Tuesday, June 8, 2010

Mt. El Sombroso

I went exploring on the mountain bike again yesterday. The day's goals:

1. Check out the trails at Almaden Quicksilver County Park

2. Explore more of Sierra Azul Open Space Preserve. I'd really like to get to the top of Mt. Umunhum at some point, as at 3486 feet, it is the highest bump along the ridge, plus it has a very distinctive square building plonked at the top of it. The area used to be the Almaden Air Force Station, and was used as one of the NORAD radar stations scanning for troublesome aircraft during the Cold War. Sadly, that part of the preserve is currently is closed to the public due to (a) some needed cleanup work at the former air force station and (b) intervening private land whose occupants take their privacy seriously. I had to settle for the next nearest peak: Mt. El Sombroso, at just under 3000 feet.

3. Ride myself silly and enjoy the fact that Nim would be in school and an after school activity until 4:00.

I started out at the parking lot at the top of Hicks Road and first headed into Almaden Quicksilver for an 11 mile loop on dirt roads. It was delightfully easy riding -- nothing too steep or technical, just nice views in many directions and lots of old mining structures left over from the days when this was a major mercury mining area. Also many wacky colored rocks, which isn't too surprising given the metal content of the local minerals. At one point, I looked out to the horizon to see Mt. Hamilton, and realized that from that vantage point, I couldn't see San Jose at all, or any other populated area for that matter.


After making it back to the beginning of the loop, it seemed like I had only just warmed up, so of course I headed for the big climb up Woods Trail in Sierra Azul to Mt. El Sombroso. Once in the park on this side of the road, I didn't see any other people, and not many signs of civilization beyond the occasional long view out over the South Bay. And this:

Maybe this southern alligator lizard was responsible for the smiley face...

Or the western fence lizard. He has a blue belly that you can't see in the picture.

Or maybe this deer with fuzzy antlers. Clearly Mountain Biking Ma is not as scary as a mountain lion, as this fellow was most unconcerned about my presence.

Knowing the terrain in this area a bit (I've done some other trails lower down in the park, and have ridden up the paved road up Mt. Umunhum up to the point where you start to see very forbidding "No Trespassing" signs), I fully expected some of the trails to resemble steep gravelly walls, and I wasn't surprised. I learned that while I can ride up a 24% grade gravel misery, I couldn't get started from a full stop on it. It gives one a whole new appreciation for the dirt climb the riders at the Giro d'Italia were subjected to on their time trial this year... The stop, however, was for a good cause -- there were still many wildflowers up at that elevation, like this nice mariposa lily:


I continued to stop whenever there was an interesting plant or view to photograph. This one is some sort of Dudleya. I love the name (after Stanford botanist William Russell Dudley), and to me, these succulents look like they're ready to crawl off and do mischief when they flower.


At some point, the grade levelled off a bit. I had an odd moment when I though "Gosh, this almost seems flat!", but then looked down at the bike computer and saw that it was still 12%. The previous crazy angles sure screw up one's sense of what's mellow. Still, I continued to stop to enjoy views like this one of Mt. Umunhum through a profusion of wildflowers:


A somewhat unusual red thistle. This one is actually native, unlike the evil purple ones that seem to be taking over at lower elevations.


I eventually made it to the top, and followed a trail of power line pylons down over the crest of the hill to enjoy the view. It's been unusually clear given the warm weather for the last couple of days -- there's been enough of a breeze to keep the usual brown layer of airborne guck from accumulating over the valley.


Of course, it was gorgeous, and I was still feeling pretty good, so the inevitable error in judgment occurred. That extra loop of trail off to the west? It's only 6 miles. I've got an extra hour. How bad can it be? The map indicated that it dropped a bit, but of course the contour lines were faint, and I didn't actually count how many were involved in that particular loop. You can see below that it dropped almost 1500 feet, and I discovered that the climb up the west side was almost as steep as that on the east side.



So suffering was had. As it should be. At this point, I was a bit worried about making it back to the car in time to get back to pick up Nimue, so was trying to push the speed (otherwise it probably would have been quite pleasant!) As it was, when I made it to the top where the turkey vultures were playing in the thermals, I felt like they were eying me up as a potential afternoon snack.


Fortunately, the descent on this side wasn't too scary, and I made good time back to the car -- or at least good enough time that I had time to drive home and ride over to school to pick Nimue up -- with 5 minutes to spare :)

Crispy Critter back in the parking lot.

30+ miles; 5000+ feet of climbing. All on fire road rather than singletrack, but it was so gorgeous up there that who really cares?

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