entire route of that other ride and its extension options in turn will then be available to you, naturally, so you can probably keep riding until you collapse.
© Ergin Guney
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