Distance: 17.8-mile out and back
Elevation gain: 2390 ft
(A Best-of-the-Best descent)
Between Murphys and Ebbetts Pass on Hwy 4 I know of only three paved back-country roads. Luckily, two of them, this ride (officially called the Walter W. Smith Memorial Parkway) and our Spicer Reservoir Road ride, are excellent rides. Those two plus our Bear Valley to Mosquito Lake ride make the west end of Hwy 4 a pretty rich riding area all by themselves.
Big Trees and Spicer are almost mirror images of each other. They’re both out-and-backs that head south from Hwy 4, drop for a few miles of delicious, sweeping curves to a pretty river crossing, and climb the other side, all through pretty Sierra forests on excellent pavement. Both are bare of any signs of humanity except for road signs and occasional campgrounds. Both are closed by snow in the winter and open when the weather warms, usually some time in late June. Both are surprisingly wide two-lane roads where cars have lots of room to pass at all times.
So how are they different? Big Trees has the whole State Park experience: spectacular scenery (in this case giant sequoias), educational nature trails, a Visitor Center, crowds, packed campgrounds. Spicer has a beautiful lake at the turn-around. Big Trees’ big descent is longer—4 miles vs. 2.5 miles. (Therefore Big Trees’ long climb is also longer—4 miles vs. 2.5 miles. See how that works?). Big Trees costs $10; Spicer is free. Spicer is higher in elevation, so you get some of that matchless Sierra exposed granite; Big Trees is pretty much just trees. Spicer has a few miles of sweet rolling; Big Trees is almost entirely extended climbing or extended descending.
You would think that both rides would suffer from car traffic, Big Trees because it’s one of the state’s most popular summer tourist spots and Spicer because it’s the road to one of the area’s most attractive boating destinations. But in fact both rides can be traffic-free, if you choose your riding time wisely. In the case of Big Trees, 90% of the park traffic stops at the Visitor Center and the North Grove. Everyone else who heads down the road does so to get to campgrounds, and the campgrounds are always full, so the only cars on the road are the few who are leaving and the few who are taking their place. Most of them leave/arrive in the late morning or early afternoon on Saturday or Sunday. All that means, the road is uncrowded any time and especially uncrowded any time but midday on weekends. The last time I was there it was a beautiful Sunday in July, and I walked the North Grove trail, the most crowded place in the Park, at 9:30 and had the place largely to myself, so you can imagine how empty the road was.
Which ride would I do if I could only do one? It’s a tough call, but I’d go with Spicer, for its views of the lake, its more varied scenery, and it’s more varied road contour. But if you’re all about long descents, go with Big Trees.
The elevation-gain total for Big Trees (well over our 100 ft/mile benchmark) tells you this is a climbing ride, but it’s constant, not fierce, with a few brief moments around 8%.
Streetview doesn’t cover this ride, so you might worry that that means there’s something wrong with it. There isn’t. Streetview hasn’t mapped much of anything in the area other than Hwy 4 itself.
You would be insane to do this ride and not check out the sequoias, which are one of the wonders of the earth. Mightier than the redwoods, 20 times the weight of a blue whale, the largest things ever to live on our planet, they will change your life. There are two groves of sequoias, the North Grove (right by the entrance and Visitor Center) and the South Grove, at the end of the road. Far and away the best trees, and the outstanding free pamphlet trail guide, are in the North Grove, an easy 1.7-mile loop. The only argument for walking the South Grove, where the first sequoia you see is a mile down the trail, is to get away from people. If you only ride the road and hike none of the trails, you won’t see any giant sequoias—the park authorities intentionally laid out the road as far from the sequoias as possible to prevent the ground near their roots from being compacted by car traffic.
Since the ride profile is much like that of the Spicer Reservoir ride, I’m going to say the same thing I said there: choose where you want to start the ride by deciding where you want the big climb and the big descent to fall. The big drop starts 2 miles from the Visitor Center and drops to the river. If you start at the Center, the big drop is basically the first thing you’ll do. If you start at the river and ride back to the Visitor Center, the big climb is the first thing you’ll do. If you start at the river and head south, the big drop is the last thing you’ll do. I’ve mapped it the conventional way, starting at the Visitor Center, but I actually prefer to start at the river (the North Fork of the Stanislaus) and head south, thus saving the big descent for the end of the ride. It’s a dramatic stretch of river, so you might consider starting at the crossing if you’re the sort who likes a post-ride dip. There is a large parking lot with toilets exactly at the crossing, signed “River access parking” (not the riverside picnic area, which is 100 ft. north of there).
Assuming you’re starting at the Visitor Center, park in the VC parking lot and head down the one and only road. There are no forks or route options, so you can’t get lost and you don’t need a map.
There is some burn on the tree trunks near the start of the ride, and you might worry that you’re in for serious fire damage, but what you’re seeing is prescribed burn to reduce fuel density—the entire Hwy 4 area is without fire damage as of 7/23.
Climb almost imperceptibly for about 2 miles, then begin the obvious 4-mile descent. Immediately after you start down, there is a signed “Scenic Overlook.” It’s only a 1/10-mile detour, but for a scenic overlook it’s very pedestrian.
The descent is a Best of the Best one, sweeping corners separated by short straights on nearly perfect pavement (expect a few jolts from blemishes) with great sightlines and at a pitch that gives you lots of 35-mph stuff but rarely forces you hard on your brakes.
Cross the river and do a 2.3-mile climb which has moments that will make you work. Then comes about a half-mile of rollers to the South Grove parking lot. The road continues on for a half mile or so beyond the parking lot and dead-ends at a gate, a toilet, and a gravel road. Turn around and ride home.
The 4-mile climb back up the hill goes on a bit too long, but it’s a mellow pitch (steepest at the bottom, and not bad even then), and there are a couple of nice vistas of the river canyon you’re leaving behind on your R through the trees.
Shortening the ride: The best part of the ride is the descent from the Visitor Center to the river, so I’d do that as an out and back, starting at either end. The ride from the river to South Grove is also a good ride, but it’s steeper and there isn’t much to see other than trees.
Adding Miles: As far as I know, there are only 4 paved roads in this area other than housing developments: Hwy 4 itself, our Spicer Reservoir Road ride, Big Trees, and Broads Crossing, which I haven’t ridden but which looks good and heads south from Hwy 4 at a signed intersection between Spicer and Big Trees. The beginning of Spicer is 19 unpleasant miles up Hwy 4 from Big Trees. Our Bear Valley to Mosquito Lake is another 6 less unpleasant miles further east from there.