Norris Canyon is an oft overlooked rural road surrounded by a sea of Alameda county suburbia. How much longer will it last? Set between Castro Valley and the burgeoning city of San Ramon this idyllic island in the East Bay hills surely makes developers go gaga and slobber like wolves eyeing a fawn. For the time being it’s a convenient escape from neverending encroachment and makes a lovely road to visit by bike.
We’re deep into autumn so the sun sits lower in the sky and casts a warm radiance over the landscape and since we’ve been fortunate to receive copious early season rain, grasses are bursting forth regreening the hillsides and displaying an unreal emerald glow in the sunlight. The valley fog finally receded and brought us clear skies and beautiful sun, making it a perfect day to roam the hills on a bike.
Last Sunday nine of us headed out of Orinda to visit Norris Canyon, six from SF, Eric the lone member from Marin, and then Roger and I from the EB. After a short hop to Moraga and a pit stop at the trailhead restroom we headed south on Pinehurst and then Redwood Road on our way to Castro Valley. Pinehurst and Redwood are roads frequented by East Bay cyclists. Surrounded by park land and EBMUD holdings, no development—for now—can take place leaving the Oakland hills relatively undisturbed and natural despite the mishegoss just over the hills. There is traffic but it’s nothing like what you confront in the rest of the suburbs where people live, work, and shop. Other than the occasional car or motorcycle you’re left to your own thoughts, which are mainly about the vagaries of the multiple ups and downs thrilling your thighs.
Everybody quickly spread out or at least it seemed so from my perspective at the rear. Roger H. surprised me by saying he wanted to do this ride because he’d only just started riding again. We were also pretty beat from hauling buckets of concrete the day before. We happily parked ourselves at the back of the group and ‘took it easy’. Roger S. and Carl kept us company and we chatted away about all things inconsequential.
We regrouped at the Redwood Canyon Golf Course after the stunning and fun descent from Chabot Park and then headed over to Castro Valley to cut through to Crow Canyon Road. Crow Canyon is usually a terrible road for cyclists. At one point in its distant past it was like Norris Canyon. But it is less steep and wider and so became the preferred road that got widened. With explosive growth in the San Ramon valley and the bumper-to-bumper traffic on 680 and 580, it’s now the commuter cut-through to get from there to SF and Silicon Valley. Many moons ago when ignorant I rode Crow Canyon during the commute period. Just once—lesson learned. But on a Sunday it’s much less terrorizing and even halfway reasonable. Fortunately it’s not long before you leave it behind and turn onto Norris Canyon. The transformation is quite abrupt: from cars to almost nothing but quiet. The price you pay for this peace is an increased gradient. But at its worst it’s ‘only’ 11%! Norris Canyon is narrow and lined with oaks and pleasantly shaded, which makes for dappled relief on a hot summer day. As you progress uphill it opens up into grassland, which now is iridescent green.
It’s there we finally caught up with David. He was riding very smartly. Not having the big miles in his legs yet he was going steady the entire time, hardly stopping at all, maybe not burning up the pavement but also not lagging. We stopped at the top to take in the view: green pastures, happy cows, serpentine formations. And below in the distance, lotsa houses! Mark, who lives in the City, commented that we live in ‘paradise’ over here in Contra Costa. Yes, there are still smidgens of it left. Perhaps not for much longer as the imperative to grow relentlessly destroys all the open space here filling it with houses and cars.
The descent is fast and straight (uh, not gaily forward in my book!). I waved the group ahead because I wanted to take my time and not worry about crashing. In a trice we’re in San Ramon. What a contrast. Were we really just minutes from all that tranquility?
In Danville the little burb was hopping with Sunday brunch mania; the parklets were packed with diners. Our lunch stop was Henhouse at the north end of town. We lucked out: there was no one there and the picnic tables outside were free for the taking. The choices for lunch in Danville are practically unending. Domenico’s is the usual club go-to stop. But its popularity means crowds—even with outdoor tables—and a long line, and today it was doing very good business; Sultan’s Kebab we ate it the last time we rolled through town; and alas, Homegrown, that Seattle transplant that I enjoyed every time I ate there, including the 2020 Resolution Ride, didn’t survive the Pandemic. Henhouse is a new addition to the Danville scene and the idea is simple: fried chicken sandwiches. You can get other stuff but there’s no point if you’ve got a killer sandwich and it does. Almost everybody got some version of it and the verdict was it was pretty good. Even the veggie version made with deep fried cauliflower got a thumbs up from Carl. I wouldn’t say it was the best fried chicken sandwich I’ve ever had. But it was also only $7 for a huge, juicy breast on a fluffy brioche bun. Such a deal!
Everybody left (over)full. Usually that means end the ride with a scarf ’n barf: hit the gas on Danville Blvd.! But instead we went easy up the road. We took the shorter way back to Orinda involving a short but stupid incline, Hillgrade. Will instead decided to head straight back to BART. Mark and Carl missed the turn to Rossmoor so Roger gave chase and steered them back on route. It’s a short noodle through Lafayette and we were back in quiet ol’ Orinda. A fine fête on two wheels to greet the new greenery.