Category Archives: Northern Gold Country

Prospectors Road to Bayne Road

Distance: 18-mile loop
Elevation gain: 1990 ft

I am not a big fan of cycling in the region north of Placerville. The roads look great on a map—Lotus, Greenwood, Wentworth Springs, Georgetown, Gold Hill, Marshall, Cold Springs, and the rest of them—but they’re all bigger, straighter, more built-up, and busier than the roads in the southern Gold Country, and the landscape is tamer. Don’t get me wrong—most of the roads in this area are pleasant enough, just not Bestrides-special. Thus there are only two Bestrides rides in this area, this one and Mosquito Road.

And this one has its drawbacks. The big climb is a grind, two of the five roads on the route are busy with traffic, and the big descent is too steep to be fun unless you have disc brakes. It’s also short, though I will show you one way to extend the route in Adding Miles below, and it links up easily with our Mosquito Road loop, which is a better ride.

Still, it’s in Bestrides, so it obviously has merits, namely two small, deserted roads, one sweet wooded meander, a great swimming hole, proximity to a pleasant, under-the-radar Gold Country town (Garden Valley), and an interesting preserved 49er village at the heart of California’s history as a starting/stopping place. Also, the two unpleasantly busy legs are both very short.

The numbers suggest the ride is a moderate climbing effort, just over the 100-ft-gain-per-mile benchmark, but it’s harder than that, because almost all of the 2000 ft of gain is in one 2.3-mile pitch.

You could ride this route backwards. You’d replace a 8-12% climb with a 12-16% one, and replace a 12-16% descent with an 8-12% one. Your call.

RidewithGPS map: https://ridewithgps.com/routes/37015585

Start in the tiny town of Coloma, famous for being the site of Sutter’s Mill, where gold was discovered in California. Almost the entire town is the Marshall Gold Discovery Historical Park, with a recreation of the lumber mill in which gold was found, a blacksmith shop with chatty blacksmith (note the Acme anvil, a nod to Roadrunner cartoons), several preserved 1850’s buildings, a visitor center, a museum, a old-timey theatre, and gold panning lessons. So you won’t be bored after your ride. There is ample parking at the Historical Park, but it costs $10 and there is plenty of free parking along both sides of the Main Street.

Prospectors Road: pretty much all like this

Beginning here has the advantage of ending here, but it also has the drawback of giving you almost no time to warm up before the killer climb, so I do the 10-mile Thompson Hill Rd. loop described in Adding Miles to get loose.

Ride northwest on Hwy 49 briefly, take Marshall Rd. to the R, and take the almost-immediate L onto Prospectors (no apostrophe) Rd. Prospectors is a very small road paralleling Marshall, often so close to it you’ll think the cars on Marshall are behind you, and it’s steep, 8-12% without a break for 2.3 miles. There is no reason for vehicles to be on it, so you should have it to yourself. The scenery is fairly stark—dry scrub—and the contour is fairly straight, so the rewards are mainly the isolation and the sense of accomplishment.

Prospectors runs back into Marshall. Go L for a brief, forgettable stretch and take Garden Valley Rd. to the R. You’ll pass an seductive turn-off for Mt. Murphy Road, but last I heard it was largely dirt. At the GVR intersection you’re yards from the village of Garden Valley, well worth a detour, with a nice plant nursery if you’re of a mind to do the rest of the ride with a potted plant in your jersey.

Garden Valley Road

Garden Valley Rd. is delightful, pleasantly rolling without making you work through some very pretty foliage and light traffic.

GVR dead-ends at Hwy 193. Go R and suffer the steady traffic briefly until you reach Bayne Rd., which users of RidewithGPS insist on calling “Bane”—search for it that way if you want to see longer routes that incorporate it. Take it to the R.

Bayne Road

Bayne Road is short, but it’s the stuff dreams are made on—tiny, isolated, pretty, and with an interesting contour. From east to west, it’s mostly down—at first gently, so it’s a roller-coaster through nice woods, then ferociously, 1.5 miles of nail-biting plummet that reaches 16% and is sometimes on the edge of a harrowing drop-off down to the South Fork of the American River. It’s bucket-list stuff if you have disc brakes—without them, the descent is so steep that stopping is almost impossible, and one dares not build up any head of steam. I was often doing 9 mph. Still, memorable.

One wonders what riding Bayne west to east is like. Most ridewithGPS routes go that way. It must be a pip of a climb.

At the bottom of the descent, Bayne runs along the river, and you can see some awesome swimming holes and rapids. There is no obvious way to get to the water from Bayne, but the map suggests that Serenity Lane on the north side or Johnson Ranch Road on the south might get you close.

Bayne bails out on Mt. Murphy Rd—go L, cross a historic bridge exactly as wide as an RV and no wider, and you’re back in Coloma. They have plans to replace the relic with a modern bridge without character, so do this ride soon.

Shortening the route: Since the sweetest parts of the route are Garden Valley Rd. and Bayne, you could ride both as an out-and-back, starting in either Coloma or Garden Valley, riding to the other, and returning. Of course in one direction you’re going to have to go up the Bayne wall.

Adding miles: As I said in the beginning, almost all of the roads around Coloma are too straight, big, and busy to be fun. But there is one short, very pretty little back road nearby, Thompson Hill Rd., and there’s a loop that incorporates it: from Coloma, take Lotus Rd > Thomson Hill Rd > Cold Springs Rd. Both Lotus and Cold Springs are large and busy, but the Cold Springs leg is almost entirely down, so it’s painless. Lotus, on the other hand, is a burden—a long, featureless big-road climb amidst noticeable traffic. It’s the price you pay.

At the intersection of Hwy 183 and Bayne on our route, you are just 3 miles down 183 from where 183 intersects our Mosquito Road loop, so it’s easy to do one ride that does them both as a rough figure-eight and turns two moderate rides into one big one.

Thompson Hill Road

Lower Colfax Rd/Rollins Lake Loop

Distance: 26.5-mile lollipop
Elevation gain: 2800 ft

The area around Grass Valley and Nevada City is a warren of pleasant, quiet, unflat, thickly wooded back roads, none life-changing but all worth riding and all pretty much the same. Bestrides has three routes in the area: Dog Bar Rd., Red Dog/Pasquale, and this one. None of the three has any striking vistas or unique geological features—just nice quiet riding through pretty country. Each of the three has many route variations and alternate options not much worse than the ones I’ve chosen. Feel free to modify, add to, and alter at will.

One of my favorite kinds of road is one that is paralleled by a newer, bigger road that has the same starting and stopping points. The newer, bigger road has all the traffic, the commerce, and the noise, and you’re left with the old, skinny, meandering, isolated track . This route has 3 such back roads, so you get a lot of tranquil riding—except for the two short stretches of Hwy 174, you pass nothing but occasional houses and ranches, and few of those. It also has a lovely road contour in its opening miles: not too steep, sweetly meandering, easy ups and downs through really pretty woods. This ride is at its best in the first 30 minutes, so if you don’t love it then, go ride something else, because it isn’t going to get better.

There are no long hills and only a couple of little steep grades on this route, but you do exceed the 100 ft/mile elevation gain threshold for difficulty, so you’ll be going up and down, albeit moderately, all the time.

https://ridewithgps.com/routes/37936977

There is no particular reason to begin this route at any particular spot. I begin near Grass Valley, because that’s where I am most likely to be housed. Begin at the intersection of Rattlesnake and Lower Colfax Road, which you ride through on our Dog Bar Road ride. Parking is a bit scarce, in small dirt turn-outs. Ride SE on LCR, the first of our parallel back roads. It parallels Hwy 174, so all the traffic is on the highway and you should have the place to yourself. For the first miles, it’s a lovely meander up and down on a sidehill of a small canyon, among trees that are lush and pristine—enjoy them now, because I’m sure the State of California will soon go in there and clear out all the underbrush and 2/3 of the trees in the interest of forest fire suppression. You’re gently descending overall, which means that the return ride is a mellow climb.

Lower Colfax Road

After a while LCR gets larger, wider, and more built up with houses, but it’s still nice. It dead-ends at Hwy 174, in an area called Chicago Park apparently. I know because there’s a charming, iconic corner mercantile there called Chicago Park Store. You’re probably not ready for ice cream yet, but it will be a sweet oasis on the return ride. I think it’s the only re-supply spot on our route.

Turn R on 174 for the short descent to Bear Creek. 174 is busy and straight, but the scenery is actually quite pleasant (see accompanying photo), and anyway it’s short. You’ll see a prominent sign pointing towards Rollins Lake to your L and encouraging you to take the side road, but don’t—it’s Rollins Lake Road we want, and that’s not it.

Lower Colfax Road

After crossing the large, unmissable bridge across Bear Creek, we’re going to do our second parallel back road: Old Grass Valley Road, paralleling 174. Don’t take the unsigned turn-off immediately after the bridge—continue uphill for perhaps a quarter mile and take the next exit to the L. It’s clearly signed.

Old Grass Valley Road is a tiny ribbon of pavement through dense forest. It’s quite steep in places, and the pavement is imperfect, as you’d expect on a road no one should be using. In other words, it’s a blast. Don’t fret the steepness—the road you’re avoiding by doing OGVR, Hwy 174, has exactly the same elevation gain, and it’s a lot less fun.

Hwy 174 has its moments

Immediate- ly after OGVR debouches onto Hwy 174, 174 seems to T. Go L, following the signs to Rollins Lake. You’re now on Rollins Lake Road, the main artery, and for the third time we’re going to take a parallel back road. A short leg down RLR, take signed Nelson Grade Road to the R. NGR is ignored by most maps, and it’s weirdly sandwiched between Rollins Lake Road to its left and Hwy 80 to its right—they’re so close that you can often see first one road then another as you ride, and when you can’t see Hwy 80 you can sometimes hear it—but miraculously NGR has a great sense of isolation, with almost no traffic, almost no development, and in fact not much of anything except trees and a lot of vertical (as one would expect from any road named “Grade”). Once it starts up, it’s all up for 3 miles. It averages almost 7%, with occasional steeper pitches.

When NGR seems to T, go L for 150 ft and T again on Rollins Lake Road. Take RLR to the L.

Rollins Lake Road is in many ways the mirror image of NGR: it’s bigger, wider, straighter, smoother, and more manicured. The first few miles of the return are a dreamy, effortless descent, a constant 25-30 mph where you won’t push a pedal or touch your brakes. Once the descent is over, there’s a surprising amount of climbing back to Hwy 174, and, since the road is so domesticated, it isn’t much fun. By the way, despite the name, you get only one brief glimpse of the lake on either RLR or NGR.

There are at least two alternatives to riding the NGR/RLR loop as I’ve mapped it. If you prefer small/isolated/curvy/slow to the alternative, you can ride Nelson Grade out and back and skip Rollins Lake Road entirely. Or, if you like small/curvy for climbing and larger/straighter for descending, do what the friend of Bestrides who suggested this route does, and ride the loop as a figure-eight: ride east (descending) on Rollins Lake Road to Glen Elder Road, which is a short connector between RLR and Nelson Grade. Take Glen Elder to Nelson Grade. Continue east (up) on NGR to the top of the loop, descend on RLR, cross over on Glen Elder, and return to 174 via Nelson Grade. This way all the descending is on the bigger road and all the climbing on the smaller.

Old Grass Valley Road

If you’re like me you’re expecting the return ride on 174 to be boring traffic hell. Not so. The ride back to the Bear Creek bridge is actually grand, a fast, glassy-smooth slalom descent where the traffic won’t bother you because you’re going as fast as or faster than they are. So I don’t recommend Old Grass Valley Road on the return, but it’s there if you abhor highway riding of any sort. Once over the bridge, 174 is…yeah, pretty much boring traffic hell, and all up to boot, all the way back to the Lower Colfax Road turn-off.

Back at the Chicago Park Store, eating your ice cream, you have a choice. The beginning of Lower Colfax Road is also the beginning of Mt. Olive Road, a lovely, precious little connector between 174 and Dog Bar Rd. It’s mostly dirt, but if you’re set up for it, and you prefer loops to out and backs, I encourage you to take Mt. Olive to Dog Bar and up Dog Bar and Rattlesnake back to your starting point. See our Dog Bar ride for details.

Mt. Olive Road

Assuming we’re sticking with our mapped route, the ride back up Lower Colfax is delightful. In fact, once you clear the houses and ranches in the first miles, I like LCR as much going up as I do going down. It’s never work, and the slower speed lets you take in your surroundings. The last miles are nearly flat and especially pretty, so you return to your car in the best of moods.

Shortening the route: Ride Lower Colfax Road as an out and back, or ride the LCR/Mt.Olive/Dog Bar/Rattlesnake loop.

Adding Miles: The simplest way to extend this ride is to add Dog Bar/Rattlesnake to the route—instead of returning on 174 north when you get off Rollins Lake Road, take 174 south and work your way through Colfax and over to the southern end of Dog Bar and ride it north.

The Grass Valley/Nevada City area is a warren of back roads, all worth riding. See our Dog Bar and Red Dog/Pasquale rides’ Adding Miles sections for names of good roads, or just wander.

Camptonville to Downieville

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.

Continue reading

Mosquito Road

Distance:  24-mile loop
Elevation gain: 3780 ft 

There is an endless amount of rideable road north of Placerville, but most of it is just-OK, generic green-wall riding.  This route has some real drama.  It’s a short, serious climbing route, the bulk of it on a small, energetic back road.  You plunge down to the bottom of the American River canyon, cross the river, 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.  Mapmyride says it’s 3780 feet of gain in 24 miles of riding (which means 12 miles of climbing), and I think that’s conservative, so you’ll work.

Continue reading

Mosquito Ridge Road

Distance: 50 miles out and back
Elevation gain: 5140 ft

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.  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.

Continue reading

Lincoln Hills

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.

Continue reading

Dog Bar Road

Distance: 45 miles out and back
Elevation gain: 4290 ft

This ride, like all the riding in the Grass Valley/Nevada City area, 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.

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.

There are three Bestrides rides in the Grass Valley/Nevada City area—Dog Bar, Red Dog/Pasquale, and Lower Colfax—and there is no simple way to decide which you should do first.  They are all pleasant up-and-down strolls through nice woods.  Dog Bar has the best descent (on Rattlesnake), but it’s also the most built up.  Dog Bar goes to Grass Valley, which is a plus.  Red Dog/Pasquale begins and ends in Nevada City, which is a plus, and it goes through arguably the prettiest woods.  Lower Colfax probably has the most charming road contour.  But there is no clear winner.

(5/17 update: I rerode the route on a Sunday, and was disappointed by the level of traffic.)

Continue reading

Iowa Hill Road

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 12-16% 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.

Continue reading

Red Dog/Pasquale Loop

Distance: 16-mile loop
Elevation gain: 1302 ft

There are three Bestrides rides in the Grass Valley/Nevada City area—Dog Bar, Red Dog/Pasquale, and Lower Colfax—and there is no simple way to decide which you should do first.  They are all pleasant up-and-down strolls through nice woods—no grand vistas, no awe-inspiring crags, no waterfalls, nothing of the sort.  Dog Bar has the best descent (on Rattlesnake), but it’s also the most built up.  Dog Bar goes to Grass Valley.  Red Dog/Pasquale begins and ends in Nevada City, and it goes through arguably the prettiest woods.  Lower Colfax probably has the most charming road contour.  But there is no clear winner.

I learned this 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?

Continue reading