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. They aren’t the best riding in California. They’re fine. They’re nice. And they’re all the same—gentle rollers (look at that elevation total—next to flat) 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.
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 miles, here’s a representative loop, as good as any and better than some, and the food is fantastic—artisan cheese, great delis, killer bakeries, and the best bread in the world. So bring money.
(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.)
This route comes by way of my friends Susan and Hazi. I’ve always ridden it counterclockwise, though I see no reason why you have to. You can begin it anywhere. If you start at the intersection of Nicasio Valley Rd. and Pt. Reyes Petaluma Rd (aka Petaluma Pt. Reyes Rd.), go NNE (which Northern Californians call “east”) toward Petaluma. The traffic here is the worst you’ll see until Hwy 1. Soon on your left you pass the Cheese Factory, with good bathrooms and free cheese samples. Note the “No lifeguard on duty” sign on the bathrooms. Take the first L onto Hicks Valley Rd. (which my Marin Bicycle Map inexplicably labels “Wilson Hill Rd.”), then the first R onto the real Wilson Hill Rd., then the first L onto Chileno Valley Rd. Enjoy this stretch—it’s the best riding you’ll do all day, pleasant rollers through pretty farmland and next to no traffic. Turn L at the T onto Tomales Petaluma Rd. (traffic picks up) and ride to Hwy 1. Turn R and ride the ¼ mile to the tiny, doll-like town of Tomales. Plan your ride so you can stop for lunch, because the sandwiches at the deli on the northeast corner of the downtown intersection are great. Note the building with the formal “Not a Bank” sign across the street. It’s not a bank. The baked goods at the corner deli (Bakery #1 of our title) are very good, but you might want to wait, because in 20 miles they’ll get better.
Go south on Hwy 1, retracing your last 1/4 mile, and continue on 1 all the way to Pt. Reyes Station. This is the only ride in our list that features extended Hwy 1 riding, and it can be heavily trafficked and fairly chaotic, because you’re riding through some prime oyster dining territory. The shoulder is usually non-existent. So it’s a fretful time. But it’s also a visual feast with wonderful views as you roll along the edge of Tomales Bay, and you can stop for oysters at any of the oyster restaurants on the roadside—just pull over when you see a hundred cars parked on the non-existent shoulder. Hwy 1 rolls constantly here, so don’t expect a flat ride, but the rollers are just the right size to be dramatic and thrilling.
In Pt. Reyes Station, one of Northern California’s best villages and a prime cycling destination, there is much to eat: you have upscale restaurants, the best bread in the world (Brick Maiden Bread), and one of the best dessert bakeries anywhere. Remember how you passed on the sweets in Tomales? It’s so you can gorge at the Bovine Bakery (Bakery #2 of our title) now. There are also nice public bathrooms.
Don’t continue down Hwy 1—ride out the east side of town up the little hill and take the immediate R onto Pt. Reyes Petaluma Rd. Stay on it back to your car.
Shortening the route: Marshall-Petaluma Road neatly bisects our loop, so take it to cut your mileage nearly in half. The northern loop is a bit better than the southern, since it has Chileno and the prettier leg of Hwy 1.
Adding miles: As I said, there is endless good riding in all directions off this route. Pt. Reyes Station is the starting point for our Point Reyes Lighthouse ride. Marshall Petaluma Rd, which bisects our loop, is fine riding, with a slightly different flavor than other Marin roads—more wild canyon than rolling farmland—and it’s very lightly trafficked, because it’s twisty and it dead-ends at a point on Hwy 1 that is far from any town. It has a justly famous hill, the Marshall Wall, at its western end. If you’re down for riding the baddest hill in the area, you will want to ride this. I prefer the Wall west to east (actually more like SSW to NNE—starting at the Tomales Bay end).
Most cyclists are coming from the southern population centers, so they ride to our loop via Lucas Valley Rd. or Sir Francis Drake Blvd., both with beautiful densely wooded terrain, a lot of traffic and no shoulder. Both roads deposit you on Nicasio Valley Rd, a slightly busier, straighter, and wider road than our loop but nothing to dread. Lucas Valley Rd is a beautiful climb and descent, in either direction, if you don’t mind the traffic (lovely and deserted early in the morning), and it has the perk of taking you past Skywalker Ranch, George Lucas’s research facility. There’s nothing to see but a driveway and a gate, but you can tell your friends. All the smaller roads immediately north of Tomales are good as well, and the good riding just keeps on as you go northward through Sonoma County and toward our Wine Country rides.
From Point Reyes Station you can make a longer loop by continuing south on Hwy 1 and turning L at Olema onto Sir Francis Drake Blvd. This route will take you through the prettiest and most treacherous stretch of Sir Francis Drake, past the stunning Samuel P. Taylor State Park trees. The road is scarily narrow, the traffic is pitiless, and the shoulder non-existent, but the previously-dreadful road surface has now been repaved (in 2014). And wow, those trees… Stop off at the State Park to stroll, get water, or spend the night if you’re touring. Turn L on Nicasio Valley Rd. to get back to your car.
A word about Spring Hill Rd. It parallels Chileno Valley Rd, the best road in the area, so you might be tempted to make a loop going out Chileno and back on Spring Hill. Be warned: they took all the terrible road surface in Marin and put it on Spring Hill Rd. You will suffer. But the flip side is, because of that, it’s car-free, so you will have the road to yourself, and it’s very scenic. If you get into the right mood, it can be a very pleasant experience—like backpacking.
Afterthoughts: This area is typically hot in the summer, but it can be windy and/or foggy, and the stretch along Tomales Bay can catch an on-shore breeze that bites, so take an extra layer of clothing. The last time I rode these roads, it was August and the temperature was 61 degrees at 1 pm.