With skies their brightest blue, fields popping out all over in electric greens, and that invigorating spring charge to the air, the time to get outside is now. But spring is never the time to go anywhere fast: This is the season of the journey, not the destination.
Take in the best of spring's new growth on this away-from-everything drive from San Jose east across the top of Mt. Hamilton and then north to Livermore Valley in 65 curvaceous miles. You certainly will want to take your time: The route up Mt. Hamilton from San Jose reportedly has 365 turns, one for every day of the year (we lost count sometime in March). On a clear day, the view can stretch east all the way to the Sierra. In closer, look for blue lupine, red Indian paintbrush, and gold California poppies.
If you're taking to heart the take-your-time philosophy, stop at Joseph D. Grant County Park for a leg stretcher along Yerba Buena Trail. It's an easy half-mile walk to little McCreery Lake. On a quiet spring morning, we saw goldfields, ducks, and a quick-moving coyote along this path.
From Hamilton's top, Santa Clara Valley's office towers and apartment buildings disappear beneath trees and grassy ridge after grassy ridge. It's worth touring Lick Observatory, where University of California researchers study the stars.
Heading east and down the less- traveled side of the mountain, you will see slopes of gray pines giving way to live oak woodlands. Crossing into San Antonio Valley, you might spy herds of elk; you're not likely to spot many other people, though. The valley offers a rare opportunity to view uninterrupted stretches of oaks, just now leafing out to cover their clusters of winter mistletoe.
The Junction restaurant is a burger stand that's in the middle of nowhere, at the intersection of Del Puerto Canyon and Mines Roads (just as San Antonio Valley Road becomes Mines Road), about 25 miles west of Patterson and I-5. It's perfectly placed midway on the drive for the very moment when your craving for a burger and a Coke rumbles into a roar.
Continuing the drive north, the road leaves San Antonio Valley and climbs and drops on a scenic roller coaster. The final 15 miles hug the hills in the narrow, steep Arroyo Mocho canyon. On the last descent, the view widens again as you enter the green valley of Livermore's wine country.
Just at the edge of civilization, stop on Mines Road to toast spring at Murrieta's Well Winery, which dates from the 1870s. From the back deck, you can gaze at the hills you just traveled and raise a glass to savoring the long route.
From its juncture with Alum Rock Ave. in east San Jose, Mt. Hamilton Rd. (State 130) climbs 19 miles up one of the Bay Area's highest peaks (4,209 feet), which is crowned by Lick Observatory. From here, the road drops east, winding down the mountain's broad shoulders 47 miles to Livermore as it becomes San Antonio Valley Rd. and then Mines Rd. In Livermore, at road's end, take a right to remain on Mines Rd. (after 31/2 miles, you'll pass Murrieta's Well Winery on your left). To get to downtown Livermore and I-580 at its north edge, take a left onto Tesla Rd. (which becomes Livermore Ave.) and follow it about 4 miles north.
WHERE TO EAT
The Junction French fries, burgers, and other grill food. $; closed Wed; 30 miles south of Livermore at 47300 Mines Rd.; 408/897-3148.
WHAT TO DO
Joseph D. Grant County Park Mostly easy and moderate hiking around small lakes and across oak woodlands. $5 per vehicle, campsites from $12; 8 miles east of Alum Rock Ave. on Mt. Hamilton Rd.; 408/ 274-6121.
Lick Observatory Tours of the observatory include a 15- minute talk on the structure's history and a look at the 36-inch refractor. The visitor center has astronomy-related gifts and books. The building also houses exhibits of local photographs and space-inspired paintings. Top of Mt. Hamilton Rd./State 130; www.ucolick.org; 408/ 274-5061.
Murrieta's Well Winery Sample Livermore-grown Semillon, Tempranillo, and Zinfandel in French-, Spanish-, and Portuguese-inspired blends. $5 tasting; 11-4:30 Wed-Sun; 3005 Mines Rd., Livermore; www.murrietaswell.com; 925/456-2390.