Category Archives: Monterey Bay

East Carmel Valley Road

Distance: 57 miles out and back
Elevation gain: 4985 ft

Sometimes part of the joy of a ride is knowing what you’re avoiding.  So it is with East Carmel Valley Road, where part of the pleasure is in knowing you aren’t riding the west end.  The first 11.5 miles of CVR, starting at Hwy 1, is 4-lane, fast, aggressive, over-developed, trafficky shoulder riding.  Basic hell.  But as you move upstream the valley narrows, the valley walls steepen, the traffic lessens and slows down (somewhat), 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.

There is a serpent in paradise.  Traffic isn’t heavy (3 cars/mile perhaps on a Friday afternoon in spring), but Monterey-area drivers drive like they’ve had way too much coffee.  They honk at you and pass hostilely if you’re driving only a little over the speed limit, and they make it clear that cyclists are keeping them from some very important appointment.  Sightlines and passing lanes on this road are poor and there’s no shoulder, but the cars will pass you anyway, and blame you for the danger they’re putting themselves and you in.  It’s hard on your tranquillity.  Try for the first or last hours in the day.  Friends who know the road better than I do assure me I just caught a bad traffic day.

Mapmyride gives an elevation gain of 5000 ft, pretty formidable, but most of it is hardly noticeable, and you’ll work only twice—once at mile 10 on the way out, for a mile, and once on the way back, 3 miles of real work returning to the summit.  The road surface throughout is good but not great, so the descents are just chattery enough to be merely OK.  I wouldn’t do this ride for the descending.

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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 isn’t insignificant but also isn’t panic-worthy.  The route sports incredible variety—the road contour changes every 25-50 yards—and it’s almost all stunningly gorgeous.

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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 (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

Big Basin redwoods

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, guided hikes, some very big redwoods, and a fee if you want to stay.

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 and descend to the L turn onto China Grade.  It’s 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 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.

When China Grade T’s into 236, turn R and ride back to your car.  First you do a short 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.

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.

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 a delightful spot run by the nicest man in the world.

Lone Tree Road

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

This ride comes from FOB (Friend of Bestrides) Brian, who has forgotten more about cycling California back roads than I’ll ever know.  It’s hardly in Monterey Bay, but I refuse to create a new state region just for it.

I don’t want to over-sell this ride.  It’s fine.  It’s good.   It’s probably the best ride for thirty or forty miles in any direction, and part of my plan is to show you the best ride near you wherever you happen to find yourself in California or Oregon.   But it has some problems, and I wouldn’t drive great distances to ride it.  If you’re in Hollister and want to ride, do it.

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East Zayante Road

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

This is just another marvelous climbing back road in the hills above Santa Cruz.   It starts out climbing gently through rural houses, and continues to get steeper, narrower, more isolated, more densely wooded, and more gorgeous as it goes.   For the last five miles, the forest is as pretty as anything in our list.

The mudslides mentioned by Nibbles below are apparently now a thing of the past.

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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 climb and roll through Monterey pine forest, then do a fun, fast descent.   The twenty-million-dollar houses are actually pretty cool too, if you can forget the socio-political issues.   The road contour by the water is often delightful—up and down and back and forth—and the inland half of the loop has a significant climb and some very nice, fast descendingg.  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.

Presently (4/17) just beyond the Carmel gate turnoff there’s a large sign reading “No Bicycles Beyond This Point.”  Mari Lynch, whose Bicycling Monterey blog is an invaluable source of information about riding in the area, tells me it’s because of a round-about construction going on at the top of the hill.  As with all “road closed” signs, I’d ride until something stops me.

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Bonny Doon Road/Empire Grade

Distance: 21-mile lollipop
Elevation: 2680 ft

This strenuous little 20-miler climbs up from Hwy 1 and the ocean, then loops around to take in two classic back roads, all through picture-book Santa Cruz rainforest.  Bonny Doon itself is pretty famous because whenever the Tour of California comes down the coast from San Francisco to Santa Cruz it’s the climb where the winning move is made.   I watched Levi Leipheimer stick it to Mick Rogers and Dave Zabriskie on this climb one year on his way to the overall victory.

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Robinson Canyon Road

Distance: 19 miles out and back
Elevation gain: 2020 ft

(A Best of the Best ride)

This ride is dear to my heart.  It’s my flat-out favorite short out-and-back climb, anywhere.  It’s a perfect climb—varied, challenging, interesting—up a gorgeous wooded riparian draw to a dead-end, followed by an equally perfect descent back down.  Every foot of it is delicious, in both directions.  And it has the “added plus,” as the admen like to say, of being largely ignored, even though it begins in a densely populated area, because it’s a dead-end road to a private lake.   Expect to meet 3 cars and no bikes.

As of 5/17 a stretch of the upper road was being redone, with a partial road closure at the base of the climb, but the latest word is the road is now (9/17) fully open.

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