Big Basin

Distance:  34-mile lollipop 
Elevation gain: 4520 ft 

Best of the Best ride (on weekdays only)

This is another ride suggested by Friend-of-Bestrides Brian.

The Big Basin area is just north of our other Santa Cruz area rides and has much in common with them: beautiful, lush woods, good road surfaces, constant variety and interest in the road contour, and lots of vertical.  But the main appeal here is the redwoods.  The Big Basin redwoods are second-growth, so they rarely overwhelm you with sheer enormity like those of the Avenue of the Giants ride (there are a few behemoths around the Visitor Center), but they’re gorgeous nonetheless, and the descending on this route is far better than on any of our other redwoods rides.   This route has three really nice descents, and the climbing to earn them is all remarkably mellow except for a mile or two of China Grade—don’t let Mapmyride’s rather intimidating elevation total scare you off.  And, as an extra-special bonus, in 10/16 all of Hwy 236 was repaved, so the road surface is perfect—as good as I’ve ever seen.

This is a State Park ride, which means traffic.  Expect the road to be unpleasantly busy with cars and motorcycles on weekends, even in winter.  This is a ride you really want to do on a weekday if at all possible—hence the conditional Best of the Best rating.  On a weekend day in January I saw 80 cars on the road; on a weekday two weeks later I saw 6.


(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.)

Start at the intersection of Hwy 9 and Hwy 236.  There’s a nice, wide dirt turn-out for parking on Hwy 9 just before the intersection.  Ride up Hwy 9 (which you probably just came down in your car) to Saratoga Gap, at the intersection of Hwy 9 and Skyline Boulevard.  It’s all up for six miles through pleasant woods and past a couple of nice vistas of receding ridges.  I usually avoid starting a ride with a climb, but it’s a mellow climb the entire way (1500 ft gain in 6 miles), so it’s easy to soft-pedal until you’re warm, and it’s uphill in the other direction, and steeper.  If you’re worried about the total elevation gain you could do the Big Basin loop first, then decide if you want to do the Hwy 9 out and back.   You could also start at Saratoga Gap and do the Hwy 9 descent first thing, if you don’t mind ending the ride with a 6-mile climb—there’s a big, formal paved parking area at Saratoga Gap if you do.  The traffic on Hwy 9 is the worst on the route, and I’d seriously consider skipping it if it’s a weekend.  

Big Basin redwoods

Big Basin redwoods

At Saratoga Gap turn around and return to your car—the first of our three fine descents.  Since it was mellow going up, it’s mellow going down—not a hair-raising, white-knuckle thrill ride, but a graceful, lovely slalom with big, sweeping turns that never send you to your brakes.  Literally (and I mean literally) you will never have to touch your brakes in the 6 miles unless you’re hammering and hit the infrequent corners signed “25 mph” at more than 30 mph.   Otherwise it’s a constant, easy 25-30 mph drop. 

China Grade

China Grade

Just past your car, go straight at the intersection onto 236 towards Big Basin State Park (there’s a sign).  You’ll be in beautiful redwood forest and on deliciously serpentining road for the rest of the ride.  Ride to the State park visitor center via a moderate climb followed by a descent (our second of three) that is one of the best descents in Bestrides.org.   At the Visitor Center there are nice bathrooms, water, a store, guided hikes, some very big redwoods, and a fee if you want to stay.

The non-redwoods are gorgeous too

The non-redwoods are gorgeous too

Leaving the Visitor Center, ride through what I think are the prettiest of the trees, then climb and descend to the L turn onto China Grade.  It’s signed but hard to see.  Watch for it going sharply L (about 7 o’clock) after you’ve ridden through a couple of unmissable descending hairpins and the road goes almost flat for the first time in the ride.  China Grade is short, scenically primeval, in places dauntingly steep (the only hard climbing on the ride), and cursed with impressively horrible road surface, but it isn’t long, and it’s blissfully tranquil, which you’ll be craving if you’ve been fighting the weekend traffic.  Stop several times to drink in the solitude.  The pitch may make you stop anyway.  Adding Miles shows you how to skip it.

When China Grade T’s into 236, turn R and ride back to your car.  First you do a short climb, then the third of our descents, and it’s an absolute rip-snorter, over too soon.  On a weekend assume you will meet cars.

Vista point on Hwy 9: the only open view on the ride

Looking south toward Santa Cruz: only the Hwy 9 leg has vistas

Adding Miles:  If you stay on 236 past the China Grade turn-off, in a few easy miles you’ll end up in the pleasant small town of Boulder Creek, where you can reprovision, then loop back to your car via Hwy 9. This lets you avoid the steep pitches of China Grade.  Hwy 9 has a much gentler pitch than China Grade and is a lovely stretch of road, but it’s much busier and without shoulder.

From Boulder Creek you can easily connect to all the other great Santa Cruz riding (see the Monterey Bay section of the Rides by Region for a list of the good roads in the area).

Afterthoughts: In Boulder Creek, the Foster’s Freeze at the south end of town on the main street is a delightful spot run by the nicest man in the world.

One thought on “Big Basin

  1. Patricia

    We rode this on a weekday and it was perfect. We avoided 9, however. Cars were speeding like they do on Skyline, and it didn’t look safe. The surface on 236 was amazing, but atrocious on China Grade, which strangely added to its charm. Circling around the potholes distracted us from the climb and together with the primeval forest made us feel we were back in time. Just don’t go down on it.

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