Author Archives: Jack Rawlins

Eureka Canyon Road/Highland Way

Distance: 39-mile loop
Elevation gain: 3410 ft

First, a disclaimer: I haven’t ridden every mile of this route. Highland Way was closed to all traffic due to construction when I was there. I’ve done all but that. But the loop is such an iconic ride that I wanted to include it. I promise to get back to it and finish it soon.

This is a staple Santa-Cruz-area ride. It’s an approximate square, and each leg is totally unlike the other three. The right side of the square is a mellow climb through some of the best redwood forests in the area. The top is a hairy, narrow track on iffy pavement or dirt along a sidehill. The left side is a Best of the Best descent on a serpentining, manicured thoroughfare. And the bottom is a flat cruise through the charming commercial cottages of downtown Aptos. So, pretty much every kind of road riding there is except steep climbing.

You can begin this route anywhere, but you must ride it counter-clockwise, because if you don’t you’ll be swapping a great descent for a lousy one. Our map begins at the corner of Freedom Blvd. and Day Valley Rd., which gives you 5 miles of flat, largely uninspired riding before the Eureka Canyon Rd. climb, but you can start anywhere on the route from Soquel on, and for that matter the climb out of Corralitos is so mellow you could start there and do it with cold legs.

Ride to Corralitos. There’s a shortcut on Hames Rd. which will save you a few miles and add some short, steep pitches to your day. In Corralitos, note the Corralitos Market and Sausage Company, where you are definitely going to want to have a post-ride sausage sandwich—amazing.

Start up Eureka Canyon Rd. and climb for 9 miles of mellow. The woods along ECR are as good as any in the Santa Cruz area, which means they’re as good as anywhere. The road surface varies from OK to poor and steadily worsens, until at the top of the climb it’s positively horrendous, which is why riding to the summit and turning around is a bad idea. If you are out for a short day, turn around the moment the pavement begins to deteriorate, or you’re looking at a jarring, tooth-rattling descent.

After 9 miles of climbing, Eureka Canyon Rd. summits. Thereafter there is only 2 miles of moderate climbing left on the route. ECR soon turns into Highland Way, which is the leg I haven’t ridden. I gather it’s a narrow track clinging to a dramatic sidehill with pavement that varies from OK to broken to dirt. Highland turns into Summit Rd. at the intersection of Summit and Soquel-San Jose Rd. Go L onto SSJR. We descend SSJR on our Bean Creek/Mt. Charlie route, so you can read about it there, but it’s a dreamy, glassy-smooth, ripping banshee ride you’ll dream about later.

SSJR drops you in the small town of Soquel, where you pick up Soquel Drive, the surface road paralleling Hwy 1, and follow it through Soquel and Aptos and out the other side. This is all through solidly built-up commercial stuff, which sounds at best tedious and at worst dangerous, but these communities are small, charming, and cozy, the vibe is mellow and tranquil, and the ride is really very pleasant—a perfect cool-down after the high drama of Eureka Canyon, Highland, and Soquel-San Jose. You pass numerous places to resupply or dine (I recommend Zameen Cuisine in Aptos), but of course you’re going to wait for Corralitos Sausage Co. so it doesn’t matter.

Soquel Drive dead-ends at Freedom Blvd. Take Freedom back to your starting place.

Alma Bridge Rd/Old Santa Cruz Hwy Plus

Distance: 27-mile lollipop
Elevation gain: 3100 ft

This outstanding route offers a variety of Santa-Cruz-area environments: rollers through open country, fast serpentining through splendid redwood forest, grand isolation over broken pavement and dirt, and moderate climbing on big, busy roads. There isn’t a bad mile in it. You cover 6 different roads, but the unmissable jewel is Old Santa Cruz Hwy, which is magnificent both climbing and descending. The entire ride is east of the great burn, so the woods are undamaged, and they’re as good as any in the area now that Big Basin has burned.

Take the Alma Bridge exit off Hwy 17 (accessible from the south only), drive to the Lexington Reservoir County Park and park there. There is no roadside parking between Hwy 17 and the park. There is a fee, but there is free parking in the dirt across the road from the park.

Ride down Alma Bridge Rd. It’s a wide two-lane roller, up and down on good new chipseal along the open sidehill paralleling the reservoir. Very nice riding. At the intersection with the improbably named Aldercroft Heights Rd., go R, cross the unremarkable eponymous Alma Bridge, and ride the short leg to Old Santa Cruz Hwy. Go L at the intersection with OSCH and begin the steady, easy climb up to Summit Rd.

Alma Bridge Road, and an iconic Santa Cruz road sign (click on photo)

This is as perfect a stretch of cycling road as I can imagine. The pavement is glass, the traffic is light, the trees are awesome, and the road contour is a perfect meander you’ll appreciate even more on the return descent. Savor this.

At Summit Rd. go straight across onto the unsigned (I think) continuation of OSCH. You are now going to drop without interruption for 3.8 miles, 3 miles of which is on fragments of pavement, rough dirt, and gravel. If you don’t want to do this (and I’m not implying you should), turn around and ride home.

Old Santa Cruz Highway

Assuming we’re continuing on: The pavement is lousy from the moment you leave Summit. Shortly after starting down OSCH, take the clearly-signed Schulties Rd. to the R and descend to the creek. The road surface is chattery and can’t be called fun, but I did it on 25 mm racing tires and had no problems other than sore hands from braking constantly. I definitely wouldn’t want to ride up it.

Schulties Road

The perks here are the forest and the isolation. The woods are dense, pristine, silent, and entirely empty of people. I love that stuff. Your mileage may vary.

Incidentally, when I was researching the ride I got reports on Schulties that ranged from 1) it’s a piece of cake to 2) it’s rough but doable to 3) it’s brutally rough and you’ll regret it to 4) it’s unrideable to 5) it’s blocked by landslides and impassable. The truth is #2. It is closed to cars, according to the sign, but any car could navigate it, while having little fun doing so.

At the bottom of Schulties, the pavement returns, there is a little group of houses called Laurel on maps, and there is an intersection, with your way, Redwood Lodge Rd., clearly signed. It’s hard to trust the sign, because it’s almost an 180-degree turn, but trust it anyway. Somewhere around this intersection it is reported that one can see one of the adits to one of the four defunct tunnels on the old train route from San Jose to Santa Cruz. The tunnels have been dynamited but the adits remain–a thing of much historical interest. I missed it.

Redwood Retreat

Redwood Lodge Rd. drops briefly, crosses the creek, then begins the climb up the other side with a ferocious little pitch. Fear not—since most of the descending on Schulties is recovered by climbing on Soquel-San Jose and Summit later, the climb out of the canyon on RLR is (after that one scare) moderate and short. Very pretty, but slightly less isolated than Schulties because it services the population of Laurel.

RLR deadends at Soquel-San Jose Rd., the road we ride down in the Mt. Charlie Etc. ride. Now we go up (L). It’s pleasant climbing through a garden-like landscape on a reliable shoulder back up to Summit Rd. As you approach Summit, there is a sweet-looking little cut-off on our L, Merrill, which will let you skip some of Summit if you’re willing to add some climbing to your total.

Take Summit Rd. to the L and ride 3 miles (assuming you didn’t take Merrill) of shoulder back to Old Santa Cruz. These 3 miles may be tediously pleasant or hellish, depending on the traffic level and the temperament of the individual drivers on your day, but it’s mostly moderate rollers and it passes quickly. Summit is largely built-up commercial, and it’s the nearest thing to slog on the ride.

Old Santa Cruz Highway

Go R on OSCH and get ready for one of the great descents. As I said, the surface is glass, the road is almost entirely empty of cars, the scenery is awesome, the road contour is perfectly designed for fast slaloming, and the pitch is just steep enough for serious speed without much braking. Wow. When I did it there was a pair of cyclists who seemed to be riding it over and over. I totally get that.

You’re moving fast so watch for the turn-off on the R to get you back onto Alma Bridge Rd. It’s very large and signed “Aldercroft Heights Rd.” Take it back to AMR and ride home.

Shortening the route: Ride Old Santa Cruz Hwy out and back. For a few more miles, add Alma Bridge Road.

Adding miles: You’re in the Santa Cruz area, so riches abound. The Soquel-San Jose and Summit legs are part of our Bean Creek/Mountain Charlie loop, though in the other direction. At the intersection of Old Santa Cruz Hwy and Summit you’re a short ride from the top of our Zayante Rd. ride, which bottoms out near our Felton Empire ride. And so on.

Cañada Road Plus

Distance: 35-mile loop plus three spurs
Elevation gain: 2270 ft

There are two Cañada Roads in the Greater Bay Area, one in Redwood City and one in Gilroy. The one in Redwood City is essentially a multi-use recreational freeway—meh. Ours is a super-pleasant jaunt through the rolling hills to the east of Gilroy. It’s just west of Henry Coe State Park, and one of its spurs takes you a few miles into the park. It’s a leg of the Terra Bella Century, which encircles Gilroy, though the TBC rides it in the other direction.

It’s not a life-changing ride, and there are no natural wonders or heart-pounding thrills, but it’s an outstanding ride nonetheless—35 miles of mellow, pretty, solitary riding on good road surface. You will work only once, on a four-mile climb of moderate pitch near the beginning of the ride. The rest is basically flat (check out that unthreatening elevation total), with enough constant gentle rolling up and down to keep your interest.

The loop offers up four different ecosystems. The first is the first half of the climb, through a thicket of trees in a small, narrow creek canyon. The second is the second half of the climb, through the same classic grass-covered bald hills you see throughout the East Bay. The third is dense forest canopy as you skirt the edge of small meadows. The fourth is riparian woods along Coyote Creek. All four are very pretty. The decor is classic California foothill: oaks, dales, sycamores, and creeks that go dry later in the year. Much of the foliage is evergreen, so the ride feels pretty lush even in December, though ideal season is late spring/early summer.

The loop has the distinction of having three eminently ridable dead-end spur roads taking off from it: Jamieson Road, Gilroy Hot Springs Road, and Coyote Lake Road. They’re all much like the loop itself: mellow, essentially flat, fun, and pretty.

There isn’t a whole lot of humanity along the bulk of this route—only the occasional house, dairy, or hardscrabble farm. From the beginning of Cañada Road to Gilroy Hot Springs Road I’ve seen perhaps 3 cars, even on a beautiful Sunday afternoon in May.

I’ve only done the ride counter-clockwise, but the ride should work equally well in either direction. Clockwise, my guess is the climbing would be shorter (so maybe steeper) and the 4-mile pitch on the south side would make for a longer, somewhat more exhilarating descent than you get going my way.

Start at the intersection of Leavesley Rd. and Dryen Ave. You can start anywhere on the course, but starting here gives you a easy 20-min. warm-up before you hit the Cañada Road hill. Ride east on Leavesley and almost immediately take the first L (actually straight ahead when Leavesley turns R) onto Crews Rd. (there is a sign but it’s hard to see). Follow Crews to its dead-end at Ferguson Rd and take Ferguson (boring) briefly to its dead-end at Pacheco Pass Hwy. Take your life in your hands and go L onto very busy PPH (there’s a traffic light with an arrow for your turn) for a blessedly brief stint, then turn L onto Cañada Road (clearly signed). This turn across the near-constant traffic is brutal. I simply pulled off the road and settled in for the long wait until there was a substantial gap.

The Cañada Road climb

Cañada (which means many different things in Spanish: ravine, glen, arroyo, animal track, but not canyon) is flat, straight, and built-up on one side for the first half-mile, but then it transforms into a small, winding 4-mile climb up through a pretty wooded canyon beside a small, usually-dry creek, then through grassy hills. At the top, the work of the ride is done. At the top of the climb you meet the first dead-end spur, Jamieson Road.

Jamieson Road

Jamieson runs through the heart of a small, pretty ranching valley for a couple of miles, then turns to dirt. It’s flatter, straighter, and more open than the rest of the route, but peaceful and pretty. Ride to the dirt and turn around.

Back on Cañada Road, ride to the intersection of Cañada and Gilroy Hot Springs Rd. This leg is to me the star of the route. It rolls gently up and down through the trees along the lip of several small meadows populated with the occasional low-rent cattle ranch. Turn R on GHSR and ride 3 miles along the shore of Coyote Creek. Coyote Creek, which is a major stream after rains, dries up every summer, so that’s an argument for doing the ride early in the year—by mid-May it was already a trickle. GHSR is a main route into Henry Coe State Park, so there’s a bit more traffic here, but almost all the traffic is going to a large trailhead staging area a stone’s throw into the park (Hunting Hollow), so you should have the road to yourself after that.

Gilroy Hot Springs Road

Gilroy Hot Springs Rd. obviously goes to Gilroy Hot Springs, an old resort which has an interesting history but has been closed for many years. Check out the history on google. A group of

preservationists have been trying to restore and reopen the springs—apparently access is now (12/21) limited to one docent-led tour (no bathing) a month. So at the end of the 3 miles you cross a large wooden bridge over the creek and meet an intimidating barb-wired gate that emphatically orders you to turn around. I’m all for riding on gated-off roads, but this one is a serious no-no. Obey the sign and turn around.

Gilroy Hot Springs Road

Ride back on GHSR and continue on it past the Cañada Rd. turn-off, to the turn-off to Coyote Lake Rd. on the R (unmissable). Coyote Lake is a pretty but fully-developed reservoir, so the road is a constant series of campsites, boat launches, and such. I had the place to myself in December, but it might be a madhouse in July—be warned. It’s another sweet, gently rolling, pretty road, but it’s certainly the spur I would skip first if I was trying to reduce my mileage. The road goes to the far end of the lake and turns to dirt. Ride to the dirt and turn around.

Coyote Lake

Return to Gilroy Hot Springs Rd and take it to the R—at this point GHSR changes its name to Roop Rd. (clearly signed at the intersection). You could stay on Roop until it dead-ends at the delightfully named New Ave., then ride south on New to Ferguson and east on Leavesley if you wanted to, but there’s much better option: when Roop goes hard R, go straight onto Leavesley Rd.

Leavesley Road

Leavesley is not to be missed, a twisty descent, often through dramatic oak canopies—the only real whee on the loop. I liked it so much I turned around, climbed it, and descended it again. It bottoms out right where you left your car.

Shortening the ride: Skip the three spurs—this leaves you with 17 miles of loop. If you’re thinking of skipping one or two of them, the best is Gilroy Hot Springs Road, then Jamieson, then Coyote Lake Road.

Adding miles: About 6 miles due north by back roads is E. Dunne Rd., the main road into Henry Coe State Park, said to be a rewarding, challenging climb. On the other side of Hwy 101, beginning to the west of Gilroy, is a small mountain range, and all the roads in it are reputed to be good—Day Rd., Watsonville Rd., Uvas Rd., Oak Glen Rd., McKean Rd., Sycamore Ave./Dr., and Redwood Retreat Rd., most of which are part of the Terra Bella Century route. If you string them together, you can ride from Gilroy to San Jose on bike-friendly back roads, something I intend to do some day.

Wildcat Canyon Road/Happy Valley Road/Nimitz Way

Distance: 32-mile lollipop with two spurs
Elevation gain: 3400 ft

In this route I’ve strung together four of my favorite little East Bay roads. The stellar bits are connected by some residential riding that’s surprisingly pleasant and one 4-mile grind of a climb, for which I apologize up front. It all begins with Wildcat Canyon Road, the hoariest of chestnuts for Berkeley riders, the ride you do once or twice a week when nothing bigger is afoot. You’ll see a lot of e-bikes and townies in the first couple of miles, because it’s easy, but there’s plenty of work further along in the route.

Begin at the intersection of Grizzly Peak Blvd. and Wildcat Canyon Road, which is the same starting point as our Grizzly Peak Blvd. to Redwood Road route. There is no formal parking nearby, but there is always curb parking on GPB to the south, and most riders are going to get there by climbing Spruce from the Shattuck area anyway.

Ride down Wildcat Canyon Rd. From the gun, it’s simply perfect, a gently meandering road with constant variety of contour and a perfect surface through lovely woods sprinkled with tasteful, expensive houses and with occasional vistas of the Wildcat Canyon watershed on your L. Notice a geographical anomaly: you are “descending” from a ridgeline “down” to the creek at the canyon floor, but in fact you gain 120 ft. elevation in the process. This means that, however wonderful the ride to the creek is, the return ride you’ll be doing in 2-3 hours will be a quantum leap better because it’s imperceptibly downhill.

Wildcat Canyon Road

“Descend” to the creek. You’re riding through Tilden Park, which is rich with wonders, and there are a number of things worth exploring along this route—a merry-go-round, Lake Anza, and the Botanical Gardens (at the creek crossing) among others.

Climb gently from the creek to Inspiration Point, which is on the spine of San Pablo Ridge between Wildcat Canyon and the San Pablo Creek watershed. There are fine hiking trails and good dirt roads open to mountain bikes and gravel bikes along this leg.

The Wildcat Canyon descent

Inspiration Point is only minimally inspiring, because shrubbery has been allowed to grow up and block most of the view, but if you go 50 ft. to the left of the official viewpoint (the one with the informational placards) you can get a pretty good vista of the area to the north towards San Pablo Bay. There are also brick bathrooms, where the Nimitz rec trail takes off.

Wildcat Canyon Road descends from Inspiration Point to San Pablo Dam Road/Camino Pablo (the road changes its name at the WCR intersection). It’s a grand descent, through gorgeous oak canopies and with every curve unique and interesting. It would be one of my favorite descents if the road surface was better. It’s not awful, but it’s rough enough to make holding a line occasionally problematic, and that knocks it down from bucket-list to merely very very good.

Halfway down the descent from Inspiration Point to San Pablo Blvd is an absolute gem of a road. El Toyonal forks off Wildcat Canyon Road to the R at an unmissable intersection. Take it (you can do it on the ride back if you don’t like interrupting descents). It doesn’t look impressive, and the first half mile will make you think you’re on the wrong road (an imposing gate, a ramshackle bridge, and a stretch of dirt), but persist and you’ll ride an absolutely perfect two-mile stretch of road (see photo below). It’s a mild climb leaving WCR and a crackerjack descent returning through pristine woods and car-free isolation (since the road is gated off at both ends). Ride to the built-up houses (around the Vista Del Orinda intersection), turn around, and ride back to Wildcat Canyon Road. Friend of Bestrides Thomas put me on to this jewel, which I’d been riding past and ignoring for 25 years, and for that we are in his debt.

Neither of our maps includes the El Toyonal out and back, so if you want exact mileage and elevation totals add 4 miles and a hundred feet or so to our totals.

Bear Creek Road—some people like that sort of thing

Continue on down Wildcat Canyon Road. Cross San Pablo Dam Road. You’ll probably see groups of cyclists at the intersection, because you’re now on the Three Bears ride, the most popular big ride in the East Bay. I hate it. It’s almost all long, tedious, unvarying climbs and descents over a series of smooth, grassy hills in the blazing sun on a big shoulder of an even bigger road. My notion of hell. But we’re going to have to do a leg of it to get to something really good, so strap in, head down Bear Creek Rd., and grind out the next 4 miles, at which point Happy Valley Road goes off to the R.

Happy Valley Rd. is happy enough, but there is absolutely no valley to be seen. It’s a short, steep (but never fierce) climb on a tiny, fairly rough road through canopies of very pretty trees. It’s a favorite of mine. You’ll have it to yourself (if the construction that started in the summer of 2021 is completed).

Happy Valley Road

At the summit everything changes. The road goes smooth and wide (though not at all straight) through up-scale built-up residential. You’ll be tempted to let it rip, but if you do you’ll be in trouble, because the road is still steep and surprisingly twisty, and several of the corners punish the overly aggressive. It’s tons of fun, especially after the steep pitch moderates and you can really carry some speed.

Soon you reach the intersection of Happy Valley Road and Upper Happy Valley Road, which paradoxically is below HVR. You can go either way, R onto Upper Happy or straight onto more of HVR. They’re both very nice moderate, fast descents through residential streets on good surfaces. I’ve mapped it via Upper Happy, mostly because I love the name.

Upper Happy dead-ends into El Nido Ranch Road, the surface road running along the edge of Hwy 24. Take it R and stay on it through several name changes—El Nido Ranch, E. Altarinda Dr., Orindawoods Dr., Santa Maria Way—until it meets Orinda Way in downtown Orinda. This leg varies from big-road boring to pseudo-golf-course posh.

Take Orinda Way R to avoid a short stretch of Camino Pablo, which is busy and fast. When Orinda Way dumps you out on Camino Pablo, you’re stuck with it. CP has a mostly large and mostly pleasant shoulder/bike path, so it’s painless. Ride back to Wildcat Canyon Road and climb WCR back to Inspiration Point (if you skipped El Toyonal before, do it now).

This climb, which was borderline great as a descent, is now splendid. The road surface problems won’t bother you, but the scenery is just as gorgeous and the road contour just as interesting as it was an hour or so earlier. It’s a perfect pitch, just hard enough to make you feel like you accomplished something but not hard enough to hurt. Another of my favorite climbs. It isn’t car-free, but the cars are civil.

If you’ve done the climb from San Pablo Dam Road to Inspiration Point a dozen times and you’re sick of it, or you want something tougher, ride south on Camino Pablo to El Toyonal Rd. (the other end of it) and climb it back up to Grizzly Peak Blvd.  ETR wanders among typical charming East Bay woodland homes and is often 9-10% pitch.  When ETR meets the beautifully named Lomas Cantadas Rd., take LCR to Grizzly Peak Blvd. Worth doing once.

Nimitz Way

Back at Inspiration Point, you could keep retracing your steps and ride back to Grizzly Peak Blvd., but you don’t want to yet, because at the Inspiration Point parking lot is the trailhead to the Nimitz Trail (aka Nimitz Way), a 4-mile (one way) paved multi-use trail that is simply a hoot. I know, I hate rec trails too, but this one is special. It runs along or just below the spine of San Pablo Ridge, through dry but charming countryside, with frequent stunning views of SF Bay spread out before you to the west (benches provided for musing). The best Bay view is a mile+ in, at the Bertold and Inge Hannes memorial bench.

The Hannes Bench on Nimitz Trail, with The Bridge and Angel Island at 11 o’clock, Mt. Tam on R horizon

The trail climbs and drops and weaves just enough to keep you interested (680 ft. of gain in 8 miles). There’s a nice post midway that informs you that you are simultaneously riding the Nimitz Trail, the Bay Area Ridge Trail, the Juan Bautista de Anza Historic Trail, and the East Bay Skyline Trail.

At the end there’s a gate, the path turns to dirt, and there’s an abandoned Nike missile site to check out (unsigned but visible, up the hill to your R as you stand facing the end of the pavement).

The weather on the Nimitz is often windy, the Bay views are often obscured by fog, and it can be crowded. Still, do it. My last outing was a lovely Saturday afternoon in August, and the people were plentiful but no problem at all. Yes, they slow you down, which is not a bad thing—this is not a training ride. The crowds get thinner the further you go.

If you’re on a gravel bike, the Nimitz continues on excellent dirt from the end of the pavement all the way down the spine of the ridge until it peters out in Richmond. Now that would be an adventure. Also, a friend says that the trail to Grizzly Peak, which takes off from Nimitz about halfway out, is a great short hike with a great vista at the end.

Return to Wildcat Canyon Road and ride back to your car. One sweet surprise remains. As I mentioned, the leg from Wildcat Creek to the Grizzly Peak ridgetop turns out by some miracle to be an imperceptible descent, so you end the ride whizzing along at terrific speed through luscious curves, wondering where you suddenly got all that oomph. It’s as sweet a 2 miles as you’ll ever do on a bike, and when it’s over you’ll want to ride it again.

Shortening the route: Ride to San Pablo Dam Blvd. and turn around. Easier still: ride to Inspiration Point and turn around. Dead easy: ride to the Botanical Gardens and turn around. Add Nimitz to taste.

There’s a 20-mile route that bags the bulk of the good stuff from the long route: ride from our starting point to Inspiration Point; ride to the end of Nimitz and back: descend Wildcat Canyon Road to El Toyonal; ride El Toyonal out and back; ascend WCR to Inspiration Point and return to your car. It’s an easy 20 miles, since it skips the steepest section of the WCR climb, which is below the El Toyonal fork.

Adding miles: The beginning of this ride is also the beginning of our Grizzly Peak Blvd to Redwood Road ride.

El Toyonal

At the other end of the loop, the roads circumnavigating San Pablo and Briones Reservoirs are, as I’ve said, hot and boring, but the roads circumnavigating Briones Regional Park, immediately to the east, are nice riding. To reach them from our route, where Happy Valley Road ends at Deer Creek Rd., follow DCR, the surface road along Hwy 24, east to Pleasant Hill Rd., and take PHR to Reliez Valley Road. Ride Reliez and Alhambra Valley Road.

Prospectors Road to Bayne Road

Distance: 18-mile loop
Elevation gain: 1990 ft

I am not a big fan of cycling in the region north of Placerville. The roads look great on a map—Lotus, Greenwood, Wentworth Springs, Georgetown, Gold Hill, Marshall, Cold Springs, and the rest of them—but they’re all bigger, straighter, more built-up, and busier than the roads in the southern Gold Country, and the landscape is tamer. Don’t get me wrong—most of the roads in this area are pleasant enough, just not Bestrides-special. Thus there are only two Bestrides rides in this area, this one and Mosquito Road.

And this one has its drawbacks. The big climb is a grind, two of the five roads on the route are busy with traffic, and the big descent is too steep to be fun unless you have disc brakes. It’s also short, though I will show you one way to extend the route in Adding Miles below, and it links up easily with our Mosquito Road loop, which is a better ride.

Still, it’s in Bestrides, so it obviously has merits, namely two small, deserted roads, one sweet wooded meander, a great swimming hole, proximity to a pleasant, under-the-radar Gold Country town (Garden Valley), and an interesting preserved 49er village at the heart of California’s history as a starting/stopping place. Also, the two unpleasantly busy legs are both very short.

The numbers suggest the ride is a moderate climbing effort, just over the 100-ft-gain-per-mile benchmark, but it’s harder than that, because almost all of the 2000 ft of gain is in one 2.3-mile pitch.

You could ride this route backwards. You’d replace a 8-12% climb with a 12-16% one, and replace a 12-16% descent with an 8-12% one. Your call.

RidewithGPS map:

Start in the tiny town of Coloma, famous for being the site of Sutter’s Mill, where gold was discovered in California. Almost the entire town is the Marshall Gold Discovery Historical Park, with a recreation of the lumber mill in which gold was found, a blacksmith shop with chatty blacksmith (note the Acme anvil, a nod to Roadrunner cartoons), several preserved 1850’s buildings, a visitor center, a museum, a old-timey theatre, and gold panning lessons. So you won’t be bored after your ride. There is ample parking at the Historical Park, but it costs $10 and there is plenty of free parking along both sides of the Main Street.

Prospectors Road: pretty much all like this

Beginning here has the advantage of ending here, but it also has the drawback of giving you almost no time to warm up before the killer climb, so I do the 10-mile Thompson Hill Rd. loop described in Adding Miles to get loose.

Ride northwest on Hwy 49 briefly, take Marshall Rd. to the R, and take the almost-immediate L onto Prospectors (no apostrophe) Rd. Prospectors is a very small road paralleling Marshall, often so close to it you’ll think the cars on Marshall are behind you, and it’s steep, 8-12% without a break for 2.3 miles. There is no reason for vehicles to be on it, so you should have it to yourself. The scenery is fairly stark—dry scrub—and the contour is fairly straight, so the rewards are mainly the isolation and the sense of accomplishment.

Prospectors runs back into Marshall. Go L for a brief, forgettable stretch and take Garden Valley Rd. to the R. You’ll pass an seductive turn-off for Mt. Murphy Road, but last I heard it was largely dirt. At the GVR intersection you’re yards from the village of Garden Valley, well worth a detour, with a nice plant nursery if you’re of a mind to do the rest of the ride with a potted plant in your jersey.

Garden Valley Road

Garden Valley Rd. is delightful, pleasantly rolling without making you work through some very pretty foliage and light traffic.

GVR dead-ends at Hwy 193. Go R and suffer the steady traffic briefly until you reach Bayne Rd., which users of RidewithGPS insist on calling “Bane”—search for it that way if you want to see longer routes that incorporate it. Take it to the R.

Bayne Road

Bayne Road is short, but it’s the stuff dreams are made on—tiny, isolated, pretty, and with an interesting contour. From east to west, it’s mostly down—at first gently, so it’s a roller-coaster through nice woods, then ferociously, 1.5 miles of nail-biting plummet that reaches 16% and is sometimes on the edge of a harrowing drop-off down to the South Fork of the American River. It’s bucket-list stuff if you have disc brakes—without them, the descent is so steep that stopping is almost impossible, and one dares not build up any head of steam. I was often doing 9 mph. Still, memorable.

One wonders what riding Bayne west to east is like. Most ridewithGPS routes go that way. It must be a pip of a climb.

At the bottom of the descent, Bayne runs along the river, and you can see some awesome swimming holes and rapids. There is no obvious way to get to the water from Bayne, but the map suggests that Serenity Lane on the north side or Johnson Ranch Road on the south might get you close.

Bayne bails out on Mt. Murphy Rd—go L, cross a historic bridge exactly as wide as an RV and no wider, and you’re back in Coloma. They have plans to replace the relic with a modern bridge without character, so do this ride soon.

Shortening the route: Since the sweetest parts of the route are Garden Valley Rd. and Bayne, you could ride both as an out-and-back, starting in either Coloma or Garden Valley, riding to the other, and returning. Of course in one direction you’re going to have to go up the Bayne wall.

Adding miles: As I said in the beginning, almost all of the roads around Coloma are too straight, big, and busy to be fun. But there is one short, very pretty little back road nearby, Thompson Hill Rd., and there’s a loop that incorporates it: from Coloma, take Lotus Rd > Thomson Hill Rd > Cold Springs Rd. Both Lotus and Cold Springs are large and busy, but the Cold Springs leg is almost entirely down, so it’s painless. Lotus, on the other hand, is a burden—a long, featureless big-road climb amidst noticeable traffic. It’s the price you pay.

At the intersection of Hwy 183 and Bayne on our route, you are just 3 miles down 183 from where 183 intersects our Mosquito Road loop, so it’s easy to do one ride that does them both as a rough figure-eight and turns two moderate rides into one big one.

Thompson Hill Road

Monterey Bike Trail

Distance: 28.5 miles out and back
Elevation gain: 712 ft

Normally I avoid bike trails and municipal trails like poison, because they’re claustrophobic. But there are three bike trails that I know of that are so fine that they transcend their genre: the Willamette River Trail in Eugene, the American River Bike Trail in Sacramento, and this one. As with most multi-use trails, the pace here is often slow and the experience is more akin to strolling/ambling/sight-seeing than hammering, but at least half of the route here is far from Monterey proper, largely deserted, and suitable for hard time-trialing if that’s what you seek. And the scenery is excellent: one part rocky coast, one part Monterey harbor, and one part lonely sand dunes. The elevation numbers say it’s dead flat, but it really isn’t (RidewithGPS says 975 ft), and if you hit the rolling dunes hard you can get a workout.

The curse of municipal paths is crowds, and the third of this route that goes through the Aquarium-Cannery Row neighborhood can be downright unpleasant if crowded. (“Hell is other people”—Sartre). As always, I would avoid weekend midday if I could. But my last ride was Friday at 11 AM in July, and other users were never a problem.

Rec trails are meant for rec riders, and if you’re one, you may want to rent a bike. Monterey has you covered. Adventures by the Sea has no less than 3 rental shops along the one-mile stretch of the Trail by Cannery Row. If it’s been a while, rent an e-bike.

Like many rec trails, this one goes by many names. I’ve seen it called the Monterey Peninsula Recreational Trail, the Monterey Bike Trail, and the Monterey Bay Coastal Trail. It’s also a leg of the Monterey Bay Sanctuary Scenic Trail, a monumental project that is in the works and dreams of eventually running from Lover’s Point to Wilder Ranch, a few miles west of Santa Cruz—c. 55 miles!

The bike path proper starts at Lover’s Point, but west of there the coast is stunning (better than the Seventeen Mile Drive to the south), so I like to start where Sunset Drive meets the coast, by Asilomar State Beach, so I can ride as much of it as possible. Parking is easy, either as curbside parking along Sunset Drive, at Asilomar State Beach, or on any of the side roads going inland from Sunset.

From Asilomar State Beach to Lover’s Point is conventional street, with ocean on one side and charming houses on the other. Almost immediately Sunset Drive changes its name to Ocean View Blvd, and no road was more accurately named. Take the time to drink in the view from the turn-outs (the best of which is the John Denver Memorial, near the spot where his plane crashed into the bay), and fantasize how sweet it would be to live in one of those houses. Keep your eyes peeled for sea otters, the mascots of Monterey, lying on their backs in the swell eating shellfish. A tiny detour will take you by the Point Pinos Lighthouse (not spectacular) and a moderately old cemetery, if you’re into those.

Pacific Grove coastline

From Lover’s Point the ride is on multi-use municipal path. The first leg is right past the Aquarium and along the backside of Cannery Row, so we’re talking constant street crossings and dodging of tourists on foot and in those rental pedal surreys. If you can let it be what it is, it can be fun. If you can’t, it’s brief. Obviously there is endless trinket shopping and junk food eating to be done on Cannery Row, and a smattering of interesting historical buildings with informative lectures accessed by your phone.

Soon you’re past Cannery Row and riding through the wharf district, much more my cup of tea. There are three wharfs. The first is just a marina, so you’re only interested in the second and third. The second is Old Fisherman’s Wharf—think Santa Cruz Boardwalk without the rides. It’s straight out of the Fifties, an unpretentious mix of hoke, fish restaurants, and, and penny-crushing machines. The third, a stone’s throw further along, is the Municipal Wharf, a real working wharf with fishing boats off-loading their catch. Everyone there is busy working, but no one has ever shooed me away.

The area surrounding the wharfs is a wonderful place full of sailboats, crepe restaurants, barking sea lions, small art museums, bicycle rental shops, and such. This is the place to sit, eat lunch, and people-watch. You’re a block from a world-class French bakery, the Paris Bakery Cafe, if you forgot to bring a sandwich or dessert.

From the dunes looking back on Monterey

This area also has one of the best preserved and best presented collections of early California buildings anywhere. Most tourists never know it’s there, and it certainly keeps a low profile, but if you’re interested in the history of California before statehood its not to be missed. Even if you aren’t, the flower gardens in the courtyards adjacent to the buildings are lovely, soothing, and deserted. Start in either the Pacific House Museum or the Custom House (the latter the only preserved building you’re likely to notice passing through), and let the docents turn you on to the riches that surround you. If you don’t want to interrupt your ride for long, ten minutes in the Custom House is still time well-spent.

Looking north over the Fort Ord Dunes

Immediately past the Wharf area the bike path enters some trees, and for the rest of the ride you’re in relatively undeveloped Nature. Walkers and vacation cyclists quickly thin out and you’re alone with the other serious cyclists. Incredibly, there is one place where you’re liable to get off course: 7 miles in, there’s an unobtrusive hard L onto a little ess-curve climb. You want it—it takes you out of the city and onto the coastal dunes. If you miss it (like I did), the main path dumps you out unceremoniously at the intersection of Hwy 218 and Del Monte Blvd, at which point you must go L and ride Hwy 218 (not pleasant but doable) west until it returns you to the bike path.

The one other place you might get lost is Tioga Ave., where you have to leave the path, ride through a parking lot behind some big-box stores, and return to the path, all semi-well-marked. Look at our route map and you’ll get it.

Once you reach the dunes, it’s all dunes to the turn-around. This leg is why the ride is in Bestrides. The rest of the route has its charms, but this to me is unique. Rolling sand hills topped with ground cover, with vistas of surf for miles to the south and north and Monterey across the bay, with some interesting remnants of Fort Ord’s military presence here and there, and no one but other riders and few of them.

At Mile 10 there’s a noticeable road 90 degrees to your L, with a large, visible sign 50 ft down it. Ride to the sign and read it, which tells you you are now entering the Fort Ord Dunes section of the afore-mentioned Sanctuary Trail. From the sign, take the road on your R (north), which parallels the main trail for 4.1 miles and is called “Beach Range Road” on maps. This is a hugely superior alternative to the main path, because it’s further from Highway 1, much more isolated, quieter, and hillier. Ride to the end of Beach Range Road, our turn-around spot. There you can jump over to the main path and ride it back if you hate retracing your steps, but Beach Range Road is still a better ride and I suggest you stay on it for the return trip.

Shortening the ride: it all depends on what experience you seek. Coastal surf and tide pools? Urban bustle? Isolated dunes? I’d opt for the last, but it’s up to you.

Adding miles: Our starting point is 1/4 mile from the start of our Seventeen-Mile Drive ride.

The Monterey Bike Path continues on from our turn-around point, but it’s an unrewarding slog on the shoulder of busy, straight roads.

Muir Woods Loop

Distance: 18-mile loop
Elevation gain: 2520 ft

(A Best of the Best descent)

This is another lovely romp through the coastal forests of Marin, and it overlaps our Mt. Tam ride for a few miles but going the other way. It’s basically a square, and each of the four sides has its own character—Hwy 1 ocean vistas, climbing up through the forest, riding the spine of the Marin coastal ridge, and a thrilling, Best of Bestrides descent. It’s not a lot of miles and you can knock it out in a couple of hours, but the elevation gain is substantial (well over our 100 ft/mile benchmark) so it felt like a day’s ride to me. With the exception of a few miles through a built-up stretch of the Panoramic Highway, every mile is great riding—wonderful scenery, varied and challenging road contour, and, 95% of the time, great road surface. I normally hate Hwy 1 riding, but this route (and perhaps the Chileno Valley ride) is the only ride in Bestrides where its stretch of Hwy 1 is so good that I would choose to ride it even if I didn’t have to.

All of these roads are popular routes for Bay Area riders, and for Bay Area recreational motorists, and that’s a problem. Perhaps more than with any other ride in Bestrides, avoiding car traffic is tricky and essential here. This stretch of Hwy 1 is a main route for SF vacationers heading for Stinson Beach and coastal points north. Muir Woods Rd. is the route used by 99% of visitors to the hugely popular Muir Woods National Monument (hereafter referred to as a “park”). And Panoramic Highway, two sides of our square, is the Bay Area’s main route to Mt. Tamalpais and the other main route to Hwy 1 and the northern coast. To make matters worse, all the roads that make up our route lack shoulders worth mentioning and are narrow and winding enough to make passing difficult for cars.

So you want to do this ride when car traffic is at a minimum, but it’s hard to know when that is, since for half the route you’re riding toward the megalopolis and half the route away from it. I suggest (as always) a weekday early in the morning. I did it starting about 8:30 am on a Wednesday and was happy with the results. Hwy 1 is still quiet then, you’re riding against traffic on Muir Woods Rd., and you’ll have company on the Panoramic Highway descent but you’ll be faster than they are. That leaves the built-up section of PH, which is hectic any time of day and just has to be endured.

If you’re cycling to the route, you’ll probably be coming from Hwy 101. There is no route I can heartily endorse. Many cyclists ride Hwy 1 to Panoramic Highway and up PH. This route is very busy. The popular alternative is to ride from Miller up Throckmorton to Cascade to Marion to Edgewood to Sequoia Valley Rd. These roads are largely car-free, and often quite pretty, but they’re steep, and they’re very narrow, so any traffic at all is treacherous. In either case you’ll meet the loop at the PH/Muir Woods Rd/Sequoia Valley Rd. intersection (“The Four Corners” in local parlance).

Our usual warning about Norcal coastal riding is in effect here: be prepared for the possibility of cold, foggy, wet, windy conditions near the coast on any day of the year, no matter what the weather inland is like.

You can start this loop anywhere—just decide at what stage of the ride you want to do a ripping descent. I started by Stinson Beach, for two reasons: I wanted to do the descent last, and I thought the stretch along Hwy 1 would be relatively flat and thus give me an easy warm-up. I was wrong. The 6 miles of Hwy 1 is never flat, and when it’s over you’ll have climbed 820 ft, much more than 100 ft/mile. But it’s a wonderful stretch of road, with a lovely contour and awesome views to north and south, it’s never steep enough to kill cold legs, and morning is the best time to be by the sea. Most of the traffic should be against you any time before noon.

Looking back from Hwy 1 at Bolinas Bay, Stinson Beach, Bolinas Lagoon behind it, and the town of Bolinas in the distance

A half-mile into the ride, there’s a large turn-out where water is running out of two pipes set in the rock wall on the inland side of the road. People will probably be filling water jugs. Consider dumping your water and refilling there.

Just before you intersect with Frank Valley Rd, you pass the turn-off to the Muir Beach Overlook, which you can’t not check out. A hair-raising (but totally safe—see photo) little walk on the knife-edge of a ridgelet takes you to a vista point where you can (on a good day) see Pt. Reyes to the north and the Gold Gate (the bay entrance, not the bridge) to the south. There’s also historical interest there—the lookouts whose remnants remain figured prominently in World War 2 coastal defenses.

Muir Beach Overlook

Also consider checking out Muir Beach, which is a very short ride beyond the Frank Valley turn-off on Hwy 1. It’s a small and very pretty beach, fairly developed and popular with locals, that is connected to its parking lot by a 450-ft bridge over a wetlands. You can ride all the .2 miles to the beach if no one is looking.

Both Muir Beach Overlook and Muir Beach have basic toilets.

Looking southeast from Hwy 1 toward the Golden Gate

Turn L (or R if you’re returning from Muir Beach) onto Frank Valley Rd. This is your only break from work on the ride until the descent—FVR is nearly flat, and runs through a valley so narrow I’d call it a canyon. It’s pleasant and quiet, since 90% of the traffic to Muir Woods comes from the other direction. The road becomes Muir Woods Rd. at a little stone bridge just before you hit the park (the name change is signed), though some maps (and RidewithGPS) call the road Muir Woods Road from the Hwy 1 turnoff.

Muir Woods itself is usually very crowded any time after about 10 am, and road signs keep telling you that you need a parking reservation, but of course cyclists don’t. There are no reservations for entrance to the park. There is the standard national park entrance fee—$15, or free if you have an annual pass or senior card. Bring a lock if you intend to stroll. It’s a small place, and if you’ve done old-growth redwoods before you’ve seen it, but it’s pretty. The main loop is entirely on boardwalks, pavement, or hard-packed dirt so you don’t need shoes.

Muir Woods

At the park the road becomes much steeper and the forest denser and prettier. The leg from the park to Panoramic Highway is 1.5 miles, and you might like to note your mileage total when you start so you can chart your progress. It’s all up, much of it steep enough to make you notice. Googlemaps says it will take you 24 minutes, which is about 3.5 mph. I think you can beat that time, but bring your legs. It’s beautiful, about half dense woods and half open panoramic vistas.

Frank Valley Road

Turn L onto Panoramic Highway. The steep stuff continues for another mile or so—then it’s flat, nearly flat, or gentle climbing to the summit at Pantoll Rd. The entire leg is part of the Mt. Tam ride, where’s it’s going in the opposite direction. The first couple of miles, until you enter Mt. Tam State Park, is built up and busy—the only miles of the loop I don’t enjoy. Once in the park, you should have the roads largely to yourself, if it’s before 10 am. From the park sign almost to your car, the woods are famously beautiful.

Muir Woods Road

At the intersection with Pantoll Rd., there’s an unmissable summit where you leave our Mt. Tam ride loop (which goes R) and go straight. You now plummet 4 miles to Hwy 1. It’s a great descent, in our Best Descents list. The road surface (until the last mile) is perfect, the curves are nicely shaped, the woods are glorious, and you’re probably faster than the car traffic so they won’t bother you. Near the bottom you come out of the trees, you get great vistas of the ocean and Stinson Beach to the north, and the road surface goes to hell, enough to seriously impact your joy.

Panoramic Highway through Tamalpais State Park

Shortening the route: That’s difficult to do if you’re here for the descent. If you’re not, Hwy 1 and Frank Valley Rd. would make a mellow out and back.

Adding miles: Everything around you is good. For a few miles you’re on the route of the Mt. Tamalpais ride, and it’s easy to do both rides as one giant loop, omitting the Pantoll-to-Four-Corners leg. The Adding Miles section of the Tam ride talks about riding north on Hwy 1 from our starting point and climbing Fairfax Bolinas Rd. Locals like to ride a loop that goes down Muir Woods/Frank Valley and back up Hwy 1 to the southeast, but that stretch of Hwy 1 is one long steep climb, it’s busy, and it has no room, so I’m not a fan of it in that direction.

Ryan below suggests going the other way at the top of Muir Woods Road and descending that same stretch of Hwy 1 between the Panoramic Highway and Muir Beach I just damned as a climb. As a descent it’s a delicious stretch of road, with perfect pavement, well-shaped corners, and a pitch that lets you bomb with a lot of speed but minimal braking. Traffic is usually not a problem because you’re as fast as the cars. Compared to our Descent of the PH, it has only two problems: it’s shorter (only 2 miles of descending), and it’s much more exposed to the wind. I did it during a blustery on-shore breeze and got blown around. On a windless day, it would be a dream. If you loop Muir Woods Road and the Hwy 1 descent, it’s only 8 miles (though a very dramatic 8), so you could actually do it 2 or 3 times. If you’ve done the loop once and are looking for a bit more work and aren’t into repeating yourself, ride north on Hwy 1 from Frank Valley Road to the Muir Beach Overlook—it’s all up, and an absolute ripper coming back down.

It’s easy to ride our route plus the Hwy 1 descent, as a figure-eight. You have to ride the Frank Valley Road/Muir Woods Road leg twice, but that isn’t a hardship.

The descent on Hwy 1 down to Muir Beach—5 right-hand turns visible

Limantour Road

Distance: 18 miles out and back
Elevation gain: 2400 ft

The ride to the lighthouse is the iconic ride in Pt. Reyes National Seashore. Deservedly. But it’s not the only good ride, and Limantour Road has a lot to recommend it. In fact, it may be the better ride, depending on your taste and mood.

Let’s compare the pros and cons. Both have excellent road surfaces, resurfaced in the last couple of years (as of 2022). The lighthouse ride is longer—over twice as long if you start from Pt. Reyes Station. It has a lighthouse with a great little museum, historic dairy farms, a great short hike out to Chimney Rock, and world-class wildflowers in the spring. But, except for one small hill, it’s all small rollers through open, fairly barren country. Limantour is one big hill—all up, then all down. It’s short, but it’s enough climbing to be a workout—harder than the lighthouse ride because it has more elevation gain per mile (the lighthouse is about 3500 ft in 40 miles; Limantour is 2400 ft in 18 miles) and more steep stuff. The terrain is prettier and more varied than the lighthouse ride—lush woods, coastal canyons, esteros, sand dunes. It’s got a very nice descent on the return ride. It’s got a great Visitor Center (if you start at Bear Valley). The Visitor Center has a splendid bathroom, worth checking out even if you don’t need one. At the turn-around Limantour has a grand beach you can easily walk your bike to and enjoy in bare feet. And it’s much less crowded—whereas on the lighthouse ride you might easily see 40-50 bikes, on Limantour I saw 3. Likewise for car traffic.

Time for the standard Northern California coastal weather warning. Do not choose your clothing according to the weather at Bear Valley Visitor Center, Pt. Reyes Station, or anywhere else at all inland. On any day of the year, the weather at the summit or the shoreline can be cold, windy, and foggy. Wear as much as you can comfortably, then pack at least one complete additional clothing layer. Take the glove liners, the leggings, and the skullcap. Don’t argue with me.

Start at the Bear Valley Visitor Center, because it’s a great place, it has a great bathroom, it has lots of parking, and there’s a lovely meadow across the road from the parking lot dotted with big shade trees and picnic tables for relaxing under after the ride. Ride out of the Center and turn L on Bear Valley Road. Take the first L, onto Limantour Road (clearly signed).

After a brief spell of flat, climb for 4 miles through consistently gorgeous woods. The contour is varied and the pitches are never daunting—a lovely little climb.

The east side of Limantour Road

At the summit you break out into the open, the road rolls for a while, you may well hit fog, and the road may become drippy.

The descent is considerably steeper than the climb up and not a favorite of mine, but the views are fine. You’re in coastal canyons, and soon you’re riding the spine of one of them, with views of Drake’s Bay and Limantour Estero opening up before you.

Fog at the summit, on a typical sunny day in Bear Valley

Halfway down the descent you hit an unexpected fork, and it’s easy to get confused. Stay R and follow the minimal signage to Limantour Beach, named for Joseph Limantour, a trader and sea captain who achieved some notoriety by totaling his schooner nearby.

Descending the west side, looking out over the Estero, Limantour Beach, and Drake’s Bay, with Chimney Rock in the distance

The road doesn’t actually take you to the beach; instead it takes you to something ecologically more interesting, the Limantour Estero, where the bay waters and fresh waters from Marin mix in the tidal stew and wonderful environmental things happen. It’s important, it’s pretty, and there are informational placards to help you understand what’s going on.

Limantour Beach

From the primitive parking lot at the end of the road you have a 1/5-mile hike through the Estero, over the dunes, and down to the beach. It’s easy walking, even barefoot, so you don’t need shoes. You can ride the first bit of it by taking the side road to the visible dumpsters to the east of the parking lot (the portapotties are there as well, hiding behind the shrubs), and in fact you can ride almost to the dunes, if you don’t mind a bit of sand riding. I didn’t see signs saying not to.

Limantour Estero

The ride home is to my mind a level harder than the ride out. The elevation profile says the ride in and the ride out are about the same—there’s a half-mile of 9-13%, and the return to the summit is a little shorter (hence steeper), but by the numbers they’re pretty much a wash. Yet my legs say otherwise. Do the ride and tell me I’m crazy.

View from the summit

The descent on the east side is pure joy, especially in the second half—very fast sweeping corners where you can sustain 35 mph without risk, in part thanks to the outstanding traction provided by the new road surface.

Shortening the Ride: I don’t see how—you have to get to the beach, or why do the ride?

Adding Miles: Our route passes within a couple of miles of the Pt. Reyes Lighthouse ride, and our Chileno Valley Road/Tomales Bay Loop ride goes through Pt. Reyes Station, about 3 miles away.

You can ride the rest of Bear Valley Road, which is quite pleasant, but it’s very short.

See the Adding Miles section of the Pt. Reyes Lighthouse ride for other possibilities.

Lower Colfax Rd/Rollins Lake Loop

Distance: 26.5-mile lollipop
Elevation gain: 2800 ft

The area around Grass Valley and Nevada City is a warren of pleasant, quiet, unflat, thickly wooded back roads, none life-changing but all worth riding and all pretty much the same. Bestrides has three routes in the area: Dog Bar Rd., Red Dog/Pasquale, and this one. None of the three has any striking vistas or unique geological features—just nice quiet riding through pretty country. Each of the three has many route variations and alternate options not much worse than the ones I’ve chosen. Feel free to modify, add to, and alter at will.

One of my favorite kinds of road is one that is paralleled by a newer, bigger road that has the same starting and stopping points. The newer, bigger road has all the traffic, the commerce, and the noise, and you’re left with the old, skinny, meandering, isolated track . This route has 3 such back roads, so you get a lot of tranquil riding—except for the two short stretches of Hwy 174, you pass nothing but occasional houses and ranches, and few of those. It also has a lovely road contour in its opening miles: not too steep, sweetly meandering, easy ups and downs through really pretty woods. This ride is at its best in the first 30 minutes, so if you don’t love it then, go ride something else, because it isn’t going to get better.

There are no long hills and only a couple of little steep grades on this route, but you do exceed the 100 ft/mile elevation gain threshold for difficulty, so you’ll be going up and down, albeit moderately, all the time.

There is no particular reason to begin this route at any particular spot. I begin near Grass Valley, because that’s where I am most likely to be housed. Begin at the intersection of Rattlesnake and Lower Colfax Road, which you ride through on our Dog Bar Road ride. Parking is a bit scarce, in small dirt turn-outs. Ride SE on LCR, the first of our parallel back roads. It parallels Hwy 174, so all the traffic is on the highway and you should have the place to yourself. For the first miles, it’s a lovely meander up and down on a sidehill of a small canyon, among trees that are lush and pristine—enjoy them now, because I’m sure the State of California will soon go in there and clear out all the underbrush and 2/3 of the trees in the interest of forest fire suppression. You’re gently descending overall, which means that the return ride is a mellow climb.

Lower Colfax Road

After a while LCR gets larger, wider, and more built up with houses, but it’s still nice. It dead-ends at Hwy 174, in an area called Chicago Park apparently. I know because there’s a charming, iconic corner mercantile there called Chicago Park Store. You’re probably not ready for ice cream yet, but it will be a sweet oasis on the return ride. I think it’s the only re-supply spot on our route.

Turn R on 174 for the short descent to Bear Creek. 174 is busy and straight, but the scenery is actually quite pleasant (see accompanying photo), and anyway it’s short. You’ll see a prominent sign pointing towards Rollins Lake to your L and encouraging you to take the side road, but don’t—it’s Rollins Lake Road we want, and that’s not it.

Lower Colfax Road

After crossing the large, unmissable bridge across Bear Creek, we’re going to do our second parallel back road: Old Grass Valley Road, paralleling 174. Don’t take the unsigned turn-off immediately after the bridge—continue uphill for perhaps a quarter mile and take the next exit to the L. It’s clearly signed.

Old Grass Valley Road is a tiny ribbon of pavement through dense forest. It’s quite steep in places, and the pavement is imperfect, as you’d expect on a road no one should be using. In other words, it’s a blast. Don’t fret the steepness—the road you’re avoiding by doing OGVR, Hwy 174, has exactly the same elevation gain, and it’s a lot less fun.

Hwy 174 has its moments

Immediate- ly after OGVR debouches onto Hwy 174, 174 seems to T. Go L, following the signs to Rollins Lake. You’re now on Rollins Lake Road, the main artery, and for the third time we’re going to take a parallel back road. A short leg down RLR, take signed Nelson Grade Road to the R. NGR is ignored by most maps, and it’s weirdly sandwiched between Rollins Lake Road to its left and Hwy 80 to its right—they’re so close that you can often see first one road then another as you ride, and when you can’t see Hwy 80 you can sometimes hear it—but miraculously NGR has a great sense of isolation, with almost no traffic, almost no development, and in fact not much of anything except trees and a lot of vertical (as one would expect from any road named “Grade”). Once it starts up, it’s all up for 3 miles. It averages almost 7%, with occasional steeper pitches.

When NGR seems to T, go L for 150 ft and T again on Rollins Lake Road. Take RLR to the L.

Rollins Lake Road is in many ways the mirror image of NGR: it’s bigger, wider, straighter, smoother, and more manicured. The first few miles of the return are a dreamy, effortless descent, a constant 25-30 mph where you won’t push a pedal or touch your brakes. Once the descent is over, there’s a surprising amount of climbing back to Hwy 174, and, since the road is so domesticated, it isn’t much fun. By the way, despite the name, you get only one brief glimpse of the lake on either RLR or NGR.

There are at least two alternatives to riding the NGR/RLR loop as I’ve mapped it. If you prefer small/isolated/curvy/slow to the alternative, you can ride Nelson Grade out and back and skip Rollins Lake Road entirely. Or, if you like small/curvy for climbing and larger/straighter for descending, do what the friend of Bestrides who suggested this route does, and ride the loop as a figure-eight: ride east (descending) on Rollins Lake Road to Glen Elder Road, which is a short connector between RLR and Nelson Grade. Take Glen Elder to Nelson Grade. Continue east (up) on NGR to the top of the loop, descend on RLR, cross over on Glen Elder, and return to 174 via Nelson Grade. This way all the descending is on the bigger road and all the climbing on the smaller.

Old Grass Valley Road

If you’re like me you’re expecting the return ride on 174 to be boring traffic hell. Not so. The ride back to the Bear Creek bridge is actually grand, a fast, glassy-smooth slalom descent where the traffic won’t bother you because you’re going as fast as or faster than they are. So I don’t recommend Old Grass Valley Road on the return, but it’s there if you abhor highway riding of any sort. Once over the bridge, 174 is…yeah, pretty much boring traffic hell, and all up to boot, all the way back to the Lower Colfax Road turn-off.

Back at the Chicago Park Store, eating your ice cream, you have a choice. The beginning of Lower Colfax Road is also the beginning of Mt. Olive Road, a lovely, precious little connector between 174 and Dog Bar Rd. It’s mostly dirt, but if you’re set up for it, and you prefer loops to out and backs, I encourage you to take Mt. Olive to Dog Bar and up Dog Bar and Rattlesnake back to your starting point. See our Dog Bar ride for details.

Mt. Olive Road

Assuming we’re sticking with our mapped route, the ride back up Lower Colfax is delightful. In fact, once you clear the houses and ranches in the first miles, I like LCR as much going up as I do going down. It’s never work, and the slower speed lets you take in your surroundings. The last miles are nearly flat and especially pretty, so you return to your car in the best of moods.

Shortening the route: Ride Lower Colfax Road as an out and back, or ride the LCR/Mt.Olive/Dog Bar/Rattlesnake loop.

Adding Miles: The simplest way to extend this ride is to add Dog Bar/Rattlesnake to the route—instead of returning on 174 north when you get off Rollins Lake Road, take 174 south and work your way through Colfax and over to the southern end of Dog Bar and ride it north.

The Grass Valley/Nevada City area is a warren of back roads, all worth riding. See our Dog Bar and Red Dog/Pasquale rides’ Adding Miles sections for names of good roads, or just wander.

Chileno Valley Road/Tomales Bay Loop

Distance: 48-mile loop
Elevation gain: 1620 ft

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.

Mapmyride’s elevation total seems misleadingly small (RidewithGPS has a total vert of 2200 ft).  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.

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