Bonny Doon Road/Empire Grade

Distance: 21-mile lollipop
Elevation: 2680 ft

(Note 3/21: This route and the surrounding area were seriously damaged by fire during the terrible summer of 2020.  See W. G. Scott’s comment below for details.  jr)

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 came down the coast from San Francisco to Santa Cruz it was the climb where the winning move was 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, relatively 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 rideable in the other direction.  It would add considerably to the climbing on Smith Grade and Ice Cream Grade.

Shortening the route: I’m torn about the best way to drop miles from this route.  1. You could skip the Bonny Doon lollipop stick and just ride the loop. 2. You could ride Bonny Doon/Smith Grade as an out-and-back. 3. You could ride Bonny Doon to the far end of Ice Cream as an out-and-back.  Each has its merits.

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.

5 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.

  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.

  3. Susan Killebrew

    Thanks for another great ride, Jay! Today I had to drive down to Santa Cruz to pick up my daughter. So, as I frequently do, I looked up a ride on your website and worked it in to my road trip. You really know how to pick them! You continue to make a big difference in my riding life.

  4. W G Scott

    Just a brief update: The Bonny Doon ride was heavily impacted by the CZU August 17 2020 lightning complex fire—nearly 1000 residences were destroyed. Bonny Doon Road emerged mostly unscathed. The fire burned to the north side of Smith Grade, but thankfully most of the burn was at or near the ground, as appears to be the case on Ice Cream Grade. Empire Grade was a different story, with a major crown fire and very substantial mosaic of destruction. The further north you go up Empire, the worse it gets. The ride is still worth it, but be prepared for a very different landscape. I still recommend clockwise.


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *