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Length 52.5 miles
Time 5 hours
Total Climb 3100 feet
Fun Rating
5
Scenic Rating
7
Aerobic Difficulty
8
Technical Difficulty 
4


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Del Puerto Canyon Road
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Del Puerto Canyon Road isn't exactly one of the commonly discussed ride routes among Bay Area road cyclists, as far as I understand. This fact is fairly understandable given its relative remoteness and its somewhat awkward starting point for those who'd prefer to do it in the order of "first climb then descend". That same obscurity also qualifies this ride as a hidden gem in my book, however. Done in the right season, the ride is wonderfully idyllic and a great majority of its mileage is within the physical capabilities of even the most modest riders. Even the drive to get there isn't much longer than what some of us would need to undertake to reach what I consider some Bay Area rides (like getting to Santa Cruz or to Fort Ord from San Francisco) for those who can use the fast freeways I-580 and I-5 to get there.

I discovered this ride through Jay Rawlins' excellent road-ride website "Jay's Essential Bike Rides". The selection of rides on Jay's site combines great coverage with tasteful and informed selection. I would heartily recommend his website to anyone who looks for Bay Area road ride information online. His material covers all the essential information for each ride as well as adding plenty of useful firsthand detail and tips.

The route follows a road from beginning to end as it heads from right by Interstate 5 halfway to the peak of Mount Hamilton. The uphill half of the ride can be described as 50 miles of a pleasure cruise in a pretty landscape and 2 miles of torment. Seeing the roughly triangular shape of the elevation profile plot, one might think of this as an out-and-back ride on a climbing road but, in reality, the first 20 or 21 miles of the ride are essentially flat (though this does include a two- or three-mile stretch that needs a little work) and the climb doesn't really begin until you reach mile 22. For much of its length, the road follows Del Puerto Creek, which is one of the prettiest creeks I've seen in person. In rocky parts of the valley, it becomes an alpine stream and, in the flatter meadows, it becomes a widened grassy water flow. This was the case at least during my ride in April when it still had a decent amount of water. I'm not familiar with the creek's conditions at other times of the year. You can also encounter a selection of water birds on Del Puerto Creek, which surprised me a little, until I remembered the existence of the large artificial rivers that flow by this area along I-5.

Other than the pretty scenery, there are a few things to be seen on the ride. One of these is a couple of mining prospects. At least two of these are visible from the road (that I could find), but the USGS topographic map actually marks a couple more that I wasn't able to spot. Another thing is the Frank Raines OHV Park that you pass on the way. I didn't get to see too much activity on its trails that were visible from the road during my ride, but part of its trail network and the seemingly popular parking lot and entrance area provided some visual interest. One more point of interest along the way is an area that is predominated by graffitti. By the looks of it, this may have started on a large rocky outcrop, which still seems to be bear the heaviest density of graffitti, but the phenomenon is also widely spread across the road surface around the curve where that outcrop sits and to other rock faces that are nearby and even onto boulders in the adjacent length of the creek.

I was expecting this ride to provide a profound sense of seclusion, but the feeling of being in the wilderness is not undiluted. The presence of several named campgrounds and parks along the route as well as the traffic and activity generated by the OHV park are added to the presence of ranches that are dotted at wide intervals along the road to result in the feeling that you're not really far away from civilization, which some other rides on this site actually provide despite not literally being so.

For the beginning of the route, I picked a residential street on the outskirts of Patterson. You have some other options as well. One possibility is to park at the plaza of gas stations and restaurants that's closer to the I-5 interchange. There are also spaces available in the occasional roadside pockets on Del Puerto Canyon Road itself where I've seen people park for hiking or enyoying a picnic and, in one particular case, amateur geology.

This is a two-climb ride with one of the climbs being the bad one by far. In the first half of the ride, the grade of the climb doesn't exceed 5% until mile 22. When it does, the worst part of the climb begins with a bang. This tough climb of the ride is apparently referred to as "The Wall" by regulars of the route (as you might expect). This climb lasts for 1.5 miles at an average grade a little over 9% and many spots that exceed 10%. It ends at a saddle point that the road passes over, right on the county line that separates Stanislaus and Santa Clara counties. At this point, the road initially descends and then, for about two miles, follows roughly levelly on average toward the turn-around point of the route. This extension past the highest point of the road might seem like a test of will power after finishing a tough climb and dreading the thought of incurring more climbs for the return half. But, the good news is that the return climb, while still significant in terms of having a few spots that exceed 10% grade, pales in comparison with the tough part of the climb on the way in, since it's steepest part averages less than 6.5% grade over a half mile.

The part of the route past the top of The Wall is good for only two things, as far as I can see. One is just the sense of completion coming from traversing the entire length of Del Puerto Canyon Road. The second is to reach the restaurant named The Junction at the intersection where San Antonio Valley Road, Mines Road, and Del Puerto Canyon Road meet. At the time of my ride, I wasn't able to try this place, because I started the ride very early in the morning and got there before its opening time, which was 11:00 AM, at least on a Sunday. At other times, however, I understand that a visit to The Junction is an integral part of the Del Puerto Road ride experience for most cyclists.

On your way back down, make sure you pay attention to the descent down The Wall. This is a descent that is easy to overdo. That's not only because of the steep grade and the curves, but it's also because of the bad road surface that can throw you off at an inopportune moment if you're being reckless. The bumpy and lumpy road surface is fairly hard to discern from a distance at speed. So, control yours speed carefully and be prepared for sudden braking or pothole avoidance.

The upshot of the easy approach until you get to the tough climb in the first half of this out-and-back ride is that you need to keep working a little on the way back too because the grade is not steep enough to coast all the way back down. There will be some pedaling involved, although you can maintain coasting for some reasonably long stretches almost until the end. It's not without interruption, however. In fact, there's another factor that might contribute to your amount of work in the return. I had a headwind in the later parts of the return of the ride, and I read another rider's account online who had the same experience and who suspects that this may be common here. My return was taking place around noon on the day of my ride.

Before I did the ride, I expected the scenery to be decent but repetitive and the level of traffic to be almost non-existent. I was wrong on both counts. The scenery, at least in the green part of spring, is simply excellent and the landscape is interesting to such an extent that, even with straw-colored grass, I expect it to still be pleasing. The traffic level is very light but not negligible. Traffic truly becomes extremely light only after you pass the Frank Raines OHV Recreation Area.

The quality of the pavement is quite variable on Del Puerto Road, but even in its best stretches, I wouldn't rate it as anything higher than a B in terms of either the evenness of its surface or the fineness of the asphalt. And at higher elevations, there are patches that are badly cracked and, in places, broken. The road also goes through numerous cattle guards. I counted eight of them sprinkled from the beginning all the way to the turn-around point.

There is a good source of water on this route other than the cafe at the top and its located quite well. It's shortly before the beginning of the bad climb, meaning you can replenish your water supply not just for the return of the ride but even for the tougher portions that you haven't yet completed in the first half. Called "Adobe Springs", you'll find this place at a signed junction with a concrete-paved stream ford, near which you will find a tap that is apparently quite popular with local residents for fulfilling their household drinking water needs as well.

In terms of tree cover and flora, the road starts out in the bare grassy hills that you might instinctively expect to find along the I-5 corridor. But, before too long, you start seeing sprinklings of oak trees on the hillsides and the vegetation gets thicker as you head further in. As you near the upper elevations, you even see areas where the chaparral crowds out the grass. At some point along the way, some pine varieties start showing up, strengthening the alpine feeling that the road generates. There's even someone's log cabin near the road along the way that seems to add to that sense. One pleasant patch of the road in those parts was surrounded by such an amount of ceanothus (or blue blossom) at the time of my ride that their heavy scent was uninterrupted for something like a quarter mile.

If you look for ways of extending this ride, one obvious option is to extend your out-and-back route all the way to the peak of Mount Hamilton, although it must be said that this would multiply the difficulty of your ride by a factor of three. Of course, there's nothing stopping you from starting to head that way, only to turn back from wherever you decide that you've had enough. You can do the same toward the north on Mines Road as well. In either case, however, make sure you have some energy reserved for the return. It's mostly downhill on the way back, but it still takes work, and the ride's lesser climb is still to come in the second half.



© Ergin Guney


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