Distance: 26 miles out and back
Elevation gain: 1600 ft
I’m not a fan of cycling Highway 1. The scenery is peerless, but the traffic is often murder and the road profile tends to long, straight, enormous rollers. But in some places there are frontage roads paralleling Hwy 1, and these can be charming, with all the pluses of Hwy 1 and none of the minuses.
One of the best places to explore back roads along Hwy 1 is Mendocino. This ride strings together the best of them, and adds a pleasant climb and a final short jaunt on excellent dirt through prime woodlands. It’s all easy riding, and the scenic riches almost defy description. In a brief 12 miles are packed grand ocean vistas, the world-famous village of Mendocino, the also-world-famous Mendocino Headlands, a delicious State Park with fern canyons and more world-class headlands, some pretty coastal farmland, a sea lion rookery, an adorable lighthouse, a small cove with its own beach and 50’s beach store, and the afore-mentioned woodlands. To tie all this together you ride two short stretches of Hwy 1, both with grand ocean spectacle to the west if the traffic whizzing past you will let you appreciate it.
This is not a life-changing ride but an extremely pleasant one. There are at least 5 spots along this route where getting off the bike and walking is almost mandatory, so take shoes and a lock, or promise yourself you’ll come back in a car.
You can cut this ride up any way you like or begin anywhere you like. I’m starting at the southernmost point of the route. Drive a half mile or so south of Mendocino village, across the bridge over Big River and past the Comptche Ukiah Rd turn-off, and turn R onto Road 500B (named after Jedediah 500B, an early explorer and trapper). Googlemaps and other maps call it Brewery Gulch Road, but it’s clearly signed “Road 500B” at both ends. Make sure you’re on the Brewery Gulch Road that’s on the west side of Hwy 1—there’s one on the east side too. Parking can be scarce—you might have better luck on the east side of Hwy 1 or on Hwy 1 itself, or just ride from Mendocino village.
Brewery Gulch Road, our first frontage road, is less than a mile long and has a rough road surface, but the sense of being alone on a secret road is intense and it has the best view of the town of Mendocino there is—better than the view all those hikers get pounding around the Mendocino Headlands.
Quickly Brewery Gulch deadends at Hwy 1 (notice our Mendocino/Comptche ride is directly across the highway). Turn L on Hwy 1 and ride across the bridge to Mendocino, enjoying the views of the Big River estuary if traffic allows. A dreamy way to pass a day is to rent a canoe at the canoe rental place at the mouth of the river and paddle upstream. Take the first L into the village (from Hwy 1 you can’t see the town, but the turn is unmissable) and ride along Main Street, quite possibly the most charming Main Street in the US. There’s a nice public bathroom on the ocean side of the street if you already need one, and a great little museum in the building adjacent to it. Consider taking the time to explore Mendocino’s world-famous vibe (Main Street’s book store is my favorite book store anywhere), or just make a note to come back and spend a day.
When Main Street goes R, go with it and ride the 3 or so blocks to Little Lake Road. Turn L (toward the ocean) on LLR, which once out of town becomes Heeser Rd. Heeser, like 500B, is fairly rough riding but the headlands on the ocean side are without peer. You have to get off the bike and walk 50 ft to see them at their best—ideally, walk out onto the fingers of land that jut out into the sea—so once more promise to return if you can’t stop now.
Heeser deadends at Lansing St. Go L and ride Lansing to its deadend on Hwy 1. Go L on Hwy 1. This next leg passes through very pretty forest with some magnificent glimpses of shoreline to the west, but it’s invariably trafficky and can be a white-knuckle experience, especially on the bridge crossings where the shoulder disappears. It’s soon over, as you turn L toward Russian Gulch State Park (clearly signed). You’re crossing traffic here, and the cars are doing 60 mph, so exercise caution.
Twenty feet down your new road, it T’s, and the road goes L into the park or R onto Pt. Cabrillo Drive. We’re eventually heading R/north, but Russian Gulch is a stunning place. It encompasses both a rainforest canyon of redwoods and ferns with an easy walking trail along the creek that will heal any and all psychic wounds, and a chunk of headlands with all the grandeur of those in Mendocino without the hectic multitudes of sight-seers. Once again, make a note to return for a day (there is a fee).
Pt. Cabrillo Drive is the second of our frontage roads. It meanders through gentle rollers, past eucalyptus groves, small farms, turkeys, and deer. Midway along it, you pass the turn-off to the Cabrillo Point Lighthouse (or Light Station, as it’s officially called). It’s a half-mile detour, and you’re welcome to ride right to the lighthouse complex, which is extensive. There is the lighthouse itself, not a tall tower (since the land it stands on is high above the water) but a perfectly charming thing that’s still in operation, and lots of outbuildings, many of which—two museums, the lighthouse keeper’s cottage, and others—are open to visitors when Covid isn’t in bloom. Once again, if you don’t want to stop make a note to return.
At its north end, Pt. Cabrillo Dr. goes through an unexpected, unmissable hairpin. Right about there, turn L and take a short side-trip to Seal Lion Rock at Caspar Headlands State Reserve (hard to find—google for directions). It’s a little-known and usually deserted spot wedged into a housing development where a very short walk takes you to an offshore rock where a large colony of seals can be counted on to hang out.
Returning to Pt. Cabrillo Dr., swoop down to Caspar Beach, a throwback to an earlier time with a small RV park and a beach mercantile, with surfboard rentals and pool tables. It’s a cute spot, but there are much better beaches in the Mendocino area, so I recommend you soak up the ambiance and move on.
At Caspar Beach you’re at sea level. You now climb 720 ft to the turn-around point of the ride. Make the short climb back up to Hwy 1 and go straight across onto what the maps call Caspar Little Lake Road but which is only signed as Rd 409.
The first 100 yards of 409 are steep, but it’s the only steepness you’ll see on the route. Thereafter it’s a few miles of steady, easy climbing through pleasant but unspectacular greenery until the road turns to dirt. Even if you hate dirt, do not turn around—this is why you’ve climbed the hill. The dirt is glass—better than a lot of pavement—the road is flat, and the trees, while not old-growth, are especially lovely. I liked it so much I came back the next day and rode it again.
At around the 12-mile mark, 409 T’s into Little Lake Road, the very same Little Lake Road you were on for 50 yards as you exited Mendocino village (it’s unsigned—there’s a sign that says “Mendocino Woodlands” with an arrow to the left). At this point you have a choice. If you go R on LLR it will descend steadily and drop you smack in the midst of Mendocino village. If you’re a loop person, go for it, but the road surface is poor and I didn’t enjoy it. So I prefer to turn around and re-experience all the lovely stuff on the outbound route a second time. It’s up to you.
Shortening the route: You can choose any segment of the route you like—it’s all good—but I’d recommend the Pt. Cabrillo Dr. leg.
Adding miles: The route takes you by the foot of our Mendocino/Comptche ride.
You can ride south on Hwy 1 to Hwy 128 and Navarro Ridge Rd (see the Mendocino/ Comptche ride notes).
There is little that appeals at the northern end. At the turnaround point you can go L on Little Lake Road, but it just leads to a warren of dirt roads and never hooks up with anything of importance. Riding Hwy 1 north toward Fort Bragg isn’t rewarding.