Category Archives: Monterey Bay

Eureka Canyon Road/Highland Way

Distance: 41-mile loop
Elevation gain: 3220 ft

This is a staple Santa-Cruz-area ride. It’s an approximate square, and each leg is unlike the other three. The right side of the square is a mellow-to-moderate climb through some of the best redwood forests in the area—more precious now than ever, since most of the magnificent redwoods in our rides to the west have burned. The top leg rolls up and down through oak woods and along a sidehill. The left side is a Best of the Best descent on a serpentining, manicured thoroughfare. And the bottom is a flat cruise through the charming commercial cottages of downtown Soquel and Aptos. The stars are the climb and the descent. The two legs that get you from one to the other aren’t great but they’re worth riding.

(To see the map in a more user-friendly format, clip on the drop-down menu in the RWGPS box in the upper R and select “map.”)

You must ride this route counter-clockwise—otherwise you’ll be swapping a great descent and a great climb for a jarring descent and a long tedious slog. You can begin this route anywhere, but I suggest you start somewhere along the Soquel-to-Corralitos leg, so you have some flattish riding to warm up your legs on before the 10 miles of climbing that begins in Corralitos. Our map begins at the corner of Freedom Blvd. and Day Valley Rd., which gives you 5 miles of flat to warm up on. But in truth the first few miles of the climb out of Corralitos are so mellow you could warm up on them. If you want to start in Aptos, the Safeway on Soquel Drive offers trouble-free parking. Wherever you start along that leg, ride Soquel Drive > Freedom > Corralitos Rd. to Corralitos.

Eureka Canyon Road

Freedom Blvd. is the worst part of the ride—a shoulder ride on a big, busy road. Gabriel below says you can dodge all of Freedom by taking Valencia Rd. > Day Valley Rd. > Hames Rd. to Corralitos, which I haven’t done yet but am looking forward to trying. It adds some climbing.

Corralitos is an intersection with a grocery store and a tiny park. Note the grocery store: it’s the Corralitos Market and Sausage Company, whose meat department serves an amazing assortment of spectacular made-in-house sausage sandwiches. If you’re a hot dog man, as I am, you’ll want to time the ride so you can eat here afterwards.

Eureka Canyon Road

Start up Eureka Canyon Rd. and climb for 9 uninterrupted miles of mellow to moderate. The woods along ECR are as good as any in the Santa Cruz area, which means they’re as good as anywhere, and you’re riding along a sweet little creek, which always ups the prettiness factor. The road surface starts out poor and steadily worsens, until near the top of the climb it’s awful, but about the time you’re wishing you hadn’t come you hit two stretches of brand-new (as of Spring 2022) pavement and all is well. Still, the pavement is bad enough that turning around and descending (or riding the route clockwise) is a bad idea, because you’d be in for a jarring, tooth-rattling descent. I did it once—never again. If they ever repave the entire road, it would be a marvelous descent.

After 9 miles of climbing, Eureka Canyon Rd. reaches an obvious summit and the road changes its name to Highland Way (clearly signed). Your work is mostly over. There are other roads at the summit, so make sure you find Highland.

Highland’s pavement is never very good, but it’s never as bad as what you’ve just ridden. The elevation profile is bowl-shaped. Highland begins with a long descent that the rough road surface keeps you from fully enjoying, and the microclimate is too high and too dry for the lush redwoods you’ve been riding through, but the new oak forest is still pretty. On any weekend you’ll probably pass mountain bikers going the other way, and at the bottom of the bowl you’ll see why—there’s a mountain bike trailhead there, and on the Sunday I rode through there were about 60 cars. From there to the far end of the road you’ll have company from the mountain bikers’ vehicles coming and going, but they understand you and are civil.

Climb up the other side of the bowl (it’s pretty easy). You’re now riding mellow rollers on the sidehill of a large canyon (apparently Soquel Creek Canyon) on your L, and some of the views of the canyon below and ahead of you are pretty good. Ride through a confusing 4-way intersection where the two roads to L and R are signed (Spanish Ranch Road and Mt. Bache) and your road, which is sorta straight ahead, isn’t. The two miles from this intersection to the end of Highland at Soquel-San Jose Rd. are perhaps the sweetest riding on the loop, a gracefully curving 30-mph descent on good pavement on a small road through lovely woods. You’ll want it to last forever, but watch for Soquel-San Jose Rd. going off to your L. in the middle of the bliss—for such a major artery, it’s surprisingly hard to see. There is only one sign, and it’s small. Go L onto SSJR. (Highland continues but changes its name to Summit at the intersection, in case you’re wondering.). We descend SSJR on our Bean Creek/Mt. Charlie route, so you can read about it there, but it’s a glassy-smooth, ripping banshee ride you’ll dream about later.

Eureka Canyon Road

SSJR drops you in the small town of Soquel, where you pick up Soquel Drive, the surface road paralleling Hwy 1, and follow it through Soquel and Aptos and out the other side. This is all through solidly built-up commercial stuff, which sounds at best tedious and at worst dangerous, but these communities are small, charming, and cozy, the vibe is mellow and tranquil, and the ride is pleasant—a perfect cool-down after the high drama of Eureka Canyon, Highland, and Soquel-San Jose. You pass numerous places to resupply or dine (I recommend Zameen Cuisine in Aptos) if you decide to pass on the Corralitos Market and Sausage Co. Ride back to wherever you parked.

Eureka Canyon Road

Shortening the route: as I mentioned, this is a hard route to shorten. Eureka Canyon Rd. and Soquel-San Jose Rd. have serious drawbacks as out-and-backs, and neither Soquel Drive nor Highland Way is a good enough ride to justify riding it only. The best you can do is ride 6-7 miles up ECR and turn around before the road surface gets seriously bad.

Adding miles: This is Santa Cruz, so good riding is all around you. On Soquel-San Jose Rd. you’re momentarily on our Alma Bridge/Old Santa Cruz Hwy Plus and Mt. Charlie routes. See the Monterey Bay section of the Regions page for an intro to the other riches nearby.

Near the end of Highland on our route you intersect with Mt. Bache Rd., reputed to be a short (0.9 mi.), steep, and delightful climb dead-ending at Loma Prieta Way/Ave., which I haven’t ridden but looks on Streetview to be little more than a coarsely paved path with great vistas, eventually turning to dirt.

Several readers have praised Hazel Dell Rd., which can be reached from Corralitos via Browns Valley Rd. It’s an easy add-on. I found it pleasant. It will take you to Mt. Madonna Rd., a major climb that comes highly recommended.

Soquel-San Jose Road

Alma Bridge Road/Old Santa Cruz Hwy Plus

Distance: 27-mile lollipop
Elevation gain: 3100 ft

This outstanding route offers a variety of Santa-Cruz-area environments: rollers through open country, fast serpentining through splendid redwood forest, grand isolation over broken pavement and dirt, and moderate climbing on big, busy roads. There isn’t a bad mile in it. You cover 6 different roads, but the unmissable jewel is Old Santa Cruz Hwy, which is magnificent both climbing and descending. The entire ride is east of the great burn, so the woods are undamaged, and they’re as good as any in the area now that Big Basin has burned.

(To see the map in a more user-friendly format, clip on the drop-down menu in the RWGPS box in the upper R and select “map.”)

Take the Alma Bridge exit off Hwy 17 (accessible from the south only), drive to the Lexington Reservoir County Park, and park there. There is no roadside parking between Hwy 17 and the park. There is a fee, but there is free parking in the dirt across the road from the park.

Ride down Alma Bridge Rd. It’s a wide two-lane roller, up and down on good new chipseal along the open sidehill paralleling the reservoir. Very nice riding. At the intersection with the improbably named Aldercroft Heights Rd., go R, cross the unremarkable eponymous Alma Bridge, and ride the short leg to Old Santa Cruz Hwy. Go L at the intersection with OSCH and begin the steady, easy climb up to Summit Rd.

Alma Bridge Road, and the iconic Santa Cruz “Newt Crossing” road sign

This is as perfect a stretch of cycling road as I can imagine. The pavement is glass, the traffic is light, the trees are awesome, and the road contour is a perfect meander you’ll appreciate even more on the return descent. Savor this.

At Summit Rd. go straight across onto the unsigned (I think) continuation of OSCH. You are now going to drop without interruption for 3.8 miles, 3 miles of which is on fragments of pavement, rough dirt, and gravel. If you don’t want to do this (and I’m not implying you should), turn around and ride home.

Old Santa Cruz Highway

Assuming we’re continuing on: The pavement is lousy from the moment you leave Summit. Shortly after starting down OSCH, take the clearly-signed Schulties Rd. to the L and descend to the creek. The road surface is chattery and can’t be called fun, but I did it on 25 mm racing tires and had no problems other than sore hands from braking constantly. I definitely wouldn’t want to ride up it.

Schulties Road

The perks here are the forest and the isolation. The woods are dense, pristine, silent, and entirely empty of people. I love that stuff. Your mileage may vary.

Incidentally, when I was researching the ride I got reports on Schulties that ranged from 1) it’s a piece of cake to 2) it’s rough but doable to 3) it’s brutally rough and you’ll regret it to 4) it’s unrideable to 5) it’s blocked by landslides and impassable. The truth is #2. It is closed to cars, according to the sign, but any car could navigate it, while having little fun doing so.

At the bottom of Schulties, the pavement returns (and is unproblematic to the end of the road), there is a little group of houses called Laurel on maps, and there is an intersection, with your way, Redwood Lodge Rd., clearly signed. It’s hard to trust the sign, because it’s almost an 180-degree turn, but trust it anyway. Somewhere around this intersection it is reported that one can see one of the adits to one of the four defunct tunnels on the old train route from San Jose to Santa Cruz. The tunnels have been dynamited but the adits remain–a thing of much historical interest. I missed it.

Redwood Retreat

Redwood Lodge Rd. drops briefly, crosses the creek, then begins the climb up the other side with a ferocious little pitch. Fear not—since most of the descending on Schulties is recovered by climbing on Soquel-San Jose and Summit later, the climb out of the canyon on RLR is (after that one scare) moderate and short. Very pretty, but slightly less isolated than Schulties because it services the population of Laurel.

RLR deadends at Soquel-San Jose Rd., the road we ride down in the Bean Creek Etc. ride and the Eureka Canyon Etc. ride. Now we go up (L). It’s pleasant climbing through a garden-like landscape with fairly steady traffic on a reliable shoulder back up to Summit Rd. As you approach Summit, there is a sweet-looking little cut-off on our L, Merrill, which will let you skip some of Summit if you’re willing to add some climbing to your total.

Take Summit Rd. to the L and ride 3 miles (assuming you didn’t take Merrill) of shoulder back to Old Santa Cruz. These 3 miles may be tediously pleasant or hellish, depending on the traffic level and the temperament of the individual drivers on your day, but it’s mostly moderate rollers and it passes quickly. Summit is largely built-up commercial, and it’s the nearest thing to slog on the ride.

Old Santa Cruz Highway

Go R on OSCH and get ready for one of the great descents. As I said, the surface is glass, the road is almost entirely empty of cars, the scenery is awesome, the road contour is perfectly designed for fast slaloming, and the pitch is just steep enough for serious speed without much braking. Wow. When I did it there was a pair of cyclists who seemed to be riding it over and over. I totally get that.

You’re moving fast so watch for the turn-off on the R to get you back onto Alma Bridge Rd. It’s very large and signed “Aldercroft Heights Rd.” Take it back to AMR and ride home.

Shortening the route: Ride Old Santa Cruz Hwy out and back. For a few more miles, add Alma Bridge Road.

Adding miles: You’re in the Santa Cruz area, so riches abound. The Soquel-San Jose and Summit legs are part of our Bean Creek/Mountain Charlie loop and the Soquel-San Jose leg is part of our Eureka Canyon/Highland Way ride, though in the other direction. At the intersection of Old Santa Cruz Hwy and Summit you’re a short ride from the top of our Zayante Rd. ride, which bottoms out near our Felton Empire ride. And so on.

Monterey Bike Trail

Distance: 28.5 miles out and back
Elevation gain: 712 ft

Normally I avoid bike trails and municipal trails like poison, because they’re claustrophobic. But there are 4 bike trails that I know of that are so fine that they transcend their genre: the Willamette River Trail in Eugene, the American River Bike Trail in Sacramento, the Coyote Creek Trail in San Jose, and this one. As with most multi-use trails, the pace here is often slow and the experience is more akin to strolling/ambling/sight-seeing than hammering, but at least half of the route here is far from Monterey proper, largely deserted, and suitable for hard time-trialing if that’s what you seek. And the scenery is excellent: one part rocky coast, one part Monterey harbor, and one part lonely sand dunes. The elevation numbers say it’s dead flat, but it really isn’t (RidewithGPS says 975 ft), and if you hit the rolling dunes hard you can get a workout.

The curse of municipal paths is crowds, and the third of this route that goes through the Aquarium-Cannery Row neighborhood can be downright unpleasant if crowded. (“Hell is other people”—Sartre). As always, I would avoid weekend midday if I could. But my last ride was Friday at 11 AM in July, and other users were never a problem.

Rec trails are meant for rec riders, and if you’re one, you may want to rent a bike. Monterey has you covered. Adventures by the Sea has no less than 3 rental shops along the one-mile stretch of the Trail by Cannery Row. If it’s been a while, rent an e-bike.

Like many rec trails, this one goes by many names. I’ve seen it called the Monterey Peninsula Recreational Trail, the Monterey Bike Trail, and the Monterey Bay Coastal Trail. It’s also a leg of the Monterey Bay Sanctuary Scenic Trail, a monumental project that is in the works and dreams of eventually running from Lover’s Point to Wilder Ranch, a few miles west of Santa Cruz—c. 55 miles!

The bike path proper starts at Lover’s Point, but west of there the coast is stunning (better than the Seventeen Mile Drive to the south), so I like to start where Sunset Drive meets the coast, by Asilomar State Beach, so I can ride as much of it as possible. Parking is easy, either as curbside parking along Sunset Drive, at Asilomar State Beach, or on any of the side roads going inland from Sunset.

From Asilomar State Beach to Lover’s Point is conventional street, with ocean on one side and charming houses on the other. Almost immediately Sunset Drive changes its name to Ocean View Blvd, and no road was more accurately named. Take the time to drink in the view from the turn-outs (the best of which is the John Denver Memorial, near the spot where his plane crashed into the bay), and fantasize how sweet it would be to live in one of those houses. Keep your eyes peeled for sea otters, the mascots of Monterey, lying on their backs in the swell eating shellfish. A tiny detour will take you by the Point Pinos Lighthouse (not spectacular) and a moderately old cemetery, if you’re into those.

Pacific Grove coastline

From Lover’s Point the ride is on multi-use municipal path. The first leg is right past the Aquarium and along the backside of Cannery Row, so we’re talking constant street crossings and dodging of tourists on foot and in those rental pedal surreys. If you can let it be what it is, it can be fun. If you can’t, it’s brief. Obviously there is endless trinket shopping and junk food eating to be done on Cannery Row, and a smattering of interesting historical buildings with informative lectures accessed by your phone.

Soon you’re past Cannery Row and riding through the wharf district, much more my cup of tea. There are three wharfs. The first is just a marina, so you’re only interested in the second and third. The second is Old Fisherman’s Wharf—think Santa Cruz Boardwalk without the rides. It’s straight out of the Fifties, an unpretentious mix of hoke, fish restaurants, and, and penny-crushing machines. The third, a stone’s throw further along, is the Municipal Wharf, a real working wharf with fishing boats off-loading their catch. Everyone there is busy working, but no one has ever shooed me away.

The area surrounding the wharfs is a wonderful place full of sailboats, crepe restaurants, barking sea lions, small art museums, bicycle rental shops, and such. This is the place to sit, eat lunch, and people-watch. You’re a block from a world-class French bakery, the Paris Bakery Cafe, if you forgot to bring a sandwich or dessert.

From the dunes looking back on Monterey

This area also has one of the best preserved and best presented collections of early California buildings anywhere. Most tourists never know it’s there, and it certainly keeps a low profile, but if you’re interested in the history of California before statehood it’s not to be missed. Even if you aren’t, the flower gardens in the courtyards adjacent to the buildings are lovely, soothing, and deserted. Start in either the Pacific House Museum or the Custom House (the latter the only preserved building you’re likely to notice passing through), and let the docents turn you on to the riches that surround you. If you don’t want to interrupt your ride for long, ten minutes in the Custom House is still time well-spent.

Looking north over the Fort Ord Dunes

Immediately past the Wharf area the bike path enters some trees, and for the rest of the ride you’re in relatively undevel-oped Nature. Walkers and vacation cyclists quickly thin out and you’re alone with the other serious cyclists. Incredibly, there is one place where you’re liable to get off course: 7 miles in, there’s an unobtrusive hard L onto a little ess-curve climb. You want it—it takes you out of the city and onto the coastal dunes. If you miss it (like I did), the main path dumps you out unceremoniously at the intersection of Hwy 218 and Del Monte Blvd, at which point you must go L and ride Hwy 218 (not pleasant but doable) west until it returns you to the bike path.

The one other place you might get lost is Tioga Ave., where you have to leave the path, ride through a parking lot behind some big-box stores, and return to the path, all semi-well-marked. Look at our route map and you’ll get it.

Once you reach the dunes, it’s all dunes to the turn-around. This leg is why the ride is in Bestrides. The rest of the route has its charms, but this to me is unique. Rolling sand hills topped with ground cover, with vistas of surf for miles to the south and north and Monterey across the bay, with some interesting remnants of Fort Ord’s military presence here and there, and no one but other riders and few of them.

At Mile 10 there’s a noticeable road 90 degrees to your L, with a large, visible sign 50 ft down it. Ride to the sign and read it, which tells you you are now entering the Fort Ord Dunes section of the afore-mentioned Sanctuary Trail. From the sign, take the road on your R (north), which parallels the main trail for 4.1 miles and is called “Beach Range Road” on maps. This is a hugely superior alternative to the main path, because it’s further from Highway 1, much more isolated, quieter, and hillier. Ride to the end of Beach Range Road, our turn-around spot. There you can jump over to the main path and ride it back if you hate retracing your steps, but Beach Range Road is still a better ride and I suggest you stay on it for the return trip.

Shortening the ride: it all depends on what experience you seek. Coastal surf and tide pools?—do the Pacific Grove leg. Urban bustle?—do the Monterey wharf leg. Isolated dunes?—do the Fort Ord leg. I’d opt for the last, but it’s up to you.

Adding miles: Our starting point is 1/4 mile from the start of our Seventeen-Mile Drive ride.

The Monterey Bike Path continues on from our turn-around point, but it’s an unrewarding slog on the shoulder of busy, straight roads.

North Rodeo Gulch Road

Distance: 11 miles out and back
Elevation gain: 1045 ft

I run the risk of having too many Santa Cruz rides in Bestrides, but this one is charming, different from the others, and hard to find on one’s own.  It’s not a great ride, but it’s a nice little one.  It’s officially N. Rodeo Gulch Road, and South Rodeo Gulch Road is directly across the street from its southern end, but people (and most maps) just call it Rodeo Gulch.

For Santa Cruz, It’s a dry landscape

How is it different from the other SC rides?  First, there are almost no redwoods.  The scenery is very good, but it’s not OMG awe-inspiring like the others.  The ecosystem is dry, so the woods are eucalyptus and great, gnarly oaks.  And it isn’t all along a creek at the bottom of a canyon in the dark—you work your way up a gulch and break out on the top of a largely open hill where there are (unheard of in SC) clear skies and actual vistas (not impressive vistas, but vistas).  And it isn’t all up and down—the top of the hill and the first miles at the southern end are essentially flat.  You won’t even rack 100 ft/mile.  Consider it a recovery ride.  Yet you’ll do enough work to feel like you rode your bike.  If you want more miles, it’s easy to add on (see Adding Miles).

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Felton Empire Road/Empire Grade

Distance: 23 miles out and back
Elevation gain: 3260 ft

(A Best of the Best ride)
(A Best of the Best descent)

(Note: This route and the surrounding area were badly damaged by the terrible fires of 2020.  Expect major fire damage to the forest.)

Let me lay my cards on the table.  This ride is in Bestrides because of 3.7 miles—the length of Felton Empire Road.  Since few Bestrides users are interested in going for a 7.4-mile ride, I’ve added some worthwhile miles to make a day of it, but it’s those 3.7 that really matter.

There are two roads that run parallel north/south through the region northwest of Santa Cruz: Hwy 9 and Empire Grade.  Hwy 9 is a beautiful road but the main artery through the region and is very heavily trafficked with no shoulder—to be avoided except when necessary as a connector.  Empire Grade is much less developed and much less busy, and is a staple bike route for Santa Cruzans, but it’s tamer, bigger, and straighter than the real Santa Cruz back roads and thus lacks that sense of being IN the redwood forest that makes SC riding so special.  It would be a great ride anywhere else, but it’s not near the top of my SC ride list.

Felton Empire Road

These two roads are connected by three roads of interest to cyclists: Felton Empire, Alba, and Jamison Creek.  All three are short (3-4 miles), steep, windy, and gorgeous.  Felton Empire is fairly steep, and Jamison Creek and Alba are very steep (slightly under 10% average).  Locals insist that Jamison is steeper than Alba.  If you want a vertical challenge, go for either one.  Hint: Jamison Creek is shorter (3 miles to 3.7 miles), but it begins with about a mile of low-key climbing so it packs all the hurt in the last 2 miles, and it’s rougher.  Both roads are too steep to be fun descents, and Jamison is downright awful.  So if we’re looking for a ride that’s rewarding up and down, the choice is Felton Empire, a testing but totally rideable climb and absolutely as good a descent as there is on this Earth.  Since there is a fog line between Boulder Creek and Felton, Felton Empire Road and Alba are wetter, therefore lusher/prettier, than Jamison Creek.

At the top of Felton Empire you can go three ways, and they’re all good.  But two of them, Ice Cream Grade (straight ahead) and Empire downhill (L), are part of the Bonny Doon/Empire Grade ride, so I’ve mapped this ride to go R, uphill on Empire, to its end, then back.

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San Juan Canyon Road

Distance: 22 miles out and back
Elevation gain: 2700 ft

(A Best of the Best ride)

Bestrides has three rides in the Hollister area, San Juan Grade Road, Lone Tree Road, and this one.  This is the best of the three.  It’s a conventional climb-out-descend-back ride through varied, dramatic, and beautiful  terrain (in the spring), with a mountaintop, a simple State Park, and a stunning view westward at the turn around.

The image of Hollister is hot, dusty, dead flat agricultural fields and a culture stuck in 1955.  Some of that is true.  Hollister is hot and dry in the summer, and cold and dead in the winter, so I would try hard to schedule my riding for late spring (April) after some rain, when the grass is green and the area is momentarily a gorgeous, lush garden.  The town of Hollister and the surrounding agricultural valleys (Santa Ana Valley and San Juan Valley) are pancake flat, but they’re surrounded by small, rolling hills rich with meandering roads offering ideal riding contour.  The three Bestrides rides from the area all have substantial climbing.  As to the culture, Hollister is not especially hip, but it’s a pleasant, easy-going town, and San Juan Bautista 6 miles away is a small Old California treasure with a grand Spanish mission and adjacent historical State Park well worth an afternoon.

Hollister in April would be a cycling mecca were it not for one thing: the road surfaces in San Benito County typically vary from poor to awful.  This ride is the best in the area, and it’s still poor.   If they’d repave the road, this would be a Best of the Best ride.

The elevation numbers (2700 ft in 22 miles) suggest a fairly hard climb, but the climb is actually harder than the numbers suggest.  There is little elevation gain in the first and last miles, so the bulk of the 2700 ft is gained in a 3.5-mile stretch, which translates to lots of 8-11% stuff.

Fremont Peak State Park, your destination, seems to be largely unvisited, so the traffic is next to nothing—both times I’ve done it, on beautiful weekday midday in spring, I saw perhaps 6 cars in the 22 miles, and there was one car in the Park parking lot.

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San Juan Grade Road

Distance: 18 miles out and back
Elevation gain: 1700 ft

A few words about riding around Hollister generally:

First, the image of the Hollister area is hot, dusty, dead flat agricultural fields and a culture stuck in 1955.  Some of that is true.  Hollister is hot and dry in the summer, and cold and dead in the winter, so I would try hard to schedule my riding for late spring (April) after some rain, when the grass is green and the area is momentarily a gorgeous, lush garden.  The town of Hollister and the surrounding agricultural valleys (Santa Ana Valley and San Juan Valley) are flat, but they’re surrounded by small, rolling hills rich with meandering roads offering ideal riding contour.  The three Bestrides rides from the area all have substantial climbing.  As to the culture, Hollister is not especially hip, but it’s a pleasant, easy-going town, and San Juan Bautista is a small Old California treasure with a grand Spanish mission and adjacent historical State Park well worth an afternoon.

Second, the road surfaces in San Benito County vary from poor to awful.  You just have to live with it (or ride somewhere else).  The one exception is our San Juan Canyon Road ride, where the surface is OK.  If for no other reason, that makes San Juan Canyon Road the best ride in the area.  I’d do it first, then this one, unless you don’t want to work.

San Juan Grade: very pretty country (in April)

San Juan Grade Road is an relatively easy (1900 ft in 9 miles of up) climb and descent over a low pass, then a return climb and descent back to your starting point in the town of San Juan Bautista.  It’s a “highway” in name only, since it’s a back route to Salinas (on various mapping sites it’s labeled “Salinas Highway,” “Hwy 3,” or “Salinas Road”) and almost all traffic takes the modern multi-lane.  In 22 miles I saw 9 vehicles.  

The wooded north side

The north and south sides of the summit pass are about equal in climbing effort but radically different in character: the north side is mostly wooded, through very pretty, riparian oak forest with a very poor road surface (see above); the south side is all fine vistas of open,  rolling grasslands dotted bucolically with picturesque cows and of Salinas in the distance, with a surprisingly good road surface, viz., it’s not terrible (there’s a distinct line across the road where the surface suddenly improves).   It’s still bad enough to put a slight damper on the otherwise swell descent.  Descending the north side is borderline misery.  Both sides serpentine pleasantly, not a moment of the climbing is strenuous, and the scenery is consistently charming and human-free (in April—see above).   A very pretty little ride.

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East Carmel Valley Road/Cachagua Road

Distance: 61 miles out and back
Elevation gain: 5860 ft

(A Best of the Best ride)

This is a fairly big, pretty ride through two lush valleys and over three moderate summits. The cumulative elevation gain is substantial, but except for those three ascents the climbing is pretty mellow.

East Carmel Valley Road is the name of Carmel Valley Road east of Carmel Valley Village.  You could add miles by riding the first 11.5 miles of CVR, starting at Hwy 1, but it’s all 4-lane, fast, aggressive, over-developed, trafficky shoulder riding.  Pretty unpleasant, and, while the scenery is nice, it’s nothing compared to what’s on our route.  East of the Village the valley narrows, the valley walls steepen, the traffic lessens and slows down, the people thin out, the foliage gets denser, wetter, and prettier, and the road dwindles until it’s finally a centerline-less, shoulderless back road of exceptional beauty and charm.  The road surface varies from good to poor, often poor enough to be a hamper on your riding pleasure.

Traffic is an issue here.  Traffic isn’t heavy (3 cars/mile perhaps on a Friday afternoon in spring), but local drivers are hostile and impatient.  Sightlines and passing lanes are poor and there’s no shoulder.  So timing is everything.  The last time I did the ride, on a beautiful Sunday midday in spring, I saw 1 car in 15 miles.  Traffic lightens the further east you go, and, as always, the worst time for traffic seems to be 4-5 pm.

Cachagua Road (which means “place of grass” in—you guessed it—Mapudungun) is an alternate to 12 miles of CVR which takes off from it, crosses into the parallel valley to the south, rides along the valley, then climbs and descends the tall ridge that now separates the two valleys and returns to CVR.  It’s as pretty as CVR at CVR’s best, it’s quieter, smaller, and windier, and the road surface is better, so you definitely want to take it unless you’re tired and want to get home as easily as possible.  It adds about 4 miles and one substantial climb to the route.

Calvin, in the comments below, makes the point that there are no water sources on this ride.  So you’re looking at a long day without a refill.  You may have to drop a water bottle at the Tassajara Rd. intersection or knock on some doors.  Except for the leg from the summit to Arroyo Seco, the entire route is largely in forested shadow, however.
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Bean Creek/Mtn. Charlie/Soquel-San Jose

Distance:  34-mile loop
Elevation gain: 3560 ft 

A Best of the Best ride

This is a fairly big, kitchen-sink sort of ride designed to bag five of Santa Cruz’s prime cycling roads, one of which is the area’s only high-speed luge descent and one of my favorite descents anywhere. The route can easily be chopped into smaller pieces in lots of ways.   It’s all up and down, like most of Santa Cruz riding, and it has some steep moments, but those moments never last.  My computer recorded 4000 ft of gain in 34 miles, which is a lot, but you’ll wonder where the 4000 ft are coming from—it doesn’t feel that bad.  The route sports incredible variety—the road contour changes every 25-50 yards—and it’s almost all stunningly gorgeous.

Most of this route has houses but not much else, so if you want to reprovision and don’t like knocking on strangers’ doors, there are stores halfway down Summit Rd. and at the intersection of Soquel-San Jose Rd. and Laurel Glen Rd. (and of course in Scott’s Valley).

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Big Basin

Distance:  34-mile lollipop 
Elevation gain: 4520 ft 

Best of the Best ride (on weekdays only)

This is another ride suggested by Friend-of-Bestrides Brian.

(Note 8/20: Big Basin and much of the Santa Cruz area was devastated by forest fires in September of 2020.  The Visitor Center was destroyed.  The large trees are thought to have survived, but the damage was extensive.  Hwy 236 through the Park was closed for many months but has recently (7/22) reopened.)

The Big Basin area is just north of our other Santa Cruz area rides and has much in common with them: beautiful, lush woods, good road surfaces, constant variety and interest in the road contour, and lots of vertical.  But the main appeal here is the redwoods.  The Big Basin redwoods are second-growth, so they rarely overwhelm you with sheer enormity like those of the Avenue of the Giants ride (there are a few behemoths around the Visitor Center), but they’re gorgeous nonetheless, and the descending on this route is far better than on any of our other redwoods rides, except for Felton Empire/Empire Grade (there is a list of Redwoods rides on the Best of the Best page).   This route has three really nice descents (including one that is as nice as descending gets), and the climbing to earn them is all remarkably mellow except for a mile or two of China Grade—don’t let Mapmyride’s rather intimidating elevation total scare you off.  And, as an extra-special bonus, in 10/16 all of Hwy 236 was repaved, so the road surface is perfect—as good as I’ve ever seen.

This is a State Park ride, which means traffic.  Expect the road to be unpleasantly busy with cars and motorcycles on weekends, even in winter.  This is a ride you really want to do on a weekday if at all possible—hence the conditional Best of the Best rating.  On a weekend day in January I saw 80 cars on the road; on a weekday two weeks later I saw 6.  Seven AM on a weekday is even better.

(To see an interactive version of the map/elevation profile, click on the ride name, upper left, wait for the new map to load, then click on the “full screen” icon, upper right.)

Start at the intersection of Hwy 9 and Hwy 236.  There’s a nice, wide dirt turn-out for parking on Hwy 9 just before the intersection.  Ride up Hwy 9 (which you probably just came down in your car) to Saratoga Gap, at the intersection of Hwy 9 and Skyline Boulevard.  It’s all up for six miles through pleasant woods and past a couple of nice vistas of receding ridges.  I usually avoid starting a ride with a climb, but it’s a mellow climb the entire way (1500 ft gain in 6 miles), so it’s easy to soft-pedal until you’re warm.  If you’re worried about the total elevation gain you could do the Big Basin loop first, then decide if you want to do the Hwy 9 out and back.   You could also start at Saratoga Gap and do the Hwy 9 descent first thing, if you don’t mind ending the ride with a 6-mile climb—there’s a big, formal paved parking area at Saratoga Gap if you do.  The traffic on Hwy 9 is the worst on the route, and I’d seriously consider skipping it if it’s a weekend.  

Big Basin redwoods—look at that road surface!

At Saratoga Gap turn around and return to your car—the first of our three fine descents.  Since it was mellow going up, it’s mellow going down—not a hair-raising, white-knuckle thrill ride, but a graceful, lovely slalom with big, sweeping turns that never send you to your brakes.  Literally (and I mean literally) you will never have to touch your brakes in the 6 miles unless you’re hammering and hit the infrequent corners signed “25 mph” at more than 30 mph.   Otherwise it’s a constant, easy 25-30 mph drop. 

China Grade

China Grade

Just past your car, go straight at the intersection onto 236 towards Big Basin State Park (there’s a sign).  You’ll be in beautiful redwood forest and on deliciously serpentining road for the rest of the ride.  Ride to the State Park Visitor Center via a moderate climb followed by a descent (our second of three) that is one of the best descents in   At the Visitor Center there are nice bathrooms, water, a store that serves food, guided hikes, 4-5 very big redwoods, and a fee if you want to stay.  If you want to go for an easy walk and get closer to the trees, there’s a flat .7-mile loop right from the Visitor Center that goes by some of the biggest trees in the park.

The non-redwoods are gorgeous too

The non-redwoods are gorgeous too

Leaving the Visitor Center, ride through what I think are the prettiest of the trees, then climb moderately to the summit (at the intersection of Big Basin Way, Little Basin Rd., and Old Big Basin R., curiously enough), then descend to the L turn onto China Grade.

The China Grade turn is signed but hard to see.  Watch for it going sharply L (about 7 o’clock) after you’ve ridden through a couple of unmissable descending hairpins (the first marked only by a “20 MPH” sign for warning) and the road goes almost flat for the first time in the ride.  China Grade is short, scenically primeval, in places dauntingly steep (the only hard climbing on the ride), and cursed with impressively horrible road surface, but it isn’t long, and it’s blissfully tranquil, which you’ll be craving if you’ve been fighting the weekend traffic.  Stop several times to drink in the solitude.  The pitch may make you stop anyway.  Adding Miles shows you how to skip it if you’re saving your legs.

Big redwoods by the Visitor Center

When China Grade T’s into 236, turn R and ride back to your car.  First you do a short climb, a short descent, a climb, then the third of our descents, and it’s an absolute rip-snorter, over too soon.  On a weekend assume you will meet cars.

The loop is rideable in the other direction.  It means you’ll come down China Grade, which is a pain, and the 2-mile descent from the Little Basin Rd./Old Big Basin Rd. intersection to the Visitor Center isn’t nearly as good as the descent from our side, though still excellent.

Shortening the route: Skip the Hwy 9 out-and-back.  Even shorter: start at the Big Basin Visitor Center and ride the loop.

Vista point on Hwy 9: the only open view on the ride

Looking south toward Santa Cruz: only the Hwy 9 leg has vistas

Adding miles:  If you stay on 236 past the China Grade turn-off, in a few easy miles you’ll end up in the pleasant small town of Boulder Creek, where you can reprovision, then loop back to your car via Hwy 9. This lets you avoid the steep pitches of China Grade.  Hwy 9 has a much gentler pitch than China Grade and is a lovely stretch of road, but it’s much busier and without shoulder (though 3/4 of the traffic turns off Hwy 9 at Bear Creek Rd).

If you love the descent into the Big Basin Visitor Center (and you will), there’s a loop you can add to our route that will let you do it a second time.  From the Visitor Center, ride into the main parking lot and take the unmissable road on your R, splendidly called North Escape Road.  It meanders through more gorgeous redwoods along pavement that is often shabby or worse for 3 miles and returns to Hwy 236 at the top of the descent back to the Visitor Center.  The isolation is priceless once you pass the “additional parking” lot. The road is more or less flat for 2 miles, then 8-10% for the last mile (500 ft gain).  Ignore all maps (and there are many) that show NER as dead-ending or turning to dirt—it does neither.  It is, however, gated off, which should not deter you.

From Boulder Creek you can easily connect to all the other great Santa Cruz riding (see the Monterey Bay section of the Rides by Region for a list of the good roads in the area).

Afterthoughts: In Boulder Creek, the Foster’s Freeze at the south end of town on the main street is run by the nicest man in the world.  Three more miles down Hwy 9 in Ben Lomond is the best Italian bakery outside of Italy, La Placa.