Big Basin

Distance:  34-mile lollipop 
Elevation gain: 4520 ft 

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 reopened and the flora is recovering nicely, though of course the damage to the big trees will last for our lifetimes.)

(As of 11/23, the park has what it calls “limited day-use access,” which means you need a reservation to park a car in a park parking space.  Cyclists need no reservation.  In effect this means the park roads are remarkably free of cars, and all roads are open, including China Grade, so it’s actually an excellent time to ride the park roads.)

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.  

Big Basin redwoods—look at that road surface!

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   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.

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 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.

Big redwoods by the Visitor Center

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.

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 (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.

11 thoughts 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.

  2. Larry Narachi

    I live on Hwy 9 north of Boulder Creek and ride the 236 loop a few times a week. I can verify that the repaving now makes this road world-class buttery smooth. Superb descents. I ride with a headlight to warn drivers. On the weekends many tourists are driving the curvy road to Big Basin and they are not driving fast. Since many cars are first-time mountain drivers, they tend to bunch up and then you have much of the road in solitary silence. Also, you can hear cars coming from quite far away. During the week I ride opposite the commuters and feel Hwy 9 is safer that way.

      1. Larry Narachi

        In the evening, the most traffic is coming into San Lorenzo Valley from Saratoga (southbound).
        That is why I ride North on 9 in the evening.

  3. John L.

    I did this ride starting from Saratoga Gap, continuing on to Felton, then via Zayante and Highway 35 back to Saratoga Gap. The 4 or so miles of 35 between Bear Creek and Black road is less than 2 lanes wide—such a pleasant contrast from the busy speedway that it turns into in San Mateo County. Although the rollers were steep and brutal after the Zayante climb, just when you think most of the climbing is behind you.

    1. Jack Rawlins Post author

      This route is all nice riding except for the miles between Boulder Creek and Felton on Hwy 9, which are usually a hectic nightmare on a bike.

  4. Mike Heinaman

    A friend and I partially rode this route recently, and the road is indeed blocked about 4.5 miles in on 236. It was still a delightful few miles, although a little depressing as well to see the fire damage. However, it seems like most of the large trees survived, and the traffic was non-existent since the park is still closed. We did a slight twist on the route and left from Cupertino, taking Stevens Canyon to Redwood Gulch to 9. “The Gulch” is nasty steep, but less traffic and beautiful when you can look up from the pavement ahead of you to enjoy it, and Stevens Canyon is gorgeous as well. I’m hopeful that they can reopen Big Basin soon, as I’m excited to try the whole loop and optimistic about the area bouncing back.

  5. MB

    As of late July 2022, the road through Big Basin is open again. In some ways, this is a great time to do this ride. We did it on a Sunday afternoon and encountered very few cars, likely because parking at the historic core of the park is reservation-only right now (limited, I believe, to 45 cars per day).

    China Grade Road has a “road closed ahead” sign a little ways in, but we went past it and encountered no further evidence of closure.

    The trees are terribly damaged, and the character of the forest has changed dramatically. But there are signs of new growth everywhere, too.

  6. Jack Rawlins Post author

    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.”


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