Distance: 22 miles out and back
Elevation gain: 2600 ft
This ride has great variety of scenery and road contour in only 12 miles—dense deciduous woods, some redwoods, a meadowed valley, some open, rolling coastal uplands, the coast itself, and an iconic climb up from Hwy 1. It’s all really pretty. It’s more work than meets the eye—RWGPS says it’s 2600 ft in 20 miles, or well over our 100 ft/mile benchmark for climbing hardness, with several short pitches of 10% and three extended climbs you’ll definitely notice. I’ve recorded over 3000 ft of gain more than once. And the road surface is consistently poor to dreadful (this is, after all, Sonoma County), so all descending is largely spoiled. Yet I’m very fond of 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.
The climb up from the ocean after the turn-around 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% average, with a stretch in the middle around 12%. About the time you start cursing, it’s over. And it’s at its steepest in the first half, 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 steep (10%) 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 sweet little 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, there’s an intersection with two street signs telling you that Joy Rd. goes straight and Coleman Valley Rd. goes to the R. If you’re looking to minimize your climbing, start your ride here (though parking is hard to find—there’s a tiny dirt pull-out a stone’s throw down CVR).
The road climbs and 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 headland. 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 should get good views of the ocean and the coast. This is open range, so you’ll see cattle and sheep, sometimes on the road. The road is constantly and seriously up and down (in either direction), so you’ll burn more energy than you expect.
1.5 miles 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 to be a lot of 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 white lines painted on the road.
At the CVR/Hwy 1 junction, go straight across the highway onto the unmissable little path that is Coleman Beach State Park (unsigned). You’re on top of typical coastal headland bluffs, and I saw no way down to the water, but the views are good in both directions. 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.
Climb back up the Wall. At the top, the climbing is by no means over—the route home has less climbing than the route out, but not by much.
When you get to the Joy/CVR intersection, you have a choice. You can go L 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 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, start after the Joy/CVR intersection, ride to the drop-off to Hwy 1, enjoy the vista, turn around and ride home.
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. Two readers (below) trumpet the merits of riding Bohemian, riding to Hwy 1, riding south to Colman Valley Rd., and riding east on CVR back to Occidental. Every road between Occidental and Sebastopol to the east is good, as are Mays Canyon Rd. and Green Valley Rd. to the north. Graton Rd. and Green Hill Rd. to the NE are through gorgeous forest and have lovely contour, thought the traffic is a mite heavy and there is little room for you when you meet it. 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 Chileno Valley Road/Tomales Bay Loop. 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.