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—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. 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. See Adding Miles below for another route out of Occidental with much better road surface.
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 good—six roads go out of Occidental and they’re all well worth riding. The Bohemian Hwy. in either direction out of town is beautiful with good pavement, but trafficky with no shoulder. The northwest leg (Occidental to Monte Rio) is especially gorgeous, and especially inhospitable to bikes, though locals ride it all the time. 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. Bohemian to the southeast takes you to Freestone, home of the locally famous Wild Flour Bakery, and the north end of all the fine riding in the Marin hills, represented in our list by the Chileno Valley Road/Tomales Bay Loop. You can turn our route into a loop by turning north up Hwy 1 when you reach the ocean 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.
If you get to Monte Rio, nearby Mayes Canyon Rd. and Green Valley Rd. are lovely.
Between Occidental and Sebastopol is a magnificent network of small back roads, all with great scenery and great contour. The serpents in the garden are road surface, which can be dreadful, and traffic, which can be troublesome even when light, because of the absence of shoulders and sight lines. Here is a wonderful route on good surfaces and only occasional traffic: from the town of Occidental, go east on Graton Rd., R on Green Hill Rd., R on Occidental Rd., L on Jonive Rd., straight onto Burnett Valley Rd., R on Burnside Rd., turn around at Bloomfield Rd. and return to Occidental Rd. , L on Occidental back to town.
Fans of bike paths will want to know there is a flat, straight bike path from Santa Rosa to Sebastopol, the Joe Rodota Path, that parallels the highway (not too thrilling except as time trial training), and its continuation, the West County Regional Trail, from Sebastopol north to Forestville (somewhat less boring).
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.
Thank you for posting this. I found your blog yesterday while staying in Forestville and did this bike ride today. Very beautiful.
Thanks for the great ride. FYI: There is no cell coverage whatsoever in Occidental, and very little over the route as a whole (I sensed that’s kinda the way the residents like it). there is a weak signal when you break out into the high ground right before the descent down to Hwy 1. So don’t plan on using your cellphone for route finding.
I did this route today, but backwards, starting at Hwy. 1. Occidental is a quaint town to grab a bite to eat in, as Jay mentioned. I timed my way back to pair with a sunset over Coleman Valley. As long as you have lights on your bike I highly recommend this. It was absolutely gorgeous. Thanks so much, Jay. This is my 2nd of your rides in the last month and they do not disappoint.
Regarding Jon’s comment above that there is no cell service on the ride: Verizon works in Occidental, but not AT&T now, 2019.
I know it’s old-school, but I photograph my routes before the ride, so I always have some form of route info if there is no service.
I live and ride around here, so here’s a popular loop: From Occidental, Take Bohemian Hwy north to Monte Rio. The road was recently repaved and it’s a buttery smooth descent all the way down to the river. Take Moscow Road to Duncan’s Mills for a bakery stop. Continue to the coast on Hwy 116, go south to Coleman Valley Road, and climb back to Occidental with warm legs. With this loop you don’t have to climb out of Occidental with cold legs; you get the BoHo descent, you get the coast; and you get the CVR climb too. Bring 28mm + tires if you can for our crappy roads.
I did Coleman Valley Road on an August weekend looking to escape Wine Country heat with some friends of varying levels of bike confidence. CVR is spectacular — ripe blackberry bushes and abundant wildflowers lined the road most of the way. Vast ridgeline views opened up as we neared the ocean.
Beforehand, I had been uncertain about whether to bring my road bike or gravel bike on this trip. In the end, I had my gravel bike, and was glad I did: the descents were a lot of fun, and I was able to spend more time enjoying the views and/or spotting blackberries than watching for surface hazards. Sonoma pavement may be the perfect use case for a drop-bar bike with 38mm tires.
We stopped for lunch in Bodega Bay (fish and chips at Fisherman’s Cove—perfect); the bit of Hwy 1 you have to ride to get there from CVR is both beautiful and relatively low-stress. Cars gave us a lot of room, we enjoyed the views of Salmon Creek Beach.
Some of our companions were running low on energy after lunch and wanted an easier return trip, so we took the shortest, least steep way we could find back to Occidental: Hwy 1 south to Bodega Hwy to Bohemian Hwy. For future riders in this situation: this is do-able, though not ideal—the cars on 1 and Bodega Hwy were fast and occasionally actively resentful of bikes on the road. Bohemian Hwy was lovely, however: the tiny hamlet of Freestone looks charming, the rare cars were happy to co-exist with us, and the last bit of the ride is a gentle climb through a beautiful tunnel of trees.
I’d happily return and do CVR again, in order to complete Jay’s out-and-back or try that northern loop with Willow Creek Road.
I’ll second the merits of starting with the Bohemian descent and climbing back up Coleman to get back to your starting point. One of the more memorable loops I’ve ever done.
I have enjoyed the loop via Bohemian/Moscow/116 but 116 can have fast traffic. I can also recommend a non-obvious loop for those willing to ride on a dirt fire road. Willow Creek Road is very scenic and connects Coleman Valley Road to Highway 1 (just south of the Russian River). Cars are not allowed in the unpaved middle third of the road so there is minimal traffic. Do not attempt this route if it has rained recently (and I think bikes are not allowed in the unpaved section during the rainy season). If you would like to add a hike to your bike ride, the poetically named Islands in the Sky trail is highly recommended.