The network of roads in Marin County between Highway 1 and Highway 101 may be the most heavily ridden cycling roads in rural California, but that’s just because they’re easily accessible from the population centers clustered around the Golden Gate Bridge. They aren’t the best riding in California. They’re fine. They’re nice. And they’re all the same—moderate rollers through dairy farm land on good road surfaces. So there is no best route. Feel free to ride on any road that catches your fancy, with two caveats: 1) try to minimize your time on the obvious main arteries—Pt. Reyes Petaluma Rd., Tomales Petaluma Rd., Sir Francis Drake Blvd.—and 2) be sure to include Chileno Valley Rd., which is a cut above the rest.
One of the charms of this area is the unpretentiousness of it all. There are few if any multi-million-dollar mansions or grand wrought-iron gates on this route, and the farm houses are real—old, family-owned, working dairy farms. The oyster restaurants along Hwy 1 are housed in shacks.
Like all grassy hills in California, these are burned brown during the dry months, so the scenery is prettier in spring and fall after the rains return.
The century that covers this area is the Marin Century, and, since the roads are all about the same, it’s a perfectly fine introduction to the area, if you want to ride 100 miles of it, which I don’t.
For those of us who want to do fewer than 100 miles, here’s a representative loop that covers a lot of the best stuff, including a very sweet (though crowded) stretch of Hwy 1, and the food is fantastic—artisanal cheese, great delis, two killer bakeries, and the best bread in the world. So bring money.
I actually don’t ride this route as mapped any more. I like a good hill, so I do the 36-mile Marshall Wall option described in Adding Miles, but I have to give up Pt. Reyes Station to do it.
There must be something wrong with Mapmyride’s elevation total. There are no killer climbs, but all that rolling adds up, and I’m willing to guarantee you’ll get a workout. The Marshall-Petaluma Rd loop has 3000 ft of gain, which isn’t nasty but is far from flat.
Distance: 20.5-mile lollipop Elevation gain: 1490 ft
This is another SF Bay shoreline ride with great views of the Bay and its attractions. It’s a bit more strenuous than the Golden Gate Bridge loop and less strenuous than the Conzelman Loop (note that mild elevation total), and less dramatic than either. It’s a fairly quiet, rolling ride through pretty woods and occasional $10-million homes to three uniquely charming Bay locales: Tiburon, Belvedere Island, and Belvedere Lagoon. As with all Bay Area shoreline riding, this ride isn’t about the work—instead, ignore your heart rate monitor, slow down, and take in the many delights that surround you.
Find a place to park around the north end of Paradise Drive. This area is fully built-up, with churches, schools, parks, and neighborhoods, so there are lots of options. Ride south on Paradise Drive. Soon the build-up ends and you’re into woods. You’re riding along the hilly shoreline of the Tiburon Peninsula, so views of north SF Bay, the Richmond-San Rafael Bridge, San Quentin, and the like are frequent. There is the occasional house, but they’re typically much too rich and snooty to let you see them. A nice realtor’s billboard advertises $7-million houses (or are they bare lots?—hard to say).
The road rolls sweetly between flat and hard work. Soon you hit a Y and Trestle Glen Blvd. splits off to the R. You don’t want it, unless you’re determined to ride a loop, in which case when you leave Tiburon on the ride home you can take Tiburon Ave and use Trestle Glen to get back to Paradise. The far better ride is to ride Paradise Drive out and back, as I’ve mapped it.
Paradise Drive drops down into Tiburon, one of those Bay villages you never want to leave. You debouch at Shoreline Park, a grass strip right on the water where the views of Angel Island, Raccoon Straits, the main Bay, San Francisco, and the Bridge are peerless and the people-watching is prime. Sailboats invariably are busy in the Straits, and usually there are dingy regattas underway in front of the Corinthian Yacht Club on your R. (“Corinthian” in this context means “amateur” or “in the true amateur spirit”—apparently the people of Corinth were great sportsmen.)
The tiny village of Tiburon consists of one small block but, as Spenser Tracy put it, “Every bit is cherce”—several good restaurants (which during the pandemic are serving at open-air tables on closed-off Main Street), an Italian bakery, small, tasteful shops, and two ferry terminals (to Angel Island, SF, and Sausalito). If you want to do the true Tiburon experience, eat at Sam’s, a restaurant famous for having its own boat dock.
At the end of one-block Main Street turn R (still on Main Street, in fact), immediately stay R at the Y to stay off Eastview St., and pass the absurdly quaint little shops of Ark Row lining the street on your R side. Main turns into Beach St—stay on it and you’re swept onto Belvedere Island. This small, hilly rock is crammed with small streets and absurdly expensive, very old houses—perhaps the classiest place to live in the Bay Area. Our route follows the shoreline, but if you’re craving some serious climbing, explore the inland streets, where you can find 10% pitches (Golden Gate Ave. is the main bisecter the island). From the shoreline road you’re looking out onto Richardson Bay and Sausalito on the far shore.
As you leave Belvedere Island, with San Rafael Blvd. on your R, you’re passing what is to me a magical place: Belvedere Lagoon. This artificial archipelago of charming cottages each with its own dock has ever since my childhood seemed like the most idyllic place on earth to live. Our route essentially circumnavigates it. Take a moment to explore it via its side roads.
As you near large, busy Tiburon Ave. (in the neighborhood of Hilaria, though I see nothing funny about the place), turn R onto Lagoon Rd., which parallels it, to avoid the traffic. Lagoon Rd. returns you to downtown Tiburon. From there return to your car the way you came.
Distance: 26 miles out and back Elevation gain: 1600 ft
I’m not a fan of cycling Highway 1. The scenery is peerless, but the traffic is often murder and the road profile tends to long, straight, enormous rollers. But in some places there are frontage roads paralleling Hwy 1, and these can be charming, with all the pluses of Hwy 1 and none of the minuses.
One of the best places to explore back roads along Hwy 1 is Mendocino. This ride strings together the best of them, and adds a pleasant climb and a final short jaunt on excellent dirt through prime woodlands. It’s all easy riding, and the scenic riches almost defy description. In a brief 12 miles are packed grand ocean vistas, the world-famous village of Mendocino, the also-world-famous Mendocino Headlands, a delicious State Park with fern canyons and more world-class headlands, some pretty coastal farmland, a sea lion rookery, an adorable lighthouse, a small cove with its own beach and 50’s beach store, and the afore-mentioned woodlands. To tie all this together you ride two short stretches of Hwy 1, both with grand ocean spectacle to the west if the traffic whizzing past you will let you appreciate it.
This is not a life-changing ride but an extremely pleasant one. There are at least 5 spots along this route where getting off the bike and walking is almost mandatory, so take shoes and a lock, or promise yourself you’ll come back in a car.
You can cut this ride up any way you like or begin anywhere you like. I’m starting at the southernmost point of the route. Drive a half mile or so south of Mendocino village, across the bridge over Big River and past the Comptche Ukiah Rd turn-off, and turn R onto Road 500B (named after Jedediah 500B, an early explorer and trapper). Googlemaps and other maps call it Brewery Gulch Road, but it’s clearly signed “Road 500B” at both ends. Make sure you’re on the Brewery Gulch Road that’s on the west side of Hwy 1—there’s one on the east side too. Parking can be scarce—you might have better luck on the east side of Hwy 1 or on Hwy 1 itself, or just ride from Mendocino village.
Brewery Gulch Road, our first frontage road, is less than a mile long and has a rough road surface, but the sense of being alone on a secret road is intense and it has the best view of the town of Mendocino there is—better than the view all those hikers get pounding around the Mendocino Headlands.
Quickly Brewery Gulch deadends at Hwy 1 (notice our Mendocino/Comptche ride is directly across the highway). Turn L on Hwy 1 and ride across the bridge to Mendocino, enjoying the views of the Big River estuary if traffic allows. A dreamy way to pass a day is to rent a canoe at the canoe rental place at the mouth of the river and paddle upstream. Take the first L into the village (from Hwy 1 you can’t see the town, but the turn is unmissable) and ride along Main Street, quite possibly the most charming Main Street in the US. There’s a nice public bathroom on the ocean side of the street if you already need one, and a great little museum in the building adjacent to it. Consider taking the time to explore Mendocino’s world-famous vibe (Main Street’s book store is my favorite book store anywhere), or just make a note to come back and spend a day.
When Main Street goes R, go with it and ride the 3 or so blocks to Little Lake Road. Turn L (toward the ocean) on LLR, which once out of town becomes Heeser Rd. Heeser, like 500B, is fairly rough riding but the headlands on the ocean side are without peer. You have to get off the bike and walk 50 ft to see them at their best—ideally, walk out onto the fingers of land that jut out into the sea—so once more promise to return if you can’t stop now.
Heeser deadends at Lansing St. Go L and ride Lansing to its deadend on Hwy 1. Go L on Hwy 1. This next leg passes through very pretty forest with some magnificent glimpses of shoreline to the west, but it’s invariably trafficky and can be a white-knuckle experience, especially on the bridge crossings where the shoulder disappears. It’s soon over, as you turn L toward Russian Gulch State Park (clearly signed). You’re crossing traffic here, and the cars are doing 60 mph, so exercise caution.
Twenty feet down your new road, it T’s, and the road goes L into the park or R onto Pt. Cabrillo Drive. We’re eventually heading R/north, but Russian Gulch is a stunning place. It encompasses both a rainforest canyon of redwoods and ferns with an easy walking trail along the creek that will heal any and all psychic wounds, and a chunk of headlands with all the grandeur of those in Mendocino without the hectic multitudes of sight-seers. Once again, make a note to return for a day (there is a fee).
Pt. Cabrillo Drive is the second of our frontage roads. It meanders through gentle rollers, past eucalyptus groves, small farms, turkeys, and deer. Midway along it, you pass the turn-off to the Cabrillo Point Lighthouse (or Light Station, as it’s officially called). It’s a half-mile detour, and you’re welcome to ride right to the lighthouse complex, which is extensive. There is the lighthouse itself, not a tall tower (since the land it stands on is high above the water) but a perfectly charming thing that’s still in operation, and lots of outbuildings, many of which—two museums, the lighthouse keeper’s cottage, and others—are open to visitors when Covid isn’t in bloom. Once again, if you don’t want to stop make a note to return.
At its north end, Pt. Cabrillo Dr. goes through an unexpected, unmissable hairpin. Right about there, turn L and take a short side-trip to Seal Lion Rock at Caspar Headlands State Reserve (hard to find—google for directions). It’s a little-known and usually deserted spot wedged into a housing development where a very short walk takes you to an offshore rock where a large colony of seals can be counted on to hang out.
Returning to Pt. Cabrillo Dr., swoop down to Caspar Beach, a throwback to an earlier time with a small RV park and a beach mercantile, with surfboard rentals and pool tables. It’s a cute spot, but there are much better beaches in the Mendocino area, so I recommend you soak up the ambiance and move on.
At Caspar Beach you’re at sea level. You now climb 720 ft to the turn-around point of the ride. Make the short climb back up to Hwy 1 and go straight across onto what the maps call Caspar Little Lake Road but which is only signed as Rd 409.
The first 100 yards of 409 are steep, but it’s the only steepness you’ll see on the route. Thereafter it’s a few miles of steady, easy climbing through pleasant but unspectacular greenery until the road turns to dirt. Even if you hate dirt, do not turn around—this is why you’ve climbed the hill. The dirt is glass—better than a lot of pavement—the road is flat, and the trees, while not old-growth, are especially lovely. I liked it so much I came back the next day and rode it again.
At around the 12-mile mark, 409 T’s into Little Lake Road, the very same Little Lake Road you were on for 50 yards as you exited Mendocino village (it’s unsigned—there’s a sign that says “Mendocino Woodlands” with an arrow to the left). At this point you have a choice. If you go R on LLR it will descend steadily and drop you smack in the midst of Mendocino village. If you’re a loop person, go for it, but the road surface is poor and I didn’t enjoy it. So I prefer to turn around and re-experience all the lovely stuff on the outbound route a second time. It’s up to you.
Shortening the route: You can choose any segment of the route you like—it’s all good—but I’d recommend the Pt. Cabrillo Dr. leg.
There is little that appeals at the northern end. At the turnaround point you can go L on Little Lake Road, but it just leads to a warren of dirt roads and never hooks up with anything of importance. Riding Hwy 1 north toward Fort Bragg isn’t rewarding.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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%.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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).
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.
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 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.