Category Archives: Northern California Inland

Scott River Road

Distance: 55 miles out and back
Elevation gain: 2650 ft

The land surrounding the Marble Mountains Wilderness Area may be the richest cycling region on the West Coast.  Almost every small road is pretty, interesting, mostly car-free, well-paved, not killer steep, and paved, at least in the main.  Loops are easy to construct.  The only drawback is there aren’t many communities up there, so you have to plan overnight stops carefully, unless you’re self-supporting.  The area is represented in Bestrides by two rides, Forks of Salmon and this one, but they’re the tip of a very rich iceberg—see Adding Miles to see the big picture.

This ride is representative of the area: smooth-surfaced, lightly trafficked, very pretty, and surprisingly easy.  It’s one of the easiest 55-mile rides I know.  It accompanies the Scott River for its entire length, so it’s gently downhill going out and gently uphill returning, but the difference is negligible—I rode out the 40-mile version (see below) in 2 hrs and back in 1.5 hrs.  The only noticeable hill is the last mile or so descending into Scott Bar, our turn-around spot, so if you’re really into mellow you can skip that, leaving you with nothing but constant gentle rollers, just enough to vary the riding experience without ever making it laborious or tedious.  You climb 2650 ft in 55 miles, which is less than half our sport’s norm for a climbing ride (100 ft per mile).  You could almost leave the granny gear at home.

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Covelo Road

Distance: 58 miles out and back
Elevation gain: 5844 ft

This ride was suggested by Friend of Bestrides Brian.

This is a good, solid ride.  I thoroughly enjoyed it, though it has no extraordinary features.  It’s got some nice rollers, a very pretty, flat stretch through a fairly dramatic river canyon, one fairly easy climb, one somewhat harder climb, and a totally unremarkable town, Covelo, at the turn-around.  It’s 10 miles down the road from my beloved Branscomb Rd. ride, and I wouldn’t do this one until I’d done that one.

It’s the only paved road by which Coveloans can leave town, and the river attracts lots of water seekers in the summer, so traffic can be substantial.  I recommend doing it early in the morning or sometime other than summer or both.  Anyway, the Eel River Canyon is prettier in early morning, before the sun gets high.  The seven-mile stretch from the Eel River Bridge to Dos Rios is the ride’s best scenery, and it’s essentially flat, which makes it a rarity in Bestrides.  The Mapyride elevation total gives the impression of a fairly laborious outing, but it’s actually a piece of cake.  The only time you’ll work is the 2-mile climb back to the summit from Covelo, and that’s only 6-7%.

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Bald Rock Road

Distance: 22 miles out and back
Elevation gain: 2385 ft

This is another of those “worthwhile if you’re in the area” rides.  It’s 22 miles of small two-lane back road through pretty but not extra-special Sierra foothill forest.  You pass through a small but bustling mountain community, Berry Creek, which unfortunately makes the first third of the route surprisingly trafficky for a foothill road.  You will do some work—I recorded 2400 ft of gain in the 11-mile ride out—but it’s never steep.

Two features elevate this ride above the perfectly pleasant.  First, rollers.  The road is all up and down, so much so that there is only a 1465-ft. difference in elevation from start to turn-around but 2400 ft of vert on the road (in other words, you nearly ride every vertical foot twice).  This has its charm.  It means the climbing on the ride out is constantly interrupted by little descents, and on the ride back the descending comes in short, fast runs interrupted by short risers, so about the time you think you have to brake the contour does it for you.  The riding experience is ever-changing.

Second: Bald Rock, the greatest rock formation the world has never heard of (see photos at the end of this post).  Take slippers or sandals and plan to get off the bike and explore—you will be enchanted.

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Paskenta Loop

Distance: 52-mile lollipop
Elevation gain: 1790 ft

This is another of those rides worth doing if you happen to be in the area, but probably not worth driving any great distance to do.  It’s a pleasant roll through typical, often quite pretty westside (west of the Sacramento River) landscapes—orchards, cattle farms, small valleys, and  up into the first bumps of the Coast Range.  Its primary selling point is that it’s a few minutes’ drive off Highway 5, so it’s one of two rides in Bestrides you can use as a break while you’re driving between Oregon and Southern California (the other being Del Puerto Canyon Road).  It’s flat or gentle rollers throughout (2500 ft gain in 52 miles on my computer), but if you want to climb, a simple extension of the route will give you all you could ask for (see Adding Miles below).   Traffic is minimal, since there’s nothing along these roads but a few small ranches—my last time I saw 4 cars in the first 20 miles.

Two caveats: 1) for me, this is a spring-only ride.  In summer the hills are burned brown, the heat is intense, and the creeks are dry.  Once the rainy season begins the gravel leg (see below) can be a muddy quagmire.  In the spring you get orchards in bloom, green grass on the hillsides, running streams, and happy cows.  2) There is a 4-mile stretch of gravel, as notorious for Chico-area riders as is the pavé of Paris-Roubaix for Europeans, smack dab in the middle of the loop.  There’s no alternate route around it, and it can be unpleasant.  The gravel is completely loose, so you slide around a lot.  If the road has been regraveled recently, it’s like riding in rocky sand.  If there has been recent rain, the road becomes a bog.  Suffice it to say, timing is everything here.  If you’re determined to avoid the gravel, at the end of this post I’ll show you two gravel-free out-and-back routes.

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Honey Run to Centerville Road

Distance:  22 miles out and back
Elevation gain: 1014 ft 

Update 11/18: The Camp Fire raced through this canyon on 11/8-9/18.  The area is much changed.   Much of the understory burned off, which makes the landscape more open, so Butte Creek and the canyon walls are actually prettier because you can see more of them.  Most of the big trees seem to have survived.  About a third of the houses burned and are now bare plots of ground.  The covered bridge burned to ash.  It’s a different ride, but it’s still great, especially in the spring when the loss of canopy results in an abundance of spring wildflowers.  JR

This is the only ride in Bestrides I can do from my front door.  It’s a perfectly charming meander with pretty scenery and a road contour that is ever-changing.   In 11 short miles you get a number of bonus features: mid-Nineteenth-Century rock walls, a lively creek lined with stately sycamores, tailings left by the Gold Rush argonauts and their placer mining, a grand little canyon with dramatic rocky bluffs, a small back-country museum, a working flume, a great piece of cycling sculpture, and the remains of one of California’s finest covered bridges.  So the ride keeps you interested.  In addition, the elevation profile is perfect for your legs: a few miles of gentle rollers, then a little moderate climbing, then more rollers, then a bit more extensive climbing to get really warm, a short recovery period, and finally a 1.5-mile brisk climb to put all that warm-up to use.   With the final climb, the ride’s a good work-out; without it, it’s an easy stroll.

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Lumpkin Road

Distance: 61 miles out and back
Elevation gain: 6610 ft

A Best of the Best descent

This is a fine ride through Sierra foothills and forests whose virtues are three:

1. solitude—the last time I rode it, I saw two cars between the summit and Lumpkin Rd. (20 miles).

2. a 30-mile descent of extraordinary variety—the ride back from the Road 27 summit (28.5 miles) is almost entirely descending, and the road contour is never the same for long.

3. 8.5 miles of the most whee-inducing, roller-coaster stretch of road I know.

The route climbs steeply for 8.5 miles through populated mountain communities, then traverses the deserted spine of Lumpkin Ridge, then descends for 2 miles to Little Grass Valley Lake, then returns.  The scenery is fine without being special: classic Sierra foothill scrub, then pretty madrone-and-conifer forest, with some views into the forested canyons of Fall River (the stream that supplies the water for world-famous Feather Falls) to the west and the South Fork of the Feather River to the east from Lumpkin Ridge.  the ride out is pretty much 30 miles of climbing, but after the first 8.5 miles it’s never particularly hard.  There are three sensible turn-around points along the way that reduce the work load while preserving the roller coaster, which is in the last 8 miles of the return route and the high point of the ride.

This route (like the alternatives in Adding Miles) is simple to navigate on the road (there are only two turns) but confusing on any map, so follow my directions carefully and ignore what any paper or web map is telling you.  To add to the confusion, all road signage is absent, ambiguous, or hard to see until the summit, 28.5 miles in.

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Clear Lake to Cobb

Distance: 23 miles out and back
Elevation gain: 2430 ft

This is a short, lovely, relatively easy out and back climb and descent.   It stairsteps with much variety of contour through beautiful scenery, then gives you a sweet descent you can really attack on the return.   No bragging rights on this one, no sufferfest—just sweet riding.  To add to your bliss, at the turn-around point is a unique, charming cafe/bakery/bookstore/coffee shop.

(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.)

IMG_7384Begin at the intersection of Hwy 175 and Highway 29, the moderately big highway paralleling the southern shore of Clear Lake.  There’s a small dirt pull-out 100 yds up 175.  You can warm up on 29, which is flat or gently sloped in both directions, but much of it in this area is shoulderless and narrow, so the traffic can be disconcerting.   Ride 175 to the tiny mountain town of Cobb, where you turn around and ride back.  Hwy 175 is the main route from Middletown to Clear Lake, so it’s not car-free, but the traffic is light (even on weekends) and the wide two-lane road offers plenty of passing room.  And the payoff for riding on a “highway” is the road surface is glassy throughout.  The scenery is first-rate, starting in vineyards and deciduous oaks (particularly colorful in the fall) and climbing to lush Coast Range conifers near the top.

175 is moderately steep in the first mile, but then it mellows out and you won’t work again until the hill just before Cobb.  You gain 2430 ft in 11 miles, according to Mapmyride, but in fact the climbing feels much easier than the numbers suggest.  The road contour is pleasantly varied, so you never do the same sort of riding for more than about 50 yards.

1.2 miles before Cobb you reach an obvious summit, followed by a fast, straight descent into town.  Turn around here if you don’t want to do work, because the climb out of Cobb on the return is noticeable and not particularly fun.  But riding to Cobb is worth the effort, because it allows you to visit Mountain High Coffee and Books, on your R just before you intersect with Bottle Rock Rd. in a little strip mall (easy to overlook), a delightful coffee/bakery/sandwich/breakfast eatery/book store which makes for a perfect mid-ride pit stop.

The ride back from the summit is very special.  It’s never straight, but it’s not twisty, and the pitch is just steep enough that you can get up some real speed (in places you’ll touch 30 mph) but never so steep that you have to back off and brake.  I love descents like this, where you can really charge the hill, press the pace, and pedal hard.

In 2015 the Valley Fire burned tens of thousands of acres south of Clear Lake.  The fire burned on three sides of Cobb, but the town and our stretch of Hwy. 175 were largely undamaged.  You’ll see major damage to the forest and several destroyed houses along the road in the last two miles before entering Cobb (see photo at end of post).  The stretch of 175 from Cobb to Middletown goes through the heart of the devastation, if you’re interested in such things.


Hwy 175: love that glassy road surface

Adding Miles: The riding around Clear Lake is plentiful, popular, and consistently good once you’re off the main highways.  The hills south of Clear Lake are a warren of good roads, all much like Hwy 175—pretty, a little trafficky, never flat, never severely steep.  It’s easy to make up loops.  Bottle Rock Rd., which parallels our ride just to the west, is a little bigger, straighter, and busier than 175 (or was the day I rode it), and it has a 3-mile slog of a climb—straight, unvaried of pitch, and downright monotonous—soon after leaving the lake, all reasons I didn’t include it in our route, but it’s well worth riding nonetheless.  If you love straight, fast descending, ride up 175 and down Bottle Rock.  Also worth riding in the area are Seigler Canyon Rd, Loch Lomond Rd, and Red Hills Rd.  Big Canyon Rd. used to be one of my favorites, but it does have a stretch of (ridable) dirt in its middle and it now goes through the heart of the Valley Fire burn.   Seigler Springs Rd. and Diener Rd. are largely dirt.

Creating loop routes in this area almost always involves riding a stretch of Hwy 29.  It can be fine or harrowing, depending on where you are.  It’s a big two-lane highway with constant gentle rollers, a lot of traffic, and an unreliable shoulder.  The scenery—vineyards, hills—is charming.

Heading north from the north end of Clear Lake is one of those effortless gems that cycling brings our way now and then, Scotts Valley Road.  It’s a near-flat, dead easy, but utterly adorable roll through an unpretentious valley of ancient pear orchards and old farm houses (the kind with unmanned produce stands in front of them).  Take the Hwy 29 exit marked Scotts Valley in Lakeport.  Park as soon as the road leaves the congested highway area, ride to the road’s dead end at Hwy 20, then ride back.  You can add 6 miles by taking Blue Lakes Rd out and back along the river a stone’s throw before the intersection with 20, and you can add interest by taking the alternate route along Hendricks Road on your L about a mile down Scotts Valley from the beginning of the ride.  Rumor had it that the Mendocino Fire damaged Scotts Valley, but I’m happy to say it’s totally intact as of 11/18.


From Elk Mt. Road looking back toward Clear Lake

At the northeast corner of the lake is the town of Upper Lake, and from there you can do the Elk Mountain Rd. ride, the exact opposite of the Scotts Valley ride.  This one is a rough and rugged ride for a day when you want to work.  Ride away from the lake down Upper Lake’s Main St., jog R on Second St. and turn immediately L on Middle Creek Rd, which turns in less than a mile into Elk Mountain.  Ride Elk Mountain until it turns to dirt 17 miles out, then return.   For the first 9 miles you’ll roll sweetly through pretty oaks along the edge of an ever-narrowing valley.  As soon as the valley ends, the road turns up, and you’ll do a demanding 8% pitch for the next 5.5 miles over rough pavement with some splendid switchbacks and grand vistas of the country you’ve just ridden through.  At 14.5 miles you summit and roll up and down, mostly down, to the end of the pavement.

The returning descent from the summit would be a Best of the Best descent if the pavement were smooth, which it isn’t.  It’s generally poor, and in places it’s downright nasty.  Bring your 28 mm tires and prepare to do a lot of braking and feel a lot of jarring.

Elk Mountain Road leads to Pillsbury Lake and to a hugely popular off-road vehicle playground, so there are a surprising number of people up there.   I did it at 11 am-1 pm on a beautiful fall Saturday and saw two cars on the ride in—one of whom stopped, asked me if I needed anything, and offered me water.  But all those people have to drive up and down that road sometime, so at some hours it must be heavily trafficked, and it’s not a pleasant road to meet traffic on.  Plan your ride accordingly.

All that makes Elk Mountain sounds pretty dreadful.  It isn’t.  If you like a hard climb, don’t mind rough pavement, and can find a ride time that avoids the traffic, it’s the only ride in the Clear Lake area with a sense of epic grandeur.

A popular ride is to circumnavigate the lake.  I can’t see the appeal.  Highway 29, on the south side, is merely OK shoulder riding, Highway 20 along the north shore goes through a series of small, congested, bike-unfriendly towns that are hectic even in a car, and the connecting roads on the west and east sides are the epitome of big/flat/straight/trafficky.

Fire damage near Cobb

Highway 32 Canyons

Distance:  51-mile out and back
Elevation gain: 4920 ft 

(Update: as of 8/18, this ride has undergone some improvements and some diminishments.  On the up side, the entire descent and ascent through Chico Creek Canyon has been repaved and is glass.  On the down side, much of the leg along Deer Creek has been thinned for fire control on the uphill side.  It’s not ugly like clear-cutting, and the creek side is still pristine, but it’s a definite downgrade.)

This ride has major pros and cons.  Pros: smooth, blissfully meandering two-lane road in and out of two pristine NorCal creek canyons, the highlight being 12 miles (one way) along Deer Creek, as pretty a little babbling stream as there is.  The cons: traffic, all of it in a hurry, much of it consisting of loaded logging trucks or heavy equipment haulers (because this is a working corridor), with little to no shoulder, paved or otherwise (we’re talking drop-off into the creek).   The road contour will never allow the large vehicles to pass you, so you will have to remove yourself from the road.  This is the only ride I’ve ever done anywhere where I routinely pulled off the road onto the dirt (and often had to ride a while to find some) when a truck got behind me.  The traffic is infrequent but disturbing.  Think of this ride as long periods of bliss interrupted with moments of high-risk stress.  Don’t do this ride if you aren’t willing to put up with that.  But look at the photos before deciding not to go.

This route has no amenities or perks—no quaint inns, amazing rock formations, or giant redwoods—just great road contour and gorgeous scenery.

I wouldn’t do this ride in the winter.  Much of the beauty along Deer Creek involves the sun coming through the maple leaves, and in the winter they’re gone, leaving a perfectly conventional conifer forest.

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Indian Valley

Distance: 68 miles out and back
Elevation gain: 2064

Update: Genessee Valley suffered a fire in 9/19.  I’m not sure how much damage was done to the scenery.

There are more awe-inspiring rides, but there is no prettier ride in California than this one.  It’s a short form of the Indian Valley Century.   It goes along the lip of two flat, postcard-perfect valleys framed by mountains (with snowy peaks, if you time it right), and you’re just a bit up off the valley floor, so you get all the scenery without the flat—the road bobs and weaves and rises and drops and thus provides you with a delightfully varied road contour.  Then the outward leg ends with a ten-mile climb that’s entirely doable and parallels a tumbling, rocky creek.  I’ve cut off two loops from the century route I don’t need, but I’ll tell you they’re there and what you’re missing.   All the significant climbing is in the last 10 miles out, so if you skip it the ride is easy. Continue reading

Wooden Valley/Pleasants Valley

Distance: 81-mile loop with a spur
Elevation gain: 3370 ft

The Mix Canyon leg of this ride is covered thoroughly in words and pictures at

This loop goes through the best riding in the area between the Wine Country and Davis.  I learned it from my Sacramento bike club, the Bike Hikers, who ride it every year.  It’s got two great climbs, two scenic farming valleys, and a few boring miles through the outskirts of Fairfield to get from one valley to the other.   There is no great wow factor, but, with the exception of the Fairfield miles, it’s all very pretty and pleasant.

You want to think about when you do this ride.  On summer afternoons, it’s hot.  On weekends, the traffic around Berryessa is obnoxious.  On Monday and Tuesday everything in Manka’s Corner is shut down, so you will have one and only one opportunity for resupplying water and food: the shopping center at the corner of Waterman and Hilborn in Fairfield.

If you aren’t up for a big day, it’s easy to take about half of the hard out.  Just skip both of the climbing detours.

There is a bike shop in Winters, closed Monday and Tuesday.

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