Author Archives: Jack Rawlins

Bear Valley to Mosquito Lake

Distance: 15.3 out and back
Elevation gain: 1410 ft

For years I avoided riding the west end of Hwy 4, since I knew it to be a big, busy, boring, touristy madhouse.

Turns out I just didn’t go far enough east. Hwy 4 is all those nasty things, at first, but the further east you go the more traffic and tourists it sheds—a lot of cars drop off at Murphys, then lots more at Calaveras Big Trees State Park, then lots more at Bear Valley, so that after Bear Valley the road is much of the time practically deserted. I did the ride on a Monday starting at 9:30 AM and most of the time had the road to myself. Obviously Saturday morning at 11 AM would be a different matter.

But the road is still big, straight, and boring. Until shortly after Bear Valley, when a magical thing happens—Tinker Bell waves her magic wand over that big, straight, boring road and, poof, it is transformed into a small, beautiful, meandering dreamboat of a road. And from that point, the next 7.5 miles are prime riding through gorgeous Sierra scenery. Maybe I’m just a good old California boy, but that high Sierra granite forest stirs me like nothing else.

The title of this ride is poetic license. Bear Valley is a nice place to start because it has unlimited parking, a grocery store, a bike shop, and other amenities, but the 2.2 miles of riding east of Bear Valley is as unpleasant as riding gets. It’s a dead straight climb on a huge empty road with unvarying pitch, and although it doesn’t look steep on paper the elevation (c. 7000 ft.) and your cold legs will make it seem so. I crawled up it at 4+ mph, and I’ll never do it again. Nor is it a pleasant descent returning, unless you like sitting on a bike with nothing to do except worry about crashing.

So my route actually begins after those 2.2 miles, at the Lake Alpine Snow-Park parking lot. I just thought that “Lake Alpine Sno-Park to Mosquito Lake” sounded tacky. If you want to ride those miles from Bear Valley to the Sno-Park, add 4.4 miles to our route total and about a million feet of elevation gain.

(Incidentally, there are two Bear Valleys: the first is right on Hwy 4, and it’s a community; the second is up Hwy 4 about 2 miles, then further up a side road on the L, and it’s the actual ski area. Skiers live in the community and shuttle bus to the ski area. I’m talking about the community.)

This route, like all Bestrides rides in this area, is snowed in during normal winters and is plowed open in the spring, usually some time in later June. I did the ride in early July after a historically heavy snowfall (2023) and road conditions were perfect, with patches of snow here and there in the trees along the route.

I saw no Mosquitos at Mosquito Lake per se, but the ride was very buggy and I recommend bug spray.

Drive to the Sno-Park and park. Between Bear Valley and here, you’ll see two signs that promise 24% pitches in the road ahead, but we’re not going that far.

A few feet past the Sno-Park the road transforms from boring into perfect. A short descent takes you to Lake Alpine, which you can see through the trees. It’s very pretty. Immediately after the lake you do the only real work on the ride, 2 miles of climbing, the first mile demanding (8%) given the elevation, but the scenery is so fine you’ll have much to take your mind off the pitch. After that, it’s all mellow rolling through perfect scenery to Mosquito Lake, which is itself a perfect little Sierra jewel of a pond. It’s prettier if you can get there when there is still snow on the shoreline (see photo), but one can only control so much in life.

Most lakes lie at the bottoms of watersheds, but Mosquito improbably sits just a few feet from a crest, the Pacific Grade Summit. Ride over the summit (signed) and around the corner to see the grand vista of everything to the east of you, and make a decision. The road ahead of you looks ideal, and it is—it’s the famous Pacific Grade, a legendary descent. Ride it if you wish—the riding remains good to excellent all the way to the Ebbetts Pass summit, down the east side along our Ebbetts Pass ride, and on to Markleeville—but unless you have a car waiting you’re going to have to ride back up Pacific Grade. It’s 2.5 miles long, steep (with moments of 24%, say the signs), and it tops out at 8050 ft. Know your limits. I turned around.

The ride back is dreamy—no extended descents but a series of thrilling little downs and little ups you can power up in a big gear and keep your momentum going. Good sight lines, no hairpins, a near-perfect surface, and the same grand scenery you just rode through make this as sweet a roller coaster as I’ve done in years.

Shortening the ride: You want to see Mosquito Lake and the vista to the east that follows. If you drive the 2-mile climb after Lake Alpine, you’re looking at a dead easy 11-mile-round-trip saunter.

Mosquito Lake

Adding miles: See above. Hwy 4 to the west of Bear Valley isn’t bad for a few miles, so riding to our Spicer Reservoir Road ride is entirely doable. To the east from the Pacific Grade Summit, there is as much great riding as your legs can endure—see the discussion of Pacific Grade above.

Big Trees Parkway

Distance: 17.8-mile out and back
Elevation gain: 2390 ft

(A Best-of-the-Best descent)

Between Murphys and Ebbetts Pass on Hwy 4 I know of only three paved back-country roads. Luckily, two of them, this ride (officially called the Walter W. Smith Memorial Parkway) and our Spicer Reservoir Road ride, are excellent rides.  Those two plus our Bear Valley to Mosquito Lake ride make the west end of Hwy 4 a pretty rich riding area all by themselves.

Big Trees and Spicer are almost mirror images of each other. They’re both out-and-backs that head south from Hwy 4, drop for a few miles of delicious, sweeping curves to a pretty river crossing, and climb the other side, all through pretty Sierra forests on excellent pavement. Both are bare of any signs of humanity except for road signs and occasional campgrounds. Both are closed by snow in the winter and open when the weather warms, usually some time in late June. Both are surprisingly wide two-lane roads where cars have lots of room to pass at all times.

So how are they different? Big Trees has the whole State Park experience: spectacular scenery (in this case giant sequoias), educational nature trails, a Visitor Center, crowds, packed campgrounds. Spicer has a beautiful lake at the turn-around. Big Trees’ big descent is longer—4 miles vs. 2.5 miles. (Therefore Big Trees’ long climb is also longer—4 miles vs. 2.5 miles. See how that works?). Big Trees costs $10; Spicer is free. Spicer is higher in elevation, so you get some of that matchless Sierra exposed granite; Big Trees is pretty much just trees. Spicer has a few miles of sweet rolling; Big Trees is almost entirely extended climbing or extended descending.

You would think that both rides would suffer from car traffic, Big Trees because it’s one of the state’s most popular summer tourist spots and Spicer because it’s the road to one of the area’s most attractive boating destinations. But in fact both rides can be traffic-free, if you choose your riding time wisely. In the case of Big Trees, 90% of the park traffic stops at the Visitor Center and the North Grove. Everyone else who heads down the road does so to get to campgrounds, and the campgrounds are always full, so the only cars on the road are the few who are leaving and the few who are taking their place. Most of them leave/arrive in the late morning or early afternoon on Saturday or Sunday. All that means, the road is uncrowded any time and especially uncrowded any time but midday on weekends. The last time I was there it was a beautiful Sunday in July, and I walked the North Grove trail, the most crowded place in the Park, at 9:30 and had the place largely to myself, so you can imagine how empty the road was.

Which ride would I do if I could only do one? It’s a tough call, but I’d go with Spicer, for its views of the lake, its more varied scenery, and it’s more varied road contour. But if you’re all about long descents, go with Big Trees.

The elevation-gain total for Big Trees (well over our 100 ft/mile benchmark) tells you this is a climbing ride, but it’s constant, not fierce, with a few brief moments around 8%.

Streetview doesn’t cover this ride, so you might worry that that means there’s something wrong with it. There isn’t. Streetview hasn’t mapped much of anything in the area other than Hwy 4 itself.

You would be insane to do this ride and not check out the sequoias, which are one of the wonders of the earth. Mightier than the redwoods, 20 times the weight of a blue whale, the largest things ever to live on our planet, they will change your life. There are two groves of sequoias, the North Grove (right by the entrance and Visitor Center) and the South Grove, at the end of the road. Far and away the best trees, and the outstanding free pamphlet trail guide, are in the North Grove, an easy 1.7-mile loop. The only argument for walking the South Grove, where the first sequoia you see is a mile down the trail, is to get away from people. If you only ride the road and hike none of the trails, you won’t see any giant sequoias—the park authorities intentionally laid out the road as far from the sequoias as possible to prevent the ground near their roots from being compacted by car traffic.

Since the ride profile is much like that of the Spicer Reservoir ride, I’m going to say the same thing I said there: choose where you want to start the ride by deciding where you want the big climb and the big descent to fall. The big drop starts 2 miles from the Visitor Center and drops to the river. If you start at the Center, the big drop is basically the first thing you’ll do. If you start at the river and ride back to the Visitor Center, the big climb is the first thing you’ll do. If you start at the river and head south, the big drop is the last thing you’ll do. I’ve mapped it the conventional way, starting at the Visitor Center, but I actually prefer to start at the river (the North Fork of the Stanislaus) and head south, thus saving the big descent for the end of the ride. It’s a dramatic stretch of river, so you might consider starting at the crossing if you’re the sort who likes a post-ride dip. There is a large parking lot with toilets exactly at the crossing, signed “River access parking” (not the riverside picnic area, which is 100 ft. north of there).

Assuming you’re starting at the Visitor Center, park in the VC parking lot and head down the one and only road. There are no forks or route options, so you can’t get lost and you don’t need a map.

There is some burn on the tree trunks near the start of the ride, and you might worry that you’re in for serious fire damage, but what you’re seeing is prescribed burn to reduce fuel density—the entire Hwy 4 area is without fire damage as of 7/23.

Climb almost imperceptibly for about 2 miles, then begin the obvious 4-mile descent. Immediately after you start down, there is a signed “Scenic Overlook.” It’s only a 1/10-mile detour, but for a scenic overlook it’s very pedestrian.

The descent is a Best of the Best one, sweeping corners separated by short straights on nearly perfect pavement (expect a few jolts from blemishes) with great sightlines and at a pitch that gives you lots of 35-mph stuff but rarely forces you hard on your brakes.

Cross the river and do a 2.3-mile climb which has moments that will make you work. Then comes about a half-mile of rollers to the South Grove parking lot. The road continues on for a half mile or so beyond the parking lot and dead-ends at a gate, a toilet, and a gravel road. Turn around and ride home.

Vistas are rare on this ride

The 4-mile climb back up the hill goes on a bit too long, but it’s a mellow pitch (steepest at the bottom, and not bad even then), and there are a couple of nice vistas of the river canyon you’re leaving behind on your R through the trees.

Shortening the ride: The best part of the ride is the descent from the Visitor Center to the river, so I’d do that as an out and back, starting at either end. The ride from the river to South Grove is also a good ride, but it’s steeper and there isn’t much to see other than trees.

Big Trees Parkway has a few good rocks

Adding Miles: As far as I know, there are only 4 paved roads in this area other than housing developments: Hwy 4 itself, our Spicer Reservoir Road ride, Big Trees, and Broads Crossing, which I haven’t ridden but which looks good and heads south from Hwy 4 at a signed intersection between Spicer and Big Trees. The beginning of Spicer is 19 unpleasant miles up Hwy 4 from Big Trees. Our Bear Valley to Mosquito Lake is another 6 less unpleasant miles further east from there.

If you’re in Murphys and looking for short, easy, mellow riding, there are two possibilities: Six Mile Rd. and Murphys Grade Rd. Both run between the town of Murphys and Hwy 49 and are pretty and pleasant but are too short to be Bestrides-worthy (six miles one way, both roads).

Six-Mile Rd. is the skinnier and quainter of the two. It meanders pleasantly past pretty woods, the occasional farmhouse, and one enormous vineyard (Ironstone) for the eponymous 6 miles, then dead-ends into Hwy 4, which is unrideably trafficky this close to Hwy 49, so expect to ride SMR as an out and back. It’s truly small, varying from standard country two-lane to true one-lane on very nice pavement (except for the 1/4 mile at the Murphys end), and should be traffic-free west of Ironstone.

Murphys Grade Rd. is the alternative route from Hwy 49 to Murphys, the main route being Hwy 4. It’s bigger and more domesticated than Six-Mile and considerably busier, but the bulk of the Murphys traffic should opt for the highway (except for now—6/23—when Hwy 4 is under construction). It’s entirely through lovely, lush woods thanks to the creek running alongside, the road contour is gently sinuous, and the road surface is great. It’s all uphill heading east, as the word “grade” implies, but it’s the mildest grade in the world, averaging around 3-5%. This one you can partially loop, by taking French Gulch Rd. the other way—FGR forks off MGR about one-third of the way from Why 49 to Murphys and returns to Murphys. FGR is more work—a fair amount of 8-10%. If you ride MGR from Murphys to Hwy 4, then return to FGR and take it back to Murphys, you’ll ride 12.5 mi. and climb 1020 ft.

Spicer Reservoir Road

Distance: 20.4-mile double out and back
Elevation gain: 2000 ft

Between Murphys and Ebbetts Pass on Hwy 4 I know of only three paved back-country roads. Luckily, two of them, this ride and our Big Trees Parkway ride, are excellent rides. Those two plus our Bear Valley to Mosquito Lake ride make the west end of Hwy 4 a pretty rich riding area all by themselves.

Spicer and Big Trees are almost mirror images of each other. They’re both out-and-backs that head south from Hwy 4, drop for a few miles of delicious, sweeping curves to a pretty river crossing, and climb the other side, all through pretty Sierra forests on excellent pavement. Both are bare of any signs of humanity except for road signs and occasional campgrounds. Both are closed by snow in the winter and open when the weather warms, usually some time in late June. Both are surprisingly wide two-lane roads where cars have lots of room to pass at all times. Neither has suffered forest fire damage as of 7/23.

So how are they different? Big Trees has the whole State Park experience: spectacular scenery (in this case giant sequoias), educational nature trails, a Visitor Center, crowds, packed campgrounds. Spicer has a beautiful lake at the turn-around. Big Trees’ big descent is longer—4 miles vs. 2.5 miles—and slightly more exciting. (Therefore Big Trees’ long climb is also longer—4 miles vs. 2.5 miles—and slightly steeper. See how that works?). Big Trees costs $10; Spicer is free. Spicer is higher in elevation, so you get some of that magnificent Sierra exposed granite; Big Trees is pretty much just trees.

You would think that both rides would suffer from car traffic, Big Trees because it’s one of the state’s most popular summer tourist spots and Spicer because it’s the road to one of the area’s most attractive boating destinations. But in fact both rides can be traffic-free, if you choose your riding time wisely. I’ll explain why Big Trees can be car-free in that post. Spicer is largely deserted most of the time because boaters only drive to and from lakes at certain times: Friday afternoon/evening and Saturday late morning/early afternoon heading in, and Sunday afternoon/evening heading out. The rest of the time the road is yours. Or so logic tells me. I had only Saturday in early July to do this ride, the worst possible time, so I started riding at 9 am and had the road to myself. Traffic began being an issue around 11 am, when I was done.

Of Spicer and Big Trees, which ride would I do if I could only do one? It’s a tough call, but I’d go with Spicer, for its views of the lake, its more varied scenery, and its more varied road contour. But if you’re all about long descents, go with Big Trees.

Streetview only maps the first quarter of SRR, and sometimes that’s a sign that the road becomes impassable, but in this case not so—the road is wide and immaculate in its entirety.

Incredibly, although Spicer Reservoir Rd. is large and well-maintained, there is absolutely no signage at the turn-off on Hwy 4—no indication of road, lake, boat ramp, power station, dam, or anything. There are small signs reading “Spicer Reservoir Road” and “Sno-Park” about 1/4 mi. before the turn-off to the west. So keep an eye on your GPS.

Of course you can ride this road by parking at the Hwy 4/Spicer intersection (there is a huge Sno Park parking lot 1/4 mi. down Spicer), riding to the end of the road, and riding back. But the riding profile means that if you do that you begin with the best descent, before you’re awake enough to enjoy it, and you follow it with the hardest climbing, when you’ve hardly turned a pedal. So, even though it involves an additional 2.9 mi. of car miles, I encourage you to drive down Spicer to the Stanislaus River crossing and park there. Ride to Hwy 4, then turn around and ride to your car. Continue past it and ride to Spicer reservoir, then turn around and return to your car. That way you warm up on the easier climb, are wide awake for the best descending, and are fully warm for the harder climb. If climbing on cold legs isn’t your thing, there is a quarter-mile of flat at the river crossing where you can do some warming up. I’ll describe the route assuming you’re taking my advice.

There is a campground at the Stanislaus River crossing but they ask you not to park there unless you’re camping. There are dirt pull-outs a stone’s throw beyond the bridge. The river itself is small but lovely, and a post-ride plunge is a perfect end to the ride.

Don’t ride off quite yet. The granite hill to the immediate southeast of the bridge is the best scenery on the ride until you get to the lake. Check it out.

Ride to Hwy 4—2.9 easy to moderate miles of climbing through conventionally pretty Sierra scenery. At Hwy 4 turn around and enjoy a really good, fast, sweeping descent back to the river. The sight lines are all excellent, the road surface is next-to-flawless, and there isn’t a sharp bend anywhere, so you can carry a lot of speed and shouldn’t need brakes.

As you pass your car, you can drop any clothing you no longer need. The 1 mile south of the bridge is the hardest climbing on the route, but it’s never fierce, and after that it’s charming shallow rollers and short climbs/descents to the lake (7.2 mi. total). This is as pleasant as riding gets. Note the one unexpected hairpin turn clearly indicated on the map.

As you approach the lake (which is actually called the New Spicer Meadows Reservoir) you’ll hit an intersection you might not even notice. A small sign with arrows points L to “boat ramp/day use” and other things. The main road clearly goes R (just follow the freshly painted brilliant yellow double line), but my GPS called that L turn the “main road.” It isn’t—it’s a 1/10th-mi. spur that goes (as the sign says) to the tiny boat ramp and small shoreline day use area. Go there only if you want to play in the lake water, use the bathroom, or see a large map of the lake. The vistas are on the other road.

Spicer Reservoir

Assuming you’ve followed the yellow line, you won’t get a good view of the lake for a while. Even though the map makes it look like you’re riding along the lake shore, you’re actually rolling up and down 100 ft or so above the waterline, and trees and boulders are blocking your view. When you finally get to the one and only spot where you see the lake in all its glory, it’s splendid—stop, take it in, and get off your bike and stroll around. Consider clambering down to the lake—it’s a moderately steep but completely doable scramble. Beyond this point (marked by a “No camping beyond this point” sign on a tree) the road drops steeply for a half-mile, then ends in the middle of dam engineering—interesting, but leaving you with a tough half-mile climb getting back. Do it if you wish (our map skips it), then turn around and head to your car.

The ride back is without major climbing and without exhilarating descending—just an idyllic meander through Sierra paradise. (OK, there’s one 1/2-mi. climb you’ll notice). The ride back down the climb you did going out is too steep and too straight to be of much interest.

Shortening the ride: From the Stanislaus River bridge, either out-and-back makes a lovely ride. The southern route gives you the lake and the sweet rollers, so I’d do it first. If you’re all about ripping descents, do the northern route.

Adding Miles: As far as I know, there are only 4 paved roads in this area other than housing developments: Hwy 4 itself, Spicer, Big Trees, and Broads Crossing, which I haven’t ridden but which looks good and heads south from Hwy 4 at a signed intersection between Spicer and Big Trees. The Spicer/Hwy 4 intersection is 6 ridable miles from our Bear Valley to Mosquito Lake ride and, in the other direction, 16 mostly unpleasant miles to the Broads Crossing turn-off and 19 miles to our Big Trees ride.

If you’re in Murphys and looking for short, easy, mellow riding, there are two possibilities: Six Mile Rd. and Murphys Grade Rd. Both run between the town of Murphys and Hwy 49 and are pretty and pleasant but are too short to be Bestrides-worthy (six miles one way, both rides).

Six-Mile Rd. is the skinnier and quainter of the two. It meanders pleasantly past pretty woods, the occasional farmhouse, and one enormous vineyard (Ironstone) for the eponymous 6 miles, then dead-ends into Hwy 4, which is unrideably trafficky this close to Hwy 49, so expect to ride SMR as an out and back. It’s truly small, varying from standard country two-lane to true one-lane on very nice pavement (except for the 1/4 mile at the Murphys end), and should be traffic-free west of Ironstone.

Murphys Grade Rd. is the alternative route from Hwy 49 to Murphys, the main route being Hwy 4. It’s bigger and more domesticated than Six-Mile and considerably busier, but the bulk of the Murphys traffic should opt for the highway (except for now—6/23—when Hwy 4 is under construction). It’s entirely through lovely, lush woods thanks to the creek running alongside, the road contour is gently sinuous, and the road surface is great. It’s all uphill heading east, as the word “grade” implies, but it’s the mildest grade in the world, averaging around 3-5%. This one you can partially loop, by taking French Gulch Rd. the other way—FGR forks off MGR about one-third of the way from Why 49 to Murphys and returns to Murphys. FGR is more work—a fair amount of 8-10%. If you ride MGR from Murphys to Hwy 4, then return to FGR and take it back to Murphys, you’ll ride 12.5 mi. and climb 1020 ft.

Bohemian Highway Loop

Distance: 23.5-mile loop
Elevation gain: 1980 ft

Occidental is an amazing cycling resource. Six roads head out of this little town, and each one of them is some degree of wonderful for riders. All 6 figure in a Bestrides route in one way or another. This route focuses on the roads to the northwest of town. It and Bittner Rd. (which is in our Coleman Valley Rd. ride) are the only ones with thrilling descents.

This ride comes with some caveats. The Bohemian Highway can be unpleasantly, dangerously trafficky. About a quarter of the miles on our loop have a bad case of Sonoma County Disease (i.e. have rough surfaces). And one leg of the loop is downright not fun to ride. But the other three quarters of the miles are glass, for all of those three quarters the scenery is as good as the area gets (which is, gorgeous), and if we deal with BH’s traffic issues it’s a descent to be remembered.

See the Occidental Loop ride notes for info on the town of Occidental itself.

The Bohemian Highway also goes the opposite direction, south, out of Occidental briefly and dead-ends at Freestone, and it’s a pleasant enough few miles, but we’re interested in the northern direction, from Occidental to Monte Rio, 6.3 mi of delicious descending to the Russian River. It’s never steep (2-5%), which sounds boring, but it isn’t—it serpentines sweetly, the pavement is glass, and you can really attack the hill, pedaling vigorously and carving the sweeping turns at 25+ mph. The scenery is the usual Occidental-area redwood gorgeousness. It’s really very nice.

Bohemian Highway

But there’s the traffic. You want to carve those turns from the middle of the lane, and that’s hard to arrange. Bohemian Highway is a main route to the Russian River, which is a main access route to the coast, so it can get busy, and there’s really no room for you and cars at the same time—two small lanes, minimal shoulder, cars in a hurry to get to the beach. So you have to plan the ride for slack traffic. I did the ride on Sunday (terrible day), but waited until noon (good time), and had to deal with perhaps 6 cars passing me. I would think any weekday after 10 am and before 3 pm would be OK, and any weekend day between 11 am and 2 pm, and any day at 7 a.m.

Mays Canyon at its best

Near the bottom of the descent the road forks, into Bohemian Highway on the R and the oddly named Main St. on the L (clearly signed). The two roads are within sight of each other on opposite banks of the creek. Take Main St.—the road surface is better, and it goes by Lightwave, a charming, unpretentious coffee/drinks/small-menu food shop run by a couple recently from Israel. Try to stop, at least for coffee or a drink—you’ll like it. There’s a bike rack in full view, so you can sit at an outside table and keep your eye on your bike.

Green Valley Road

Cross the river on the unmissable bridge and say hello and goodbye to Monte Rio, a town named by someone who apparently didn’t know that “monte” means “mountain”. Go R (under the friendly “Monte Rio Awaits Your Return” sign) onto River Rd., the road that follows the banks of the Russian River upstream, and ride it for 4.3 mi. to Guerneville. It isn’t fun. The traffic is constant, so you’re confined to the (largely spacious but debris-strewn) shoulder, the pavement is poor, and the neighborhood is generally shabby. Gentrification has yet to reach Monte Rio, which may be a blessing but doesn’t aid the riding.

You can bypass about half of the River Rd. leg by taking Old Monte Rio Rd., which parallels River Rd. just to the north, but it’s an adventure—the “road” is little more than a paved footpath and fairly decrepit. Check it out on Streetview (incredibly, it’s covered) before committing yourself to it.

Happily, Guerneville is a pleasant community with a good energy. Midtown, turn R onto Hwy 116 (called by some maps and my GPS “Pocket Canyon Highway”). Very soon, turn R. onto Mays Canyon Rd. and ride MCR to its end back on Hwy 116.

Harrison Grade Road

Mays Canyon used to be one of my favorite little rides, a car-free, secret back road offering pristine redwoods and splendid isolation. It still has some of that, especially in the first mile or so, but it also has, smack in the middle of it, a large community of run-down thrown-together dwellings with lots of signs telling you how unwelcome you are. With all that comes some traffic. And the road surface is bad. So ride it if you wish, or just stay on Hwy 116, which lacks Mays Canyon’s vices and virtues.

If you do Mays, go R on Hwy 116 (at the intersection there is no sign or any indication of where you are except for a hand-routered sign reading “Mays Canyon Rd.”). Everything is really good for the rest of the ride—the scenery is lovely, the traffic is light to non-existent, and the road surface is pristine.

Ride to Green Valley Rd. and go R onto Green Valley, which looks at the intersection like an afterthought but is really a well-established road. GVR goes up and down a steep little hill which is the steepest thing you’ll see on the ride (max pitch 12% briefly). Turn R onto Harrison Grade Rd.—I know, it’s very hard to leave Green Valley Rd., because it’s so very sweet, but Harrison is just as good.

Harrison Grade, as its name implies, is a climb—never as steep as Green Valley at its worst but more of it—2 miles of serious climbing with some 9-10% stuff. HGR runs you into Graton Rd., which runs quickly back into Occidental and provides the perfect cherry on this sundae—a brisk little descending slalom through perfect redwoods.

Shortening the ride: I wouldn’t ride Bohemian Highway as an out and back—the traffic whizzing past you as you do 5 mph on the return climb would be dangerous at any hour. River Rd. isn’t worth riding, ever. So we’re left with riding Green Valley Rd. + Harrison Grade Rd. as an out-and-back, with as much of Hwy 116 as you like.

Adding miles: See the Adding Miles section of our Occidental Loop ride for a list of the possibilities, which are many.

Occidental Loop

Distance: 17-mile lollipop
Elevation gain: 1730 ft

Occidental is an amazing cycling resource. Six roads head out of this little town, and each one of them is some degree of wonderful for riders. All 6 figure in a Bestrides route in one way or another. This route focuses on the roads to the east of town.

The roads between the towns of Occidental and Sebastopol all run through grand redwood forests and have charming, undulating contours. So you could just go wandering and ride any of them. But there’s a downside: the road surfaces are often terrible (Sonoma county cyclists take an odd pride in this), the roads are dangerously narrow, usually there is no shoulder (not a small shoulder—none), and the main arteries are heavily enough trafficked so as to be a pain if not an actual danger.

So what we want are routes on untrafficked back roads with good road surfaces. I’ve found two: this one and our Bohemian Highway loop (well, half of that one). This loop is entirely glass, and it spends most of its time on roads that see next to no cars—of the 6 roads it covers, only one may be uncomfortably busy. And every inch is beautiful to the eye and charming to ride. You’re about 2/3 in the woods and 1/3 riding by small farms and meadows, the farms are all cute, and there’s a general absence of vineyards, for which I am grateful. It racks up over 100 ft of gain per mile, yet there are no extended climbs, so you know it’s constantly rolling up and down—check that sawtooth elevation profile.

Begin in the town of Occidental, where our Coleman Valley Rd. ride and our Bohemian Highway ride start. It’s a famously charming little town, not yet totally touristified (for instance it still has a hardware store), with a couple of old, funky Italian hotel restaurants that are remarkably good and some other eateries with good reputations. Howard’s Station is a nice, simple restaurant with a short, unpretentious, and tasty menu. You immediately feel welcomed by the town because one side of the main street is a big free parking area without time limits. It’s a weekend destination for Santa Rosa-area residents looking for a small outing in good weather, so if you can ride on a weekday so much the better.

Graton Road

Ride out of town on Graton Rd. You are immediately in the midst of the Occidental riding experience: looming, cathedral-like redwoods, narrow lanes, no shoulder, some cars. This is the connector between Graton and Occidental, so it sees some traffic. I intentionally started later in the morning, to miss the morning work rush, and got passed by perhaps 6 cars.

Go R onto Green Hill Rd., largely car-free, then R onto Occidental Rd. Occidental is our only real risk of serious traffic, but if you’re after the morning rush and heading west (as you are) it shouldn’t be bad. Go R onto Jonive (“ho NEEV”) and prepare to experience serious cycling joy.

Jonive Road

Jonive is one of my favorite roads anywhere. It (and Barnet Valley Rd., which follows) are all up and down, but never tiresomely so—just roller-coaster whoop-de-doos that will have you shouting. It’s all so pretty and perfect I find myself wondering what it’s like to live in that kind of idyllic beauty, but I’m not about to find out since apparently the average house on Jonive goes for around $3-4 mil.

Jonive dead-ends at the Bodega Highway, the busiest road in the area. Go L on it for about 30 ft. and go R onto Barnett Valley Rd., which is exactly like Jonive only slightly less joyful. Ride to the intersection of BVR and Burnside Rd. and turn around. You could continue on, on either BVR or Burnside, but the good road surface ends at the intersection.

Barnett Valley Road

When you get back to the meeting of Barnett Valley Rd. and Bodega Highway, you have a choice. You can re-ride Jonive, as I’ve mapped it, and it’s wonderful both ways, but if you have an aversion to out-and-backs you can go L onto Bodega for a busy but brief downhill run to Bohemian Highway and take BH back to Occidental. BH is more open, busier, and blander of contour than our route, but it too is very pretty and it has the advantage of passing the locally-famous Wild Flour Bread bakery, where you can stand in line with the other cyclists to buy one of their scones. I find the scones OK but not spectacular, but it’s part of the local scene, like eating at the Cheese Board Collective in Berkeley.

Bohemian Highway east of Occidental

Assuming you stick to our mapped route, ride Jonive back to Occidental Rd. and take Occidental Rd. back to Occidental. Again, you may run into a bit of traffic, but it should be midday now and you’re going the less-busy direction. Of course it’s beautiful.

Shortening the ride: You could ride just the loop, and it’s all very pretty, but it’s also the most trafficked part of the ride. I’d go the other way: ride Jonive Rd.>Barnett Valley Rd. as an out-and-back.

Adding miles: Occidental is the starting point for our Coleman Valley Rd. ride, whose road surface was atrocious the last time I did it, and our Bohemian Highway loop, which can get trafficky. Bohemian Highway takes you to Monte Rio on the Russian River, which is near our Sweetwater Springs Rd. ride and our Kings Ridge Rd. ride. Heading south, if you can endure one more short stretch of the Bodega Highway you’ll get to Valley Ford Freestone Rd., which takes you to all the riding around Tamales Bay and our Chileno Valley loop.

If you’re set up for rough road surfaces, you can happily explore the warren of little roads to the east of Jonive and Barnett Valley Rds.

Las Pilitas Road Lollipop

Distance: 49-mile lollipop (with two sticks)
Elevation gain: 4110 ft

Highway 101 runs north and south between Paso Robles and San Luis Obispo, two of Bestrides’s favorite riding haunts. It turns out that every small road east of that stretch of Hwy 101 is good as well. The terrain is all pretty much the same: small rolling hills covered in grass—a luscious green in spring—and dotted with magnificent oaks (the “robles” of Paso Robles). Among the hills are small valleys, meadows, family farms, horse ranches, and smalll vineyards. Every acre is eye candy. The roads skirt the meadows and ranches, follow little streams up small canyons, and roll up and over hill after hill—almost never flat, almost never straight, no long tedious grinds uphill. It isn’t the most exhilarating riding—it lacks long, thrilling descents, awesome gorges, and other big-ticket features—but it’s lovely, idyllic, and tranquil. And car traffic is almost non-existent, if you stay off the main arteries.

Here’s my favorite ride in the area. It’s a lollipop with two sticks, made up of 5 separate roads, and it’s surrounded by other good riding, so it’s easy to contract or expand the mileage, as we’ll discuss in Shortening the Ride and Adding Miles. You can also begin anywhere on the route and ride in either direction. The elevation gain total isn’t insignificant, but none of the route is flat, so you know that the climbing is mild to moderate.

The pleasure of this ride, and any riding in the area, is doubled if you can hit it after the spring rains but before the summer heat turns the grasses brown.

Start at the intersection of Pozo Rd. and Las Pilitas Rd. Ride Pilitas to Park Hill Rd. This is my second-favorite leg of the route, mostly up, and the hardest climbing you’ll do (though it’s never fierce). Like most of this route’s roads, it meanders back and forth and rolls its way up, so the pitch is constantly changing and you can rarely see more than about 1/8th of a mile of road ahead of you. Look at the oaks that surround you—each is unique, and each is a work of art. Stop and listen to the silence—it’s really peaceful up there.

Las Pilitas Road

Turn L on Park Hill and almost immediately go R onto Huer Huero Rd. (Or not. Park Hill is the straightest leg of this route, with the longest unaltered pitches, so riding it up is at times tedious. Huer Huero is steeper and more varied in contour. So my way gives you the best descending and the more boring climbing. If you go down Park Hill and come up Huer Huero you get long, straight descending and more entertaining but harder climbing. You choose.).

Huer Huero (the name is apparently a Spanish approximation of a Native American word) is on the east side of the summit, so it’s a bit dryer than Pilitas. It’s also more developed—Pilitas has almost no signs of human habitation beyond wire fences, but Huer Huero has lots of simple ranch houses. It’s also the worst road surface on our route, or it was when I rode it (4/23), with large patches of upheaved pavement and stretches of dirt and sand in the first half-mile. In fact there was a sign at the beginning reading “Road closed—local traffic only,” which I wisely ignored. There are also about 5 places where water flows over the road in the rainy season. They were about an inch deep when I was there, but it hadn’t rained in a while so this might be an issue if the weather has been wet. All this sounds like the road is a nightmare, but it’s actually very nice—good scenery and some very nice serpentine descending.

Webster Road

Huer Huero ends at Hwy 58, curiously signed here “Calf Canyon Hwy.” Take it to the L. It’s not fun. The scenery is lovely, but it’s all large ups or downs and it’s a busy road, so you’ll have cars whizzing by you at 60 mph as you grind up long pitches at 6 mph, or descend at 35 mph, which is almost worse, on the minimal shoulder for 3.5 miles.

At this point you hit the intersection of Hwy 58 and Hwy 229 running north to Creston. You’re saying to yourself, “The last thing I need is another State highway.” But 229, aka Webster Rd., is like no State highway you’ve ever seen. It’s a wide one-lane roller coaster with a great road surface through gorgeous, manicured landscapes (more rolling grassy hills, more oaks). It’s my favorite leg of the route. It has one substantial climb, which is a rip-roaring whoop-de-doo coming back down—otherwise, it just rolls gently up and down. I saw two vehicles total, out and back.

Park Hill Road

About 2 miles from Creston you pass Rocky Canyon Rd., which looks great on the map but is erroneously identified as paved in RidewithGPS (it isn’t), and Webster exits its little canyon and enters dead flat farm country. So the road goes flat and straight, and you have my permission to turn around. But the reward for riding those 2 flat miles is you get to see Creston, a true tiny California farming community—about ten houses, a cute little church, a restaurant called The Loading Chute, and another with the classic EAT sign on top.

Whenever you choose, turn around and enjoy Hwy 229 going the other way. Back at 58, suffer another 1.5 miles (almost all steeply down) to the intersection with Park Hill Rd. Go L onto Park Hill and climb it back to Las Pilitas. Park Hill is mostly up but never steep, and the pavement is good for a while. Notice Tierra Del Cielo Farm on your R. Since earth and heaven are by definition opposites, I’m not sure what they have in mind.

Las Pilitas Road’s oaks

The return ride down Pilitas to your car is surprisingly wonderful. The scenery is terrific, the road contour is always changing, and (except for one noticeable 1/2-mile of climbing after the bridge near the end) you can use your descending speed to charge up the frequent small risers, so you never work. Delightful. Perfect if the pavement were a mite smoother.

Shortening the ride: One’s natural inclination is drop the two lollipop sticks and just ride the loop, but if you do you’ll be riding the worst part of the route. So I would do the opposite, and ride either Hwy 229 and Las Pilitas Rd. or both, as an out-and-back. Hwy 229 is sweeter; Pilitas is more work and more thrilling.

Adding miles: Basically, from here you can ride forever on good stuff. From Creston you can ride north on what is first called Creston Rd., then Geneseo Rd., then Linne Rd. all the way to Paso Robles, where you can connect with all our Paso routes. From our starting point, Pozo Rd. is good in either direction. You can even go straight on through Pozo itself and circumnavigate Santa Margarita Lake. If you’re set up for dirt and you want to get adventurous, at Pozo you can jump on the other end of Hi Mountain Rd. (discussed in the Adding Miles section of the Huasna Rd. ride) and ride it to all our SLO rides.

Shirtail Canyon Road

Distance: 18.5-mile out-and-back
Elevation gain: 2680 ft

(A Best-of-the-Best descent)

Shirtail (one T) Canyon Road is the access road into Pinnacles National Park from the west side, the back door into the Park. Also known as State Route 146. As with all rides entering National Parks, if you want to go beyond the ranger’s station you’ll need money or your NP pass and ID.

Shirtail Canyon Road heads east from the outskirts of Soledad, and as you approach the area from the north or the south on Hwy 101 your heart will sink, because you’re in the dead-flat, totally agricultural Salinas Valley and you’ll assume the route is straight, flat, and boring. But Soledad butts up against the eastern edge of the valley, so SCR climbs from the get-go, often steeply (check that elevation-to-distance ratio), and is constantly changing its shape and pitch, which makes for a moderately interesting (though scenically fairly boring) climb and an exhilarating descent.

It’s a dead-end ride, taking you past the Pinnacles westside visitor center and stopping at a featureless trailhead parking lot, so you can’t loop it. I guarantee the ride is a workout (again, check that elevation-to-distance ratio), but if you’re disappointed by the small mileage total I’ve described an add-on which I like a lot in the Adding Miles section.

I am downright picky about when I think you should do this ride. 1. Ride it in the spring, when the hills are green. 2. Avoid riding it when it’s hot, because there is next to no shade. 3. Avoid riding it on Saturday morning, when everyone is driving in, or Sunday late afternoon, when everyone is driving out. 4. Don’t ride it when the valley wind is blowing, because it funnels straight up the canyon, hits you on your nose during the descent, and turns a wonderful descent into a white-knuckle stressfest.

With any ride on National Park roads there’s a concern about traffic. I’ve never had a problem here, even though the road is narrow (often signed “one-lane,” rather over-dramatically) and has absolutely no shoulder. The road is wide enough, the drivers are in no hurry, the sight-lines are good, and almost all traffic enters Pinnacles from the eastern entrance. On a lovely Saturday afternoon in spring I saw perhaps 30 cars, roughly two a mile.

This ride is listed in the “Monterey Bay Area” ride list, but that’s a cop-out. If you look in our ride map, you’ll see that it’s in the middle of nowhere. Nacimiento-Fergusson, also in the middle of nowhere and probably the nearest other ride in driving time, is listed in the “Southern California” ride list. What can one do? Sometimes categories fail you.

Start at the intersection of Shirtail Canyon Road and Metz Road. You’re a couple of miles out of Soledad, and it looks fairly insecure there, so you might feel safer parking in town and riding to the intersection, but I’ll warn you those are dead flat, dead straight, uninviting small-town-outskirts miles. At the intersection there is a large dirt turn-out. Pinnacles, despite being a National Park, is practically ignored by the Soledad community, so there is next to no signage directing you to the intersection and, incredibly, there is no sign for the Pinnacles at the intersection, despite the fact that Shirtail goes to Pinnacles and nowhere else (there is a tiny sign advertising a vineyard). There is also no road sign, anywhere along the route, so I’m taking it on faith that what I rode was in fact Shirtail Canyon Road. This under-the-radar status works to your advantage, because it means you will meet 30 cars on the ride instead of 300. There is a prominent sign for Pinnacles once you start up SCR.

One of the more shady sections

As I say, the ride climbs from its inception. You get some breaks (you descent a total of 800 ft. on the climb, which you’ll notice on the return), but it’s mostly up for the first 7 miles, gently at first but then a stretch of 8-12% stuff. You’re riding up a small and unprepossessing canyon bounded on either side by those round hilly grassy mounds you see all over western Central California. If you’re there in the spring, as I counseled, it’s pretty enough, with a few shapely oaks scattered along the roadside, but it’s not memorable, and any other time but spring it’s brown and therefore worse. After the hard climbing you do some charming whoop-dee-do’s, then climb some more.

Around 7 miles in you reach, in rapid succession, a gaping cattle guard requiring some care (I walked it), a standard National Park photo-op entrance sign, and the Visitor Center. It’s an unpretentious but likable operation, with some nice informational placards outside if you don’t want to leave your bike and go inside.

As wooded as it gets

The two miles of road past the Visitor Center are down (steeply at first, then less so), and there’s nothing to see at road’s end unless you plan to hike, so consider turning around at the Visitor Center unless you just want 2 more miles of climbing.

The ride up SCR is nice enough but the descent back to your car is a dream: lots of variety, a blem-free road surface, smooth sweeping turns that don’t necessitate braking and let you see on-coming traffic, some really good whoop-de-doos you can take at speed, and a long 4% run-out at the end when you can pedal hard and feel like a god. If you can catch it on a wind-free day, it’s one of Bestride’s best descents. You can easily break the 35-mph speed limit.

Metz Road: hills, road, railroad tracks, ag fields—Salinas River out of sight to the right

Shortening the ride: Turn around at the Visitor Center. I don’t think the first 7 miles can effectively be shortened.

Adding miles: If 20 miles just doesn’t float your boat, there’s an unexpected way to add some good miles: Metz Rd. Driving Metz from Soledad, you’d swear it’s as worthless as a road can get, but on the south side of Shirtail it’s a whole other animal. It runs for 18 miles from Shirtail to King City outskirts, and while the last 7 of those 18 (nearest King City) are on the valley floor and therefore very ordinary stuff, the first 11 are rewarding. The road runs above the lip of the valley about 50-100 ft up the sidehill, so it has to follow the contour of the grassy mounds. So it’s up and down, back and forth, with a lovely overview to your right of the Salinas River, the railroad tracks, and the never-ending agricultural work below you, with the hills rising steeply on your left. If you ride to where the road drops down to the valley and ceases to be interesting, then turn around, you add 22 miles to our Shirtail out and back, for a respectable mileage total of just over 40. Absolutely no shade on Metz, so not advisable in extreme heat.

Beyond that, there is nothing in the immediate vicinity. Our legendary Nacimiento-Fergusson Road ride is a 45-minute car drive to the south.

Cabrillo National Monument

Distance: 30 miles out and back
Elevation gain: 1300 ft

For a general discussion of San Diego riding, see the introduction to the Mission Bay to La Jolla ride.

This ride has a lot in common with the other two San Diego rides in Bestrides, Mission Bay to La Jolla and the Bayshore Bikeway (discussed in the Adding Miles section of the Mission Bay to La Jolla ride). It’s mostly along the water, it spends much of its time riding through old-SD beach neighborhoods, and it’s mostly flat. What makes it stand out from the other two is the unique ex-hippy-meets-beach-town of Ocean Beach, the spectacular vistas of San Diego harbor from Cabrillo National Monument, a great cliffside hike, the best tide-pooling in the region, and an actual hill, a rarity in San Diego. The panoramic view of the harbor is one of the best destination vistas in Bestrides, almost as good as Tunnel Road/Claremont Ave. Loop and Grizzly Peak Blvd to Redwood Rd.

Even if you don’t do the hike you’ll want to do some walking around the Cabrillo National Monument, so I encourage you to shove a pair of walking shoes or flip-flops up the back of your jersey. And bring your National Park pass if you have one and ID, to save yourself the entry fee at the Monument, which is $10 (yes, even for cyclists).

RidewithGPS gets twitchy on this route, so I’m going to talk you through it in more than usual detail. Begin at Mission Bay Park, which is the same starting point as the Mission Bay to La Jolla ride—see that ride for parking info. There is nothing spectacular about the first miles of this route, and if you want to start in Ocean Beach I won’t think less of you.

Ocean Beach Pier

Ride south from Mission Bay Park along East Mission Bay Drive, go R onto Sea World Dr., and continue on SWD and through the interchange to the bridge over the San Diego River. The road is big and open, easy riding despite traffic, but if it bothers you there are separated bike paths on your right for much of the route—just keep an eye out for them. The views are of Mission Bay and the marsh surrounding—nothing to write home about. Don’t expect grand views of Sea World—distant tops of a few roller coasters is all. The ride across the bridge is effortless thanks to a separated bike lane. Views of the river are moderately interesting. Fact: the river used to spill into San Diego Bay, but the Army Corps of Engineers didn’t want all that silt filling up the bay, so they rerouted it to flow into Mission Bay, and now straight to the ocean.

On the far side of the bridge keep R onto Sunset Cliffs Blvd. and take the first R onto West Point Loma Blvd. We now follow our San Diego cycling habit of staying as close to the water as possible. Work your way up the shoreline, following our map’s dizzying number of zigzags.

Ocean Beach downtown

My route has you riding only momentarily on Newport Ave., but this is the heart of Ocean Beach and I encourage you to check it out before continuing. It’s a delightful cross between Haight-Ashbury in the 60’s and SoCal Beach Town. Lots of interesting places to eat. Once you’ve experienced the scene, return to our route and ride on.

Eventually our zigzagging bails out on Sunset Cliffs Blvd. Take SCB to the R and ride it to its end. You ride along Sunset Cliffs Natural Park, a long string of picturesque cliffs worth a look or a stroll (it’s not the hike I mentioned earlier, which is at the turn-around for the ride). You’ll have a lot of company—it’s popular.

Rosecrans Cemetery, north Catalina Island, and downtown San Diego

At the end of SCB, turn L, as you must, up Ladera St. and ride it one short block to its end at the intersection of Ladera and Cornish. Now ignore our map. RideGPS refuses to acknowledge what you’re about to do. To the south you see a sign reading “Sunset Cliffs Natural Park.” To its L is a wide, straight, sandy path angling slightly away from the water. Ride it 1/8 mile to its end (it’s signed for bikes), where you’ll see a short flight of stairs. Climb them and emerge on Lomaland Dr. We are now back on our route.

Lomaland climbs very steeply to the R (you can see the pitch) and only steeply to the L, so go L unless you want the challenge. This short pitch touches 11% and is quite a shock after all that flat riding. You’re now riding through the campus of Point Loma Nazarene University—hence the unusual architecture. Turn R on Savoy St. when the hill ends and follow it to Catalina Blvd. The navigating is over—you stay straight on Catalina (which becomes Cabrillo Memorial Dr.) to the turn-around point of the ride.

Cabrillo National Monument Visitor Center viewpoint—click to enlarge

Catalina is a very big street, but there’s plenty of room, and for the first while there’s a separated side road just for you. Soon you leave the neighborhoods behind, but you’re not in backcountry—rather you pass an intimidating set of gates and enter Point Loma Naval Base. You stay on military land until the National Monument. So expect lots of guard stations, security gates, and an enormous military cemetery (Fort Rosecrans National Cemetery). The road is wide two-lane with plenty of room for you, and the cars are well used to cyclists.

Soon on your L you’ll begin to see why you’ve come—amazing views of Coronado Island’s North Island Naval Air Station, the community of Coronado, the Silver Strand spit running south from Coronado, the entirety of San Diego Bay, and all of mainland San Diego behind. Framed behind the National Cemetery’s rows of headstones, it’s quite moving.

Road to the tide pools and Coast Trail, with Mexico’s Los Coronados Islands

Continue on to the Cabrillo National Monument, which consists of a Visitor Center, a lighthouse you can walk through when it’s open, some historical stuff about World War II installations, and a road down to famous tide pools. Come prepared to visit all of it. Walking shoes aren’t absolutely necessary but will make your visit a lot easier. The gatehouse charges cyclists $10 to enter (boo), so bring your lifetime National Park pass and ID if you have one. When I rode in the ranger waved me through for nothing (yay).

The Visitor Center has the official vista point overlooking San Diego, with a nice placard identifying the highlights of what you’re looking at. You’re at a mere 400 ft elevation, but still this is one of the finest vistas and one of the most satisfying destinations in all of Bestrides. The Center also has bathrooms, water, a nice little museum about Cabrillo and Spanish California, a gift shop, and a movie theatre that shows a great little free film about Cabrillo’s voyage. There’s a drinking fountain but the Center has no food other than snacks out of a vending machine.

Coast Trail

The lighthouse isn’t always open, but don’t miss it if it is. Inside you can see two floors of furnished rooms and climb the wonderful circular staircase up to the fresnel lens.

A small radio shack near the lighthouse (easy to miss) has an interesting exhibit of the 16-inch guns, the biggest guns the Navy ever had, that once defended the bay.

Our route isn’t over. Take the side road toward the ocean just inside the entrance gate, indicated by a sign reading “Tidepools” but marked less obviously by a road sign reading “Cabrillo Rd.” Take the spiffy little drop down to the tide pools and, if you have shoes and the time, walk the Coast Trail along the grandly eroded cliffs. Near the north end of the trail there’s a rock jutting from the cliff face that’s packed with cormorants and pelicans, and they’ll fly right by your face when they take off. If you’re there at low tide, the tide pooling is apparently outstanding—so outstanding that a couple of miles from the Monument entrance gate you pass a sign reading on one side “20-Minute Wait From Here” and on the other “Tidepool Parking Full.” I was there on a Monday in February and the place was crawling with people.

Turn around and enjoy the .7-mile, 8-10% climb out—just long enough and hard enough to make you say, “Oh yeah, I remember hills” if you’ve been in San Diego for a while.

Lighthouse stairwell

You can ride home the way you came, but for me the zigzag through the neighborhoods is something I only need to do once a day, so I take the straight route home: Catalina > Point Loma Ave. > Sunset Cliffs Blvd. It’s all fast and surprisingly mellow for city riding.

Shortening the route: Lop off as much of the start of the ride as you want. Most extremely, you could start on Catalina Blvd. and do a 6.5-mile ride.

Adding miles: Since you’re starting where the Mission Bay to La Jolla ride starts, you can add on that ride effortlessly. The Adding Miles section of the Mission Bay to La Jolla ride discusses how you can add on the Bayshore Bikeway ride as well.

Mission Bay to La Jolla

Distance: 22 miles out and back
Elevation gain: 660 ft

Cycling in San Diego is backwards. Usually when I’m in a city I can’t wait to get out of town and into the surrounding hills. But I’m not excited by the hills to the east of San Diego—the road contours are monotonous and the scenery is scrub. And riding in the burbs is endless big, straight, flat roads past gated communities. But the riding in town along the water is very good. City riding tends to be frenetic and dangerous, but not so here. Traffic is light, the roads are hospitable, bike lanes and bike boulevards abound, and the beach communities are cozy and charming. Bestrides discusses three of those ocean-hugging routes, all of them chestnuts to the locals: the ride to Cabrillo National Monument, the Bayshore Bikeway (in Adding Miles below), and this one. Since they hug the shoreline, all three rides are flat or nearly so, are slow-paced, and are perfect to do with your non-rabid partner on their e-bike. Comparing the three, this one is the slowest, Cabrillo has the climbing and the grand vista, and the Bayshore Bikeway has the solitude.

This is one of those urban adventure rides like the San Francisco Wiggle Route. It’s about poking your nose into interesting little corners of the city. It changes its personality every couple of miles, and it doesn’t have a boring moment, if you like SoCal beach culture and residential architecture, which I do.

Take your time on this ride. You’ll spend as much time watching seals frolic, assessing the skills of the surfers along the route, and sampling the fish tacos in a seaside taco shack as you do riding. This 22-mile ride took me about 4 hours. And even though it’s in the heart of a busy city, it’s 99% on neighborhood streets or sidewalks (!), so it’s almost car-free. I can’t think of a more pleasant way to spend an afternoon lazing about on your bike.

Our route starts at Mission Bay Park, where Clairemont Drive crosses the San Diego Freeway. Parking is plentiful—if you can’t park in the lot at the intersection, there are several parking lots to the north and south, and there is abundant curb parking in either direction on Mission Bay Drive. Ride north on Mission Bay Drive, an open, tranquil boulevard near the water’s edge with good views of Mission Bay and the grass fields and public beaches along its lip. From here on, with few exceptions, you just stay as close to the water as you can.

Pacific Beach

Soon you cross the cute little Mike Gotch Memorial Bridge over the Rose Inlet and your park boulevard becomes a street, Pacific Beach Drive. PBD is large and badly paved, but few cars use it. On your L is the Kendall Frost Mission Bay Marsh Preserve. The large stick mounds you see dotting the marsh are the nests of Ridgway’s Rail. The nests are tethered to the marsh grasses and float up and down with the rising and falling tides.

You can take PBD straight west to the ocean if you’re short on time, but our route takes a detour by staying close to the water and riding the perimeter of Crown Point, a peninsula that juts south into Mission Bay. Take Crown Point Drive, a large and open street, to the L. You can stay on it if it makes you happy, but I prefer the small paved trail that takes off soon to the L and continues between the street and the water, the Bayside Walk (weekend pedestrian traffic may make it unrideably crowded). It goes all the way to the southern tip of the Mission Beach peninsula, but before then we bail and take surface streets back to Pacific Beach Drive and take it L to the water (ignore the odd little jog south RidewithGPS invented).

Secluded beach spot south of La Jolla

Ride west until you’re gazing at the ocean and standing on the sidewalk fronting the beach. You’re now in Pacific Beach—not to be confused with Mission Beach just to the south and the more famous Ocean Beach on our Cabrillo Monument ride. The sidewalk you’re standing on is called Ocean Front Walk, and on a busy weekend day it may be nearly impassible with pedestrians, but you’re welcome to ride on it, and you should make the effort, because it’s a classic SoCal beach community scene—surfers in the water and prepping on the beach, girls in bikinis, customers drinking at the outdoor beer stands and watching the aforementioned surfers and girls, grass-roofed taco stands. Take Ocean Front Walk R/north and stay on it until it ends.

From the end of Ocean Front Walk you could take main streets all the way to La Jolla: Mission Blvd., La Jolla Blvd., and Prospect Street. They’re all wide, busy, and boring. We’re going to do the opposite and try to lose ourselves in the intriguing warren of beachfront streets to the west of them There is an almost infinite variety of routes available, and you can’t really go wrong or get lost, since you have the ocean on one side and the big streets on the other—just make sure you keep heading north. You’ll have the best time if you always choose to a) stay close to the water and b) take the smallest street that isn’t a cul de sac.

House south of La Jolla

The rewards here are architectural. From Pacific Beach to La Jolla, every house seems to be unique, charming, beautifully maintained, and insanely expensive. Navigating is fun, especially since every street name seems to be some combination of playa (Spanish for “beach”), sol, arena (Spanish for “sand”), marina, vista, mar, and camino. Playa Del Sol? Vista Del Mar? Camino Del Playa? Playa Del Vista? Camino Del Vista Del Playa Del Mar? How many combinations can there be? You will also pass some sweet off-the-grid beach access spots if you want to dig your toes into the sand.

Arriving in La Jolla, you’ll find excellent shopping and eating, but I’m only interested in the shoreline. Your first stop is Children’s Pool Beach, where for much of the year you (along with a throng of others) can watch the mama seals teach their new babies how to swim. Heartwarming. Continue north along the water 1/4 mile to Point La Jolla, where you may see seals surfing the swells and leaping clear of the water before the crest breaks. Amazing. Just past Point La Jolla is La Jolla Cove, with more seals, caves, and dramatic coastal views.

Mom seal teaching baby to swim at Children’s Pool

You can continue on north as far as you want (see Adding Miles). Turn around when you’re ready and return to Pacific Beach. Retrace your route or discover a new one through the neighborhoods.

Before turning L onto Pacific Beach Dr., continue south on Ocean Front Walk and explore the community of tiny beach houses that begin at PBD and go south down the Mission Beach peninsula. They’re packed in between Ocean Front Walk and Mission Blvd., rows and rows of adorable bungalows separated only by walkways just wide enough for your handlebars. These “streets” are so small most maps don’t show them—as many as 7 or 8 in a normal city block—and they have names as colorful and imaginative as the cottages themselves: Zanzibar, Windemere, Yarmouth. It’s a private world, like the Berkeley Hills or Sausalito’s houseboat communities, one you can only gaze at and fantasize about the life within.

Bungalows south of Pacific Beach

When you’re done, return to Pacific Beach Dr. and retrace your steps home. If you don’t need to see Crown Point twice, just stay on PBD and you’ll be home in minutes.

Shortening the route: it’s already short and easy, but if you must, the uniquely San Diegan part of the ride is from Pacific Beach to La Jolla, so park near the west end of Pacific Beach Dr. and ride from there.

Adding miles: You can keep riding north. I haven’t done it, but I am assured that the riding along the coast remains rewarding at least as far as Encinitas and probably all the way to Oceanside, where the Coast Highway deadends into Hwy 5.

Our Cabrillo National Monument ride begins and ends where this ride begins and ends.

With little trouble you can ride East Mission Bay Drive south from our starting point and continue on it (later called Pacific Hwy., then Harbor Dr.)) to another iconic San Diegan ride, the aforementioned Bayshore Bikeway. Once called the Bay Route Ride and supposedly renamed to avoid confusion with possible bike rides in Lebanon (truly), this favorite ride of non-cyclist tourists is described in detail in numerous websites of Things to Do in San Diego, so I will be brief. It begins with a ferry ride from the downtown Navy Pier to Coronado Island ($7 one way, leaving every hour on the hour) and follows a well-marked course along the southeast edge of Coronado, past the Hotel del Coronado, and down the Silver Strand, the spit connecting Coronado Island to the south end of the bay. It’s a separated bike path almost all the way and it’s dead flat, so you will see a lot of tourists on e-bikes. Coronado is charming in a big-money way, the Strand itself is prettily desolate (your path is on the east side of the highway, so you don’t see the ocean), there’s some interesting history and one State Beach along the way, and the south end of the bay is an interesting marsh with a bird sanctuary.

But there’s a trap. The Bikeway advertises itself as a loop and invites you to continue on northward up the east side of the bay. This I wouldn’t do. It’s ugly industrial, with bad road surfaces and occasional dangerous traffic, a poor patchwork of bike paths, sidewalks, main streets, baffling interchanges, construction sites, and parking lots. At one point the Bikeway’s own route signage directed me down a separated bike path along a major artery, a path which without warning turned into a sidewalk and then ended in dirt. So ride the Bikeway to the bird sanctuary, turn around, and retrace your steps.

Sacramento River Trail

Distance:36.6-mile out and back more or less
Elevation gain: 1845 ft

(A Best of the Best ride)

(Warning: the last time I did this ride I parked at the Keswick Dam Trail Head parking lot and my car was broken into. Don’t leave valuables in your car. JR)

Normally I don’t like rec trails, because they’re crowded and fussy. But the occasional rec trail rises above the regrettable norm, and Bestrides discusses six that I really like: the Monterey Bike Trail, the Nimitz Trail, the Willamette River Trail in Eugene, the American River Trail in Sacramento, the Coyote Creek Trail in San Jose (use the search window for the last three), and this one. As with all rec trails, the Sacramento River Trail (also called the Sacramento River Parkway) can get unpleasantly crowded on weekends, but if you can catch it on a quiet day, it’s a wonderful ride, with an immaculate road surface, grand vistas, and (much of the time) an intriguing contour.

Besides crowds, the curses of rec trails are monotony and flatness/straightness (since most are trail-to-trail conversions). The SRT has neither problem. The route is a constant series of entertaining surprises: Turtle Bay Exploration Park with its vast array of educational attractions, McConnell Arboretum and Botanical Gardens next-door, a giant sundial, three river crossings on bridges (one world-famous, one a suspension bridge straight out of Indiana Jones), one spooky tunnel, endless views of the Sacramento River (since you’re riding along its very lip), distant views of Mt. Lassen to the southeast, views of Mt. Shasta at the turn-around, a ride along the top of one of the world’s largest and most scenic dams, interesting historical placards to further your knowledge, cards naming and describing the trees and shrubs along the path, one mighty hydroelectric generating plant, bald eagles in flight, and so on. And the SRT is, about 2/3 of the time, as far from flat/straight as you can get, a delightful roller coaster of up and down and back and forth (it’s more work than the elevation total suggests). When it is flat, it’s still perfectly pleasant.

Avoiding the crowds is key here. Two solutions are obvious: 1) ride on weekdays and 2) ride farther than the walkers can walk. The SRT is one of those trails that begins near the heart of the city and gets more and more isolated the further you go. Most of the walkers are in the first 3 miles of the route, and by Keswick Dam they’re almost entirely gone. The third solution is unusual: ride in the winter. The flora is as pretty in January as it is in June, but the crowds are indoors, so if you can find a clear, dry winter day the trail should pretty much belong to you and the hard-core runners. In addition, in the winter the surrounding summits are crowned with snow and the vistas are vastly improved. And it isn’t 105°, as it often is in August.

The frequent trailheads along the route all have bathrooms. Water resupply is available at Keswick Dam, Shasta Day Use Area, and (I’m told) the Shasta Dam Visitor Center.

Our route crosses the top of Shasta Dam, but RidewithGPS doesn’t recognize that as a “road” or it thinks it’s closed to the public—for whatever reason it wouldn’t let me map it.

Click on any of the photos to see them enlarged.

The SRT changes its personality every few miles, so I’ll describe the route in sections.

Section 1: From the Sundial Bridge to the Diestelhurst Bridge. Park in the Turtle Bay parking lot (it’s free). Make a mental note to come back and explore the riches of Turtle Bay soon. Ride across the famous Sundial Bridge carefully—the road surface of the bridge is mostly glass and is therefore slippery if at all wet or frosty. Check out the giant sundial laid out on the earth at the north end of the bridge. Turn L onto the North Sacramento River Trail. Immediately pass the gates to the Botanical Gardens. Make a mental note to come back and explore the riches of the gardens soon. At the gate to the gardens is a poster with an excellent map of the SRT—take a photo for later reference if you forgot to download your ridewithGPS route map.

Sundial Bridge

This section of the trail is cozy, full of tight little turns, drops, and rises as it works its way through pretty riparian oaks and past playgrounds and other suburban signs of life. It’s likely to be the section of the ride most crowded with walkers, dogs, and children. Note the pretty quarter-mile markers along the route—they are one of at least 5 different sets of distance markers you’ll see on the ride, so you’ll never be in doubt about where you are on the route.

Section 1

Follow the unmistakable trail as it passes under two bridges. At the third bridge, the Diestelhorst, pass under, immediately go R and loop up onto the bridge. From the center of the bridge (which is closed to cars), note Mt. Lassen through the trusses of the two bridges to the east.

Section 2: From Diestelhorst Bridge to Keswick Dam. At the south end of the bridge turn R onto the unmissable South Sacramento River Trail and ride to Keswick Dam. Note the large sign at the trailhead giving you distances to all destinations ahead—it’s the first of many. This is a popular trailhead for runners, because this leg is mostly flat and straight, so you may have company. It’s mostly free of development, traveling through pretty, small woods and later more open country, hugging the riverbank the entire way. Note the prominent mountain dead ahead of you (hopefully snow-crested if you took my advice and are riding in the winter), which I was told by a local is Whiskeytown Mountain. Watch for bald eagles from here to the turn-around.

Section 2

As you approach the impressive pile that is Keswick Dam and Power Station, you pass a lovely little suspension bridge across the river, called either the Sacramento River Trail Bridge or the Ribbon Bridge depending on your map. We’ll cross over on it on our return ride.

The Ribbon Bridge

Section 3: From Keswick Dam to Keswick Boat Launch and Trailhead. Officially the Sacramento River Trail ends here and the continuation is called the Sacramento River Rail Trail, but no name could be more misleading. This leg is by far the most dramatic, difficult, and rewarding on the route, and no rail line could ever consider traversing it. It begins with a challenging 0.5-mile hill, named Heart Rate Hill on the nearby placard, the first of two climbs on the route that you’ll really notice. RWGPS says it maxes out at a bit less than 9%, but I promise it feels like more.

Section 3

From Heart Rate Hill’s summit, the leg meanders dramatically, up and down, back and forth. You’re high above the river, on top of the canyon ridge, and it’s exhilarating. The terrain is sparse and dry, made more barren by the recent fires that pounded Whiskeytown, but it’s a grand barrenness, and the constant views of Mt. Lassen and Brokeoff across the river to the east are splendid. By now you should have out-ridden all but the heartiest of trail users, so you can really attack the course. This is great riding and is the one leg of the SRT you can’t afford to miss.

Section 3

Section 4: From Keswick Boat Launch to the Shasta Day Use Area. This leg fits the rail-to-trail stereotype—basically flat, straight, and homogeneous—as it works its way through riparian shrubs and low trees along the river’s shoreline. Trailside placards naming and describing the local flora pop up. The monotony is broken by a cool little tunnel, long enough to get pleasantly tingly but never pitch-dark. You’re nearing the northern end of the trail, so you may pick up some walkers or casual cyclists coming from the Shasta Use Area campgrounds just ahead of you.

The bike trail debouches onto a major road (Coram Rd., never signed) at the Shasta Dam Trail Head of the SRT. Follow the road to the R, which soon leads to the Shasta Day Use Area, a major complex with campgrounds, bathrooms, and water.

Shasta Dam

Section 4 would be the most skippable on the route except we need it to get to the next leg, which you don’t want to miss.

Section 5: Shasta Day Use Area to Shasta Dam. Ride through the Day Use Area (drinking water available) on Coram Rd. and follow it to the dam, a very sweet, moderate 1.5-mile climb serpentining up beside the dam face to the road across the top of the dam itself. Halfway up the climb the road changes its name to Shasta Dam Access Rd., again unsigned. At the dam, ride across it to the other side, then ride back. The dam road (officially still Shasta Dam Access Rd.) is surrounded by guardhouses, barriers, and guards armed with automatic weapons, so it looks forbidding, but you are in fact welcome to ride there and poke around (a sign says, “No knives, guns, or food”—I didn’t ditch my Clif Bar). Smack on the far side of the lake is Mt. Shasta in regal grandeur, and the views down the face of the dam are unforgettable. It’s an iconic dam, everyone’s image of what a dam should look like. On the far side is a Visitor Center where you can replenish your water, if it’s open—in an act of incredible (and typical) governmental idiocy, its current hours are Mon.-Fri. 8:30-4:00…in other words, exactly when almost no one can visit.

Mt. Shasta from the top of the dam

Turn around and ride back down the hill. It’s a perfect slalom on perfect pavement, over too soon. Return to the SRT and ride it backwards past Keswick Dam to the Ribbon suspension bridge. Cross the river on it and begin the next leg.

Section 6: North Sacramento River Trail to the Diestelhorst Bridge. You are paralleling Section 2, but the terrain couldn’t be more different. Whereas Section 2 is flat and straight, this leg is the most twisty/turny up and down riding you’ll do all day. I loved it. If you love it too, there is an argument to be made for skipping the tamer Section 2 on the ride out and doing Section 6 in both directions. I won’t say no.

Section 6, with Mt. Lassen in background

The NSRT debouches onto a suburban neighborhood street. Continue down the street and keep an eye out for the continuation of the trail, which takes off to the R in 1/4 mile with no signage. Don’t fall for the trail-look-alike driveway just before it.

This leg runs back into our outward path at the base of the Diestelhorst Bridge. Return the way you came to your car.

Shortening the route: Since there are car-accessible trailheads with parking lots scattered along the route, you can start/stop your ride at any of them and tailor the route to suit your aesthetics, conditioning, and tolerance for crowds (see my warning about theft at the beginning of this post). The 6 sections from best to worst are IMO #3, 5, 6, 1, 2, and 4. Which means there is no way to ride just the good stuff. My ideal short route would be #3, 4, 5, and back, putting up with Section 4 for what lies on either side.

Adding miles: You can add on 6-8 unthrilling miles to our route by continuing on past the dam Visitor Center and going R/south on Hwy 151, Shasta Dam Blvd., to Summit City (so called on maps, but signed “Shasta Lake” as you approach town), then either turning around or heading north on Lake Blvd, which will return you to the dam. Shasta Dam Blvd. is a generic moderate climb and descent on a big two-lane road with car-friendly contours (big sweeping turns). If you ride it as an out and back, it adds c. 1100 ft. of elevation. Lake Blvd. is even less exciting. The only real reward in doing the loop, besides getting additional miles in, is the spectacular vista point halfway up the Shasta Dam Blvd. climb looking back on the face of Shasta Dam, the lake behind it, and Mt. Shasta in the distance. I suggest riding to it, taking in the view, and turning around.

View from the Hwy 151 vista point

If you make it to Summit City, take the time to continue east 1/4 mi. on Shasta Dam Blvd. to the town’s Little League baseball field to see if there’s a game going on—if there is, it’s a heart-warming Norman Rockwell scene of small-town Americana. Water available.

If you’re determined to loop the entire ride and don’t mind riding a lot of mediocre stuff, you can ride to the dam and take this return route. It does a good job of avoiding the larger roads. Notice that for the fun of it I’ve included an out-and-back on Walker Mine Rd., which is a good bit better than anything else on this route.

There is some additional bike path to the east of the Sundial Bridge, on both sides of the river, and it’s all fun stuff—consult the map by the Botanical Gardens—but it isn’t a significant number of miles.