The Best Bay Area Mountains for Cycling

biking mt. diablo

Guest Post by Alt. ride. Alt. is an initiative of the Bay Area Open Space Council and Transit and Trails. Sponsors include CLIF BarCoastal Conservancy, and Peninsula Open Space Trust, with media sponsorship from offMetro SF and others. Transit and Trails helps you find, plan and share your outdoor adventures and loves the idea of going outside without a car.

The Bay Area is home to many peaks. There are, of course, San Francisco’s Twin Peaks, which rise to 922 feet to the west of downtown (and the 850-foot Transamerica building). Mt. Saint Helena, the tallest mount in the nine counties, towers over Sonoma and Marin in all of its 4,342-feet glory. And the peak with the name that is the most fun to say is Mt. Umunhum (go ahead, try it!).

The possibilities for enjoying all these “pies in the sky” are endless, from just taking in views of them to taking to their trails. Hiking, running, or meandering along their creeks and gullies can easily fill a peaceful afternoon, and pedaling up and down their hills offers an intense adrenaline rush.

But exploring the mountains of the Bay Area involves a car, doesn’t it? (At least get to the trailhead, right?) Not necessarily. Here,  how to visit Bay Area mountains on bike and public transit.

Mt. Hamilton | Mt. Hamilton Road, San Jose | South Bay
Sneaky Mt. Hamilton hides from view up in the Diablo mountain range. It’s the highest peak overlooking the Silicon Valley and home to the Lick Observatory, the world’s first permanently occupied mountain-top observatory (which offers excellent star-gazing programs).

The 18-mile bike ride to Mt. Hamilton’s summit from the San Jose Caltrain station involves a two-step climb. The first climbs up from the flatlands to Joseph Grant County Park (known to locals as Grant Ranch), a vast expanse of grasslands, wildflower, and 52 miles of trails for biking and hiking. From Grant Ranch, it’s a second climb to the top of Mt. Hamilton where the observatory is located.

Mt. Hamilton is maintained by Santa Clara County Parks, which offers a plethora of programs for all ages and abilities.

Directions: Take Caltrain to San Jose and ride from there. For those wanting to visit without a bike, carpooling is the best bet (try Zimride to find folks going your way).

Mt. Tamalpais | Panoramic Highway Mill Valley | North Bay
From anywhere north of Oakland to anywhere south of Novato, one can catch a glimpse of this beloved Bay Area fixture, but the views from the mountain are as stellar (if not mores so) than views of it. Biking to the top of Mt. Tam is easy to do from anywhere in the Bay Area, thanks to the Golden Gate Bridge and the ferries to Sausalito (and we mean easy logistically—not so easy on the muscles).

There are also many ways to hike Tam, including the famed Dipsea Trail, or you can explore the mountain from the Rock Spring trail on the west or head north and get to Lake Lagunitas. Along the way up or down, you might take a peek in the exclusive Tourist Club (open to the public on select weekends), or stop for the night (or a work party or Sunday pancake breakfast) at the historic West Point Inn.

Mt. Tam is managed by both Marin Municipal Water District and California State Parks. While it isn’t one of The First 70, it is certainly being impacted by the park closures.

Directions: There are several ways to reach Mt. Tam. Take Golden Gate Transit Bus 92 toward Manzanita, then transfer in Marin City (at Donahue and Terners) to Marin Transit bus 61 toward Brighton Avenue and get off at Panoramic Highway and Pan Toll Road. (Visit for scheduling.) You can also take the Marin Stage Coach from many convenient places on the east side of Marin to more western and northern trails.

Mt. Diablo | 96 Mitchell Canyon Road | East Bay
As the Pittsburg/Bay Point BART train nears Walnut Creek, majestic Mt. Diablo comes into view. It’s not the tallest of mountains, but one of the most expansive views in the world can be witnessed from its summit.

There are several transit-friendly ways of getting closer to the Mt. Diablo’s peak. One is to bike the Iron Horse Trail from the Pleasant Hill BART. (Note, however, that while it may be just 16.4 miles, 3,849 feet is a hefty climb.)

The Donner Creek Trail makes a wonderful adventure in winter or spring, when Donner Canyon Falls gush down the mountainside. From Concord BART, take the 10 County Connection bus to where Marsh crosses Bigelow Street. Walk an easy 20 minutes to the end of the road, where you’ll find Donner Creek Trail which runs parallel to Donner Creek. The views of the north side of the mountain are stunning, the shade along the creek refreshing, and the waterfalls awesome to watch.

Mt Diablo sits in the middle of a huge state park and is surrounded by smaller open spaces managed by the East Bay Regional Park District, the City of Walnut Creek, and other organizations. Working in partnership with these land managers is Save Mount Diablo, a long-standing and leading nonprofit organization.

Directions: Take BART to Concord and catch the County Connection 10 bus to Clayton Road & Mitchell Canyon Road (the journey takes about an hour and a half). Or take BART to Walnut Creek or Pleasant Hill and bike from there (about a 2.5-hour ride).

Pulling it all together
Want to see them all? There is a way to experience Mt. Hamilton, Mt. Tam, and Mt. Diablo in one magical (and action-packed) day. On June 16, 2012, a group of cyclists will attempt to ride up all three of these peaks—using public transit to reach the base of each. It’s called the Alt. ride, and it’s 128 miles of riding, 12,000 feet of elevation gain, and 100% Bay Area. Nowhere else can you use three kinds of transit (Caltrain, Golden Gate Ferry, and BART) to summit three mountains of this size. Riders will go through six parks and take in the views of numerous other peaks along the way.

You can join us on June 16 in ways big or small, at high or low elevations. Click here to learn more about the event and to join us to keep the Bay Area both beautiful and accessible.

About the authors: Annie Burke and Ryan Branciforte are the Co-Directors of the Alt. ride and both work for the Bay Area Open Space Council. Annie prefers taking the bus to the Little Farm in Tilden with her two kids. Ryan gets a big kick out of taking the bus to Pantol Station on the western side of Mt. Tam and running home to San Francisco. They can be reached at

Photos: Lech Naumovich, Annie Burke

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