Bonny Doon Road/Empire Grade

Distance: 21-mile lollipop
Elevation: 2680 ft

This strenuous little 20-miler climbs up from Hwy 1 and the ocean, then loops around to take in two classic back roads, all through picture-book Santa Cruz  redwood forest.  Bonny (sometimes spelled Bonnie) Doon itself is pretty famous because whenever the Tour of California comes down the coast from San Francisco to Santa Cruz it’s the climb where the winning move is made.   I stood on the side of the road and watched Levi Leipheimer stick it to Mick Rogers and Dave Zabriskie on this climb one year on his way to the overall victory.


(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.)

Begin at the intersection of Bonny Doon and Hwy 1. There’s a good dirt parking lot right at the intersection.   Ride up Bonny Doon.  It’s steep up from the get-go, so I do 20 minutes on Hwy 1 (straight, flat, uncrowded) to warm up beforehand.

The road contour is not the attraction here.  Bonny Doon is a fairly wide, fairly straight,  and fairly monotonous, with a constant pitch just short of ouch.  But the woods surrounding you are gorgeous.  A little fog (which is likely) only adds to the atmosphere.  Go R onto Smith Grade, a thrilling mostly-down roller coaster through primordial Eden.

Bonny Doon Road: these woods are dense

Bonny Doon Road: these woods are dense

When Smith Grade dead-ends on Empire Grade, if that feels like enough for today you might be tempted to turn around and ride back, since the next leg is merely OK riding, but if you do this a) you will miss the glory that is Ice Cream Grade and b) you won’t save any work, because Smith Grade is a lot of climbing going the other way.  So let’s push on.

Smith Grade

Smith Grade

Go L on Empire Grade.  It’s feels pretty dull after Smith Grade—monotonously up, too wide to feel you’re “in” the trees, and fairly full of cars in a hurry.  But it’s only 3 miles.  At the intersection of Empire Grade and Ice Cream Grade and Felton Empire Rd. (yes, all three), you touch the Felton Empire/Empire Grade ride, which rides through the same intersection in the other direction.

At that intersection, go L onto the little jewel that is Ice Cream Grade.  The first miles of ICG are as pretty as Santa Cruz gets, which is saying a lot.   There isn’t much in there except forest, so you’ll have the place to yourself.  You immediately drop down a sweet, serpentining descent to the creek, then climb back out a surprisingly easy grade up the other side until it dead-ends at Pine Flat Road.  Go L and enjoy the rollicking descent down Pine Flat Rd./Bonny Doon to your car.

The loop is totally rideable in the other direction.  It would add considerably to the climbing on Smith Grade and Ice Cream Grade.

Ice Cream Grade

Ice Cream Grade

Adding miles:  Almost everything in any direction is good—see the Monterey Bay discussion in the Rides by Region chapter for a survey of roads in the Santa Cruz area.  Since it’s the same conversation for all 6 of our Santa Cruz rides, I’ll do it once there and leave it at that.

3 thoughts on “Bonny Doon Road/Empire Grade

  1. W G Scott

    I just found your website and am extremely impressed.

    I live on this route, and commute to UC Santa Cruz using the circular part of the “lollipop.” I always go in the clockwise direction, i.e., East on Ice Cream Grade, and then South (downhill) on Empire Grade, and I come back on Smith Grade and Bonny Doon Road. I recommend doing so because climbing on Empire Grade involves a lot of traffic coming fast up the hill around blind corners, whereas climbing Smith Grade breaks up the climbing and the road is almost always car-free. I do this for survival, but I believe the climb is much more scenic and enjoyable that way. Also, when climbing, one can (at the expense of adding another mile or so) turn left at the Winery (as does Bonny Doon Road), and then drop back to Ice Cream Grade via a very short stretch of Pine Flat. Another variant is to go up Martin Road, and you will see unusual sandstone cliffs and the results of a 2007 forest fire. Finally, those who need more of a challenge will enjoy going uphill on Pine “Flat” to Empire Grade, and then continuing all the way out to the gate at Lockheed.

    Reply
    1. Rob

      WG Scott
      Just got back from riding that Bonny Doon ride. Really glad that I saw your suggestion about going clockwise. Traffic was as you predicted. Very light going up the smith grade. Beautiful ride but tough for an old guy. Much respect for anyone who rides that regularly. Thanks for the tip!

      Reply
  2. jon wolf

    Regarding “the little jewel that is Ice Cream Grade”: I totally agree! Rode this yesterday after finding it here on Bestrides and Ice Cream Grade was the best segment of the ride by far. i am not a great (or even good) downhiller, but the lack of cars and the smooth surface kept my hands off the brakes and a smile on my face from top to bottom. Thanks for the spot-on info!

    One more little tidbit: if it’s windy and cold on Hwy 1 when you set off, don’t layer up too much. The wind will die away quickly and the temp will rise significantly as you ride up the first grade and into the hills.

    Reply

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