Every day, I ride to work from San Mateo on San Francisco’s peninsula to Los Altos in Silicon Valley around 20 miles away. I’m lucky enough to have multiple ways to get to work, and up to recently, I thought I had tried them all. My primary route uses Interstate 280, known as the world’s most beautiful freeway. It’s a 26 mile jaunt one-way that has rolling hills, lots of gentle curves, wide lanes and beautiful scenery (for a freeway, that is). But when the freeway is flowing, if you’re not going 70+ mph, you’ll get run over. Or, if the traffic is heavy, you’ll spend more time with your feet on the pavement in bumper-to-bumper traffic than with feet on your pegs.
My secondary route uses Interstate 101, 70% of which has motorcycle-friendly HOV lanes (high-occupancy vehicle—a.k.a. carpool—lanes) on my 21 mile commute to the office. It’s an ugly freeway hemmed in by ivy-covered sound walls, narrow lanes, and plenty of highway patrol officers looking for cell phone and carpool lane offenders. On Interstate 101, if you don’t get killed by someone changing lanes, you’ll experience a near-miss from another motorcyclist splitting lanes at 15 mph faster than the flow of traffic. To say it’s a “heads-up” route is an understatement.
The shortest route for me follows highway 82, the venerable El Camino Real (The King’s Highway). At 14 miles door-to-door, it’s the most direct of the three, but by far the slowest and least enjoyable because of its many traffic lights. On the bright side, it has plenty of places to stop for breakfast or coffee, but it is also the route I name most likely to result in a premature death because of someone running a red light or making a left turn without warning.
Now I’m certainly not afraid of the freeway, but being required to exceed the posted speed limit by 10 miles an hour just to stay ahead of traffic pressure is not my idea of a leisurely commute to work. And, lately, the density of the morning commute on I-280 has all-too-often devolved into 25 mph bumper-to-bumper traffic which is definitely not enjoyable. Some motorcyclists enjoy white-line fever, splitting lanes and leaving slower congestion in their wake. I, for one, believe that you decrease your good karma significantly every time you split lanes. I also wouldn’t be at all surprised if the daily motorcycle accidents I hear about on the radio weren’t directly correlated to aggressive lane splitters.
About three months ago, I started wondering if there were options other than Hwy 101 or 280 and started to go exploring. I started carrying my camera rig in one of my saddlebags because the weather was exceedingly beautiful and if I could get some good shots on the way into work, well, so much the better. And although I never anticipated that one of my favorite bicycle roads that paralleled I-280 could be a serious candidate for a new motorcycle commute, it did run alongside a miles-long reservoir and provided very photographic scenery. So without further ado, I hopped onto State Route 92 and turned left onto Cañada Road.
On this first day of exploration, I saw that Highway 280 up ahead of me had very heavy traffic, so I was glad to be venturing out onto an alternate route. I had only traveled on Cañada road on my bicycle up to that point because they close the road to cars on Sundays. Along this route is the Pulgas Water Temple, the Filoli Estate and Crystal Springs Lake which is where San Francisco gets its water—pumped all the way from Yosemite’s Hetch Hechy reservoir. Cañada road contains beautiful scenery and a few very nice sweeping 50-mph curves before straightening out. The road crosses under Interstate 280 and then runs parallel to it, so you can see just how bad the traffic is on the Interstate. The final few miles degrade to a 35 mph speed limit with three stop signs terminating on Woodside road. A nice distraction at this junction is either the Woodside Bakery or Buck’s Restaurant, where commonly you can hear an entrepreneur pitching a venture capitalist over breakfast.
There are a couple of ways to proceed towards Silicon Valley from Woodside. My favorite is to turn left onto Woodside Road and then make a right onto Big Whiskey Hill road after two blocks. Alternately, you can go straight past Roberts Market onto Mountain Home Road which is a picturesque 25 mph road through expensive Woodside estates. I usually opt for the 35 mph Big Whiskey Hill route because it is faster and has more sweeping views of horse farms.
Two miles later, you turn right onto Sand Hill Road which becomes Portola Road a few hundred yards further on. The speed limit increases to 40 mph and you wind through a nice two-lane country road bordered by ranches, farms, estates and vineyards. After about three miles, you enter the quaint and quite wealthy town of Portola Valley. I say quite wealthy because I looked online and found that in 2009, the aggregated income per household was almost half a million dollars annually. Portola Road tees into Alpine Road where you want to turn left and head back towards the direction of Interstate 280.
After a few miles, I saw a sign for Arastradero Road which I know crosses El Camino Real near my office, so I took it. What I found was a tremendous road that crosses the Arastradero Preserve. Not only does this road provide enough twisties to be interesting, it dead ends on Page Mill Road which is a major artery into Palo Alto. This is an area where you need to go slow, however, since there are hikers, horses and wildlife. On Page Mill Road I turned left—northeast—and found that Arastradero Road continued off to my right once again just before reaching I–280. I made the right turn back onto Arastradero Road and found that it wound through Los Altos Hills and offered me multiple final routes to my office, either by continuing all the way to El Camino Real, or by turning right onto Foothill Expressway and then winding through residential streets to my office.
On first blush, this was an unlikely commute route. But after taking it a few times, I came to appreciate how it allowed me to…
– traverse a 20+ mile commute without touching an interstate freeway
– avoid inner-city boulevards, stop signs and red lights
– incorporate gorgeous country scenery, sweeping curves and a few interesting twisties
– and only add 10 minutes over the Interstate 280 route when it’s crowded during commute hours
What I also got by taking this “secret” commute to Silicon Valley was less anxiety, more ability to think about my workday ahead, and the incredible smells of country roads including eucalyptus, grass and pine. I heartily advocate seeing if there are back roads like these that could spice up your daily commute. I would have never thought I could have found a plausible alternate commute if I didn’t open my mind to go exploring on a workday. So leave a few minutes early. Don’t schedule any meetings or conference calls for the beginning of your day. Learn how to use your motorcycle to turn an ugly commute into a great ride. The real “secret” is that you get to make this ride every day…twice! Shhhhh…don’t tell your coworkers why you are smiling.
A Cautionary Note:
These are country roads and are not ideal for motorcyclists who always feel the need for speed. I’ve seen plenty of county Sheriffs on my commute and a couple of CHPs, as well. They take a dim view of side-road shenanigans. So if you can stay within the posted speed limits and truly enjoy the beautiful sounds and smells these roads can offer, give them a try. If you are merely looking for a short-cut, stay on the freeway and split lanes like all the other biker banshees.
Ride Map: Click here for Google Map
I wrote most of the post above only a few months after I got back into motorcycling. As I reread it prior to finally finishing and posting it I remember how much more anxiety I had back then cruising the freeways during commute hours than I do now. For others of you who are considering getting back into motorcycling after a long hiatus, I can tell you now after a year back in the saddle: it gets better.