Category Archives: Northern California Coast

Mendocino Coastal

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.

Mendocino village from Road 500B

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.

The Mendocino Headlands at sunset

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

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.

Point Cabrillo Light Station

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.

Approaching Caspar Beach from the north side

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 Caspar Beach store

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.

The dirt at the end of 409

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.

Leggett to the Sea

Distance: 44 miles out and back
Elevation gain: 6030 ft

This ride was suggested by Friend of Bestrides Brian.

The position of Bestrides has always been, avoid Highway 1 like the death-trap it is. The traffic is constant, irritable, and staring out to sea, and there’s no room for you.  But all generalizations have their exceptions, and this stretch of Hwy 1, the northernmost, while still busy, is more than worth your time.  It’s grand.  It’s a lot of climbing (only about 2 of the 44 miles are anything like flat), and there is only one break in the forest wall, at the turn-around.  But that one break is a stunning view of the Pacific Ocean, the forest wall is often primeval redwoods, and none of the climbing is brutal.  The road contour is perfect for descending—endless serpentining, curvy enough to be exhilarating, not so tight that you’re constantly on your brakes, all beautifully banked for speed.  And of course you can continue on from the turn-around point and ride as much of Hwy 1 as you want to.

There are two flies in this otherwise-blissful ointment.  The first is traffic.  It’s busy.  But it’s less busy than almost any other leg of Hwy 1, because most tourists are interested in the stretch between Fort Bragg and Big Sur.  And it’s nobody’s commuter route, so the drivers are not in a hurry.  The real problem is construction equipment: any wet winter causes damage along Hwy 1, so most summers there’s a steady stream of gravel trucks going to and from the construction site(s).  It’s not as bad as it sounds—there is little shoulder but room to pass—but if it bothers you you might choose to ride in the fall, when the construction is probably complete.  Even so, I did this ride midday on a Monday in July, the road crews were busy, yet I did long stretches of riding the center line in solitude.

The second ointment fly is the road surface.  It ranges from glassy to tooth-rattling chipseal.  When it’s rough, it definitely takes the edge off the descending.  When it’s smooth, there is nothing better.

If you prefer loops to out-and-backs, there is a lovely one at the end of Adding Miles.

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Philo-Greenwood Road

Distance: 21 miles one way
Elevation gain: 2835 ft

This is one of seven rides (all detailed in the Adding Miles section of the Mountain View Road ride) that are worth doing around Boonville, a charming little town with good food and an interesting history, so I encourage you to find a place to stay in the area, make a cycling holiday out of it, and do all of them.

This road parallels Mountain View Road, which is 5 miles to the south, and the two are similar.  Both roads are trips through standard coastal pine/redwood forest with a good dose of 8-10% climbing.  This one is less isolated that MVR (a vehicle a mile or more), but it’s prettier and easier and it has a better road surface (though it’s still often poor). It  makes for a shorter loop if you’re returning on Hwy 128, so if I was just doing one of the two I’d go with Philo-Greenwood unless I wanted a) a bigger climbing challenge, c) more Hwy 1 riding, or c) to visit Manchester.   I’ve mapped the ride as one way because I assume you’ll want to return on 128, which is covered in the Mendocino/Comptche ride.  The Philo-Greenwood/Cameron Road/Hwy 128 loop is 42 miles.

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Tin Barn Road/Annapolis Road

Distance: 38-mile loop
Elevation gain: 4845 ft

This is the loop ride directly to the north of the King Ridge ride—in fact the two routes share a few miles—so the question arises, how are they different, and which one should you ride?   They’re very similar.  They’re both great rides and serious efforts with much climbing.  Each has one pleasant, tiny town near the beginning of the ride, then you’re totally on your own.  The terrain and landscape are similar for both (pretty coastal hill country).  Tin Barn/Annapolis is further from Santa Rosa, the nearest large population center, so it gets ridden less.   TB/A has more redwoods, the climbing is spread out more, and the road surface is a quantum leap better though still flawed (there is no good pavement in Sonoma County).  TB/A has rhododendrons in the spring, a few miles of pretty, mellow Hwy 1, some totally ridable dirt, by far the better descent, and by far the harder pitch (1 mile of 15-20%).     TB/A, unlike King Ridge, can easily be cut short if you overestimated your resources.

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Mountain View Road

Distance:  50 miles out and back
Elevation gain: 8000 ft

This is one of seven rides (all detailed in the Adding Miles section below) that are worth doing around Boonville, a charming little town with good food and an interesting history, so I encourage you to find a place to stay in the area, make a cycling holiday out of it, and do all of them.

This ride is tough.  It may be one of the two hardest climbs in Bestrides (the other being Gilbraltar Road).  And the road surface is mostly shaky.   And there are only two rather ordinary “views,” despite the road’s name—the rest of the time, all you can see is the greenery on either side of the road.  The scenery is typical coastal forest—no better, no worse.  So it’s mostly about bragging rights, the sense of adventure, and the two charming towns at either end.  Philo-Greenwood Road just to the north is easier and prettier and has a better surface. Continue reading

Mendocino/Comptche

Distance: 46-mile loop
Elevation gain: 2083 ft

(Update 8/20: The joy of this ride has been seriously impacted by the Mendocino County road maintenance department, which has seen fit to lay down a brand new and very unpleasant chipseal, covered by layers and drifts of loose gravel in places, from Comptche to Hwy 1.  Apparently the new surface extends east from Comptche for many miles.  It means that climbing between Comptche and Mendocino is burdensome and descending is positively dangerous.  The scenery is intact.  Some of the new surface can be avoided by taking Little River Airport Rd., which is a sweet ride up or down.)

This may be the prettiest wooded ride, mile for mile, in California.  And it has the selling point of starting and ending in downtown Mendocino, one of my favorite places.  It climbs and descents up and over a summit among simply perfect piney woods, passes a classic country store, descends gradually along the Navarro River and its stunning riparian redwoods, and ends with a pretty but trafficky leg on Hwy 1 that’s thick with lovely, charming inns and one State Park to stop and explore.  The road surface is glass, except on Flynn Creek Road, where it’s OK to poor.   It rides equally well in both directions—see Which Way to Go? below for the comparative virtues of the two routes.  I’ve arbitrarily picked the clockwise route to describe.  It’s a bit harder than Mapmyride’s elevation total would suggest—I clocked 3300 ft of gain—but it’s never steeper than moderate.

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Branscomb Road

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 (though one reader warns of logging truck traffic during the week)—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.

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. Continue reading

Avenue of the Giants

Distance: 32 miles out and back
Elevation gain: 1780 ft

This, along with the two San Francisco rides, is unlike any other ride in Bestrides.org.  It’s easy and almost flat and can easily be done by a non-cyclist on a rental cruiser (ignore Mapmyride’s elevation profile—most of the “climbing” is 1-3%).  The appeal is entirely in the scenery—you’re riding through some of the greatest redwood forests left on earth.  It’s not my favorite Redwoods ride—that would be Big Basin, which in addition to Redwoods has wonderful climbing and descending—but it’s certainly the ride with the biggest, most awe-inspiring trees.  (There is a list of Redwood rides on the Best of the Best page.)  It’s in Humboldt Redwoods State Park, but the car traffic isn’t bad—since the Avenue is paralleled by the main highway just a stone’s throw to the west, all through traffic is diverted and you’ll share the road with the few cars hip enough to linger.    If you want to make the ride longer or harder, there is good riding on either end (see Adding Miles). Continue reading