Distance: 34-mile lollipop
Elevation gain: 4520 ft
A Best of the Best ride (on weekdays only)
(Note 8/20: Big Basin and much of the Santa Cruz area was devastated by forest fires in September of 2020. The Visitor Center was destroyed. The large trees are thought to have survived, but the damage was extensive. Hwy 236 through the Park was closed for many months but has recently (7/22) reopened.)
(Note 1/23: Big Basin is again temporarily closed due to recent heavy rains and high winds. The closure shouldn’t last too long. Patricia’s note below says that China Grade is impassable and probably will remain so when the main road reopens.)
(Update 8/23: Local rider Kayla writes, “The park is fully reopened and fire recovery is going well, though the burn is still very evident. China grade is passable. I’ve not run into much traffic on any of the occasions I’ve gone.”)
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, except for Felton Empire/Empire Grade (there is a list of Redwoods rides on the Best of the Best page). This route has three really nice descents (including one that is as nice as descending gets), 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. Seven AM on a weekday is even better.
(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. 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.
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.
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 that serves food, guided hikes, 4-5 very big redwoods, and a fee if you want to stay. If you want to go for an easy walk and get closer to the trees, there’s a flat .7-mile loop right from the Visitor Center that goes by some of the biggest trees in the park.
Leaving the Visitor Center, ride through what I think are the prettiest of the trees, then climb moderately to the summit (at the intersection of Big Basin Way, Little Basin Rd., and Old Big Basin R., curiously enough), then descend to the L turn onto China Grade.
The China Grade turn is 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 (the first marked only by a “20 MPH” sign for warning) 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 if you’re saving your legs.
When China Grade T’s into 236, turn R and ride back to your car. First you do a short climb, a short descent, a 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.
The loop is rideable in the other direction. It means you’ll come down China Grade, which is a pain, and the 2-mile descent from the Little Basin Rd./Old Big Basin Rd. intersection to the Visitor Center isn’t nearly as good as the descent from our side, though still excellent.
Shortening the route: Skip the Hwy 9 out-and-back. Even shorter: start at the Big Basin Visitor Center and ride the loop.
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 (though 3/4 of the traffic turns off Hwy 9 at Bear Creek Rd).
If you love the descent into the Big Basin Visitor Center (and you will), there’s a loop you can add to our route that will let you do it a second time. From the Visitor Center, ride into the main parking lot and take the unmissable road on your R, splendidly called North Escape Road. It meanders through more gorgeous redwoods along pavement that is often shabby or worse for 3 miles and returns to Hwy 236 at the top of the descent back to the Visitor Center. The isolation is priceless once you pass the “additional parking” lot. The road is more or less flat for 2 miles, then 8-10% for the last mile (500 ft gain). Ignore all maps (and there are many) that show NER as dead-ending or turning to dirt—it does neither. It is, however, gated off, which should not deter you.
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 run by the nicest man in the world. Three more miles down Hwy 9 in Ben Lomond is the best Italian bakery outside of Italy, La Placa.