Category Archives: Monterey Bay

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 I really like this one.  It’s different from the others, and hard to find on one’s own.  Some rides just have a lot of charm—this is one.  It’s officially N. Rodeo Gulch Road, but no one knows there’s a South Rodeo Gulch Road and 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 descent

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

This is the best ride in the Hollister area, a conventional climb-out-descend-back ride through varied, dramatic, and beautiful  terrain (in April), 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.  The only exception I know of is this ride, which is one of the main reasons why it’s #1.   The surface isn’t great, but it’s good enough that you can actually enjoy the descending, which isn’t true about large portions of the other two Hollister rides in Bestrides.

The ride is harder than the elevation total suggests.  The first 4 miles are very mellow and only net you 500 ft of gain, and the last 3 miles are easy rolling, which leaves you with 2400 ft (by my computer) in the 4 miles in between.  Those 4 miles get gradually steeper as you go, so the last 2 miles are serious work.  Fremont Peak State Park, your destination, seems to be largely unvisited, so the traffic is next to nothing—on a beautiful weekday midday in April I saw perhaps 6 cars in the 22 miles on a lovely spring weekday, 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 Fremont Peak ride, where the surface is OK.  If for no other reason, that makes Fremont Peak 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

This is a pretty big, gorgeous ride through two lush valleys and over three summits.  It includes three substantial climbs, but I think Mapmyride’s elevation gain total is over-kill—you’ll do some work, but it’s only more than 7% for one stretch.  If you aren’t in the mood, there are alternate routes that cut out one or two of the climbs and turn the ride into a piece of cake while preserving a lot of the beauty—see “Shortening the Ride” below.

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.  Basic hell, and, while the scenery is pleasant, 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 just OK.

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.

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 no prettier than CVR, but it’s quieter, smaller, and windier, and the road surface is better.  If the traffic on CVR bothers you or if you live for long, beautiful climbs, you definitely want to take it.  If you’re tired and just want to roll home, you definitely don’t.  It adds about 4 miles and  one big climb to the route.
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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.

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, 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.


(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, and it’s uphill in the other direction, and steeper.  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 Bestrides.org.   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 get off the road, there’s an 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., 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 entirely rideable in the other direction.  It means you’ll come down China Grade, which is a pain, and you’ll get a sweet 2-mile descent from the Little Basin Rd./Old Big Basin Rd. intersection to the Visitor Center—a bit straighter and faster than the descent to the Center in our direction but still excellent.

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).

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.

Lone Tree Road

Distance: 21 miles out and back
Elevation gain: 2700 ft

A few words about riding around Hollister generally.

First, Hollister’s image 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 all vary from poor to awful.  You just have to live with it (or ride somewhere else).  The one exception is our Fremont Peak ride, where the surface is OK.

Lone Tree Road is a straight climb and descent out-and-back out of an agricultural valley up a draw into the surrounding hills surrounding.  It’s only the third or fourth best ride in the Hollister area, after Fremont Peak and San Juan Grade and perhaps Cienega Rd (see Adding Miles below).  The climb is challenging and harder than the total elevation gain suggests, since the first 3 miles are flat—more like, 3000 ft gain in 7 miles.  Expect a fair amount of 8-12% stuff. 

The ride has three drawbacks.   1) The road surface is poor (see above)—an irritant on the ride up, a serious impediment to joy on the descent.  The surface deteriorates as you ascend, so you could turn around if and when it gets unpleasant.  2) The scenery is all the same and a bit vanilla—grassy, rounded hills.  “Lone Tree Road” is a pretty accurate name.  I can imagine some people loving this landscape, but for me it’s just OK.  The scenery on our other two area rides (Fremont Peak and San Juan Grade) is much better.  Since there is next to no cover, I wouldn’t do this ride on a hot, sunny afternoon.  3) There is no summit, pass, or other “top of the world” culmination providing you with the grand vista—the road hits a gate before you summit and you turn around.

All that not withstanding, it’s still a good ride and worth doing.

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East Zayante Road

 Distance: 22 miles out and back
Elevation gain: 2750 ft

This is an out-and-back climber that starts out with a few miles of nearly flat among rural houses, and continues to get steeper, narrower, more isolated, more densely wooded, rougher, and prettier as it goes.   The woods are different from those of rides like Felton Empire and Big Basin—instead of mostly redwoods, you get a lot of bigleaf maples, so there’s a lot more light coming through, and at times it looks like the forest is on fire. There are two stretches that are hard work, but the rest is either next-to-flat or so varied in pitch as to keep you fresh and perky.

The downside is, the road surface deteriorates as you go, to a point where descending the way you went up is unpleasant, and, alas, there’s no simple alternative route down.  See the discussion at the end of the post.

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Seventeen-Mile Drive

Distance: 18-mile lollipop
Elevation gain: 900 ft

This ride is a lot like the Golden Gate Bridge loop—a complete chestnut, over-hyped and tourist-ridden.  Plus it’s all about money (you ride by Pebble Beach Golf Course, for god’s sake)—but, all that aside, it’s an utterly delightful bike ride.  Every time I do it, I wish I could live there so I could do it every day.  You ride by great oceanfront scenery, through lanes of coastal cypresses, do a nice little climb, roll through nearly unpopulated Monterey pine forest, then do a fun, fast descent, all of the best road surface money can buy.   The forty-million-dollar houses (no exaggeration) are actually pretty cool too, if you can forget the socio-political issues.

This isn’t just a scenic tourist stroll—the riding is outstanding.  The road contour on the west side is a delightful rollercoaster—up and down and back and forth—and the inland half of the loop is simply amazing—glassy smooth meandering, then a perfect, fast descent.  You’ll do some work—my computer recorded 1300 ft vert.   The traffic can be a bit noisome, granted, and if you can do the ride before 10 AM so much the better.  Of course you’d like to do the ride at sunset, but that’s when everyone else wants to be there too—the last time I did it at sunset, one parking area had four gigantic motor coaches disgorging tourists.

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