Distance: 45 miles one way
Elevation gain: 3330 ft
(A Best of the Best ride)
The century that explores the Gold Country is the Sierra Century, and, while I have grave reservations about centuries generally, this is one worth doing because 45 of its miles are great riding and a perfect introduction to the region, and the other 55 aren’t bad. Good as the route is, it’s got the inevitable stretches of mediocrity that plague all centuries, so, in keeping with the spirit of Bestrides, here is a modified version of the Sierra Century route, whittled down to the sweet stuff (which is, in fact, 45 miles of the metric Sierra Century route).
As with all Gold Country riding, the route can be ridden any time of the year, but doing it in the spring, when everything is green and blooming, doubles the pleasure. The Sierra Century used to be in the middle of summer but learned its lesson and is now c. April 15, which is about ideal. The route has great variety of landscape—rolling grassy foothills, burbling streams, conifer forests—and 5 small towns, each of them worth some exploring.
It’s a U-shaped course that climbs up into the Sierra, cuts across the ridges, then descends, leaving you with pleasant but not great roads to close the loop.
(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.)
Start in the town of Ione. Stop off at Clark’s Corner, an excellent, friendly restaurant run by great boosters of cycling who deserve your business. Take the main street out of town heading north and immediately go R onto Hwy 124, a boring road that’s the worst on our route. Go R onto Sutter-Ione Rd. (I’d start the ride here if I didn’t want to give Clark’s a plug) and enjoy the rolling grassy hills, typical of the riding west of Hwy 49, that precede the more wooded stuff to come. This (along with Stony Creek Rd. to the south) is as good as the riding to the west of Hwy 49 gets, so if you don’t like it I wouldn’t do more of it. It can be brutally hot out here on a summer day, so ride it in the morning or in another season. You will do some work here—the rollers can get big and you’re gaining elevation overall.
Sutter-Ione Rd. ends at Sutter Creek, the prime tourist destination in the Gold Country. You might pause to soak in the quaint charm of the main street and/or hit the ice cream parlor on your R. Ride through town (heading south) and take Church St. to the L. It soon becomes Sutter Creek-Volcano Rd. This leg is a popular bit of riding because it’s along a pretty creek and as mellow a climb as the Gold Country has—perhaps 1000 ft in 12 miles. Try to do it in the morning or late in the day, when the light is low and the broadleaves along the creek are illuminated.
If you’re going to do one short ride in the Gold Country, do this Sutter Creek-Volcano ride as an out-and-back. However, the road surface is bad enough to put a damper on the otherwise fine descent. If you want to avoid the rough surface and are willing to work a bit, continue through Volcano up Ram’s Horn Grade (see description below) and take Shake Ridge Rd. back to Sutter Creek, a smoother but less interesting descent.
Back on our long route, in the tiny, very historical town of Volcano notice the actual phone booth on your R as you enter town (and the sign inside), make a note to come back and stay in the restored St. George Hotel some day, and go R up Ram’s Horn Grade To Daffodil Hill (signed). This is a serious 3-mile climb that’s a lot of 6-8% but never worse. If you’re here in the spring, stop to walk through Daffodil Hill and its tens of thousands of daffodils. At the intersection with Shake Ridge Rd., stay R., the road name becoming Shake Ridge Rd. Daffodil Hill looks like the top of the climb, but around the corner is a long character-builder of a climb, then a fair amount of moderate climbing, all of it doable if you know it’s coming but spirit-crushing if you think the work is done.
When Fiddletown Rd. comes in from the L., you’re done with the hard climbing for the day. Take it and enjoy a wonderful fast, easy, rollicking 10-mile descent to Fiddletown. Riding doesn’t get much sweeter than this. It’s not all down—you’ll ride perhaps 10 rollers—but if you keep your speed high you can sprint up most of them. In Fiddletown we leave the 100-mile Sierra Century route (and continue on the metric Century route). Stay on Fiddletown Rd. to Plymouth. It’s less wonderful than what you’ve just done, but it’s still good. Just before Plymouth there’s a completely unexpected, nasty hill that gets up around 10% and guts you if you think all the climbing is over.
To everyone’s surprise, there’s a foodie deli in Plymouth, on the R just past the minuscule park. You’ll see the umbrellas over the tables on the deck. They have chocolate bars that brag about what kind of wood was used to smoke the salt!
My route stops here. Of course you have to get back to your car, though the roads between Plymouth and Ione vary from pleasant to tedious, so here’s a route. Ride straight on through town and Fiddletown Rd. becomes Old Sacramento Rd. The road surface on Old Sacramento is poor in the beginning, but it doesn’t last long and the road contour is delicious. Take it till it T’s at Hwy 16. Go L on 16 for two miles, then go R on Carbondale Rd. Go L on Irish Hill Rd., which gets really pretty and fun in its second half, then when Irish Hill T’s at Hwy 104 go L on 104 into Ione. If you’re planning on doing this entire loop, you might like to start in Plymouth, as the Sierra Century does, to make sure you’re doing the hottest part of the loop in the earliest part of the day.
The Turner Road Cut-Off: If you want a few more miles, there’s a lovely little side road that takes off from our course at Sutter Creek—Turner Rd. It heads due north and gives you 10.2 very pretty miles of riding before ending at Fiddletown. Head north for 2 miles, at which point you intersect and cross Amador Creek Road (go L for 1/2 mile to check out Amador City and one of the world’s great bakeries, Andrae’s). You may see 3-4 cars in these first two miles, but after Amador Creek Road you should be alone—I saw 2 cars in the last 8 miles, out and back. Continue to a T at New Chicago Rd at 3.1 miles. Go R onto New Chicago and ride 7 miles of very rideable dirt to Fiddletown. At mile 5.3, take a sharp L onto Quartz Mt. Rd (signed). I hate dirt, but I loved this, on a full-race bike with 25 mm tires. You’re along a very pretty creek all the way and there are no significant hills once you leave Turner Rd. Total elevation gain 1400 ft. one way, the bulk of it in two hills on Turner.
Timing is everything on this ride—summer will be hot and dry, and in winter there are several creek crossings that will be raging torrents.
Shortening the route: Since the Turner spur goes from Sutter Creek to Fiddletown, you can use it to turn our main route into a loop that’s a good bit shorter and includes only good miles. Just start in Sutter Creek, ride the main route to Fiddletown, and ride Quartz Mountain/New Chicago/Turner/Hwy 49 to Sutter Creek.
Adding miles: If you want to do a longer loop and a famous killer climb, stay on the Sierra Century 100-mile route, but I warn you: the next 24 miles are mostly tough climbing on roads that are less interesting and through country that is less scenic than what you’ve just done, with the single exception of the Bridgeport School Road described below. Here’s the route: from Fiddletown go R. onto Jibboom St., then soon L on Tyler Rd. Cross a dangerous wooden bridge and go L on Bridgeport School Rd., a tiny below-the-radar road with a poor surface but ambience that’s more than worth the pain—one of my favorite way-back back roads in the Gold Country. At the T, go L on Cedar Creek Rd. At the T, go R on Mt. Aukum Rd. and ride through the community of Mt. Aukum, which is little more than a grocery store but a good place to reprovision. Go R. onto Fairplay Rd., soon turn L on Perry Creek Rd., and L onto Slug Gulch Rd.
Slug Gulch is a notoriously hard climb. The Sierra Century uses a slug as its logo to advertise its toughness. It’s 5.4 miles long, most of it hard. It begins with some truly steep work for a mile or so, then stairsteps up through a series of 10-12% pitches that end at a big obvious S-curve, after which the climbing is merely irritating. It’s definitely one of those accomplishments that give you bragging rights. It’s not particularly scenic, and you’ll be working too hard to see your surroundings anyway, so you can decide if the glory is worth the labor.
At the top of Slug Gulch, go R onto Omo Ranch Rd., go L on Mt. Aukum Rd., and follow Mt. Aukum back to Plymouth.
Of course all the riding around you on this route is excellent. The Clinton Road ride is just south of you. The North South Road ride is just to the northwest of you. Every other road in every direction is also good. Just make sure the road is paved, then head out.
Afterthoughts: The town of Volcano at first looks like a tiny ghost town, but within its three small blocks beats a mighty heart. In that 100 yards you’ll find two charming, refurbished old hotels, each with a very good restaurant, a friendly old-fashioned general store, two theatre stages (one indoor, one outdoor), a city park, and one of the best bakeries in my experience. I highly recommend an overnight, but check on opening and closing hours before you book a date: the last time I was there, one hotel’s restaurant was closed Sunday, the other hotel’s restaurant was closed Monday, and the bakery was closed Saturday.