When I was living down in the valley, I’d heard lots of things about “Highway 9”. It had a reputation for crashes when guys would get too throttle happy. It was usually packed on the weekends. Climate sometimes varied significantly from the valley floor to the ridge. Over the years what I found though it that, it’s a lovely piece of pavement that squiggles up into the Santa Cruz Mountains from Saratoga. From there it was a drop into the deep, Redwood forest, across the skyline ridge, a goat trail deep into nowhere, or a quick ride back to the valley. Seven miles of bliss. We’d often ride it at lunch when I worked at Netflix or I’d head up there after work for a quick jaunt. I knew that road like the back of my hand. About 10 years ago I organized a ride via South Bay Riders to the top of the mountain. Along the way, I picked up a screw for my first flat tire!
Moving over to the east bay I struggled to find a similar 5’o clock ride. The ocean was too far away and required a bridge, traffic, and at least an hour on the freeway. I wanted a ride closer to home. I enjoyed the climb up Mount Diablo. It was different than highway 9. Mount Diablo is much more technical and slow going. Gravel sometimes hides in the corners. There is a steep 180-degree right-hand turn that gets me from time to time. My goal on this ride is to be smooth. As old motorcyclists say, “slow is smooth and smooth is fast.” I ride it in second gear and remind myself “slow, look, lean, and roll” in the more technical corners. The regular focus on the basics helps me keep sharp as a rider.
Two other challenge stem from the fact that Mount Diablo is a state park. Every time I want to ride the mountain, it’s a $10 toll. I didn’t want that to be a blocking issue for me. I just wanted to ride the mountain. Turns out the California State Park system has the “Poppy Pass” which lets you into most state parks for a $125 annual fee. I’d have to go up there once a month to make the pass “worth it.” That being said, the money goes to a good cause and it allows me to freely visit state parks on any road trip I’m on. I just keep it in the top of the tail bag.
The other challenge was I always heard that “gates are locked at sunset” from the ranger at the entrance to the park. The gates at the north entrance via North Gate Road interlock with a fence so there is no way to get around them. Due to this, I’d always give myself plenty of margin to get out of the park by sunset. I wanted to see the sun go down on top of the mountain. They say that you can see more of California from the top of Mount Diablo than from any other vantage point. I talked with the ranger up at the visitor’s center about my sunset dilemma and he mentioned that a ranger will sweep the summit parking lot right after sunset and I’d have time to get out.
It appears the official guidance is that gates lock at sunset. That being said, when leaving the summit after being swept off by the ranger, I’ve not been locked in yet. Be kind though – when the summit closes, make your way down and exit the park.
I decided to head up there and run the risk of getting locked in. All I can say is that it’s nothing short of glorious. The entire sky lights up all around you with the fading sun. The picture below pans to almost a 360-degree view.
What surprised me the most was the amount of rapid change that occurred the 20 minutes before sunset. From the summit overlook, you can see the shadow of the mountain rise to the east across the Central Valley. I’ve been up here in a few different seasons and you can clearly see the sun move across the horizon throughout the year. In late June it’s well north of Mount Tamalpais and in late December it’s down south of San Francisco. The sun’s positions affect how the mountain lights up for the sunset!
There’s a bunch of high powered telecom equipment up at the top of Mount Diablo. Stay on trails and don’t stand directly in front of the equipment.
The trick to really enjoy the park is to go off hours. Weekend days bring out lots of bicycles and tourist traffic. Holidays and solar events (like the solstice) also bring out the crowds. Find a weekday afternoon to jet up to the top.
I recommend entering the park 90 minutes before sunset. That gives you plenty of time to get up to the top and some time to see the change in scenery as the sun goes down. Don’t leave early though! The moments just before and after sunset are some of the most spectacular. I can assure you the ride down will be fantastic. The light show after sunset is as pretty as the sunset itself. Watch for deer and turkeys though. They are all over the park!
This ride snuck up on me. I didn’t expect it fall in love with it as much as I did. The secret here is context. I didn’t like this ride on a Saturday morning. WAAAY too much traffic. But in the right context this ride is outstanding with rich rewards and good memories!
So yes! I’ve found my ride. It’s not a 5 o’clock ride. It’s a sunset minus one o’clock ride. Maybe it’s the leather glove ride. However you call it, it’s my local favorite.
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