Updated: May 1, 2018
In the rolling hills above a moderate-sized town called Redwood City lies a very special place for mountain bikers. I call it special because this place is arguably the best riding that the San Francisco Bay Area has to offer. It’s named the El Corte de Madera Creek Open Space Preserve. To fully appreciate this riding destination, it’s important to first understand a little of its history.
Redwood City is about halfway between San Francisco and San Jose on the S.F. Peninsula. It was first incorporated in 1856 and was named for the logs that were removed from the nearby forest and shipped out of it's port. At one time, gigantic 2000-year-old redwood trees reigned supreme in this area of the Santa Cruz Mountains. You know, the type that California is famous for. Unfortunately, the zealousness of the past logging industry led to the cutting down of these beauties. They needed to meet the demands of the San Francisco housing construction boom that resulted from the wealth created by the California gold rush. During the last few decades of the 1800’s, loggers cleared out almost all of these majestic redwoods from the area. There's only a couple remainders, pictured here. Sadly but ironically, the majority of the houses and buildings made from this wood burned down as a result of the big 1906 earthquake.
The name “El Corte de Madera” literally translates to “the wood cutting place” in Spanish. But to the local mountain biking community, this park is known as “Skeggs”, named after the nearby parking lot and former lookout spot (now overgrown) called Skeggs Point. Even though the ancient redwood trees are almost all gone from this preserve, good sized 2nd generation trees, (and even 3rd generation) are growing throughout, many of them right alongside the old sawed-off tree stumps. This is due to the strong regenerative power of the redwoods to push new sprouts from the root system. Even the tree's botanical name, Sempervirens, means ever living.
This is a forest recovering from the clear cutting of the past. But make no mistake, this place is gorgeous. When you enter this world of nature, the serenity of the streams, ferns, moss, redwoods, and Douglas firs will make you forget that you’re so close to civilization. All of this is intertwined with an abundance of fantastic singletrack among some old logging roads.
The park website claims there are 36 miles of trails. Many of them connect to each other to form an expansive network that allows visitors to plan especially fun rides. The singletracks are mostly flowy and loamy. A few of the stand-outs are the El Corte de Madera Creek trail, the Tafoni, the Manzanita, the Giant Salamander, the Steam Donkey, and the Blue Blossom. They're all super fun to ride and are sure to provide a better-than-a-rollercoaster experience. If you have excellent technical riding abilities, there are a number of trails to test yourself on. The lower Fir Trail and the Resolution Trail have challenges that will not disappoint. At the bottom of the valley, the North Leaf Trail and the South Leaf Trail are fairly technical with challenging sections of rocks and roots combined with a series of short, punchy climbs. Riders of all skill levels will find whatever they need to leave fully satisfied.
All rides begin from the road at the top of the ridgeline, called Skyline Boulevard. From there, most of the trails drop deep down into a valley. Super fun to go down, but you pay the price with some tough climbs on the return. A simple down and back loop could be eleven miles and 1700 feet. If you’re not a big climber, you can stay near the top and ride the trails that (for the most part) run alongside the hill. This could entail eight miles and 800 feet. For those that enjoy long, tough rides, a 25 mile ride with a strenuous 4500 feet of elevation gain is definitely possible and is a common type of ride for some of the Skeggs regulars. When heading down into the valley, it's generally best to plan a route that descends the singletracks and climbs back up the old logging roads.
Although this is a multi-use trail system that allows hiking, biking, and horseback riding, mountain bikers are the dominant users. It’s extremely rare to see horseback riders, and hikers usually stay near the trailheads. When you dive deep into the preserve, you’ll only come across an occasional mountain biker. In fact, you could easily ride for an hour or more and not see anybody, even on the busiest weekends.
Getting to this park is fairly easy and any map application will direct you there. There are two parking lots and a designated location for roadside parking. The trails are well marked by signage, but a digital trail map and on-site paper maps are also avalable. The weather here is similar to the Mediterranean: moderate in the spring and fall, and a little warmer in the summer. Even on the warmest summer days the shade from the canopy will keep you from overheating. Winter can be a hit and miss depending on rainfall and cold temperatures that range from the 30’s to the 50’s Fahrenheit.
If you’re ever in the Bay Area to do some riding, Skeggs should be at the top of your list. Afterward, grab some post-ride grub and brews at the famous Alice’s Restaurant which is just another mile or so south on Skyline Boulevard.