When you are flying down your favourite trail, do you know the history of the area within which you are mountain biking? Maybe the trail is only 10-years-old, or perhaps it could be 300 hundred years old? Maybe it was used by pioneer settlers or possibly an historical event may have occurred in that very spot? Is today’s kick ass singletrack trail yesterday’s method of livelihood for someone, or even perhaps the front-line of a war battle?
As mountain bikers, we often fly through the trails by the seat of our pants, sometimes not noticing what is going on around us. I have ridden some trails hundreds of times without ever noticing that there was a possible piece of history lying just off the trail – that is until I had to stop to fix a flat and happened to notice it. Researching the history of your local riding spot can reveal many undiscovered things. See an old abandoned house? Find an old, rusted car? Or wreckage from an airplane crash? By just doing a little investigating you might be surprised at what you find!
More Than Just A Steep Hill
I’ve been spending a lot of time climbing Montara Mountain, which is just north of my house. Located in Northern California near the city of Pacifica, it is an area long steeped in history. Montara Mountain, along with San Pedro Mountain, forms the northern spur of the Santa Cruz Mountains which is the long narrow range of peaks which separates the San Francisco Bay from the Pacific Ocean. Its highest point rises to 1,898 feet (579m) above sea level. The ride starts near the sea with a gradually climbing, partly paved road that quickly escalates into a tough fire road climb that winds its way through scrubby chaparral terrain. The the last part of the climb is a leg-blowing 18 percent average grade with peak grades of 24 percent. As I proceed up the climb, coyote brush, sagebrush, and monkey-flower line the trail and the colourful blooms dance around me as a gentle breeze waves them to and fro. Hummingbirds buzz my bright helmet as I try to ignore the pain in my legs and continue to plow my way to the top. There is no candy coating this climb – it’s tough!
Off to the side of the trail and partway down the ravine, I notice what appears to be the remnants of a rusted, old car, ripped apart and smashed flat against the soil. Seeing this car sparks my curiosity. How did it crash and why would anyone in their right mind drive a car up a narrow loose fire road with cliffs on both sides? As I continue up the trail, I notice several more cars littering the hillside below. Why are there so many wrecked cars? I could not help but to wonder if the people driving these cars survived the crashes.
I focus on the trail itself and notice it’s covered with a sparkly, tan-coloured, granite gravel which makes for a slippery surface. Through the lactic acid pain, I manage to think that all those sparkles look cool especially on a bright sunny day like this!. I continue my relentless march to the top – the view is insane: the distant monolith of Mount Diablo, grass-covered Sweeney Ridge, mountain-bike-legend Mount Tamalpais, the city of San Francisco, and Monterey Bay all presenting themselves on this sunny day. This beautiful view just about makes up for all the suffering I’m doing to make myself a better climber. I pass two more wrecked cars – almost there. I don’t think I’m going to beat the fog, though, which is rolling in fast and by the time I reach very top the view is obscured by thick fog. I take a quick break to catch my breath and zip up my vest to head back down for one of the coolest downhills around. It takes concentration because all that cool, sparkly, granite makes for a sketchy descent. With a very steep cliff on both sides, I don’t want to end up lying on the side of the trail like one of the cars that litters the landscape from a time gone past.
After a few rides up Montara, I decided to research the area to learn more about what the trail was originally created for. I was also very curious to find out what the deal was with all the old cars littering the hillsides. After researching online, I soon discover that the main trail was actually a road in the early 1900’s. Originally called Coastside Highway, Old San Pedro Mountain Road served as the main road between San Francisco and Half Moon Bay.
I found several quotes from the time period, including one from Motoring Magazine, which ominously warned that “Pedro Mountain Road is in such poor condition that anyone going this way is simply inviting disaster.” In 1915, when people started motoring over Old San Pedro Mountain Road it was a narrow, steep, winding road which was never in good condition. The steepest sections of this route were virtually impassible to automobiles, with a grade of 24 percent. According to historians, large visible signs were placed at the beginning of Old San Pedro Mountain Road which warned motorist about the dangers of the road. I can’t imagine navigating a large, old-fashioned automobile with a weak engine, skinny tires, and poor brakes up and over Montara Mountain via this slippery, granite-covered mountain road. The drop-offs on both sides of the trail are enough to make me slightly nervous about bombing down Old San Pedro Mountain Road on my agile modern mountain bike, so I definitely would not want to experience these mountain trails by car! In 1937, an easier route was built and motorists started using the new route instead. After World War II, Old San Pedro Mountain Road was closed to automobile traffic.
Looking over these old photos of Montara Mountain, I see the basic trails have not changed much since 1915. Only the wrecked cars on the sides of the trails are there to remind current and future trail users of an era gone by.
Deep Woods And A Plane Crash
Majestic old growth Redwoods, lush green ferns, and more, reigns supreme in a place called El Corte De Madera (ECDM).
Fourteen miles southeast of Montara, and also located in the Santa Cruz Mountains, ECDM is stunning place to ride with giant redwood trees surrounding some superb singletrack and awesome kamikaze downhills. Sharply defined from the exposed chaparral of Montara, this is lush forest, which in the past has been subject to heavy logging of its rich population of old-growth redwood trees. As you navigate your bike through this place – it’s so overgrown with big leafy ferns, waterfalls, and healthy green Pacific rainforest plants – you would swear a velociraptor is lurking around the next corner! We have never actually seen a dinosaur, but we have seen tons of other cool creatures while riding here including deer, wood rats, banana slugs, and the rough-skinned newt.
The ultimate place for mountain biking in the area, local riders know this place simply as “Skeggs”, named after Skeggs Point, which is a vista point and the parking lot used for trail access. Trails vary from fire roads so steep they’ll make you want to cry to well marked shady singletrack. With roots, rocks, sharp drops, fast berms, brutal climbs, wicked downhills, and creek crossings this place has everything you could possibly throw at a mountain biker. I have been riding Skeggs for many years and wondered about its past. This place just seems to be steeped in mystery and history.
I heard from other mountain bikers that Skeggs has some really cool history. After one of my rides in the park I decided to find out more information about one of my favourite riding places. With a little digging, I discovered that a DC-6 airplane had crashed deep in the woods of ECDM in October 1953.
The plane was called the “Resolution” and it met its unfortunate demise against the rugged mountainside one foggy morning. The aircraft was flying the last leg of a Sydney-San Francisco flight when it crashed in Skegg’s mountainous terrain on approach to the San Francisco Airport. There was a thick blanket of fog covering the mountainside and the aircraft – carrying 11 passengers and eight crew members – crashed directly into the side of the mountain. There were no survivors. The crash caused a subsequent forest fire and many of the scorched trees are still black today from the intense heat of the fire. Singletrack now runs directly through the spot where the aircraft crashed.
Appropriately, the trail is named “Resolution” after the plane and it’s a very cool, rocky, singletrack trail along a ledge that winds its way up to the top of the park. While riding on the Resolution trail, you will notice the ecosystem changing from forest to chaparral as you enter the old fire zone. If you stop about halfway through, you can still see the debris from the plane that is still there today. Looking around that area, you can actually see the crater-like scar in the hillside that the plane created when it slammed against the mountain.
A monument dedicated to the plane and passengers was erected in 2009 at a vista point near the top of the trail. Flags and flowers are still placed around the monument by well-wishers in tribute to those who died that day.
I also discovered that Skeggs was a motorcycle park in 1970s, which was used by a local off-road club who created the basis for today’s extensive network of mindbogglingly, kick-ass trails that are perfect for thrashing you to a pulp. The extensive logging in the area occurred up until 1988, when the 35 miles of trails were acquired by the Mid-Peninsula Open Space Preserve District who turned it into a park for everyone to enjoy.
Investigate Your Trails
Next time you come back from a ride, take a little time to find out a few interesting facts or trivia about your favourite park. While you are there, take a closer look around and look for the details. As trail users and mountain bikers, it is important for us to be aware of the history and events that may have occurred in places we love to ride. Informing yourself with local history and knowledge will make your ride that much more awesome when you swoop down a singletrack or bust your ass up a climb and know that these incredible trails you are enjoying have a colourful past.
Michelle Lambert is a cycling obsessed resident of the San Francisco Bay area. She loves being outside, training and exploring new trails. Michelle has been racing cross country mountain bikes off and on and 5 years ago she took up cyclocross as well.