Carquinez Loop

Distance: 24-mile loop
Elevation gain: 1700 ft

This loop is a classic Bay Area cycling club ride, and it offers a number of pleasures: a lovely, rambling section of the San Francisco Bay Trail, much of it closed to cars; two small, charming Bay Area communities and proximity to a third; a train; two grand bridge crossings over the Carquinez Strait, where the Sacramento River Delta empties into San Pablo Bay; two old urban cemeteries; a nice optional climb, and swell views of the Strait from every angle.  It’s mostly moderate up and down, neither easy nor hard (the Scenic Drive leg of the ride is 14 miles, 1370 ft of gain, out and back, for instance).  There are about 4 miles of unrewarding, rundown residential slog.  There is no reason why you can’t ride the loop in either direction, though everyone seems to go counter-clockwise.
(RWGPS shows the bike trail through the Benicia State Rec Area as unpaved.  It’s paved.)

Take the Crockett/Pomona St. exit from Hwy 80 coming from the south.  Continue down Pomona and park in the little Park and Ride parking lot you run into almost immediately on your R.  Continue down Pomona on your bike.  You’ll ride straight through downtown Crockett (or “Sugar City,” as they call themselves, from the C and H sugar plant on the shore) and continue out the other side.  After about a mile Pomona turns into the Carquinez Scenic Drive and the best part of the loop begins.  It’s a sweet little back road that’s been converted into something like a multi-use rec trail.  It’s open to cars for a stretch at either end, but the center section of roadway, the George Miller Regional Trail, is closed to cars, so there’s no through traffic and thus almost no traffic at all on most of it.  The road traverses the steep sidehill overlooking the Carquinez Strait, and the vistas of the Strait, the sailboats and working ships thereupon, and the Benicia-Martinez Bridge to the east, are guaranteed to make your soul sing.  Along the water’s edge, far below you, there’s an active railroad line, so you’re likely to see a train huffing past.  In the middle of the ride you’re simultaneously in or on the George Miller Trail, the Carquinez Scenic Drive, the San Francisco Bay Trail, and the Carquinez Strait Regional Shoreline, if you’re into labels.

Carquinez Scenic Drive

The road surface where the road is open to cars is often rough, but the GMRT itself is glass.  There are occasional picnic tables along the route, so you can bring lunch.

From Scenic Drive looking east, toward Benicia Bridge, with Benicia on the L and train passing below

There are two attractive spurs off this leg: the road to Port Costa and McEwen Rd.  Port Costa is a tiny river port town turned artistes’ enclave consisting of a hotel, a restaurant, a saloon, a mercantile, a hat shop and a couple other things, well worth a visit.  You could almost throw a blanket over the entire town. The detour adds almost no work to the ride—Port Costa is a very gentle 1/2 mile off the main route. Watch for the small sign marking the turn-off on your L.

Soon after the Port Costa turn-off you pass McEwen Rd. on your R.  Take it if you want to do a pretty and invigorating (code for “hard”) creekside climb on a very small road.  It’s steep at first, then mellows to moderate, then mellows further to sweet open rollers.  At the top of McEwen you have two choices.   You can turn L and take perfectly pleasant Franklin Canyon Rd. into Martinez—if you do, follow Alhambra into town to get back on our route.  Franklin Canyon is a relaxing, gentle, steady descent on a big, straight domesticated two-lane road, so if you want more drama turn around at the top of McEwen and ride back down the way you came, then continue on the Scenic Drive.

If you’re a fan of old cemeteries, you’ll pass two nice ones on the CSD, across from each other: the Alhambra Cemetery and St. Catherine of Siena.  The former is locked, but can be accessed by requesting permission from Martinez or hopping the fence.  St. Catherine’s is open and has a much more romantic ambience.

Benicia Bridge bike/pedestrian lane

The serpent in this Eden is motorcycle traffic.  The Port Costa area is motorcycle central, and, while the George Miller Trail keeps them from through-riding the Scenic Drive, it doesn’t keep them from riding the first miles and up and down McEwen, which they love to do.  The last time I rode McEwen on a weekend, I was passed (on a very small, windy road) by at least 200 motorcycles.  The last time I rode it, on a Friday in March, I never saw a motorcycle.

The Scenic Drive debouches in Martinez, a full-size town with considerable character.   John Muir’s house is very near where you enter town.  Supposedly the martini was invented here. The downtown section is vital and charming, and I encourage a detour down Main St. just a couple of minutes off our route.

From here on, the route is complex.  I’m not going to guide you through all the turns.  Take a good map, my route, and a phone with googlemaps, and find your way, only abiding by one principle: stay as close to the water as you can.

View west from Benicia Bridge, with Carquinez Bridge in far distance

Ride straight through  Martinez on Escobar until it’s time to hop on the Benicia-Martinez Bridge (you’ll know immediate if you pass it).  Cycling across bridges can be hairy, but this (and the Zampa Bridge later) has a lovely, wide, separated bike/pedestrian lane that make the trip as unthreatening as a huge bridge can be, and the views downstream through the Strait to the Carquinez Bridge to the west, usually enhanced by a huge tanker or two at work below you, are grand.

From Zampa Bridge Looking west over San Pablo Bay—Mt. Tamalpais on the L horizon

Ride into the quaint, upscale village of Benicia.  My route takes you off the through-route long enough to ride through the waterside downtown and out onto the town pier, where you can commune with the gulls and use the good bathrooms at the pier’s end.

Once out of Benicia, the quality of the rides drops off and continues to deteriorate as you approach the outskirts of Vallejo, no one’s favorite city.  Be sure to find the Benicia State Recreation Area and the bike path that runs through it to minimize your time on the large and busy Columbus Parkway.  Then slog it out (my route has no virtues other than directness—feel free to find another) until you enter the bike/pedestrian lane crossing the Zampa Bridge, which, in a brilliant stroke of socialist fervor, is named after, not some cigar-chomping politico fat cat, but an actual guy, Al Zampa, an iron worker who lent his sweat to the building of several Bay Area bridges and actually fell off the Golden Gate Bridge during its building.   There’s a moving plaque detailing his accomplishments at one end of the bridge.  And check out this magnificent picture of Al.

From the bridge, the views (again to the west) are breath-taking, though now you’re gazing at the expanse of San Pablo Bay and Mt. Tamalpais in the distance.   Once off the bridge, you’re a stone’s throw from your car.

Shortening the route: If you’re out for an easy, quiet day, ride from our starting point to Martinez and back (16 miles).  If you’re out for something even easier, drive to the gate blocking cars from entering the GMRT (there’s a parking lot) and just ride the GMRT out and back.

An alternative route to ours, one that skips both bridges and the Vallejo morass and adds a climb, is to ride out the Carquinez Scenic Drive, go up McEwen, take Franklin Canyon into Martinez, and take the CSD home.  Incredibly, this route is only slightly shorter than the full loop—21 miles—and is more work.

Local color along the Benicia shore (tide’s out)

Adding Miles: From Martinez you can easily ride south via the big but pleasant Alhambra Ave. to the network of roads around Briones Park—Alhambra Valley Rd., Reliez Valley Rd., Bear Valley Rd.—all worth riding, and continue on until you connect with the southern sections of the Grizzly Peak Boulevard to Redwood Road ride.

10 thoughts on “Carquinez Loop

  1. Nancy Lund

    We locals never advise riding McEwen as it is a technical ascent and decent and can be treacherous if motorcycles OR cars are coming either way, as you discovered. I have stories about that road that aren’t pretty.

    Visiting Port Costa means good coffee at the hotel or a beer at the warehouse across the street. The Bull Valley Inn is listed by Michael Bauer in his yearly write up as one of the best 100 restaurants in the Bay Area.

  2. David

    Rode Carquinez Scenic Drive lunchtime weekday – minimal traffic, including on McEwan. Without traffic, McEwan is a nice, short climb and descent. Somewhat narrow from the Drive to the crest, so I can understand the concern. I would not call McEwan challenging or technical (without traffic) for folks with solid cycling experience (much less so than most of the other climb/descents among the bay area best rides). However, it is both steep and probably a little harrowing for non-riders, and in particular kids, unless they happen to be mountain goats.

    The Drive itself is a nice discovery, but I wouldn’t go out of my way to do just it.

  3. Rich Shearer

    If you start/finish in Crockett, as suggested, treat yourself to lunch at Valona Deli right on the main drag (south side) in downtown Crockett. The service can be slow, but they are quite friendly, and the sandwiches are great. Bon appetit! You earned it.

  4. Beth Jensen-Warner

    Thanks for the write-up. Just did the Franklin Canyon->McEwen->George Miller Trail loop back to Martinez where I live. The descent down McEwen was a bit scary since I am still learning cycling. I was braking the whole way down. Next time I would like to try your loop but hope I can keep my stamina. The views from the George Miller Trail of the bridge are worth the effort. Thanks!

    1. Jack Rawlins Post author

      Yeah, I’d think McEwen would be too steep to be fun descending—I’d descend it only if I wanted to climb it and see all of the George Miller Trail.

      1. R H

        I feel like McEwen is a love it or hate it kind of descent – steep, narrow, and dangerously fast if you want it to be. I personally love it in an “oh my goodness I’m going to die” sort of way, but I can see why that wouldn’t be very appealing to some people.

        Next to McEwen are Cummings Skyway and Crockett Boulevard, which are basically just speedways.

        1. Jack Rawlins Post author

          Cummings and Crockett are adjacent to, parallel to, and just to the west of McEwen.

  5. Tom B

    I did the loop and had lunch at Luigi’s in Martinez. Your basic order-at-the-counter sandwiches, outdoor seating. Luigi is super-nice and looked like he knew almost everyone there.

  6. Julie Batsel

    Don’t miss One House Bakery in Benicia–great mid-ride reward. Need I say more?
    And thank you for the nice write-up!

  7. Mike

    My favorite loop is start from the Martinez Waterfront Park and ride out Alhambra Ave., Franklin Canyon, San Pablo Ave. (stop at the bay viewpoint), Carquinez Scenic Drive. States Coffee is a great coffee shop in Martinez.


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