Author Archives: Jack Rawlins

Round Mountain Road

Distance: 32-mile loop
Elevation gain: 1730 ft

Every town has The Ride, the one everybody does because it’s good training and it’s accessible and it’s about the right length and toughness. Depending on the town, The Ride can range from great to tedious, and you can always expect a lot of cycling company. Round Mountain Road is Bakersfield’s go-to ride, and it’s a good one. It’s got a moderate but not excessive amount of climbing, it’s never steep (so you can do it on back-to-back days if you want), it has some grand views of rolling grassy hills and a nice sense of isolation (briefly), and it takes about 2.5 hours, which is most people’s idea of a nice weekend stretch of the legs.

This being Bakersfield, RMR also has some drawbacks. After all, this is the town where the high school sports team calls itself the Drillers. About a third of the route goes through oil fields, which you may find fascinating or repulsive or both. Astonishingly, when you summit Round Mountain itself (the road goes right past the peak), after several miles of climbing in unspoiled isolation, you discover the entire top of the mountain is consumed (some would say, ravaged) by an enormous oil drilling operation which you ride smack through. You also spend about 5 miles on China Grade Loop, one of the ugliest roads I’ve ever ridden. Later, in Shortening the route, I’ll show you how to avoid it.

This is another of those loops where I can’t say which direction is better. I’ve mapped it counterclockwise, but most locals seem to ride it the other way. As I was stopped by the side of the road, a rider came along in my direction and I said, “Am I riding this the wrong way?” She said, “No” and rode on. So that’s settled. After I describe my route I’ll discuss pros and cons.

Begin in Oildale, a suburb of Bakersfield, at the intersection of China Grade Loop and Manor. Parking can be both sparse and dangerous around here, but on the NE corner of our intersection is a huge housing development that offers lots of curbside parking and standard suburban safety. Pick a neat looking house, park in front of it, and note where, so you can find it again.

China Grade Loop

Ride east on China Grade Loop, the most misnamed road you’ll ever see. There is nothing Chinese in sight, there is no grade, and it’s not a loop (the actual loop is nearby where we’re not riding). It’s also a horror—dead flat, dead straight, and heavily trafficked so you’re confined to the shoulder, and that shoulder is full of glass, debris, lumber, road signs, and dead animals, and it’s constantly crossed by frost-heave-style cracks each its own mini-speed-bump (I’m not making this up). And you’re riding through fields of oil wells. Some technology I find rather beautiful. Oil wells are at the other extreme. All that is why we’re doing it first, to get it over with.

Looking north from the climb

Pretty soon (though not soon enough) everything changes: the road begins to meander and roll gently as it follows the contours of the Kern River. Now the road is bordered by expensive hobby-farm mansions, traffic is insignificant, and the road surface is perfect. This is tranquil, sublimely pleasant riding. Somewhere in here the road changes its name to Round Mountain Road, though I didn’t see a sign saying so until it was a long-ago done deal.

About 9 miles in, the road turns up and climbs steadily for about 4.5 miles, to the summit you can eventually see in the distance, on a stretch of road you have to love if you like climbing at all. The pitch is just enough to make you think, “Hey, I’m climbing well today!” and the road surface stays glass. The McMansions fall away and you have the place to yourself, and the views (of where you’ve been to the south and uninhabited rolling hills to the north) keep getting better. It’s an utterly barren landscape that may not be to everyone’s taste (see photos), but I found it transporting.

You can see there are buildings on the mountaintop, but you have to get there to see the extent of the construction. It’s a mini-city up there, like one of those “mining colonies” you see on alien planets being stripped of their minerals in sci fi movies.

Then it’s down. The descent in this direction is about twice the length of the ascent, hence half the pitch, so it’s actually a fairly tame affair. At the bottom you T into S. Granite Road (clearly signed) and take it L. A 3-mile climb, noticeable but never threatening, on the shoulder (really the gutter) of a shabby highway takes you back to Oildale and its oilfields. There is some navigation needed in the end, but the easiest route is simply to take every L you can that’s an obvious major street. That will eventually deposit you back on Manor and your car.

Which way to go?: As usual with loops, it’s all about whether you prefer climbing or descending. In my direction the climbing is steeper (though never approaching steep) and the descending less exciting. In the other direction it’s the other way around—even easier climbing, more exciting descending. The only other factor is the wind: Bakersfield has a westerly habit, so if the wind is up you’ll have it at your back during the climbing and descending if you go clockwise.

Shortening the route (and avoiding China Grade): About half of this loop isn’t all that good—Granite Rd. and China Grade. To ride only the good stuff, drive to the east end of China Grade where the road gets good, start there, ride to the intersection of Round Mountain Rd and S. Granite Rd., and turn around and ride back. This gives you c. 22 miles but of course you end up doing the big climb twice—easily doable, I promise. You can start at the other end if you don’t mind doing the harder climb second.

Adding miles: You can take S. Granite Rd. north (I don’t know what it’s like) and in a few miles run into Woody Road aka Hwy 155, a good ride all the way to Isabella Lake. From China Grade Loop you can take Alfred Harrell Hwy and soon connect with Breckenridge Rd, a grand and challenging climb that drops you off on Caliente Bodfish Rd just north of the stretch that’s a leg of our Caliente Loop.

For other possibilities, see the Adding Miles section of the Caliente Loop ride.

Trinity Center to Callahan

Distance: 34 miles one way
Elevation gain: 3770 ft

This is the rarest kind of ride in Bestrides, a ride on a major highway. But Hwy 3 isn’t like other highways—it’s almost car-free. On a beautiful Wednesday morning in August, once I cleared Trinity Lake, I saw perhaps a vehicle every ten minutes and spent much of the climb riding the center line in solitude.

This ride has a number of virtues—pretty forests, nice rocks, some good vistas, good-to-excellent road surface, a strange almost-ghost town as an end-point, lake-side riding, creek-side riding—but the raison is the climb and descent, which are both pips. Look at the overall numbers and it looks like nothing. The entire ascent racks up a mere 3000 ft in 18 miles, which is about 3.2%. But the last 5 of those miles average over 8%. To put that another way, of the 3770 ft total elevation gain, you do almost all of it in those 5 miles. The descent down the back side is steeper and straighter—you’ll do 45 mph if you want to. Because of that backside profile, I wouldn’t ride this route backwards, and I wouldn’t expect to ride it as an out-and-back unless you’re out for a really hard day. I arranged a shuttle.

Start at Trinity Center. It’s what Northern California calls a “resort,” which means it’s a general store, a launch ramp for the lake, and a campground. Ride Hwy 3 to Callahan.

For the first few miles you’re riding flat terrain along Trinity Lake, but it’s merely pleasant, because you aren’t by the shore so the lake is little more than hints of blue through trees, and the lake itself, like so many reservoirs in Northern California, is largely drained and therefore not very pretty unless you’re there early in the year.

Trinity Lake at low water

Once you clear the lake you ride along the Trinity River, climbing imperceptibly, at first through dramatic mountains of boulders left by California’s gold mining past, then along the stream itself, which is a pretty rock-strewn thing but which tapers off to a trickle in the latter part of the summer. There are occasional “resorts” along the river in these first miles (I can’t imagine what people do there), but otherwise no services until Callahan. You follow the river, crossing it repeatedly on bridges, until mile 19, when you leave the Trinity and follow Scott Mountain Creek and the pitch goes from imperceptible to 8-10%.

One of many Trinity River crossings

Luckily the road serpentines constantly, so you’re never facing tedious slogs up endless straight pitches. The landscape here isn’t as dramatic as the Sierra, but it’s always pretty and you get some good rock formations and the occasional vista back down the Trinity River Canyon. Scott Mountain Creek is continuously below you but you won’t know it’s there. The climb gets easier—8-10% in the first half, 6-8% in the second.

Five miles of this

At 25 miles you reach Scott Mountain Summit (unmissable, signed) and begin the 6-mile rocket ride down the back side. It’s almost straight, with a few wide, sweeping curves that needn’t slow you down, and it’s steepest in the first miles, so seek your max mph early. There is a grand vista off to your right of Callahan’s valley about the time the pitch is moderating.

The descent ends at a stop sign and a T. Signs tell you Callahan is 3 mi. to the L (still on Hwy 3). Callahan is a quirky spot, at first glance deserted but with a fully functioning “mercantile,” a hotel that may or may not be functioning, and a few other buildings. It’s what I call a codger town, the sort of place where you’re likely to find an old codger sitting in front of the mercantile and eager to chat. If he’s there, don’t miss the opportunity.

Looking down toward Callahan from the descent

Shortening the route: There really is no way. You could skip the opening miles and start, say, at Coffee Creek or anywhere else before the climb, but you wouldn’t be avoiding much of the work because it’s effortless riding until it isn’t. If you can’t arrange a shuttle, you can ride to the summit and turn around—it isn’t an easier ride (more miles, actually), and you’re swapping a straight, very fast descent for a curvy, merely-fast one.

Adding miles: To the south, all of Hwy 3 between Weaverville and Trinity Center is not spectacular but worth riding—prettily wooded, lightly built up, and consisting mostly of straight stretches with big rollers (tiring). Just south of Trinity Center Hwy 3 intersects with Rush Creek Rd., a very lightly trafficked, meandering, pleasant two-lane road that goes to Lewiston, a tiny community where you can pick up Lewiston Hwy, a very sweet back road, and then Old Lewiston Hwy, even sweeter, or loop back to Hwy 3 via Lewiston Dam Blvd. It’s all nice without being great.

At the other end, there’s good riding in every direction. Callahan is actually on the route of the Forks of Salmon ride, which runs west and north from town. To the east is Gazelle-Callahan Rd., through the pretty valley you saw as you were descending Hwy 3, which is reported to be well worth riding and which ends in Gazelle, where you can go either way on Old Highway 99S, itself not rewarding. Going south soon takes you to Stuart Springs Rd., a road with a charming profile but unfortunately recently chipsealed. Going north takes you (in 16 miles) to Yreka and the north end of Hwy 3, which loops back to Fort Jones, Etna, and Callahan through pretty hay farms.

Afterthoughts: I seriously underestimated my water needs on this ride. There is no resupply spot after the first few miles, and the climb is largely exposed after early morning. On a hot day, doing pitches of upwards of 10% for an hour, you cook. If it’s going to be hot, go early and/or take as much water and ice as you can.

Mining tailings just north of Trinity Lake

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: the Mill Creek Road by Lassen National Park, the Wine Country one in the Adding Miles section of the Pine Flat Road ride, and this one.   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 (though still lumpy) 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 and lumpy surface 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 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%, but it’s harder than that sounds because it’s typically 8-10% for a while, then 3%, then 8-10%, in stair steps.

The landscape is mostly undeveloped—a couple of working farms and 4-5 gated mansions mostly hidden from view—and you’ll spend most of the ride in a beautiful oak canopy. The road ends at a locked gate, so expect to see no more than a car or two, but it’s a popular walking route for locals, so expect to share the road with lots of strollers 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 urban residential 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, beyond which the road is unpaved. Whether you can continue on a gravel bike is uncertain—one sign reads “Entering regional park, no hunting or shooting,” which certainly implies you may proceed, but another sign reads “No public access.” You make the call. It appears to be the Mission Peak Regional Preserve, if that helps, and the second half of Mill Creek Road is its northern border.

The descent is a mixed bag. The top half (the section above the one hard 90-degree turn—easily seen on the route map) is much steeper than the bottom half, and rougher (not broken pavement, but lumpy), so it’s mostly braking and teeth-rattling. Below the hard turn, things are much better—the pitch is shallow enough that you can really rip it, the turns don’t require much braking, and the road surface, while still far from smooth, can be endured. In many places it’s literally breath-taking—I think it’s possible to get airborne in a place or two—and would be a best-of-Bestrides descent if they paved it properly. It’s a descent that’s much better the second time, because the first time 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, you can carry a lot of speed safely. You can top 30 mph without pressing at all, and that’s a lot on a winding one-laner.

Afterthoughts:

There is no mill on this ride. Or on the other two Mill Creek Road rides in Bestrides.

I’ve received a couple of emails saying that this ride is unsafe for bikes, that riders have been killed, that it’s full of deadly snakes, that it’s been ruined by wildfires, and so on. As far as I can tell, it’s all lies (told by locals trying to discourage cyclists, I’m assuming), so I haven’t posted them.

Shortening the route: You’d think you’d have to be nuts to want to shorten a 4.5-mile route, but it turns out there’s some wisdom in doing exactly that. Since the road above the hard 90-degree turn is steeper and rougher that the road below it, coming down that top section isn’t much fun, so you might consider turning around at the turn and just riding the good stuff. An added bennie: you can now ride the good stuff twice.

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 ft

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. Riding on a weekday should cut down on the sports cars but may just trade one irritant for another—on my Saturday ride there were no trucks but signs of active logging (in August, 2019). 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 your call. Because I can’t guarantee your safety, I’ve mapped the ride from Alsea Mt. Summit. I wouldn’t ride up to Alsea Mt. Summit from the south side—it’s 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 the only slight damper on your pleasure.

Shortening the route: Since the goal here is the vista from the summit, start as far up the road as will allow you to get to the top.

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 ft

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).

Shortening the ride: You probably won’t, but if you do, all the miles are pretty much the same so turn around whenever you want to.

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, and others like Dogtown Rd (not so much Priest-Coulterville).  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 big 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. There are 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 very long, 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.

Shortening the route: Except for Twist, none of these roads is markedly superior to any other. The southwest loop might be slightly superior to the northeast loop.

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 ft

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 to Avila Beach

Distance: 30 miles out and back
Elevation gain: 3270 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, a charming village at the turn-around—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 village of Avila Beach, a perfect spot for getting off the bike, having a bite, whale watching, and all the other things one does at the beach. The last time I was there, the humpbacks where coming out of the water to feed just off the beach.

For a 30-mile ride, it’s a bit of a workout. Most of the 3200 ft of climbing you do in 4 miles—the two miles on either side of the summit. 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.

If you want to see green hillsides, the window is small. I am told that the SLO spring is very short-lived—two weeks or so. Apparently I was supremely lucky to first do this ride in mid-April, when the wildflowers were flourishing and everything was green. But I’ve also done it in the fall and was similarly smitten.

This ride has possibly the grandest vistas in Bestrides after the Santa Rosa Road Wall. On a clear day from the summit you can see much of SLO spread out below you 10 miles to the east and Morro Bay and Morro Rock on the coast 10 miles to the west. Since much of the specialness of the ride is in the vistas, try to find a day with immaculately clear skies.

There’s no reason not to do the ride starting at the other end. It just means you hang out in Aliva Beach at the end of the ride instead of at the turn-around.

You can start where Prefumo Canyon Road leaves huge Los Osos Valley Road, but it’s shoulder riding through generic residential/apartment complexes, 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 pretty oak riparian woods. Then it gets better, and better, and 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, the landscape opens up, and the vistas start. By the time you get to the hilltop summit, the view is unimpeded to the west, north, and east. If you like to complete things, there are short views to the south as well.

Looking north from the summit of Prefumo Road

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 it only lasts for about 1/4 mile and then you’re on dirt. I’m not big on dirt, but this is rideable (25 mm tires are a good idea), 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. Near the end of the dirt a dirt road goes off to your R at a large gate and a road sign tells you Prefumo Canyon Road is ending and See Canyon Rd. beginning, but it’s easy to miss.

Pismo Beach and Pismo Rock, left, from Prefumo summit

When the dirt ends, you begin two miles of descending that is very different from the slope on the north side of the summit. This is relatively straight, therefore fast, with just enough bending to keep it from being boring (and one big esse curve to catch out the inattentive). It feels good, after all that work, to relax and let the bike rip. Once off the slope, you have 4 miles of effortless 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 a local thing, and I encourage you to stop at one of the apple stands and sample the cider. I recommend the See Canyon Fruit Ranch. They’ve been making cider since 1894, so they’ve gotten really good at it.

See Canyon Rd. dead-ends at San Luis Bay Drive. Take it R for 1/2 mile until it dead-ends on Avila Beach Drive (unsigned). Take it to the R and ride the mile or two to town. When you get there you won’t be alone—Avila is the turn-around point for lots of local cycling routes.

On the ride back, the climb back to the dirt is a slog, 2 miles of unaltered, mostly straight grind at a pitch just steep enough to make it work. It’s the only leg of the route I can’t say I enjoy. After the dirt, the short climb to the hilltop is murder—very steep on a bad surface—but, as I said, short. You can see your salvation up ahead of you, which is a comfort.

The descent from the hilltop is at first a bit too rough, a bit too steep, and a bit too full of speed-scrubbing hairpins for aggressive riding. Mistakes can be costly. I overcooked a turn and crashed straight into a rock wall—if it had been an outside turn instead of an inside one, I might still be falling. Instead of maximizing speed, relax and take in the ambience, which is transporting. Once past the 2 miles of steep, the descending is great—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. Even in the road’s busiest season, traffic wasn’t at all bad.

Shortening the route: Ride to the summit and turn around.

Adding miles: From Avila Beach (or rather the turn-off to Avila) the Pacific Coast Highway runs north (toward SLO) and southeast (along the coast). Both directions have their charms and are worth riding. East is better. That way takes you to Pismo Beach, another charming village built around its pier, the Pismo State Beach Monarch Butterfly Preserve (unmissable on your R), and ultimately Grover Beach with its easy access to beachfront at Oceano Dunes Natural Preserve. There’s extensive exploring to be done among the seaside cottage cul-de-sacs and village side streets along the way, and I encourage you to do lots of it.

Avila Beach

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 highlights every ridable road in the area, though of course it doesn’t rank or grade the rides. See if local bike shops have copies. Downloadable maps of the area are at https://bikeslocounty.org/resources/maps/.

Pecho Valley Road, which runs from Morro Bay through Montana De Oro State Park, is a particularly charming stretch of road, but it’s short, connects with no other good riding, and can be plagued with motorists.

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

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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