Distance: 44-mile loop
Elevation gain: 4320 ft
Grade: A (okay, I’m guessing)
If you’re like me, you think Bakersfield is hot and 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 considered one of the local gems.
The loop is essentially three different rides: a meander through a small, rocky creek canyon; a mostly flat roll across a wide valley dotted with horse farms, and a thrilling series of switchbacks through thick foothill shrubbery.
First, a mea culpa: I haven’t ridden it yet—the only ride in Bestrides I haven’t done. The one day I set aside for it, the fog on the course had visibility down to 100 ft, my wipers were going a mile a minute, the road was a slimy morass, the wind was 20 mph, mostly in the rider’s face, and free-range cows were wandering the road (in the fog) during the 9% descent that ends the ride. I thought of my wife and children and drove the course, photographing from my car. But Bestrides needs to recognize Bakersfield, so I’m putting the loop in. I’ll get back and ride it, I promise.
Before you get on your bike, you have a decision to make: 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. And check out the elevation profile. The facts: clockwise gives you a 7-mile climb up a set of constant, tight 9% switchbacks, then a steep 3-mile descent, then a 9.5-mile mellow climb, then a 22-mile medium descent; counterclockwise gives you the reverse: a 22-mile mild ascent, a 9.5-mile easy descent, 3 miles of 9+ climbing, then a 7-mile descent down a set of constant, tight 9% switchbacks. My route goes counterclockwise. Wind direction is also a factor, since the middle 13 miles is open and fairly flat.
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 flash flood gullies flow right over the roadway. I’d ask about road conditions at a local bike shop. And expect to find a “road closed” sign and ford some streams any time before summer.
Park in the almost non-existent “town” of Caliente. There’s a tiny post office there but little else. Ride the 3 miles to the intersection of Caliente Creek Rd. and Caliente Bodfish Rd., where you make your directional choice. We’re going counterclockwise, up Caliente Creek Rd. It’s an easy grade up through a dry but scenic little canyon. There are frequent creek crossings, and feeder streams enter from the side and cross the road in spring, so figure to get your wheels wet. This is the most scenic part of the course, and if you aren’t out for the full 44 miles you might consider riding it as an out-and-back, thought the road surface is only serviceable so I can’t speak for the descending. The map shows several named “communities” along this leg, but I don’t think they exist—the first noticeable settlement is Twin Oaks, where there’s a country store.
Past Twin Oaks you leave the creek canyon and begin crossing Walker Basin, a large open valley surrounded by hills and populated with unpretentious horse farms. Somewhere in here the road changes its name to Walker Basin Road, but I saw no road signs so it doesn’t matter. The road is relatively flat and straight and the scenery prettily pleasant.
At mile 29 you have your first noticeable intersection, a 90-degree L turn from Walker Basin Rd. onto Walker Basin Rd.—clearly signed, just like that. At mile 32 at the T you go L onto Caliente Bodfish Rd. , do a 2-mile, 700-ft climb, and begin the thrilling/harrowing part of the course, the descending switchbacks.
This stretch of road should be approached cautiously. It’s steep, there are no sightlines, so you can’t see oncoming cars and vice versa, and when I drove it there were free-range cows wandering the road. Any moisture adds to the hazard. I don’t have photos of it because I figured I might very well die from a rear-ender if I stopped to take one. Just be safe out there. You’re mostly in foothill shrubbery here, but you won’t see it anyway.
The Caliente Bodfish descent takes you all the way back to the intersection with Caliente Creek Rd. Return to the metropolis of Caliente.
Adding Miles: I don’t know the area, but Bestrides commenters offer up several great suggestions for routes below. Other local routes are at https://kernwheelmen.org/routes/, though the site seems to have flaws. The consensus second-best ride seems to be Hwy 155/Evans Rd from town to Greenhorn Summit.