Author Archives: Jack Rawlins

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 4 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, the Coyote Creek Trail in San Jose, 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!

https://ridewithgps.com/routes/37254100

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 it’s 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 undevel-oped 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?—do the Pacific Grove leg. Urban bustle?—do the Monterey wharf leg. Isolated dunes?—do the Fort Ord leg. 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 ride visits a National Monument (Muir Woods), so if you plan to visit it and have an annual pass or senior card, be sure to pack it and photo ID.

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.

https://ridewithgps.com/routes/37953365

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 could conceivably walk it without shoes. Simple sandals would be better.

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 (10%-ish). 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 Best of the Best 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 typically see 2 or 3. Likewise for car traffic and people.

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.

https://ridewithgps.com/routes/37754640

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. You’ll work a little in the last half-mile.

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, too steep to be much fun, and often very windy, so it’s not a favorite of mine, and the climb back out after the turnaround is tough, so decide before descending if you want to turn around now. There’s a road sign a short way down the descent telling you to prepare for 17% pitches, which I think is an exaggeration, but it’s steep. That said, the views on the descent are great. 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

As I said, the ride home is much harder than the ride out. The RWGPS elevation profile doesn’t agree—it says the ride in and the ride out are about the same. Hogwash. There’s no comparison. Be prepared for a mile of so of 11-13% stuff that’s truly taxing.

View from the summit

The descent on the east side is pure joy, especially in the second half—a Best of the Best descent. It’s very fast, with big, 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: Ride from the Visitor Center to the summit and return. You’ll get the ride’s best ascent and the best descent, but of course you’ll miss the beach.

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.

https://ridewithgps.com/routes/37936977

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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Paradise Drive

Distance: 20.5-mile lollipop
Elevation gain: 1490 ft

This is another SF Bay shoreline ride with great views of the Bay and its attractions. It’s a bit more strenuous than the Golden Gate Bridge loop and less strenuous than the Conzelman Loop (note that mild elevation total), and less dramatic than either. It’s a fairly quiet, rolling ride through pretty woods and occasional $10-million homes to three uniquely charming Bay locales: Tiburon, Belvedere Island, and Belvedere Lagoon. As with all Bay Area shoreline riding, this ride isn’t about the work—instead, ignore your heart rate monitor, slow down, and take in the many delights that surround you. The ride profile is perfect for a recovery day: constant serpentining, back and forth, gently up and down. The road surface is borderline problematic but never bad enough to disturb your wa.

Now I will say something I say nowhere else in Bestrides: you might plan to do this ride when it’s busiest. Paradise Drive is Cycling Central on weekends—on my last Sunday there I saw perhaps 200 bicycles—and, while I’ve done it in solitude and loved it, there’s a kind of Woodstock (SXSW?) atmosphere on the weekend that’s exhilarating.

(Ignore the jagged elevation profile—the actual profile is mellow.)

https://ridewithgps.com/routes/37651823

Find a place to park around the west end of Paradise Drive. This area is fully built-up, with churches, schools, parks, and neighborhoods, so there are lots of options. I recommend the Nugget Market parking lot, just east of Harbor Dr. Ride east on Paradise Drive. In the beginning, it’s a multi-lane without appeal, but soon the build-up ends, the road goes to small 2-lane, and you’re into woods. You’re riding along the hilly shoreline of the Tiburon Peninsula, so views of north SF Bay, the Richmond-San Rafael Bridge, San Quentin, and the like are frequent through the trees and in the infrequent breaks in the foliage. There is the occasional house, but you’re on a sidehill so they’re largely above or below your line of vision, and anyway they’re typically much too rich and snooty to let you see them. A realtor’s billboard advertises $7-million houses (or are they bare lots?—hard to say).

Paradise Drive

The road rolls sweetly and never makes you work. Soon you hit a Y and Trestle Glen Blvd. splits off to the R. You don’t want it, unless you’re determined to ride a loop, in which case when you leave Tiburon on the ride home you can take Tiburon Ave. and use Trestle Glen to get back to Paradise. The far better ride is to ride Paradise Drive out and back, as I’ve mapped it.

Paradise Drive drops down into Tiburon, one of those Bay villages you never want to leave. You debouch at Shoreline Park, a grass strip with benches right on the water where the views of Angel Island, Raccoon Straits, the main Bay, San Francisco, and the Bridge are peerless and the people-watching is prime. Sailboats invariably are busy in the Straits, and usually there are dingy regattas underway in front of the Corinthian Yacht Club on your R. (“Corinthian” in sailors’ jargon means “amateur” or “in the true amateur spirit”—apparently the people of Corinth were great sportsmen.)

Golden Gate Bridge and the Presidio in the distance, from Shoreline Park in Tiburon

The tiny village of Tiburon consists of one small block but, as Spenser Tracy put it, “Every bit is cherce”—several good restaurants (which during the pandemic are serving at open-air tables on closed-off Main Street), an Italian bakery, small, tasteful shops, and two ferry terminals (to Angel Island, SF, and Sausalito). If you want to do the true Tiburon experience, eat at Sam’s, a restaurant famous for having its own boat dock.

At the end of one-block Main Street turn R (still on Main Street, in fact), immediately stay R at the Y to stay off Eastview St., and pass the quaint little shops of Historic (or Historical, as one sign puts it) Ark Row lining the street on your R side. It’s the kind of place where the buildings have plaques on them detailing their past lives. If you’re in the mood for food, I recommend Lola’s taqueria—get the free avocado salsa. Main turns into Beach St—stay on it and you’re swept onto Belvedere Island.

Typical bungalow on Belvedere Island

I love this place. This small, hilly rock is crammed with small streets and absurdly expensive, very old houses—perhaps the classiest place to live in the Bay Area if you’re a fan of Old Money. Or expensive cars—in Belvedere the cheapest car you’ll ever see is a Lexus. I passed a house with three cars in the carport: a Bentley, a Porsche, and a Tesla. The marina below you as you start making your way around the island is the San Francisco Yacht Club, whose name is the basis for a local trick trivia question: “In what town is the SF Yacht Club?” (The correct town address is “Belvedere Tiburon.”)

Because the slopes of Belvedere are very steep, the houses and gardens tend to be vertical, and they make for an architectural and horticultural fairyland. You can follow the shoreline, but if you’re craving more expansive vistas (or some serious climbing), explore the inland streets, where you can find 14% pitches. Golden Gate Ave.>Belvedere Ave. is the main bisector of the island, but since it’s the thoroughfare the house and garden viewing along it is poor—much better gawking along the smaller streets. I like Bella Vista Ave., but you have lots of options—just wander, and keep looking up (unusual posture for a cyclist). The views of the surrounding geography are stunning—to the northeast Belvedere Cove, Tiburon, Raccoon Straits, Angel Island; to the northwest Belvedere Lagoon; to the south Richardson Bay, Sausalito, the central bay and the Golden Gate Bridge. Sometimes it helps to sneak into someone’s parking lot for the best views.

View from Belvedere of the SF Yacht Club, Belvedere Lagoon (L), and a bit of Tiburon (R)

As you leave Belvedere Island, with San Rafael Blvd. on your R, you’re passing what is to me a magical place: Belvedere Lagoon. This artificial archipelago of charming cottages each with its own dock has ever since my childhood seemed like the most idyllic place on earth to live. Our route essentially circumnavigates it. Take a moment to explore it via its side roads. You can’t see the best part—the backyard docks—but each of the bungalows is unique, tasteful, and lovingly kept up.

As you near large, busy Tiburon Ave. (in the neighborhood of Hilaria, though I see nothing funny about the place), turn R onto small Lagoon Rd., which parallels it, to avoid the traffic (hard to see). Lagoon Rd. returns you to downtown Tiburon. From there return to your car the way you came. Again, if you’re dead set against out-and-backs, from Tiburon you can take Tiburon Ave to Trestle Glen and go R on Trestle Glen to get back to Paradise, but you’ll miss out on a great return ride. It’s mostly slightly downhill, so it’s a faster, more up-tempo ride that the ride out.

Shortening the route: This ride is easy enough that you probably won’t want to shorten it, but if you do, ride to Tiburon and return.

Adding miles: The nearly limitless riding options nearby are detailing the Adding Miles section of the Golden Gate Bridge Loop ride.

San Quentin through the trees on Paradise Drive

Mendocino Coastal

Distance: 26 miles out and back
Elevation gain: 1600 ft

I’m not a fan of cycling Highway 1. The scenery is peerless, but the traffic is often murder and the road profile tends to long, straight, enormous rollers. But in some places there are frontage roads paralleling Hwy 1, and these can be charming, with all the pluses of Hwy 1 and none of the minuses.

One of the best places to explore back roads along Hwy 1 is Mendocino. This ride strings together the best of them, and adds a pleasant climb and a final short jaunt on excellent dirt through prime woodlands. It’s all easy riding, and the scenic riches almost defy description. In a brief 12 miles are packed grand ocean vistas, the world-famous village of Mendocino, the also-world-famous Mendocino Headlands, a delicious State Park with fern canyons and more world-class headlands, some pretty coastal farmland, a sea lion rookery, an adorable lighthouse, a small cove with its own beach and 50’s beach store, and the afore-mentioned woodlands. To tie all this together you ride two short stretches of Hwy 1, both with grand ocean spectacle to the west if the traffic whizzing past you will let you appreciate it.

This is not a life-changing ride but an extremely pleasant one. There are at least 5 spots along this route where getting off the bike and walking is almost mandatory, so take shoes and a lock, or promise yourself you’ll come back in a car.

https://ridewithgps.com/routes/37941180

(This map has you riding out to the lighthouse in both directions.)

You can cut this ride up any way you like or begin anywhere you like. I’m starting at the southernmost point of the route. Drive a half mile or so south of Mendocino village, across the bridge over Big River and past the Comptche Ukiah Rd turn-off, and turn R onto Road 500B (named after Jedediah 500B, an early explorer and trapper).  Googlemaps and other maps call it Brewery Gulch Road, but it’s clearly signed “Road 500B” at both ends.  Make sure you’re on the Brewery Gulch Road that’s on the west side of Hwy 1—there’s one on the east side too. Parking can be scarce—you might have better luck on the east side of Hwy 1 or on Hwy 1 itself, or just ride from Mendocino village.

Brewery Gulch Road, our first frontage road, is less than a mile long and has a rough road surface, but the sense of being alone on a secret road is intense and it has the best view of the town of Mendocino there is—better than the view all those hikers get pounding around the Mendocino Headlands.

Mendocino village from Road 500B

Quickly Brewery Gulch deadends at Hwy 1 (notice our Mendocino/Comptche ride is directly across the highway). Turn L on Hwy 1 and ride across the bridge to Mendocino, enjoying the views of the Big River estuary if traffic allows. A dreamy way to pass a day is to rent a canoe at the canoe rental place at the mouth of the river and paddle upstream. Take the first L into the village (from Hwy 1 you can’t see the town, but the turn is unmissable) and ride along Main Street, quite possibly the most charming Main Street in the US. There’s a nice public bathroom on the ocean side of the street if you already need one, and a great little museum in the building adjacent to it. Consider taking the time to explore Mendocino’s world-famous vibe (Main Street’s book store, the Gallery Book Store, is my favorite book store anywhere), or just make a note to come back and spend a day.

When Main Street goes R, go with it and ride the 3 or so blocks to Little Lake Road. Turn L (toward the ocean) on LLR, which once out of town becomes Heeser Rd. Heeser, like 500B, is fairly rough riding but the headlands on the ocean side are without peer. You have to get off the bike and walk 50 ft to see them at their best—ideally, walk out onto the fingers of land that jut out into the sea—or once more promise to return if you can’t stop now.

The Mendocino Headlands at sunset

Heeser deadends at Lansing St. Go L and ride Lansing to its deadend on Hwy 1. Go L on Hwy 1. This next leg passes through very pretty forest with some magnificent glimpses of shoreline to the west, but it’s invariably trafficky and can be a white-knuckle experience, especially on the bridge crossings where the shoulder disappears. It’s soon over, as you turn L toward Russian Gulch State Park (clearly signed). You’re crossing traffic here, and the cars are doing 60 mph, so exercise caution.

Twenty feet down your new road, it T’s, and the road goes L into the park or R onto Pt. Cabrillo Drive. We’re eventually heading R/north, but Russian Gulch is a stunning place. It encompasses both a rainforest canyon of redwoods and ferns with an easy walking trail along the creek that will heal any and all psychic wounds, and a chunk of headlands with all the grandeur of those in Mendocino without the hectic multitudes of sight-seers. Once again, make a note to return for a day (there is a fee) and head north on Pt. Cabrillo Drive.

Pt. Cabrillo Drive

Pt. Cabrillo Drive is the second of our frontage roads. It meanders through gentle rollers, past eucalyptus groves, small farms, turkeys, and deer. Midway along it, you pass the turn-off to the Cabrillo Point Lighthouse (or Light Station, as it’s officially called). It’s a half-mile detour, and you’re welcome to ride right to the lighthouse complex, which is extensive. There is the lighthouse itself, not a tall tower (since the land it stands on is high above the water) but a perfectly charming thing that’s still in operation, and lots of outbuildings, many of which—two museums, the lighthouse keeper’s cottage, and others—are open to visitors. The lighthouse has infrequent tours of the lens upstairs, but is mainly a very nice gift shop staffed by a knowledgeable docent. Once again, if you don’t want to stop make a note to return.

Point Cabrillo Light Station and museum

At its north end, Pt. Cabrillo Dr. goes through an unexpected, unmissable hairpin just before it drops to the beach. On the outside of the turn, turn L on S. Caspar Dr., ride about 1/4 mi., and turn R. onto Headlands Point Way (behind a large gate) to Caspar Headlands St. Preserve, an undeveloped but lovely postage stamp of a park sandwiched between residences and the home of Sea Lion Rock, a rookery where the sea lions are almost always on display. You’ll hear them long before you see them.

Caspar Headlands State Preserve, with the rookery on the farthest rock

The preserve is signed (on the gate), but you may think you’re unwelcome because there’s a lot of evidence that the locals would rather you went somewhere else. There is the gate across Headlands Point Way (there’s a person-sized gap for you to walk through), there is a “private drive” sign, and another sign that reads “Moving gate may cause death.” In other words, “Welcome, guests!” Ride 50 yards down Headlands Point Way to the turn-around, then cycle or walk the 50 feet of dirt path to the cliff’s edge. There is a tiny but delightful warren of footpaths along the cliff, and the sea lions are on a rock just offshore (further out at high tide). You should have the place to yourself.

Returning to Pt. Cabrillo Dr., swoop down to Caspar Beach, a throwback to an earlier time with a small RV park and a beach mercantile, with surfboard rentals and pool tables. It’s a cute spot, but there are much better beaches in the Mendocino area, so I recommend you soak up the ambiance and move on.

Approaching Caspar Beach from the north side

At Caspar Beach you’re at sea level. You now climb 720 ft to the turn-around point of the ride. Make the short climb back up to Hwy 1 and go straight across onto what the maps call Caspar Little Lake Road but which is only signed as Rd 409.

The Caspar Beach store

The first 100 yards of 409 are steep, but it’s the only steepness you’ll see on the route. Thereafter it’s a few miles of steady, easy climbing through pleasant but unspectacular greenery until the road turns to dirt. Even if you hate dirt, do not turn around—this is why you’ve climbed the hill. The dirt is glass—better than a lot of pavement—the road is flat, and the trees, while not old-growth, are especially lovely. I liked it so much I came back the next day and rode it again.

The dirt at the end of 409

At around the 12-mile mark, 409 T’s into Little Lake Road, the very same Little Lake Road you were on for 50 yards as you exited Mendocino village (it’s unsigned—there’s a sign that says “Mendocino Woodlands” with an arrow to the left). At this point you have a choice. If you go R on LLR it will descend steadily and drop you smack in the midst of Mendocino village. If you’re a loop person, go for it, but the road surface is poor and I didn’t enjoy it. So I prefer to turn around and re-experience all the lovely stuff on the outbound route a second time. It’s up to you.

Shortening the route: You can choose any segment of the route you like—it’s all good—but I’d recommend the Pt. Cabrillo Dr. leg.

Adding miles: The route takes you by the foot of our Mendocino/Comptche ride.

You can ride south on Hwy 1 to Navarro Ridge Rd (see the Mendocino/ Comptche ride Adding Miles section).

There is little that appeals to the north of our route. At the turnaround point you can go L on Little Lake Road, but it just leads to a warren of dirt roads and never hooks up with anything of importance. Riding Hwy 1 north toward Fort Bragg isn’t rewarding.

Round Mountain Road

Distance: 32-mile loop
Elevation gain: 1730 ft

Every town has The Ride, the one everybody does because it’s good training and it’s accessible and it’s about the right length and toughness. Depending on the town, The Ride can range from great to tedious, and you can always expect a lot of cycling company. Round Mountain Road is Bakersfield’s go-to ride, and it’s a good one. It’s got a moderate but not excessive amount of climbing, it’s never steep (so you can do it on back-to-back days if you want), it has some grand views of rolling grassy hills and a nice sense of isolation (briefly), and it takes about 2.5 hours, which is most people’s idea of a nice weekend stretch of the legs.

This being Bakersfield, RMR also has some drawbacks. After all, this is the town where the high school sports team calls itself the Drillers. About a third of the route goes through oil fields, which you may find fascinating or repulsive or both. Astonishingly, when you summit Round Mountain itself (the road goes right past the peak), after several miles of climbing in unspoiled isolation, you discover the entire top of the mountain is consumed (some would say, ravaged) by an enormous oil drilling operation which you ride smack through. You also spend about 5 miles on China Grade Loop, one of the ugliest roads I’ve ever ridden. Later, in Shortening the route, I’ll show you how to avoid it.

This is another of those loops where I can’t say which direction is better. I’ve mapped it counterclockwise, but most locals seem to ride it the other way. As I was stopped by the side of the road, a rider came along in my direction and I said, “Am I riding this the wrong way?” She said, “No” and rode on. So that’s settled. After I describe my route I’ll discuss pros and cons.

https://ridewithgps.com/routes/37975021

Begin in Oildale, a suburb of Bakersfield, at the intersection of China Grade Loop and Manor. Parking can be both sparse and dangerous around here, but on the NE corner of our intersection is a huge housing development that offers lots of curbside parking and standard suburban safety. Pick a tidy looking house, park in front of it, and note your location so you can find it again.

China Grade Loop

Ride east on China Grade Loop, the most misnamed road you’ll ever see. There is nothing Chinese in sight, there is no grade, and it’s not a loop (the actual loop is nearby where we’re not riding). It’s also a horror—dead flat, dead straight, and heavily trafficked so you’re confined to the shoulder, and that shoulder is full of glass, debris, lumber, road signs, and dead animals, and it’s constantly crossed by frost-heave-style cracks each its own mini-speed-bump (I’m not making this up). And you’re riding through fields of oil wells. Some technology I find rather beautiful. Oil wells are at the other extreme. All that is why we’re doing it first, to get it over with.

Looking north from the climb

Pretty soon (though not soon enough) everything changes: the road begins to meander and roll gently as it follows the contours of the Kern River. Now the road is bordered by expensive hobby-farm mansions, traffic is insignificant, and the road surface is perfect. This is tranquil, sublimely pleasant riding. Somewhere in here the road changes its name to Round Mountain Road, though I didn’t see a sign saying so until it was a long-ago done deal.

About 9 miles in, the road turns up and climbs steadily for about 4.5 miles, to the summit you can eventually see in the distance, on a stretch of road you have to love if you like climbing at all. The pitch is just enough to make you think, “Hey, I’m climbing well today!” and the road surface stays glass. The McMansions fall away and you have the place to yourself (and the other cyclists), and the views (of where you’ve been to the south and uninhabited rolling hills to the north) keep getting better. It’s an utterly barren landscape that may not be to everyone’s taste (see photos), but I found it transporting.

You can see there are buildings on the mountaintop, but you have to get there to see the extent of the construction. It’s a mini-city up there, like one of those “mining colonies” you see on alien planets being stripped of their minerals in sci fi movies.

Then it’s down. The descent in this direction is about twice the length of the ascent, hence half the pitch, so it’s actually a fairly tame affair. At the bottom you T into S. Granite Road (clearly signed) and take it L. A 3-mile climb, noticeable but never threatening, on the shoulder (really the gutter) of a shabby highway takes you back to Oildale and its oilfields. There is some navigation needed in the end, but the easiest route is simply to take every L you can that’s an obvious major street. That will eventually deposit you back on Manor and your car.

Which way to go?: As usual with loops, it’s all about whether you prefer climbing or descending. In my direction the climbing is steeper (though never approaching steep) and the descending less exciting. In the other direction it’s the other way around—even easier climbing, more exciting descending. The only other factor is the wind: Bakersfield has a westerly habit, so if the wind is up you’ll have it at your back during the climbing and descending if you go clockwise.

Shortening the route (and avoiding China Grade): About half of this loop isn’t all that good—Granite Rd. and China Grade. To ride only the good stuff, drive to the east end of China Grade where the road gets good, start there, ride to the intersection of Round Mountain Rd and S. Granite Rd., and turn around and ride back. This gives you c. 22 miles but of course you end up doing the climb twice—easily doable, I promise. You can start at the other end if you don’t mind doing the harder climb second.

Adding miles: You can take S. Granite Rd. north (I don’t know what it’s like) and in a few miles run into Woody Road aka Hwy 155, a good ride all the way to Isabella Lake. From China Grade Loop you can take Alfred Harrell Hwy and soon connect with Breckenridge Rd, a grand and challenging climb that drops you off on Caliente Bodfish Rd just north of the stretch that’s a leg of our Caliente Loop.

For other possibilities, see the Adding Miles section of the Caliente Loop ride.

Trinity Center to Callahan

Distance: 34 miles one way
Elevation gain: 3770 ft

This is the rarest kind of ride in Bestrides, a ride on a major highway. But Hwy 3 isn’t like other highways—it’s almost car-free. On a beautiful Wednesday morning in August, once I cleared Trinity Lake, I saw perhaps a vehicle every ten minutes and spent much of the climb riding the center line in solitude.

This ride has a number of virtues—pretty forests, nice rocks, some good vistas, good-to-excellent road surface, a strange almost-ghost town as an end-point, lake-side riding, creek-side riding—but the raison is the climb and descent, which are both pips. Look at the overall numbers and it looks like nothing. The entire ascent racks up a mere 3000 ft in 18 miles, which is about 3.2%. But the last 5 of those miles average over 8%. To put that another way, of the 3770 ft total elevation gain, you do almost all of it in those 5 miles. The descent down the back side is about the same pitch but straighter—you’ll do 45 mph if you want to. You can ride the route as an out-and-back but you’d be in for a big day. I arranged a shuttle, and I’ve mapped it as one way.

https://ridewithgps.com/routes/38005669

Start at Trinity Center. It’s what Northern California calls a “resort,” which means it’s a general store, a launch ramp for the lake, and a campground. Ride Hwy 3 to Callahan.

For the first few miles you’re riding flat terrain along Trinity Lake, but it’s merely pleasant, because you aren’t by the shore so the lake is little more than hints of blue through trees, and the lake itself, like so many reservoirs in Northern California, is largely drained and therefore not very pretty unless you’re there early in the year.

Trinity Lake at low water

Once you clear the lake you ride along the Trinity River, climbing imperceptibly, at first through dramatic mountains of boulders left by California’s gold mining past, then along the stream itself, which is a pretty rock-strewn thing but which tapers off to a trickle in the latter part of the summer. There are occasional “resorts” along the river in these first miles (I can’t imagine what people do there), but otherwise no services until Callahan. You follow the river, crossing it repeatedly on bridges, until mile 19, when you leave the Trinity and follow Scott Mountain Creek and the pitch goes from imperceptible to 8-10%.

One of many Trinity River crossings

Luckily the road serpentines constantly, so you’re never facing tedious slogs up endless straight pitches. The landscape here isn’t as dramatic as the Sierra, but it’s always pretty and you get some good rock formations and the occasional vista back down the Trinity River Canyon. Scott Mountain Creek is continuously below you but you won’t know it’s there. The climb gets easier—8-10% in the first half, 6-8% in the second.

Five miles of this

At 25 miles you reach Scott Mountain Summit (unmissable, signed) and begin the 6-mile rocket ride down the back side. It’s almost straight, with a few wide, sweeping curves that needn’t slow you down, and it’s steepest in the first miles, so seek your max mph early. There is a grand vista off to your right of Callahan’s valley about the time the pitch is moderating.

The descent ends at a stop sign and a T. Signs tell you Callahan is 3 mi. to the L (still on Hwy 3). Callahan is a quirky spot, at first glance deserted but with a fully functioning “mercantile,” a hotel that may or may not be functioning, and a few other buildings. It’s what I call a codger town, the sort of place where you’re likely to find an old codger sitting in front of the mercantile and eager to chat. If he’s there, don’t miss the opportunity.

Looking down toward Callahan from the descent

Shortening the route: If you can’t arrange a shuttle, you can ride to the summit and turn around—it isn’t an easier ride (more miles, actually), and you’re swapping a straight fast descent for a curvy fast one.

Adding miles: To the south, all of Hwy 3 between Weaverville and Trinity Center is not spectacular but worth riding—prettily wooded, lightly built up, and consisting mostly of straight stretches with big rollers (tiring). Just south of Trinity Center Hwy 3 intersects with Rush Creek Rd., a very lightly trafficked, meandering, pleasant two-lane road that goes to Lewiston, a tiny community where you can pick up Lewiston Hwy, a very sweet back road, and then Old Lewiston Hwy, even sweeter, or loop back to Hwy 3 via Lewiston Dam Blvd. It’s all nice without being great.

At the other end, there’s good riding in every direction. Callahan is on the route of the Forks of Salmon ride, which runs west and north from town. To the east is Gazelle-Callahan Rd., through the pretty valley you saw as you were descending Hwy 3, which is reported to be well worth riding and which ends in Gazelle, where you can go either way on Old Highway 99S, itself not rewarding despite my rule that any road with “old” in the title is good. Going south soon takes you to Stuart Springs Rd., a road with a charming profile but unfortunately recently chipsealed. Going north takes you (in 16 miles) to Yreka and the north end of Hwy 3, which loops back to Fort Jones, Etna, and Callahan through pretty hay farms.

Afterthoughts: I seriously underestimated my water needs on this ride. There is no resupply spot after the first few miles, and the climb is largely exposed after early morning. On a hot day, doing pitches of upwards of 10% for an hour, you cook. If it’s going to be hot, go early and/or take as much water and ice as you can.

Mining tailings just north of Trinity Lake

Mill Creek Road #2

Distance: 9 miles out and back
Elevation gain: 1390 ft

At last count there were 2,347 roads on the West Coast named Mill Creek Road. Bestrides has three: the Mill Creek Road by Lassen National Park, the Wine Country one in the Adding Miles section of the Pine Flat Road ride, and this one.   All three are super-sweet little rides.

This Mill Creek Road is out of Fremont, CA. It was a gift to me from Friend of Bestrides Nabeel, in gratitude for the rides Bestrides had shown him. Isn’t that lovely? It’s one of the shortest rides in Bestrides, but mile for mile it’s as good as any—4 miles of meandering, recently re-paved (though still lumpy) one-lane gorgeousness that wanders through riparian oaks along a little creek you can’t see and alongside typical East Bay rolling hills of grass. The profile is one of constant variety, always turning, climbing, dropping—rarely can you see more than 1/10 of a mile ahead of you.

The only downside besides its skimpy length and lumpy surface is that it doesn’t link up easily with any other ride by bike besides Morrison Canyon, and Morrison Canyon is a worth-doing-once ride. So if you want a longer day of it, drive to MCR, then drive to another nearby ride (Calaveras Road, for example). Or be prepared to ride some distance on surface streets (see Adding Miles). Or ride MCR twice, which isn’t as silly as it sounds.

MCR looks a lot like two beautiful rides nearby that I like a lot: it’s like the north side of Morgan Territory Road, but narrower and with smoother pavement (which are both good things); and it’s like Welch Creek Road but not nearly as steep (which is a good thing). Still, it’s an authentic climb—1400 ft in 4.5 miles, which averages out around 7%, but it’s harder than that sounds because it’s typically 8-10% for a while, then 3%, then 8-10%, in stair steps.

The landscape is mostly undeveloped—a couple of working farms and 4-5 gated mansions mostly hidden from view—and you’ll spend most of the ride in a beautiful oak canopy. The road ends at a locked gate, so expect to see no more than a car or two, but it’s a popular walking route for locals, so expect to share the road with lots of strollers later in the day on weekends.

(To see an interactive version of the map/elevation profile, click on the ride name, upper left, wait for the new map to load, then click on the “full screen” icon, upper right.)

https://ridewithgps.com/routes/37941549

I’ve mapped the ride from the base of the climb, but unless you live in the area you’ll probably start from the Fremont BART station. From the station to MCR is 4 miles of flat or slight incline through typical, not-unpleasant urban residential with good bike lanes—a perfect warm-up.

Mill Creek Road itself starts climbing immediately. The road is narrow enough that there are paved turn-outs to facilitate cars passing each other, and it’s never straight. It rolls up and down for a while before settling in to an extended climb, but still there’s a lot of variety in the pitch so you never get bored.

You pass a vineyard that catches you by surprise and immediately deadend at a gate, beyond which the road is unpaved. Whether you can continue on a gravel bike is uncertain—one sign reads “Entering regional park, no hunting or shooting,” which certainly implies you may proceed, but another sign reads “No public access.” You make the call. It appears to be the Mission Peak Regional Preserve, if that helps, and the second half of Mill Creek Road is its northern border.

The descent is a mixed bag. The top half (the section above the one hard 90-degree turn—easily seen on the route map) is much steeper than the bottom half, and rougher (not broken pavement, but lumpy), so it’s mostly braking and teeth-rattling. Below the hard turn, things are much better—the pitch is shallow enough that you can really rip it, the turns don’t require much braking, and the road surface, while still far from smooth, can be endured. In many places it’s literally breath-taking—I think it’s possible to get airborne in a place or two—and would be a best-of-Bestrides descent if they paved it properly. It’s a descent that’s much better the second time, because the first time you have to be cautious. So if there was ever a time when you did a ride twice, this is that time. Once you know the road, you can carry a lot of speed safely. You can top 30 mph without pressing at all, and that’s a lot on a curvy one-laner.

Afterthoughts:

There is no mill on this ride. Or on the other two Mill Creek Road rides in Bestrides.

I’ve received a couple of emails saying that this ride is unsafe for bikes, that riders have been killed, that it’s full of deadly snakes, that it’s been ruined by wildfires, and so on. As far as I can tell, it’s all lies (told by locals trying to discourage cyclists, I’m assuming), so I haven’t posted them.

Shortening the route: You’d think you’d have to be nuts to want to shorten a 4.5-mile route, but it turns out there’s some wisdom in doing exactly that. Since the road above the hard 90-degree turn is steeper and rougher that the road below it, coming down that top section isn’t much fun, so you might consider turning around at the turn and just riding the good stuff. An added bennie: you can now ride the good stuff twice.

Adding Miles: As I said, there’s really only one ride easily reachable by bike from MCR, Morrison Canyon Rd., which is short and a bit of a novelty. There’s wonderful riding to the south of you, if you’re willing to ride some miles on surface streets: (from north to south) Felter, Sierra (both discussed in the Sierra Road ride), and Mt. Hamilton, the last being 17 miles south of MCR.