One of the Hardest Road Climbs Around: Saratoga, California’s Bohlman Road/On Orbit Drive

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By John Summerson — Looking for something a bit different as an uphill challenge? Perhaps short and sweet? If you find yourself in the vicinity of San Jose, California then Bohlman Road/On Orbit Drive might just be what you are looking for. In a region where ascents are common, this one stands out as one of the most difficult in the United States over a similar distance. Don’t let its short (2.3 miles) length fool you, as almost the entire route is over double-digit grade. Throw in occasional traffic and multiple tight switchbacks and it’s a truly demanding hill climb.

A brief shallow start soon becomes more difficult as the road swings first left and then right. As you make your way up the hill between interesting residences, the slope quite suddenly steepens. Continuing uphill within a tunnel of trees, riders soon encounter a series of tight switchbacks; at mile 1.1 there is a short stretch of 20% grade. This is the beginning of one of the most difficult miles of climbing in the United States.

Severe grade at the start of On Orbit Drive. Photo by John Summerson

Right after this particularly steep section, a tight left-hand turn with shallow grade allows riders to catch their breath. The slope then gradually steepens again up to a ‘T’ intersection with On Orbit Drive. At the junction, turn left on On Orbit to quickly find eve steeper grades. If the ascent is too much at this point it is possible to bail out to the right to continue uphill on the far less steep Bohlman Road.

The trees give way here to allow a bit of a view. Pedaling then eases briefly, but riders will quickly encounter an even more severe slope that includes another 20% ramp. This is part of the steepest sustained climb on the hill, forcing most riders out of the saddle to stand on the pedals. The grade eases a bit near the crest of On Orbit at mile 2.2. Turn left on Apollo Heights Court (going straight takes riders back to Bohlman Road) for one more sharp but short section of uphill before the climb mercifully dead ends.

As mentioned, Bohlman Road/On Orbit Drive is one of the steepest climbs in California, competing with Yosemite’s Old Priest Grade for the title of the steepest climb of any reasonable distance in the state. Regardless of how it might be ranked, riders should eat their Wheaties for this one.

The challenging descent is also one of the most dangerous in the area, so riders may be better off skipping On Orbit Drive on the way down and using the full length of Bohlman Road to get back to the bottom of the hill.

Crux stretch – A half-mile long section beginning at mile 1.6 averages over 16% with a dab of 20% along the way is a key to the summit.

Directions – From the intersection of Route 9 and 6th Street in Saratoga, California, head south on 6th Street to Bohlman Road (cemetery ahead and to the right). At the intersection, turn right on to Bohlman Road. The listed climb begins shortly just before the road turns to the left.

Statistics

Total elevation: 1,569 ft Length: 2.3 miles

Top elevation: 2,148 ft Average grade: 12.9%

Minimum grade: 2% Maximum grade: 21%

Distance > 5%: 2.1 miles Distance > 10%: 1.9 miles

Steepest mile: 14.6% Steepest 3 miles: N/A

John Summerson is the author of The Complete Guide to Climbing by Bike book series including 50 Climbs by Bike in Utah and the revised 2nd Edition of The Complete Guide to Climbing by Bike in California which includes all of the giant ascents within Owens Valley

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