Category Archives: Southern Gold County

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.

Highway 4 is a “major” route through the Sierras, but it has little traffic, because most cars choose other routes.  Unless you’re doing this ride on a summer weekend (never a good idea), once you leave Carson River, which is busy with fishermen in the summer, you should be pretty much alone.  I last rode it on a weekday morning in September, and I saw 15 vehicles, or slightly more than a car every two miles.  And the sight lines are grand, so the few on-coming cars announce themselves in advance.


The Carson River canyon before sunrise

Ebbetts Pass is closed by snow in the winter.  It’s usually plowed sometime in late June.  Check highway reports before heading out there.

You shouldn’t need to resupply water on this ride, but if you do, there are two formal campgrounds along Hwy 4.  On hot days I take a third water bottle and cache it when the climbing gets taxing.

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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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Clinton Road

Distance: 41 miles one way
Elevation gain: 5030 ft

I learned about this ride in the nicest way.  I walked into a shop in Sutter Creek to do a little browsing, and I happened to be kitted out.  The proprietor said, “You looking for a good route?”  and pointed me to this one.   I left the store and drove straight to the ride.  It’s a classic climb and decent up into and back down out of the Sierra.  Along the way you’ll meet 3 entrancing crossings of the Mokelumne River and 4 mountain towns that run the gamut from little city (Jackson) to nothing-but-general-store (West Point).

This route does a lot of climbing.   Not one foot of it is especially steep, but there’s a lot of it.  You will be climbing pretty much without a break for the first 17 miles, and there’s plenty of climbing after that, with overall climbing stats well over our 100 ft/mile benchmark.   But it can’t be all up, and this ride features one of the fastest, smoothest slalom descents I know of.

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Jesus Maria Road

Distance: 31 miles one way
Elevation gain: 2214 ft

(A Best of the Best ride)

Update 2018: a fire swept through this area in recent years, and almost all of Jesus Maria Road burned.  What was lush woods is now often charred sticks with new green underbrush returning (see photo below).  It’s still a great road, but with a very different feeling.  jr

Update 1/2021: Great news: Jesus Maria Rd has just been widened and repaved along its entire length and is now smooth.  This thanks to local cycling organizations and the state of California, who spent $200K for the repaving.  If someone spends $200K to prep a ride for you, you owe it to them to go do it.  For details on this and other aspects of California’s $14-million commitment to improving bicycling infrastructure in the Gold Country, see the CalBike website and Bestrides’s introduction to the Gold Country in the By Regions section.  Greenery is returning to the region as well, so there is no reason to delay doing this ride any longer.  jr

This and the Cream of the Sierra Century are the two best rides in the Gold Country.  It’s a tougher climb than our other Gold Country roads (lots of 8-11%).  I amassed 2450 ft of gain in the 14+ miles between Mokelumne Hill and Railroad Flat Road, which is a lot.  Jesus Maria itself is a narrow, serpentining crawl up through a canyon, and it used to be deserted but like everywhere else in California the occasional vacation homes with their $30,000 gates are beginning to appear, and you’ll see perhaps a vehicle per mile.  Thanks to the burn, the scenery varies from stark to lovely, and Jesus Maria itself offers some fine panoramic vistas, which are a rarity in the typically wooded Gold Country.   Like the Clinton Road ride, it’s a U-shaped course leaving you with an unpleasant stretch of Hwy 49 to close the loop.

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Yosemite Tour

(A Best of the Best ride)

(Note 2022: Yosemite, Mariposa, and the surrounding region have been hit hard by forest fires in the last 2 years.  The Mariposa area was on fire in the summer of 2022.  I don’t know how severely the riding has been impacted, but the effect of the fires must have been significant.)

I was introduced to this four-day tour by the Sacramento Bike Hikers, who used to do it every year.   The loop has enormous scenic variety and an iconic destination that amps up the drama from the first pedal stroke.  Not every mile is rewarding.  There’s some boring flat straight stuff in the beginning, there’s some traffic dodging on the Yosemite roads, there are two stretches of rough road surface, and there are way too many people in the Park.  Yet it remains a grand, bucket-list experience.  Just say it with me: “riding my bike to Yosemite.”  You’re down for it, I know.

It’s not at all daunting.  The climbing is mostly quite mellow, and there’s only one longish day, and that’s almost all downhill.  For that and other reasons, I don’t recommend trying to shorten the ride.  This is one of those rides you want to keep epic.   Try to talk a friend into driving a sag wagon.   But I’m a realist, so after we walk through the tour we’ll talk about ways to shorten it.

If you have a National Park pass of some sort, remember to pack it and your ID before setting forth.  It does no good to remember it on Day 3 as you approach the Park entrance.

Day 1: Merced to Mariposa

Distance: 49 miles one way
Elevation gain: 2630 ft

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