Category Archives: Southern Gold County

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.

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.

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.

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.

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. shortly after the beginning of our ride and wanders through back country, crosses Hwy 50, and continues on to Echo Summit by various street names.  It’s reported to be worth riding, but I haven’t done it.

By the way 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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Carson Pass Plus

Distance: 67 miles one way
Elevation gain: 3015 ft

Here’s the rare opportunity to ride 67 miles in one direction, all of it really good.  This ride is a trip through a lovely aspen-strewn Sierra valley, a famous climb up and over the most scenic of California passes, a long stair-stepping descent back to the foothills, a slalom course through vacation home country, and a final mellow leg though a classic old farming valley.  It’s more than anyone is going to ride as an out and back, which is OK because I can only recommend it in one direction, east to west.    See Shortening the route below for tips on how to arrange a manageable day if you don’t have a shuttle.  I did the ride as part of a 4-day loop tour that started in Sacramento and passed by Lake Tahoe.

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Ebbetts Pass

Distance: 27 miles out and back
Elevation gain: 2989 ft

(A Best of the Best ride)

The Death Ride has made its three summits—Carson, Monitor, and Ebbetts—famous.  The three climbs are very different.  Carson Pass—included in the Carson Pass Plus ride—is an almost straight slog whose selling point is its magnificent vistas.  Monitor Pass is a monotonous, seemingly endless straight grind up through featureless high desert country I find esthetically without merit.  Many riders love it.  I’ve asked them why, and it seems to come down to how you feel about straight 50-mph descents.  I don’t care for them, so Monitor isn’t in my list.

Ebbetts Pass, on the other hand,  is one of the four or five best rides in California, a challenging but always rewarding climb along rocky steams and through pretty Sierra Nevada forest surrounded by classic High Sierra granite and big canyon views, with a road contour that is constantly varying—no long, tedious slogs, I promise.   And the descent is even better—very much in the running for best descent in California.  The road surface is as good as a road surface that experiences California high-country winters can be—the top few miles are a bit rough on the descent but most of it is close to glass.

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Cream of the Sierra Century

Distance: 45 miles one way
Elevation gain: 3330 ft 

(A Best of the Best ride)

This and the Jesus Maria Road ride are the best rides in the Gold Country.

The century that explores the Gold Country is the Sierra Century, and, while I have reservations about centuries generally, this is one worth doing because 45 of its miles are great riding and a perfect introduction to the region, and the other 55 aren’t bad.  Good as the route is, it’s got the inevitable stretches of mediocrity that plague all centuries, so, in keeping with the spirit of Bestrides, here is a modified version of the Sierra Century route, whittled down to the sweet stuff.

As with all Gold Country riding, the route can be ridden any time of the year, but doing it in the spring, when everything is green and blooming, doubles the pleasure.  The Sierra Century used to be in the middle of summer, when temperatures on the road could easily be over 100, but it learned its lesson and is now c. April 15, which is about ideal.  The route has great variety of landscape—rolling grassy foothills, burbling streams, conifer forests—and 5 small towns, each of them worth some exploring.

It’s a U-shaped course that climbs up into the Sierra, cuts across the ridges, then descends, leaving you with pleasant but not great roads to close the loop.

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