Category Archives: Wine Country

Old Howell Mountain Road to Ink Grade

Distance: 25 miles dumbbell
Elevation gain: 3340 ft

This ride is a bit of a grab bag.  It strings together three climbs and four descents, each with its own character.  Locals typically ride it one way, from north to south, and continue on, as a part of pleasant longer routes we’ll discuss in Adding Miles.  But it’s equally good in both directions, and I’m not crazy about those longer routes, so I’ve mapped it as an out and back.  I wouldn’t drive far out of my way to do it, but it has nice variety, a challenging climb, and the thrill of riding a Forbidden Road (see below).  It also includes 1.6 miles of a hellish mix of heavy traffic and broken pavement which you must simply survive.

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Hopland Road

Distance: 35 miles out and back
Elevation gain: 3925 ft

On paper, Hopland Road (aka Hwy 175) is exactly the sort of road Bestrides avoids like the plague: a big, wide main route between two fairly uninteresting towns with an unaltered pitch (read: slog) through unprepossessing scrublands.   The climbing is monotonous, the shoulder is minimal, and the traffic is well above Bestrides’ preferred one car per mile.  But the descending is swell and the vistas are breath-taking.  Do the ride for these two rewards, or don’t do it at all.  And, on the bright side, the traffic, while noticeable, isn’t obnoxious, since the two communities the road connects (Hopland and Lakeport) are both small and the road is straight and wide enough that passing is easy everywhere, and the road surface is flawless, at least on the west side of the summit.

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Geysers Road

Distance: 42-mile loop
Elevation gain: 3820 ft

Many areas have the “Big Ride,” the one you do on the day you want to put in some miles and do some work.  In the Wine Country, the Big Ride is Geysers Road (when it isn’t Stewarts Point/Skaggs Springs Rd.).

When I reached the beginning of the Geysers Road climb, I was stopped by a group of road maintenance guys and we got to talking.  Did I really want to do this?, one of them asked.  Geysers, he said, was a mess.  Long and steep, with a surface that was at its best broken pavement, at its worst full of gravel, rocks, and fallen plant material, with frequent stretches of dirt road and spots of minimally repaired earthquake damage where the road “just falls off.”  Also no water or other reprovisioning opportunities, and little to no cell service.

As it turns out, he was absolutely right, but it’s a wonderful ride nonetheless and nothing to be feared.  Except for one hard mile of 14-15% climbing, all the elevation gain (I recorded 4300 ft) is thoroughly manageable, and the scenery is stunning.  As with all Wine Country riding, the road surface is indeed poor, varying from sorta OK to wretched, but the worst of it is on the ascent, when you’re doing 5-7 mph and it’s not an issue.   I found the earthquake sections geologically fascinating.  And the isolation is a large part of the appeal—after I passed the turn-off to the gravel pit 3 miles in I can’t remember seeing a single vehicle.

If you have everyone’s image of the Wine Country—vineyards, gently rolling hills, old farm houses, everything neat as a pin—forget it.  Geysers is a wild and woolly climb up the side of a creek canyon, followed by a few ridge crossings and mad descents through more canyons, all barren of signs of humanity (one house, one thermal power plant).   No wine tasting here.  But you get that stereotypical Wine Country riding experience on the Geysers Rd.-to-Cloverdale connector.

You want to ride Geysers from north to south.  The road is in two halves with very different characters.  The north side (up to the Geysers Resort Road turn-off) is narrow, mellow of pitch, rough, and winding.  The south side is steep, wider, straighter, and smoother (though not smooth).  So riding from south to north robs you of most of the road’s rewards: instead of a charming, curious, and mellow ascent and a speedy, relatively smooth descent, you get a steep, relatively featureless slog up to the summit, followed by an unpleasantly rough descent.  You’ll see riders beginning at the south end, but I suspect they’re riding to the summit and back.  This is fine if all you want is a workout, but the north side is by far the prettier and more dramatic.

By the way, you won’t see geysers.  You’ll see some developed thermal activity in the distance to your L, but it isn’t pretty and the resort itself is closed.

I would avoid this ride on a hot summer day, since much of it is exposed and there is no water.

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Mt. Veeder Road

Distance: 21 miles out and back
Elevation gain: 2440 ft

I love this road.  It’s loaded with character, and will charm you, I promise.   It’s pretty easy, given the stated elevation gain, and it’s paralleled by a much more car-friendly road, Dry Creek Road (more on that later), that goes to the same place, so it’s almost car-free.  Why can’t all cycling roads be set up like that?

Mt. Veeder Rd. is a text-book two-hour ride: a straight climb-summit-descent, then return.   The landscape is varied, always beautiful, and often unmarked by Man, and the road contour is ever-changing.  It’s a perfect ride, except for the Sonoma County Curse, which I discuss in every write-up of a ride in this region: the road surface varies from pretty good to terrible.  If you’ve been riding in Sonoma County, you’re used to it.  But do not despair—80% of the broken surface is in the climbing lane (where it isn’t a problem at 6 mph), so the descent return can be taken at speed, and it’s a hoot—my favorite descent in the Wine Country.  Keep looking ahead and you can find a clean line through the pavement breaks—it becomes a game.

By the way, names are misleading here.  You are not climbing a mountain, and, despite the fact that you begin on Redwood Road and follow Redwood Creek for miles, these are not redwood forests.  You’ll see more deer than redwoods.

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Coleman Valley Road

Distance: 22 miles out and back
Elevation gain: 2170 ft

This ride has wonderful variety of scenery and road contour in only 12 miles—dense woods, a meadowed valley, rolling coastal uplands, the coast itself, and an iconic climb up from Hwy 1.  It’s all beautiful.  It’s more work than Mapmyride will admit—I recorded over 3000 ft of gain in 22 miles, with several short pitches of 10-14%.  And the road surface, like all road surfaces in Sonoma County, is consistently poor.  Yet I love this ride, and I think you will too.  A bonus is that it starts and ends in Occidental, one of California’s most charming villages.

That climb up from the ocean tends to be mentioned in hushed tones by California cyclists, because it figures in the routes of a couple of famous rides, Levi’s Gran Fondo and the Marin Double Century.  It’s a bit of a spirit-crusher after 70 hard miles, but you’re going to be fresh, so it’s not a huge deal.  You’ll climb about 700 ft in about 1.3 miles, roughly 10%.  About the time you start cursing, it’s over.  And it’s at its steepest at the bottom, so your spirit improves as you climb.

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King’s Ridge

Distance: 49-mile lollipop
Elevation gain: 3920 ft

(A Best of the Best ride)

This ride is legendary.  It’s the cornerstone of Levi Leipheimer’s King’s Ridge Gran Fondo, a ride that includes, in addition to most of this loop, our Coleman Valley Road ride, plus about 30 miles of very nice rolling farm and forest land riding out from Santa Rosa to Occidental and back.  I don’t recommend Levi’s ride per se, because I think it’s very unfriendly, but the entire route is well worth riding.

As is my method, I’m going to cut out the 30 miles of merely good riding and just tell you about the great stuff.  It’s all pretty, challenging riding.   Perks include redwoods, a classic woodsy village, and the opportunity to detour to an overnight on the coast.  As to Mapmyride’s elevation gain of 3920, good luck with that—my computer read 5860 ft vert at ride’s end.

King’s Ridge Rd. (or King Ridge Rd.—you see it both ways) is a rough, centerline-less sorta-two-lane road that does a lot of climbing and then rolls along a ridge top through beautiful, wild country—rugged ranches and open space.  Traffic is almost non-existent—the last time I rode the 47-mile loop, it was a beautiful holiday and I saw 8 vehicles, or 1 vehicle every 6 miles.  The views from the ridgetop are grand.  You can look north over a series of ridges untouched by Man and imagine that you’re the first human to see it.   The odd thing is, you’re close to right.  If you look at a map of California, you’ll see there’s nothing to the north of you for a hundred miles except a few small, sparsely-traveled roads.   Breathe deeply.  It’s a lonely, inspiring experience (another reason not to do it as part of Levi’s ride).  It’s not as wild as it used to be, thanks to some invasive vineyards, but it’s still epic.

The bad news is, the road surface varies from poor to lousy for about 47 of the 50 miles.  That’s not the deal-breaker it sounds like, however.  Somehow the rough road surface becomes part of the adventure.

I’ve seen articles which call this ride “the greatest bike ride in America.”  That’s absurd.  It’s good.  It’s in my Best Of the Best, but is actually one of my least favorite rides on that list.

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Sweetwater Springs Road

Distance: 10 miles one way
Elevation gain: 1160 ft

This is a challenging climb and ripping, curvy descent through surprisingly dense, pretty woods.  It would be deserted were it not for the other cyclists, of which there can be many.  One weekend day I met about 200 bikes climbing the back side as I descended.  On a weekday, you’ll see no one.  The road surface is a little rough in places, but I don’t think you’ll mind.  I’ve called the ride a one-way.  People ride it in either direction, so it’s possible to do it as an out-and-back, but it would give you two tough climbs, and most riders make a loop (which I will describe in Adding Miles) along roads that aren’t good enough to make our list but are good nonetheless.  I always ride it the way I’ve described it, east to west.  If you ride it the other way, the climb is less steep and longer.


(To see an interactive version of the map/elevation profile, click on the ride name, upper left, wait for the new map to load, then click on the “full screen” icon, upper right.)

Start at the intersection of Sweetwater Springs Rd. and Westside Rd.  There’s a small but nice turn-out for parking 20 yards up Sweetwater Springs Rd.  Ride Sweetwater Springs Rd. to its dead end on Armstrong Woods Rd.  You’ll start with some rolling climbs, then a surprisingly long descent, then ride along a little creek through a lovely, shady, thickly-wooded riparian area, then start some serious climbing.

Early Sweetwater rollers

Early Sweetwater rollers

When you enter the riparian area, the road surface deteriorates for a while, and then the climbing gets positively fierce, like 18%, 4-mph fierce.   Luckily when the pitch is at its worst, the road surface is glass.  The really hard stuff doesn’t last more than a mile or so.  Watch for a paved driveway on your left which marks the end of the steepest work.  The climb continues, but at an 8-10% grade that feels positively easy by comparison.

Along the creek

Along the creek (winter)

Past the obvious summit it’s all very fast, very curvy downhill—watch for road imperfections and bicycle traffic coming at you.

 Adding miles: If you don’t want to ride back up the hill, you can loop back to your car with negligible climbing by riding back along the Russian River.   The scenery is great, and you get to experience Guerneville, a wonderfully charming below-the-radar village.   From the end of Sweetwater Springs Rd. go L onto Armstrong Woods Rd. into Guerneville.  Turn R on Main St., ride to the Safeway parking lot on your L, and eat at the taco truck in the parking lot.  Ride back up Main St. the way you came and keep going east along the Russan River on what is now called River Rd.  This leg is narrow with a minimal shoulder, and it’s always busy with traffic, so it’s not a stretch of road I enjoy by any means, even though the ambiance (river, lush woods, old-California ramshackle vacation cabins) is adorable.  Watch for Westside Rd. angling off on your L and take it—it’s all fine riding from there to your car.

Four miles north up Westside Rd. is Mill Creek Rd., which is described in the Adding Miles section of the Pine Flat ride.  Westside Rd. itself is a popular mellow bike route, but its northern end is lined with wineries, so it’s busy with cars.

There is great riding north and south of River Rd.  To the south, the Bohemian Highway is beautiful all the way to Freestone, although it’s a bit of a car thoroughfare.   To the south and east of Freestone everything is good, especially Barnet Valley Rd.  In the middle of the Bohemian Hwy lies the town of Occidental, a nice spot with a few surprisingly good restaurants, and the beginning of the Coleman Valley Road ride.  Mays Canyon Rd. is a particular treat—a gorgeous, centerline-less, patchy, winding path through back country so heavily wooded you almost need a machete.  On the north side, a few miles toward the ocean from Guerneville, is the King’s Ridge ride.   See the Adding Miles sections of the Coleman Valley and King’s Ridge rides for more possibilities.

Afterthoughts: It’s shady in there, so this ride can be drippy.  It’s not a problem until you hit the 18% stuff.  I did it once when the road had a thin film of water on it, and traction was…interesting.  On a dewy morning you might like to wait until later in the day or start the loop from Guerneville.

Pine Flat Road

Distance: 24 miles out and back
Elevation gain: 3060 ft

This ride is a climb.  Just one big, hard, magnificent climb up a 1-1/2-lane road without a center line (my favorite road size).  I learned about it when someone told me it was a favorite training ride of Levi Leipheimer.  But it’s more than just a training ride.  It’s very pretty in a dry, barren sort of way, with grand, expansive views, it has a lot of variety to the road contour, and it dead-ends at the summit, so it has no through-traffic.  Except for a few scraggly houses, it’s just you, the road, and the scenery.

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