Distance: 29 miles one way
Elevation gain: 3890 ft
There are three routes to get from the Mendocino coast to the Lake Mendocino area of Hwy 101: Hwy 20, Hwy 128, and this one. They couldn’t be more different. Hwy 20, from Fort Bragg to Willits, is gorgeously wooded but a death-trap for bikes, a heavily-trafficked road of blind corners and no shoulder. I’ve never seen a bike on it, for good reason. Hwy 128 and Hwy 253, from Albion through Boonville to Ukiah, a leg of which is part of the Mendocino/Comptche ride, is mostly a mellow, nearly flat cruise through domesticated farmland and riparian redwoods. Our route (called at its west end Comptche-Ukiah Road and at its east end Orr Springs Road, with a name change somewhere in the middle) is a different beast, a dramatic, demanding roller-coaster. It’s a world-class ride, constantly serpentining and climbing up and down (it’s never flat) through several kinds of pretty terrain on an almost-car-free road that ranges in size from small two-lane to tiny.
There are two drawbacks that may keep it from being your favorite ride. First, it’s too long and too hard as an out-and-back for all but the hardiest of riders—57 miles and 7310 ft., and harder than that sounds. So I’ve mapped it as a one-way ride, and left you to deal with the logistical consequences. If you’re up for a century-like effort you can loop it, and almost every mile of the loop is top-quality riding—we’ll talk about the loop route in the Adding Miles section below.
Second, most of the road surface is OK to great, but about 6 miles are chipseal—not horrible, intolerable jagged chipseal, but the kind of chattery “smooth” chipseal I find merely annoying. If you’re on fat tires it will probably be OK.
Besides 30 miles of exhilarating road contour and beautiful isolation, the route offers two splendid perks: Orr Hot Springs, a small, charming Hippy holdover, and Montgomery Woods State Natural Reserve, a fine stand of old-growth redwoods with a short loop trail. Each is well-worth an hour’s stop-over.
The ride is about as good in the other direction, and through-riders might like to use it to get from Hwy 101 to Hwy 1 and Mendocino, but don’t think that just because it’s going west from the heights of the Coast Range to the ocean it’s all down—it’s 3420 ft of gain going west (only slightly less than the gain going east), and the ups are steep.
There is no water source along the route except a few private houses and Orr Hot Springs, so plan accordingly.
Start in the tiny town of Comptche, which consists of a few houses, a rustic school, a rustic church, and a classic, friendly corner mercantile worth a visit (when it’s open, which seems to be most of the time). Head east on Comptche-Ukiah Road, the only road that isn’t Flynn Creek Road. After a short 2-mile warm-up on rollers, you do a vigorous 2-mile climb on 7-11% pitches. The road surface, recently redone, is incredibly good from Comptche to around Mile 7, then merely good to around Mile 10. You’ll have some town traffic in the first mile or two, but soon the houses and farms end and you should have the road pretty much to yourself for the rest of the ride.
If you’ve ridden the Mendocino/
Comptche ride route from Hwy 1 to Comptche, the landscape isn’t that pretty here, but almost nothing is. East of Comptche the climate is dryer, so instead of redwood rainforest you get oaky woods, but it’s still very pretty.
At the fairly noticeable summit the road begins to roll up and down (as I say, the route is never flat) for about 5 miles. You begin hitting short sections of road with poor pavement, but they’re interspersed with sections of new glass, and it never gets troublesome. Then you see a sign that reads “next 2 miles, 10% (down)” and you begin about 2 miles of serious descending, 10-15%, which is the most compelling argument against riding the route east to west.
At the bottom of the descent you begin a 7-mile stretch of gradually rising rollers, the nearest to flat on the route. The scenery, which has gotten pretty dry by now, begins to perk up as you hit a wetter microclimate, and soon redwoods reappear and you’re in paradisial forest. It would alll be heaven except that it’s all chipseal—about as good as chipseal can get, never unbearable but certainly irritating.
When the redwoods reach their peak you hit Montgomery Woods State Natural Preserve (unmissable), a lovely short walking loop through the best of the trees. Bikes are forbidden (it would be an awesome mountain bike ride), and it’s too far to walk without real shoes, but if you didn’t pack them you can still stop, sample the ambience, and use the bathrooms by the entrance.
The road, which was always small, has been getting smaller (the center line is long gone), and right after Montgomery it gets laughably narrow. Enjoy it—it will return to normal two-lane width soon enough.
You may see walkers along the road here, because Montgomery is a mile or two down the road from the route’s other plum, Orr Hot Springs (unmissable). This small but developed hot springs has nothing in common with big operations like Harbin Hot Springs or Wilbur Hot Springs. It’s usually almost deserted, which is good because the hot springs can only handle about 4 people at once, consisting merely of a large roofed barrel and a shallow, rocky puddle. The expansive flower gardens are an unexpected but joyful draw—walking among the blooms is as restorative as the hot water. It’s all very peaceful and solitary. Consider begging for water here, because you have 12 miles of hard, exposed, and potentially hot riding still to do.
Immediately beyond Orr, the route begins its most demanding climb, 4.5 miles of tough pitches that for the first mile or so are brutal. RidewithGPS says that mile is consistently c. 10%, but expect much steeper stuff. After that it’s just standard hard. To make matters worse, when the climbing starts, the terrain changes completely, from lush redwood canopy to open, grassy oak-strewn hillsides, so if you’re riding on a summer afternoon expect to be cooked. The good news is that, as the climbing starts, the road surface turns to glass.
This new rolling grassy landscape lasts until the end of the ride, and it’s really quite rewarding in its way, with a lot of serpentining in the road contour and lots of big vistas in all directions. For the first time in the ride, you can see more than 30 yards of the road ahead of or behind you.
At mile 21, the extended climbing is over and you’re officially “descending” to just before the end of the ride, but the road continues to roll so you’ll do some work. Much of this pavement is merely OK but never hateful.
Once off the hill, you roll under Hwy 101 and T into North State Street just north of central Ukiah. Here there is basically nothing but some commercial/ industrial activity, and there I abandon you to the whims of fate.
Shortening the ride: You can turn around any time. The first logical turn-around spot is at the first summit—round trip distance 8 miles but it’s a demanding 8 miles. It’s a very nice descent, with great pavement, good sight lines, and gentle turns that don’t require much braking. East from the summit it rolls for about 5 miles, so you can continue on without a major climbing penalty and turn around at the “Next 2 miles, 10% (down)” sign—round trip 17 miles. Beyond that point, you’ve got a tough 2-mile climb coming back so continuing is an investment.
Adding miles: Obviously the simplest extension is to turn around and ride back the way you came, which of course doubles the distance and almost exactly doubles the climbing effort. If you don’t like out and backs and are willing to put in a very long day, you can loop the route, and it’s almost all great stuff: from our end point, go south, through Ukiah proper to Boonville-Ukiah Road, take BUR, go R onto Hwy 128, ride 128 to Flynn Creek Rd. and take Flynn Creek Rd. back to Comptche—80 miles, 8340 ft gain (so it’s easier than the out-and-back route, since it’s a little more climbing spread over a lot more miles). All these legs except for the few miles through Ukiah proper are discussed in other Bestrides posts (you can search for them) and are top-quality miles.
If you want to keep the return miles to a minimum but don’t like out and backs, there is a mythic road that will take you almost straight back to your starting point: Masonite Road. It takes off from Orr Springs Rd. just outside Ukiah and wanders around until it rejoins Hwy 128 just east of Flynn Creek Rd. It’s 35 miles, 3070 ft, so it’s a much easier ride than Comptche-Ukiah/Orr Springs Rd. in either direction. Here’s a map. My sources tell me it’s officially a “private” road and gated off to cars but bikes are welcome. Google “Masonite Road” for more details. It sounds dreamy, except for one thing: it’s 75% gravel, so it’s not for me.
When in the town of Comptche you’re at the midpoint of our Mendocino/Comptche ride.