Distance: 44 miles out and back
Elevation gain: 3600 ft
This is a mellow, pretty ride through classic Sierra hill country. You’ll see some nice fir/pine forest, do a very sweet 3-mile descent, follow the north fork of the great Yuba River for 10 miles, see some good rock, then climb easily to the charming mountain community of Downieville at the turn-around. The scenery is quite nice but not unique or awe-inspiring, and there’s a drawback: Highway 49 is a main artery, so the traffic can be daunting. The road is a largely shoulderless but wide two-lane, wide enough to allow safe passing, but there are seven campgrounds, one resort, numerous popular trailheads, and countless swimming holes along the way, and Downieville is a nationally renowned mountain bike hub, so summer is a busy time. There’s also a fair amount of commercial traffic—eighteen-wheel gravel trucks when I was there. I did the ride on a weekday in November (the prettiest time of year in the Sierra—after the heat, before the snow), and I recommend doing this ride then, or at the crack of dawn.
So this ride has its limitations, but I include it in Bestrides because it has something that’s very rare among Sierra mountain rides: flatness. For 10 miles along the river (one-way), there isn’t a single significant hill. For most of those 10 miles the climbing is imperceptible, and the occasional short rise is never worse than 2-3%. If you keep finding mountain rides in Bestrides that sound delicious but have off-putting elevation gains, this ride’s for you.
Distance: 24-mile loop
Elevation gain: 3780 ft
This is a short, serious climbing route, the bulk of it on a small, dramatic back road. You plunge down to the bottom of the American River canyon, climb steeply back out the other side, roll up and down along the side of the canyon, do a fast drop on a moderately traveled mountain highway back down to the same river, and end with a challenging 1000-ft climb. Along the way you get some nice woods, some nice canyon vistas, and a lot of nice solitude. I recorded 5240 feet of gain in 24 miles of riding (which means 12 miles of climbing), so you’ll work. It’s the best ride in the Placerville area, and Placerville is too cool a town not to be represented in our list.
Distance: 50 miles out and back
Elevation gain: 5140 ft
A Best of the Best ride
This is another ride suggested by Friend of Bestrides Brian—thanks again, man.
This is one of the prettiest mountain rides in Bestrides.org. For the first 22 miles, you’re treated to views of a large river canyon on one side of the road and stunning multi-colored rock walls on the other. If you’re a rock lover, this and the Kings Canyon ride will be your favorite rides, ever. And the road is one continuous lazy serpentine—downhill, it’s 25 miles of buttery-smooth slalom course. The only thing that keeps it from being the ride of your life is that it’s also 25 miles of almost unvaried, fairly monotonous 4-6% climbing—never difficult, but a bit tedious. Luckily you can take your mind off the monotony any time by looking at the scenery on either side of you. No distractions here—no inns, no houses, no waterfalls—just you, the road, and the canyon.
Distance: 27-mile lollipop
Elevation gain: 1500 ft
If you look at a good map of the area east of Lincoln, north of Newcastle, and west of Hwy 49, you’ll see a little patch of squiggly lines. If you drive past the area on any of the highways (193, 80, or 49) you’d never guess there was any good riding there, but this is one of my favorite places to ride. It’s not a single road or route—it’s a cozy little network of crooked roads working their way through pretty, moderately hilly hobby farm country. The area is small enough that you can ride all the good stuff in an outing, and every road is fine. Just go explore. The joy is that the scale is so small—the riding is always changing, you’re constantly turning onto a new road, none of the climbs last too long, etc. You’ll see on the map that the roads to your west, just east of Lincoln, straighten out and scribe rectangles, which tells you the land has turned into flat, conventional ranch country. If you like flat and grassy, these roads are perfectly pleasant. But that’s not what brings me to the area, so I don’t go there.
Distance: 45 miles out and back
Elevation gain: 4290 ft
This ride has very little “wow” factor—no grand vistas, no towering monoliths. But it is an exceedingly pleasant bucolic stroll, gradually ascending through foothill woods, meadows, and horse farms, with lots of variety to the contour. The landscape is quite handsome, and particularly so in the spring when things are green. The level of traffic is more than I would wish, even on weekdays, but it’s hardly a deal-breaker. And you turn around in Grass Valley, a community I’m very fond of. I learned the route from Steve Cimini, who has introduced me to many of the rides in this list via his guided club rides with the Sacramento Bike Hikers.
It’s 22 miles of almost uninterrupted up, but it’s all mellow—less than 100 ft per mile—and I don’t think of this ride as a lot of work. The descent coming back down Rattlesnake Road has wonderful, whoop-inducing moments and is almost good enough to make the Best of the Best list.
5/17: I rerode the route on a Sunday, and was disappointed. The traffic was constant. Worse (because it can’t be avoided by riding on a weekday), the area has been built up, so the sense of bucolic countryside is lost for long stretches. I’d say avoid this ride on weekends, and in general do it only if you’re in the area and don’t want to do the work of Iowa Hill.
Distance: 43 miles out and back
Elevation gain: 6670 ft
This ride is hard work. It’s notorious for a 2.1-mile stretch of 12-15% that’s as hard as it sounds, and there is significant climbing after. The route is never flat, and much of the other climbing is 6% or more. But the road contour has great variety and character, and the woodland scenery is top-notch. See Shortening the Ride for a way to cut the climbing in half and keep most of the fun. Perks include one large river crossing and one classic mountain store, but mostly this ride is about being in the woods.
Distance: 16-mile loop
Elevation gain: 1302 ft
This ride introduces you to the good riding around Nevada City, a town you should get to know if you don’t already. I learned the route from the good folks at the Outside Inn, a dedicated cycling, mountain-biking, and kayaking mecca of a motel, lovingly restored from a rundown old motorcourt and now sporting rooms with outdoor themes like the Singletrack Room. By all means, stay there when you’re in the area, if you can (they’re routinely booked up on weekends). Even if you can’t get in, go by to learn about good rides in their library of good rides, each separately Xeroxed and free for you to take. If you mountain-bike, they have trail maps too. Didn’t I say they were good folks?