Distance: 41-mile loop
Elevation gain: 3220 ft
This is a staple Santa-Cruz-area ride. It’s an approximate square, and each leg is unlike the other three. The right side of the square is a mellow-to-moderate climb through some of the best redwood forests in the area—more precious now than ever, since most of the magnificent redwoods in our rides to the west have burned. The top leg rolls up and down through oak woods and along a sidehill. The left side is a Best of the Best descent on a serpentining, manicured thoroughfare. And the bottom is a flat cruise through the charming commercial cottages of downtown Soquel and Aptos. The stars are the climb and the descent. The two legs that get you from one to the other aren’t great but they’re worth riding.
(To see the map in a more user-friendly format, clip on the drop-down menu in the RWGPS box in the upper R and select “map.”)
You must ride this route counter-clockwise—otherwise you’ll be swapping a great descent and a great climb for a jarring descent and a long tedious slog. You can begin this route anywhere, but I suggest you start somewhere along the Soquel-to-Corralitos leg, so you have some flattish riding to warm up your legs on before the 10 miles of climbing that begins in Corralitos. Our map begins at the corner of Freedom Blvd. and Day Valley Rd., which gives you 5 miles of flat to warm up on. But in truth the first few miles of the climb out of Corralitos are so mellow you could warm up on them. If you want to start in Aptos, the Safeway on Soquel Drive offers trouble-free parking. Wherever you start along that leg, ride Soquel Drive > Freedom > Corralitos Rd. to Corralitos.
Freedom Blvd. is the worst part of the ride—a shoulder ride on a big, busy road. Gabriel below says you can dodge all of Freedom by taking Valencia Rd. > Day Valley Rd. > Hames Rd. to Corralitos, which I haven’t done yet but am looking forward to trying. It adds some climbing.
Corralitos is an intersection with a grocery store and a tiny park. Note the grocery store: it’s the Corralitos Market and Sausage Company, whose meat department serves an amazing assortment of spectacular made-in-house sausage sandwiches. If you’re a hot dog man, as I am, you’ll want to time the ride so you can eat here afterwards.
Start up Eureka Canyon Rd. and climb for 9 uninterrupted miles of mellow to moderate. The woods along ECR are as good as any in the Santa Cruz area, which means they’re as good as anywhere, and you’re riding along a sweet little creek, which always ups the prettiness factor. The road surface starts out poor and steadily worsens, until near the top of the climb it’s awful, but about the time you’re wishing you hadn’t come you hit two stretches of brand-new (as of Spring 2022) pavement and all is well. Still, the pavement is bad enough that turning around and descending (or riding the route clockwise) is a bad idea, because you’d be in for a jarring, tooth-rattling descent. I did it once—never again. If they ever repave the entire road, it would be a marvelous descent.
After 9 miles of climbing, Eureka Canyon Rd. reaches an obvious summit and the road changes its name to Highland Way (clearly signed). Your work is mostly over. There are other roads at the summit, so make sure you find Highland.
Highland’s pavement is never very good, but it’s never as bad as what you’ve just ridden. The elevation profile is bowl-shaped. Highland begins with a long descent that the rough road surface keeps you from fully enjoying, and the microclimate is too high and too dry for the lush redwoods you’ve been riding through, but the new oak forest is still pretty. On any weekend you’ll probably pass mountain bikers going the other way, and at the bottom of the bowl you’ll see why—there’s a mountain bike trailhead there, and on the Sunday I rode through there were about 60 cars. From there to the far end of the road you’ll have company from the mountain bikers’ vehicles coming and going, but they understand you and are civil.
Climb up the other side of the bowl (it’s pretty easy). You’re now riding mellow rollers on the sidehill of a large canyon (apparently Soquel Creek Canyon) on your L, and some of the views of the canyon below and ahead of you are pretty good. Ride through a confusing 4-way intersection where the two roads to L and R are signed (Spanish Ranch Road and Mt. Bache) and your road, which is sorta straight ahead, isn’t. The two miles from this intersection to the end of Highland at Soquel-San Jose Rd. are perhaps the sweetest riding on the loop, a gracefully curving 30-mph descent on good pavement on a small road through lovely woods. You’ll want it to last forever, but watch for Soquel-San Jose Rd. going off to your L. in the middle of the bliss—for such a major artery, it’s surprisingly hard to see. There is only one sign, and it’s small. Go L onto SSJR. (Highland continues but changes its name to Summit at the intersection, in case you’re wondering.). We descend SSJR on our Bean Creek/Mt. Charlie route, so you can read about it there, but it’s a glassy-smooth, ripping banshee ride you’ll dream about later.
SSJR drops you in the small town of Soquel, where you pick up Soquel Drive, the surface road paralleling Hwy 1, and follow it through Soquel and Aptos and out the other side. This is all through solidly built-up commercial stuff, which sounds at best tedious and at worst dangerous, but these communities are small, charming, and cozy, the vibe is mellow and tranquil, and the ride is pleasant—a perfect cool-down after the high drama of Eureka Canyon, Highland, and Soquel-San Jose. You pass numerous places to resupply or dine (I recommend Zameen Cuisine in Aptos) if you decide to pass on the Corralitos Market and Sausage Co. Ride back to wherever you parked.
Shortening the route: as I mentioned, this is a hard route to shorten. Eureka Canyon Rd. and Soquel-San Jose Rd. have serious drawbacks as out-and-backs, and neither Soquel Drive nor Highland Way is a good enough ride to justify riding it only. The best you can do is ride 6-7 miles up ECR and turn around before the road surface gets seriously bad.
Adding miles: This is Santa Cruz, so good riding is all around you. On Soquel-San Jose Rd. you’re momentarily on our Alma Bridge/Old Santa Cruz Hwy Plus and Mt. Charlie routes. See the Monterey Bay section of the Regions page for an intro to the other riches nearby.
Near the end of Highland on our route you intersect with Mt. Bache Rd., reputed to be a short (0.9 mi.), steep, and delightful climb dead-ending at Loma Prieta Way/Ave., which I haven’t ridden but looks on Streetview to be little more than a coarsely paved path with great vistas, eventually turning to dirt.
Several readers have praised Hazel Dell Rd., which can be reached from Corralitos via Browns Valley Rd. It’s an easy add-on. I found it pleasant. It will take you to Mt. Madonna Rd., a major climb that comes highly recommended.
Valencia and Day Valley Road are amazing back roads to link Aptos to Corralitos. Have you ridden Hazel Dell and Mt Madonna? I grew up at the Bottom of Eureka Canyon—those two are south county gems… Mt. Bache is also an amazing climb with incredible vistas.