Riding Around Quicksilver
|Read about our ride around Moffett Federal Airfield|
The days shorten. Change is in the air. Broiling temperatures have fallen off. Highs seldom reach 70 now. Winds come earlier in the day, as often from the south as from the north. Rain is forecast for early next week. Fall is coming to Santa Clara County, the first since I retired.
Our first training regime, since my retirement, focused on a different goal than in previous years. Instead of getting in shape, and riding our favorite trails on our Mountain Bikes, we prepared for long hours on the road, with our recently acquired Surly’s. Now, as the dry season draws to an end, we hasten to ride our favorite places before the weather turns. Whether it is a dusty trail, or some streets and roads, we know the endless summer draws to a close. Shorts will be traded for tights. Bare arms will be covered with rain jackets.
One of our favorite rides is in San Francisco. We thoroughly enjoy starting somewhere on the Embarcadero, riding over the Golden Gate Bridge, and returning via the Tiburon Ferry. This however, was not the week to do it. San Francisco and Oakland have made the Baseball Playoffs, with the Giants hosting the Reds. An America’s Cup event is being held. There is a Bluegrass Festival. This is Fleet Week, where Navy ships welcome welcome tourists on-board. San Francisco will be fully engaged in its prime industry, tourism. Other than that, it will be a quiet weekend.
So, where would we ride? We cast our eyes to Mount Hamilton, but concluded we are not ready for 5000 feet of climbing, yet. The Santa Cruz Mountains offer a number of excellent rides. But, we aren’t ready for them. We reached into our bag of rides, and decided on Quicksilver Park. Quicksilver is 8.5 crow miles to the south of our house.
Quicksilver is a foothill of the Santa Cruz Mountains. The orientation is NW to SE. The bike trails are all fire roads, many originating from a time when Quicksilver was one of the largest mining sites for Mercury in the country. The primary bike trail is a loop, running either on top of the ridge, or on the east slope. We have ridden the loop in both directions. There are three bike entrances, Hacienda, Hicks, and Hummingbird. Both Hacienda and Hummingbird are at “street level”, that is 486 or 509 feet. Hicks is at the intersection of Quicksilver and another County Park, Sierra Azul. The Hicks entrance is at 1300 feet.
The ride from Hicks is different from the other two entrances, in that the rider drives to a point almost as high as Mine Hill. Alas, two hills, totaling 500 feet of climbing, stand between the parking lot and the top of Mine Hill. This is almost the same elevation change between Hacienda and the start of Mine Hill Road.
Starting our ride was more involved than we imagined. Construction crews had closed the north end of Hicks Road. Rather than abort the ride, we drove around the east side , the south end, and up much of the west side to get to the Hicks entrance. We were slightly surprised to find the County still provides free maps, given the budget woes of the governments at all levels.
The Hicks parking lot had only one other vehicle when we arrived, and a different one when we left. We made sure we had packed out gear for the 2-3 hour ride. Our water, power bars, a spare tube, and some tools easily fit into our trunk bags. Having once suffered three flats with only two spare tubes, we were well aware of the time it takes to push a bike back to the parking lot.
Climbing out of the parking lot we headed southeast through the trees, up a 150 foot hill. Once we cleared the trees and made a left turn, we could see the Santa Cruz Mountains directly to our right. The nearest is Mount Umunhum, an Ohlone word meaning resting place of the hummingbird. The radar enclosures of the abandoned Almaden Air Force Station stand, alone, on the skyline. From this rugged peak, the radars could see far out into the Pacific, ensuring that no aircraft would approach the coast of Northern California, undetected. The abandoned Station was given to the County by the US Air Force. The county eventually lost a prolonged fight, over who would pay for cleaning up toxic materials. Some day, the Station will be open to the public. Marian and I have biked up to the locked gate, barring riders from reaching the peak.
Making a 90 degree turn, Mine Hill, with its long abandoned Mill came into view. The Mill was the final stop for the ore-bearing rock on Quicksilver. The Mill was used to crush the rock. The resulting material was either melted down to extract the mercury, or shipped to other places for smelting. In a mixture of old and new, power lines march east, over the top of Quicksilver, bringing power to homes and businesses in San Jose.
After descending into a valley, we climbed the road to the Mill. Weather and time have rutted the road, exposing harsh, sharp rocks. Fortunately, the ride was not overly technical. Because we were still getting our “mountain bike legs” under us, we exercised more caution than we did later in the ride. We passed on thundering down the slopes, raising a dusty cloud behind us.
The Mill was dug into the side of Mine Hill. There may have been a tunnel to the backside. After the miners dug out the ore, it was moved to the Mill, and crushed, as part of the extraction process. The Mill, long abandoned, has been fenced off from the curious and unwary. The works stand in mute testament to a little known mining history of the Santa Clara Valley.
Once we arrived at the Mill, two paths led to the top. We could have gone left, up an extremely steep slope. Or, we could have gone right, up a more gentle slope. We chose to go to the right. We circled Mine Hill, and looked, again, to the West. The Santa Cruz Mountains stood between us and the Pacific Ocean. Roads from the Santa Clara Valley, west to the sea, are few. None were near where we stood.
We turned Northwest, riding along the top of Quicksilver, in the general direction of San Jose, and San Francisco Bay. We could see the urban sprawl to the east, where one million people live, and west, where there were perhaps five people on the hill. Far across the valley, we could see Mount Hamilton. We have ridden to the top of that 4500 foot mountain.
After a short distance, we entered Bull Run, a long descent to the Northwest end of Quicksilver. We could see, spread out before us, the urban sprawl of the San Francisco Bay Area. San Jose, the largest city on the Bay, with one million people, lap at the edges of Quicksilver. Fortunately, the Park protects the slopes from the McMansions that litter other hillsides.
As we twisted and turned down Bull Run, Guadalupe Reservoir came into view. The water level was much lower than we expected. Part of the reason was that we were riding Quicksilver at the end of the Dry Season, instead of at the end of the Wet Season. The other reason was that the last Winter was very dry, with Santa Clara Valley receiving half the rain water expected.
On the switchbacks, we passed through stands of oaks, and other brush. Further down, we transitioned into shrubs and grass. Unlike Spring, the grass was gold and brown, waiting for the Winter rains.
Making the sharp turn, we started along the eastern side of Quicksilver, dropping the last few feet to the lowest point on our ride. This is my favorite part. We rode through a green tunnel, oaks arching across the road from both sides. It was easy to forget that San Jose loomed, literally, a half mile to our left.
The trail on the east side of Quicksilver is a series of rollers. With each roller, we ended up higher on the other side than we had started. From time to time, we could see Santa Clara Valley, spread out to our left. The Valley stretches east to Mount Hamilton, and north to San Francisco Bay.
Nearing the start of Mine Hill Road, we came to one of the major mining shafts, Santa Isabel. Santa Isabel was the second major shaft sunk into Quicksilver, to relieve pressure on the Randal Shaft. The shaft eventually drove down, over 400 feet below sea level. To stave off flooding, machinery pumped over 90,000 gallons of water out each day.
Abandoned mining equipment sets along the road. On a ride, several years ago, I was riding through this area when I suddenly heard a clanking sound from my rear wheel. I was surprised to see a huge spike in my rear tire. When I pulled it out, my tire immediately deflated. In my labors to replace the tube, I lost what would have been a hard-earned souvenir. On this ride, we suffered no such mishaps.
The Santa Isabel Shaft required the removal of non-ore bearing rock. Near the entrance, tailings were thrown down a nearby ravine, eventually filling much of it. The grayish / greenish rock may contain Serpentine. The reddish rock possibly has traces of Cinnabar, trapped mercury. The mercury, whether mined or still in the ground, saturates the waters of the Guadalupe and Almaden Reservoirs.
Most of the miners working on Quicksilver, lived on Mine Hill. They brought their families with them, living in two major camps, English Camp and Spanish Camp. The school at English Camp, at one point, had almost 300 students, from Kindergarten through Tenth Grade. The Spanish School had grades Kindergarten through Eighth Grade. Continuing students then transferred to the English Camp School. In the last two years, students were instructed in trades useful for the late 19th Century.
At the dawn of the Twentieth Century, demand for Mercury declined. The shafts were closed. During the Great Depression, Quicksilver again came to life. The Army Corps of Engineers erected dormitories and other facilities at English Camp. The Army turned the buildings over to the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC), implementing the radical notion of putting people on Relief to work. There was no such thing as the able-bodied staying home and collecting a Government check.
Before we started, I was curious about our level of fitness. During a normal training sequence, we would not ride Quicksilver about week 9-12. This time, we rode it in our fifth week. In comparing this ride to other rides, I can tell my cardio conditioning lags my leg strength. This disparity is due to our touring of Washington and Oregon, where leg strength was paramount to riding the hills with 100 pounds of bike and gear.
I used a Garmin to record my heart rate throughout our ride, as well as the elevation changes. My heart rate rose, early in the ride as we climbed the hill from the parking lot, and again to the top of Mine Hill. On the rollers on the east side, my rate rose and fell with each peak, not quite recovering completely. The grind up Mine Hill Road pushed my heart rate almost into Zone 5. And the last climb to the parking lot pushed my heart rate to 156, about six or seven beats below my maximum rate.
Riding Quicksilver was like returning to see an old friend, one who taunts and tests you at every turn. We were apprehensive at the start, felt the burn of the early climbs. We fell in love, again, with riding, unhampered, over rugged terrain, through trees, and becoming one with the environment. The last climbs, while demanding, were not impossible. And, unlike other sessions on this hill, I almost felt like I could have done it again. Almost.
|Read about our 2012 Adventures|