3.1.1 – Mount Hamilton – Surely You Can’t Drag A Surly Up There, Can You?

Our Training Ride Up Mount Hamilton

Read about our Training Rides

Marian and I moved to San Jose in 1984.  In the days before GPS, navigating required a good map, and landmarks.  One strip mall looked like another, and the housing developments were hardly memorable.  One of the most dependable and recognizable landmarks was Mount Hamilton.  On good air days, the gleaming white domes of Lick Observatory stood out as an unmistakable beacon.


Lick Observatory, atop Mount Hamilton, as seen from Twin Gates Trail Head in Grant Ranch County Park, near San Jose, California.

Marian and I established a number of cycling goals for 2013.  By May, we might have biked in Moab, and ridden the OC&E Line in Klamath.  Both were far away, and, we had to defer them.  One goal that required no special logistics to achieve, Mount Hamilton.

Having completed week 21 of the Friel training program last week, we are essentially done with the standard sequence.  What remained for us was to prepare to tour.  Touring places special emphasis on endurance, with extended saddle time, long distances, and heavy loads.  I picked Mount Hamilton, on our Surly Long Haul Truckers, without load, to prepare us for hard, demanding rides.

I sprung the idea on Marian, late on Friday afternoon.  She looked at me with surprise and dismay.  She asked if I really meant it.  I hedged, saying we didn’t have to go all the way.  She bravely agreed, knowing it would be difficult.

The Course


The ride up Mount Hamilton is an iconic ride in the South Bay.  While the line of sight distance from the start to finish is about nine miles, the twists and turns double it, to nearly 19 miles.  Many, but not all, do the ride as an out-and-back.  There are three climbs and two drops on the outward leg, with three drops and two climbs on the return.


The Ride is 18.5 up, starting at the San Jose Country Club, and finishing at Lick Observatory.

The Ride Tactics

 We have honed our tactics to make our rides more enjoyable, and reduce our risk.

  • Stick together – when we split up, we find opportunities to confuse ourselves
  • Stop for rest and water every 15 minutes – more often if needed
  • Eat every two hours – at least a Luna or Cliff bar, more if needed

We added more, specifically for this ride:

  • Four water bottles – enough water for a maximum of four hours, probably less
  • Refill bottles at Grant Lake Trail Head
  • Conserve energy for two climbs on return leg
  • Stay out of Zone 4 if possible – pedal slower, relax more, will the heart into Zone 3.
  • Decide whether to try for the Observatory at Kincaid Road

During the ride, two more popped up:

  • Pat leads on ascents – Marian’s gearing allows her to climb more slowly than Pat.
  • Marian leads on long descents – we are near if either needs assistance

The Ride


 I was slow off the mark.  In year’s past, I would often be on the hill by the time I finally rolled out of bed.  The late start was my fault.  I had slept poorly the night before, anxious about the ride.  I felt like I needed more sleep.

Once Marian was sure I intended to do the ride, we swung into action.  We ate a normal breakfast, filled four water bottles, each, and scooped up banana chips and Luna bars.  I used TOASTER to load our route into my Garmin Edge 705.  We wore short sleeve jerseys and shorts.  For the long descents, I chose a pull over, and Marian chose a rain jacket.

We loaded our 47 pound Surly Long Haul Truckers.  They were, by far, the heaviest bikes we had ridden on Mount Hamilton.  We would see other bikes that day.  Most were road bikes, weighing 10-20 pounds.  We saw two or three mountain bikes.  We had the only touring bikes.

On Alum Rock Road, at the San Jose Country Club, we found a parking place.  The cars and trucks were testament to the large number of bikers already on the mountain.  Some cyclists were already returning.  True, they had started earlier.  But, it was too soon for them to have reached the Observatory.

The Ascent (10:03)

Swinging my leg over the bar of my Surly is so ordinary, so routine.  Marian and I have done this countless times over the years.  Still, I felt butterflies.  I knew this would be a hard ride.  I did not know if I could complete it.

Throughout the day, we made it a practice to stop every 15 minutes, as long as it was safe.  During the break, we drank, and prepared for the next interval.  Especially, late in the day, we used the time to get our heart rates down.

The fifteen minute breaks were perfect for keeping us together.  I am a stronger climber than Marian.  And our gearing ratios make it almost impossible for us to climb the steeper grades at the same speed.  Marian’s 22 tooth front ring, combined with her 34 tooth climbing gear means that she will turn her front wheel twice for each three pedals.  For three pedals, my wheel turns 2.25 times.  While that seems rather small, if I turn 730 times (about a mile), she will turn about 550 times (about 0.75 miles).  By stopping, I got a few seconds of extra rest, but it kept us together throughout the day.

 Mile 0.0 – 229 Feet – San Jose Golf Course – First Climb (10:03)The first piece was from the Golf Course to Clayton Road.  It was fairly steep. with lots of automobile traffic.  There was a steep drop off on the right side of the road.  I concentrated on controlling my heart rate, using all the tricks.  I tried to pedal more slowly, keep from mentally pressing, and relaxing my upper body.  We pedaled past expensive houses, mixed in with small working farms and ranches.

Mile 0.5Passing Anderson Lane, I relived my 2007 accident.  Descending the last mile, a red Mustang did a U-turn in front of me.  That fall cost me months using a cane.  My hip still troubles me.  That reminded us to turn on our tail lights.

Mile 1.5We began to bump into a group of three Asian forty-somethings, never quite catching them.  One was wearing nylon sweat pants and struggling, perhaps holding the other two back.  Early on, we were passed by the three climb guy.  It turned out he was attempting to climb Mount Hamilton three times in one day.

Mile 2.3Clayton Road curved off to the right from Mount Hamilton Road.  As we labored up the steep little slope where the roads diverged, I looked, wistfully at that inviting down-slope.  But that wasn’t for us.  The road was on a shelf, with a gentle grade.  There were no trees.  We were happy for the cool day.  The drop off remained on the right side.

Mile 4.4We picked up speed, reaching the Grand View Restaurant and associated houses in a short time.  I was sad to see the Restaurant is for sale.  This was a place I had always imagined I would take Marian.  But their hours did not support eating after a ride up Mount Hamilton.

Mile 5.0A steeper slope was hidden by thick trees, with the drop off changing to the left side of the road.  We wound up the shady, winding narrow road.  We could hear cars, trucks and motorcycles long before they came into view.  Still, we were astonished to find ourselves in the middle of a German dealership rally.  Perhaps a dozen cars, one after another, whizzed past us.  The air stank of exhaust.  Had they not been zooming up and down the roads, bikes would have outnumbered cars that day.  We were happy to see the power lines ahead of us, signaling the West Rim.

Mile 6.1 – 1700 Feet – West Rim of Grant Ranch County Park (11:34)  Descending from the rim, the drop off still on the left, down into Grant Ranch County Park, I took stock.  I was still strong.  Marian was fresh and optimistic.  Some years, I had made it to the rim in an hour.  I knew this would be a longer day.

We coasted down the shady grade, out into the open spaces of the old Grant Ranch.  A wave of riders climbed past us, their day drawing to a close.  They encouraged us onward.

Mile 7.4Some hard core riders chose to climb this very Quimby Road to get to Grant Ranch County Park.  Some of the curves are so tight that, in a car, it is almost necessary to back up once on them to get around.  A friend from Lockheed Martin used to ride that road every weekend to get into shape for touring in Europe.

Mile 7.6Just before the Grant Lake Trail Head we saw the three Asian guys again, pulled over at the entrance to the camping area.

Mile 8.0 – 1427 Feet – Grant Lake Trail Head – Second Climb (11:45) – Vandals had struck at the Grant Lake Tail Head.  The port-a-potty had been overturned.  The nozzle to the fountain had been stolen.  Gone was our plan to refill the water bottles.  A Park Ranger assured us the port-a-potty at Twin Gates Trail Head was upright.  He thought that, if the CDF Fire Station was open, they might have water.

An alternative was to back track a half mile to the camping area.  The Ranger emphasized that it was down a hill, words we did not want to hear.  We thanked him for the off.  Two of our four water bottles were full.  We were in no danger of running short.  We thanked him.  As we pulled onto the road, the three Asian guys pulled into the parking lot.  They expressed dismay at the damage.  No doubt, the Rangers heard the complaint many times.

We started the climb to the eastern side of Grant Ranch County Park.  The grade was somewhat less than the one we had just completed.  I fell back into my riding rhythm, with no hint of stiffness or let down.  Perhaps, touring has taught my body to not shut down at rest stops.

The road narrowed and began to twist and turn.  There was some shade.  For the most part, we were in sunlight.  The roadway had been cut into the steep hill sides.  The steep bank on the left sometimes spilled rock down onto the roadway.  This set up a trap situation for riders coming down the hill.  Just such a pile of baseball sized rocks, lurking around a blind corner, had been enough to ruin the road tires on my road bike.  The drop off, once again on the right side, became steeper as we climbed.

The climb seemed longer than it was.  Because of the more shallow slope, I kept my heart rate in Zone 3.  I willed myself not to press, and used my cadence and gear selection to conserve my energy.  I had learned, long ago, that powering up a hill was the certain path to bonking.

Mile 11.0 – 2176 Feet – Twin Gates Trail Head (12:42) – The eastern rim, at Twin Gates Trail Head, is marked by power lines.  We were happy to see them.  The port-a-potty was, as promised, upright.  Having been there before, we knew not to expect any water.  We trusted that the CDF Fire Station at the bottom of the next descent would allow us to refill our water bottles.

From the parking lot, we got our first close-up look at the Observatory.  While seeming so close, eight road miles separated us from the white domes.  We wolfed down a Luna bar, and discovered that the banana chips were still in the truck.  We had wanted them for the Potassium, to forestall cramps.  One of the three Asian guys went past us.  We never saw the other two again.


Marian rehydrates at Twin Gates Trail Head in Grant Ranch County Park.  Behind her, the white domes of Lick Observatory beckon, seemingly so near.

We were almost three hours into our ride.  I still felt pretty good.  Marian had started to lag, partly because of the gear differences, and partly because I am a stronger climber.  We were undecided whether to try for the Observatory.   We decided to let the water situation determine whether we would go up to Kinkaid Road.

We coasted through the shadows down to the CDF Station.  The drop off was now on our left.  Our hard earned elevation melted away.  The short rest was small consolation.  If there was no water, we would, very shortly, be pedaling back up the slope.

Mile 11.8 – 1988 feet – CDF Station – Third Climb (12:59) –  The CDF Station came into view.  One worry was put to rest.  Another was born.  The CDF Fire Station crew had generously set out a large barrel of ice water.  It was deliciously cold.  We topped off our bottles.  Whatever else happened, water would not be a problem.

 Mile 11.9 BridgeCrossing the bridge was so innocent.  The final worry came to the surface.  A third of the distance, and half the elevation remained before we could reach the Observatory.  From there on, there would be no houses, no trail  heads, no support before the Observatory.  The butterflies briefly swirled.

 Mile 13.3 – Kincaid Road – We reached our pre-determined decision point.  We were both more tired now, and feeling the steeper grade on this climb.  But the real decision had already been made.  Downing more water, we found a way to get our bikes started again, and began the climbs to the switchbacks.

The grade on this slope was far steeper.  Whether true or not, my Garmin was showing instantaneous readings of 8 – 10%.  My legs could feel each change in the road.  I was down in my easiest climbing gear now, 1-1.  I made no effort to shift anymore, wishing only that I had an easier gear.

We continued to use the 15 minute intervals to govern rest slopes.  My heart rate would drop to Zone 4 on the breaks.  In less than a minute it would climb into Zone 4.  I resolved to ride out the full 15 minutes, no matter what my heart rate rose to.  I had trained to ride for 25-30 minute at a time in Zone 4.  Still, the shorter intervals were more numerous than my training.  The ride became increasingly difficult as the afternoon wore on.

The ride was even more difficult for Marian.  Because of my gearing ratio, I kept pulling away from Marian.  I would stop at 15 minutes.  Some time later, perhaps a few second, or several minutes, Marian would catch up.  She would rest until she was ready to start again.  Unfortunately, I would rest even longer.  As the afternoon wore on, some of our 15 minute intervals had no more than 7-8 minutes of climbing.  Others had 10-12 minutes.  The only other strategy would have allowed us to separate, something we seldom do.


Marian patiently works her way up Mount Hamilton Road, several Surly Long Haul Trucker miles away, and over 1,000 feet below Lick Observatory.

Somewhere in this part of the climb, we stopped and ate another Luna Bar.  I had planned to wait until the Helicopter Pad, but we needed the energy.  Prior to the food stop I had debated and rehearsed whether to go back down.  But, Marian was determined to make the climb, and would not hear of stopping.  Knowing how much she had already suffered, and how much it might yet cost her, I was proud of her.  For the remainder of the ride, I spent my time thinking of encouraging things to say and do for her.  She was surprised at my positive attitude.  What does that say about me?

 Mile 16.8 – Helicopter PadWe inched past the landing area, with the Observatory clearly visible, high above us.  We could hear people shouting from the parking lot, far above.  I had to keep from pressing, knowing we had about 45 minutes left, at the pace we were holding.

We had followed the contour of Mount Hamilton, and continued to do so.  At first, the drop off was on the left side.  Between switch-backs and ridge tops, the drop off changed to the right, then back to the right, and to the left near the top.  Sometimes we were in the trees.  Other times we were on open ground.  We looked down into the Santa Clara Valley, and as far north as the Dumbarton Bridge on San Francisco Bay.  To the west, we could see the radar structure on Mount Umunhum.  Often we could look up to the domes of the Observatory, so close, and so far away.

 Mile 17.4 – Road to DormI stopped at my 15 minute mark, grateful to wait for Marian.  The Observatory was so very close, just two traverses away, with about another mile to go.  This was the last part.  That made it all the more difficult, but I knew we would soon be at the top.

 I was uncertain whether I would complete the ride in the next 15 minute interval, or not.  On a prior ride with Marian, I had surprised her by stopping before the top.  I expected it to happen again.  I rode the first traverse, the longest, and turned around the last hairpin.

Mile 17.9 – Road to School HouseFinally, the dome, with a sign to the school-house was on my left, and I was in the shade for a moment.  I was mildly dismayed to see so much time remaining.  I willed the time to go faster, to give me a chance to rest.  Instead, it kept a stately march, ignoring my every wish.  I could have stopped.  Marian did.  Instead, keeping the ride discipline, I pushed aside the sweat and labored breathing.  I still had a ride to finish.  Then, almost before I knew it, I turned the last corner and found the driveway to the Observatory.

 Mile 18.2 – Driveway to Lick Observatory  – Grateful for shade, I waited for Marian.  As the minutes passed, I wondered if I should go back down to her.  During the wait, the three climb guy came down the driveway.  He shouted encouragement, telling me there was water at the top.  I wish him the very best, whatever his future goal is.

Marian made the last turn, coming into view.  I was so proud to see her come up, in fine form.  She was tired, but smiling.  While she wasn’t pleased to see the steep driveway, she joked she might walk her bike up.  Still, her pride got the better of her.  She rode it like the champion she is.

Mile 18.5 – 4041 feet – Lick Observatory (15:29)I was first into the parking lot.  It was fairly full of cars, but there were no other cyclists.  A gaggle of German cars had gone up the ramp while I waited for Marian.  Following me closely was a green clad biker.  I clapped for him, congratulating him.  He gave me a big smile and a fist pump.  I happily  celebrated with him.


Marian pedals her Surly Long Haul Trucker up the final, steep, yards of the driveway to Lick Observatory, after climbing more than 4300 feet in less than 19 miles.

Then it was Marian’s turn to feel the triumph, elation, and relief to have made it.  We walked around to the back side, and hit the vending machines.  Outside was a charming little patio with tables and chairs.  We each had a diet Coke, a bag of potato chips, and Oreos.  We downed more water.  Marian perked up as the carbs kicked in.  Soon, she was her cheerful self.

A son and his elderly mother came into the patio area.  They had obviously driven up.  I helped them play tourist, taking a picture of them.  Marian had stepped inside, so I could not ask for a return favor.  We took pictures of each other.


We discovered a wonderful little patio at Lick Observatory.  Downing a Coke, a bag of potato chips, and Oreos worked wonders for our energy levels.  A Hot Dog stand would go broke, but we would have welcomed it.

Two more cyclists arrived.  They were a father – son team.  The boy was of Middle School age.  Still used to touring experiences, I thought they would greet as long-lost brother.  Instead, they stayed to themselves.  They seemed almost angry, giving us dirty looks.  In retrospect, they were probably physically stressed, still gathering themselves.  Still, it was an unexpected cold shoulder.

It was late.  In prior climbs, the return had taken me about two hours.  And, we still had two climbs to finish the ride.

The Descent (16:08)

Marian led the way down.  I reassured her that 12-15 MPH was fine with me.  If something happened to her, I would be able to coast down to help her, not climb back up the hill.

Marian rolled down the driveway.  I mounted my bike.  I was immediately stricken with a terrible cramp in my left leg.  Had it happened on the climb, my ride would have been finished.   I could not lift my leg on the return stroke.  Marian was already out of sight.  I single legged until I could roll down to the highway.  After a couple of miles, the cramp passed.

We descended at a reasonable speed.  Cars passed us, when they found the courage to brave the narrow, twisting road.  Once past us, they were only slightly faster than we were.  We were grateful for the handlebar brakes.  Still, our hands got tired.  We pulled over to rest.  While we shook our hands out, the father – son team passed us.  We never saw them again.

Mile 25.5 -1988 feet –  CDF Station (16:40)We made it to the CDF Station in good time.  We had plenty of water, so we turned and made our way up the first of the two return leg climbs.  The hill was mercifully short, and the grade less than the three we had climbed on the way up.  I was happy that my body had not shut down on the descent.  That had happened to me on a prior ount Hamilton ride.

Mile 26.4 -2176 feet – Twin Gates Trail Head (16:50)In a short time, we found ourselves at the Twin Gates Trail Head.  Marian led the way down to Grant Ranch County Park.  The descent went quickly, and there was no traffic to speak of.  Mindful of the danger of rocks, we were vigilant on the blind curves.  Earlier cars and trucks (perhaps even the gaggle of German cars) had crushed the larger rocks into gravel and sand.  While still a hazard, they were no longer tire killers.

Mile 29.6 -1427 feet – Grant Lake Trail Head (17:08)After a brief stop to drink at the Grant Lake Trail Head, we started the final climb.  It was longer than the previous climb.  The grade was gentle.  We encountered automobile traffic going both ways.  The shadows up in the trees were quite long.  We had not put on our head lamps, and I decided we would put them on at our next rest stop.  However, we soon reached the West Rim, and were back out in sunlight.

Mile 31.6 – 1700 feet – West Rim of Grant Ranch County Park (17:36)I led the way down to the end of the ride.  I kept the speed down.  Marian stayed close.  We saw two Sheriff’s cars going up.  The second one drove very fast, squealing tires on the curves.  Whether they were answering a call, or doing something else, will remain a mystery.

I had little trouble with cars.  Most of the traffic was uphill.  I replayed my fall in 2007, and was on the look-out for a similar trap situation.  Thankfully, it never presented itself.

I gained some separation on Marian.  For the last mile or so, she was tailgated by a monster truck pulling a horse trailer.  The road was wide enough, and the sight lines afforded opportunities to safely pass.  Automobile drivers do not understand the physics of a bike on a descent.  Traveling at 15 miles an hour, it takes time to stop.  Recognizing that a pullout is free of a dangerous drop off, paved, and clean takes time.  Usually, the cyclist is past a good place before they can react.   Not only that, we were unfamiliar with the road.  Marian remained calm, and rode to the end.

Mile 38.0 – 229 feet – Golf Course (17:59)We happily loaded our bikes in the truck.  It was hard to believe we had ridden them to the top.  I wonder how many other touring bikes have made that climb?  Probably not many.  Watching the riders come down the mountain, I am certain that, at 62, I was the oldest person riding that day.  Marian was, by far, the oldest woman on the course.  I don’t know if that makes us remarkable, or not.  We are too busy continuing our adventure.


Riding Mount Hamilton was one of our 2013 goals.  We had never taken bikes as heavy as our Surly Long Haul Truckers up it.  This is the longest ride we have planned this year.

The Geography

Mount Hamilton isolates San Jose from the Central Valley.  The northern passage is via the Almaden Pass.  To the south is  Pacheco Pass.  The alternative is to take Highway 130, over Mount Hamilton.  There are only two approaches, from the East, and from the West.   The most common Western approach, on Mount Hamilton Road, starts at Alum Rock Road.


There is an Eastern, and a Western approach to Mount Hamilton.  The Eastern approach would start, either from Livermore, or the Central Valley.  The West approach would start from Alum Rock Road, Clayton Road, or Quimby Road.

Mount Hamilton Road has no extended level ground.  The rider either climbs, or descends.  On the upward leg, there are three climbs.  The first is from the Golf Course to the West Rim of Grant Ranch County Park.  The second is from the Grant Lake Trail Head up to the Twin Gates Trail Head.  The third, and most arduous, is from the CDF Station to the Observatory.  On the return, there are two brief climbs before the last descent to the San Jose Country Club.


The Mount Hamilton ride has a cumulative gain of 4872 feet in about 38 miles.  The grades range from 2.6% up to 5.8% for each climb.  Instantaneous grades can exceed 10%.

On the return leg, mostly down-hill, there are two climbs.  They are relatively short, and not difficult.  As I walked the pleasant patio at the Observatory, my mind kept returning to those climbs.  Fortunately, they are relatively short, and not overly steep.

Start Finish Distance Climb Grade


Golf Course West Rim 6.1 1471 4.6
Grant Lake TH Twin Peaks TH 3.3 749 4.3
CDF Station Observatory 6.7 2053 5.8


CDF Station Twin Peaks TH 0.9 188 4.0_
Grant Lake TH West Rim 2.6 273 2.6
Read about our ride around Uvas Reservoir


Filed under Cycle Touring, Cycle Training, Travel

3 responses to “3.1.1 – Mount Hamilton – Surely You Can’t Drag A Surly Up There, Can You?

  1. Pingback: May 2013 Training Log | pchtraveler

  2. Pingback: Training: Paragraphs 1.2 – | pchtraveler

  3. Pingback: Training: Paragraph – Riding Circles Around Reservoirs | pchtraveler

Let us know what you thought, we'd love to know. Thanks - Pat and Marian

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