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. My computer recorded 6200 ft vert—the vert quoted total above is from RidewithGPS. But it can’t be all up, and this ride features one of the fastest, smoothest slalom descents I know of.
(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.)
This route follows the model for the classic Hwy 49 loop ride: Take off from a point on 49, climb eastward until you hit that north/south road that goes by many names but runs pretty continuously about 15-20 miles east of 49, ride north or south on it, then find a road that goes west and returns to 49. You can probably map out a dozen such rides, and they’d all be good (see more in Adding Miles). They typically leave you with an unpleasant leg along Hwy 49 to close the loop, as this one does.
Navigation on this route is tricky, both because I want to discuss several options, and because both the AAA map and the Benchmark atlas omit one of our roads, but each one chooses a different road to omit—go figure.
Ride east out of Jackson on Clinton Rd. You can park in the Raley’s parking lot near the corner of Clinton and Hwy 49. Clinton has Hwy 88 paralleling it just to the north and taking all the through traffic, so cars are at a minimum here. You start climbing immediately, but the first few miles are very mild and you can easily warm up on them. The further east you go, the steeper, smaller, and prettier the road gets.
A stone’s throw out of Jackson, the redundantly-named Butte Mountain Rd. goes off to the R (there’s no sign on the R side of the road, but there’s one across from Butte Mt. Rd. on the L) and now, in the way of the Gold Country, you have to choose between two excellent roads. They both go to the same place, so it’s a question of what you like. Clinton is a mild steady climb; Butte Mountain rolls up and down, so it gives you a more varied riding experience, but you have to pay for all the little downs by climbing to regain the lost elevation. And it’s also a little steeper. So it’s quite a bit more work. Butte Mountain Rd. is a little more remote, and it gets smaller—down to a very cozy single lane. Make your choice. Our route map assumes you go up Clinton.
A stone’s throw above where Butte Mountain and Clinton reunite, Clinton heads off to the L at a right angle and the straight road becomes Tabeau(d)—pronounced “tuh BOO” and spelled with and without the -d. This section of Tabeaud isn’t on the AAA map (it’s in the Benchmark atlas), and Googlemaps doesn’t help because it shows so many roads in the area it’s hard to find your way. But in the real world it’s apparent. There’s no sign at the intersection, but there’s a small sign 50 ft before it, and 50 ft after it on Tabeaud. You can stay on Clinton if you like—it’s good riding, and it’s the easiest way to the top—but we’re going straight onto Tabeaud because there’s stuff on that route we don’t want to miss.
Next you reach a fork marked E. Clinton to the L and Tabeaud Rd. to the R. (the Benchmark atlas doesn’t show E. Clinton). This time the sign is smack dab at the intersection. Both routes are worth riding. If you stay on Tabeaud, you’ll do 1.5 miles of climbing that’s steeper than anything else on the ride, then roll up and down to Hwy 88. But we’re going L., because the next mile or so is one of those stretches of road that’s just laugh-out-loud fun, a joyous little roller coaster. It puts the “whoop” back in “whoop-de-doo.” It ends all too soon, back at Clinton Rd., where you go R, then R on Irish Town Rd. This is a rather monotonous climb of unvarying pitch that goes on a little too long and dumps you out on Hwy 88 and into Pine Grove, a large mountain town with a bank, a pharmacy, a burger place, a pizza place, and an ice cream parlor. (If you took Tabeaud Rd. it brings you to Hwy 88 south of Pine Grove, and you’ll have ride north to town, then retrace your route if you need ice cream.)
When you get to Pine Grove, you’ve got another decision. You’re into the ride for 13 miles and about 2200 ft of vert. Are you up for 30 more miles and 4000 more feet of vert? Do you feel like sharing the road with some traffic? If the answer is no, consider looping back down the road to Jackson. All you have to do is ride down the road you didn’t ride up—if you rode up Irish Town, ride down Tabeaud, and vice versa. (Tabeaud’s surface downhill is a little rough, and Irish Town is a great descent, so if you’re planning to do this shorter loop, I suggest going up Tabeaud and down Irish Town.) Ride back to the E. Clinton/Tabeaud intersection, ride down to the Butte Mountain/Clinton intersection and descend the road you didn’t ride up. You’ll have a 25-mile day with about 2500 ft of vert, you’ll spend the entire day on sweet, traffic-free back roads, and very little of the route will be duplication. Warning: if you lay out your route so you’re “descending” E. Clinton, you’ll be riding up some nasty 14% pitches.
If you ride on, as the route map does, the rest of the ride is on highways, mostly small ones. Ride south out of Pine Grove on 88, a large highway with a lot of traffic and a good shoulder, for a very unrewarding three miles, all up, and go R onto Hwy 26, aka Red Corral Rd. You’ll stay on 26 to the end of the ride. Red Corral Rd. is much smaller than 88, so cars, while certainly present, shouldn’t be a problem. Climb a steady moderate grade until you reach an obvious summit around 17 miles into the route. Prepare yourself—something really good is about to happen. The next few miles are a long, perfect slalom through big, sweeping curves, the ultimate ski run on a bike. The road is curvy enough to be exciting yet straight enough and open enough that on-coming traffic isn’t a threat, and there isn’t a tight curve to spoil your rhythm. It lasts until you cross the North Fork of the Mokelumne River on a fairly large bridge (the first of three crossings on the Mokelumne on this route, four if you close the loop via Hwy 49). Take a moment to be grateful—you’ll never see a descent like that again, at least on this ride.
Consider pausing at the crossing. This is the best place to get off your bike on the route. It’s a lovely spot, well worth fifteen minutes of foot-dangling or meditating on moving water. When you’re ready to move on, you must now climb, as always after a big descent down to a river. The climb is substantial in length but never brutal. When it ends, you roll a couple of miles into the town of West Point. Notice something odd? These are the only miles you get on this ride that aren’t noticeably up or down.
West Point, supposedly named because it’s the western-most point that Kit Carson ever reached, is not much more than a very nice, modern grocery store. South of West Point you cross the Middle Fork of the Mokelumne, but you’ll hardly notice it. Drop down to the South Fork of the Mokelumne, your last creek crossing (unless you do the Hwy 49 leg). The crossing itself and the next few miles of riding are particularly beautiful, especially if it’s later in the day and the forest is backlit by the lowering sun. After the creek, you climb, a lot, to and beyond a false summit to about 33 miles into the route—the non-existent community of Glencoe is about the end of it (there’s a sign, and farms, but no town). From there it’s mostly down with some lovely stretches, repeatedly interrupted by small ups (and one large one) all the way to Mokelumne Hill—as if to make a point, the road actually climbs up to town. The Mokelumne Hill intersection with Hwy 49 is just that—an intersection, with some stores, a gas station, and a restaurant. The real old town is 100 yards north on 49 and to the R (the sign says “Main Street”). It’s well worth a visit, a Gold-Rush town still pretty much in its original 1800’s shape with an old hotel where you might want to stay if you’re looking for cheap, authentic Gold Country lodgings.
Our ride ends at the intersection, because that’s where the good riding ends. But, unless you can finagle a car pick-up or hitch a ride (I wouldn’t think less of you if you did), you’re going to have to ride Hwy 49 back to your car, so I’ll tell you what you’re in for. It isn’t fun. It starts out OK, with you doing 20 mph on a gradual downhill on a decent shoulder with cars whizzing by. In a mile or so you’ll see a sign that shows a circular curve and a 30-mph speed limit. The shoulder disappears. You’re about to descent down through a long series of amazing esses that would be marvelous if the road were closed to cars. Move to the center of the lane—you can’t afford to be nice to the cars right now. You’ll have a car on your tail—ignore him. Some idiot will just have to pass you. So be it. If it makes you feel less guilty, you’re probably exceeding the speed limit. Stay in the center of the lane until you’re down to the river and across the bridge. Then move to the reappearing shoulder and stay there for a 4-mile boring slog back to your car. It’s uphill every inch until the last 1/8 mile. In total, it’s 7 miles—not the worst 40 minutes of your life, but I’m not putting it in my list.
Shortening the route: Ride to Pine Grove and back, riding Clinton one way and Butte Mountain the other.
Adding miles: As always in the Gold Country, fine riding is in every direction off this route. You can make the loop a few miles longer by going R onto Railroad Flat Rd. at the intersection soon after West Point (clearly signed), then going R on Ridge Rd. to return to Hwy 26. You can make the loop a lot longer by continuing past Railroad Flat on Railroad Flat Rd. and taking the next R on Jesus Maria Road, if you don’t mind descending on some sketchy pavement. You can go on in this way, making the loop longer by going south as far as you want to, then taking the next R back west—everything’s good until you get to Hwy 4, which is very trafficky. Looking in the other direction, from Pine Grove you can go east on Pine Grove Volcano Rd. to Volcano—then you’re on the Cream of the Sierra Century ride. And so it goes, without end, in this region.
Afterthoughts: You will suck water on this ride. It’s hard work, and it’s probably warmer than you expect. You can replenish at Pine Grove, West Point, and Mokelumne Hill (where there is a restaurant that grudgingly will give you water. They charged me 75 cents for about six cubes of ice once. It still rankles.)