Distance: 23 miles out and back
Elevation gain: 2430 ft
This is a short, lovely, relatively easy out and back climb and descent. It stairsteps with much variety of contour through beautiful scenery, then gives you a sweet descent you can really attack on the return. No bragging rights on this one, no sufferfest—just sweet riding. To add to your bliss, at the turn-around point is a unique, charming cafe/bakery/bookstore/coffee shop.
(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.)
Begin at the intersection of Hwy 175 and Highway 29, the moderately big highway paralleling the southern shore of Clear Lake. There used to be a small dirt pull-out 100 yds up 175, but currently (3/2020) there is construction at the 29/175 intersection and it’s obliterated the shoulder along 175, so parking is tight.
Since our route is steepest in the first couple of miles, you might want to warm up on 29, which is flat or gently sloped in both directions, but much of it in this area is shoulderless and narrow, so the traffic can be disconcerting.
Ride 175 to the tiny mountain town of Cobb, where you turn around and ride back. Hwy 175 is the main route from Middletown to Clear Lake, so it’s not car-free, but the traffic is light (even on weekends) and the wide two-lane road offers plenty of passing room. And the payoff for riding on a “highway” is the road surface is glassy throughout. The scenery is first-rate, starting in vineyards and deciduous oaks (particularly colorful in the fall) and climbing to lush Coast Range conifers near the top.
175 is moderately steep in the first mile, but then it mellows out and you won’t work again until the hill just before Cobb. You gain 2430 ft in 11 miles, according to Mapmyride, but in fact the climbing feels much easier than the numbers suggest. The road contour is pleasantly varied, so you never do the same sort of riding for more than about 50 yards.
1.2 miles before Cobb you reach an obvious summit, followed by a fast, straight descent into town. Turn around here if you don’t want to do work, because the climb out of Cobb on the return is noticeable and not particularly fun. But riding to Cobb is worth the effort, because it allows you to visit Mountain High Coffee and Books, on your R just before you intersect with Bottle Rock Rd. in a little strip mall (easy to overlook), a delightful coffee/smoothie/bakery/sandwich/breakfast eatery/aroma therapy/book store which makes for a perfect mid-ride pit stop. This place is one of my favorite little stores anywhere. It sells about 100 used books, all of them hand-selected and worth reading, with a children’s book section, big easy chairs for extended browsing, and outside tables for lunch munching.
The ride back from the summit is very special. It’s never straight, but it’s not twisty, and the pitch is just steep enough that you can get up some real speed (in places you’ll touch 30 mph) but never so steep that you have to back off and brake. I love descents like this, where you can really charge the hill, press the pace, and pedal hard.
In 2015 the Valley Fire burned tens of thousands of acres south of Clear Lake. The fire burned on three sides of Cobb, but the town and our stretch of Hwy 175 were largely undamaged. You’ll see major damage to the forest and several destroyed houses along the road in the last two miles before entering Cobb (see photo at end of post). The stretch of 175 from Cobb to Middletown goes through the heart of the devastation, if you’re interested in such things.
Adding Miles: You can continue on 175 to Middletown. It doesn’t begin to match the interest or beauty of what we’ve already ridden, but it’s pleasant enough—bigger, straighter, more open, more developed—and just past Cobb there’s a substantial descent (1700 ft in 5.5 miles, c. 7%) you want to make sure you want to climb if you’re doing an out and back.
The other riding around Clear Lake is plentiful, popular, and consistently good once you’re off the main highways. The hills south of Clear Lake are a warren of good roads, all much like Hwy 175—pretty, a little trafficky, never flat, never severely steep. It’s easy to make up loops. Bottle Rock Rd., which parallels our ride just to the west, is a little bigger, straighter, and busier than 175 (or was the day I rode it), and it has a 3-mile slog of a climb—straight, unvaried of pitch, and downright monotonous—soon after leaving the lake, all reasons I didn’t include it in our route, but it’s worth riding nonetheless. If you love straight, fast descending, ride up 175 and down Bottle Rock. Also worth riding in the area are Seigler Canyon Rd, Loch Lomond Rd, and Red Hills Rd. Big Canyon Rd. used to be one of my favorites, but it does have a stretch of (ridable) dirt in its middle and it now goes through the heart of the Valley Fire burn. Now years after the fire, the scenery is not barren but also not lush. Seigler Springs Rd. and Diener Rd. are largely dirt.
Creating loop routes in this area almost always involves riding a stretch of Hwy 29. It can be fine or harrowing, depending on where you are. It’s a big two-lane highway with constant gentle rollers, a lot of traffic, and an unreliable shoulder. The scenery—vineyards, hills—is charming.
Heading north from the north end of Clear Lake is one of those effortless gems that cycling brings our way now and then, Scotts Valley Road. It’s a near-flat, dead easy, but utterly adorable roll through an unpretentious valley of ancient pear orchards and old farm houses (the kind with unmanned produce stands in front of them). Take the Hwy 29 exit marked Scotts Valley in Lakeport. Park as soon as the road leaves the congested highway area, ride to the road’s dead end at Hwy 20, then ride back. You can add 6 miles by taking Blue Lakes Rd out and back along the river a stone’s throw before the intersection with 20, and you can add interest by taking the alternate route along Hendricks Road on your L about a mile down Scotts Valley from the beginning of the ride. Rumor had it that the Mendocino Fire damaged Scotts Valley, but I’m happy to say it’s totally intact as of 11/18.
At the northwest corner of the lake is the town of Upper Lake, and from there you can do the Elk Mountain Rd. ride, the exact opposite of the Scotts Valley ride. This one is a rough and rugged ride for a day when you want to work. Ride away from the lake down Upper Lake’s Main St., jog R on Second St. and turn immediately L on Middle Creek Rd, which turns in less than a mile into Elk Mountain. Ride Elk Mountain until it turns to dirt 17 miles out, then return. For the first 9 miles you’ll roll sweetly through pretty oaks along the edge of an ever-narrowing valley. As soon as the valley ends, the road turns up, and you’ll do a demanding 8% pitch for the next 5.5 miles over rough pavement with some splendid switchbacks and grand vistas of the country you’ve just ridden through. At 14.5 miles you summit and roll up and down, mostly down, to the end of the pavement.
The returning descent from the summit would be a Best of the Best descent if the pavement were smooth, which it isn’t. It’s generally poor, and in places it’s downright nasty. Bring your 28 mm tires and prepare to do a lot of braking and feel a lot of jarring.
Elk Mountain Road leads to Pillsbury Lake and to a hugely popular off-road vehicle playground, so there are a surprising number of people up there. I did it at 11 am-1 pm on a beautiful fall Saturday and saw two cars on the ride in—one of whom stopped, asked me if I needed anything, and offered me water. But all those people have to drive up and down that road sometime, so at some hours it must be heavily trafficked, and it’s not a pleasant road to meet traffic on. Plan your ride accordingly.
All that makes Elk Mountain sounds pretty dreadful. It isn’t. If you like a hard climb, don’t mind rough pavement, and can find a ride time that avoids the traffic, it’s the only ride in the Clear Lake area with a sense of epic grandeur.
A popular ride is to circumnavigate the lake. I can’t see the appeal. Highway 29, on the south side, is scenically pleasant but is all shoulder riding, Highway 20 along the north shore goes through a series of small, congested, bike-unfriendly towns that are hectic even in a car, and the connecting roads on the west and east sides are the epitome of big/flat/straight/trafficky.