Category Archives: Marin

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Muir Woods Loop

Distance: 18-mile loop
Elevation gain: 2520 ft

(A Best of the Best descent)

This ride visits a National Monument (Muir Woods), so if you plan to visit it and have an annual pass or senior card, be sure to pack it and photo ID.

This is another lovely romp through the coastal forests of Marin, and it overlaps our Mt. Tam ride for a few miles but going the other way. It’s basically a square, and each of the four sides has its own character—Hwy 1 ocean vistas, climbing up through the forest, riding the spine of the Marin coastal ridge, and a thrilling, Best of Bestrides descent. It’s not a lot of miles and you can knock it out in a couple of hours, but the elevation gain is substantial (well over our 100 ft/mile benchmark) so it felt like a day’s ride to me. With the exception of a few miles through a built-up stretch of the Panoramic Highway, every mile is great riding—wonderful scenery, varied and challenging road contour, and, 95% of the time, great road surface. I normally hate Hwy 1 riding, but this route (and perhaps the Chileno Valley ride) is the only ride in Bestrides where its stretch of Hwy 1 is so good that I would choose to ride it even if I didn’t have to.

All of these roads are popular routes for Bay Area riders, and for Bay Area recreational motorists, and that’s a problem. Perhaps more than with any other ride in Bestrides, avoiding car traffic is tricky and essential here. This stretch of Hwy 1 is a main route for SF vacationers heading for Stinson Beach and coastal points north. Muir Woods Rd. is the route used by 99% of visitors to the hugely popular Muir Woods National Monument (hereafter referred to as a “park”). And Panoramic Highway, two sides of our square, is the Bay Area’s main route to Mt. Tamalpais and the other main route to Hwy 1 and the northern coast. To make matters worse, all the roads that make up our route lack shoulders worth mentioning and are narrow and winding enough to make passing difficult for cars.

So you want to do this ride when car traffic is at a minimum, but it’s hard to know when that is, since for half the route you’re riding toward the megalopolis and half the route away from it. I suggest (as always) a weekday early in the morning. I did it starting about 8:30 am on a Wednesday and was happy with the results. Hwy 1 is still quiet then, you’re riding against traffic on Muir Woods Rd., and you’ll have company on the Panoramic Highway descent but you’ll be faster than they are. That leaves the built-up section of PH, which is hectic any time of day and just has to be endured.

If you’re cycling to the route, you’ll probably be coming from Hwy 101. There is no route I can heartily endorse. Many cyclists ride Hwy 1 to Panoramic Highway and up PH. This route is very busy. The popular alternative is to ride from Miller up Throckmorton to Cascade to Marion to Edgewood to Sequoia Valley Rd. These roads are largely car-free, and often quite pretty, but they’re steep, and they’re very narrow, so any traffic at all is treacherous. In either case you’ll meet the loop at the PH/Muir Woods Rd/Sequoia Valley Rd. intersection (“The Four Corners” in local parlance).

Our usual warning about Norcal coastal riding is in effect here: be prepared for the possibility of cold, foggy, wet, windy conditions near the coast on any day of the year, no matter what the weather inland is like.

https://ridewithgps.com/routes/37953365

You can start this loop anywhere—just decide at what stage of the ride you want to do a ripping descent. I started by Stinson Beach, for two reasons: I wanted to do the descent last, and I thought the stretch along Hwy 1 would be relatively flat and thus give me an easy warm-up. I was wrong. The 6 miles of Hwy 1 is never flat, and when it’s over you’ll have climbed 820 ft, much more than 100 ft/mile. But it’s a wonderful stretch of road, with a lovely contour and awesome views to north and south, it’s never steep enough to kill cold legs, and morning is the best time to be by the sea. Most of the traffic should be against you any time before noon.

Looking back from Hwy 1 at Bolinas Bay, Stinson Beach, Bolinas Lagoon behind it, and the town of Bolinas in the distance

A half-mile into the ride, there’s a large turn-out where water is running out of two pipes set in the rock wall on the inland side of the road. People will probably be filling water jugs. Consider dumping your water and refilling there.

Just before you intersect with Frank Valley Rd, you pass the turn-off to the Muir Beach Overlook, which you can’t not check out. A hair-raising (but totally safe—see photo) little walk on the knife-edge of a ridgelet takes you to a vista point where you can (on a good day) see Pt. Reyes to the north and the Gold Gate (the bay entrance, not the bridge) to the south. There’s also historical interest there—the lookouts whose remnants remain figured prominently in World War 2 coastal defenses.

Muir Beach Overlook

Also consider checking out Muir Beach, which is a very short ride beyond the Frank Valley turn-off on Hwy 1. It’s a small and very pretty beach, fairly developed and popular with locals, that is connected to its parking lot by a 450-ft bridge over a wetlands. You can ride all the .2 miles to the beach if no one is looking.

Both Muir Beach Overlook and Muir Beach have basic toilets.

Looking southeast from Hwy 1 toward the Golden Gate

Turn L (or R if you’re returning from Muir Beach) onto Frank Valley Rd. This is your only break from work on the ride until the descent—FVR is nearly flat, and runs through a valley so narrow I’d call it a canyon. It’s pleasant and quiet, since 90% of the traffic to Muir Woods comes from the other direction. The road becomes Muir Woods Rd. at a little stone bridge just before you hit the park (the name change is signed), though some maps (and RidewithGPS) call the road Muir Woods Road from the Hwy 1 turnoff.

Muir Woods itself is usually very crowded any time after about 10 am, and road signs keep telling you that you need a parking reservation, but of course cyclists don’t. There are no reservations for entrance to the park. There is the standard national park entrance fee—$15, or free if you have an annual pass or senior card. Bring a lock if you intend to stroll. It’s a small place, and if you’ve done old-growth redwoods before you’ve seen it, but it’s pretty. The main loop is entirely on boardwalks, pavement, or hard-packed dirt so you could conceivably walk it without shoes. Simple sandals would be better.

Muir Woods

At the park the road becomes much steeper and the forest denser and prettier. The leg from the park to Panoramic Highway is 1.5 miles, and you might like to note your mileage total when you start so you can chart your progress. It’s all up, much of it steep enough to make you notice (10%-ish). Googlemaps says it will take you 24 minutes, which is about 3.5 mph. I think you can beat that time, but bring your legs. It’s beautiful, about half dense woods and half open panoramic vistas.

Frank Valley Road

Turn L onto Panoramic Highway. The steep stuff continues for another mile or so—then it’s flat, nearly flat, or gentle climbing to the summit at Pantoll Rd. The entire leg is part of the Mt. Tam ride, where’s it’s going in the opposite direction. The first couple of miles, until you enter Mt. Tam State Park, is built up and busy—the only miles of the loop I don’t enjoy. Once in the park, you should have the roads largely to yourself, if it’s before 10 am. From the park sign almost to your car, the woods are famously beautiful.

Muir Woods Road

At the intersection with Pantoll Rd., there’s an unmissable summit where you leave our Mt. Tam ride loop (which goes R) and go straight. You now plummet 4 miles to Hwy 1. It’s a great descent, in our Best Descents list. The road surface (until the last mile) is perfect, the curves are nicely shaped, the woods are glorious, and you’re probably faster than the car traffic so they won’t bother you. Near the bottom you come out of the trees, you get great vistas of the ocean and Stinson Beach to the north, and the road surface goes to hell, enough to seriously impact your joy.

Panoramic Highway through Tamalpais State Park

Shortening the route: That’s difficult to do if you’re here for the descent. If you’re not, Hwy 1 and Frank Valley Rd. would make a mellow out and back.

Adding miles: Everything around you is good. For a few miles you’re on the route of the Mt. Tamalpais ride, and it’s easy to do both rides as one giant loop, omitting the Pantoll-to-Four-Corners leg. The Adding Miles section of the Tam ride talks about riding north on Hwy 1 from our starting point and climbing Fairfax Bolinas Rd. Locals like to ride a loop that goes down Muir Woods/Frank Valley and back up Hwy 1 to the southeast, but that stretch of Hwy 1 is one long steep climb, it’s busy, and it has no room, so I’m not a fan of it in that direction.

Ryan below suggests going the other way at the top of Muir Woods Road and descending that same stretch of Hwy 1 between the Panoramic Highway and Muir Beach I just damned as a climb. As a descent it’s a delicious stretch of road, with perfect pavement, well-shaped corners, and a pitch that lets you bomb with a lot of speed but minimal braking. Traffic is usually not a problem because you’re as fast as the cars. Compared to our Descent of the PH, it has only two problems: it’s shorter (only 2 miles of descending), and it’s much more exposed to the wind. I did it during a blustery on-shore breeze and got blown around. On a windless day, it would be a dream. If you loop Muir Woods Road and the Hwy 1 descent, it’s only 8 miles (though a very dramatic 8), so you could actually do it 2 or 3 times. If you’ve done the loop once and are looking for a bit more work and aren’t into repeating yourself, ride north on Hwy 1 from Frank Valley Road to the Muir Beach Overlook—it’s all up, and an absolute ripper coming back down.

It’s easy to ride our route plus the Hwy 1 descent, as a figure-eight. You have to ride the Frank Valley Road/Muir Woods Road leg twice, but that isn’t a hardship.

The descent on Hwy 1 down to Muir Beach—5 right-hand turns visible

Limantour Road

Distance: 18 miles out and back
Elevation gain: 2400 ft

The ride to the lighthouse is the iconic ride in Pt. Reyes National Seashore. Deservedly. But it’s not the only good ride, and Limantour Road has a lot to recommend it. In fact, it may be the better ride, depending on your taste and mood.

Let’s compare the pros and cons. Both have excellent road surfaces, resurfaced in the last couple of years (as of 2022). The lighthouse ride is longer—over twice as long if you start from Pt. Reyes Station. It has a lighthouse with a great little museum, historic dairy farms, a great short hike out to Chimney Rock, and world-class wildflowers in the spring. But, except for one small hill, it’s all small rollers through open, fairly barren country. Limantour is one big hill—all up, then all down. It’s short, but it’s enough climbing to be a workout—harder than the lighthouse ride because it has more elevation gain per mile (the lighthouse is about 3500 ft in 40 miles; Limantour is 2400 ft in 18 miles) and more steep stuff. The terrain is prettier and more varied than the lighthouse ride—lush woods, coastal canyons, esteros, sand dunes. It’s got a Best of the Best descent on the return ride. It’s got a great Visitor Center (if you start at Bear Valley). The Visitor Center has a splendid bathroom, worth checking out even if you don’t need one. At the turn-around Limantour has a grand beach you can easily walk your bike to and enjoy in bare feet. And it’s much less crowded—whereas on the lighthouse ride you might easily see 40-50 bikes, on Limantour I typically see 2 or 3. Likewise for car traffic and people.

Time for the standard Northern California coastal weather warning. Do not choose your clothing according to the weather at Bear Valley Visitor Center, Pt. Reyes Station, or anywhere else at all inland. On any day of the year, the weather at the summit or the shoreline can be cold, windy, and foggy. Wear as much as you can comfortably, then pack at least one complete additional clothing layer. Take the glove liners, the leggings, and the skullcap. Don’t argue with me.

https://ridewithgps.com/routes/37754640

Start at the Bear Valley Visitor Center, because it’s a great place, it has a great bathroom, it has lots of parking, and there’s a lovely meadow across the road from the parking lot dotted with big shade trees and picnic tables for relaxing under after the ride. Ride out of the Center and turn L on Bear Valley Road. Take the first L, onto Limantour Road (clearly signed).

After a brief spell of flat, climb for 4 miles through consistently gorgeous woods. The contour is varied and the pitches are never daunting—a lovely little climb. You’ll work a little in the last half-mile.

The east side of Limantour Road

At the summit you break out into the open, the road rolls for a while, you may well hit fog, and the road may become drippy.

The descent is considerably steeper than the climb up, too steep to be much fun, and often very windy, so it’s not a favorite of mine, and the climb back out after the turnaround is tough, so decide before descending if you want to turn around now. There’s a road sign a short way down the descent telling you to prepare for 17% pitches, which I think is an exaggeration, but it’s steep. That said, the views on the descent are great. You’re in coastal canyons, and soon you’re riding the spine of one of them, with views of Drake’s Bay and Limantour Estero opening up before you.

Fog at the summit, on a typical sunny day in Bear Valley

Halfway down the descent you hit an unexpected fork, and it’s easy to get confused. Stay R and follow the minimal signage to Limantour Beach, named for Joseph Limantour, a trader and sea captain who achieved some notoriety by totaling his schooner nearby.

Descending the west side, looking out over the Estero, Limantour Beach, and Drake’s Bay, with Chimney Rock in the distance

The road doesn’t actually take you to the beach; instead it takes you to something ecologically more interesting, the Limantour Estero, where the bay waters and fresh waters from Marin mix in the tidal stew and wonderful environmental things happen. It’s important, it’s pretty, and there are informational placards to help you understand what’s going on.

Limantour Beach

From the primitive parking lot at the end of the road you have a 1/5-mile hike through the Estero, over the dunes, and down to the beach. It’s easy walking, even barefoot, so you don’t need shoes. You can ride the first bit of it by taking the side road to the visible dumpsters to the east of the parking lot (the portapotties are there as well, hiding behind the shrubs), and in fact you can ride almost to the dunes, if you don’t mind a bit of sand riding. I didn’t see signs saying not to.

Limantour Estero

As I said, the ride home is much harder than the ride out. The RWGPS elevation profile doesn’t agree—it says the ride in and the ride out are about the same. Hogwash. There’s no comparison. Be prepared for a mile of so of 11-13% stuff that’s truly taxing.

View from the summit

The descent on the east side is pure joy, especially in the second half—a Best of the Best descent. It’s very fast, with big, sweeping corners where you can sustain 35 mph without risk, in part thanks to the outstanding traction provided by the new road surface.

Shortening the Ride: Ride from the Visitor Center to the summit and return. You’ll get the ride’s best ascent and the best descent, but of course you’ll miss the beach.

Adding Miles: Our route passes within a couple of miles of the Pt. Reyes Lighthouse ride, and our Chileno Valley Road/Tomales Bay Loop ride goes through Pt. Reyes Station, about 3 miles away.

You can ride the rest of Bear Valley Road, which is quite pleasant, but it’s very short.

See the Adding Miles section of the Pt. Reyes Lighthouse ride for other possibilities.

Chileno Valley Road/Tomales Bay Loop

Distance: 48-mile loop
Elevation gain: 1620 ft

The network of roads in Marin County between Highway 1 and Highway 101 may be the most heavily ridden cycling roads in rural California, but that’s just because they’re easily accessible from the population centers clustered around the Golden Gate Bridge.   They aren’t the best riding in California.  They’re fine.  They’re nice.  And they’re all the same—moderate rollers through dairy farm land on good road surfaces.  So there is no best route.  Feel free to ride on any road that catches your fancy, with two caveats: 1) try to minimize your time on the obvious main arteries—Pt. Reyes Petaluma Rd., Tomales Petaluma Rd., Sir Francis Drake Blvd.—and 2) be sure to include Chileno Valley Rd., which is a cut above the rest.

One of the charms of this area is the unpretentiousness of it all.  There are few if any multi-million-dollar mansions or grand wrought-iron gates on this route, and the farm houses are real—old, family-owned, working dairy farms.  The oyster restaurants along Hwy 1 are housed in shacks.

Like all grassy hills in California, these are burned brown during the dry months, so the scenery is prettier in spring and fall after the rains return.

The century that covers this area is the Marin Century, and, since the roads are all about the same, it’s a perfectly fine introduction to the area, if you want to ride 100 miles of it, which I don’t.

For those of us who want to do fewer than 100 miles, here’s a representative loop that covers a lot of the best stuff, including a very sweet (though crowded) stretch of Hwy 1, and the food is fantastic—artisanal cheese, great delis, two killer bakeries, and the best bread in the world.  So bring money.

I actually don’t ride this route as mapped any more.  I like a good hill, so I do the 36-mile  Marshall Wall option described in Adding Miles, but I have to give up Pt. Reyes Station to do it.

Mapmyride’s elevation total seems misleadingly small (RidewithGPS has a total vert of 2200 ft).  There are no killer climbs, but all that rolling adds up, and I’m willing to guarantee you’ll get a workout.  The Marshall-Petaluma Rd loop has 3000 ft of gain, which isn’t nasty but is far from flat.

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Mt. Tamalpais

Distance: 38-mile loop with out and back spur
Elevation gain: 4400 ft (RWGPS)

(A Best of the Best ride)

The first half of this route is covered thoroughly in words and pictures at toughascent.com.  It’s referred to by locals as “the Alpine Dam ride,” to distinguish it from other ways of approaching Mt. Tam, and it does cross that most unprepossessing of landmarks.

Once in the weeks before I went to Italy on a cycling vacation, I took a friend who knew Europe well on this ride.  As we were passing over one of the more spectacular legs, he turned to me and said, “I hope you aren’t going to Europe to find better riding than this, because there isn’t any.”   I second that emotion.  Mt. Tam is a Bucket List ride if there ever was one, one of the 5 best rides in Bestrides, and the best ride in our list for grand vistas.  (Remember to click on the following photos to see them full-screen.)  If someone were to say to me, “I have one day to do any ride in California—which should it be?”, I’d say this one.  It’s a lot of climbing, but there are only two serious pitches: right off the bat, and just past Alpine Lake.  (The Mapmyride elevation profile is also very misleading, by the way.)

This is a pretty complicated route in the half after the summit.  It wends its way through several busy Marin communities.  So you’ll want to have a Garmin with the route loaded or carry your Marin Bicycle Map (see the section Introduction).  And, because it goes through the most popular recreation area in the Bay Area, you’ll see a lot of cars.   But two things will save you: all the traffic is on one side of the mountain (the south side), so for the first half of the ride you’re nearly alone, and all that traffic is coming toward the mountain when you’re leaving it (assuming you started in the morning), so it’s almost all on the other side of the road.   But if the traffic or the urban navigating puts you off, in Alternate Routes below I’ll show you two ways to ride the mountain that avoid both.

Take something to walk in—you’ll want to explore the summit on foot.

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Pt. Reyes Lighthouse

Distance:  40 miles out and back
Elevation gain: 3050 ft (RWGPS)

Point Reyes gets in your blood.  The first time I went there, it seemed barren, cold, featureless, and generally uninviting.  Now I love it with an abiding passion.  It isn’t obviously dramatic.  It’s not Yosemite.  It’s open, gently rolling wild grassland, and it’s often windy and frigid.  But give it time.  It will work its magic.

This ride comes with a bevy of caveats.  First, I’d try to do it in winter or a shoulder season, but not in summer, and I wouldn’t go anywhere near it on a summer weekend—the traffic is like two-for-one day at Walmart.  Second, the weather can be windy, cold, and damp on any day of the year.  Don’t judge by the weather in Point Reyes Station or Inverness, don’t trust the weather report, and don’t assume summer means warm.  Pack at least one layer more than you think you’ll need.  The last time I did this ride, in early June, it was 68 degrees, still, and sunny in Inverness and 52 degrees, very windy, and heavily fogged further south.  Third, it’s more work that meets the eye.  The land looks relatively flat, but it is in fact constant rollers, many of them steep.  10% pitches are common.  I once started to count the substantial rollers in one direction and gave up after twenty. Fourth, I’d avoid the ride if the wind is smoking.  The prevailing wind direction is out of the northwest, which means the wind is either in your face on the ride home, which makes those steep little climbs that much harder, or it’s on your beam, which makes all the descents dicey.

The road surface used to be bad, sometimes dangerously so.  But it’s just been repaved (4/21)  and is now glass from the Pierce Point Rd. fork to the lighthouse.

For a point-by-point comparison of this ride with the equally excellent Limantour Road ride nearby, see the introduction to the Limantour Road ride.

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