Reservoirs and Water Temples in Calaveras Valley

26 Oct

There’s a famous quote: “The history of the West is the history of water.” In semi-arid land like California, those who controlled the water controlled the population. When we planned our ride around Calaveras Reservoir, it was for the scenery, however, not because it was a major water source for San Francisco dating back to the mid-1800s.

From the outskirts of Milpitas, we climbed straight uphill through horse farms and a county park with a green golf course that stands in sharp contrast with the surrounding brown hillsides just starting to recover from the dry season. After the final assault up a steep wall, we got our first glimpse of the reservoir. The water level was surprisingly low, given the exceptionally wet previous rainy season. I later learned that due to seismic concerns for the dam since the 1989 earthquake, the reservoir is restricted to 40% capacity.

Calaveras Road wends itself in and out among the canyons high above the reservoir. Since the road doesn’t directly connect anything, its travelers are all joyriders: bicycles, motorcycles, sport car enthusiasts and Sunday drivers. Beautifully remote and an ideal route for a rouleur like me with its rolling terrain.

From there we followed Calaveras Creek down to the town of Sunol, home of the Sunol water temple, which preceded the Pulgas water temple on Canada Road by 20 years. Who woulda thunk there was more than one water temple? And what’s the point of a water temple anyway?

Well, in an area that gets less than 15 inches of rain a year, a water temple honoring a carefully planned and expensively built aqueduct makes a lot of sense. Water is life, and therefore worthy of veneration. This particular water temple is located at the nexus of three aqueducts that once provided San Francisco with half its water supply, before the famous Hetch Hetchy aqueduct was built. (Look carefully to see the temple)

These days more people visit the Sunol store, home of all kinds of junk food and a customer-only port-a-potty. I’ll just write off my Drumstick ice cream cone as a small price to pay for a bathroom access.

From Sunol we headed back up to the reservoir, with a side trip to the Sunol-Ohlone Wilderess, yet another fabulous, but underutilized county park. It’s worth a visit if you’ve never been there: wildflowers, golden eagles, and large rocks in Alameda Creek deemed “Little Yosemite”, all feeding into a remote feeling you’d never expect so close to the East Bay.

Although it’s smack dab in the middle of a major watershed, the park has to truck bottled water in for campers. That’s how water is in a dry land. It flows uphill to money, and unfortunately a county park doesn’t have much pull.

How much do you know about the water that flows through your tap? Where does it come from? Where does it go?

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1 Comment

Posted by on October 26, 2011 in Backroads, Local History


One response to “Reservoirs and Water Temples in Calaveras Valley

  1. Rachel Unger

    October 27, 2011 at 8:11 am

    Given that the rainy season is coming, they’ve probably also drained it to allow for capacity for this season’s water. Calero, Almaden, Guadalupe, Stevens Creek, Uvas, Chesbro – even San Luis – they’re all lowered right now for that reason.

    The ride up to Lexington is another pretty ride, as long as you’re not on a strictly road bike. There’s a patch of the Los Gatos Creek trail that’s rock/gravel/mud just before the reservoir itself that would be a challenge on skinny, smooth tires.


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