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Length 18 miles
Time 2.5 hours
Total Climb 1300 feet
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Sawyer Camp and San Andreas Trails

With the exception of a brief city-street section near the middle that connects these two trails, this is a paved recreational trail ride that's mostly flat. Sawyer Camp Trail and San Andreas Trail are popular with all sorts of trail users, especially on weekends. Providing great views from a number of spots while not involving any climbs to speak of, this is a great ride even for beginner riders on cruiser bikes, never mind beginner mountain bikers. If you're looking for a pretty ride on which you can take grandma as well as your kids on tricycles, you've just found one.

Don't let the ride's length discourage you. The total length does add up when you traverse both trails in their entirety as in this out-and-back route, but you'll be able to turn back at any point along the way (e.g., when the little ones start getting cranky or your parents' joints start acting up) and still get a lot out of the ride. You'll still be able to experience something approximating a ride in the heart of nature (at least during the first part of this route) as opposed to, say, following a narrow creek bed or railroad right-of-way in an urban setting or tracing the semi-industrial shore of the bay, and you'll be doing this on a completely unchallenging ride. There aren't many other ride options that I know of in the Bay Area for which this is equally true.

This ride also presents the opportunity to catch some spectacles staged here by nature that may not be as common elsewhere in our area. One of these is a very "laminar" flow of the marine layer seen coming over the Peninsula ridges into the Crystal Springs and San Andreas reservoirs. This could be described as a giant puffy comforter draped over the ridges or, perhaps more appropriately, a giant white waterfall. You're more likely to see this during the summer and (I believe) typically during the evening. Another such visual treat is the sight of wispy steam rising from the glassy surface of the reservoirs, or hanging just above the water's surface as the thinnest wispy layer of fog. This one is more common during the cold months of the year and only very early in the morning. Catching either one of these depends a lot on the luck of the draw, though, because the same meteorological conditions causing these visual shows also cause a thick fog across the entire area a lot of times.

Another thing to note about this ride is that the two reservoirs that it skirts are situated in the San Andreas Rift Zone. In other words, you'll be riding along a valley created by the San Andreas Fault on this ride. This is also the reason behind the ruler-straight shape of the valley. This ride might as well be called the "San Andreas Fault ride".

Sawyer Camp Trail was apparently the main road between San Francisco and Half Moon Bay some time ago. You can read more about its history at the park website link on your left. Another interesting tidbit associated with this ride is that, if you continue onto the San Andreas Trail portion of this ride, you'll be passing near the "Portola Expedition Camp". This is the site where the Portola Expedition camped, right after becoming the first Europeans to discover the San Francisco Bay by seeing it from Sweeney Ridge. (The historical marker at the spot where that happened is reachable on another bike ride.) The actual spot of the camp is unfortunately under the waters of the San Andreas Reservoir today, but at least you get to stand at the closest spot to it that you can get to on dry land. That expedition was also the one that christened this place "San Andreas".

The ride starts near the Crystal Springs Dam and traces most of the eastern shore of Lower Crystal Springs Reservoir. This stretch of the ride is accompanied by beautiful views of the reservoir. Not long after you leave the northern tip of that reservoir behind, you start traversing a still-shaded "inland" portion of the trail, between Crystal Springs and San Andreas reservoirs. This also happens to be where you'll find the Jepson Laurel. You'll know the place by a small "pocket" on the left-hand side (as you go north) just past a port-a-potty, as well as by a sign with the tree's name on it. This is a spot where you can walk a few steps away from the trail to see this very large laurel (bay) tree, which a plaque claims as the second oldest one in California. Its age is quoted as 600 years. Very old laurel trees are less common than very old redwoods or sequoias, so it's worth a peek. On the other hand, they aren't as impressive to look at as old redwoods or sequoias either but, if you're passing by anyway, why not stop by for a moment?

After you resume your ride north, just before you complete the fifth mile of the ride, the trail starts climbing a little. This lasts for only about a quarter mile and the average grade doesn't even reach 7%. Riders in good shape won't even break a sweat, but any inexperienced members of your group will take notice. At the end of this short climb, you will find the trail dumping you right onto San Andreas Dam, and pretty reservoir views are presented to you again. From here, the remaining portion of the trail keeps climbing moderately almost all the way to where it ends at the intersection of Hillcrest Boulevard and I-280. For an "easy" ride (i.e., if you've really brought your grandma and trike riders along) you might want to turn back from here, although that would only be for the sake of limiting the ride length, since the rest of the ride doesn't present much higher difficulty (if you don't count sharing the road with motor traffic for a short distance).

To do the complete ride, you need to take Skyline Boulevard from Hillcrest Boulevard and follow it up to Larkspur Drive as it parallels I-280. At Larkspur Drive, you can make a left and reach the bike-legal portion of San Andreas trail to ride it a little further north. (The portion of San Andreas Trail between those two roads is not open to bikes.)

San Andreas Trail presents scenery similar to the "lake-shore" portion of Sawyer Camp Trail. The main difference is that this trail follows much more closely to I-280 for most of its length, so freeway traffic noise will be an unpleasant accompaniment to this portion of your ride. Another difference of San Andreas Trail is that it has more ups and downs compared to Sawyer Camp Trail. For any out-of-shape novices in your ride group, this might turn out to be a significant consideration.

San Andreas Trail continues for two miles before it dead-ends. For this particular ride, that dead end is your final turn-around point. You can then retrace your steps back to your parking spot over a marginally easier return ride.

You could, of course, start this ride from its northern end too, or from somewhere around the middle where it connects the two trails across city streets, for that matter. However, the one thing that should make it more desirable to start it from its southernmost point is the fact that parking is considerably easier there. There aren't too many head-in parking spots available at that end of Sawyer Camp Trail, but at least parking along the road northward from there is allowed and you'll see parked cars stretching quite a way north from the Sawyer Camp trailhead on weekends with nice weather.

© Ergin Guney


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