Back in 1880 the Aptos Lumber Company set up the Loma Prieta sawmill to log present-day Forest of Nisene Marks State Park. It wasn’t long before residents of Santa Clara Valley started looking for a direct route to the mill.
Some enterprising citizens built a road starting in Los Gatos at least as early as 1915 according to a USGS map, but it may have been a trail before that. It climbed the beautiful Los Gatos Creek Canyon and headed steeply up present-day Soda Springs Road. From there it followed a series of ridges over to today’s Highland Way and then descended to Aptos on San Jose-Soquel Road or on what’s now Aptos Creek Fire Road.
Ranchers and farmers had already settled the rugged hills, growing chestnuts, grapes, apples, and more. They welcomed Loma Prieta Road as a commercial route. With the advent of cars, motorists explored Loma Prieta and Mount Umunhum via Loma Prieta Road, enjoying spectacular views of Santa Clara Valley and the Santa Cruz Mountains.
Over the decades the first- and second-generation of mountain residents died off, and their children had no interest in scratching out a living in the remote mountains subject to fires and assorted other hazards. They sold the land and often subdivided.
In the 1950s a different sort of people moved into the mountains, loners, nature lovers, commuters looking to save a buck. By the 1970s the Sierra Azul area had many homes built without permits. Illegal agriculture became a cash crop in the Sierra Azul.
The Federal government moved in as well, building a radar tower atop Mt. Umunhum in 1957. Land was “purchased” from property owner Loren McQueen, laying the foundation for a feud between McQueen and the Midpeninsula Regional Open Space District (MROSD) that went on for decades. McQueen owned the mountain tops of Umunhum and Thayer.
A year later in 1958, Jobst Brandt,22, an adventurous cyclist from Palo Alto, rode his bike on a grand loop of about 80 miles, taking Alpine Road to Page Mill Road, south on Skyline Boulevard, Summit Road, up Mt. Bache Road, Loma Prieta Road and down the newly paved Mt. Umunhum Road. He also drove the route in his car. It would be the first of many annual rides following the same route. By the early 1970s, dozens of cyclist tagged along with Jobst to enjoy the wild and scenic Sierra Azul on Loma Prieta Road.
Most riders raced. Jobst and friends rode their racing bikes with glue-on sew-up tires throughout the Santa Cruz Mountains, exploring dirt roads and trails before the MROSD had been formed and well before the mountain bike.
When MROSD wound up buying the base in 1983, McQueen must have felt it was a shady deal. He obstructed the open space district at every turn for the rest of his life, filing a lawsuit that went on for years, documented by a government website, and closing Mt. Umunhum Road.
While the district was battling McQueen, a tragic yet fortuitous event occurred in 1985 with the Lexington Fire that consumed 42 homes, 14,000 acres and displaced hundreds who would never return.
MROSD, already on a buying spree in the Sierra Azul, stepped in an bought up many properties from landowners eager to sell.
Starting in the 1980s, the few remaining residents who encountered Jobst on Loma Prieta Road took out their frustrations on him, claiming the road was private, but Jobst knew better. Santa Clara County and California fire department graders maintained the road as a fire break. While they never claimed the road, they didn’t have to. It had been in public use for nearly a century. More to come…