Category Archives: Southern Gold County

Bear Valley to Mosquito Lake

Distance: 15.3 out and back
Elevation gain: 1410 ft

For years I avoided riding the west end of Hwy 4, since I knew it to be a big, busy, boring, touristy madhouse.

Turns out I just didn’t go far enough east. Hwy 4 is all those nasty things, at first, but the further east you go the more traffic and tourists it sheds—a lot of cars drop off at Murphys, then lots more at Calaveras Big Trees State Park, then lots more at Bear Valley, so that after Bear Valley the road is much of the time practically deserted. I did the ride on a Monday starting at 9:30 AM and most of the time had the road to myself. Obviously Saturday morning at 11 AM would be a different matter.

But the road is still big, straight, and boring. Until shortly after Bear Valley, when a magical thing happens—Tinker Bell waves her magic wand over that big, straight, boring road and, poof, it is transformed into a small, beautiful, meandering dreamboat of a road. And from that point, the next 7.5 miles are prime riding through gorgeous Sierra scenery. Maybe I’m just a good old California boy, but that high Sierra granite forest stirs me like nothing else.

The title of this ride is poetic license. Bear Valley is a nice place to start because it has unlimited parking, a grocery store, a bike shop, and other amenities, but the 2.2 miles of riding east of Bear Valley is as unpleasant as riding gets. It’s a dead straight climb on a huge empty road with unvarying pitch, and although it doesn’t look steep on paper the elevation (c. 7000 ft.) and your cold legs will make it seem so. I crawled up it at 4+ mph, and I’ll never do it again. Nor is it a pleasant descent returning, unless you like sitting on a bike with nothing to do except worry about crashing.

So my route actually begins after those 2.2 miles, at the Lake Alpine Snow-Park parking lot. I just thought that “Lake Alpine Sno-Park to Mosquito Lake” sounded tacky. If you want to ride those miles from Bear Valley to the Sno-Park, add 4.4 miles to our route total and about a million feet of elevation gain.

(Incidentally, there are two Bear Valleys: the first is right on Hwy 4, and it’s a community; the second is up Hwy 4 about 2 miles, then further up a side road on the L, and it’s the actual ski area. Skiers live in the community and shuttle bus to the ski area. I’m talking about the community.)

This route, like all Bestrides rides in this area, is snowed in during normal winters and is plowed open in the spring, usually some time in later June. I did the ride in early July after a historically heavy snowfall (2023) and road conditions were perfect, with patches of snow here and there in the trees along the route.

I saw no Mosquitos at Mosquito Lake per se, but the ride was very buggy and I recommend bug spray.

Drive to the Sno-Park and park. Between Bear Valley and here, you’ll see two signs that promise 24% pitches in the road ahead, but we’re not going that far.

A few feet past the Sno-Park the road transforms from boring into perfect. A short descent takes you to Lake Alpine, which you can see through the trees. It’s very pretty. Immediately after the lake you do the only real work on the ride, 2 miles of climbing, the first mile demanding (8%) given the elevation, but the scenery is so fine you’ll have much to take your mind off the pitch. After that, it’s all mellow rolling through perfect scenery to Mosquito Lake, which is itself a perfect little Sierra jewel of a pond. It’s prettier if you can get there when there is still snow on the shoreline (see photo), but one can only control so much in life.

Most lakes lie at the bottoms of watersheds, but Mosquito improbably sits just a few feet from a crest, the Pacific Grade Summit. Ride over the summit (signed) and around the corner to see the grand vista of everything to the east of you, and make a decision. The road ahead of you looks ideal, and it is—it’s the famous Pacific Grade, a legendary descent. Ride it if you wish—the riding remains good to excellent all the way to the Ebbetts Pass summit, down the east side along our Ebbetts Pass ride, and on to Markleeville—but unless you have a car waiting you’re going to have to ride back up Pacific Grade. It’s 2.5 miles long, steep (with moments of 24%, say the signs), and it tops out at 8050 ft. Know your limits. I turned around.

The ride back is dreamy—no extended descents but a series of thrilling little downs and little ups you can power up in a big gear and keep your momentum going. Good sight lines, no hairpins, a near-perfect surface, and the same grand scenery you just rode through make this as sweet a roller coaster as I’ve done in years.

Shortening the ride: You want to see Mosquito Lake and the vista to the east that follows. If you drive the 2-mile climb after Lake Alpine, you’re looking at a dead easy 11-mile-round-trip saunter.

Mosquito Lake

Adding miles: See above. Hwy 4 to the west of Bear Valley isn’t bad for a few miles, so riding to our Spicer Reservoir Road ride is entirely doable. To the east from the Pacific Grade Summit, there is as much great riding as your legs can endure—see the discussion of Pacific Grade above.

Big Trees Parkway

Distance: 17.8-mile out and back
Elevation gain: 2390 ft

(A Best-of-the-Best descent)

Between Murphys and Ebbetts Pass on Hwy 4 I know of only three paved back-country roads. Luckily, two of them, this ride (officially called the Walter W. Smith Memorial Parkway) and our Spicer Reservoir Road ride, are excellent rides.  Those two plus our Bear Valley to Mosquito Lake ride make the west end of Hwy 4 a pretty rich riding area all by themselves.

Big Trees and Spicer are almost mirror images of each other. They’re both out-and-backs that head south from Hwy 4, drop for a few miles of delicious, sweeping curves to a pretty river crossing, and climb the other side, all through pretty Sierra forests on excellent pavement. Both are bare of any signs of humanity except for road signs and occasional campgrounds. Both are closed by snow in the winter and open when the weather warms, usually some time in late June. Both are surprisingly wide two-lane roads where cars have lots of room to pass at all times.

So how are they different? Big Trees has the whole State Park experience: spectacular scenery (in this case giant sequoias), educational nature trails, a Visitor Center, crowds, packed campgrounds. Spicer has a beautiful lake at the turn-around. Big Trees’ big descent is longer—4 miles vs. 2.5 miles. (Therefore Big Trees’ long climb is also longer—4 miles vs. 2.5 miles. See how that works?). Big Trees costs $10; Spicer is free. Spicer is higher in elevation, so you get some of that matchless Sierra exposed granite; Big Trees is pretty much just trees. Spicer has a few miles of sweet rolling; Big Trees is almost entirely extended climbing or extended descending.

You would think that both rides would suffer from car traffic, Big Trees because it’s one of the state’s most popular summer tourist spots and Spicer because it’s the road to one of the area’s most attractive boating destinations. But in fact both rides can be traffic-free, if you choose your riding time wisely. In the case of Big Trees, 90% of the park traffic stops at the Visitor Center and the North Grove. Everyone else who heads down the road does so to get to campgrounds, and the campgrounds are always full, so the only cars on the road are the few who are leaving and the few who are taking their place. Most of them leave/arrive in the late morning or early afternoon on Saturday or Sunday. All that means, the road is uncrowded any time and especially uncrowded any time but midday on weekends. The last time I was there it was a beautiful Sunday in July, and I walked the North Grove trail, the most crowded place in the Park, at 9:30 and had the place largely to myself, so you can imagine how empty the road was.

Which ride would I do if I could only do one? It’s a tough call, but I’d go with Spicer, for its views of the lake, its more varied scenery, and it’s more varied road contour. But if you’re all about long descents, go with Big Trees.

The elevation-gain total for Big Trees (well over our 100 ft/mile benchmark) tells you this is a climbing ride, but it’s constant, not fierce, with a few brief moments around 8%.

Streetview doesn’t cover this ride, so you might worry that that means there’s something wrong with it. There isn’t. Streetview hasn’t mapped much of anything in the area other than Hwy 4 itself.

You would be insane to do this ride and not check out the sequoias, which are one of the wonders of the earth. Mightier than the redwoods, 20 times the weight of a blue whale, the largest things ever to live on our planet, they will change your life. There are two groves of sequoias, the North Grove (right by the entrance and Visitor Center) and the South Grove, at the end of the road. Far and away the best trees, and the outstanding free pamphlet trail guide, are in the North Grove, an easy 1.7-mile loop. The only argument for walking the South Grove, where the first sequoia you see is a mile down the trail, is to get away from people. If you only ride the road and hike none of the trails, you won’t see any giant sequoias—the park authorities intentionally laid out the road as far from the sequoias as possible to prevent the ground near their roots from being compacted by car traffic.

Since the ride profile is much like that of the Spicer Reservoir ride, I’m going to say the same thing I said there: choose where you want to start the ride by deciding where you want the big climb and the big descent to fall. The big drop starts 2 miles from the Visitor Center and drops to the river. If you start at the Center, the big drop is basically the first thing you’ll do. If you start at the river and ride back to the Visitor Center, the big climb is the first thing you’ll do. If you start at the river and head south, the big drop is the last thing you’ll do. I’ve mapped it the conventional way, starting at the Visitor Center, but I actually prefer to start at the river (the North Fork of the Stanislaus) and head south, thus saving the big descent for the end of the ride. It’s a dramatic stretch of river, so you might consider starting at the crossing if you’re the sort who likes a post-ride dip. There is a large parking lot with toilets exactly at the crossing, signed “River access parking” (not the riverside picnic area, which is 100 ft. north of there).

Assuming you’re starting at the Visitor Center, park in the VC parking lot and head down the one and only road. There are no forks or route options, so you can’t get lost and you don’t need a map.

There is some burn on the tree trunks near the start of the ride, and you might worry that you’re in for serious fire damage, but what you’re seeing is prescribed burn to reduce fuel density—the entire Hwy 4 area is without fire damage as of 7/23.

Climb almost imperceptibly for about 2 miles, then begin the obvious 4-mile descent. Immediately after you start down, there is a signed “Scenic Overlook.” It’s only a 1/10-mile detour, but for a scenic overlook it’s very pedestrian.

The descent is a Best of the Best one, sweeping corners separated by short straights on nearly perfect pavement (expect a few jolts from blemishes) with great sightlines and at a pitch that gives you lots of 35-mph stuff but rarely forces you hard on your brakes.

Cross the river and do a 2.3-mile climb which has moments that will make you work. Then comes about a half-mile of rollers to the South Grove parking lot. The road continues on for a half mile or so beyond the parking lot and dead-ends at a gate, a toilet, and a gravel road. Turn around and ride home.

Vistas are rare on this ride

The 4-mile climb back up the hill goes on a bit too long, but it’s a mellow pitch (steepest at the bottom, and not bad even then), and there are a couple of nice vistas of the river canyon you’re leaving behind on your R through the trees.

Shortening the ride: The best part of the ride is the descent from the Visitor Center to the river, so I’d do that as an out and back, starting at either end. The ride from the river to South Grove is also a good ride, but it’s steeper and there isn’t much to see other than trees.

Big Trees Parkway has a few good rocks

Adding Miles: As far as I know, there are only 4 paved roads in this area other than housing developments: Hwy 4 itself, our Spicer Reservoir Road ride, Big Trees, and Broads Crossing, which I haven’t ridden but which looks good and heads south from Hwy 4 at a signed intersection between Spicer and Big Trees. The beginning of Spicer is 19 unpleasant miles up Hwy 4 from Big Trees. Our Bear Valley to Mosquito Lake is another 6 less unpleasant miles further east from there.

Spicer Reservoir Road

Distance: 20.4-mile double out and back
Elevation gain: 2000 ft

Between Murphys and Ebbetts Pass on Hwy 4 I know of only three paved back-country roads. Luckily, two of them, this ride and our Big Trees Parkway ride, are excellent rides. Those two plus our Bear Valley to Mosquito Lake ride make the west end of Hwy 4 a pretty rich riding area all by themselves.

Spicer and Big Trees are almost mirror images of each other. They’re both out-and-backs that head south from Hwy 4, drop for a few miles of delicious, sweeping curves to a pretty river crossing, and climb the other side, all through pretty Sierra forests on excellent pavement. Both are bare of any signs of humanity except for road signs and occasional campgrounds. Both are closed by snow in the winter and open when the weather warms, usually some time in late June. Both are surprisingly wide two-lane roads where cars have lots of room to pass at all times. Neither has suffered forest fire damage as of 7/23.

So how are they different? Big Trees has the whole State Park experience: spectacular scenery (in this case giant sequoias), educational nature trails, a Visitor Center, crowds, packed campgrounds. Spicer has a beautiful lake at the turn-around. Big Trees’ big descent is longer—4 miles vs. 2.5 miles—and slightly more exciting. (Therefore Big Trees’ long climb is also longer—4 miles vs. 2.5 miles—and slightly steeper. See how that works?). Big Trees costs $10; Spicer is free. Spicer is higher in elevation, so you get some of that magnificent Sierra exposed granite; Big Trees is pretty much just trees.

You would think that both rides would suffer from car traffic, Big Trees because it’s one of the state’s most popular summer tourist spots and Spicer because it’s the road to one of the area’s most attractive boating destinations. But in fact both rides can be traffic-free, if you choose your riding time wisely. I’ll explain why Big Trees can be car-free in that post. Spicer is largely deserted most of the time because boaters only drive to and from lakes at certain times: Friday afternoon/evening and Saturday late morning/early afternoon heading in, and Sunday afternoon/evening heading out. The rest of the time the road is yours. Or so logic tells me. I had only Saturday in early July to do this ride, the worst possible time, so I started riding at 9 am and had the road to myself. Traffic began being an issue around 11 am, when I was done.

Of Spicer and Big Trees, which ride would I do if I could only do one? It’s a tough call, but I’d go with Spicer, for its views of the lake, its more varied scenery, and its more varied road contour. But if you’re all about long descents, go with Big Trees.

Streetview only maps the first quarter of SRR, and sometimes that’s a sign that the road becomes impassable, but in this case not so—the road is wide and immaculate in its entirety.

Incredibly, although Spicer Reservoir Rd. is large and well-maintained, there is absolutely no signage at the turn-off on Hwy 4—no indication of road, lake, boat ramp, power station, dam, or anything. There are small signs reading “Spicer Reservoir Road” and “Sno-Park” about 1/4 mi. before the turn-off to the west. So keep an eye on your GPS.

Of course you can ride this road by parking at the Hwy 4/Spicer intersection (there is a huge Sno Park parking lot 1/4 mi. down Spicer), riding to the end of the road, and riding back. But the riding profile means that if you do that you begin with the best descent, before you’re awake enough to enjoy it, and you follow it with the hardest climbing, when you’ve hardly turned a pedal. So, even though it involves an additional 2.9 mi. of car miles, I encourage you to drive down Spicer to the Stanislaus River crossing and park there. Ride to Hwy 4, then turn around and ride to your car. Continue past it and ride to Spicer reservoir, then turn around and return to your car. That way you warm up on the easier climb, are wide awake for the best descending, and are fully warm for the harder climb. If climbing on cold legs isn’t your thing, there is a quarter-mile of flat at the river crossing where you can do some warming up. I’ll describe the route assuming you’re taking my advice.

There is a campground at the Stanislaus River crossing but they ask you not to park there unless you’re camping. There are dirt pull-outs a stone’s throw beyond the bridge. The river itself is small but lovely, and a post-ride plunge is a perfect end to the ride.

Don’t ride off quite yet. The granite hill to the immediate southeast of the bridge is the best scenery on the ride until you get to the lake. Check it out.

Ride to Hwy 4—2.9 easy to moderate miles of climbing through conventionally pretty Sierra scenery. At Hwy 4 turn around and enjoy a really good, fast, sweeping descent back to the river. The sight lines are all excellent, the road surface is next-to-flawless, and there isn’t a sharp bend anywhere, so you can carry a lot of speed and shouldn’t need brakes.

As you pass your car, you can drop any clothing you no longer need. The 1 mile south of the bridge is the hardest climbing on the route, but it’s never fierce, and after that it’s charming shallow rollers and short climbs/descents to the lake (7.2 mi. total). This is as pleasant as riding gets. Note the one unexpected hairpin turn clearly indicated on the map.

As you approach the lake (which is actually called the New Spicer Meadows Reservoir) you’ll hit an intersection you might not even notice. A small sign with arrows points L to “boat ramp/day use” and other things. The main road clearly goes R (just follow the freshly painted brilliant yellow double line), but my GPS called that L turn the “main road.” It isn’t—it’s a 1/10th-mi. spur that goes (as the sign says) to the tiny boat ramp and small shoreline day use area. Go there only if you want to play in the lake water, use the bathroom, or see a large map of the lake. The vistas are on the other road.

Spicer Reservoir

Assuming you’ve followed the yellow line, you won’t get a good view of the lake for a while. Even though the map makes it look like you’re riding along the lake shore, you’re actually rolling up and down 100 ft or so above the waterline, and trees and boulders are blocking your view. When you finally get to the one and only spot where you see the lake in all its glory, it’s splendid—stop, take it in, and get off your bike and stroll around. Consider clambering down to the lake—it’s a moderately steep but completely doable scramble. Beyond this point (marked by a “No camping beyond this point” sign on a tree) the road drops steeply for a half-mile, then ends in the middle of dam engineering—interesting, but leaving you with a tough half-mile climb getting back. Do it if you wish (our map skips it), then turn around and head to your car.

The ride back is without major climbing and without exhilarating descending—just an idyllic meander through Sierra paradise. (OK, there’s one 1/2-mi. climb you’ll notice). The ride back down the climb you did going out is too steep and too straight to be of much interest.

Shortening the ride: From the Stanislaus River bridge, either out-and-back makes a lovely ride. The southern route gives you the lake and the sweet rollers, so I’d do it first. If you’re all about ripping descents, do the northern route.

Adding Miles: As far as I know, there are only 4 paved roads in this area other than housing developments: Hwy 4 itself, Spicer, Big Trees, and Broads Crossing, which I haven’t ridden but which looks good and heads south from Hwy 4 at a signed intersection between Spicer and Big Trees. The Spicer/Hwy 4 intersection is 6 ridable miles from our Bear Valley to Mosquito Lake ride and, in the other direction, 16 mostly unpleasant miles to the Broads Crossing turn-off and 19 miles to our Big Trees ride.

Priest-Coulterville Road

Distance: 20 miles out and back
Elevation gain: 2270 ft

This isn’t a great ride, but it’s perfectly pleasant. It climbs over two small summits, and drops down into the actual town of Coulterville, which consists of about 8 buildings. The scenery is only OK, mostly scrub brush hillsides, and frankly I include it in Bestrides for only one reason: of all the rides I’ve done in the area, it’s the only one with consistently decent pavement and little traffic. It’s unshaded, so I wouldn’t do it on a hot summer afternoon.

https://ridewithgps.com/routes/37969280

Start at the Priest Station Cafe and Store (really just a cafe). There is parking for 3-4 cars off to the side. Ride to Coulterville (there is one intersection along the way—go R.). After about a mile, the route is through rolling hillsides totally carpeted by a shrub called chamise or greasewood, fairly uninteresting except in blooming season (May-early June), when it makes quite a show.

Coulterville itself is of some slight interest. It’s tiny, but incredibly it includes a hotel, a saloon, a spa, a historic train engine, and a “boulangerie” along with the inevitable general store and antique shop. The saloon claims to be the oldest operating saloon in California (est. 1851).

Shortening the ride: You probably won’t, but if you do, all the miles are pretty much the same so turn around whenever you want to.

Adding Miles: From Priest you’re 3 miles from the turn-around point of the Ward’s Ferry Road ride, a much bigger and far more dramatic ride.

Priest Station lies at the summit of Old Priest Grade, a harrowing and spectacular ride detailed in the Adding Miles section of the Ward’s Ferry Road ride.

Hillsides of chamise in bloom in June

Old Ward’s Ferry Road Et Al.

Distance: 30 miles, wandering route
Elevation gain: 2840 ft

A general word of warning about riding in the Southern Southern Gold Country: every back road I’ve ridden south of Jesus Maria Rd. (which was bad but just got resurfaced) has stretches of pavement ranging from poor to comically horrible.  That includes every Bestrides ride in the area—Ward’s Ferry, this one, and others like Dogtown Rd (not so much Priest-Coulterville).  If poor pavement bothers you, ride somewhere else.

This ride lies just west of our Ward’s Ferry Road ride, but it couldn’t be more different. Ward’s Ferry is a straight down-and-up crossing of a big canyon. This ride wanders around in a warren of old farming roads that roll up and down constantly over endless little hills. It’s never flat, and it never climbs or descends for long.

It’s harder than the profile makes it look, because short, steep rollers wear you out, and because the road surfaces here are poor, and that beats you up. The up side is, this isn’t your yuppified Gold Country. There are next to no gated mansions, vineyards, Lexuses—just oak and grassland, unpretentious folk, beat-up pick-ups, and horses and cows in the fields.

There is nothing magical about my route. I just tried to link as many of the roads in the area as I could. My route has you riding everything of note except Algerine Wards Ferry Rd., which you can easily add as an out and back.

https://ridewithgps.com/routes/37959607

Start at the intersection of Old Ward’s Ferry Road and Jacobs Rd. You can start at the northern end of OWFR if you want to, but it’s very unpleasant multi-lane frenetic urban. Half a mile past Hwy 108, you’re in the country.

Old Ward’s Ferry Rd. is the second-worst road surface on the ride, and it’s immediately up and down, so it’s hard on an unwarm body. Nothing on this ride lasts very long, however, so soon you go R onto Murphy Rd. and things are much better though not perfect. Go right on Lime Kiln Rd. and go up and down, mostly up, until you’re in the shadow of Hwy 108, where Campo Seco Rd. goes L along the highway.

Camp Seco is a horse of a different color. It runs along upscale housing tracts on one side, so it’s bigger, domesticated, busier, and glassy smooth.

Go L on Algerine and roll to Twist Rd. At the intersection is a chance to pick up Algerine-Ward’s Ferry Rd. (not on our route)—just keep riding past the Twist turn-off.

Whatever you do, don’t miss Twist Rd.—it’s the best road in this bunch. The road surface isn’t perfect, but it’s good enough that you can finally bomb some descents.

Twist Rd. ends at Jacksonville Road, for all intents and purposes a highway, though not a heavily trafficked one. It’s not thrilling, and the pavement is new chipseal, but it’s OK and the views (of the canyon holding an arm of an arm of an arm of Don Pedro Lake) are good—the only time on this ride where you can see further than across the meadow beside you.

Stay on Jacksonville as it becomes the Stent Cut-Off (surely somebody’s idea of humor) and returns to Algerine. Go L and ride back on Algerine to Camp Seco, Campo Seco to Lime Kiln, and down Lime Kiln, but only a mile plus to the Jacobs Rd. cut-off back to your car.

Jacobs is not to be missed—perhaps a third of a mile of the worst road surface I have ever experienced. Absolute misery. It’s easier and more pleasant to walk it, but ride it just so you can tell your friends you did.

Shortening the route: Except for Twist, none of these roads is markedly superior to any other. The southwest loop might be slightly superior to the northeast loop.

Adding miles: This ride takes you within yards of our Ward’s Ferry Road route, a ride I would certainly do before I did this one. In Sonora you are 6 miles from Big Hill Road out of Columbia, a 10-mile out-and-back consisting of a four-mile moderately challenging climb followed by 6 miles of easy rollers, with fabulous views of the lands to south—the best vistas in all my Gold Country riding. It would be a Bestrides-worthy ride, but it’s cursed with the same unfortunate Calaveras County pavement as this ride—not intolerable but bad enough to turn an otherwise wonderful 4-mile descent coming back into something merely good. If you’re near Columbia, don’t miss little Sawmill Flat Road, unique in the region (in my experience) for having easy rollers, lush scenery, and pristine road surface.

Big Hill Road: best vistas in the Gold Country

South Upper Truckee Road

Distance: 11.5-mile loop
Elevation gain: 1080 ft

This is the only ride in the immediate Tahoe area in Bestrides.  That’s because I don’t like the riding around Tahoe.  I know it’s legendary, especially the ride around the lake.  The century that circumnavigates the lake is one of the most popular centuries in the country.  I’ve ridden in the Tahoe area a lot, including around the lake several times, and in my opinion it all sucks.  The roads, at least in summer, are insanely crowded.  The ride around the lake is 1/3 faux Vegas, 1/3 Tahoe City gridlock, 1/6 a slow tedious climb up Hwy 28 to 50 on a shoulder amidst whizzing cars, and 1/6 actually not bad stuff around Emerald Bay, if you don’t mind narrow, rough roads with no shoulder crowded with tourists gawking at the scenery.  But aren’t the views of the lake majestic?  Yes, for the stretch around Emerald Bay.  The rest of the loop, the lake can’t be seen.

The roads radiating out from the lake— 89 and 267 to the north, , 431 and 50 to the east, 89 to the south—are all straight, monotonous shoulder rides with lots of traffic (admittedly 89 to Truckee is easy and pretty—the rest are tough climbs).   Hwy 50 towards Sacramento would be a lovely ride if it weren’t heavily trafficked—I’ve never seen a bike on it or heard of anyone riding it.

OK, but what about the bike paths?  Lake Tahoe is bike path central.  There’s a path that runs along the road on the west side of the lake from Tahoe City to Sugar Pine Point, a path that runs along the Truckee River almost to Squaw Valley, a path that runs along the south shore from near the Y (the Hwy 89/Hwy 50 intersection) past the Tallac Historic Site, and a path that runs south from the lake to Meyers along Hwy 50.  They’re all fun at 8 mph on a cruiser or mountain bike, but they’re too small-scale for a road bike.  The prettiest by far is the Truckee River trail, and in season it’s packed with pedestrians.

Then there’s the Fallen Leaf Lake Road, a 10-mile out-and-back to a famously lovely little lake with a nice waterfall, Glen Alpine Falls, on the back side.  It’s in all the guides to Tahoe-area riding, and it’s the worst ride I’ve ever done on a bike—one lane of atrocious pavement that’s busy, even in the off-season, with cars, half of them in the act of backing up and pulling off the road to make room for the other half going the other way.  I did this ride in November, when everything around the lake was closed, and the car traffic was still awful—on some stretches I had to pull off the road every minute or two to let a car pass me.

But if you’re a Californian who likes to travel you’re going to spend time around Tahoe, and even hell has one good road ride, so luckily there’s South Upper Truckee Road.  I’d be tempted to add the ride to Bestrides on the name alone (I wish it were Old South Upper Truckee Road, but one can’t have everything—as we shall see, it’s actually Lower South Upper Truckee Rd.).  But it’s also a very sweet ride.  It’s only 11.5 miles long, but in that space you get a stiff 3.5-mile climb, gorgeous scenery, serious solitude, and a fast, straight descent.  The road surface on SUTR can be rough, so our route doesn’t descent it, but instead comes down Luther Pass Rd., which is a wide-open, straight 35-45-mph shot.  The scenery is typical Tahoe aspen, granite, and pine—gorgeous—but the road is essentially one lane and you are IN the landscape in a way you never can be on larger roads.  It isn’t a long enough ride to fill a day, so do it and drive south to the better rides around Markleeville and Hope Valley.

https://ridewithgps.com/routes/37954010

November proved a little late for the annual aspen color display

Park at the intersection of Hwy 50 and South Upper Truckee Road, just west of Hwy 89 and the agricultural inspection station.  There’s plenty of roadside dirt on SUTR.  For 3.2 miles you’re on flat ground among houses as you follow the Upper Truckee River, the upper reaches of the river that runs out of Tahoe and down to the town of Truckee.  Note how the first houses were built closest to Hwy 50, then later ones added further out, so as you ride they get newer and bigger, and still bigger, until the last house is spanking new and comically huge.  You go through some nice aspen groves which must be stunning during the fall color (I was too late).  You pass the clearly marked trailhead for the Hawley Grade National Recreation Trail, which is reputed to be nice for hiking.

Boulder heaven

Soon after the houses end, the road turns up, and is constantly 8-12% for the next 3.5 miles.  These miles are why you’ve come.  Since Hwy 89 goes to the same place, there is no reason why a car should be on this road (unless they’re shuttling mountain bikes—see below) and you should have it to yourself.  It twists and turns deliciously, the road surface has some nastiness, and it gets very narrow—It’s signed “one-lane” at the top.  This is about as close to a mountain-bike trail ride as pavement can get.  I love the scenery—scattered pines and boulders.  This is probably the best boulder ride west of Boulder.  At the bottom of the climb you pass the downhill end of a busy mountain bike trail, which may involve you in some traffic.

After 4.6 miles you meet up again with Hwy 89, and you could turn L and ride the rocket ship back to your car, but our route crosses 89 and continues up a completely unsigned road with an intimidating gate (open except in winter) that is in fact more of SUTR—it is quite literally Upper South Upper Truckee Road.  Continuing on has its risks—this 1.2-mile leg goes by a very large campground, then passes Big Meadows, perhaps the biggest of the trailheads on the Tahoe Rim Trail.  So I would imagine it’s hectic in summer.  I did it in November, and it was deserted.  It’s also utterly delightful, with all the virtues of lower Upper, but curvier and with much better pavement.  It also has the novelty of being utterly unsigned at both ends—given the activity along this road, that’s inexplicable.

When Upper Upper T’s into Hwy 89 (again) at 5.8 miles, turn downhill, to the R (it’s easy to go the wrong way), and strap in for the 3-mile dead straight 7% descent, then 3 miles of flats that take you to 89.

Shortening the route: Not a lot of options here.  Start where the houses end.  Turn onto Hwy 89 when the route first intersects it.

Adding Miles: See the beginning of this post.

At the top of this ride you’re 2/3 of the way to Luther Pass, after which it’s a straight, fast descent to Hope Valley and all the Bestrides riches in the area.

A ride slightly out of the Tahoe area, not quite Bestrides-worthy but totally worth doing once, is Donner Pass Road, which parallels Hwy 80 from Cisco Grove to Truckee.  It’s 23 miles one way, so it makes a nice out-and-back with one significant hill.  From Cisco Grove it’s 13 miles of steady, mild climbing to the Donner Summit Bridge, where there’s a vista point with an unforgettable view of Donner Lake below you, then the one thrilling moment in the ride, an 1100-ft drop through two big esses to the lake.  Donner Pass Road follows the north shore of the lake, and it’s fine, but I prefer taking South Shore Dr. on the other side, which is quieter.  Both routes are lined with vacation homes.  South Shore goes directly through Donner Memorial State Park, then rejoins Donner Pass Rd., which goes through unappealing modern Truckee and ends in the old, charming downtown.

Old Meyers Grade, aka Lincoln Highway Trail, forks off South Upper Truckee Rd. immediately after the beginning of our ride and climbs rather steeply for about 1.5 miles to Hwy 50 (see Don’s comment below).  Where it dead-ends, you can go R on Hwy 50 for about 50 ft and take a very small, unmarked one-lane road on your L, Echo Lake Road (though there is no signage), which continues on for two more miles to Echo Lake.  It’s a wild and wooly ride on poor pavement.  The last time I was there, OMG was gated off at both ends but the gate was jumpable.

There is a North Upper Truckee Rd., almost directly across Hwy 50 from the beginning of South Upper Truckee, but it isn’t worth riding—it looks appealing from the highway, but it’s soon mired in mountain subdivisions.

Afterthoughts: Once back at the intersection of 89 and 50, you can do a very short ride up 50 toward the lake and eat at Pretty Odd Wieners, a highly rated hot dog stand (actually a trailer) in a gas station parking lot on the R.  Or a stone’s throw up 50 from the intersection on the L is Burger Lounge, whose burgers are the standard by which all others are measured.

Ward’s Ferry Road

Distance: 34 miles out and back
Elevation gain: 4840 ft

A general word of warning about riding in the Southern Southern Gold Country: every back road I’ve ridden south of Jesus Maria Rd. has had stretches of pavement ranging from poor to comically horrible.  That includes every Bestrides ride in the area—Ward’s Ferry, Old Ward’s Ferry, not so much Priest-Coulterville—and others like Dogtown Rd.  If poor pavement bothers you, ride somewhere else.

This is a classic “drop down into a river canyon, cross the river, and climb up the other side” ride.  Thus it’s a lot like Mosquito Ridge Road, but not as good, because the road surface is often poor and the rock strata are only fair, but it’s a dramatic canyon, and the road surface is at its best when you need it the most, which is on the steep descending and climbing near the river.  The primary appeal is the solitude and the narrowness of the road—traffic averages 1-5 vehicles per transit (16 miles), and the road is often precisely one car-width wide, so you have to pull off onto the hillside to let the rare car pass.  No centerline, no fog line, no shoulder, no guard rails—just a little ribbon on pavement between cliff and drop-off.

The ride’s unique feature is the bridge across the Tuolumne (“TWAH luh mee”) River, which is either a work of art or an abomination, depending on your taste (see photo below).  From either side of the canyon there are some spectacular views of the river and road below you, so you can look down on where you’re heading (or where you’ve been), which is something I always love.  It’s usually ridden in one direction only, as part of several possible loop routes in the area (see Adding Miles), and it’s certainly easier that way.  As an out and back, it’s serious work—4840 ft of gain in 34 miles.  There are no 15% killer pitches, just a lot of 7-10%, and there’s a lot of variety in the pitch, so no endless grinds.

This is a slow ride and possibly a hot one, so unless you are reprovisioning in Groveland I encourage you to take a third water bottle and drop it at the bridge for the climb back to the car.

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Kings Canyon

Distance: 68 miles out and back
Elevation gain: 7980 ft

(A Best of the Best ride)

I’m not a great fan of riding in National Parks.  They’re too crowded, they aren’t bike friendly, and they usually have only one or two paved roads, onto which thousands of cars are funneled and forced to fight for room.  Our Lassen Volcanic NP ride is an exception, made attractive only because almost no one goes there and you can have the road to yourself.  (The Yosemite tour is there because Yosemite is too imposing to ignore.)

Another exception is Kings Canyon/Sequoia National Park(s).  They’re two parks, but they’re contiguous, so everyone thinks of them as one.  You often aren’t sure which of the two you’re in.  The riding is excellent and extensive.   While Yosemite offers you two roads and Lassen one, KC/S has no less than ten paved roads, and they’re all well worth riding.  Not a lot of people seem to know this.  In my five days of riding in the two parks, the only person I saw on a bicycle of any sort—road bike, mountain bike, BMX, cruiser—was me.

Of course there is always the traffic problem.  I wouldn’t go near any National Park in high season, and even during the shoulder seasons (spring and fall) I adhere strictly to the EMOW rule: ride Early Morning, Only on Weekdays.  I did my KC/S riding in late September, and my EMOW rides saw a car per mile or less.

The ride outlined here is the best of the ten, by a long shot, one of the best rides I know of anywhere and a hands-down Best of the Best ride.     It’s an 8-mile descent into a rock canyon of indescribable grandeur, then an 18-mile meander between towering granite and marble walls and through a beautiful glacial valley along a perfect Sierra stream.  If you ride for the Wow Factor, if you love to be awed, this is the ride for you.  There may be other rides as pretty or as pleasant, but none more mighty and imposing.  Photos can’t do it justice.

I’ve mapped the ride from the obvious starting place, but if you want to get the climbing out of the way first (and I’m with you), drive to Convict Flat Overlook, park, ride back up the hill to the forest line, turn around and descend to your car, then continue on to Road’s End and turn around.

It’s a big ride—69 miles, 8000 ft of gain.  In Shortening the ride I’ll show you ways to cut it down that maintain the grandeur.

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Blue Lakes Road

Distance: 23.6 miles out and back
Elevation gain: 1730 ft

This ride isn’t thrilling.  But if you’re in the mood for a mellow jaunt through pretty High-Sierra country, you can’t beat it.   It’s a idyllic ride, perfect for a recovery day after you’ve tackled one of the harder rides in the area—Carson Pass, Ebbetts Pass, or Monitor Pass—or for a day when you only have an hour or two in the morning or evening to ride.  It’s all easy climbing (1730 ft. in 24 miles), with a  brilliant blue Sierra lake at the turn-around for snacking or meditation.

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North South Road

Distance: 26 miles one way
Elevation gain: 2300 ft (north to south)

(Update: in 2021 the Caldor Fire started near Grizzly Flat, directly to the west of this ride. It spread east until it ended up threatening the Tahoe Basin.  So North South Road was directly in its path and in all likelihood was devastated by the burn.  In fact our route goes through the infinitesimal community of Caldor.  I haven’t been back to the area since the fire.)

North South Road is a small back road that runs north and south (duh) between Mormon Emigrant Trail (which is actually a large two-lane road) and Omo Ranch Rd.  It often lacks a center line, and some maps don’t even show it (AAA does).  My friend Steve Cimini of the Sacramento Bike Hikers showed it to me.   It meanders pleasantly up and down, never getting particularly taxing, through standard nice Sierra pine/cedar forest, but the thing that sets it apart is the solitude.  Usually I measure traffic in cars per mile, a good road being a car or two per mile; on North South you measure traffic in cars per hour.  The last time I rode it, on a fine Monday summer midday, I saw 3 vehicles, and I did 18.6 miles before I saw the first one.  It has a good surface for a road this little used—only the most fastidious will be put off.  Not a great ride but a very good one.

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