Last Chance Road

Last Chance Road 15 Jul 07

Traditional as it is, I and a few bikies did another Last Chance Road
ride, the road that isn't. The reason is that this road, left from
the days of logging, has become woodsy and private for most of its
length from Swanton Road at the south end, to Big Basin State Park
boundary. That's not so bad but what happened a few years ago made
the ride partly into a hike with bike.

Since my first encounter with the road, when it was still a vehicle
road, passable with a VW, for instance, the Park Service has destroyed
it so that only a single track between back-filled rock and debris
remains of this once drivable ridable road. I can't imagine what the
motivation for this expensive and destructive project was but it has
been successful in dissuading people from seeing the beautiful scenic
canyon of Waddell Creek, they not wanting to climb over steep rocky
slopes and debris or make a river crossing over boulders where once a
vehicle ford offered a convenient route.

In any event, this has been one of my favorite rides since the days of
hippies who lived there in VW Buses and tended illegal agriculture.
They are gone now but at the end of the road in a large cemetery on
Mud Gully Road, old VW's stand waiting for Godot to give them their
50,000 mile checkup. They've stood there for many years, some with
tattered tarpaulins and others just covered with leaves.

John Woodfill, Bob Walmsley and I started from Palo Alto, at 7:00
through the Stanford campus to Page Mill Road that we took to Skyline
Blvd. (HWY35) (2200ft). Heading south along Skyline, we met Ray
Hosler and Mark Fitzgerald at Saratoga Gap (2609ft) from which HWY9
descends to Santa Cruz 28 miles to the southwest. We turned off at
Waterman Gap, a saddle between Pescadero creek and the San Lorenzo
river, the junction of HWY9 and Big Basin HWY236. (Saratoga gap) (Waterman gap)

The redwoods were a rich green with new foliage. As we approached
Waterman gap (1267ft), a sudden cloud of what looked like a cloud of
white dust crossed the road, completely out of place with the paved
highway and clear sunny skies. Surprise! It was a vestige of
overnight fog that came across the gap from Pescadero Creek, something
that became apparent with the forest still dripping and the road awash
with puddles here and there as we headed up HWY236 toward Butano ridge
at China Grade (1824ft) before descending to Big Basin.

On the way down, the road crosses a small divide before climbing
again, and at that point, we took the "Rear Escape Road" a tiny one
lane paved road heading west, descending into Opal Creek,
appropriately named for its opalescent water. This beautiful part of
the park seldom has visitors it has no camping or picnic areas or car
access, and is far enough from headquarters to dissuade hikers. (Opal Creek)

Although this is an area especially rich with song birds, most of them
have quieted since spring and only Steller's Jays yacked at us now and
then and begged for a handout at the store. Although the giant
redwoods provide cool shade, we encountered gists of tropically warm
air as we headed toward park headquarters and the store for food and

Usually the coast side of the Santa Cruz Mountains is cooled by
on-shore breezes from the chilly waters that give this area fog and
and with it coast redwood forests. Lately that hasn't occurred and
winds have blown in unconventional directions while there has been no
appreciable surf for weeks.

After a snack at the park store, we rode toward Boulder Creek and
turned off on Hinn Hammond Road that has a sign indicating Blooms
Creek Campground. This paved road meanders along west Waddell creek
to the park sewage treatment plant where, above the turnoff, it turns
to gravel and gets steep. At the next junction (trail closed), Last
Chance Road, or what's left of it, dives down steeply back down to
Waddell Creek. It was here that I have heard the distinctive call of
the pileated woodpecker, our version of the ivory billed woodpecker. (forget me not) (Arelia californica)

After about a half mile of careful riding and walking, the trail
crosses Waddell creek with enough boulders that it can be done without
getting wet feet. The creek flows over broad slabs of stone above and
below the crossing before cascading over smooth sandstone where it has
carved large spherical swimming holes on a series of plateaus as it
descends through spectacular narrows. Meanwhile the trail hugs the
south wall and reaches a broader part of the canyon, lush with
vegetation and in the shade.

The trail has gotten better since the last time because equestrians
use it and they moved some of the obstacles so that the trail can be
ridden in part. Fortunately it is mostly downhill to the west. (Last chance 1) (Last chance 2)

As the creek curves northward and into another series of rapids, the
trail climbs out of the canyon, partly ridable before connecting with
the end of the vehicle road, most of which is in private property as
it continues climbing gradually from 800ft to a little over 1000ft
crossing Last Chance Creek. Although unpaved, the road is well
maintained, albeit bumpier than one might like by the embedded rock.
The road runs near the top of a ridge between Waddell and Scott Creeks
that both appear amazingly far below whenever a view opens.

At the more civilized part of the road, as it starts its descent to
Swanton Road, pavement begins at a cattle guard but it is no bed of
roses either. Although contiguous, this pavement is almost as rough
as the dirt road as it descends through green expansive cow pastures
where it passes a swamp called Laguna de Las Trancos before ending at
the summit of Swanton Road. Swanton road, the old coast highway, is
smooth and well paved, and descends through redwoods to Scott Creek
that originates in Little Basin and flows to the sea through Swanton

Most of Swanton Valley was owned by Al Smith, the originator of
Orchard Supply Hardware (OSH) stores. He called it the Swanton
Pacific Ranch that today is under the custody of Cal Poly Aggies (his
alma mater), and Al's club that runs the 19" gauge steam railway,
aptly called the SP or Swanton Pacific. The railroad is at home just
south of eaqually aptly named Big Creek that is bigger than Scott
Creek with which it joins. (SP RR) (Swanton)

From Swanton, it's up a couple of short bumps to the junction with
HWY1 just north of Davenport. Davenport, a former whaling station,
lies the end of the UP rail branch that hauls coal in and cement out
of a huge CEMEX cement plant. We stopped at Arro's grocery store for
a food stop before cruising 11 miles downwind (today) to Santa Cruz.
The parking lot at Bonny Doon Road/Beach noted for its tanning
capabilities for people who prefer sunning in the buff, was nearly
empty, possibly for lack of surf. Just the same, it's a great beach
in a cove that is wind protected.

Santa Cruz was under clear skies but no surf at all. To make up for
that, bird rock was full of pelicans and cormorants and pigeon
guillemots were in the water along the cliffs waiting their turn to
feed their young in hidden nests. After inspecting the scene we
cruised Beach street and watched the Giant Dipper roller coaster carry
full loads of enthusiasts. The Santa Cruz, Big Trees and Pacific
train, that is usually parked in front of the roller coaster, had
already left for Felton, the trip via Last Chance Road having taken us
two hours longer than the coast route.

Ray and Mark took the paved river levee to its end at HWY1 and took
HWY9 for the 28 miles to Saratoga gap, while John, Bob, and I crossed
the San Lorenzo River on the footbridge attached to the railroad
bridge and headed south toward Capitola and Aptos taking the road
around the marina and along the beach. After Capitol we followed the
RR and crossed the freeway into Aptos.

From Aptos, Valencia Road heads inland to connect to Day Valley road
and Freedom Blvd from which Hames Road climbs a short steep hill to
Corralitos with its sausage factory/grocery store. We ate and tanked
up and took a spare 20oz soda pop along so I wouldn't run dry after I
got to the top of Eureka Canyon Road (1850ft) at "four corners" the
junction of Eureka Canyon Rd., Highland Way, Buzzard Lagoon Rd., and
Ormsby Cutoff. I turned up Ormsby Cutoff, now known as Ormsby Trail
and paved most of the way to the top at Summit Road (2860ft).

Ormsby is a steep climb but smoothly paved and no longer has a locked
gate at the bottom and rogues who bother bicyclists. To make up for
that, there are plenty of real estate signs for lots and houses.
After the end of paving at address 1100, we got out first taste of
poor traction on a steep spot where the road avoids a hairpin turn by
cutting across. Near the top a beautiful view to Watsonville in the
Pajaro Valley opens and in the background, Monterey at the tip of the
Santa Lucia mountains where they dive into the sea. Vegetation on
this dry slope is mostly brush, manzanita, and digger pines.

It seems the "git offa my land" routine is no longer popular here or
on Last Chance Road, even though there are threatening signs at the
lower end of the road where the gate is permanently, open by law after
the claim to a private road was tested in court. There was no longer
any sign of a gate at Summit Road.

The ride along Summit Road is an up and down event with great views to
the coast and the Santa Clara Valley. We met no traffic on the way up
to the junction with Loma Prieta Avenue (3081ft) and headed up the
"dirty bump" that we gave that name years ago for its steep and loose
surface, a challenge to ride. Since then, because even cars had
trouble climbing it, the short steep part was paved, it being the
connection for people who live beyond there on Loma Chiquita road on
the east side of the ridge. (Ormsby & Loma Prieta) (Sierra Azul) (Mt. Umunhum)

We stopped at the spring (3363ft), the source of Los Gatos Creek, on
the north side of Loma Prieta Peak (3808ft), and refill water bottles
while I changed my rear tube that got a snake bite after all these
miles on rough dirt roads. Sierra Azul Road descends half way to
Mt. Umunhum to (2990ft) at Cathermola Rd. that descends to Lake
Ellsman before climbing Mt. Umunhum road (3290ft). Most of the road
was recently graded but after all moisture had left the soil and
apparently without a watering truck, so parts had poor traction, but
at least the sharp ruts were no longer discernible.

Just before the junction with Mt Umunhum road (3290ft), an ugly
collection of dead motor vehicles and other hardware rests on the knob
where Rick Estrada once confronted passers-by, with holster-on-hip,
telling them to go back the way they came. The road from Mt. Umunhum
is paved and formerly served the Air Force radar station. The
steepness of this road in sections is impressive. It is a real brake
burner and in the old days was a hazard for Tubulars, melting their

About 2/3 down, at a cattle guard and locked gate, hikers park their
cars on a wide spot and turn-around. From here there are some more
steep sections before reaching the junction with Hicks road (1400ft).
Hicks has had bicycle fatalities that I suspect were caused by tire
blow-off caused by required heavy braking. After the dam at the end
of Guadalupe Reservoir another steep section gets to the flatlands and
Shannon Rd. that climbs over a small ridge and connects to Los Gatos
Blvd. toward Los Gatos.

Here the access road to HWY17 becomes HWY9 as Los Gatos Saratoga Rd.
the ride on SR9 to Saratoga and on Grant Rd. to Prospect that
connects to a less traveled rout on Stelling-Hollenbeck-Pastoria, the
three named road mostly a downhill to the CalTrain tracks, Evelyn Ave,
Mary and Middlefield R. to cruise home.

135miles and 10400ft climbing and 12:30 hrs on the road.

Jobst Brandt