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Length 42.5 miles
Time 4.5 hours*
Total Climb 4300 feet
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Aerobic Difficulty
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* On a road bike

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Calaveras Road
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Calaveras Road is familiar to many road cyclists living in the South or East Bay. This road extends 14 miles south from near the small town of Sunol with no punishing climbs (when traversed southward anyway). Its southern reaches trace the sides of some rolling hills overlooking the road's namesake reservoir lake and present lovely views along the way owing to the patchy tree cover in that segment. When done as an out-and-back ride reaching up to the end of this portion, this road would provide a nice and non-taxing ride with very light motor-vehicle traffic that could act as a light workout or a pleasant cruise that can be done in the company of weaker riders.

The route you see on this page goes beyond that unchallenging out-and-back ride by adding to it a 6-mile extension (increasing the round trip by 12 miles) that's anything but light and non-taxing. If Calaveras Road is Dr. Jekyll, then this extension onto Sierra Road is the worst of Mr. Hyde. However, in addition to boosting the difficulty of the ride as a whole, I feel that this tough optional stretch of the route expands the overall appeal of this ride. In addition to riders who are short on time or stamina who can turn back when the easy part of Calaveras Road is over, this longer version of the ride will also hold an appeal for hardened cyclists who are looking for a juicy challenge that will not leave their effort unrewarded.

Calaveras Road would probably enjoy double the popularity it already does among cyclists if it allowed better looping opportunities. The only feasible ways of making a Calaveras Road ride into a loop involve the inclusion of a lot of mileage over the suburban streets and avenues of Fremont and Milpitas, which I don't find very desirable. Still, that doesn't seem to stop a lot of riders from doing just that anyway, most typically in the form of a counter-clockwise loop that traverses Calaveras Road in the downhill direction, if I understand correctly. My personal preference is to double my mileage on the lovely Calaveras Road in exchange for the miles I would need to ride in suburban traffic, especially since it's no big deal to do the road in the uphill direction either. That's why I've used that kind of an out-and-back Calaveras Road ride as the basis for this extended and toughened version.

The starting point of the ride is a gravel clearing in Sunol that's adjacent to the parking lot of the train station there. Sunol works well as the beginning of the ride not only because it allows you to do the climb before the descent, but also because it provides a local option to kick back and enjoy some drinks or food as soon as you finish the ride, without having to drive somewhere else. This little town is the only place along this route where this holds true. In addition, Sunol is a spot where a lot of road cyclists congregate on weekends, so you might even catch a little opportunity to socialize after your ride. That gravel parking area is a sizable one. While I've used it numerous times, if there are times it can be busy that I still haven't encountered, other than the limited amount of street parking available elsewhere in this town, one option for those doing the ride on a weekday morning could be to park along the driveway of the nearby Sunol Water Temple. (The water temple is open only on weekdays from 9:00 to 3:00.)

Effectively, the first thing you do on the ride is head out of Sunol on the straight and featureless Paloma Way. This short segment less than a mile in length is likely to be the most traffic-dense portion of the entire route, because this stretch is part of Route 84. Expect bad traffic especially during commute hours. Oddly, at the time I write this, the amount of paved shoulder space on this road is not the same on both sides; you get a comfortable two to three feet of paved shoulder width in the eastbound direction, but barely a foot westbound; at least in the part of Paloma Way that's closest to Sunol. Consequently, this road feels considerably less safe when you're traversing it in the return half of this ride than it does as you're heading out. But, at least its pavement is buttery smooth.

Calaveras Road begins where you pass under I-680. The narrowing down of the overall road and the step down in the pavement quality is immediately noticeable at this spot. Calaveras Road has a moderately course type of asphalt surface. Not enough to be bothersome perhaps, but no one would describe this as a "smooth road". Meanwhile, the road surface is almost completely intact (other than frequent cracks especially at some of the higher elevations that seem to have been individually patched with tar), but it's still slightly bumpy. One gets the distinct impression that someone opted for "grade B" road quality when budgeting for the surfacing of this road. This doesn't take away too much from the enjoyment of the ride from my point of view, but things certainly could be better in this regard.

The road initially starts with a couple of miles of distance that is just as flat and straight as the preceding short segment on Paloma Way. You also pass by at least a quarry and a nursery on the right-hand side on this stretch, which provides a little additional visual interest. Toward the end of this, the road starts skirting along the hills on the left more closely. Despite continuing nearly as straight and almost as flatly as before, this proximity to the nice and grassy slopes on the left improves the setting of the ride considerably for the two miles that follow.

When you arrive at the intersection with Geary Road, the road changes character almost completely. You enter a moderate amount of tree cover, whereas that had been nearly absent up to that point. The level of motorized traffic is immediately reduced from very light to extremely light. Perhaps more importantly, the only segment of Calaveras Road that could qualify as a significant climb (in the southbound direction) starts right at that intersection. This 2.8-mile stretch of the road will have you climbing at a pretty consistent slope that strays very little from its merciful average of about 4% grade.

That shady climb ends right around the time you start seeing unobstructed sunshine again as you arrive at some of the facilities of Calaveras Dam. This is another spot where the road undergoes a pronounced change of character. For over six miles after this, the road becomes considerably curvier and it alternates between tree cover and open sky as it swoops in and out of the folds of a hillside overlooking the reservoir lake. The scenery gets better the further south you go, where the road starts traversing a bare, grassy hillside with an open view on the reservoir side for more sustained periods. Gentle rises and descents (mostly in sync with each of the road's dips into the folds of the hillside) continue alternating throughout this portion of Calaveras Road, in addition to a small amount of net elevation gain. But, these don't feel like serious work.

That scenic and easy stretch of Calaveras Road ends about half a mile before the road's intersection with Felter Road. The last quarter mile or so before that junction turns into a very steep descent (when ridden toward the intersection), immediately following a wide, 180-degree, right-hand curve. Those who are interested in doing just the easier, short version of this ride should keep an eye out for that curve and turn around before this steep descent begins, leaving them with a 29-mile ride with about 2000 feet of total climb overall. Riders who traverse Calaveras Road as part of a counter-clockwise loop have to climb that steep quarter mile before the junction. I observed multiple riders call it "the wall", which is a nickname in common with all memorably steep climbs pretty much anywhere, it seems. The slope averages about 13% grade end to end, and exceeds 15% at its worst spots.

For those doing the ride as shown on this page, that steep stretch heading down to the intersection of Felter Road will be the last hurrah of the torture fest that is the extension of this ride—it will be the last tough climb (and the worst one) on the way back. There is no way to sugarcoat this extension of the ride onto Felter Road and Sierra Road, so I won't try to. This leg takes you to the parking lot of Sierra Vista Open Space Preserve at the highest spot of Sierra Road, and results in 1450 feet of cumulative elevation gain over the course of 6 miles. What's the worst is not the average grade implied by those figures, but the fact that the brunt of the climb arrives in three distinct episodes where the grade exceeds 9 or 10 percent for distances of about a quarter mile or more. The worst of these is the third one, which is a half-mile stretch that ends just before you turn onto Sierra Road. The steepest quarter mile of that last climb on the way up averages 11% grade overall. I also felt like the density of traffic noticeably stepped up as soon as I turned from Calaveras Road onto Felter Road, though it still didn't exceed what would qualify as "light".

One might naturally ask what you're getting in exchange for your pain and suffering on this extension past Calaveras Road. To be able to appreciate this optional segment, you need to be comfortable with the fact that your primary reward will be a bigger workout. Beyond that, it's still true that this part of the ride is surrounded by a very pretty countryside. The best of the views in this part of the ride arrive only when you get on Sierra Road, but a one-mile stretch on Felter Road arriving around the 17.5-mile mark from the beginning of this ride also consists of a nice meander across a grassy and open hillside that presents some views toward the inland side. The scenery of Sierra Road blows that short scenic stretch on Felter out of the water, though. Parts of Sierra Road may even allow you to pretend that you're flying above a hilly landscape, rather than merely pedaling a landbound machine. You get some great views of the South Bay and of Alum Rock Canyon from the last one or two miles on this ride before the point where you turn around.

As I've mentioned in passing above, the turn-around point I've picked for this ride is the parking lot of the Sierra Vista Open Space Preserve, which sits almost exactly at the highest spot on Sierra Road. This happens to be the most scenic parking lot of any park I know, so it's a great place for a rest stop too before starting your return trip. If you go any further than this on Sierra Road, you'd be starting a steep descent that could soon force you to revise your return plan. That stretch of Sierra Road is popular with cyclists, too. I see many riders taking that brutal climb from the San Jose side. My problem with it is not its difficulty (though I'm sure it would kick my butt), but the combination of the very narrow, very steep, and very twisty road in the presence of traffic. It just feels too risky. Maybe I'm mistaken, but I got the impression that the portion of Sierra Road included on the route you see on this page is less threatening. Perhaps it might have something to do with the less perilous grade, or with the somewhat lighter traffic, or both.

If you happen to do this ride on a trail-capable bike and include the extension into Sierra Road, you'll have a couple of extra possibilities available to you at the turn-around point. Aquila Loop is a (mostly) singletrack trail making a sweet and easy (though not very exciting) one-mile loop that begins directly opposite from the Sierra Vista parking lot. It might even serve as a cool-down segment after the first half of your ride. For something a bit more substantial, you can try an out-and-back spur from that parking lot along Sierra Vista trail in one or both directions. However, Sierra Vista Open Space has no shortage of steep climbs that make the toughest spots on Felter Road seem merciful by comparison, so don't range too far into the trail network if you'd rather avoid most of those. After all, you'll still have at least "the wall" to contend with in the return half of your ride, which is easily the single worst climb of this entire route.

© Ergin Guney


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