Comptche to Ukiah

Distance: 29 miles one way
Elevation gain: 3890 ft

(A Best of the Best ride)

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 one of the best rides in California, constantly serpentining and climbing up and down (it’s never flat) through several kinds of pretty-to-gorgeous terrain on an almost-car-free road (I met perhaps 10 cars) 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 hard as an out-and-back for all but the hardiest of riders—57 miles and 7310 ft., with 12 miles of demanding climbing. So I’ve mapped it as a one-way ride. In the Adding Miles section below I’ve suggested some possible return routes.

Second, most of the road surface is OK to great, but about 6 miles are in poor shape, and they’re the 6 miles where it hurts you the most: the 2-mile descent at mile 8 and the 4-mile descent at mile 23. In both cases, otherwise ripping descents are turned into jar-fests with lots of braking. Not fun.  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 fine 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.

All but 6 miles of the ride are mellow meandering up and down or blazing descending, but all the hard work is in that 6 miles—a two-mile climb about 2 miles into the ride and a four-mile climb right after Orr Hot Springs. Those two climbs make this one of the hardest 29-mile rides I’ve ever done.

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 in 7/23 was every day but Sunday). 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 glass 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, you know how drop-dead gorgeous the woods are there. East of Comptche the climate is a little dryer, so instead of redwood rainforest you get oaky woods, but it’s still lovely.

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 one of two compelling arguments against riding the route east to west (the other being the 4-mile climb at the east end).

It isn’t my favorite descent in the world. It’s too steep to be liberating, and the chipseal is just bad enough to shake you up. Big tires and disc brakes may partly obviate this.

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 was always lovely, gets better as you hit a wetter microclimate, and soon redwoods reappear and you’re in paradisial forest. The road contour is lovely, a gentle meandering up and down and back and forth. Most of this road surface is un-ideal chipseal, but it’s not bad enough to ruin your wa.

When the redwoods reach their peak you hit Montgomery Woods State Natural Preserve (unmissable on your R), a lovely short walking lollipop trail through the best of the trees. Bikes are forbidden, and it’s a bit of a climb to get to the loop of good trees, but you can still stop, sample the ambience, read the historical placards, 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 on your R). 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 miles of tough pitches that for the first 2 miles are brutal. Those first two miles are probably never over c. 12%, but they’re also never much below 10%, and it wears on you. After the first two miles it’s just standard hard, 8-10%. To make matters worse, when the climbing starts, the terrain changes, from lush redwood canopy to open, grassy hillsides with the occasional spot of oat-tree shade, so if you’re riding on a summer afternoon expect to be cooked. When I started in Comptche it was 55 degrees—on the big climb it was 95. The good news is that, as the climbing starts, the road surface turns to glass.

At the top of the 4-mile climb, the laborious climbing is done for the ride.

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 times you can see all the way to the coast behind you, about 40 miles.

Looking west at the road behind you from east of Orr Hot Springs

At mile 21, you start the big descent, 4 miles of spectacular dropping down along the sidehill of a canyon. I had the highest of hopes, but I didn’t like it at all. The road surface is poor, so you find yourself getting seriously beaten up and spending all your time looking for the least jarring lines through the broken pavement, and the pitch is so steep you have to brake constantly and hard to keep from being beaten to death and/or thrown off the road. Again, disc brakes and fat tires may mitigate the worst of this.

Typical terrain for the last 8 miles

Once off the hill, you roll under Hwy 101 and T into North State Street just north of central Ukiah. Here there is nothing but some commercial/ industrial activity, and here I abandon you to look for a way home.

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 rough and 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. The two major climbs you encounter heading west are both daunting. 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.

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