RIDE the Bay Area Peaks
Road List: Metcalf Rd • San Felipe Rd • Quimby Rd • Mount Hamilton Rd • Lick Observatory • Sierra Rd • Felter Rd • Calaveras Rd • Niles Canyon • Palomeras Rd • Crow Canyon • South Gate Rd • Mount Diablo • North Gate Rd • Marsh Creek Rd • Deer Valley Rd • Highway 160 • Montezuma Hills Rd • Wooden Valley Rd • Highway 121 • Highway 128 • Berryessa-Knoxville Rd • Pope Canyon • Howell Mountain Rd • Bale Grist Mill • Highway 29 • Highway 175 • Bottle Rock Rd • Hopland Grade • Old River Rd • Highway 253 • Mountain View Rd • Highway 1 • Sir Francis Drake Blvd • Fairfax Bolinas Rd • Ridgecrest Blvd • Mount Tamalpais
A decade ago, I called up a ride buddy and said, hey, I’ve got this idea, let’s ride all the sisters, the three main peaks that surround the San Francisco Bay Area, Mount Hamilton in the south, Mount Diablo to the east, and if we can fit it in, we could even ride to the top of Mount Tamalpais to the north.
My pitch was a simple one: there are three main peaks that surround the San Francisco Bay Area. Let’s ride all of them in one weekend. It’s didn’t take a lot of convincing to get him to come ride with me that day.
Here’s what you need to know about Mount Hamilton. There’s an astronomical observatory at the summit, currently operated by the University of California. But the best part is it was all built in the 1870s. The observatory was financed by James Lick, a wealthy San Franciscan and philanthropist. But, the observatory atop the mountain is only bonus, the real highlight is the road to get there.
James Lick negotiated that Santa Clara County construct a "first-class road" to the summit, completed in 1876. This road to the summit was built for horse-drawn wagons. All of the construction materials had to be brought to the site on wagons pulled by horse and mules which could not negotiate a steep grade. To keep the grade below 6.5%, the road had to take a very winding and sinuous path, which the modern-day road still follows. Tradition maintains that this road has exactly 365 turns in 18 miles.
The same road that once was a wagon road still offers up a purity of happiness, endless frivolity, numerous switchbacks, and bonus… banked corners. It’s a motorcyclist’s delight. And once at the top of the peak, you’ll have a view on a clear day of the entire San Francisco South Bay Area, well, the South Bay really. We also get to tour the facility, and learn about the observatory’s history.
Lick Observatory was planned as the world's first permanently occupied mountain-top observatory. The observatory, built in a Classical Revival style structure, was constructed between 1876 and 1887.
By 1888, Mount Hamilton was planned to be the first permanently occupied mountain-top observatory in the world and a small community sprang up of scientist, astronomers, and astrophysicists. Current topics of research carried out at Lick Observatory include exoplanets, supernovae, active galactic nuclei, planetary science, and development of new adaptive optics technologies.
Mount Diablo lies about 50 miles to the north, as the crow flies. We’re headed that direction next.
However, there’s a bit of a puzzle to solve. We need to get from here to there, but avoid the millions of people that live in the greater East Bay Area. The solution to that route planning quandary lies in the shape of the land. We can stick to the hills and canyons to stay out of the city and make our way over to Mount Diablo for another twisty ride to our second summit of the day.
Mount Diablo is the 3,849 ft peak that can be seen from a vast region of Central California. While not the tallest peak in the Diablo Range, Mount Diablo is surrounded by relatively flat land giving it a prominence of 3,109 feet which gives it one of the most expansive vistas in all of California. Clearly visible from the nearby Sierra Nevada Range, the views atop Mount Diablo extend for 60 miles.
On a clearest of days from the summit, you can look to the west, beyond the Golden Gate Bridge, to the Farallon Islands; southeast to Lick Observatory on Mount Hamilton, south to Mount Loma Prieta in the Santa Cruz Mountains at 3,791 ft; then north to Mount Saint Helena at Clear Lake and still farther north to Mount Lassen in the Southern Cascades at 10,466 feet.
The name "Diablo" comes from the Spanish word for "devil," and the mountain was given this name by Spanish explorers who saw the red glow of sunset on the mountain's rocky slopes. The mountain was an important landmark for early explorers and settlers in California. In 1851, a survey party led by Lieutenant William Sherman climbed to the summit of Mount Diablo to determine its exact location. This survey helped establish the boundary between California and Nevada.
In the aftermath of the 1851 survey, the mountaintop was selected as the starting point for a survey of the public domain. Ignoring the excitement of the Gold Rush, surveyor Leander Ransom and his men erected a flagpole at the summit of Mount Diablo and began to extend the grid lines that we use to this very day in official land surveys. Mount Diablo base and meridian lines are referred to in legal descriptions of real estate throughout two-thirds of California and parts of Nevada and Oregon.
Following the 1850s gold rush, Mount Diablo was also used as a signal station during the Civil War to communicate with San Francisco. Toll roads up the mountain were opened in 1874, and for many years there were two stages every day connecting Walnut Creek and Danville with Mountain House, a 16-room hotel about three miles from the summit. Much like nearby Mount Hamilton, the first roads built on Mount Diablo were intended for horse and wagon. Present day roads follow the original paths carved out in the 1870s. In 1911, Mount Diablo became one of California's first state parks and a road was planned to the summit. Standard Oil placed a ten-million-candlepower aerial navigation beacon on the summit in 1928. The beacon was so powerful that it could be seen by ships 100 miles at sea.
The Summit Building & Museum was constructed by the Civilian Conservation Corps in the late 1930s, the beacon tower sits directly on top of the highest peak of Mount Diablo. The sandstone for the building was quarried from nearby Rock City. Remnants of ancient fossils can be still be found on the building.
It’s a twisty ride to the summit, and grades can approach 10% at the steepest portions. Part of Mount Diablo was acquired for State Park use in 1921, but it wasn't until 1931 that enough land was annexed before the park was formally dedicated. In present day, Mount Diablo spans 20,000 acres or about 30 square miles of protected land surrounded by encroaching East Bay cities.
Ridgecrest Blvd atop Bolinas Ridge rides along the spine of a grassy ridge through the Golden Gate National Recreational Area and is a treasure for Bay Area motorcyclists. The ride end-to-end is a short 5 miles, although you can compensate for the distance by stopping at the pullout of your choice. The small town we can see from the ridge along the coast is Bolinas and Bolinas Lagoon. This charming coastal town is known for excellent surfing, art, and a tight-knit community. The private enclave is known for being difficult to find—thanks to locals pulling down the road signs, so the lore goes.
Hiking trails spider off in every direction from the ridge, including a trail on the east side of the ridge that will connect with Cataract Falls Trail. Much of the western side of the ridge is protected parkland in the Golden Gate National Recreation Area, and the eastern side is watershed lands of the Marin Municipal Water District. Ridgecrest Blvd has been featured in many a book cover and numerous TV commercials. During springtime, these grassy meadows are covered in brilliant green grasses. We’ve seen the ridge turn from glowing green to golden brown by Memorial Day during dry seasons.
The view from Bolinas Ridge is one of our favorites within the whole state. We can see for miles and miles. We can see Lake Alpine along Fairfax Bolinas Road. We can see on a clear day over the top of Lucas Valley Road across San Pablo Bay all the way up to Napa and Sonoma. Below the road to the west is the ever-present world of endless blue. The Pacific Ocean melds with the sky on a scale that is difficult for the brain to absorb. Below, but out of sight, is Highway 1, the Shoreline Highway, running parallel along Bolinas Lagoon and Stinson Beach.
A short distance later, you may see hang gliders that seem painted into the sky. The hang gliders soar upon the updrafts created by the ridgeline with winds that've traveled across the endless sea. These winds provide lift for an activity that seems to rival the peaceful zen that even motorcycling claims to have captured.
Ridgecrest Blvd leads to Mount Tamalpais, our third sister. At 2,571 ft, Mt Tamalpais is the lowest of the Three Sisters, but on a clear day, it may have the best views looking down on nearby downtown San Francisco. The Golden Gate, Alcatraz, Angel Island and the Bay Bridge are all right below us.
Mt Tamalpais was once the location of The Crookedest Railway in the World. In August 1896 a 7-mile railway was completed from Mill Valley after six months of work to reach the summit of Mt Tamalpais. Locals in 1896 took a steam train to the summit and then boarded a passenger car much like the replica you see today at the summit.
The gravity railway twisted down 281 turns in 7 miles through numerous switchbacks and paralleling itself five times. The tracks had an average 5% downgrade and the gravity cars held 30 people. A ‘Gravity Man’ operated a set of strong double brakes to maintain a steady 10-15 mph speed downhill. Steam powered trains then pushed several cars back up to the summit.
The railway was the Disneyland of its time, attracting many famous people such as Sir Author Conan Doyle, author of the Sherlock Holmes mysteries, and other nobility and visiting dignitaries. Thomas Edison shot the first motion picture in Marin County of the railway. By 1929, interest has waned, and the tracks were pulled up.
The railway bed is now the 6.7-mile Old Railroad Grade hiking trail to the summit with an elevation gain of 2129 feet.
This tour begins in Morgan Hill, spends the 1st night in Suisun City, and the 2nd night in Gualala along the ocean. The group is headed home from Mount Tamalpais.
This tour will sell out. Sign up today.
Tour: May 03, 2024
Meet: 19062 Taylor Ave, Morgan Hill, CA
Arrive: 7:00 AM, Safety Brief 7:30, Depart 8:00 AM
Cost: $460 per rider, $119 Passenger
This tour includes numerous narrow single lane paved mountain roads. The ride includes single-lane steep grades to 20% and negotiating repeated tight hairpin corners. All roads on this tour are paved.
EXPERIENCED RIDERS ONLY:
This tour is not recommended for beginner riders, cruisers or Very Large Motorcycles. Riders are expected to have at least five years of enthusiastic experience on their motorcycle riding remote challenging paved mountain backroads along with at least 5000+ miles of concurrent recent experience.
This tour is limited by the amount of rooms at our host lodging. We have booked rooms months in advance and our tours sell out by the end of January. Get on our mailing list or join our Facebook Alumni Group to be the first to know about new rides. Book early to ensure a spot on this all-new ride. Check with us to see if any spots are open. Some tours may result in a waiting list for someone to cancel and open up a spot for you to ride once the tour sells out.