Author Archives: Jack Rawlins

Mill Creek Road #2

Distance: 9 miles out and back
Elevation gain: 1390 ft

At last count there were 2,347 roads on the West Coast named Mill Creek Road. Bestrides has three: this one, the Mill Creek Road by Lassen National Park, and the Wine Country one in the Adding Miles section of the Pine Flat Road ride.   All three are super-sweet little rides.

This Mill Creek Road is out of Fremont, CA. It was a gift to me from Friend of Bestrides Nabeel, in gratitude for the rides Bestrides had shown him. Isn’t that lovely? It’s one of the shortest rides in Bestrides, but mile for mile it’s as good as any—4 miles of meandering, recently re-paved one-lane gorgeousness that wanders through riparian oaks along a little creek you can’t see and alongside typical East Bay rolling hills of grass. The profile is one of constant variety, always turning, climbing, dropping—rarely can you see more than 1/10 of a mile ahead of you.

The only downside besides its skimpy length is that it doesn’t link up easily with any other ride by bike besides Morrison Canyon, and Morrison Canyon is a worth-doing-once ride. So if you want a longer day of it, drive to MCR, then drive to another nearby ride (Calaveras Road, for example). Or be prepared to ride some distance on surface streets (see Adding Miles). Or ride MCR twice, which isn’t as silly as it sounds.

MCR looks a lot like two beautiful rides nearby that I like a lot: it’s like the north side of Morgan Territory Road, but narrower and with much smoother pavement (which are both good things); and it’s like Welch Creek Road but not nearly as steep (which is a good thing). Still, it’s an authentic climb—1400 ft in 4.5 miles, which averages out around 7%, with a healthy leg of 8-10% in the middle.

The landscape is mostly undeveloped and the road ends at a locked gate, so expect to see no more than a car or two, but it’s a popular hiking route for locals, so expect to share the road with lots of walkers later in the day on weekends.

(To see an interactive version of the map/elevation profile, click on the ride name, upper left, wait for the new map to load, then click on the “full screen” icon, upper right.)

I’ve mapped the ride from the base of the climb, but unless you live in the area you’ll probably start from the Fremont BART station. From the station to MCR is 4 miles of flat or slight incline through typical, not-unpleasant suburbia with good bike lanes—a perfect warm-up.

Mill Creek Road itself starts climbing immediately. The road is narrow enough that there are paved turn-outs to facilitate cars passing each other, and it’s never straight. It rolls up and down for a while before settling in to an extended climb, but still there’s a lot of variety in the pitch so you never get bored.

You pass a vineyard that catches you by surprise and immediately deadend at a gate (past it the road turns to dirt and becomes private land, so continuing on is dicey even with a gravel bike). The descent is as varied as the ride up—some steep, some shallow, some rolling, with very rideable turns, on a pavement that’s blemish-free though a little jarring. It’s literally breath-taking—I think it’s possible to get airborne in a place or two. It’s a descent that’s much better the second time, because the first time you can’t see what’s around all the corners and you have to be cautious. So if there was ever a time when you did a ride twice, this is that time. Once you know the road, it’s a profile that encourages speed, with only one tight corner (glance at the route map above and it’s obvious) and lots of run-outs after steep sections. I touched 35 mph without pressing at all, and that’s a lot on a winding one-laner.

By the way, there is no mill on this ride. Or on the other two Mill Creek Road rides in Bestrides.

Adding Miles: As I said, there’s really only one ride easily reachable by bike from MCR, Morrison Canyon Rd., which is short and a bit of a novelty. There’s wonderful riding to the south of you, if you’re willing to ride some miles on surface streets: (from north to south) Felter, Sierra (both discussed in the Sierra Road ride), and Mt. Hamilton, the last being 17 miles south of MCR.

Burnt Mountain Road/Tioga Creek Road

Distance: 49 miles out and back
Elevation gain: 6640 ftG

This ride is very much a matter of taste. It may be one of your favorite rides, ever. You may hate it. It all depends on how much you value isolation, pristine forest, sketchy road surface, and serious elevation gain. It’s one of the hardest rides in Bestrides—roughly 12 miles of tough climbing, not counting the rollers, and a total vert of 6640 ft.

This ride is for people who like to get off the grid. As in, no cell service. No road signs, at all, of any kind. No people, no buildings, no fences, no foot paths, no trail heads, no no trespassing signs, no private property signs, not even turn-outs. I encountered vehicles 4 times in 48 miles. If it weren’t for the pavement under you, you’d swear no one had ever been there. Needless to say, there is no opportunity for reprovisioning. So be self-sufficient, and tell someone where you’re riding.

Burnt Mountain Road is small

It’s 48 miles of basically one-lane road through dense woods varying from pretty to stunning, punctuated by a couple of clear-cuts you will welcome for the vistas they provide. The pavement is OK to poor—never terrible but always noticeable—which is the ride’s Achilles heel. Expect to ride slowly, savoring the solitude and the beauty and picking your way around the problem spots. It’s not a pain at slow speeds, but you can’t bomb the descents. This isn’t a “whee” sort of ride. You need a hiking mentality.

And remember, Oregon back back roads are there to facilitate logging. Oregon didn’t get the memo about how the logging industry is dead. There is the occasional clear-cut on this ride, and those clear-cut logs have to get down that road somehow. They are either actively logging in the area or they aren’t. They weren’t when I was there, and the place was as unpopulated as the moon. If they are logging, obviously it’s different.

Even finding the ride is an adventure. Drive to the intersection of Coos Bay Wagon Road (see, it’s adventuresome already) and Reston Rd. Continue west on CBWR for 1.5 miles to the first paved road to the R, which has no signage at all—not even a forest service number. That is Burnt Mountain Road. It will change its name halfway through the ride to Burnt Ridge Road, but it won’t matter because there are no signs. But there is only one paved road and you can’t get lost (ignore the route “option” in the map–it’s a glitch).

You’d never get vistas if it weren’t for the few clear-cuts

The profile is simple: you begin by climbing vigorously for 4 miles. If you don’t, you’re on the wrong road. From a kind of summit you roll up and down to about mile 12 and another kind of summit. You might well consider turning around here, which would give you 24 miles and a noticeable workout, because if you continue, the climb back up is major. But if you turn around you will miss the high point of the ride: the idyllic 6 miles along Tioga Creek.

Tioga Creek Road

Continuing on from Mile 12, you descend steeply to mile 19, where the road forks, the L fork crosses a small but unmissable bridge and the R fork (completely unsigned, of course) follows Tioga Creek (unmarked) for six of the sweetest, most beautiful miles I’ve ever done on a bike, at the end of which the pavement ends and you T into South Coos River Road. SCRR looks sweet on the map but it is in fact private lumber company property with large No Trespassing signs (the only signs on the ride) and it has a road surface that is particularly gnarly gravel you wouldn’t want to ride even on a gravel bike. So ride to SCRR, then return to Burnt Ridge Road.

Tioga Creek Road

Tioga Creek Road is basically flat, which is good because you’re looking at about 8 miles of significantly hard climbing back to the top. The only way to avoid it is to cross the bridge when you get back to it and continue on Burnt Ridge and make a loop of it, riding Middle Creek Road (which BCR becomes) to McKinley, then riding through Dora and Sitkum on what finally becomes Coos Bay Wagon Road and back to your car. It’s only a bit longer and more climbing that going out and back (63 miles, 7125 ft.), but I haven’t seen it. Assuming you’re following my route, do the climb, enjoy the rollers, and descent the last 4 miles to your car. Remember, don’t expect the descent to be exhilarating.

Adding Miles: You could spend a summer riding the good roads in this area of Oregon, none of which I’ve done yet. The obvious addition is the loop described in the ride description above. Beyond that, this area is simply thick with delicious-looking small roads. Every tiny town—McKinley, Gravelford, Dora, Fairview, Myrtle Point—has two or three back roads heading out of it and begging to be explored.

The land west of Roseburg and Winston offers the usual endless miles of PPO (Perfectly Pleasant Oregon) riding—just pick any road that looks small and non-straight on the map.

Tioga Creek Road

Marys Peak Road

Distance: 21 miles out and back
Elevation gain:3860 ft

This is a pure climb—10 miles up, 10 miles down—whose prime virtue is the spectacular view of the Willamette Valley at the top. The climbing is mostly moderate and steady, and the descent is fast and tons of fun without white-knuckle thrills, so it’s a great ride if you’re timid about descending at speed but want to give it a try. The first 8 miles are in that gorgeous west Oregon forest I love.

It’s a lot like the McKenzie Pass ride, so how do they compare? McKenzie is longer, the forest is lusher, the view at the top of McKenzie is level moonscape whereas the view at the top of Marys is valley far beneath you, Marys has less traffic, the McKenzie descent is windier, better banked, and more thrilling. McKenzie is one of the best rides in the world, whereas MPR is merely excellent.

Since a large part of the appeal here is the vista from the summit, try to do the ride on a day with clear weather or high cloud cover only.

This road is favored by sports cars playing race car on weekends. There’s plenty of room, so they won’t endanger you, but a weekday is quieter.

On my Saturday ride there were no logging trucks, but there are signs of active logging (in August, 2019), so on a weekday things might be busier. As I say, there is room.

There is a serious question about where to start this ride. If you ride from Philomath (fuh LO muth) on Hwy 34, the scenery is excellent and the two miles before the Alsea Mountain Summit, where Marys Peak Rd starts, are fabulous—challenging, steep esses through forest prettier than MPR itself. The only drawback is traffic—Hwy 34 can be very busy, there is no shoulder, there are no sight lines, and there is no room for you at all. Unless you can catch the road at a time of slack traffic, it’s unpleasant and dangerous. Without cars, it’s a dream, especially descending. When I was there, on a summer Saturday, at noon the road was constant cars; at 5:30 it was deserted. It’s up to you. Because I can’t guarantee your safety, I’ve mapped the ride from the base of Marys Peak Rd. By the way the climb up to Alsea Mt. Summit from the other side is a pedestrian slog.

Eight miles of the usual West Oregon gorgeousness

Park at the beginning of Marys (no apostrophe) Peak Road. There is a nice paved parking area. You get a half mile of mild climbing before the work starts, but if you need more warm-up you’ll have to ride back and forth on Hwy 34 around the summit and on the first half mile of Marys, because everything else is steeply up and down.

Soon the road tips up, and it stays fairly steep for the next 2.5 miles—around 8%. It’s just across the line between fun and work, and it’s the steepest leg of the ride. When you reach an unexpected mile of quick descending, the hard work is over and it’s moderate to the summit. The pitch is unvaried and the road surface is a bit chattery throughout—not broken surface or chip seal, just cheap road building. Enough to reward bigger tires or lower tire pressure.

The view from the summit, looking northeast

As you ascend, appreciate how the microclimate keeps changing. You move through belts of madrone, alder, fireweed, foxglove, and, near the top, a big, imposing pine we don’t see in California.

Around 8 miles in the forest starts to thin out. You pass through a small saddle and get the first panoramic vista, a stunning view of the land to the south (on your R—see photo below). Don’t assume it will get better, because this is the only view to the south you will get on the ride. The view from the end of the road looks east.

The view from the summit looking east over the Willamette Valley

Continue to the top, which is a parking lot with picnic tables, outhouses, and hiking trailheads. The view to the east is one of the grandest in my experience. You can see 50 miles or more. It’s on a par with the grandest vistas in Bestrides: Mt. Tamalpais, Mt. Constitution (in the Washington section of Rides by Region), and the Golden Gate Bridge ride. To the south of the parking lot is a small hill blocking your view to the south, so to see the entire panorama you’ll have to do a little hike, easy if you’ve brought walking shoes and a bike lock.

The descent is fast, bendy, and fun without ever being scary or technical. You’ll do little braking, even though you’ll be doing 30+ mph much of the time, because the pitch is never extreme and the curves are big and gentle, and the road is roomy enough that traffic is never a concern. In short, a piece of cake. The chattery road surface is only a very slight damper on your pleasure.

Adding Miles: As discussed in the ride description, Hwy 34, which goes by the foot of Marys Peak Road, is a long, dull ascent/descent on the south side and a marvelous but dangerously trafficky serpentine on the north side. A few miles to the south via 34 is the turn-around point of our Alpine to Alsea ride. The Corvallis area offers endless PPO riding (Perfectly Pleasant Oregon) among the farms and ranches along the edge of the Willamette Valley.

Marys Peak Road: looking south from the saddle mid-ride

Priest-Coulterville Road

Distance: 20 miles out and back
Elevation gain: 2270 ftG

This isn’t a great ride, but it’s perfectly pleasant. It climbs over two small summits, and drops down into the actual town of Coulterville, which consists of about 8 buildings. The scenery is only OK, mostly scrub brush hillsides, and frankly I include it in Bestrides for only one reason: of all the rides I’ve done in the area, it’s the only one with consistently decent pavement and little traffic. It’s unshaded, so I wouldn’t do it on a hot summer afternoon.

Start at the Priest Station Cafe and Store (really just a cafe). There is parking for 3-4 cars off to the side. Ride to Coulterville (there is one intersection along the way—go R.). After about a mile, the route is through rolling hillsides totally carpeted by a shrub called chamise or greasewood, fairly uninteresting except in blooming season (May-early June), when it makes quite a show.

Coulterville itself is of some slight interest. It’s tiny, but incredibly it includes a hotel, a saloon, a spa, a historic train engine, and a “boulangerie” along with the inevitable general store and antique shop. The saloon claims to be the oldest operating saloon in California (est. 1851).

Adding Miles: From Priest you’re 3 miles from the turn-around point of the Ward’s Ferry Road ride, a much bigger and far more dramatic ride.

Priest Station lies at the summit of Old Priest Grade, a harrowing and spectacular ride detailed in the Adding Miles section of the Ward’s Ferry Road ride.

Hillsides of chamise in bloom in June

Old Ward’s Ferry Road Et. Al.

Distance: 30 miles, wandering route
Elevation gain: 2840 ft

A general word of warning about riding in the Southern Southern Gold Country: every back road I’ve ridden from Jesus Maria Rd. south has had stretches of pavement ranging from poor to comically horrible.  That includes every Bestrides ride in the area—Jesus Maria, Ward’s Ferry, this one (not so much Priest-Coulterville)—and others like Dogtown Rd.  If poor pavement bothers you, ride somewhere else.

This ride lies just west of our Ward’s Ferry Road ride, but it couldn’t be more different. Ward’s Ferry is a straight down-and-up crossing of a canyon. This ride wanders around in a warren of old farming roads that roll up and down constantly over endless little hills. It’s never flat, and it never climbs or descends for long.

It’s harder than the profile makes it look, because short, steep rollers wear you out, and because the road surfaces here are poor, and that beats you up. The up side is, this isn’t your yuppified Gold Country—next to no gated mansions, vineyards, Lexuses, just oak and grassland, unpretentious folk, beat-up pick-ups, and horses and cows in the fields.

There is nothing magical about my route. I just tried to link as many of the roads in the area as I could. My route has you riding everything of note except Algerine Wards Ferry Rd., which you can easily add as an out and back.

Start at the intersection of Old Ward’s Ferry Road and Jacobs Rd. You can start at the northern end of OWFR if you want to, but it’s very unpleasant multi-lane frenetic urban. Half a mile past Hwy 108, you’re in the country.

Old Ward’s Ferry Rd. is the second-worst road surface on the ride, and it’s immediately up and down, so it’s hard on an unwarm body. Nothing on this ride lasts, however, so soon you go R onto Murphy Rd. and things are much better though not perfect. Go right on Lime Kiln Rd. and go up and down, mostly up, until you’re in the shadow of Hwy 108, where Campo Seco Rd. goes L along the highway.

Camp Seco is a horse of a different color. It runs along upscale housing tracts on one side, so it’s bigger, domesticated, busier, and glassy smooth.

Go L on Algerine and roll to Twist Rd. At the intersection is a chance to pick up Algerine-Ward’s Ferry Rd. (not on our route)—just keep riding past the Twist turn-off.

Whatever you do, don’t miss Twist Rd.—it’s the jewel in this crown. The road surface isn’t perfect, but it’s good enough that you can finally bomb some descents.

Twist Rd. ends at Jacksonville Road, for all intents and purposes a highway, though not a heavily trafficked one. It’s not thrilling, and the pavement is new chipseal, but it’s OK and the views (of the canyon holding an arm of an arm of an arm of Don Pedro Lake) are good—the only time on this ride where you can see further than across the meadow beside you.

Stay on Jacksonville as it becomes the Stent Cut-Off (surely somebody’s idea of humor) and returns to Algerine. Go L and ride back on Algerine to Camp Seco, Campo Seco to Lime Kiln, and down Lime Kiln, but only a mile plus to the Jacobs Rd. cut-off back to your car.

Jacobs is not to be missed—perhaps a third of a mile of the worst road surface I have ever experienced. Absolute misery. It’s easier and more pleasant to walk it, but ride it just so you can tell your friends you did.

Adding Miles: This ride takes you within yards of our Ward’s Ferry Road route, a ride I would certainly do before I did this one. In Sonora you are 6 miles from Big Hill Road out of Columbia, a 10-mile out-and-back consisting of a four-mile moderately challenging climb followed by 6 miles of easy rollers, with fabulous views of the lands to south—the best vistas in all my Gold Country riding. It would be a Bestrides-worthy ride, but it’s cursed with the same unfortunate Calaveras County pavement as this ride—not intolerable but bad enough to turn an otherwise wonderful 4-mile descent coming back into something merely good. If you’re near Columbia, don’t miss little Sawmill Flat Road, unique in the region (in my experience) for having easy rollers, lush scenery, and pristine road surface.

Big Hill Road: best vistas in the Gold Country

Huasna Road

Distance: 20-mile out and back
Elevation gain: 1410 ftG

Most of the rides in Bestrides are fairly taxing, not because I need to be taxed, but because most really good scenery goes up and down. But there are a blessed few rides that offer ample rewards without requiring work (consult the nearly-flat rides list on the Best of the Best page). Huasna Road is one. A mere 20 miles of mostly imperceptible climbing or descending, with one 1-mile moderate hill near the turn-around, it’s perfect for a recovery day or a day with the non-riding spouse, yet the road contour is so seductive (gentle rollers, no long straights) and the scenery so gorgeous (oat-dotted grassy hillsides, riparian oak canopies) that I guarantee even the most hardened of hammerers will be charmed. A perfect ride for the day after you do the thrill-fest that is Prefumo Canyon Road.

A side benefit of this ride is that it motivates you to go to the town of Arroyo Grande, where it starts. Admit it, you’ve never been there. It turns out to be a bustling, sweet little village with oodles of charm, an ice cream parlor, and a patisserie, well worth a post-ride stop.

Two words of caution. 1) I did this ride in April, when the hillsides were green and the wildflowers lush. It might be a bit less stunning in the dead-brown grass of California’s summer. 2) The prevailing wind in this area is westerly, and it can snort, so I would consult the weather with a particular eye on the predicted winds, and plan my ride so I’m not doing the 10-mile return leg into the teeth of a gale.

A number of rides in Bestrides follow Huasna Road’s profile: park at the intersection of a main artery and a small, untrafficked road. Ride the untrafficked road through an agricultural valley, follow the valley until it turns into a narrow creek canyon, follow the creek up a gradually increasing pitch until it turns into an actual climb, ride to the end of the pavement, return. This profile always gives you a nice mix of flat, rolling, steep(er), open, wooded, inhabited, and isolated.

Do not begin at the beginning of Huasna Rd.—it’s big and busy. Drive down Huasna to where Huasna goes off to the R and Lopez Dr. continues straight. A sign at the T tells you that “Lopez Lake” is straight ahead. A sign on the R points to Huasna. Park before the turn, in a handily large dirt turn-out. Ride down Huasna. You will need to negotiate 3 intersections where you might have doubts—follow the signs to Huasna Valley in every case. Notice especially the second, at the intersection of Huasna, School, and El Rancho, where you go R—it’s signed in this direction, but when returning you get signs for School and El Rancho but none for Huasna and you have to take the unnamed fork.

The scenery is generic at first, but it gets better the further you ride, until you get off the valley floor and into the trees, and then it’s downright grand for the rest of the ride. You’re climbing, but so gradually you won’t notice until you ride it going the other way. About 8 miles in, you hit the one and only hill, about 3/4 mile at 4-6%—in other words, just enough to open up your legs.

The descent down the backside is perfect—easy slaloming at 25-30 mph through lazy, banked esses on glass. Way too short. Off the descent you debouche into Huasna Valley, which is very pretty, and Huasna itself, which is about 4 simple ranch houses. The road splits into two in the midst of “downtown,” and you turn around.

The climb back up the hill is just a smidgen harder and longer than the climb up the front side. Then the descent is just as sweet as the descent on the outbound leg was. The rest of the return ride is that sort of 2% descending where you don’t think you’re descending, you just think you’re on the best day of your life. Assuming you’ve timed it right and the winds aren’t bad.

Adding Miles: There isn’t a lot of good riding nearby, to my knowledge. Huasna Rd. continues on past Huasna Valley, and apparently cyclists ride a lot of it, but it’s only paved for two more miles, and that pavement is only tolerable chipseal. The first mile is highly recommended, because the scenery is as good as what you’ve been through but it’s much more isolated. Go for the solitude. After that, the road climbs briefly to a summit and you can get an idea of what lies ahead of you if you continue. It looks pretty desolate. Back in Huasna, there’s a sign reading “End county-maintained road 14 miles ahead,” for what that’s worth.

The other road out of Huasna is Huasna Townsite Rd. It runs for about 3 miles until it dead-ends, and the scenery seems fine, but the road surface is a particularly nasty kind of chipseal that seems to be pebbles instead of gravel. If you’ve dreamt of riding Paris-Roubaix, here’s your chance. I hated it.

Back at the start of our ride, at the intersection of Lopez Dr. and Huasna, Lopez Dr. is a popular bike route that runs a few miles to Lopez Lake. I haven’t done it, but it looks to be fairly big, pleasant, open, and largely unexciting.

If you want to look further afield, the SLO area is particularly blessed with route resources, thanks mostly to the SLO Bicycle Club website. There you’ll find a list of favored local rides, though the some 40-odd rides detailed there aren’t evaluated for quality or character. I have a paper ride map of the SLO area called the San Luis Obispo County Bike Map, and it’s a beauty. See if local bike shops still have copies. Downloadable maps of the area are at https://bikeslocounty.org/resources/maps/.

When Huasna Road isn’t in the canopy, it’s still pretty

Prefumo Canyon Road/See Canyon Road

Distance: 25 miles out and back
Elevation gain: 2910 ft

(A Best of the Best ride)

I’m delighted to add this ride to Bestrides for two reasons, beyond the obvious one that it’s great: a) it’s in an “under-represented” area of California—San Luis Obispo had no rides in Bestrides before this (there are now two, this and Huasna Road); and b) I was tipped off to it by a reader who told me I had to check it out, which is always my favorite way to discover a ride.

It’s a marvelous ride, full of everything we ride bikes for: beautiful woods, grand vistas, some easy rolling, some moderate climbing, a little tough climbing, some thrilling descending—even a bit of rideable dirt. I didn’t put it in the Top Ten best of the best list, but I was sorely tempted. It’s a high-energy thrill-fest, along a creek through dense, magnificent riparian oaks, then up to a mountaintop where you can see forever, then down the back side through more oak canopy to the outskirts of Avila, a beach town that is a perfect spot for getting off the bike and exploring.

You might worry that 25 miles won’t give you a workout. Fear not. It’s harder than the numbers suggest, because most of the (recorded) 3200 ft of climbing you do in 4 miles—two on the climb up to the summit and two on the return from Avila. Mapmyride says you’ll do some 12-13% on the ride out and touch 14% on the ride back, and I won’t dispute those numbers. The rest of the route is moderate to easy rollers.

Timing matters on this ride. I am told that the SLO spring is very short-lived—two weeks or so. Apparently I was supremely lucky to do this ride in mid-April, when the wildflowers were flourishing and everything was green. Try to time your ride accordingly. Similarly, much of the specialness of the ride is in the views from the hilltop, so try to find a day with immaculately clear skies.

You can start where Prefumo Canyon Road leaves huge Los Osos Valley Road, but it’s generic residential/apartment complex, so I drive the 1/2 mile down PCR to Castillo Ct., park curbside on Castillo and ride from there. The first 3 miles are mellow ascending rollers, so you can warm up on them before doing anything hard. The scenery here is solid bush and OK but not spectacular. It will get much, much better.

From mile 3 to the summit (at c. 4.5 miles) you will work, but you won’t mind because there’s a lot going on. The road is never straight and never climbs at one pitch for long, so you get constant breaks and variations, and the landscape is first pretty riparian oak woods, then open hilltop with steadily improving vistas overlooking the SLO valley to the east and the land to the north. Eventually you can see the ocean and Morro Rock to the west. Possibly the grandest vistas in Bestrides after the Santa Rosa Road Wall.

The first few miles of Prefumo Canyon Rd. are a monument to the tar dribbler’s art

Roll across the hilltop for a short mile (with several mega-mansions for company), then begin the obvious descent down the back side. Of course you can turn around at the summit if your climbing legs are toast, but you don’t want to, because the rest of the road is really, really pretty. Instantly the road surface, which has been unproblematic, goes to hell, but it doesn’t matter because very soon it disappears and you’re on dirt. I’m not big on dirt, but this is totally rideable (I had 25 mm tires, but you don’t need them), it only lasts a bit over a mile, and the oak canopy on the dirt leg is the best non-vista scenery on the ride. Somewhere in here the road changes its name from Prefumo Canyon Rd. to See Canyon Rd., but I don’t know where.

When the dirt ends, you begin two miles of fast but not very interesting descending (mostly straight, mostly monotonous)—my least favorite part of the ride, in either direction. Once off the slope, you have 4 miles of effortless (in both directions) riding over easy rollers through a garden-pretty hillside with oaks on one side and often old apple trees on the other (See Canyon apple cider is apparently a local thing).

I’ve ended the route at the end of See Canyon Rd., but I encourage you to ride the two additional miles to Avila, one of the most charming of the many coastal villages in this area.

The ride back has only one surprise, which is how hard the climb back to the dirt is. The road is still straight and monotonous, but now it’s that at 5 mph. I didn’t enjoy it. The oaks are still pretty. After the dirt, the short climb to the hilltop is murder, but, as I say, short.

The descent from the hilltop is at first a bit too rough, a bit too steep, and a bit too full of speed-scrubbing switchbacks for ideal riding, but the situation you’re in is so amazing that you’re transported anyway. Once past the 2 miles of steep, the descending is pretty ideal—dropping rollers through pleasant esses at comfortable and controllable speed on unproblematic pavement. Castillo Ct. comes all too soon.

The rewards of the dirt leg

You’ll see some cars at the two ends of this route, and the hilltop is a popular place for nature lovers and their cars on weekends, but I didn’t find it to be a problem. Passing lines are good, and much of the route is almost deserted. I did the ride at the road’s busiest season, and it wasn’t at all bad.

Adding Miles: Save the few miles to and just past Avila Beach, there isn’t any prime riding at either end of this route. It’s possible to loop the ride by returning on the frontage road running along the lip of Hwy 101, but it’s not rewarding.

Looking north from the hilltop on Prefumo Canyon Rd.

If you’re looking for rides further afield, the SLO area is particularly blessed with route resources, thanks largely to the SLO Bicycle Club website. There you’ll find a list of favored local rides, though the some 40-odd rides detailed there aren’t evaluated for quality or character. I have a paper ride map of the SLO area called the San Luis Obispo County Bike Map, and it’s a beauty. See if local bike shops still have copies. Downloadable maps of the area are at https://bikeslocounty.org/resources/maps/.

Prefumo Canyon Rd: Dropping off the edge of the hilltop on the return to SLO. Downtown SLO is barely visible on either side of the mound at 1:30

Old Howell Mountain Road to Ink Grade

Distance: 25 miles dumbbell
Elevation gain: 3340 ft

Grade: B

This ride is a bit of a grab bag.  It strings together three climbs and three descents, each with its own character.  Locals typically ride it one way, from south to north, and continue on, as a part of pleasant longer routes we’ll discuss in Adding Miles.  But it’s equally good in both directions, and I’m not crazy about those longer routes, so I’ve mapped it as an out and back.  The scenery is fairly ordinary for the area, and I wouldn’t drive far out of my way to do it, but it has nice variety, a challenging climb, and the thrill of riding a Forbidden Road (see below).  It also includes 1.6 miles of a hellish mix of heavy traffic and broken pavement which you must simply survive.

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Hopland Road

Distance: 35 miles out and back
Elevation gain: 3925 ft

Grade: B

On paper, Hopland Road (aka Hwy 175) is exactly the sort of road Bestrides avoids like the plague: a big, wide main route between two fairly uninteresting towns with an unaltered pitch (read: slog) through unprepossessing scrublands.   The climbing is monotonous, the shoulder is minimal, and the traffic is well above Bestrides’ preferred one car per mile.  But the descending is swell and the vistas are breath-taking.  Do the ride for these two rewards, or don’t do it at all.  And, on the bright side, the traffic, while noticeable, isn’t obnoxious, since the two communities the road connects (Hopland and Lakeport) are both small and the road is straight and wide enough that passing is easy everywhere, and the road surface is flawless, at least on the west side of the summit.

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Geysers Road

Distance: 42-mile loop
Elevation gain: 3820 ft

Grade: A

Note 11/12: Geysers Road, along with Chalk Hill Road and Pine Flat Road, was a victim of the Kincaide Fire.  I assume the landscape was reduced to ash.

Many areas have the “Big Ride,” the one you do on the day you want to put in some miles and do some work.  In the Wine Country, the Big Ride is Geysers Road (when it isn’t Stewarts Point/Skaggs Springs Rd.).

When I reached the beginning of the Geysers Road climb, I was stopped by a group of road maintenance guys and we got to talking.  Did I really want to do this?, one of them asked.  Geysers, he said, was a mess.  Long and steep, with a surface that was at its best broken pavement, at its worst full of gravel, rocks, and fallen plant material, with frequent stretches of dirt road and spots of minimally repaired earthquake damage where the road “just falls off.”  Also no water or other reprovisioning opportunities, and little to no cell service.

As it turns out, he was absolutely right, but it’s a wonderful ride nonetheless and nothing to be feared.  Except for one hard mile of 14-15% climbing, all the elevation gain (I recorded 4300 ft) is thoroughly manageable, and the scenery is stunning.  As with all Wine Country riding, the road surface is indeed poor, varying from sorta OK to wretched, but the worst of it is on the ascent, when you’re doing 5-7 mph and it’s not an issue.   I found the earthquake sections geologically fascinating.  And the isolation is a large part of the appeal—after I passed the turn-off to the gravel pit 3 miles in I can’t remember seeing a single vehicle.

If you have everyone’s image of the Wine Country—vineyards, gently rolling hills, old farm houses, everything neat as a pin—forget it.  Geysers is a wild and woolly climb up the side of a creek canyon, followed by a few ridge crossings and mad descents through more canyons, all barren of signs of humanity (one house, one thermal power plant).   No wine tasting here.  But you get that stereotypical Wine Country riding experience on the Geysers Rd.-to-Cloverdale connector.

You want to ride Geysers from north to south.  The road is in two halves with very different characters.  The north side (up to the Geysers Resort Road turn-off) is narrow, mellow of pitch, rough, and winding.  The south side is steep, wider, straighter, and smoother (though not smooth).  So riding from south to north robs you of most of the road’s rewards: instead of a charming, curious, and mellow ascent and a speedy, relatively smooth descent, you get a steep, relatively featureless slog up to the summit, followed by an unpleasantly rough descent.  You’ll see riders beginning at the south end, but I suspect they’re riding to the summit and back.  This is fine if all you want is a workout, but the north side is by far the prettier and more dramatic.

By the way, you won’t see geysers.  You’ll see some developed thermal activity in the distance to your L, but it isn’t pretty and the resort itself is closed.

I would avoid this ride on a hot summer day, since much of it is exposed and there is no water.

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