Author Archives: Jack Rawlins

Old Howell Mountain Road to Ink Grade

Distance: 25 miles out and back
Elevation gain: 3270 ft

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

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Hopland Road

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

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

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Geysers Road

Distance: 42-mile loop
Elevation gain: 3820 ft

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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North Rodeo Gulch Road

Distance: 11 miles out and back
Elevation gain: 1045 ft

I run the risk of having too many Santa Cruz rides in Bestrides, but I really like this one.  It’s different from the others, and hard to find on one’s own.  Some rides just have a lot of charm—this is one.  It’s officially N. Rodeo Gulch Road, but no one knows there’s a South Rodeo Gulch Road and people (and most maps) just call it Rodeo Gulch.

For Santa Cruz, It’s a dry landscape

How is it different from the other SC rides?  First, there are almost no redwoods.  The scenery is very good, but it’s not OMG awe-inspiring like the others.  The ecosystem is dry, so the woods are eucalyptus and great, gnarly oaks.  And it isn’t all along a creek at the bottom of a canyon in the dark—you work your way up a gulch and break out on the top of a largely open hill where there are (unheard of in SC) clear skies and actual vistas (not impressive vistas, but vistas).  And it isn’t all up and down—the top of the hill and the first miles at the southern end are essentially flat.  You won’t even rack 100 ft/mile.  Consider it a recovery ride.  Yet you’ll do enough work to feel like you rode your bike.  If you want more miles, it’s easy to add on (see Adding Miles).

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Felton Empire Road/Empire Road

Distance: 23 miles out and back
Elevation gain: 3260 ft

A Best of the Best descent

Let me lay my cards on the table.  This ride is in Bestrides because of 3.7 miles—the length of Felton Empire Road.  Since few Bestrides users are interested in going for a 7.4-mile ride, I’ve added some worthwhile miles to make a day of it, but it’s those 3.7 that really matter.

There are two roads that run parallel north/south through the region northwest of Santa Cruz: Hwy 9 and Empire Grade.  Hwy 9 is a beautiful road but the main artery through the region and is very heavily trafficked with no shoulder—to be avoided except when necessary as a connector.  Empire Grade is much less developed and much less busy, and is a staple bike route for Santa Cruzans, but it’s tamer, bigger, and straighter than the real Santa Cruz back roads and thus lacks that sense of being IN the redwood forest that makes SC riding so special.  It would be a great ride anywhere else, but it’s not near the top of my SC ride list.

Felton Empire Road

These two roads are connected by three roads of interest to cyclists: Felton Empire, Alba, and Jamison Creek.  All three are short (3-4 miles), steep, windy, and gorgeous.  Felton Empire is fairly steep, and Jamison Creek and Alba are very steep (slightly under 10% average).  Locals insist that Jamison is steeper than Alba.  If you want a vertical challenge, go for either one.  Hint: Jamison Creek is shorter (3 miles to 3.7 miles), but it begins with about a mile of low-key climbing so it packs all the hurt in the last 2 miles, and it’s rougher.  Both roads are too steep to be fun descents, and Jamison is downright awful.  So if we’re looking for a ride that’s rewarding up and down, the choice is Felton Empire, a testing but totally rideable climb and absolutely as good a descent as there is on this Earth.  Since there is a fog line between Boulder Creek and Felton, Felton Empire Road and Alba are wetter, therefore lusher/prettier, than Jamison Creek.

At the top of Felton Empire you can go three ways, and they’re all good.  But two of them, Ice Cream Grade (straight ahead) and Empire downhill (L), are part of the Bonny Doon ride, so I’ve mapped this ride to go R, uphill on Empire, to its end, then back.

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Ward’s Ferry Road

Distance: 34 miles out and back
Elevation gain: 4840 ft

This is a classic “drop down into a river canyon, cross the river, and climb up the other side” ride.  Thus it’s a lot like Mosquito Ridge Road, but not as good, because the road surface is often poor and the rock strata are only fair, but it’s a dramatic canyon, and the road surface is at its best when you need it the most, which is on the steep descending and climbing near the river.  The primary appeal is the solitude and the narrowness of the road—traffic averages 1-5 vehicles per transit (16 miles), and the road is often precisely one car-width wide, so you have to pull off onto the hillside to let the rare car pass.  No centerline, no fog line, no shoulder, no guard rails—just a little ribbon on pavement between cliff and drop-off.

The ride’s unique feature is the bridge across the Tuolumne River, which is either a work of art or an abomination, depending on your taste (see photo below).  From either side of the canyon there are some spectacular views of the river and road below you, so you can look down on where you’re heading (or where you’ve been), which is something I always love.  It’s usually ridden in one direction only, as part of several possible loop routes in the area (see Adding Miles), and it’s certainly easier that way.  As an out and back, it’s serious work—4840 ft of gain in 34 miles.  There are no 15% killer pitches, just a lot of 7-10%, and there’s a lot of variety in the pitch, so no endless grinds.

This is a slow ride and possibly a hot one, so unless you are reprovisioning in Groveland I encourage you to take a third water bottle and drop it at the bridge for the climb back to the car.

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San Juan Canyon Road

Distance: 22 miles out and back
Elevation gain: 2700 ft

This is the best ride in the Hollister area, a conventional climb-out-descend-back ride through varied, dramatic, and beautiful  terrain (in April), with a mountaintop, a simple State Park, and a stunning view westward at the turn around.

The image of Hollister is hot, dusty, dead flat agricultural fields and a culture stuck in 1955.  Some of that is true.  Hollister is hot and dry in the summer, and cold and dead in the winter, so I would try hard to schedule my riding for late spring (April) after some rain, when the grass is green and the area is momentarily a gorgeous, lush garden.  The town of Hollister and the surrounding agricultural valleys (Santa Ana Valley and San Juan Valley) are pancake flat, but they’re surrounded by small, rolling hills rich with meandering roads offering ideal riding contour.  The three Bestrides rides from the area all have substantial climbing.  As to the culture, Hollister is not especially hip, but it’s a pleasant, easy-going town, and San Juan Bautista 6 miles away is a small Old California treasure with a grand Spanish mission and adjacent historical State Park well worth an afternoon.

Hollister in April would be a cycling mecca were it not for one thing: the road surfaces in San Benito County typically vary from poor to awful.  The only exception I know of is this ride, which is one of the main reasons why it’s #1.   The surface isn’t great, but it’s good enough that you can actually enjoy the descending, which isn’t true about large portions of the other two Hollister rides in Bestrides.

The ride is harder than the elevation total suggests.  The first 4 miles are very mellow and only net you 500 ft of gain, and the last 3 miles are easy rolling, which leaves you with 2400 ft (by my computer) in the 4 miles in between.  Those 4 miles get gradually steeper as you go, so the last 2 miles are serious work.  Fremont Peak State Park, your destination, seems to be largely unvisited, so the traffic is next to nothing—on a beautiful weekday midday in April I saw perhaps 6 cars in the 22 miles on a lovely spring weekday, and there was one car in the Park parking lot.

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San Juan Grade Road

Distance: 18 miles out and back
Elevation gain: 1700 ft

A few words about riding around Hollister generally.

First, the image of the Hollister area is hot, dusty, dead flat agricultural fields and a culture stuck in 1955.  Some of that is true.  Hollister is hot and dry in the summer, and cold and dead in the winter, so I would try hard to schedule my riding for late spring (April) after some rain, when the grass is green and the area is momentarily a gorgeous, lush garden.  The town of Hollister and the surrounding agricultural valleys (Santa Ana Valley and San Juan Valley) are flat, but they’re surrounded by small, rolling hills rich with meandering roads offering ideal riding contour.  The three Bestrides rides from the area all have substantial climbing.  As to the culture, Hollister is not especially hip, but it’s a pleasant, easy-going town, and San Juan Bautista is a small Old California treasure with a grand Spanish mission and adjacent historical State Park well worth an afternoon.

Second, the road surfaces in San Benito County vary from poor to awful.  You just have to live with it (or ride somewhere else).  The one exception is our Fremont Peak ride, where the surface is OK.  If for no other reason, that makes Fremont Peak the best ride in the area.  I’d do it first, then this one, unless you don’t want to work.

San Juan Grade: very pretty country (in April)

San Juan Grade Road is an relatively easy (1900 ft in 9 miles of up) climb and descent over a low pass, then a return climb and descent back to your starting point in the town of San Juan Bautista.  It’s a “highway” in name only, since it’s a back route to Salinas (on various mapping sites it’s labeled “Salinas Highway,” “Hwy 3,” or “Salinas Road”) and almost all traffic takes the modern multi-lane.  In 22 miles I saw 9 vehicles.  

The wooded north side

The north and south sides of the summit pass are about equal in climbing effort but radically different in character: the north side is mostly wooded, through very pretty, riparian oak forest with a very poor road surface (see above); the south side is all fine vistas of open,  rolling grasslands dotted bucolically with picturesque cows and of Salinas in the distance, with a surprisingly good road surface, viz., it’s not terrible (there’s a distinct line across the road where the surface suddenly improves).   It’s still bad enough to put a slight damper on the otherwise swell descent.  Descending the north side is borderline misery.  Both sides serpentine pleasantly, not a moment of the climbing is strenuous, and the scenery is consistently charming and human-free (in April—see above).   A very pretty little ride.

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San Francisco’s Wiggle Loop

Distance: 18.4-mile loop
Elevation gain: 1100 ft

A Best of the Best ride

This ride is one of the best rides in California and a Bucket List ride if there ever was one.  Like the Golden Gate Loop, it’s more a cultural experience than a bicycle ride.  It takes you on a non-stop Greatest Hits tour of most of San Francisco’s iconic landmarks—a rolling introduction to almost every spot on a visitor’s to-do list.  You’ll experience about ten of the City’s most charming neighborhoods.  You could easily crank out the route in under two hours, but you don’t want to do that—ride slow, look around, take it in, stop often.  Bring a lock, money, and walking shoes, put on your puncture-resistant tires (this is, after all, a city), and schedule as much time for the ride as you possibly can—five hours at a minimum.

Prepare for sensory overload.  In 19 miles you will ride by, among other things,

The Ferry Building
The Embarcadero
The Exploratorium
Coit Tower
Pier 39
Fisherman’s Wharf
The Maritime Museum
The Hyde St Pier of Historic Ships
The Hyde St. Cable car turn-around
The Buena Vista Cafe
Aquatic Park
Fort Mason
The Marina
The Marina Green
The St. Francis Yacht Club
Crissy Field
Fort Point
The Golden Gate Bridge
The Presidio
Sea Cliff
The Legion of Honor
Land’s End
Sutro Baths
The Cliff House
Ocean Beach
The Great Highway
Golden Gate Park
The Panhandle
The Painted Ladies
Market Street
City Hall
The Opera House
The Asian Museum

Any one of these is worth from an hour to a full day.  Good luck budgeting your time.  Since most of the landmarks are familiar images, I’ve used the photos in this post to show some of the less familiar sights along the route.

So how’s the riding?  It’s mostly flat, with two noticeable climbs (as you pass the Golden Gate Bridge and ascending to the Legion of Honor).  Yes, SF is famously hilly—17 streets in the City top out at 30% or more, but none of them is on this route.  You ride over roads, broken pavement, sidewalks, bike paths, bike lanes, glass, and lots of trolley and cable car tracks, and ride through hordes of pedestrians and tourists.  It’s a bit chaotic and nervous-making at times, though there are stretches of near isolation.  Best of all, SF is perhaps the most bike-friendly city in the United States, and thousands of cyclists are following this route in bits and pieces on any given day, so it’s well-marked and blessed with bike lanes—I wouldn’t encourage you to go otherwise.

By the way, the Wiggle is a zig-zag bicycle route through a 17-block stretch of town just before our route returns to Market St.
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North Fork Siuslaw Road

Distance: c. 45 miles out and back
Elevation gain: c. 2830 ft

This is another ride leaving Hwy 101 and following an Oregon river upstream.  It’s different from our others (Gardiner to Eugene, Elk River Road) because the North Fork of the Siuslaw River is big, and the land around it is that wide, open flat marsh/meadow unique to big Oregon river mouths.  So for the first half of the ride you aren’t in forest or canopy—you’re in full sun, with trees on your L and the marsh/meadow on your R.  After 12 miles, you leave the river and the ride becomes conventional, lovely western coastal Oregon forest.  Like our other Oregon coastal river routes, it’s an easy ride—in the first 12 miles you’ll climb 350 ft.  Not a life-changing ride but a very pleasant day on the bike.

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