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.
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
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 raparian 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 only OK. It rides equally well in both directions—see Afterthoughts for the comparative virtues of the two routes. I’ve arbitrarily picked the clockwise route to describe.
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
Distance: 32 miles out and back
Elevation gain: 1780 ft
This is unlike any other ride in this list. It’s short, easy, and almost flat. 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
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
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.
Distance: 26-mile loop
Elevation gain: 1410 ft
This loop consists of roads covered by the Wildflower Century, my hometown cycling club’s annual spring ride, and since 4000 cyclists do it every year there’s a good chance you’ve been over these roads. But this loop goes backwards to the Wildflower direction, and it’s a wholly different, and better, ride. It’s got a lot of points of interest besides the riding—a famous dam, century-old olive orchards, a state-of-the-art sustainable farm, a covered bridge, nationally renowned wildflowers in season, and two old Gold Rush towns complete with historical plaques and one-room museums.
This is the rare Bestrides ride where you have some hard choices about which way to ride the route—see Alternate routes below.
Do not do this ride on a weekend day during wildflower season—the roads are absolutely unsafe for cyclists (see more below).
Distance: 18 miles out and back
Elevation gain: 2660 ft
This little gem is one of the sweetest 18-mile rides you’ll ever do. It’s a delightful roller-coaster back-country climb on glassy road surfaces through pretty foothills farms and woodland to a spot where the road turns to dirt. The road contour is constantly varied, up and down and back and forth, with no two climbs or curves the same, and it’s good riding in both directions. It’s also a workout—you’ll log almost 3000 ft of gain in less than 20 miles, with a couple of short pitches up to 15%, but none of the climbs lasts long. It’s smoother and faster than the average back road, and you can touch 40 mph a time or two. Continue reading
Distance: 31 miles out and back
Elevation gain: 2760 ft
This is a nice, pretty climb from the edge of the Sacramento Valley up through the foothills and into the cedar forests of the western Sierra with a classic mountain store as a destination and a sweet potable spring along the way. It’s pretty much all up, but with lots of variety in the scenery and the riding conditions so it’s never a slog. Continue reading