Distance: 23 miles out and back
Elevation gain: 3260 ft
A Best of the Best descent
(Note: This route and the surrounding area were badly damaged by the terrible fires of 2020. Expect major fire damage to the forest.)
Let me lay my cards on the table. This ride is in Bestrides because of 3.7 miles—the length of Felton Empire Road. Since few Bestrides users are interested in going for a 7.4-mile ride, I’ve added some worthwhile miles to make a day of it, but it’s those 3.7 that really matter.
There are two roads that run parallel north/south through the region northwest of Santa Cruz: Hwy 9 and Empire Grade. Hwy 9 is a beautiful road but the main artery through the region and is very heavily trafficked with no shoulder—to be avoided except when necessary as a connector. Empire Grade is much less developed and much less busy, and is a staple bike route for Santa Cruzans, but it’s tamer, bigger, and straighter than the real Santa Cruz back roads and thus lacks that sense of being IN the redwood forest that makes SC riding so special. It would be a great ride anywhere else, but it’s not near the top of my SC ride list.
These two roads are connected by three roads of interest to cyclists: Felton Empire, Alba, and Jamison Creek. All three are short (3-4 miles), steep, windy, and gorgeous. Felton Empire is fairly steep, and Jamison Creek and Alba are very steep (slightly under 10% average). Locals insist that Jamison is steeper than Alba. If you want a vertical challenge, go for either one. Hint: Jamison Creek is shorter (3 miles to 3.7 miles), but it begins with about a mile of low-key climbing so it packs all the hurt in the last 2 miles, and it’s rougher. Both roads are too steep to be fun descents, and Jamison is downright awful. So if we’re looking for a ride that’s rewarding up and down, the choice is Felton Empire, a testing but totally rideable climb and absolutely as good a descent as there is on this Earth. Since there is a fog line between Boulder Creek and Felton, Felton Empire Road and Alba are wetter, therefore lusher/prettier, than Jamison Creek.
At the top of Felton Empire you can go three ways, and they’re all good. But two of them, Ice Cream Grade (straight ahead) and Empire downhill (L), are part of the Bonny Doon/Empire Grade ride, so I’ve mapped this ride to go R, uphill on Empire, to its end, then back.
Start in the small, pleasant town of Felton. Felton Empire Rd. is steep from the get-go, so I strongly suggest riding around the back streets of Felton for a while until your legs are ready to work. Note the wonderfully-named Gushee St.
Head up Felton Empire. It’s never worse than it is at first, and, while there’s a lot of 8-10% stuff, there isn’t a single moment of “I’m not sure I can do this.” The scenery is just amazing. FER is, as the name suggests, the connector between moderately busy Empire Grade and Felton, so you’ll see some traffic. Look off to your R to see how steep the drop-off is.
At the top, you really have two good choices: do the ride as mapped, or do a loop that includes Ice Cream Grade, the upper end of Pine Flat Rd., and a leg of upper Empire, in either direction. If you aren’t planning on doing the Bonny Doon ride, absolutely do the loop, because ICG is not to be missed. You can go either way—clockwise gives you a sweet descent and mild climb out on Ice Cream, and counterclockwise gives you a mild descent and a significant climb out.
Assuming we follow our map, go R at the four-way and continue up Empire Grade to its end. EG seems pretty ordinary after the wonders of Felton Empire, but it’s really perfectly pleasant. It’s mostly mild to moderate climbing, with nothing seriously steep but some substantial overall elevation gain. As you ride north, it gets smaller, pretty, and quieter. Just before the Alba intersection, you start descending, and most of the rest of the road is down, so if you’ve had your fill of climbing, turn around at Alba. Otherwise, go to the end, which is a gate separating you from what looks like some sort of prison.
Empire Grade (and its brother to the west, Pine Flat Rd) is merely fine going up but an absolute hoot coming down, a fast, largely straight ripper with wide, mild curves you can take at speed and the occasional roller you can power up to keep your legs awake. You can stay on it all the way to Santa Cruz and prolong the fun, but we’ve got something much better in mind.
Turn L onto Felton Empire and prepare to be transported. This is descending as good as it gets. It’s very fast and it’s never straight, but the curves are deliciously banked and the sight lines are outstanding, so you can carry a lot of speed safely. If the Disneyland Matterhorn bobsleds were run on bikes, this would be it. The fact that you’re riding through Eden only adds to the joy. Get to the bottom, get off your bike, and try to fathom what you’ve just experienced.
PS: I re-rode the Felton Empire descent a few days after this writing because I was afraid I’d gotten carried away and exaggerated the wonderment. Nope.
Shortening the route: You can ride up Felton Empire and back down. You’ll save some miles but you’ll still do most of the work.
Adding miles: 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.