Distance: 44-mile loop
Elevation gain: 4320 ft
If you’re like me, you think Bakersfield is flat, which is what you see driving through on Hwy 5. But a Friend of Bestrides wrote in to say I had to overcome my prejudices and try the area. It turns out that Bakersfield, while it is smack in the middle of the San Joaquin Valley, is at the Valley’s southernmost tip, so it’s surrounded closely on 3 sides by mountains like the Tehachapis, and there are good roads in those mountains. The Caliente Loop is the jewel in the crown.
But there’s a problem: I can’t decide which direction is better. I rode the loop counter-clockwise. Most locals ride it clockwise. I’ll describe my ride; then we’ll weigh pros and cons of the two directions.
The loop (called Lion’s Trail by the locals) is essentially three different rides: a gentle meander through a small, rocky creek canyon; a flat and rolling leg across a wide valley dotted with horse farms and sagebrush, and a descent of epic proportions with vistas of the canyons on both sides of the road.
This is a ride you want to time correctly, and the window is small: ideally you’d ride in the spring, when the creek you’ll follow for the first 20 miles is babbling and the grassy fields of the second leg are green. But spring means spring run-off, and any significant run-off closes the road, because Caliente Creek Rd. has several places where high run-off water flows right over the roadway. I’d expect to find a “road closed” sign and ford some streams any time before the dry season.
Summer poses its own problems. Bakersfield in the summer is hot and often windy, and the middle leg through Walker Basin is totally exposed. On a typical summer day I’d start early enough to get through Walker Basin by 10 AM.
One more word of warning: you will notice the road surface is sprinkled with the remains of dried cow patties. Cows put them there. This is open range, and you may meet cows standing in the middle of the road at almost any point.
Park in the “town” of Caliente, which is a tiny post office and around 20 unprepossessing houses. On the way there, assuming you’re driving from Bakersfield, you’ll see the turn-off to a road with one of my favorite road names: Weedpatch Highway.
The first 16 miles or so from Caliente are easy, but conserve energy, because you’re going to climb almost without interruption for 22 miles, and the last 6 miles are taxing.
Ride the 3 miles to the Y of Caliente Creek Rd. and Caliente Bodfish Rd. (clearly signed, as Cal Creek Rd and Cal Bodfish Rd). Turn R onto Caliente Creek Rd. It’s an easy grade up through a scenic and charming little canyon—my favorite part of the ride. It’s a classic desert canyon, with bold rock formations, sycamores, and impressive cottonwoods.
The canyon is almost people-free, but at “Lorraine,” which is only an intersection with Indian Creek Rd. (signed), the canyon widens, the area becomes more domesticated, and houses become common. The land gets flatter and more open and the population and affluence level keep increasing until Twin Oaks, when you’re in the land of high-end “equestrian” training facilities. Twin Oaks is a real community, with a general store (now closed), a second-hand store, a school, a cafe (Tog’s, which I couldn’t find), an absurdly large contemporary church, and even a town sign. Everything but residential streets (everybody has a ranch).
Around Twin Oaks the pitch increases substantially, and from there to the summit at 22+ miles in you will work. The summit follows a series of false summits, but it’s unmissable: Piute Mtn. Road takes off to the R (signed), and signs tell you that Cal(iente) Creek Rd is ending and Walker Basin Rd is beginning.
Walker Basin is a large open valley surrounded by hills—classic high desert, mostly unpeopled but with a few hardscrabble ranches. After the summit you descend to the valley floor, which is relatively flat and straight and the scenery OK or great, depending on how you feel about sagebrush desert.
At mile 29 you have your first significant intersection since you turned onto Caliente Creek Rd., a 90-degree L turn from Walker Basin Rd. onto Walker Basin Rd.—clearly signed, just like that. Take it. In 3 miles of easy riding you T into Caliente Bodfish Rd. Go L. You’ll do a 2-mile, 700-ft climb (tough this far into the ride if you’re as tired as I was), roll for a couple of miles across the summit, and drop into the descent, which takes you all the way back to the Caliente Creek/Caliente Bodfish intersection.
This descent is simply astonishing, a seemingly endless series of steep-to-very steep esses, sometimes on a ridge spine with breath-taking views of the canyons on either side of the road, sometimes deep in gorgeous tree-and-rock-wall forest. It would be one of the top descents in Bestrides were it not for two problems: 1) early and late it’s magnificent, but in the middle miles it’s so steep all you can do is grab your brakes and pray they don’t overheat—not much fun; and 2) the road surface is often badly broken up, so you’re constantly having to abandon your line through a turn and improvise a new one, which means you have to go slow—again, not much fun. As it is, it’s still pretty mind-boggling.
From the intersection with Caliente Creek Rd it’s 3 miles back to the Greater Caliente Area and your car.
Which way to go?: See the vigorous debate about this in the comment section, with me on one side and everyone else on the other. Make your decision by the kind of climbing you like to do. Clockwise puts all the climbing in two pitches. The first, 3 miles in, is a monster—7 miles with lots of 10% stuff. The second is a more moderate climb out of Walker Basin. Everything else is down. Counterclockwise spreads the climbing over 24+ miles of route, so the pitch averages less than half that of the other direction, and the climbing is never brutal. Wind direction may also factor in your decision, since Walker Basin is open and largely flat and the prevailing westerly is in your face on the counterclockwise route.
Shortening the route: Start at the intersection of Caliente Creek Rd. and Caliente Bodfish Rd. Ride to the Indian Creek Road intersection. Turn around.
Adding miles: Bestrides commenters offer up several great suggestions for routes below. Other local routes are at https://kernwheelmen.org/routes/, though the heartless Kern Wheelmen require you to join the club (in other words, pay them) before you can access the site. Popular rides are Breckinridge Rd. and Hwy 155/Evans Rd from town to Greenhorn Summit, both big climbs. Hwy 155 is a moderately tame road and I don’t find that I need a ton of it. A shorter version of the Hwy 155 ride starts in the town of Woody (named for a guy who last name was Woody) and immediately goes uphill for 6 miles of moderate work. Those 6 miles are a hoot coming down, so it makes for a nice 12-mile, one-hour+ outing.
The area around and north of 155 is full of roads all worth riding: Portuguese Pass, Hot Springs Road, Sherman Pass Road, and everything near to or connecting them. The drawback is, everything in this area is geologically and botanically similar (rolling grassy hills and small canyons dotted with rock outcroppings and oaks), so one road is much like another, and after a while I want to see something else. I’d suggest going with the smallest road I can find, but that’s me.
One quirky little road I really like and you’re unlikely to find on your own is the 9 miles of Woody Rd between the town of Woody and Tule Rd. It’s deserted, with a road surface that’s a bit beaten up but totally rideable, a wonderfully random contour, and some dramatic rock clusters I found nowhere else in the area. To the west you have a vista overlooking 30 miles of featureless grassy mounds. Don’t take the road’s name literally—there isn’t a tree anywhere near your route, so don’t ride it on a blistering summer day.
Deserving of mention for sheer audacity is Deer Trail Drive (aka Deertrail Drive and The Bear, for obvious reasons), a climb on private property that’s 9 miles long and averages 10.6%! I haven’t done it and have no intention of doing it.