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.
(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.)
Ride out of Occidental, CA, a small, charming town with a semi-Victorian vibe and surprisingly good restaurants. Parking is astoundingly easy—the village set the entire town center aside for free parking. Try to schedule your ride so that at one end or the other you can eat at the Italian restaurant in the old hotel. Ride west on Coleman Valley Rd. Instantly you’re into a short but very steep (14%) climb that will kill your cold legs, so you might want to ride some flatter stuff to warm up. There are four other roads heading out of Occidental, and they’re all good riding, but none of them is flat. The nearest to flat is a very back road named (so it says on the sign) “Occidental CP MR RD,” which apparently stands for “Occidental Camp Meeker Road,” off Bohemian Highway just north of town on the R.
At the top of the climb, in a small saddle, a narrow two-lane road without a center line takes off to the R. It’s actually the continuation of Coleman Valley Rd, and you want it. There is no road sign of any sort anywhere around, but the other two directions have stop signs. There’s a sign reading “winding narrow road next 8 miles” ten feet down CVR. If you’re looking to minimize your climbing, start your ride here (though parking is hard to find).
The road drops through lovely, thick coastal forest into a charming, unpolished farming valley, the eponymous Coleman Valley. Note the old one-room schoolhouse preserved on your R. There is often a flock of wild turkeys in the area around the school.
At the far end of the valley you climb, significantly, for a mile to a series of rollers through classic coastal grassland. You’ll swear you’re in the Scottish highlands. Fog is common here on warm days, but it only adds to the Gaelic atmosphere, and almost always Hwy 1 is below the fog layer so you’ll see the ocean and the coast. This is open range, so you’ll see cattle and sheep, sometimes on the road. The road is never flat (in either direction), so you’ll burn more energy than you expect.
A mile or so from the end, the road drops straight down to Hwy 1 and the ocean. The descent is a little too steep, too rough, and too tightly curved, but it’s still fun. There’s a bone-rattling cattle guard right in the middle of the descent, just where you don’t want it, at a spot where you’re tempted to get up some serious speed. There appears to be a second one, but it’s actually fake—just lines painted on the road.
At the CVR/Hwy 1 junction is Coleman Beach State Park, which seems to be no more than a turn-out and a 50-ft hiking trail to a bluff. You’re on top of typical coastal headlands, and I saw no way down to the water, but the views are good—not spectacular, but good. It’s a perfect place to have a little picnic and watch the waves crash on the rocks below. There’s a small interesting coastal community, Carmet, 1/2 mile north on Hwy 1 if you want civilization.
When you’ve done the climb up from Hwy 1, the climbing is by no means over, by the way—the route home has less climbing than the route out, but rollers have a way of making you work both directions.
When you get to the T close to Occidental, you have a choice. You can go L (still called Coleman Valley Rd.) and return to Occidental by way of the short, steep drop you rode up at the start of the ride. Nothing wrong with that. But our route goes R, onto (unsigned) Joy Rd. for a very sweet 1.3-mile descent. Take the first real L onto Bittner Rd. (it’s at the bottom of a steep saddle, so you’ll probably be doing about 35 mph when you reach it). Bittner would be a bucket-list descent if the road surface were pristine, which it isn’t. It’s still fun, and very pretty.
This ride is not car-less. Coleman Valley Road is anything but built up, but people do live there, and there’s Carmet at the end of it, so you will see traffic—perhaps 2 cars per mile.
Shortening the route: If you’re just out for an easy day, ride to the drop-off to Hwy 1, enjoy the vista, turn around and ride home. But I hope you don’t.
Adding miles: Occidental is one of those rare spots where you can point the bike in any direction and the riding is very good. The Bohemian Hwy north is beautiful but a trifle trafficky. Ride it to its northern end and you’re a stone’s throw from our King’s Ridge Road ride. Every road between Occidental and Sebastopol to the east is good, as are Mays Canyon Rd. and Green Valley Rd. to the north. The Bohemian Highway to the south takes you to the north end of all that fine riding in the Marin hills, represented in our list by the Bakeries ride. When you’re at the ocean, you can turn the ride into an adventurous loop by turning north up Hwy 1 and turning R on Willow Creek Rd., a very back-country back road with a long stretch of dirt in the middle I’ve been assured is rideable (Levi’s Gran Fondo has a route that includes it). You may want 28 mm tires for that one.
Afterthoughts: Occidental has remarkably good food for such a tiny town. I mentioned the hotel, but in fact every eatery in town will reward a visit.