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. It’s a bit more work than the elevation total implies.
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).
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.
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 from Jesus Maria Rd. south has had stretches of pavement ranging from poor to comically horrible. That includes every Bestrides ride in the area—Jesus Maria, Ward’s Ferry, this one (not so much Priest-Coulterville)—and others like Dogtown Rd. 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 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—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, 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 jewel in this crown. 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.
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.
Distance: 20-mile out and back Elevation gain: 1410 ft
Most of the rides in Bestrides are fairly taxing, not because I need to be taxed, but because most really good scenery goes up and down. But there are a blessed few rides that offer ample rewards without requiring work (consult the nearly-flat rides list on the Best of the Best page). Huasna Road is one. A mere 20 miles of mostly imperceptible climbing or descending, with one 1-mile moderate hill near the turn-around, it’s perfect for a recovery day or a day with the non-riding spouse, yet the road contour is so seductive (gentle rollers, no long straights) and the scenery so gorgeous (oat-dotted grassy hillsides, riparian oak canopies) that I guarantee even the most hardened of hammerers will be charmed. A perfect ride for the day after you do the thrill-fest that is Prefecto Canyon Road.
A side benefit of this ride is that it motivates you to go to the town of Arroyo Grande, where it starts. Admit it, you’ve never been there. It turns out to be a bustling, sweet little village with oodles of charm, an ice cream parlor, and a patisserie, well worth a post-ride stop.
Two words of caution. 1) I did this ride in April, when the hillsides were green and the wildflowers lush. It might be a bit less stunning in the dead-brown grass of California’s summer. 2) The prevailing wind in this area is westerly, and it can snort, so I would consult the weather with a particular eye on the predicted winds, and plan my ride so I’m not doing the 10-mile return leg into the teeth of a gale.
A number of rides in Bestrides follow Huasna Road’s profile: park at the intersection of a main artery and a small, untrafficked road. Ride the untrafficked road through an agricultural valley, follow the valley until it turns into a narrow creek canyon, follow the creek up a gradually increasing pitch until it turns into an actual climb, ride to the end of the pavement, return. This profile always gives you a nice mix of flat, rolling, steep(er), open, wooded, inhabited, and isolated.
Do not begin at the beginning of Huasna Rd.—it’s big and busy. Drive down Huasna to where Huasna goes off to the R and Lopez Dr. continues straight. A sign at the T tells you that “Lopez Lake” is straight ahead. A sign on the R points to Huasna. Park before the turn, in a handily large dirt turn-out. Ride down Huasna. You will need to negotiate 3 intersections where you might have doubts—follow the signs to Huasna Valley in every case. Notice especially the second, at the intersection of Huasna, School, and El Rancho, where you go R—it’s easy in this direction, but returning you get signs for School and El Rancho but none for Huasna and you have to use your wits.
The scenery is generic at first, but it gets better the further you ride, until you get off the valley floor and into the trees, and then it’s downright grand for the rest of the ride. You’re climbing, but so gradually you won’t notice until you ride it going the other way. About 8 miles in, you hit the one and only hill, about 3/4 mile at 4-6%—in other words, just enough to open up your legs.
The descent down the backside is perfect—easy slaloming at 25-30 mph through lazy, banked esses on glass. Way too short. Off the descent you debouche into Huasna Valley, which is very pretty, and Huasna itself, which is about 4 simple ranch houses. The road splits into two in the midst of “downtown,” and you turn around.
The climb back up the hill is just a smidgen harder and longer than the climb up the front side. Then the descent is just as sweet as the descent on the outbound leg was. The rest of the return ride is that sort of 2% descending where you don’t think you’re descending, you just think you’re on the best day of your life. Assuming you’ve timed it right and the winds aren’t bad.
Adding Miles: There isn’t a lot of good riding nearby, to my knowledge. Huasna Rd. continues on past Huasna Valley, and apparently cyclists ride a lot of it, but it’s only paved for two more miles, and that pavement is only tolerable chipseal. The first mile is highly recommended, because the scenery is as good as what you’ve been through but it’s much more isolated. Go for the solitude. After that, the road climbs briefly to a summit and you can get an idea of what lies ahead of you if you continue. It looks pretty desolate. Back in Huasna, there’s a sign reading “End county-maintained road 14 miles ahead,” for what that’s worth.
The other road out of Huasna is Huasna Townsite Rd. It runs for about 3 miles until it dead-ends, and the scenery seems fine, but the road surface is a particularly nasty kind of chipseal that seems to be pebbles instead of gravel. If you’ve dreamt of riding Paris-Roubaix, here’s your chance. I hated it.
Back at the start of our ride, at the intersection of Lopez Dr. and Huasna, Lopez Dr. is a popular bike route that runs a few miles to Lopez Lake. I haven’t done it, but it looks to be fairly big, pleasant, open, and largely unexciting.
If you want to look further afield, the SLO area is particularly blessed with route resources, thanks mostly to the SLO Bicycle Club website. There you’ll find a list of favored local rides, though the some 40-odd rides detailed there aren’t evaluated for quality or character. I have a paper ride map of the SLO area called the San Luis Obispo County Bike Map, and it’s a beauty. See if local bike shops still have copies. Downloadable maps of the area are at https://bikeslocounty.org/resources/maps/.
Distance: 25 miles out and back Elevation gain: 2910 ft
I’m delighted to add this ride to Bestrides for two reasons, beyond the obvious one that it’s great: a) it’s in an “under-represented” area of California—San Luis Obispo had no rides in Bestrides before this (there are now two, this and Huasna Road); and b) I was tipped off to it by a reader who told me I had to check it out, which is always my favorite way to discover a ride.
It’s a marvelous ride, full of everything we ride bikes for: beautiful woods, grand vistas, some easy rolling, some moderate climbing, a little tough climbing, some thrilling descending—even a bit of rideable dirt. I didn’t put it in the Top Ten best of the best list, but I was sorely tempted. It’s a high-energy thrill-fest, along a creek through dense, magnificent riparian oaks, then up to a mountaintop where you can see forever, then down the back side through more oak canopy to the outskirts of Avila, a beach town that is a perfect spot for getting off the bike and exploring.
You might worry that 25 miles won’t give you a workout. Fear not. It’s harder than the numbers suggest, because most of the (recorded) 3200 ft of climbing you do in 4 miles—two on the climb up to the summit and two on the return from Avila. Mapmyride says you’ll do some 12-13% on the ride out and touch 14% on the ride back, and I won’t dispute those numbers. The rest of the route is moderate to easy rollers.
Timing matters on this ride. I am told that the SLO spring is very short-lived—two weeks or so. Apparently I was supremely lucky to do this ride in mid-April, when the wildflowers were flourishing and everything was green. Try to time your ride accordingly. Similarly, much of the specialness of the ride is in the views from the hilltop, so try to find a day with immaculately clear skies.
You can start where Prefumo Canyon Road leaves huge Los Osos Valley Road, but it’s generic residential/apartment complex, so I drive the 1/2 mile down PCR to Castillo Ct., park curbside on Castillo and ride from there. The first 3 miles are mellow ascending rollers, so you can warm up on them before doing anything hard. The scenery here is solid bush and OK but not spectacular. It will get much, much better.
From mile 3 to the summit (at c. 4.5 miles) you will work, but you won’t mind because there’s a lot going on. The road is never straight and never climbs at one pitch for long, so you get constant breaks and variations, and the landscape is first pretty riparian oak woods, then open hilltop with steadily improving vistas overlooking the SLO valley to the east and the land to the north. Eventually you can see the ocean and Morro Rock to the west. Possibly the grandest vistas in Bestrides after the Santa Rosa Road Wall.
Roll across the hilltop for a short mile (with several mega-mansions for company), then begin the obvious descent down the back side. Of course you can turn around at the summit if your climbing legs are toast, but you don’t want to, because the rest of the road is really, really pretty. Instantly the road surface, which has been unproblematic, goes to hell, but it doesn’t matter because very soon it disappears and you’re on dirt. I’m not big on dirt, but this is totally rideable (I had 25 mm tires, but you don’t need them), it only lasts a bit over a mile, and the oak canopy on the dirt leg is the best non-vista scenery on the ride. Somewhere in here the road changes its name from Prefumo Canyon Rd. to See Canyon Rd., but I don’t know where.
When the dirt ends, you begin two miles of fast but not very interesting descending (mostly straight, mostly monotonous)—my least favorite part of the ride, in either direction. Once off the slope, you have 4 miles of effortless (in both directions) riding over easy rollers through a garden-pretty hillside with oaks on one side and often old apple trees on the other (See Canyon apple cider is apparently a local thing).
I’ve ended the route at the end of See Canyon Rd., but I encourage you to ride the two additional miles to Avila, one of the most charming of the many coastal villages in this area.
The ride back has only one surprise, which is how hard the climb back to the dirt is. The road is still straight and monotonous, but now it’s that at 5 mph. I didn’t enjoy it. The oaks are still pretty. After the dirt, the short climb to the hilltop is murder, but, as I say, short.
The descent from the hilltop is at first a bit too rough, a bit too steep, and a bit too full of speed-scrubbing switchbacks for ideal riding, but the situation you’re in is so amazing that you’re transported anyway. Once past the 2 miles of steep, the descending is pretty ideal—dropping rollers through pleasant esses at comfortable and controllable speed on unproblematic pavement. Castillo Ct. comes all too soon.
You’ll see some cars at the two ends of this route, and the hilltop is a popular place for nature lovers and their cars on weekends, but I didn’t find it to be a problem. Passing lines are good, and much of the route is almost deserted. I did the ride at the road’s busiest season, and it wasn’t at all bad.
Adding Miles: Save the few miles to and just past Avila Beach, there isn’t any prime riding at either end of this route. It’s possible to loop the ride by returning on the frontage road running along the lip of Hwy 101, but it’s not rewarding.
If you’re looking for rides further afield, the SLO area is particularly blessed with route resources, thanks largely to the SLO Bicycle Club website. There you’ll find a list of favored local rides, though the some 40-odd rides detailed there aren’t evaluated for quality or character. I have a paper ride map of the SLO area called the San Luis Obispo County Bike Map, and it’s a beauty. See if local bike shops still have copies. Downloadable maps of the area are at https://bikeslocounty.org/resources/maps/.