Ride Map: Calaveras Reservior, Santa Clara County, CA


What a great day for a lap around Silicon Valley! My brother-in-law “Bocci” was on his usual ride: a 2010 Triumph “Bonnie.” And, I as usual, was on “MyConnie” – a 2001 blue Kawasaki Concours. We started out from our usual jumping off place in San Mateo. Then, after crossing San Francisco Bay on the historic San Mateo-Hayward bridge, we shortcut through a series of industrial parks which were virtually empty on a Sunday. Within only a few minutes, we made our way down to Niles Canyon Road, a great curvy jaunt for a crisp, clear morning.

Our objective was to ride down Calaveras Road which runs alongside the large Calaveras reservoir. There were many signs saying that the road ahead was closed due to work on the dam, but the road was actually open all the way, making us assume that the signs were for weekday work.

Calaveras Lake near Sunol, CA. photo: Janice L. Green

Calaveras Road is slow, curvy, and not well-designed as a road with many one-lane sections and blind corners that invite an accident. In fact, right before our ride, I was reading on the Pashnit Site about a rider that collided with a minivan at one of those blind corners. The vivid descriptions of his broken femur and the $4,000 air ambulance bill certainly stuck in my head while I rode around those blind corners.

The lake is idyllic within its May greenery all around. And the road was at least well-paved, if ill-designed. At the end of the lake, the park land switchbacks gave way to ranch land and rolling hills. We decided to take a side-loop around Felter Road which connects to Sierra Road. There are some beautiful houses there, some that overlook Calaveras Lake and some that overlook Silicon Valley and the south bay salt ponds.

The South Bay from Sierra Road. – Photo Credit: Richard Masoner

Since the day was young, we continued through Silicon Valley and over to Stevens Creek Road, heading up to Hwy 9 and then to Hwy 35, thinking that lunch at Alice’s Restaurant would top off our great ride. We were not disappointed. Highways 9 and 35 are a beautiful romp through the redwoods and allowed us to get up to speed with wide sweepers and a 50 mph speed limit.

Many motorcycles in front of Alice’s Restaurant - credit: Nina Hale

You can get anything you want, at Alice’s Restaurant – Photo Credit: Nina Hale

For anyone reading this who hasn’t been to Alice’s, you really need to get there someday. It is just an unassuming little restaurant, but it happens to be mecca for weekend warriors of the motorcycle kind. It is located at the confluence of a number of highways, each of which have a beautiful day ride stretching out from Alice’s to great destinations like Santa Cruz, Pescadero, Woodside, Half Moon Bay, and Skyline Drive — making it the perfect jumping off place or rallying point.

After a leisurely lunch ( leisurely because the management of Alice’s seems to value food quality more than additional wait staff – not a bad tradeoff, mind you ) we headed off up Hwy 35 back to San Mateo. All-in-all, not a bad Sunday morning ride at 124 miles and a little under four hours.

Ride Map: Calaveras Road, Santa Clara County, CA

Epilogue:
I wasn’t going to write about this, but have reconsidered because of the safety message contained within. Bocci bought a new fluorescent yellow jacket to satisfy his delusions of being able to add safety to his motorcycling pastime. He commented every time we stopped, saying, “Can you see me?” After leaving Alice’s Restaurant, we got back up to the speed limit of 50 mph and were headed down a straight stretch of Hwy 35, noticing a group of bicyclists that had stopped off of the right side of the road. Apparently, one of the bicyclists must have been very tired, because he just got on his bike and crossed Hwy 35 without really looking. I was about 50 yards behind Bocci and I saw the bicyclist start to cross directly in front of him. In what seemed like slow motion, I saw the two of them headed for the same point in space and time and I cringed, waiting for the nasty collision. But ’twas not to be. The bicycle crossed through Bocci’s path, and they missed by about four feet. I’m sure Bocci’s heart was racing, but it was all over in the blink of an eye. Just goes to show you, that all that fluorescent yellow in the world won’t necessarily make a difference to an exhausted bicyclist.

I thought the adage was: “Friends don’t let friends wear neon”?

Ride Map: Mount Hamilton


Bonnie, MyConnie and “Bocci” atop Mount Hamilton

Towering above Silicon Valley, majestic Mount Hamilton is a place I had never visited even though I’ve lived in the San Francisco Bay Area all my life. The tallest of three mountains that rim the bay, at 4,196 feet Mount Hamilton bests Mount Diablo at 3,864 and Mount Tamalpais at 2,574 (see earlier post) feet elevation. With the weather being unseasonably warm and dry on December 31, my brother-in-law and riding buddy, “Bocci” and I decided to get one more ride in before the end of 2011.

We both live in San Mateo and saw on Google Maps that this ride was only 60 miles one-way. “No problem!” I said, worrying about being home before dark, “It should take us no time at all to get there and back.” Little did I know that we would encounter some of the longest sections of twisties in the Bay Area riding up to the summit.

We took the slightly longer, but much more scenic I-280 freeway around the bottom of the bay to where it morphs into I-680 and then exited on Alum Rock Avenue. Only a few miles up the road was the turn for Highway 130, the road to Mount Hamilton. The road was similar to those in many California foothills with a few tight turns interspersed with longer sweeping curves in between. What is deceiving about this ride is that you first need to go up and over a first set of mountains before having a fairly long stretch of road prior to climbing up to Mount Hamilton peak.

This first set of mountains provides some incredible views of the East Bay, but there aren’t any vista point pull-offs to make it easy to stop and take photos. Much of the road lacks guard rails and there are precipitous cliffs at the road’s edge, so this is a good road to practice caution and have your speed under control. Last year, I came partway up this road and nearly ran into a flock of turkeys! What is it with turkeys and motorcycles? This makes three times I’ve nearly hit the stupid birds wandering across well-traveled highways! A full grown coyote also deftly crossed the road well ahead of our bikes as we came down the mountain. Suffice it to say that this is a “heads up” ride more suited to intermediate and above riders rather than novices.

The first set of mountains gave way to the beautiful and intriguing Joseph D. Grant County Park and Halls Valley Lake, known for its bass, catfish and crappie fishing. This enticed me to do further exploring on another day, but Bocci and I kept our goal in mind and pressed onwards towards Mount Hamilton. We traveled onward and worried that we might have missed the turnoff, but then noticed the prominent observatory buildings on the mountain peak far above beckoning us to continue.

Lick Observatory atop Mount Hamilton

Lick Observatory atop Mount Hamilton

Having our goal in sight didn’t mean it was close by. We traveled another fifteen minutes and only then found the Mount Hamilton turnoff sign which noted it was still seven twisty steep miles before reaching the summit. We came across many ambitious bicyclists along the road and were passed by a number of lightweight dirt bike riders festooned with helmet cams. Eventually, we arrived at the summit and went alongside the observatory building to its parking lot and were not disappointed by this the most spectacular view of the Bay Area.

Lick Observatory atop Mount Hamilton

The Lick Observatory

Mount Hamilton panorama

The view from Mount Hamilton

Above is a panorama I shot and stitched together to give just a partial view from the summit. We were surprised to see another panorama in a photo inside the observatory that showed Yosemite’s Half Dome as seen from Mount Hamilton! Since Yosemite is a four-hour drive away, you don’t imagine that this elegant dome could be seen from your own Bay Area backyard, but it can! Here is a photo I clipped from the web showing California’s most famous peak.

Half Dome from Mount Hamilton

Half Dome as seen from Mount Hamilton

More amazing facts were found inside the Lick Observatory, such as…
– The Lick Observatory was built in 1887
– It was the first permanently occupied mountain-top observatory in the world
– In 1939, because of a nighttime fog that engulfed the summit, an Air Force A-17 attack plane crashed into the main building (only the 2 pilots were killed)
Suffice it to say that you could spend a lot of time visiting and enjoying the Observatory. We didn’t see that the telescopes were available to visit, and we didn’t have time to ask to see if that would be possible at all. On my next visit, I’m going to find out ahead of time whether it is possible to visit at night and participate in a star gazing event. What a wonderful gem to have hidden in plain view of where we live and work! Here is a photo taken in the direction of Mount Hamilton from my office in Sunnyvale March 2006 with the snow level falling down to 2,000 feet!

Snow on Mount Hamilton and surrounding foothills - March 2006

Coming down off the mountain, a bicyclist drafted behind Bocci the whole way! I actually felt pressured to speed up because he wasn’t 20 feet behind my brother-in-law’s Triumph Bonneville and no matter what we did, we couldn’t shake him until arriving on flat ground. It was amazing that he could keep up and not slide out in the many curves that had handfuls of gravel in them. I would label him an idiot if he didn’t show such nerve and skill.

My final comments to anyone reading this post is “do this ride!” And go early enough to spend time taking lots of photos and poking around Lick Observatory. If you are really into astronomy, see what public programs are available for nighttime star gazing (if any), but don’t attempt this road at night on a bike.

Learn More:
Mount Hamilton Web Cam
Time lapse video of the day of our ride
Lick Observatory on Wikipedia 

Ride Map: Click here for Google Map

Ride Report:
– Date: December 31, 2011
– Roads: A well paved road with sections of fresh paving, generally smooth with intermittent sections that are not well-cambered
– Scenery: Mountains, canyons, valleys and a unique view of Silicon Valley and the San Francisco Bay Area
– Weather: Perfect for New Year’s Eve: mid-50s on the mountain top, no wind or rain.
– Ride: Tight, steep twisties with precipitous cliffs at road’s edge. Be careful and ride within your limits!
– Challenge: Intermediate to advanced (doable, but not fun for beginners)
– Food: Bring your own for during the ride, but there are vending machines with drinks and snacks at Lick Observatory
– Gas: As this is not far from civilization, gas should not be a problem. But, there is no gas available en route, so make sure your tank is filled
– Rating: 5-stars (out of 5) for overall enjoyment, although the ride itself was challenging and less fun than a romp in the Sierras
Additional Fun: Inside Lick Observatory is a gift shop and U.S. Post Office. Bring or buy some post cards and drop them in the box so you can delivered them postmarked from atop Mount Hamilton. This is a fun activity that so many people have forgotten to take advantage of.

Additional Ride Photos:

Ride Map: High Sierra Tour 2011 — part one


Incredible! That’s all I can think of to say about our 2011 High Sierra Tour. It was as if God had decreed: “Traffic…begone! Roads…repave thyself! Aspens…thou shalt turn unto Gold!” This 230 mile trip went from Manteca to Arnold the hard way, over three mountain passes that top 9,600 feet.

It’s hard for me to imagine that it was only one short year ago that I rented a BMW R1100RS from Dubblelju in San Francisco and started my journey of getting back into motorcycling after a hiatus of 20 years [see previous post].

What a difference a year makes

Jumping on that rental after not riding for two decades and immediately heading off for a 600 mile tour that included three steep and twisty mountain passes earned me a new nickname from my riding buddies: “Stones.” Apparently I demonstrated intestinal (or lower) fortitude on that ride. From my perspective, I was merely suppressing sheer terror and channeling my riding expertise from days gone by as best I could.

Well, that was last year. Since then, I’ve put about 4,500 miles all over Northern California on my very own Kawasaki Concours as frequent readers of this blog well know. And this year, we decided to repeat our High Sierra tour but this time conquer Sonora Pass, Monitor Pass, and Ebbetts Pass in one day.

Our initial rally point was a Starbucks on Airway Blvd. in Livermore. From there, we rode out Interstate 580 and then onwards to Hwy 120 via the I-205 cutover. After gassing up our four steeds in Manteca—Kawasaki Concours, BMW R1150RT, Triumph Speed Triple & Triumph Bonneville T100—we headed down Hwy 120 and continued on Hwy 108 which goes all the way over the Sierra Nevada mountains by way of the Sonora Pass.

National Hotel in Jamestown - a great place to eat

Riding on the Sonora Pass Highway was phenomenal. The roads had all been freshly paved and on this Friday in October were completely devoid of cars. We stopped for lunch at the National Hotel in the historic gold rush town of Jamestown and were treated to great food and a sparky waitress. After leaving Jamestown, we wound our way through the foothills and started our climb up and over the Sierra Nevadas.

We started to wind through mini passes and secret valleys tucked away in the mountains. Words fail me in how to describe just how beautiful it was. When we started to gain significant altitude near a spectacular lava formation named the Dardanelles, we rounded a corner and came upon an amazing sight — all the aspens had turned to brilliant yellow-gold. It was breathtaking. So much so, that the biggest problem I had was balancing the competing goals of keeping up the pace necessary to reach our destination before dark, and wanting to walk around taking photos of the scenery. I will definitely be making a trip back here next October and camping overnight with the primary goal being to fill a few memory cards with photos.

We continued on up, through, and over Sonora Pass, stopping for a few minutes at the summit. Seeing the elevation made me reflect on the fact that if we were airplane pilots instead of motorcycle riders, we would be mandated by law to be breathing from oxygen masks if only a scant 376 feet higher than the summit elevation. Thinking of this, and knowing that a mere three hour ride south would bring us to the second highest mountain in the contiguous United States, helped me put the sheer majesty of the Sierra Nevada mountains into perspective. I feel fortunate to have this world-class scenery in my own (relatively) back yard.

Moving down the back side of the Sierras brought us towards the Owens Valley, an absolute high-desert jewel shared by California and Nevada. From here, Interstate 395 goes north past Lake Tahoe and Reno all the way to the Canadian border, and south towards the Mojave desert. If you haven’t traveled down I-395 and seen Mono Lake, or the ghost town of Bodie, Tioga Pass the gateway to Yosemite, or the 14,505 ft. Mt. Whitney…you haven’t seen one of the most incredible parts of California.

The view east towards Owens Valley while heading up to Monitor Pass

Heading up I-395 from the Sonora Pass takes you alongside the Walker River which is beautiful all by itself. Many fishermen were trying their luck on its meandering banks. This part of the Interstate feels much more like a back country road than the 65 MPH superslab that it actually is—although the speed limit dips to 55 MPH or lower as the road gets curvier or as it passes through local townships—watch out for local Highway Patrol cruisers armed with radar. Soon enough, though, the turnoff to Monitor Pass came along and our trek up and over the Sierra Nevadas began once again.

One of my favorite parts of the ride was the climb up to Monitor Pass. Once you climb above the valley floor, you get a phenomenal panorama of the Owens Valley. This high, there are scant trees, and only mountain peaks on the horizon as far as the eye can see. But once on top of Monitor Summit, you pass through a dense copse of all-gold aspens that are only interrupted by the road cutting through their midst. More breathtaking scenery and worthy of stopping to explore. Alas, it was getting late and we needed to scoot.

After Monitor Pass, the road winds down towards Highway 4 which winds along the north fork of the Stanislaus river. Along this road are a number of small lakes that are gorgeous alpine gems. Kinney Reservoir, Mosquito Lake, and Lake Alpine are wonderful places to stop and picnic or try your hand at fishing for rainbow trout. But the shadows were getting long as we headed up towards Ebbets Pass—our final of three mountain pathways that were discovered when California was first settled—so fishing had to wait for a different trip.

The aptly-named Alpine State Highway—Hwy 4—is quite steep and twisty, providing a healthy challenge for riders on two wheels. More than one steep uphill hairpin turn resulted in unanticipated mid-turn downshifts, and less than elegant riding. Throw in a few handfuls of dirt and rocks in the turn’s apex, and you get pucker-marks on your saddle (sort of a man’s version of doing Kegel exercises). Ebbets Pass road provides about 30 miles of this riding, and it’s all one-lane, meaning no reflectors or centerline painted on the road. Not knowing if some vacationing family’s 6,000 lb. Yukon Denali is coming around each corner just adds to the suspense of the ride.

So, after getting chased by a high sierra rancher’s dog when slowing to reconnoiter a photo spot, we made the final hour ride from Ebbetts Pass to our cabin in Arnold—where we peeled our near-frozen fingers from the grips. But of most important at that point was emptying our saddlebags (and bladders) so that we could ride to the store in Arnold and fill up with vittles and beer. We found that the Saddleman saddlebags on the Bonnie were able to each perfectly hold a 12-pack of Budweiser, leading us to wonder if they were designed that way on purpose.

That evening was polished off with too much food, too much beer, and finding a neighbor who would drive two of our members to the local bar to check out the nightlife…and yet more beer. It’s always good to have a four-wheeled friend as a designated driver because if there is ONE rule in motorcycling—especially in the mountains at night—it’s that bikes and beer don’t mix.

The next day we had a great ride over backcountry roads to check out the local towns and scenery, but more about that in part two of this story. For now, it’s enough to bask in the glory of a ride well done over scenery almost too beautiful to imagine.

Ride Map:  Click here for Google map

Ride Report:
– Date: October 21-23, 2011
– Roads:
 Fresh paving, smooth and well-cambered the whole trip
– Scenery: Mountains, canyons, valleys, aspen groves, conifer forests
– Weather: Perfect: mid-70s in the valleys, mid-60s on the mountain peaks
– Ride: Rolling highways, sweeping curves, mountain twisties…the whole enchilada!
– Challenge: Intermediate to advanced (not for beginners)
– Food: Bring your own for during the ride, long distances between food availability
– Gas: Easily available, but plan well to not get caught dry between towns
– Rating: 5-stars (out of 5) for overall enjoyment

Stay tuned for part two: our Saturday ride on the gold country backroads

Additional Ride Photos:

Connie Fever?


I don’t know if I meant my blog to have this effect on people, but I received an email from an old friend of mine who said “he was looking to get back into motorcycling.” He was looking at a used Kawasaki Vulcan at a dealership because he wanted to not invest too much until he proved to himself that this was something he wanted to get deeply into.

I told him all about my adventures with MyConnie, including buying it without taking a proper test ride (see previous post), and the consequences thereof. About a week later, he told me that the Vulcan was sold out from under him, and that he found a Connie on CraigsList. A few days later, I received this photo of the red Kawasaki Concours with him saying, “In taking a lesson from you, I have purchased the bike sight unseen.”

Mike's Connie on the left, that's me on the right

Oh Lord, have I started a wave of “Buy first, ask questions later?” I certainly hope not. But I welcome my friend Mike to the ranks of Connie ownership and look forward to seeing his journey back into riding alongside my own.

The Fellowship


You know what I’m taking about. You knew it from the moment you read the title of this post and are just reading this far to confirm your suspicions. This is about the “club” we all joined—whether we wanted to or not—when we started riding a motorcycle.

Me and MyConnie

I’ve now put almost 3,000 miles on MyConnie riding around Northern California, plus to and from work. I’ve noticed that the San Francisco Bay Area has a healthy population of motorcyclists. All kinds, in fact. We got your head-to-toe leather-clad road racers, and your leather-vested Hells Angels, and your Belstaff-jacketed Euro-tourers (the ones with the watertight aluminum saddlebags on their dual-sport machines. Then there’s your garden-variety cruisers (who think—incorrectly—they look like Hells Angels, but that’s a different blog post) and your everyday bikers on their naked machines wearing jeans and a hoodie under their leather jacket that’s the same brand as their ride. And then there are the ones that I hear about on newsradio—almost everyday—usually described as a “motorcycle-involved accident.” But that’s a topic I prefer to avoid and pretend is limited to aggressive white-liners (i.e. lane splitters) and not applicable to my style of riding— [ fingers in ears ] “la la la la la.”

I had forgotten what it was like when I used to ride every day long ago. Or, maybe, it’s because in my callow youth, I was less empathetic to the ministrations of my two-wheeled brethren. Whatever I was thinking back then, I get it now: I have joined a big club of those who ride motorcycles. Here is my evidence.

Roadside Assistance
When is the last time you stopped to assist someone who was stopped by the side of the road and asked if they needed help? When is the last time someone stopped to see if you needed help when you were stopped? Never on both counts, right? Only a week into my new two-wheeled daily commute, I was trying out some different hearing protection and decided to take an off-ramp and stop for a moment to make an adjustment. Another rider pulled over behind me, opened his visor and asked if I was okay. I said yes, and with The Wave, he was off. I was floored. Would he have done the same for a car that was stopped there? I think not, lest he frighten the motorist into calling 911 to report a scary biker. Then why is it motorcyclists look out for others of their own kind? I think it’s because they know that no one else is going to offer help other than one of our own. And in the big game of pay-it-forward karma, we bikers need to bank as much as we can in the “plus” column.

The Wave
Much has been written about the secret hand signals that are shared between bikers when passing on the road, a.k.a. The Wave (see links below). The long and the short of it is this: wave, or prepare for negative karma. It’s like a rule that I have long held as a scuba diver. When dining at a seafood restaurant, I never order shark. I’m betting that the rules of karma apply there as well: I don’t eat them; they don’t eat me…quid pro quo [but I digress]. There are many versions of The Wave. Personally, I prefer the low two-fingered peace sign (or the “vee-twin” if you want to go all Harley on me) as just the right amount of “cool” and the least amount of “dork.” Truth be told, I like belonging to a club of people whom I’ve never met. It’s the best balance of feeling like your part of something without most of the baggage.

The Motorcycle Wave

The Wave

The Admonition
I have now heard from multiple bikers that when they get into a conversation with a person who doesn’t ride, the dialogue invariable goes something like this: “I get so scared when a motorcyclist comes up between my car and the one next to me, they must not realize that I can’t see them until they’ve passed my car! What if I changed lanes at that moment?!” What I don’t tell those who say this to me is, “That’s the plan, baby. Once you realize I am there, I’m already gone!” I mean, really, “not realize they can’t see me?!!” I COUNT on it, and ride as if MyConnie was like the Fantastic Four’s invisible car. The way I stay alive is that I PLAN for no one being able to see me, and then I’m never caught unawares—at least so far. And as far as splitting lanes goes, I try not to do it. I believe it adds to bad karma and raises your odds of an accident just for being impatient. There will come a day when I will be that biker moving crisply past your front bumper, but it won’t be soon, and it won’t be often.

The Look

“The Look” (okay, so maybe this is a bit exaggerated)

Not unlike the look a Prius owner gives someone who drives up to their eco-house in a Ford Excursion, all motorcyclists—especially those who are parents—know what I’m talking about when I describe “The Look.” It’s the slightly raised eyebrows and gently back-tipped head delivered by a parent from your kid’s school finding out for the first time that you ride. You never feel more like you are a member of The Fellowship of the Motorcycle than when someone with The Look burns a red-hot, yet invisible “He doesn’t care about his children being orphaned” brand on your forehead. No amount of explaining or accident statistics will ameliorate The Look. It is something that you tacitly agree to bear when you join The Fellowship, and it bonds you tighter to your fellow two-wheelers.

I could go on, but you get the idea. And best of all, being in The Fellowship is pretty cool. There, I said it. Being a member of a group where I’ve never met the members is pretty cool. It’s like having a Triple-A card in your wallet that you don’t have to pay for. Better yet, being in The Fellowship grants you access into the subset of people who are considered “dangerous” and therefore eminently date-able. So, go forth fellow bikers and ride—knowing that The Fellowship has your back.

Further reading and viewing:
Secret Motorcycle Hand Greetings: Revealed!
Motorcycle Etiquette: How Not to Wave like a Dork!
And, of course, M13’s video of different waves