Author Archives: Jack Rawlins

Huasna Road

Distance: 20-mile out and back
Elevation gain: xxx ft

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

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

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

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

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

The scenery is generic at first, but it gets better the further you ride, until you get off the valley floor and into the trees, and then it’s downright grand for the rest of the ride. You’re climbing, but so gradually I didn’t notice until I rode it going the other way. About 8 miles in, you hit the one and only hill, about 3/4 mile at 4-6%—in other words, just enough to open up your legs. The descent down the backside is perfect—easy slaloming at 25-30 mph through lazy, banked esses on glass. Way too short. Off the descent you debouche into Huasna Valley, which is very pretty, and Huasna itself, which is about 4 simple ranch houses. The road splits into two in the midst of “downtown,” and you turn around.

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

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

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

Prefumo Canyon Road/See Canyon Road

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

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

It’s a marvelous ride, full of everything we ride bikes for: beautiful woods, grand vistas, some easy rolling, some moderate climbing, a little tough climbing, some thrilling descending—even a bit of rideable dirt. I didn’t put it in the Top Ten best of the best list, but I was sorely tempted.

I had done some riding to the east and south of SLO before, and hadn’t been impressed—basically flattish rollers through featureless fields. This ride is the opposite of that, a high-energy thrill-fest, along a creek through dense, magnificent riparian oaks, then up to a mountaintop where you can see forever, then down the back side through more oak canopy to the outskirts of Avila, a beach town that is the very definition of Riding Destination.

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

I am told that the SLO spring is very short-lived—two weeks or so. Apparently I was supremely lucky to do this ride in mid-April, when the wildflowers were flourishing and everything is green. Try to time your ride accordingly.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Old Howell Mountain Road to Ink Grade

Distance: 25 miles dumbbell
Elevation gain: 3340 ft

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

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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 this one is charming, different from the others in Bestrides, and hard to find on one’s own.  It’s not a great ride, but it’s a nice little one.  It’s officially N. Rodeo Gulch Road, and South Rodeo Gulch Road is directly across the street from its southern end, but 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 Grade

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/Empire Grade 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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