Occidental is an amazing cycling resource. Six roads head out of this little town, and each one of them is some degree of wonderful for riders. All 6 figure in a Bestrides route in one way or another. This route focuses on the roads to the north of town. It and Bittner Rd. (which is in our Coleman Valley Rd. ride) are the only ones with thrilling descents.
This ride comes with some caveats. The Bohemian Highway can be unpleasantly, dangerously trafficky. About a quarter of the miles on our loop have a bad case of Sonoma County Disease (i.e. have rough surfaces). And one leg of the loop is downright not fun to ride. But the other three quarters of the miles are glass, for all of those three quarters the scenery is as good as the area gets (which is, gorgeous), and if we deal with BH’s traffic issues it’s a descent to be remembered.
See the Occidental Loop ride notes for info on the town of Occidental itself.
The Bohemian Highway also goes south out of Occidental briefly and dead-ends at Freestone, and it’s a pleasant enough few miles, but we’re interested in the northern leg, from Occidental to Monte Rio, 6.3 mi of delicious descending to the Russian River. It’s never steep (2-5%), which sounds boring, but it isn’t—it serpentines sweetly, the pavement is glass, and you can really attack the hill, pedaling vigorously and carving the sweeping turns at 25+ mph. The scenery is the usual Occidental-area redwood gorgeousness. It’s really very nice.
But there’s the traffic. You want to carve those turns from the middle of the lane, and that’s hard to arrange. Bohemian Highway is a main route to the Russian River, which is a main access route to the coast, so it can get busy, and there’s really no room for you and cars at the same time—two small lanes, minimal shoulder, cars in a hurry to get to the beach. So you have to plan the ride for slack traffic. I did the ride on Sunday (terrible idea), but waited until noon (good idea), and had to deal with perhaps 6 cars passing me. I would think any weekday after 10 am and before 3 pm would be OK, and any weekend day between 11 am and 2 pm, and any day at 7 a.m.
Near the bottom of the descent the road forks, into Bohemian Highway on the R and the oddly named Main St. on the L (clearly signed). The two roads are within sight of each other on opposite banks of the creek. Take Main St.—the road surface is better, and it goes by Lightwave, a charming, unpretentious coffee/drinks/small-menu food shop run by a couple recently from Israel. Try to stop, at least for coffee or a drink—you’ll like it. There’s a bike rack in full view, so you can sit at an outside table and keep your eye on your bike.
Cross the river on the unmissable bridge and say hello and goodbye to Monte Rio, a town named by someone who apparently didn’t know that “monte” means “mountain.” Go R (under the “Monte Rio Awaits Your Return” sign) onto River Rd., the road that follows the banks of the Russian River upstream, and ride it for 4.3 mi. to Guerneville. It isn’t fun. The traffic is constant, so you’re confined to the (largely spacious but debris-strewn) shoulder, the pavement is poor, and the neighborhood is generally shabby. Gentrification has yet to reach Monte Rio, which may be a blessing but doesn’t aid the riding.
You can bypass about half of the River Rd. leg by taking Old Monte Rio Rd., which parallels River Rd. just to the north, but it’s an adventure—the “road” is little more than a paved footpath and fairly decrepit. Check it out on Streetview (incredibly, it’s covered) before committing yourself to it.
Happily, Guerneville is a pleasant community with a good energy. Midtown, turn R onto Hwy 116 (called by some maps and my GPS “Pocket Canyon Highway”). Very soon, turn R. onto Mays Canyon Rd. and ride MCR to its end back on Hwy 116.
Mays Canyon used to be one of my favorite little rides, a car-free, secret back road offering pristine redwoods and splendid isolation. It still has some of that, especially in the first mile or so, but it also has, smack in the middle of it, a large community of run-down thrown-together dwellings with lots of signs telling you how unwelcome you are. With all that comes some traffic. And the road surface is bad. So ride it if you wish, or just stay on Hwy 116, which lacks Mays Canyon’s vices and virtues.
If you do Mays, go R on Hwy 116 (at the intersection there is no sign or any indication of where you are except for a hand-routered sign reading “Mays Canyon Rd.”). Everything is really good for the rest of the ride—the scenery is lovely, the traffic is light to non-existent, and the road surface is pristine.
Ride to Green Valley Rd. and go R onto Green Valley, which looks at the intersection like an afterthought but is really a well-established road. GH goes up and down a steep little hill which is the steepest thing you’ll see on the ride (max pitch 12% briefly). Turn R onto Harrison Grade Rd.—I know, it’s very hard to leave Green Valley Rd., because it’s so very sweet, but Harrison is just as good.
Harrison Grade, as its name implies, is a climb—never as steep as Green Valley at its worst but more of it—2 miles of serious climbing with some 9-10% stuff. HGR runs you into Graton Rd., which runs quickly back into Occidental and provides the perfect cherry on this sundae—a brisk little descending slalom through perfect redwoods.
Shortening the ride: I wouldn’t ride Bohemian Highway as an out and back—the traffic whizzing past you as you do 5 mph on the return climb would be dangerous at any hour. River Rd. isn’t worth riding, ever. So we’re left with riding Green Valley Rd. + Harrison Grade Rd. as an out-and-back, with as much of Hwy 116 as you like.
Adding miles: See the Adding Miles section of our Occidental Loop ride for a list of the possibilities, which are many.
Distance: 17-mile lollipop Elevation gain: 1730 ft
Occidental is an amazing cycling resource. Six roads head out of this little town, and each one of them is some degree of wonderful for riders. All 6 figure in a Bestrides route in one way or another. This route focuses on the roads to the east of town.
The roads between the towns of Occidental and Sebastopol all run through grand redwood forests and have charming, undulating contours. So you could just go wandering and ride any of them. But there’s a downside: the road surfaces are often terrible (Sonoma county cyclists take an odd pride in this), the roads are dangerously narrow, usually there is no shoulder (not a small shoulder—none), and the main arteries are heavily enough trafficked so as to be a pain if not an actual danger.
So what we want are untrafficked back roads with good road surfaces. I’ve found two: this one and our Bohemian Highway loop (well, half of that one). This loop is entirely glass, and it spends most of its time on roads that see next to no cars—of the 6 roads it covers, only one may be uncomfortably busy. And every inch is beautiful to the eye and charming to ride. You’re about 2/3 in the woods and 1/3 riding by small farms and meadows, the farms are all cute, and there’s a general absence of vineyards, for which I am grateful. It racks up over 100 ft of gain per mile, yet there are no extended climbs, so you know it’s constantly rolling up and down—check that sawtooth elevation profile.
Begin in the town of Occidental, where our Coleman Valley Rd. ride and our Bohemian Highway ride start. It’s a famously charming little town, not yet totally touristified (for instance it still has a hardware store), with a couple of old, funky Italian hotel restaurants that are remarkably good and some other eateries with good reputations. Howard’s Station is a nice, simple restaurant with a short, unpretentious, and tasty menu. You immediately feel welcomed by the town because one side of the main street is a big free parking area without time limits. It’s a weekend destination for Santa Rosa-area residents looking for a small outing in good weather, so if you can ride on a weekday so much the better.
Ride out of town on Graton Rd. You are immediately in the midst of the Occidental riding experience: looming, cathedral-like redwoods, narrow lanes, no shoulder, some cars. This is the connector between Graton and Occidental, so it sees some traffic. I intentionally started later in the morning, to miss the morning work rush, and got passed by perhaps 6 cars.
Go R onto Green Hill Rd., largely car-free, then R onto Occidental Rd. Occidental is our only real risk of serious traffic, but if you’re after the morning rush and heading west (as you are) it shouldn’t be bad. Go R onto Jonive (“ho NEEV”) and prepare to experience serious cycling joy.
Jonive is one of my favorite roads anywhere. It (and Barnet Valley Rd., which follows) are all up and down, but never tiresomely so—just roller-coaster whoop-de-doos that will have you shouting. It’s all so pretty and perfect I find myself wondering what it’s like to live in that kind of idyllic beauty, but I’m not about to find out since apparently the average house on Jonive goes for around $3-4 mil.
Jonive dead-ends at the Bodega Highway, the busiest road in the area. Go L on it for about 30 ft. and go R onto Barnett Valley Rd., which is exactly like Jonive only slightly less joyful. Ride to the intersection of BVR and Burnside Rd. and turn around. You could continue on, on either BVR or Burnside, but the good road surface ends at the intersection.
When you get back to the meeting of Barnett Valley Rd. and Bodega Highway, you have a choice. You can re-ride Jonive, as I’ve mapped it, and it’s wonderful both ways, but if you have an aversion to out-and-backs you can go L onto Bodega for a busy but brief downhill run to Bohemian Highway and take BH back to Occidental. BH is more open, busier, and blander of contour than our route, but it too is very pretty and it has the advantage of passing the locally-famous Wild Flour Bread bakery, where you can stand in line with the other cyclists to buy one of their scones. I find the scones OK but not spectacular, but it’s part of the local scene, like eating at the Cheese Board Collective in Berkeley.
Assuming you stick to our mapped route, ride Jonive back to Occidental Rd. and take Occidental Rd. back to Occidental. Again, you may run into a bit of traffic, but it should be midday now and you’re going the less-busy direction. Of course it’s beautiful.
Shortening the ride: You could ride just the loop, and it’s all very pretty, but it’s also the most trafficked part of the ride. I’d go the other way: ride Jonive Rd.>Barnett Valley Rd. as an out-and-back.
Adding miles: Occidental is the starting point for our Coleman Valley Rd. ride, whose road surface was atrocious the last time I did it, and our Bohemian Highway loop, which can get trafficky. Bohemian Highway takes you to Monte Rio on the Russian River, which is near our Sweetwater Springs Rd. ride and our Kings Ridge Rd. ride. Heading south, if you can endure one more short stretch of the Bodega Highway you’ll get to Valley Ford Freestone Rd., which takes you to all the riding around Tamales Bay and our Chileno Valley loop.
If you’re set up for rough road surfaces, you can happily explore the warren of little roads to the east of Jonive and Barnett Valley Rds.
Distance: 49-mile lollipop (with two sticks) Elevation gain: 4110 ft
Highway 101 runs north and south between Paso Robles and San Luis Obispo, two of Bestrides’s favorite riding haunts. It turns out that every small road east of that stretch of Hwy 101 is good as well. The terrain is all pretty much the same: small rolling hills covered in grass—a luscious green in spring—and dotted with magnificent oaks (the “robles” of Paso Robles). Among the hills are small valleys, meadows, family farms, horse ranches, and smalll vineyards. Every acre is eye candy. The roads skirt the meadows and ranches, follow little streams up small canyons, and roll up and over hill after hill—almost never flat, almost never straight, no long tedious grinds uphill. It isn’t the most exhilarating riding—it lacks long, thrilling descents, awesome gorges, and other big-ticket features—but it’s lovely, idyllic, and tranquil. And car traffic is almost non-existent, if you stay off the main arteries.
Here’s my favorite ride in the area. It’s a lollipop with two sticks, made up of 5 separate roads, and it’s surrounded by other good riding, so it’s easy to contract or expand the mileage, as we’ll discuss in Shortening the Ride and Adding Miles. You can also begin anywhere on the route and ride in either direction. The elevation gain total isn’t insignificant, but none of the route is flat, so you know that the climbing is mild to moderate.
The pleasure of this ride, and any riding in the area, is doubled if you can hit it in the spring, after the rains but before the grasses turn brown.
Start at the intersection of Pozo Rd. and Las Pilitas Rd. Ride Pilitas to Park Hill Rd. This is my second-favorite leg of the route, mostly up, and the hardest climbing you’ll do (though it’s never fierce). Like most of this route’s roads, it meanders back and forth and rolls its way up, so the pitch is constantly changing and you can rarely see more than about 1/8th of a mile of road ahead of you. Look at the oaks that surround you—each is unique, and each is a work of art. Stop and listen to the silence—it’s really peaceful up there.
Turn L on Park Hill and almost immediately go R onto Huer Huero Rd. (Or not. Park Hill is the straightest leg of this route, with the longest unaltered pitches, so riding it up is at times tedious. Huer Huero is steeper and more varied in contour. So my way gives you the best descending and the more boring climbing. If you go down Park Hill and come up Huer Huero you get long, straight descending and more entertaining but harder climbing. You choose.).
Huer Huero (the name is apparently a Spanish approximation of a Native American word) is on the east side of the summit, so it’s a bit dryer than Pilitas. It’s also more developed—Pilitas has almost no signs of human habitation beyond wire fences, but Huer Huero has lots of simple ranch houses. It’s also the worst road surface on our route, or it was when I rode it (4/23), with large patches of upheaved pavement and stretches of dirt and sand in the first half-mile. In fact there was a sign at the beginning reading “Road closed—local traffic only,” which I wisely ignored. There are also about 5 places where water flows over the road in the rainy season. They were about an inch deep when I was there, but it hadn’t rained in a while so this might be an issue if the weather has been wet. All this sounds like the road is a nightmare, but it’s actually very nice—good scenery and some very nice serpentine descending.
Huer Huero ends at Hwy 58, curiously signed here “Calf Canyon Hwy.” Take it to the L. It’s not fun. The scenery is lovely, but it’s all large ups or downs and it’s a busy road, so you’ll have cars whizzing by you at 60 mph as you grind up long pitches at 6 mph, or descend at 35 mph, which is almost worse, on the minimal shoulder for 3.5 miles.
At this point you hit the intersection of Hwy 58 and Hwy 229 running north to Creston. You’re saying to yourself, “The last thing I need is another State highway.” But 229, aka Webster Rd., is like no State highway you’ve ever seen. It’s a wide one-lane roller coaster with a great road surface through gorgeous, manicured landscapes (more rolling grassy hills, more oaks). It’s my favorite leg of the route. It has one substantial climb, which is a rip-roaring whoop-de-doo coming back down—otherwise, it just rolls gently up and down. I saw two vehicles total, out and back.
About 2 miles from Creston you pass Rocky Canyon Rd., which looks great on the map but is erroneously identified as paved in RidewithGPS (it isn’t), and Webster exits its little canyon and enters dead flat farm country. So the road goes flat and straight, and you have my permission to turn around. But the reward for riding those 2 flat miles is you get to see Creston, a true tiny California farming community—about ten houses, a cute little church, a restaurant called The Loading Chute, and another with the classic EAT sign on top.
Whenever you choose, turn around and enjoy Hwy 229 going the other way. Back at 58, suffer another 1.5 miles (almost all steeply down) to the intersection with Park Hill Rd. Go L onto Park Hill and climb it back to Las Pilitas. Park Hill is mostly up but never steep, and the pavement is good for a while. Notice Tierra Del Cielo Farm on your R. Since earth and heaven are by definition opposites, I’m not sure what they have in mind.
The return ride down Pilitas to your car is surprisingly wonderful. The scenery is terrific, the road contour is always changing, and (except for one noticeable 1/2-mile of climbing after the bridge near the end) you can use your descending speed to charge up the frequent small risers, so you never work. Delightful. Perfect if the pavement were a mite smoother.
Shortening the ride: One’s natural inclination is drop the two lollipop sticks and just ride the loop, but if you do you’ll be riding the worst part of the route. So I would do the opposite, and ride either Hwy 229 and Las Pilitas Rd. as an out-and-back, or both. Hwy 229 is sweeter; Pilitas is more work and more thrilling.
Adding miles: Basically, from here you can ride forever on good stuff. From Creston you can ride north on what is first called Creston Rd., then Geneseo Rd., then Linne Rd. all the way to Paso Robles, where you can connect with all our Paso routes. From our starting point, Pozo Rd. is good in either direction. You can even go straight on through Pozo itself and circumnavigate Santa Margarita Lake. If you’re set up for dirt and you want to get adventurous, at Pozo you can jump on the other end of the Hi Mountain Rd. (discussed in the Adding Miles section of the Huasna Rd. ride) and ride it to all our SLO rides.
Distance: 18.5-mile out-and-back Elevation gain: 2680 ft
(A Best-of-the-Best descent)
Shirtail (one T) Canyon Road is the access road into Pinnacles National Park from the west side, the back door into the Park. Also known as State Route 146. As with all rides entering National Parks, if you want to go beyond the ranger’s station you’ll need money or your NP pass and ID.
Shirtail Canyon Road heads east from the outskirts of Soledad, and as you approach the area from the north or the south on Hwy 101 your heart will sink, because you’re in the dead-flat, totally agricultural Salinas Valley and you’ll assume the route is straight, flat, and boring. But Soledad butts up against the eastern edge of the valley, so SCR climbs from the get-go, often steeply (check that elevation-to-distance ratio), and is constantly changing its shape and pitch, which makes for a moderately interesting (though scenically fairly boring) climb and an exhilarating descent.
It’s a dead-end ride, taking you past the Pinnacles westside visitor center and stopping at a featureless trailhead parking lot, so you can’t loop it. I guarantee the ride is a workout (again, check that elevation-to-distance ratio), but if you’re disappointed by the small mileage total I’ve described an add-on which I like a lot at the end of this post.
I am downright picky about when I think you should do this ride. 1. Ride it in the spring, when the hills are green. 2. Avoid riding it when it’s hot, because there is next to no shade. 3. Avoid riding it on Saturday morning, when everyone is driving in, or Sunday late afternoon, when everyone is driving out. 4. Don’t ride it when the valley wind is blowing, because it funnels straight up the canyon, hits you on your nose during the descent, and turns a wonderful descent into a white-knuckle stressfest.
With any ride on National Park roads there’s a concern about traffic. I’ve never had a problem here, even though the road is narrow (often signed “one-lane,” rather over-dramatically) and has absolutely no shoulder. The road is wide enough, the drivers are in no hurry, the sight-lines are good, and almost all traffic enters Pinnacles from the eastern entrance. On a lovely Saturday afternoon in spring I saw perhaps 30 cars, roughly two a mile.
This ride is listed in the “Monterey Bay Area” ride list, but that’s a cop-out. If you look in our ride map, you’ll see that it’s in the middle of nowhere. Nacimiento-Fergusson, also in the middle of nowhere and probably the nearest other ride in driving time, is listed in the “Southern California” ride list. What can one do? Sometimes categories fail you.
Start at the intersection of Shirtail Canyon Road and Metz Road. You’re a couple of miles out of Soledad, and it looks fairly insecure there, so you might feel safer parking in town and riding to the intersection, but I’ll warn you those are dead flat, dead straight, uninviting small-town-outskirts miles. At the intersection there is a large dirt turn-out. Pinnacles, despite being a National Park, is practically ignored by the Soledad community, so there is next to no signage directing you to the intersection and, incredibly, there is no sign for the Pinnacles at the intersection, despite the fact that Shirtail goes to Pinnacles and nowhere else (there is a tiny sign advertising a vineyard). There is also no road sign, anywhere along the route, so I’m taking it on faith that what I rode was in fact Shirtail Canyon Road. This under-the-radar status works to your advantage, because it means you will meet 30 cars on the ride instead of 300. There is a prominent sign for Pinnacles once you start up SCR.
As I say, the ride climbs from its inception. You get some breaks (you descent a total of 800 ft. on the climb, which you’ll notice on the return), but it’s mostly up for the first 7 miles, gently at first but then a stretch of 8-12% stuff. You’re riding up a small and unprepossessing canyon bounded on either side by those round hilly grassy mounds you see all over western Central California. If you’re there in the spring, as I counseled, it’s pretty enough, with a few shapely oaks scattered along the roadside, but it’s not memorable, and any other time but spring it’s brown and therefore worse. After the hard climbing you do some charming whoop-dee-do’s, then climb some more.
Around 7 miles in you reach, in rapid succession, a gaping cattle guard requiring some care (I walked it), a standard National Park photo-op entrance sign, and the Visitor Center. It’s an unpretentious but likable operation, with some nice informational placards outside if you don’t want to leave your bike and go inside.
The two miles of road past the Visitor Center are down (steeply at first, then less so), and there’s nothing to see at road’s end unless you plan to hike, so consider turning around at the Visitor Center unless you just want 2 more miles of climbing.
The ride up SCR is nice enough but the descent back to your car is a dream: lots of variety, a blem-free road surface, smooth sweeping turns that don’t necessitate braking and let you see on-coming traffic, some really good whoop-de-doos you can take at speed, and a long 4% run-out at the end when you can pedal hard and feel like a god. If you can catch it on a wind-free day, it’s one of Bestride’s best descents. You can easily break the 35-mph speed limit.
A Longer Route
If 20 miles just doesn’t float your boat, there’s an unexpected way to add some good miles: Metz Rd. Driving Metz from Soledad, you’d swear it’s as worthless as a road can get, but on the south side of Shirtail it’s a whole other animal. It runs for 18 miles from Shirtail to King City outskirts, and while the last 7 of those 18 (nearest King City) are on the valley floor and therefore very ordinary stuff, the first 11 are rewarding. The road runs above the lip of the valley about 50-100 ft up the sidehill, so it has to follow the contour of the grassy mounds. So it’s up and down, back and forth, with a lovely overview to your right of the Salinas River, the railroad tracks, and the never-ending agricultural work below you, with the hills rising steeping on your left. If you ride to where the road drops down to the valley and ceases to be interesting, then turn around, you add 22 miles to our Shirtail out and back, for a respectable mileage total of just over 40. Absolutely no shade, so not advisable in extreme heat.
Shortening the ride: Turn around at the Visitor Center. I don’t think the first 7 miles can effectively be shortened.
Adding miles: Do the Metz extention. Beyond that, there is nothing in the immediate vicinity. Our legendary Nacimiento-Fergusson Road ride is a 45-minute car drive to the south.
Distance: 30 miles out and back Elevation gain: 1300 ft
For a general discussion of San Diego riding, see the introduction to the Mission Bay to La Jolla ride.
This ride has a lot in common with the other two San Diego rides in Bestrides, Mission Bay to La Jolla and the Bayshore Bikeway (discussed in the Adding Miles section of the Mission Bay to La Jolla ride). It’s mostly along the water, it spends much of its time riding through old-SD beach neighborhoods, and it’s mostly flat. What makes it stand out from the other two is the unique ex-hippy-meets-beach-town of Ocean Beach, the spectacular vistas of San Diego harbor from Cabrillo National Monument, a great cliffside hike, the best tide-pooling in the region, and an actual hill, a rarity in San Diego. The panoramic view of the harbor is one of the best destination vistas in Bestrides, almost as good as Tunnel Road/Claremont Ave. Loop and Grizzly Peak Blvd to Redwood Rd.
Even if you don’t do the hike you’ll want to do some walking around the Cabrillo National Monument, so I encourage you to shove a pair of walking shoes or flip-flops up the back of your jersey. And bring your National Park pass if you have one and ID, to save yourself the entry fee at the Monument, which is $10 (yes, even for cyclists).
RidewithGPS gets twitchy on this route, so I’m going to talk you through it in more than usual detail. Begin at Mission Bay Park, which is the same starting point as the Mission Bay to La Jolla ride—see that ride for parking info. There is nothing spectacular about the first miles of this route, and if you want to start in Ocean Beach I won’t think less of you.
Ride south from Mission Bay Park along East Mission Bay Drive, go R onto Sea World Dr., and continue on SWD and through the interchange to the bridge over the San Diego River. The road is big and open, easy riding despite traffic, but if it bothers you there are separated bike paths on your right for much of the route—just keep an eye out for them. The views are of Mission Bay and the marsh surrounding—nothing to write home about. Don’t expect grand views of Sea World—distant tops of a few roller coasters is all. The ride across the bridge is effortless thanks to a separated bike lane. Views of the river are moderately interesting. Fact: the river used to spill into San Diego Bay, but the Army Corps of Engineers didn’t want all that silt filling up the bay, so they rerouted it to flow into Mission Bay, and now straight to the ocean.
On the far side of the bridge keep R onto Sunset Cliffs Blvd. and take the first R onto West Point Loma Blvd. We now follow our San Diego cycling habit of staying as close to the water as possible. Work your way up the shoreline, following our map’s dizzying number of zigzags.
My route has you riding only momentarily on Newport Ave., but this is the heart of Ocean Beach and I encourage you to check it out before continuing. It’s a delightful cross between Haight-Ashbury in the 60’s and SoCal Beach Town. Lots of interesting places to eat. Once you’ve experienced the scene, return to our route and ride on.
Eventually our zigzagging bails out on Sunset Cliffs Blvd. Take SCB to the R and ride it to its end. You ride along Sunset Cliffs Natural Park, a long string of picturesque cliffs worth a look or a stroll (it’s not the hike I mentioned earlier, which is at the turn-around for the ride). You’ll have a lot of company—it’s popular.
At the end of SCB, turn L, as you must, up Ladera St. and ride it one short block to its end at the intersection of Ladera and Cornish. Now ignore our map. RideGPS refuses to acknowledge what you’re about to do. To the south you see a sign reading “Sunset Cliffs Natural Park.” To its L is a wide, straight, sandy path angling slightly away from the water. Ride it 1/8 mile to its end (it’s signed for bikes), where you’ll see a short flight of stairs. Climb them and emerge on Lomaland Dr. We are now back on our route.
Lomaland climbs very steeply to the R (you can see the pitch) and only steeply to the L, so go L unless you want the challenge. This short pitch touches 11% and is quite a shock after all that flat riding. You’re now riding through the campus of Point Loma Nazarene University—hence the unusual architecture. Turn R on Savoy St. when the hill ends and follow it to Catalina Blvd. The navigating is over—you stay straight on Catalina (which becomes Cabrillo Memorial Dr.) to the turn-around point of the ride.
Catalina is a very big street, but there’s plenty of room, and for the first while there’s a separated side road just for you. Soon you leave the neighborhoods behind, but you’re not in backcountry—rather you pass an intimidating set of gates and enter Point Loma Naval Base. You stay on military land until the National Monument. So expect lots of guard stations, security gates, and an enormous military cemetery (Fort Rosecrans National Cemetery). The road is wide two-lane with plenty of room for you, and the cars are well used to cyclists.
Soon on your L you’ll begin to see why you’ve come—amazing views of Coronado Island’s North Island Naval Air Station, the community of Coronado, the Silver Strand spit running south from Coronado, the entirety of San Diego Bay, and all of mainland San Diego behind. Framed behind the National Cemetery’s rows of headstones, it’s quite moving.
Continue on the Cabrillo National Monument, which consists of a Visitor Center, a lighthouse you can walk through when it’s open, some historical stuff about World War II installations, and a road down to famous tide pools. Come prepared to visit all of it. Walking shoes aren’t absolutely necessary but will make your visit a lot easier. The gatehouse charges cyclists $10 to enter (boo), so bring your lifetime National Park pass and ID if you have one. When I rode in the ranger waved me through for nothing (yay).
The Visitor Center has the official vista point overlooking San Diego, with a nice placard identifying the highlights of what you’re looking at. You’re at a mere 400 ft elevation, but still this is one of the finest vistas and one of the most satisfying destinations in all of Bestrides. The Center also has bathrooms, water, a nice little museum about Cabrillo and Spanish California, a gift shop, and a movie theatre that shows a great little free film about Cabrillo’s voyage. There’s a drinking fountain but the Center has no food other than snacks out of a vending machine.
The lighthouse isn’t always open, but don’t miss it if it is. Inside you can see two floors of furnished rooms and climb the wonderful circular staircase up to the fresnel lens.
A small radio shack near the lighthouse (easy to miss) has an interesting exhibit of the 16-inch guns, the biggest guns the Navy ever had, that once defended the bay.
Our route isn’t over. Take the side road toward the ocean just inside the entrance gate, indicated by a sign reading “Tidepools” but marked less obviously by a road sign reading “Cabrillo Rd.” Take the spiffy little drop down to the tide pools and, if you have shoes and the time, walk the Coast Trail along the grandly eroded cliffs. Near the north end of the trail there’s a rock jutting from the cliff face that’s packed with cormorants and pelicans, and they’ll fly right by your face when they take off. If you’re there at low tide, the tide pooling is apparently outstanding—so outstanding that a couple of miles from the Monument entrance gate you pass a sign reading on one side “20-Minute Wait From Here” and on the other “Tidepool Parking Full.” I was there on a Monday in February and the place was crawling with people.
Turn around and enjoy the .7-mile, 8-10% climb out—just long enough and hard enough to make you say, “Oh yeah, I remember hills” if you’ve been in San Diego for a while.
You can ride home the way you came, but for me the zigzag through the neighborhoods is something I only need to do once a day, so I take the straight route home: Catalina > Point Loma Ave. > Sunset Cliffs Blvd. It’s all fast and surprisingly mellow for city riding.
Shortening the route: Lop off as much of the start of the ride as you want. Most extremely, you could start on Catalina Blvd. and do a 6.5-mile ride.
Adding miles: Since you’re starting where the Mission Bay to La Jolla ride starts, you can add on that ride effortlessly. The Adding Miles section of the Mission Bay to La Jolla ride discusses how you can add on the Bayshore Bikeway ride as well.
Distance: 22 miles out and back Elevation gain: 660 ft
Cycling in San Diego is backwards. Usually when I’m in a city I can’t wait to get out of town and into the surrounding hills. But I’m not excited by the hills to the east of San Diego—the road contours are monotonous and the scenery is scrub. And riding in the burbs is endless big, straight, flat roads past gated communities. But the riding in town along the water is very good. City riding tends to be frenetic and dangerous, but not so here. Traffic is light, the roads are hospitable, bike lanes and bike boulevards abound, and the beach communities are cozy and charming. Bestrides discusses three of those ocean-hugging routes, all of them chestnuts to the locals: the ride to Cabrillo National Monument, the Bayshore Bikeway (in Adding Miles below), and this one. Since they hug the shoreline, all three rides are flat or nearly so, are slow-paced, and are perfect to do with your non-rabid partner on their e-bike. Comparing the three, this one is the slowest, Cabrillo has the climbing and the grand vista, and the Bayshore Bikeway has the solitude.
This is one of those urban adventure rides like the San Francisco Wiggle Route. It’s about poking your nose into interesting little corners of the city. It changes its personality every couple of miles, and it doesn’t have a boring moment, if you like SoCal beach culture and residential architecture, which I do.
Take your time on this ride. You’ll spend as much time watching seals frolic, assessing the skills of the surfers along the route, and sampling the fish tacos in a seaside taco shack as you do riding. This 22-mile ride took me about 4 hours. And even though it’s in the heart of a busy city, it’s 99% on neighborhood streets or sidewalks (!), so it’s almost car-free. I can’t think of a more pleasant way to spend an afternoon lazing about on your bike.
Our route starts at Mission Bay Park, where Clairemont Drive crosses the San Diego Freeway. Parking is plentiful—if you can’t park in the lot at the intersection, there are several parking lots to the north and south, and there is abundant curb parking in either direction on Mission Bay Drive. Ride north on Mission Bay Drive, an open, tranquil boulevard near the water’s edge with good views of Mission Bay and the grass fields and public beaches along its lip. From here on, with few exceptions, you just stay as close to the water as you can.
Soon you cross the cute little Mike Gotch Memorial Bridge over the Rose Inlet and your park boulevard becomes a street, Pacific Beach Drive. PBD is large and badly paved, but few cars use it. On your L is the Kendall Frost Mission Bay Marsh Preserve. The large stick mounds you see dotting the marsh are the nests of Ridgway’s Rail. The nests are tethered to the marsh grasses and float up and down with the rising and falling tides.
You can take PBD straight west to the ocean if you’re short on time, but our route takes a detour by staying close to the water and riding the perimeter of Crown Point, a peninsula that juts south into Mission Bay. Take Crown Point Drive, a large and open street, to the L. You can stay on it if it makes you happy, but I prefer the small paved trail that takes off soon to the L and continues between the street and the water, the Bayside Walk (weekend pedestrian traffic may make it unrideably crowded). It goes all the way to the southern tip of the Mission Beach peninsula, but before then we bail and take surface streets back to Pacific Beach Drive and take it L to the water (ignore the odd little jog south RidewithGPS invented).
Ride west until you’re gazing at the ocean and standing on the sidewalk fronting the beach. You’re now in Pacific Beach. The sidewalk you’re standing on is called Ocean Front Walk, and on a busy weekend day it may be nearly impassible with pedestrians, but you’re welcome to ride on it, and you should make the effort, because it’s a classic SoCal beach community scene—surfers in the water and prepping on the beach, girls in bikinis, customers drinking at the outdoor beer stands and watching the aforementioned surfers and girls, grass-roofed taco stands. Take Ocean Front Walk R/north and stay on it until it ends.
From the end of Ocean Front Walk you could take main streets all the way to La Jolla: Mission Blvd., La Jolla Blvd., and Prospect Street. They’re all wide, busy, and boring. We’re going to do the opposite and try to lose ourselves in the intriguing warren of beachfront streets to the west of them There is an almost infinite variety of routes available, and you can’t really go wrong or get lost, since you have the ocean on one side and the big streets on the other—just make sure you keep heading north. You’ll have the best time if you always choose to a) stay close to the water and b) take the smallest street that isn’t a cul de sac.
The rewards here are architectural. From Pacific Beach to La Jolla, every house seems to be unique, charming, beautifully maintained, and insanely expensive. Navigating is fun, especially since every street name seems to be some combination of playa (Spanish for “beach”), sol, arena (Spanish for “sand”), marina, vista, mar, and camino. Playa Del Sol? Vista Del Mar? Camino Del Playa? Playa Del Vista? Camino Del Vista Del Playa Del Mar? How many combinations can there be? You will also pass some sweet off-the-grid beach access spots if you want to dig your toes into the sand.
Arriving in La Jolla, you’ll find excellent shopping and eating, but I’m only interested in the shoreline. Your first stop is Children’s Pool Beach, where for much of the year you (along with a throng of others) can watch the mama seals teach their new babies how to swim. Heartwarming. Continue north along the water 1/4 mile to Point La Jolla, where you may see seals surfing the swells and leaping clear of the water before the crest breaks. Amazing. Just past Point La Jolla is La Jolla Cove, with more seals, caves, and dramatic coastal views.
You can continue on north as far as you want (see Adding Miles). Turn around when you’re ready and return to Pacific Beach. Retrace your route or discover a new one through the neighborhoods.
Before turning L onto Pacific Beach Dr., continue south on Ocean Front Walk and explore the community of tiny beach houses that begin at PBD and go south down the Mission Beach peninsula. They’re packed in between Ocean Front Walk and Mission Blvd., rows and rows of adorable bungalows separated only by walkways just wide enough for your handlebars. These “streets” are so small most maps don’t show them—as many as 7 or 8 in a normal city block—and they have names as colorful and imaginative as the cottages themselves: Zanzibar, Windemere, Yarmouth. It’s a private world, like the Berkeley Hills or Sausalito’s houseboat communities, one you can only gaze at and fantasize about the life within.
When you’re done, return to Pacific Beach Dr. and retrace your steps home. If you don’t need to see Crown Point twice, just stay on PBD and you’ll be home in minutes.
Shortening the route: it’s already short and easy, but if you must, the uniquely San Diegan part of the ride is from Pacific Beach to La Jolla, so park near the west end of Pacific Beach Dr. and ride from there.
Adding miles: You can keep riding north. I haven’t done it, but I am assured that the riding along the coast remains rewarding at least as far as Encinitas and probably all the way to Oceanside, where the Coast Highway deadends into Hwy 5.
With little trouble you can ride East Mission Bay Drive south from our starting point and continue on it (later called Pacific Hwy., then Harbor Dr.)) to another iconic San Diegan ride, the aforementioned Bayshore Bikeway. Once called the Bay Route Ride and supposedly renamed to avoid confusion with possible bike rides in Lebanon (truly), this favorite ride of non-cyclist tourists is described in detail in numerous websites of Things to Do in San Diego, so I will be brief. It begins with a ferry ride from the downtown Navy Pier to Coronado Island ($7 one way, leaving every hour on the hour) and follows a well-marked course along the southeast edge of Coronado, past the Hotel del Coronado, and down the Silver Strand, the spit connecting Coronado Island to the south end of the bay. It’s a separated bike path almost all the way and it’s dead flat, so you will see a lot of tourists on e-bikes. Coronado is charming in a big-money way, the Strand itself is prettily desolate (your path is on the east side of the highway, so you don’t see the ocean), there’s some interesting history and one State Beach along the way, and the south end of the bay is an interesting marsh with a bird sanctuary.
But there’s a trap. The Bikeway advertises itself as a loop and invites you to continue on northward up the east side of the bay. This you must not do. It’s ugly industrial, with bad road surfaces and occasional dangerous traffic, a poor patchwork of bike paths, sidewalks, main streets, baffling interchanges, construction sites, and parking lots. At one point the Bikeway’s own route signage directed me down a separated bike path along a major artery, a path which without warning turned into a sidewalk and then ended in dirt. So ride the Bikeway to the bird sanctuary, turn around, and retrace your steps.
Distance:36.6-mile out and back more or less Elevation gain: 1845 ft
Warning: the last time I did this ride I parked at the Keswick Dam Trail Head parking lot and my car was broken into. Don’t leave valuables in your car.
Normally I don’t like rec trails, because they’re crowded and claustrophobic. But the occasional rec trail rises above the regrettable norm, and Bestrides discusses five that I really like: the Monterey Bike Trail, the Willamette River Trail in Eugene, the American River Trail in Sacramento, the Coyote Creek Trail in San Jose, and this one. As with all rec trails, the Sacramento River Trail (also called the Sacramento River Parkway) can get unpleasantly crowded on weekends, but if you can catch it on a quiet day, it’s a wonderful ride, with an immaculate road surface, grand vistas, and (much of the time) an intriguing contour.
Besides crowds, the curses of rec trails are monotony and flatness/straightness (since most are trail-to-trail conversions). The SRT has neither problem. The route is a constant series of entertaining surprises: Turtle Bay Exploration Park with its vast array of educational attractions, McConnell Arboretum and Botanical Gardens next-door, a giant sundial, three river crossings on bridges (one world-famous, one a suspension bridge straight out of Indiana Jones), one spooky tunnel, endless views of the Sacramento River (since you’re riding along its very lip), distant views of Mt. Lassen to the southeast, views of Mt. Shasta at the turn-around, a ride along the top of one of the world’s largest and most scenic dams, interesting historical placards to further your knowledge, cards naming and describing the trees and shrubs along the path, one mighty hydroelectric generating plant, bald eagles in flight, and so on. And the SRT is, about 2/3 of the time, as far from flat/straight as you can get, a delightful roller coaster of up and down and back and forth (it’s more work than the elevation total suggests). When it is flat, it’s still perfectly pleasant.
Avoiding the crowds is key here. Two solutions are obvious: 1) ride on weekdays and 2) ride farther than the walkers can walk. The SRT is one of those trails that begins near the heart of the city and gets more and more isolated the further you go. Most of the walkers are in the first 3 miles of the route, and by Keswick Dam they’re almost entirely gone. The third solution is unusual: ride in the winter. The flora is as pretty in January as it is in June, but the crowds are indoors, so if you can find a clear, dry winter day the trail should pretty much belong to you and the hard-core runners. In addition, in the winter the surrounding summits are crowned with snow and the vistas are vastly improved. And it isn’t 105°, as it often is in August.
The frequent trailheads along the route all have bathrooms. Water resupply is available at Keswick Dam, Shasta Day Use Area, and (I’m told) the Shasta Dam Visitor Center.
Our route crosses the top of Shasta Dam, but RidewithGPS doesn’t recognize that as a “road” or it thinks it’s closed to the public—for whatever reason it wouldn’t let me map it.
Click on any of the photos to see them enlarged.
The SRT changes its personality every few miles, so I’ll describe the route in sections.
Section 1: From the Sundial Bridge to the Diestelhurst Bridge. Park in the Turtle Bay parking lot (it’s free). Make a mental note to come back and explore the riches of Turtle Bay soon. Ride across the famous Sundial Bridge carefully—the road surface of the bridge is mostly glass and is therefore slippery if at all wet or frosty. Check out the giant sundial laid out on the earth at the north end of the bridge. Turn L onto the North Sacramento River Trail. Immediately pass the gates to the Botanical Gardens. Make a mental note to come back and explore the riches of the gardens soon. At the gate to the gardens is a poster with an excellent map of the SRT—take a photo for later reference if you forgot to download your ridewithGPS route map.
This section of the trail is cozy, full of tight little turns, drops, and rises as it works its way through pretty riparian oaks and past playgrounds and other suburban signs of life. It’s likely to be the section of the ride most crowded with walkers, dogs, and children. Note the pretty quarter-mile markers along the route—they are one of at least 5 different sets of distance markers you’ll see on the ride, so you’ll never be in doubt about where you are on the route.
Follow the unmistakable trail as it passes under two bridges. At the third bridge, the Diestelhorst, pass under, immediately go R and loop up onto the bridge. From the center of the bridge (which is closed to cars), note Mt. Lassen through the trusses of the two bridges to the east.
Section 2: From Diestelhorst Bridge to Keswick Dam. At the south end of the bridge turn R onto the unmissable South Sacramento River Trail and ride to Keswick Dam. Note the large sign at the trailhead giving you distances to all destinations ahead—it’s the first of many. This is a popular trailhead for runners, because this leg is mostly flat and straight, so you may have company. It’s mostly free of development, traveling through pretty, small woods and later more open country, hugging the riverbank the entire way. Note the prominent mountain dead ahead of you (hopefully snow-crested if you took my advice and are riding in the winter), which I was told by a local is Whiskeytown Mountain. Watch for bald eagles from here to the turn-around.
As you approach the impressive pile that is Keswick Dam and Power Station, you pass a lovely little suspension bridge across the river, called either the Sacramento River Trail Bridge or the Ribbon Bridge depending on your map. We’ll cross over on it on our return ride.
Section 3: From Keswick Dam to Keswick Boat Launch and Trailhead. Officially the Sacramento River Trail ends here and the continuation is called the Sacramento River Rail Trail, but no name could be more misleading. This leg is by far the most dramatic, difficult, and rewarding on the route, and no rail line could ever consider traversing it. It begins with a challenging 0.5-mile hill, named Heart Rate Hill on the nearby placard, the first of two climbs on the route that you’ll really notice. RWGPS says it maxes out at a bit less than 9%, but I promise it feels like more.
From Heart Rate Hill’s summit, the leg meanders dramatically, up and down, back and forth. You’re high above the river, on top of the canyon ridge, and it’s exhilarating. The terrain is sparse and dry, made more barren by the recent fires that pounded Whiskeytown, but it’s a grand barrenness, and the constant views of Mt. Lassen and Brokeoff across the river to the east are splendid. By now you should have out-ridden all but the heartiest of trail users, so you can really attack the course. This is great riding and is the one leg of the SRT you can’t afford to miss.
Section 4: From Keswick Boat Launch to the Shasta Day Use Area. This leg fits the rail-to-trail stereotype—basically flat, straight, and homogeneous—as it works its way through riparian shrubs and low trees along the river’s shoreline. Trailside placards naming and describing the local flora pop up. The monotony is broken by a cool little tunnel, long enough to get pleasantly tingly but never pitch-dark. You’re nearing the northern end of the trail, so you may pick up some walkers or casual cyclists coming from the Shasta Use Area campgrounds just ahead of you.
The bike trail debouches onto a major road at the Shasta Dam Trail Head of the SRT. Follow the road to the R, which soon leads to the Shasta Day Use Area, a major complex with campgrounds, bathrooms, and water.
Section 4 would be the most skippable on the route except we need it to get to the next leg, which you don’t want to miss.
Section 5: Shasta Day Use Area to Shasta Dam. Ride through the Day Use Area (drinking water available) on the main road (Coram Rd., unsigned) and follow it to the dam, a very sweet, moderate 1.5-mile climb serpentining up beside the dam face to the road across the top of the dam itself. Halfway up the climb the road changes its name to Shasta Dam Access Rd., again unsigned. At the dam, ride across it to the other side, then ride back. The dam road (officially still Shasta Dam Access Rd.) is surrounded by guardhouses, barriers, and guards armed with automatic weapons, so it looks forbidding, but you are in fact welcome to ride there and poke around (a sign says, “No knives, guns, or food”—I didn’t ditch my Clif Bar). Smack on the far side of the lake is Mt. Shasta in regal grandeur, and the views down the face of the dam are unforgettable. It’s an iconic dam, everyone’s image of what a dam should look like. On the far side is a Visitor Center where you can replenish your water, if it’s open—in an act of incredible (and typical) governmental idiocy, its current hours are Mon.-Fri. 8:30-4:00…in other words, exactly when almost no one can visit.
Turn around and ride back down the hill. It’s a perfect slalom on perfect pavement, over too soon. Return to the SRT and ride it backwards past Keswick Dam to the suspension bridge. Cross the river on it and begin the next leg.
Section 6: North Sacramento River Trail to the Diestelhorst Bridge. You are paralleling Section 2, but the terrain couldn’t be more different. Whereas Section 2 is flat and straight, this leg is the most twisty/turny up and down riding you’ll do all day. I loved it. If you love it too, there is an argument to be made for skipping the tamer Section 2 on the ride out and doing Section 6 in both directions. I won’t say no.
The NSRT debouches onto a suburban neighborhood street. Continue down the street and keep an eye out for the continuation of the trail, which takes off to the R in 1/4 mile with no signage. Don’t fall for the trail-look-alike driveway just before it.
This leg runs back into our outward path at the base of the Diestelhorst Bridge. Return the way you came to your car.
Shortening the route: Since there are car-accessible trailheads with parking lots scattered along the route, you can start/stop your ride at any of them and tailor the route to suit your aesthetics, conditioning, and tolerance for crowds (see my warning about theft at the beginning of this post). The 6 sections from best to worst are IMO #3, 5, 6, 1, 2, and 4. Which means there is no way to ride just the good stuff. My ideal short route would be #3, 4, 5, and back, putting up with Section 4 for what lies on either side.
Adding miles: You can add on 6-8 unthrilling miles to our route by continuing on past the dam Visitor Center and going R/south on Hwy 151, Shasta Dam Blvd., to Summit City (so called on maps, but signed “Shasta Lake” as you approach town), then either turning around or heading north on Lake Blvd, which will return you to the dam. Shasta Dam Blvd. is a generic moderate climb and descent on a big two-lane road with car-friendly contours (big sweeping turns). If you ride it as an out and back, it adds c. 1100 ft. Lake Blvd. is even less exciting. The only real reward in doing the loop, besides getting additional miles in, is the spectacular vista point halfway up the Shasta Dam Blvd. climb looking back on the face of Shasta Dam, the lake behind it, and Mt. Shasta in the distance. I’d ride to it, take in the view, and turn around.
If you make it to Summit City, take the time to continue east 1/4 mi. on Shasta Dam Blvd. to the town’s Little League baseball field to see if there’s a game going on—if there is, it’s a heart-warming Norman Rockwell scene of small-town Americana. Water available.
If you’re determined to loop the entire ride and don’t mind riding a lot of mediocre stuff, you can ride to the dam and take this return route. It does a good job of avoiding the larger roads. Notice that for the fun of it I’ve included an out-and-back on Walker Mine Rd., which is a good bit better than anything else on this route.
There is some additional bike path to the east of the Sundial Bridge, on both sides of the river, and it’s all fun stuff—consult the map by the Botanical Gardens—but it isn’t a significant number of miles.
Distance: 15-mile out and back Elevation gain: 2630 ft
This is a winding, narrow backroad in the Wine Country with one striking virtue that makes it stand out among Wine Country rides: new, glassy pavement. It has all been recently repaved and is glass (thanks, Paul). If you don’t think that’s a big deal, you haven’t ridden in Sonoma County very much. Among our Wine Country rides, this, Mt. Veeder Road, and Hopland Road are the only three with respectable pavement, and Veeder is chipseal and Hopland is big and trafficky, so Cavedale is the only well-paved backroad climb in the area.
Cavedale Rd. climbs up and down over a ridge between the Napa and the Sonoma Valleys. From the SE end, it’s a pure climb to the summit—in 5.2 miles you accumulate a total elevation gain of 1930 ft and a total descent of 18 ft. It’s a pretty steady 8-10%, with lots of little stingers of 12+% that RidewithGPS refuses to acknowledge. The climb from the NE end is milder, but only because you have to climb Trinity Grade to get to the start, so unless you do Trinity by car the elevation gain (and the amount of 8-10% pitch) is about the same from either direction. In other words, it’s work.
When I did it it was still under construction, so I wasn’t able to ride the entire road. Even though my map route is an out and back of the whole thing, in fact I rode from the Sonoma end to the summit and back. I’ll describe what I rode, and we can assume the rest of the road is similar.
The repaving hasn’t widened or straightened the road, so it still varies from one-lane-plus at its widest to true one-lane and is never straight, which makes the steady 10% pitches bearable. The landscape is mostly dry, with some fire damage, and the main visual payoff are the frequent vistas of the Sonoma valley below you once you gain some altitude.
You’d think a lonely, narrow, serpentining, glass-surfaced descent would be marvelous. I didn’t find it so. It’s fun but not exhilarating, because it’s too steep, with too many blind corners and too much traffic for you to let it it rip. In fact, I would say that trying to rip this descent would be seriously dangerous, unless you have disk brakes and an eagle eye for on-coming cars, since there is no shoulder, a major drop-off at either edge of the pavement, and no guardrails. Tellingly, two people I met on the road separately told me, without prompting, to be careful on the descent, and when I came down I saw why. I rode it at a mellow pace, without pressing, and enjoyed it.
Cavedale from the southeast end begins climbing immediately, and there’s no shoulder to park on anywhere near it on Hwy 12, so for those two reasons I suggest you drive north on Hwy 12 a half mile to wide, open, flat Madrone Rd. and park/warm up there. Ride back to Cavedale, thanking god you don’t have to be on busy and dangerous Hwy 12 any longer than this.
At the base of Cavedale there are a number of promising/interesting signs: “Winding one-lane road, RV’s and trailers not recommended” (always encouraging for cyclists); “Road narrows” (which seems impossible, given the width at that point); and a sign telling you that the recent repaving is partly paid for out of profits from Levi’s Grand Fondo, the enormous group ride out of Santa Rosa—thank you, Mr. Leipheimer! (Hey, some of that money is mine!)
About riding Cavedale itself there is little to add. It’s all up for 5.1 miles to an obvious summit. For a while there is little to distract you—there are no forks or crossroads and no visible houses by the road. Many people live in the area and use the road (hence the traffic), but they’re all down long driveways and nothing is visible from the road except for the occasional gate. There is some fire damage, but the terrain is so barren you will hardly notice. Views of the valley below improve as you ascend, and near the top of the hill the inevitable Sonoma vineyards begin to appear.
Past the summit the road descends steeply for a half mile, then becomes mellow (4-5%) up and down to the turn-around.
Shortening the route: Ride to the summit and back. For a much easier ride, ride from the northwest end to the summit and back (4.4 miles).
Adding miles: As discussed in the Mt. Veeder Road ride, Mt. Veeder and Cavedale are sorta parallel, so you can loop them both by riding one, then Trinity Grade to the other, then a rather lengthy connector through the greater Sonoma area. Locals do it, but I wouldn’t. I think Hwy 12, which you would need to ride from Cavedale to Sonoma, is a death trap—narrow, very busy in both directions, with no shoulder.
See the Mt. Veeder Road Adding Miles section for options at the northwest end of Cavedale.
Distance: 29 miles one way Elevation gain: 3890 ft
(A Best of the Best ride)
There are three routes to get from the Mendocino coast to the Lake Mendocino area of Hwy 101: Hwy 20, Hwy 128, and this one. They couldn’t be more different. Hwy 20, from Fort Bragg to Willits, is gorgeously wooded but a death-trap for bikes, a heavily-trafficked road of blind corners and no shoulder. I’ve never seen a bike on it, for good reason. Hwy 128 and Hwy 253, from Albion through Boonville to Ukiah, a leg of which is part of the Mendocino/Comptche ride, is mostly a mellow, nearly flat cruise through domesticated farmland and riparian redwoods. Our route (called at its west end Comptche-Ukiah Road and at its east end Orr Springs Road, with a name change somewhere in the middle) is a different beast, a dramatic, demanding roller-coaster. It’s a world-class ride, constantly serpentining and climbing up and down (it’s never flat) through several kinds of pretty terrain on an almost-car-free road that ranges in size from small two-lane to tiny.
There are two drawbacks that may keep it from being your favorite ride. First, it’s too long and too hard as an out-and-back for all but the hardiest of riders—57 miles and 7310 ft., and harder than that sounds. So I’ve mapped it as a one-way ride, and left you to deal with the logistical consequences. If you’re up for a century-like effort you can loop it, and almost every mile of the loop is top-quality riding—we’ll talk about the loop route in the Adding Miles section below.
Second, most of the road surface is OK to great, but about 6 miles are chipseal—not horrible, intolerable jagged chipseal, but the kind of chattery “smooth” chipseal I find merely annoying. If you’re on fat tires it will probably be OK.
Besides 30 miles of exhilarating road contour and beautiful isolation, the route offers two splendid perks: Orr Hot Springs, a small, charming Hippy holdover, and Montgomery Woods State Natural Reserve, a fine stand of old-growth redwoods with a short loop trail. Each is well-worth an hour’s stop-over.
The ride is about as good in the other direction, and through-riders might like to use it to get from Hwy 101 to Hwy 1 and Mendocino, but don’t think that just because it’s going west from the heights of the Coast Range to the ocean it’s all down—it’s 3420 ft of gain going west (only slightly less than the gain going east), and the ups are steep.
There is no water source along the route except a few private houses and Orr Hot Springs, so plan accordingly.
Start in the tiny town of Comptche, which consists of a few houses, a rustic school, a rustic church, and a classic, friendly corner mercantile worth a visit (when it’s open, which seems to be most of the time). Head east on Comptche-Ukiah Road, the only road that isn’t Flynn Creek Road. After a short 2-mile warm-up on rollers, you do a vigorous 2-mile climb on 7-11% pitches. The road surface, recently redone, is incredibly good from Comptche to around Mile 7, then merely good to around Mile 10. You’ll have some town traffic in the first mile or two, but soon the houses and farms end and you should have the road pretty much to yourself for the rest of the ride.
If you’ve ridden the Mendocino/ Comptche ride route from Hwy 1 to Comptche, the landscape isn’t that pretty here, but almost nothing is. East of Comptche the climate is dryer, so instead of redwood rainforest you get oaky woods, but it’s still very pretty.
At the fairly noticeable summit the road begins to roll up and down (as I say, the route is never flat) for about 5 miles. You begin hitting short sections of road with poor pavement, but they’re interspersed with sections of new glass, and it never gets troublesome. Then you see a sign that reads “next 2 miles, 10% (down)” and you begin about 2 miles of serious descending, 10-15%, which is the most compelling argument against riding the route east to west.
At the bottom of the descent you begin a 7-mile stretch of gradually rising rollers, the nearest to flat on the route. The scenery, which has gotten pretty dry by now, begins to perk up as you hit a wetter microclimate, and soon redwoods reappear and you’re in paradisial forest. It would alll be heaven except that it’s all chipseal—about as good as chipseal can get, never unbearable but certainly irritating.
When the redwoods reach their peak you hit Montgomery Woods State Natural Preserve (unmissable), a lovely short walking loop through the best of the trees. Bikes are forbidden (it would be an awesome mountain bike ride), and it’s too far to walk without real shoes, but if you didn’t pack them you can still stop, sample the ambience, and use the bathrooms by the entrance.
The road, which was always small, has been getting smaller (the center line is long gone), and right after Montgomery it gets laughably narrow. Enjoy it—it will return to normal two-lane width soon enough.
You may see walkers along the road here, because Montgomery is a mile or two down the road from the route’s other plum, Orr Hot Springs (unmissable). This small but developed hot springs has nothing in common with big operations like Harbin Hot Springs or Wilbur Hot Springs. It’s usually almost deserted, which is good because the hot springs can only handle about 4 people at once, consisting merely of a large roofed barrel and a shallow, rocky puddle. The expansive flower gardens are an unexpected but joyful draw—walking among the blooms is as restorative as the hot water. It’s all very peaceful and solitary. Consider begging for water here, because you have 12 miles of hard, exposed, and potentially hot riding still to do.
Immediately beyond Orr, the route begins its most demanding climb, 4.5 miles of tough pitches that for the first mile or so are brutal. RidewithGPS says that mile is consistently c. 10%, but expect much steeper stuff. After that it’s just standard hard. To make matters worse, when the climbing starts, the terrain changes completely, from lush redwood canopy to open, grassy oak-strewn hillsides, so if you’re riding on a summer afternoon expect to be cooked. The good news is that, as the climbing starts, the road surface turns to glass.
This new rolling grassy landscape lasts until the end of the ride, and it’s really quite rewarding in its way, with a lot of serpentining in the road contour and lots of big vistas in all directions. For the first time in the ride, you can see more than 30 yards of the road ahead of or behind you.
At mile 21, the extended climbing is over and you’re officially “descending” to just before the end of the ride, but the road continues to roll so you’ll do some work. Much of this pavement is merely OK but never hateful.
Once off the hill, you roll under Hwy 101 and T into North State Street just north of central Ukiah. Here there is basically nothing but some commercial/ industrial activity, and there I abandon you to the whims of fate.
Shortening the ride: You can turn around any time. The first logical turn-around spot is at the first summit—round trip distance 8 miles but it’s a demanding 8 miles. It’s a very nice descent, with great pavement, good sight lines, and gentle turns that don’t require much braking. East from the summit it rolls for about 5 miles, so you can continue on without a major climbing penalty and turn around at the “Next 2 miles, 10% (down)” sign—round trip 17 miles. Beyond that point, you’ve got a tough 2-mile climb coming back so continuing is an investment.
Adding miles: Obviously the simplest extension is to turn around and ride back the way you came, which of course doubles the distance and almost exactly doubles the climbing effort. If you don’t like out and backs and are willing to put in a very long day, you can loop the route, and it’s almost all great stuff: from our end point, go south, through Ukiah proper to Boonville-Ukiah Road, take BUR, go R onto Hwy 128, ride 128 to Flynn Creek Rd. and take Flynn Creek Rd. back to Comptche—80 miles, 8340 ft gain (so it’s easier than the out-and-back route, since it’s a little more climbing spread over a lot more miles). All these legs except for the few miles through Ukiah proper are discussed in other Bestrides posts (you can search for them) and are top-quality miles.
If you want to keep the return miles to a minimum but don’t like out and backs, there is a mythic road that will take you almost straight back to your starting point: Masonite Road. It takes off from Orr Springs Rd. just outside Ukiah and wanders around until it rejoins Hwy 128 just east of Flynn Creek Rd. It’s 35 miles, 3070 ft, so it’s a much easier ride than Comptche-Ukiah/Orr Springs Rd. in either direction. Here’s a map. My sources tell me it’s officially a “private” road and gated off to cars but bikes are welcome. Google “Masonite Road” for more details. It sounds dreamy, except for one thing: it’s 75% gravel, so it’s not for me.
Distance: 11.6-mile lollipop Elevation gain: 980 ft
Until now Bestrides had no rides on the east side of the Skyline Blvd. ridge, so this is my attempt to fix that. This sweet little loop is easy and short. It includes a very sweet little dirt back route that only locals know—the “dirty” part of Dirty Moody. (A word of warning: RidewithGPS considers the dirt a “path” and as such won’t let me map it, though you can see it on the map clearly enough, so the map below just stays on Moody.)
The basic loop here is only 5 mi. long, and, while half of it is a climb, there isn’t a foot of it that’s work, so you’ll either want to start somewhere else to get some more miles or do the loop 3 times, which isn’t as stupid an idea as it sounds.
(To see the map in a more user-friendly format, clip on the drop-down menu in the RWGPS box in the upper R and select “map.”)
I begin at Shoup Park in Los Altos, for 3 reasons: it has a parking lot that’s a nice place to park (I was told it was OK to do so), it lets you ride pretty University Ave, and it leaves you only a couple of blocks from charming Main Street Los Altos and Satura Cakes, a great bakery, for post-ride refueling. If the parking lots at Shoup are full, there is plenty of curbside parking along University Ave. It adds 6 miles to the ride.
Ride University to S. El Monte Ave. University itself is a tranquil, leafy, upscale neighbor-hood street, very pretty. S. El Monte is almost a highway, big, open, and busy, but there’s a nice shoulder all the way and you aren’t going far. When SEM passes the unmissable Foothill-De Anza Community College football field on the R, the intersection is confusing because the main road seems to swing around the field, and the lone street sign telling you that SEM continues straight (on the island in the center of the intersection) is hard to see. You can go straight on SEM and take Moody St. when it soon goes off to the L., or, if you prefer bike paths or dislike the SEM traffic, at the intersection if you look at 1:30 (ahead and to your R) diagonally across the intersection you’ll see a little bike path which, if you take it, will parallel SEM for a short while and deposit you back on our route.
Moody Rd. itself is a very pleasant climb, so you could certainly stay on it until it deadends at Page Mill Rd., but eventually you’d be looking at a startling stretch of climbing that peaks at 16%, and there’s a easier and prettier alternative. Go R onto Moody Court. The signs tell you it’s private and not a through street, but you’re welcome to ride it and it’s closed only to cars. Soon you meet a cable across the road and you’re on dirt for perhaps a mile (which RidewithGPS shows as a trail). I am no fan of dirt, but this is dirt any road bike can ride in comfort, perfectly smooth hardpack at a mild uphill pitch that poses no traction problems. So you won’t actually get “dirty” despite the name (though, as with all dirt, I wouldn’t attempt it in wet conditions). It’s wild and wooded in there, quite the surprise after the multi-million-dollar manicured manses you’ve been riding past.
There is no signage, but just stay on the main route and ignore all obvious driveways. Soon you hit another cable, the dirt ends, and you’re on Central Drive. Central deadends at Page Mill Rd. Take a break from pedaling and check out Foothill Park on PMR—it’s a charmer.
It’s a stone’s throw down PMR to Altamont Rd, which offers views of some homes remarkably lavish even for this neighborhood, and one short but super-sweet, fast descending leg—you’re there when you see the “bicyclists—caution” sign. As if.
When Altamont ends at Moody, return to your car. Don’t just pack up and leave. Main Street Los Altos is 100 yards away, and it’s an urban fantasy on the order of Disneyland’s Main Street USA. Why aren’t all main streets as pretty as this? Oh, right, they don’t have infinite amounts of money. Anyway, it’s delightful if you can forget the 1% issues, with lots of places to eat with outdoor seating and the killer bakery I promised, Satura Cakes. Yelp, which rates the expensiveness of eateries, gives Satura 4 out of 4 $’s, which must be a first for a bakery, but that’s just for the $90 cakes—the almond croissants are a perfectly reasonable $4.50.
Shortening the ride: You’re kidding, right?
Adding miles: Depends on your standards. Local cyclists ride the surrounding roads (Page Mill Road, for instance) all the time and think they’re swell. I prefer the riding on the west side of the ridge, so I encourage you to ride towards the sea and do the Bestrides rides there. For instance, if you continue up Page Mill Rd., when it intersects Skyline Blvd. you’re on our magnificent Pescadero/Tunitas Creek Road ride.