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South Upper Truckee Road

Distance: 11.5-mile loop
Elevation gain: 1080 ft

This is the only ride in the immediate Tahoe area in Bestrides.  That’s because I don’t like the riding around Tahoe.  I know it’s legendary, especially the ride around the lake.  The century that circumnavigates the lake is one of the most popular centuries in the country.  I’ve ridden in the Tahoe area a lot, including around the lake several times, and in my opinion it all sucks.  The roads, at least in summer, are insanely crowded.  The ride around the lake is 1/3 faux Vegas, 1/3 Tahoe City gridlock, 1/6 a slow tedious climb up Hwy 28 to 50 on a shoulder amidst whizzing cars, and 1/6 actually not bad stuff around Emerald Bay, if you don’t mind narrow, rough roads with no shoulder crowded with tourists gawking at the scenery.  But aren’t the views of the lake majestic?  Yes, for the stretch around Emerald Bay.  The rest of the loop, the lake can’t be seen.

The roads radiating out from the lake— 89 and 267 to the north, , 431 and 50 to the east, 89 to the south—are all straight, monotonous shoulder rides with lots of traffic (admittedly 89 to Truckee is easy and pretty—the rest are tough climbs).   Hwy 50 towards Sacramento would be a lovely ride if it weren’t heavily trafficked—I’ve never seen a bike on it or heard of anyone riding it.

OK, but what about the bike paths?  Lake Tahoe is bike path central.  There’s a path that runs along the road on the west side of the lake from Tahoe City to Sugar Pine Point, a path that runs along the Truckee River almost to Squaw Valley, a path that runs along the south shore from near the Y (the Hwy 89/Hwy 50 intersection) past the Tallac Historic Site, and a path that runs south from the lake to Meyers along Hwy 50.  They’re all fun at 8 mph on a cruiser or mountain bike, but they’re too small-scale for a road bike.  The prettiest by far is the Truckee River trail, and in season it’s packed with pedestrians.

Then there’s the Fallen Leaf Lake Road, a 10-mile out-and-back to a famously lovely little lake with a nice waterfall, Glen Alpine Falls, on the back side.  It’s in all the guides to Tahoe-area riding, and it’s the worst ride I’ve ever done on a bike—one lane of atrocious pavement that’s busy, even in the off-season, with cars, half of them in the act of backing up and pulling off the road to make room for the other half going the other way.  I did this ride in November, when everything around the lake was closed, and the car traffic was still awful—on some stretches I had to pull off the road every minute or two to let a car pass me.

But if you’re a Californian who likes to travel you’re going to spend time around Tahoe, and even hell has one good road ride, so luckily there’s South Upper Truckee Road.  I’d be tempted to add the ride to Bestrides on the name alone (I wish it were Old South Upper Truckee Road, but one can’t have everything—as we shall see, it’s actually Lower South Upper Truckee Rd.).  But it’s also a very sweet ride.  It’s only 11.5 miles long, but in that space you get a stiff 3.5-mile climb, gorgeous scenery, serious solitude, and a fast, straight descent.  The road surface on SUT can be rough, so our route doesn’t descent it, but instead comes down Luther Pass Rd., which is a wide-open, straight 35-45-mph shot.  The scenery is typical Tahoe aspen, granite, and pine—gorgeous—but the road is essentially one lane and you are IN the landscape in a way you never can be on larger roads.  It isn’t a long enough ride to fill a day, so do it and drive south to the better rides around Markleeville and Hope Valley.

November proved a little late for the annual aspen color display

Park at the intersection of Hwy 50 and South Upper Truckee Road, just west of Hwy 89 and the agricultural inspection station.  There’s plenty of roadside dirt on SUT.  For 3.2 miles you’re on flat ground among houses as you follow the Upper Truckee River, the upper reaches of the river that runs out of Tahoe and down to the town of Truckee.  Note how the first houses were built closest to Hwy 50, then later ones added further out, so as you ride they get newer and bigger, and still bigger, until the last house is spanking new and comically huge.  You go through some nice aspen groves which must be stunning during the fall color (I was too late).  You pass the clearly marked trailhead for the Hawley Grade National Recreation Trail, which is reputed to be nice.

Boulder heaven

Soon after the houses, the road turns up, and is constantly 8-12% for the next 3.5 miles.  These miles are why you’ve come.  Since Hwy 89 goes to the same place, there is no reason why a car should be on this road and you should have it to yourself.  It twists and turns deliciously, the road surface has some nastiness, and it gets very narrow—It’s signed “one-lane” at the top.  This is about as close to a mountain-bike trail ride as pavement can get.  I love the scenery—scattered pines and boulders.  This is probably the best boulder ride west of Boulder.  At the bottom of the climb you pass the downhill end of a busy mountain bike trail, which may involve you in some traffic.

After 4.6 miles you meet up again with Hwy 89, and you could turn L and ride the rocket ship back to your car, but our route crosses 89 and continues up a completely unsigned road with an intimidating gate (open except in winter) that is in fact more of SUT—it is quite literally Upper South Upper Truckee Road.  Continuing on has its risks—this 1.2-mile leg goes by a very large campground, then passes Big Meadows, perhaps the biggest of the trailheads on the Tahoe Rim Trail.  So I would imagine it’s hectic in summer.  I did it in November, and it was deserted.  It’s also utterly delightful, with all the virtues of lower Upper, but windier and with much better pavement.  It also has the novelty of being utterly unsigned at both ends—given the activity along this road, that’s inexplicable.

When upper Upper runs into Hwy 89 (again) at 5.8 miles, turn downhill, to the R (it’s easy to go the wrong way), and strap in for the 3-mile dead straight 7% descent, then 3 miles of flats that take you to 89.

 

 

Adding Miles: See the beginning of this post.

At the top of this ride you’re 2/3 of the way to Luther Pass, after which it’s a straight, fast descent to Hope Valley and all the Bestrides riches in the area.

A ride slightly out of the Tahoe area, not quite Bestrides-worthy but totally worth doing once, is Donner Pass Road, which parallels Hwy 80 from Cisco Grove to Truckee.  It’s 23 miles one way, so it makes a nice out-and-back with one significant hill.  From Cisco Grove it’s 13 miles of steady, mild climbing to the Donner Summit Bridge, where there’s a vista point with an unforgettable view of Donner Lake below you, then the one thrilling moment in the ride, an 1100-ft drop through two big esses to the lake.  Donner Pass Road follows the north shore of the lake, and it’s fine, but I prefer taking South Shore Dr. on the other side, which is quieter.  Both routes are lined with vacation homes.  South Shore goes directly through Donner Memorial State Park, then rejoins Donner Pass Rd., which goes through unappealing modern Truckee and ends in the old, charming downtown.

Old Meyers Grade, aka Lincoln Highway Trail, forks off South Upper Truckee Rd. shortly after the beginning of our ride and wanders through back country, crosses Hwy 50, and continues.  It’s reported to be worth riding, but I haven’t done it.

By the way there is a North Upper Truckee Rd., almost directly across Hwy 50 from the beginning of South Upper Truckee, but it isn’t worth riding—it looks appealing from the highway, but it’s soon mired in mountain subdivisions.

Afterthoughts: Once back at the intersection of 89 and 50, you can do a very short ride up 50 toward the lake and eat at Pretty Odd Wieners, a highly rated hot dog stand (actually a trailer) in a gas station parking lot on the R.  Or a stone’s throw up 50 from the intersection on the L is Burger Lounge, whose burgers are the standard by which all others are measured.

 

Adelaida Road/Chimney Rock Road

Distance: 23.5-mile loop
Elevation gain: 1980 ft

The country west of Paso Robles is a network of sweet, meandering roads with mostly vineyards for backdrop.  This route is the best loop ride in the area, a charming, pretty, fairly easy ramble that includes the best 6 miles of road in all of Paso Robles, and as joyful a 6-mile stretch as any ride in Bestrides.  But you must ride the loop in our direction—going the other way reduces the 6-mile stretch from magnificent to merely very good.

Adelaida is a fairly major artery through the Paso wine country, so traffic is an issue.  You’re going to meet a lot of cars if you ride during rush hour or on a weekend.  I drove it at 9 am on a weekday and had to pull over frequently to let mobs of cars pass.  Then I rode it at 11 am on a weekday and pretty much had the road to myself, seeing only the occasional farm or service vehicle.

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Santa Rita Road/Cypress Mountain Road

Distance: 45.5-mile loop
Elevation gain: 4860 ft

This ride has a lot of dirt—the only largely dirt ride in Bestrides.  I don’t do dirt, and my bike wasn’t made for dirt, but this is doable dirt as long as you have 25 mm tires, and the pleasures of the route make the dirt worth enduring.   Beyond that, Bestrides has two rides in Paso Robles and a ride in Cambria, and it would be lovely if there was a way to ride from one to the other without the grim tedium of Hwy 46.  This is that way.

The route involves two pretty, deliciously isolated stretches of dirt road, both of which climb up and over a summit, one short tough pavement climb, a nice descent on one of Paso Robles’s classic wine trails, and some of the most spectacular vistas in all of Bestrides.  There is one mile of smooth but steep dirt climbing (10%+).

The loop can be started at any point, so just decide where you want to end up and start there.  But don’t go counterclockwise—Cypress Mountain Dr. is much tougher going that way, and the climb on Santa Rita much longer.  And don’t attempt this ride if the ground is wet—the roads will be impassible.

This ride can easily be cut in half if you aren’t up for a long day—just ride what’s above or below Hwy 46, whichever half appeals to you, then return via Hwy 46, which is big, boring, and relatively easy.  Santa Rita Rd. is prettier and easier; Cypress Mountain Dr. has the views.  If I was doing the Cypress Mt. half, I’d ride out Hwy 46 and back on CMR.  If you’re saying, “I can do 45 miles standing on my head,” remember that dirt is twice as tiring as pavement, climbing on dirt even more so.

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Shotgun Creek Road

Distance: 29-mile loop
Elevation gain: 2670 ft

This ride may not be for everyone.   It’s a rough and tough little loop with one hard climb, pavement that is consistently poor (not broken—just rough), a descent so steep you have to brake constantly, and 15 miles of shoulder riding.  It’s more work than the elevation numbers suggest, because most of the 2670 ft of gain is in one 4-mile climb, and the lone descent is so jarring that it beats you up.  Still, it has its merits.  The back road half is often beautifully wooded, the isolation is remarkable (3 vehicles in 15 miles), and even the shoulder riding is through lovely scenery.  At points the road is so narrow and the solitude so extreme that you’re as close to trail hiking as you can get on a road bike.  So it’s a ride where it’s less about the riding and more about being in this extraordinary place.

I wouldn’t do this ride without at least some sunshine.  The primary reward here is the magical woods, and you need light coming through the trees to get the full effect.

Navigation is in one sense easy, because there are few ways to go wrong, but in another sense challenging because there’s no cell service (so no Googlemaps) and several completely unmarked forks, and many of the roads are unnamed or confusingly named on maps.  So I’m going to be particularly specific about directions.  I’d carry a map, not because you’re going to get lost, but because it’s comforting when you’re alone for mile after mile.

See note about OHV traffic in Afterthoughts below.

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Mountain View Road

Distance:  50 miles out and back
Elevation gain: 8000 ft

This is one of seven rides (all detailed in the Adding Miles section below) that are worth doing around Boonville, a charming little town with good food and an interesting history, so I encourage you to find a place to stay in the area, make a cycling holiday out of it, and do all of them.

This ride is tough.  It may be one of the two hardest climbs in Bestrides (the other being Gilbraltar Road).  And the road surface is mostly shaky.   And there are only two rather ordinary “views,” despite the road’s name—the rest of the time, all you can see is the greenery on either side of the road.  The scenery is typical coastal forest—no better, no worse.  So it’s mostly about bragging rights, the sense of adventure, and the two charming towns at either end.  Philo-Greenwood Road just to the north is easier and prettier and has a better surface. Continue reading

Mendocino/Comptche

Distance: 46-mile loop
Elevation gain: 2083 ft

This may be the prettiest wooded ride, mile for mile, in California.  And it has the selling point of starting and ending in downtown Mendocino, one of my favorite places.  It climbs and descents up and over a summit among simply perfect piney woods, passes a classic country store, descends gradually along the Navarro River and its stunning riparian redwoods, and ends with a pretty but trafficky leg on Hwy 1 that’s thick with lovely, charming inns and one State Park to stop and explore.  The road surface is glass, except on Flynn Creek Road, where it’s OK to poor.   It rides equally well in both directions—see Which Way to Go? below for the comparative virtues of the two routes.  I’ve arbitrarily picked the clockwise route to describe.  It’s a bit harder than Mapmyride’s elevation total would suggest—I clocked 3300 ft of gain—but it’s never steeper than moderate.

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Branscomb Road

Distance:  50 miles out and back
Elevation gain: 3215 ft

(A Best of the Best ride)

This is one of my favorites.  There’s a purity about it, because you begin at one end of a road and ride that road until it ends.  I found it via my favorite ride-finding technique:  I looked at the AAA road map, spotted a thin, wiggly line, and said, “That’s got to be a great ride!”  It’s one of several rides in this list that begin at the California coast and climb straight up, usually through lush ferny coastal rainforest.  In this case, the climb is 7 miles of demanding (often 8-10%) but thoroughly rewarding pitch, after which the road rolls through pretty forests and meadows to the turn-around point in Laytonville on Highway 101.  Along the way you get an huge old lumber mill, a general store that served the mill and still functions, and an exquisite little stand of redwoods in a State Recreation Area.

Part of the joy here is that you’re in on a secret.  Branscomb Rd is almost unknown to cyclists—I’ve never seen another bike on it, and few cars—partly because it leaves highway 1 from a point in the middle of nowhere, and partly because until about 2011 it was largely dirt.  Which means the pavement was (in 2011) pristine, and is still mostly good.

The ride works well in either direction.  If you start from Laytonville you put the climb in the middle of the ride when you’re warmed up.  You also stand a better chance of avoiding the chronic morning fog near the ocean (see Afterthoughts below).  But you put the descent before the climb, which always feels wrong to me. Continue reading

Avenue of the Giants

Distance: 32 miles out and back
Elevation gain: 1780 ft

This, along with the Golden Gate Bridge loop ride, is unlike any other ride in Bestrides.org.  It’s easy and almost flat and can easily be done by a non-cyclist on a rental cruiser (ignore Mapmyride’s elevation profile—most of the “climbing” is 1-3%).  The appeal is entirely in the scenery—you’re riding through some of the greatest redwood forests left on earth.  It’s not my favorite Redwoods ride—that would be Big Basin, which in addition to Redwoods has wonderful climbing and descending—but it’s certainly the ride with the biggest, most awe-inspiring trees.  (There is a list of Redwood rides on the Best of the Best page.)  It’s in Humboldt Redwoods State Park, but the car traffic isn’t bad—since the Avenue is paralleled by the main highway just a stone’s throw to the west, all through traffic is diverted and you’ll share the road with the few cars hip enough to linger.     Continue reading

Indian Valley

Distance: 68 miles out and back
Elevation gain: 2064

There are more awe-inspiring rides, but there is no prettier ride in California than this one.  It’s a short form of the Indian Valley Century.   It goes along the lip of two flat, postcard-perfect valleys framed by mountains (with snowy peaks, if you time it right), and you’re just a bit up off the valley floor, so you get all the scenery without the flat—the road bobs and weaves and rises and drops and thus provides you with a delightfully varied road contour.  Then the outward leg ends with a ten-mile climb that’s entirely doable and parallels a tumbling, rocky creek.  I’ve cut off two loops from the century route I don’t need, but I’ll tell you they’re there and what you’re missing.   All the significant climbing is in the last 10 miles out, so if you skip it the ride is easy. Continue reading

Wooden Valley/Pleasants Valley

Distance: 81-mile loop with a spur
Elevation gain: 3370 ft

The Mix Canyon leg of this ride is covered thoroughly in words and pictures at toughascent.com.

This loop goes through the best riding in the area between the Wine Country and Davis.  I learned it from my Sacramento bike club, the Bike Hikers, who ride it every year.  It’s got two great climbs, two scenic farming valleys, and an unpleasant stretch through the urban streets of Fairfield to get from one valley to the other.   With the exception of Fairfield, it’s all very pretty.

Navigation is tricky through Fairfield.  Note the road condition alert regarding Cantelow Road in Afterthoughts.

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