Distance: 32-mile loop
Elevation gain: 1730 ft
Every town has The Ride, the one everybody does because it’s good training and it’s accessible and it’s about the right length and toughness. Depending on the town, The Ride can range from great to tedious, and you can always expect a lot of cycling company. Round Mountain Road is Bakersfield’s go-to ride, and it’s a good one. It’s got a moderate but not excessive amount of climbing, it’s never steep (so you can do it on back-to-back days if you want), it has some grand views of rolling grassy hills and a nice sense of isolation (briefly), and it takes about 2.5 hours, which is most people’s idea of a nice weekend stretch of the legs.
This being Bakersfield, RMR also has some drawbacks. After all, this is the town where the high school sports team calls itself the Drillers. About a third of the route goes through oil fields, which you may find fascinating or repulsive or both. Astonishingly, when you summit Round Mountain itself (the road goes right past the peak), after several miles of climbing in unspoiled isolation, you discover the entire top of the mountain is consumed (some would say, ravaged) by an enormous oil drilling operation which you ride smack through. You also spend about 5 miles on China Grade Loop, one of the ugliest roads I’ve ever ridden. Later, in Shortening the route, I’ll show you how to avoid it.
This is another of those loops where I can’t say which direction is better. I’ve mapped it counterclockwise, but most locals seem to ride it the other way. As I was stopped by the side of the road, a rider came along in my direction and I said, “Am I riding this the wrong way?” She said, “No” and rode on. So that’s settled. After I describe my route I’ll discuss pros and cons.
Begin in Oildale, a suburb of Bakersfield, at the intersection of China Grade Loop and Manor. Parking can be both sparse and dangerous around here, but on the NE corner of our intersection is a huge housing development that offers lots of curbside parking and standard suburban safety. Pick a tidy looking house, park in front of it, and note your location so you can find it again.
Ride east on China Grade Loop, the most misnamed road you’ll ever see. There is nothing Chinese in sight, there is no grade, and it’s not a loop (the actual loop is nearby where we’re not riding). It’s also a horror—dead flat, dead straight, and heavily trafficked so you’re confined to the shoulder, and that shoulder is full of glass, debris, lumber, road signs, and dead animals, and it’s constantly crossed by frost-heave-style cracks each its own mini-speed-bump (I’m not making this up). And you’re riding through fields of oil wells. Some technology I find rather beautiful. Oil wells are at the other extreme. All that is why we’re doing it first, to get it over with.
Pretty soon (though not soon enough) everything changes: the road begins to meander and roll gently as it follows the contours of the Kern River. Now the road is bordered by expensive hobby-farm mansions, traffic is insignificant, and the road surface is perfect. This is tranquil, sublimely pleasant riding. Somewhere in here the road changes its name to Round Mountain Road, though I didn’t see a sign saying so until it was a long-ago done deal.
About 9 miles in, the road turns up and climbs steadily for about 4.5 miles, to the summit you can eventually see in the distance, on a stretch of road you have to love if you like climbing at all. The pitch is just enough to make you think, “Hey, I’m climbing well today!” and the road surface stays glass. The McMansions fall away and you have the place to yourself (and the other cyclists), and the views (of where you’ve been to the south and uninhabited rolling hills to the north) keep getting better. It’s an utterly barren landscape that may not be to everyone’s taste (see photos), but I found it transporting.
You can see there are buildings on the mountaintop, but you have to get there to see the extent of the construction. It’s a mini-city up there, like one of those “mining colonies” you see on alien planets being stripped of their minerals in sci fi movies.
Then it’s down. The descent in this direction is about twice the length of the ascent, hence half the pitch, so it’s actually a fairly tame affair. At the bottom you T into S. Granite Road (clearly signed) and take it L. A 3-mile climb, noticeable but never threatening, on the shoulder (really the gutter) of a shabby highway takes you back to Oildale and its oilfields. There is some navigation needed in the end, but the easiest route is simply to take every L you can that’s an obvious major street. That will eventually deposit you back on Manor and your car.
Which way to go?: As usual with loops, it’s all about whether you prefer climbing or descending. In my direction the climbing is steeper (though never approaching steep) and the descending less exciting. In the other direction it’s the other way around—even easier climbing, more exciting descending. The only other factor is the wind: Bakersfield has a westerly habit, so if the wind is up you’ll have it at your back during the climbing and descending if you go clockwise.
Shortening the route (and avoiding China Grade): About half of this loop isn’t all that good—Granite Rd. and China Grade. To ride only the good stuff, drive to the east end of China Grade where the road gets good, start there, ride to the intersection of Round Mountain Rd and S. Granite Rd., and turn around and ride back. This gives you c. 22 miles but of course you end up doing the climb twice—easily doable, I promise. You can start at the other end if you don’t mind doing the harder climb second.
Adding miles: You can take S. Granite Rd. north (I don’t know what it’s like) and in a few miles run into Woody Road aka Hwy 155, a good ride all the way to Isabella Lake. From China Grade Loop you can take Alfred Harrell Hwy and soon connect with Breckenridge Rd, a grand and challenging climb that drops you off on Caliente Bodfish Rd just north of the stretch that’s a leg of our Caliente Loop.
For other possibilities, see the Adding Miles section of the Caliente Loop ride.