Recommended Routes: Los Gatos, California
The world of gravel cycling is exploding. More and more people are venturing beyond the tarmac in search of quieter, safer roads, exploring the world around them in the process. But if you’ve never ridden gravel before, it can be hard to find the perfect trails and roads to explore this burgeoning discipline of the sport.
Enter our Recommended Routes series. In partnership with Continental, we’ve pulled together a bunch of the best gravel cycling routes around the USA. Stay posted for future episodes in the weeks and months to come. And head to Trailforks to see the routes themselves.
Words by Fisher Curran | Photos by Chris Corona and Fisher Curran
Sixty miles (100 km) south of San Francisco sits Los Gatos. This small township, nestled at the base of the Sierra Azules, features a bustling main street strip packed with storefronts and restaurants, plenty of manicured parks and lakes, and an endless, spiderwebbing trail network.
In the mid-1800s, Los Gatos was originally named “Cat’s Corner” after the non-stop screams of mountain lions patrolling the hillsides in the middle of the night. Following the town’s inception, the developing community would, over the decades, continue leaning into the feline namesake. Today, you’ll find it difficult to see any particular stretch of town devoid of a cat reference, whether that be the ‘gargoyle-like’ cat statues lining the sidewalks or the generous number of shops with names that nod to the town’s audible origins.
While Los Gatos doesn’t share the same tourist allure of Santa Cruz, (connected to Los Gatos by Highway 17), the two share plenty of the same terrain. What this means is that while Santa Cruz is a ubiquitous riding destination amongst mountain bikers and gravel grinders alike, the same can be said of Los Gatos. You just have to know where to go.
Starting on Main Street in Los Gatos, aim toward the gravel byway that runs parallel to the Los Gatos Creek. This path is the main thoroughfare between the town and the bordering Open Space Preserves. Pretty soon, the dirt transitions to pavement and you arrive at a brief, perfectly straight climb that traverses you up the backside of the Lexington Reservoir.
Connect onto Alma Bridge Road and follow it east, away from the whir of Highway 17 and deeper into the forests of Lexington Reservoir County Park. On clear days, you’ll find a handful of lookouts that offer a view of the water, which is usually adorned by rowing shells, paddleboats and fishing dinghies. Eventually, the road runs into a three-way intersection. Head upwards on Aldercroft Heights Road and continue to climb once you run into Old Santa Cruz Highway.
State Route 17’s predecessor, Old Santa Cruz Highway is now affectionately known as ‘Back Road’. This climb, tucked deep within a dense redwood forest, winds past quiet residential neighborhoods. The 719-foot (220-metre) segment offers a mellow 3.9% grade over 3.48 miles (5.6 km). With almost zero steep pitches, this ascent is a perfect opportunity to spin the legs, warm-up, and prepare for the rest of the route.
After hitting Summit Road, continue straight across the street. In no time at all, you’ll connect to Schulties Road: the first real dirt descent. While bumpy at times, with scattered sections of loose pavement, Schulties Road is completely manageable. The fire road snakes downward around massive thickets of trees, eventually flattening out at Laurel: a ghost town once utilized by both passing stagecoaches and railroad passengers. Because the San Andreas Fault passes through the Santa Cruz Mountains, much of the railroad tunnel network was leveled during the 1906 earthquake. However, in Laurel, you can still see one of these tunnel portals in a state of semi-ruin.
After the brief first-hand history lesson, continue onwards to Redwood Lodge. The connector road is a relatively short 519-foot (160-metre) climb over 1.61 miles (2.6 km) with a 6.1% gradient. Be prepared for sections of loose pavement and some steep pitches at times. Continue climbing onto Soquel San Jose Road, but be mindful of cars. Though there is a generous shoulder, this is arguably the busiest stretch of road in the whole route.
At the Summit Road junction, ride westward back toward Los Gatos. Along the way, keep an eye out for the appropriately named Summit Store. This small, family-owned grocery store is a quaint little spot, perfect for topping up water and ride food or taking a lunch break completely and enjoying a sandwich or other prepared meal. A generous outdoor seating area makes the Summit Store very accessible and bike friendly for small groups of cyclists.
Remember the twists and turns of Old Santa Cruz Highway climb? Well, you’re about to enjoy them in reverse. Grab the drops and tear back towards the Lexington Reservoir. This time stay on the west side of the water and follow Highway 17 until you have the opportunity to cross over the busy highway via a bridge connection. To the north, you’ll find Montevina Road, which leads to Black Road: the other demanding climb in this route.
To get to the John Nichols Trail, you’ll need to ride up a 1,201-foot (365 m), 3.47 mile (5.6 km) segment of road. With a 6.6% average gradient, frequent undulating steeps, and little shade, Black Road is a beast. Conquer it though and you’ll be pleasantly rewarded. As you near the end of this stretch, look for a dirt turnout and some trailside signage.
Drop your tire pressure and enter through the gate. Immediately, you’ll encounter a fire road descent that sweeps downward, past Lyndon Canyon Creek, to the Lake Ranch Reservoir. This wide, exposed open area is a stark contrast to the light-splotched redwood forest descent. Alongside the water’s edge, the fire road funnels into a narrow singletrack. Follow it to the next section of the John Nichols Trail.
Pedal southwest along the creek and follow the dirt path upwards. For those up for a challenge, this optional 2.97-mile (4.8 km) out-and-back offers 1,824-feet (555 m) of climbing with plenty of interesting trail features, notably a massive boulder located in the dead-center of the trail. Expect wooden bridge crossings and stairs, root gardens, plenty of rock obstacles, and ever-changing dirt conditions.
Immediately following this out-and-back is another fire road descent called Sanborn Road that leads back to the road. It’s much steeper than the John Nichols Trail, but the wide-open dirt path, generous corners, and clear terrain changes help make this return-to-pavement a safe journey.
Cross through another entrance gate and you’ll run into Big Basin Way. Jump back onto the tarmac and pedal downward still. Soon enough, you’ll start to see faint inklings of residential and commercial buildings. The road gradient settles and before you know it, you’re riding through Saratoga. Though it’s late in the ride, Big Basin Café is definitely worth the stop if you’re willing. Fresh-made sandwiches, flaky pastries, and plenty of hot and cold drink options make this bright little coffee shop a popular stop.
From here, all that remains is a short, rolling connection back along Saratoga-Los Gatos Road. Take the final right turn and head south along the N Santa Cruz Ave and end at the Town Plaza Park. Welcome back to Los Gatos.
What you need to know
Like much of California, Los Gatos has a Mediterranean climate. Temperature averages in January range from a low 43 °F (6 ºC) to a high of 63 °F (17 ºC); in July those numbers bump up to 57 °F to 86 °F (14-30 ºC). Like the neighboring Santa Cruz, Los Gatos experiences a short widow of annual rain while averaging roughly 330 sunny days per year. This means that the odds of a bluebird, sunny day ride are in the cyclists’ favor.
Summertime is an ideal time to pedal, but be mindful of the temperature swings in the Santa Cruz Mountains all year round. Even on the warmest days, it is wise to stuff a set of warmers and a light rainshell in jersey pockets to stave off the chilling mists of early morning rides.
Bobcats, foxes, coyote, deer, turkeys, boar and (of course) mountain lions call the Santa Cruz Mountains home. However, don’t worry too much about encountering these more elusive animals. Regular visitor traffic during the daylight hours makes encounters rare. Do be sure to keep an eye on the sky, however. Sanborn Country Park and the surrounding Open Space Areas are home to an extensive list of avian species.
Bike shops and repairs
The two major shops in the Los Gatos area are Mike’s Bikes and Summit Bicycles. Either shop will be able to provide quick fixes, last-minute hydration and nutrition, extra tubes and CO2, and whatever else you may need just prior to your ride.
Summit Store is a perfect mid-ride lunch spot located right on Summit Road. With plenty of prepared food offerings, a generous outdoor seating area, and bike-friendly accessibility, stopping here is almost a necessary part of any ride along Summit.
For café breaks in the early afternoon, check out Big Basin Café in Saratoga. Grab a sandwich, flaky pastry, or cold drink and take a load off at the outdoor patio that wraps around this quaint, little café.
For bigger meals post-ride, Blue Line Pizza is top-notch. Named after a commuter trainline in Chicago, Blue Line offers award-winning cornmeal crust deep dish pizza, as well as New York-style thin crust options. Pair your pizza with organic salads, homemade appetizers, and a drink from a lengthy list of craft beers, regional wines, and quality spirits.
Los Gatos Soda Works is a specialty cocktail bar within a historic building that used to bottle its own unique soda between 1906-1937. Now, the Main Street establishment offers a robust drink menu and variety of small plates.
For something more casual, consider Oak & Rye, a small Italian bistro just down the street. Craft cocktails complement woodfired pizzas and appetizers. There is also patio seating available.