The Roads Less Traveled: Sibley to Fish Ranch

A fire road through Sibley to Fish Ranch Road, a challenging climb.

One of the most popular cycling routes in the East Bay hills is the loop encompassing Pinehurst, Skyline, Wildcat, and San Pablo Dam Road. From the Berkeley side, riders usually head up Tunnel Road or come over Wildcat; from the Contra Costa side, Orinda BART is a convenient starting point. The loop is roughly 30 miles and makes a nice, quick training ride with a mixture of everything—short and medium climbs, fast descents, and a good, long flattish section. Despite being a well-used route, car traffic is usually low except on San Pablo Dam Road (which becomes Camino Pablo and then Moraga Road). The ascent up Canyon and Pinehurst is, by Bay Area standards, pleasantly isolated even though it’s actually embedded in the heart of the suburbs. It makes for a pleasant escape being buried in the redwoods, conveying a false impression that you are far away from civilization and the stress of modern life. If you have attended the Orinda Pool Party ride, then you have already done this loop and know that it is scenic, entertaining, and at times challenging.

The East Bay is fortunate to have a substantial amount of open space and parkland, and we have to thank the East Bay Municipal Utility District, which controls huge acreage of watershed in the East Bay, and the East Bay Regional Park District. In the Berkeley hills EBPRD alone oversees Wildcat, Tilden, Redwood, Joaquin Miller, and Chabot parks. That is almost the entirety of the Berkeley hills ridgeline! This is where East Bay mountain bikers go to play. But what isn’t commonly known is that these parks also have fire roads that road bikes can traverse easily. In fact it is possible to put together an incredible Berkeley hills ride that connects easy fire roads and paved roads from Richmond all the way to Castro Valley, all of them doable on a road bike. One of EBPRD’s smaller and less well-known properties is Sibley Volcanic Regional Preserve, which sits between Redwood and Tilden Park. The entrance is just before where Skyline intersects Grizzly Peak Blvd. as you’re traveling north. This is the water and bathroom stop for the Orinda Pool Party ride and you may not have given it a second thought. However if you have continued to ride north along Grizzly Peak you may have glanced to your right and in the distance seen a dirt road dropping towards Highway 24. That road runs from the entrance of Sibley Preserve down to where Fish Ranch Road enters Highway 24 heading east. In combination with the subsequent climb up Fish Ranch it makes for a short, delightful romp and adds another challenging climb to the Pinehurst loop.

Volcanic Trail, a wide fire road.

It’s possible to ride Sibley-Fish Ranch in either direction. But if you like to climb up Pinehurst then you’re most likely to be starting it at Sibley Volcanic Preserve staging area. There are two paths to enter Sibley, one to the left of the restrooms and one to the right. The left trails are for walkers and equestrians only; instead you will want to take the asphalt road that goes up to the right side of the restrooms. It’s moderately steep but it’s only a quarter-mile, where you’ll have a choice of continuing straight upward on the paved road, taking a fire road to the left, or one to the right. Take the fire road to the left. The two fire roads are actually the same path, the Round Top Loop Trail, however bikes are only allowed on the left branch. For almost a half-mile you’ll be on a flat, wide fire road that has a couple of short rocky sections. The rocks are small but some have sharp angular ridges. So just slow down and take your time rolling between the rocks and avoiding the sharp ones. The narrower your tire, the more carefully I recommend that you wend your way. After that you will intersect the Volcanic Trail, which bears to the left (i.e. north). Volcanic is again a broad, flat fire road with excellent surface. It rolls along a ridge for about 0.6 miles. Eventually you end up at a large flat area, what appears to have been in another age a parking lot. Here you will find the beginning of Quarry Road, which is paved. It drops precipitously through a few hairpins for about a quarter-mile. A half-mile later you’ll arrive at the Old Tunnel Road Staging Area. The total distance from entering Sibley is only about 2.2 miles.

Hairpin descent down Quarry.

After going through the gate at the Old Tunnel Staging Area, drop down Old Tunnel Road to where it ends at Fish Ranch. (Sidenote: Old Tunnel Road is the road to the original tunnel from the Berkeley side over to Orinda and which was later replaced by the current Caldecott Tunnel. Alas, the old tunnel was closed, for it would have made a fantastic cycling route to Oakland.)

Now here is where the fun begins! You won’t have any more fire road but instead you’ll have a relentless and steep paved climb up Fish Ranch to Grizzly Peak Blvd., where you reconnect with the Pinehurst loop. It’s less than a mile to the intersection with Grizzly Peak Blvd. but the average grade is 9.5% with the middle section hitting 11%. There is a decent shoulder but there usually isn’t much traffic exiting Hwy. 24 and heading up Fish Ranch. Of course when you get to the intersection with Grizzly you will still have to climb up to Lomas Contadas, about another 360 vertical feet over a little more than a mile. So even though the hard stuff is over with Fish Ranch, you had better have some gas in your tank for the “easy” 6% grade!

The total distance from the Sibley entrance to the top of Fish Ranch is 3.3 miles; if you were to stay on Grizzly Peak Blvd. the distance would have been 2.6 miles. So, the minor increase in overall distance—about 0.7 miles—is more than made up for by the serenity of riding in Sibley and the feeling of conquering Fish Ranch.

All the East Bay parks are heavily used on weekends. While in Sibley be sure to watch for walkers and their dogs. Dogs need only be under voice control and are usually off leash. Although Sibley is open to equestrians, I have yet to encounter horses there. But if you do see equestrians, keep in mind that some horses are skittish of bicycles. So slow down and stop until the riders let you know it’s safe to proceed or until they pass.

You can see the route and cue sheet here.