Distance: 50 miles out and back
Elevation gain: 3215 ft
(A Best of the Best ride)
This is one of my favorites. There’s a purity about it, because you begin at one end of a road and ride that road until it ends. I found it via my favorite ride-finding technique: I looked at the AAA road map, spotted a thin, wiggly line, and said, “That’s got to be a great ride!” It’s one of several rides in this list that begin at the California coast and climb straight up, usually through lush ferny coastal rainforest. In this case, the climb is 7 miles of demanding (often 8-10%) but thoroughly rewarding pitch, after which the road rolls through pretty forests and meadows to the turn-around point in Laytonville on Highway 101. Along the way you get an huge old lumber mill, a general store that served the mill and still functions, and an exquisite little stand of redwoods in a State Recreation Area.
Part of the joy here is that you’re in on a secret. Branscomb Rd is almost unknown to cyclists—I’ve never seen another bike on it, and few cars—partly because it leaves Hwy 1 from a point in the middle of nowhere, and partly because until about 2011 it was largely dirt. Which means the pavement was (in 2011) pristine, and is still mostly good. Several readers wrote in to complain of logging traffic, but I’ve never seen a logging truck in my several trips up Branscomb, so I think it must have been temporary.
The ride works well in either direction. If you start from Laytonville you put the climb in the middle of the ride when you’re warmed up. You also stand a better chance of avoiding the chronic morning fog near the ocean (see Afterthoughts below). But you put the descent before the climb, which always feels wrong to me.
(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.)
To find Branscomb Road, drive north on Highway 1 past Westport, a tiny town that looks abandoned (sorry, Westport) with the bare minimum in the way of services—one small general store, a hotel I’m not sure I’d stay in, a motel that looks a little better—to Branscomb Rd, a small road you can easily miss if you’re not watching for it (there’s a sign). Parking is sparse. Branscomb has one large turn-out about a half mile up from Hwy 1 on the right, where I park. There is a dirt turn-out on Hwy 1 past Branscomb a short ways. Or you could simply ride the very pretty but not easy 1.7 miles from Westport. Wherever you park, Branscomb is 8-10% from the get-go and stays that way for about 3 miles, so I ride back and forth on relatively flat Hwy 1 just to give my legs a chance to loosen up.
For the first three miles of the climb, the road surface is often poor, the only miles where this is true on the ride. Three miles in there’s a major false summit that rolls up and down for a mile or more (clearly visible in the elevation profile), followed by more 8-10%, for a total of 7 miles of mostly climbing. The actual summit is unmissable, covered with teen lovers’ graffiti and offering the ride’s one vista of the forested ridges to the south. You’ll drop steeply for a mile (you’ll have to come back up this on the way back, and it’s work), then drop less steeply for 2 miles, then roll to Laytonville, where Branscomb ends.
Halfway to Laytonville you reach the eponymous Branscomb, which began as a homestead, grew to a small mill town, and is now just a lumber mill and a general store. The store is well worth a stop. It has a fascinating newspaper article about how the Branscomb family homesteaded the area posted inside, and outside there’s a sign that says “This building isn’t earthquake-proofed—enter at your own risk.”
As you approach Laytonville, the traffic will pick up from very light to light. Laytonville is a no-nonsense, working town with a few restaurants. I’m partial to the smoothies, and the friendly atmosphere, at the health food store at the south end of town on the west side of Hwy 101.
The last 15 miles before Laytonville are mostly an imperceptible climb, so the 15 miles back to the summit is a surprise, a subtle descent that’s much easier than you expect. Returning from the summit is half joyous—the road surface is good at first, the turns are just tight enough for maximum thrill without necessitating a lot of braking, and they’ve even banked the curves for you to help you hold your speed. But in the last three miles (after the flattish stretch) the road surface has deteriorated enough to bring down the ecstasy level a major notch.
Shortening the route: How you do this depends entirely on what sort of ride you want. The full route starting at Hwy 1 consists of a big climb, a short moderate descent, then a lot of fairly flat. So starting from Hwy 1 gives you a big, unavoidable effort up front. Starting from Laytonville gives you a lot of effortless riding up front, then a short, moderate climb, so you can keep the riding as easy as you like. I will only add that the ride is in Bestrides because of those first 7 miles from Hwy 1.
Adding miles: Shortly after coming down from the summit riding east, you pass a turn-off onto Wilderness Lodge Road (clearly signed—also called Jack of Hearts Road on maps). This is one of those funky back roads I like for poking around at a slow pace. It’s almost flat and meanders past old cabins for a couple of miles. You can do a couple more miles on dirt by staying L at the Jack of Hearts/Wilderness Lodge fork.
At either end of our route you’re out of luck—you’ve got Highway 1 on one end and Highway 101 on the other, and they’re both lousy riding unless you don’t mind car-dodging. The stretch of Hwy 1 just to the south of Westport is steep, exposed riding with great views of the ocean, Hwy 1 at its dramatic best. From there to Cleone is, I think, the best stretch of Hwy 1 for pure riding there is. The landscape is beautiful and varied, and the road is narrow two-lane and almost comically twisty/turny. But for both stretches there’s zero shoulder, lots of traffic, and no sightlines, so the cars can’t pass safely. And the cars are impatient. If they’d just close the road to cars, it would be a world-class route. Since they don’t, it’s downright dangerous.
You’re about 25 miles by car from Mendocino and the Mendocino/Comptche ride. The Adding Miles section of that ride describes the Old Haul Road in Fort Bragg, 15 miles away.
Afterthoughts: There’s a neat campground in a pretty little beachhead where a creek flows into the sea just south of Branscomb on 101, called Westport Beach RV Park and Campground.
The usual coastal weather is in effect for this ride, which means mornings run to fog, drippy conditions, and ice in the spring. This is an argument for starting in Laytonville. If you start from the sea, the drizzle isn’t much of a problem on the ascent and it will be gone before you get back from Laytonville.
Spring lingers along the coast, and this ride can be colder than you expect. I did it once on what I thought was a balmy spring day and turned around half-frozen after miles of riding through ice, snow, and slush east of the summit.