Sunol Regional Wilderness
87% FIRE ROAD13% ROAD
Sunol Regional Wilderness is not a prime mountain biking location. It features no bike-legal singletrack. The fire roads do not hold too much special mountain biking interest either; they're non-technical and often steep. Therefore, this is not a ride to be done in search of pure mountain biking appeal. It wouldn't be too dismissive to say that this is a ride that would be done mainly "because it's there".
What Sunol does have going for it is the setting. The landscape is so varied and so idyllic-looking that it seems to be custom made to be featured in rustic landscape paintings. You're surrounded with softly rolling velvety hills mixed in with rugged rock outcrops and cliffs. You encounter grassy flats and sharp ravines in quick succession. The tree cover can range from ornamental sprinklings around the more open areas to surprisingly dense patches around the stream beds. These are lands that I simply love especially in the early spring when all the vegetation is green. Just this pretty landscape is enough reason on its own for an excellent hike. It's just that, on a mountain bike, you can range much farther into these lands and see more. If you like riding at Briones, you're likely to love Sunol. Meanwhile, the scenery at Sunol leaves that of Pleasanton Ridge in the dust, in my opinion.
Have I mentioned that the climbs are steep? You really need to be okay with climbing in order to enjoy this ride. It's not exactly "one for the record books" or anything. In fact, I would say that the steepness of the climbs on this ride is kept at a semi-reasonable level. You will not encounter any succession of steep ups and downs that keep repeating for no good reason along this route. But, it's safe to say that you'll be more fulfilled if you approach this ride as a "juicy physical challenge".
Sunol has plenty of trail mileage, but things are a bit more limited for bikes when you're left with only the fire roads as the legitimate options. In fact, this ride route includes a big majority of all the bike-legal trails in the park, and almost all of them that can be made into a sensible ride route. The ride is also made up of multiple "sub-loops", which should make it easier to tailor its length and difficulty to your liking by picking the ones you'd like to do.
You start out on the ride, perhaps surprisingly, by following paved park roads for a brief distance. When you reach the end of the paved Geary Road at a parking lot and go through a gate, the trail portion of the ride begins. Almost immediately, you cross a major gated bridge. If I'm not mistaken, there is also an option here to cross the creek directly, for those who feel adventurous.
The climb starts out only very gently after that. You may notice the valley becoming narrower as you head up. That's not an illusion, because you'll soon be reaching the spot in the park that's nicknamed "Little Yosemite". It's not hard to see the inspiration for the name when you're faced with the steep sides of the canyon along with a few exposed, sheer rock faces. Unfortunately, rather than taking in as much as possible of the Little Yosemite scenery, the ride starts the first serious climb by turning left just when you arrive there. Feel free to continue another quarter mile or so upstream along Alameda Creek first if you'd like to see more of it, before returning to this junction to start heading uphill.
Cerro Este Trail initially has a false start of the steep climbing. It gets steep for only a moment, but then returns to a brief gentle stretch that features nice views along the Alameda Creek valley from an open hillside. The longest segment of steep climbing starts right after this and doesn't let up for over a mile. The grade is uneven and the steepest part of this climb is its first half mile. The overall average grade is "only" 13.5%, but there is no shortage of 20% segments especially earlier on. As you get higher on Cerro Este, you transition from oak woodlands to open grassland. The scenery quotient also increases accordingly. When you turn onto Cave Rocks Road, you switch from views facing east to views facing west, and you start a descent. This stretch of the ride is very pleasant because you're mainly facing views of High Valley, which is a small meadow nestled in the hills, complete with an old barn and one or two other minor structures (used today as campgrounds), which you can almost fool yourself into believing is an alpine scene straight out of The Sound of Music, at least during the green season. The ride cuts across this pretty meadow and keeps descending to Welch Creek Road.
At Welch Creek Road, you head down this paved public road for only a few seconds before picking up Maguire Peak Trail on the other side. This is the second segment of the ride that will take some significant pedaling. This time the climb is much shorter, though. You pedal up two half-mile stretches here separated by a brief descent. Their overall grade is not above 6%, but there are plenty of spots reaching 13-14% along the way. When you reach Maguire Peaks Loop, the ride does a counter-clockwise traversal of this treeless, high, loop trail. I've preferred this particular direction for this sub-loop because I feel that it minimizes steep climbs. Doing such a high and short 360 around this pair of picturesquely rugged peaks will present you with a full view of the surrounding panorama, which is wide open.
When you return to Welch Creek Road, the ride's last climb is to follow. This is also the second serious climb on the ride route, though. So, if you've had enough by this point, you could instead retrace your steps to High Valley and pick up the rest of the route from there. If you continue uphill, you'll be gaining 600 feet in almost a mile before the end of the pavement, averaging a little over 12% grade. Once again, the initial parts of the climb are some of the steepest, with one stretch hovering around 18% grade for a moment. Thankfully, the grade slackens noticeably as you get closer to the end of the climb. When you return to trails again, you take a short connector trail to Vista Grande Road. As soon as you get to the junction where you arrive at this trail, you'll be at one of the most scenic spots in this park. Conveniently, you'll find a bench positioned right there, which might entice you to spend extra time taking it in. Not only is this spot scenic, but the one mile you'll be covering on your way down this trail is probably the cutest stretch of trail on this ride, because the trail precisely follows the spine of this knife's-edge ridgetop all the way to its end.
When you reach the end of Vista Grande Road, you'll be back in High Valley and all the rest of the ride will be a descent for you. You'll pick up Hayfield Road and follow this fire road skirting along the structures of High Valley Camp followed by a meandering descent along a broad treeless slope bisected by the narrow vegetation strip of a shallow stream bed. The descent ends at Canyon View Trail that runs right along Alameda Creek Trail. A quick right turn here followed by an immediate left turn will then put you back at the starting point of the ride.
If you look for a bite to grab after your ride, the option closest at hand will probably be in the tiny and somewhat quirky town of Sunol. The least you'll find here will include Sunol Railroad Cafe and Bosco's Bones & Brew, both of which looked enticing to me. Beyond that, the next most convenient set of options will be in the lively downtown Pleasanton, which provides a much wider selection of venues.
© Ergin Guney
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