Distance: 22 miles out and back
Elevation gain: 2750 ft
This is a drop-dead gorgeous out-and-back climber that starts out with a few miles of easy, rolling climbing among rural houses, and continues to get steeper, narrower, more isolated, more densely wooded, and prettier as it goes. The woods are different from those of rides like Felton Empire and Big Basin—instead of mostly redwoods, you get a lot of bigleaf maples, so there’s a lot more light coming through, and at times it looks like the forest is on fire. The entire ride is along Zayante Creek (or tributaries), with frequent creek crossings, which means quaint little bridges and fun little descents and ascents before and after. All in all, arguably the prettiest ride in the Santa Cruz area. There are two stretches that are hard work, but the rest is mellow and so varied in pitch as to keep you fresh and perky.
The road surface used to deteriorate as you go, to a point where descending the way you went up was unpleasant, but it’s all been resurfaced and is now good surface (see Nibbles’s comment below). Also, it’s far enough east that it escaped the terrible damage from last summer’s fires.
Park near the intersection of Graham Hill Rd. and E. Zayante Rd. There are small dirt turn-outs just a stone’s throw up E. Zayante and a large church parking lot at the intersection. Ride up E. Zayante. The first mile or so is hectic and boring. There always seems to be a lot of traffic in the lower stretch of this road, and if it bothers you you can drive up a few miles until you get past most of the houses and park, but very shortly you can take the L turn onto W. Zayante (which explains why E. Zayante has “East” in its name), and ride up the other side of tiny Zayante Creek in relative carlessness for the busiest 1.2 miles, which is how I’ve mapped it. W. Zayante dead-ends at Quail Hollow—take QH 50 ft to the R (crossing the creek) to rejoin E. Zayante. The traffic will continue to thin out until you clear the houses, when it drops to next-to-nothing for the last two-thirds of the ride. On my last ride, I saw 6 cars in the last 8 miles.
The first 6.5 miles are mellow and varied climbing, so you’ll have time to warm up your legs before the hills start. The area is fairly built up, but the houses are old and the canyon is steep so the houses are quirky, quaint, and busy with stilts, decks projecting into space, and staircases.
At mile 6.5, you start a mile of serious climbing that ends at the intersection where E. Zayante changes its name to Upper Zayante (clearly signed). Immediately after the intersection, you get a long recovery in the form of a mile of down.
The road continues to get narrower and the woods get thicker and prettier. Soon you’ll see a sign that says “one-lane road, two-way traffic next 3/4 mile. 5 mph” (I’ve never seen that sign anywhere else), and you climb, at a substantial pitch for a mile, then at a moderate pitch to the end of the road. When the road T’s into Summit Rd., look back at the three signs warning motorists starting down Upper Zayante what they’re in for.
How to get back to your car used to be a dilemma, since all routes back had their problems. Now that Zayante’s pavement has been redone, just bomb back down the way you came. Nibbles (below) says it’s a Best of the Best descent. I won’t go that far, but it’s very good. There are a few corners in the first (steepest) miles where you can get into real trouble if you don’t have disk brakes. Also in those first miles, you will meet at least one car and it will be smack in the middle of the road (because there’s really only one lane), so descent accordingly.
If you’re dead set against out and backs, you can go R on Summit, ride to Hwy 17, do a death-defying descent of 17 down to Glenwood, and ride Glenwood back to Scotts Valley. But the Glenwood surface is lousy. Or you can come down Mtn. Charlie, but that surface is even worse. You can go L on Summit and ride Bear Creek Rd. back to Boulder Creek and ride Hwy 9 down to Felton, but BCR is the main car corridor between Hwy 9 and Hwy 17 with no room for bikes, and Hwy 9 is even busier. So, no good alternatives to turning around.
Shortening the route: Since the scenery gets prettier, the traffic lighter, and the road smaller the further up you go, I’d start wherever the mileage lets you reach the end of the road.
Adding miles: As with any ride in the Santa Cruz area, you’re near scads of great riding on this route. See the Monterey Bay discussion in the Rides by Region chapter for a survey of roads in the Santa Cruz area. Since it’s the same conversation for all 6 of our Santa Cruz rides, I’ll do it once there and leave it at that.
Afterthoughts: Unless the heat is fierce, try to do the ride sometime other than early morning or just before sunset (for a change), because you want the sun high enough to backlight the bigleaf maples. You’re in almost constant shade for the last 2/3 of the ride, so sunstroke shouldn’t be a problem. On the other hand, high noon is less than ideal because the sun is directly overhead and the backlighting is minimal. So we’re talking 9-11 am and two hours before sunset.