Distance: 18-mile loop
Elevation gain: 2520 ft
(A Best of the Best descent)
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 State 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.
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.
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 to the south. There’s also historical interest there—the lookouts whose remnants remain figured prominently in World War 2 coastal defenses.
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.
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 all 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 you need a parking reservation, but of course cyclists don’t. 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 don’t need shoes.
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 a tough 1.5 miles, all up, much of it steeply so. 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.
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 a sublime descent. Here it’s a climb. The first couple of miles, until you enter Mt. Tam State Park, is built up and busy—the only miles of the loop I didn’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.
At the intersection with Pantoll Rd., there’s an unmissable summit and you 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.
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.
Ryan below suggests going the other way at the top of Muir Woods Road and descending the stretch of Hwy 1 between the Panoramic Highway and Muir Beach. It is 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. 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’re looking for 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.