Tuesday, 25 March 2014

Climbing Mount Hamilton, California: Cycling from Alum Rock to Lick Observatory

When I saw this rainbow in the morning, I knew it was going to be a great day. The UnDiscovered Country Tours staff yogi kindly modelled it for me. This was where I was going to pick up my rental bike:
I have to say that UDC was fantastic and I heartily recommend them. The staff are knowledgeable, helpful and they have a great stock of bikes at reasonable rental prices. Terry Morse (he's not in the photo below, but I think that's his wife on the left) had huge detailed knowledge of Mt. Hamilton and he ensured that I had everything I needed, especially as it was raining! Btw, Alotta's sandwich shop on the left above is excellent and ideal to refuel after the ride - they do a great cheese and veggie sandwich on house baked bread...
UDC's wisdom was that I should park at the mall on Mckee and Toyon in San Jose, rather than Alum Rock on the roadside (apparently there had been break-ins to cars there in the past). Advice that I happily accepted. So, after jumping on the bike - thankfully, the rain had stopped - I headed from the mall car park up Mckee and this is the entrance to the 130, Mt Hamilton Road:
Ahead of me, about 19 miles of climbing. Actually, there are two small descents that break it up into three sections of climbing. Inhaling my trepidation, I set off up the hill at a steady pace. I wanted to enjoy this, not smash myself!
Even on the lower slopes, the views are great. The rental bike was a Giant TCR Advanced. Since it had been raining, I'd kitted out the saddle with a makeshift mudguard (fender to US readers):
A simple affair - a cut away water bottle secured with rubber bands on the saddle pack. That keeps the light and more importantly my backside dry! I found the Fizik Arione saddle comfy, and I was really pleased to note that UDC ensure that it is accurately set level, which is what Fizik recommend, afaik. 
Watch out for the wildlife as you climb. There's not much road traffic, but sometimes what there is can be a bit quick, like a motorbike or sports car. The road has sweeping bends on the lower slopes, still spectacular:
Then near the first small descent, you get a glimpse of Lick Observatory in the distance on the peak. You can barely see the whitish domes on the peak in the photo below. At this point, I realised just how long the road is and could understand the height. It's 1283m, higher than Mt. Snowdon in Wales, and a tad lower than Ben Nevis in Scotland. It must have been an incredible building effort in the 1880s, with horses, I guess pulling building materials and glass scopes up there. However, the constructors were resourceful - they found clay and water near the top and fired the bricks at a site about a mile from the summit. A great description of the construction is here.
Then you go past Grant Country Park, and the view back over the valley is lovely. Magical country mansion and a lake there too: 
Saw these curious balls on the oak trees out there. I think they are "oak apples" created by Gall wasps (it's an incubation environment for their "wasplings" to hatch from). 
The road starts to get a tad more winding and windy from here. Historically, this road has been used as a descent in the Tour of California. This year, it's going to be an ascent for the first time, I think. Can't wait for Wiggins et al to hammer it up here!
It's a fabulous view, but it will be behind the ToC peloton! I'm sure the TV cameras will do it justice though. I wonder what the constructors of the observatory would have thought about a bike race coming up the mountain!
Then you get another glimpse of the observatory, around where the road descends for the second time. Funny that you get to see the summit whenever you are travelling downwards! The domes are tantalisingly always there...
This is an important landmark, as the road reaches the bottom of the second descent, there's a river, Smith Creek, and the bridge going over it is concreted (not visible in the photo, but to the left of the road sign):
After Smith Creek, the road gets a bit steeper and more winding. You see the 5 miles to go sign, but don't let it fool you - there's still a lot of climbing to do!
It was a few miles up from here where they found the clay deposit from which they made the bricks for the observatory. Speaking of which, you see it again, now much closer and you get an impression of how the road switchbacks one way then another, to the summit. 
However, once again, don't underestimate how much climbing remains! The temperature started to fall from about here too. A closeup of the observatory in the mist. 
A load of hairpin turns later, eventually, you get to the junction which marks the entrance to the Lick Observatory. There's this roadsign there, which is fairly iconic:
At the Tour, they will carry on in the Livermore direction, the descent is pretty steep, I hear, and then they'll tackle Mount Diablo as a summit finish for Stage 3. What a way to make a living! Anyway, for me, it was pretty much over, so the rest of this blog will be of photos taken around near the summit. 
Above, is the house which is opposite the San Jose-Livermore roadsign. It was the old dining hall. To the left is Livermore and the 3m telescope. To the right is an entrance road to the Visitor Centre and as you go up it, you can see the main dome to your right. Yes, just for a sense of scale, that's a person looking through a terrestrial telescope:
I turned out to be lucky on the weather side. It could have been raining up here, with no visibility. Of course, this place is usually clear overhead, so I guess my cloudy photos are fairly rare. The dome (above and below) shelters the Great Lick Refractor sporting a huge 36" lens (couplet I think, one of which broke on the journey up here in the 1880s). 
Below, the main entrance to the Visitor Centre, and yes, another cyclist. This climb is very popular with the cycling community and understandably so. I think the dome in the background houses the 40" reflector. Amazing place. 
Looking back the way I just came, down the entrance road towards the old dining hall and the 3m telescope:
From the position where I took the above photo, looking out over the guard rail you see this other smaller dome. I think this dome housed the Crossley 36" Reflector. 

A photo of a map of the Lick Observatory site that's on display on the noticeboard in the Vistor Centre. For some reason south is upwards... I don't think the above old Crossley telescope dome is shown on the map below, but if it was, it would be at top right. But you can see the 3m 120" Shane reflector dome on the road to Livermore and the old dining hall. More info on the telescopes here
There's a bike rack around the side of the Visitor's Centre, and the doors are usually open (8am to 5pm daily according to the map above). Sadly, there's nothing like a cafe inside. 
However, at least there are some vending machines, a water fountain and a toilet. All the important stuff is catered for!
Walking through, there's a terrace, which would be lovely for a group of riders and when it's very windy. 
The views from the top are spectacular and well worth the hard effort of climbing. So this is looking out with your back to the Visitor Centre: 
Over the railing to the right. I wonder who lives in those white chalet type houses?
To the left a bit. The road winds around, totally fantastic to cycle on, both up and down. 

A panoramic view looking towards the Visitor Centre. Great Lick Refractor to the right, 40" reflector to the left. 

And finally, a panoramic view looking away from the Visitor Centre (love that cloud dew point level):
It didn't rain on me much, but there was some rain that day. That rainbow ensured I was lucky! The descent was magic: 1 hour of swooping round bends, not too difficult, but you had to be wary of some debris and gravel in places. Ride within yourself is my advice. 

All the photos above were taken using my mobile Android smart phone, a LG Nexus 4. 

It's going to be superb to watch Stage 3 of the Tour of California on TV this year! Hope you enjoyed this account of my ride.