San Juan Canyon Road

Distance: 22 miles out and back
Elevation gain: 2700 ft

(A Best of the Best ride)

Bestrides has three rides in the Hollister area, San Juan Grade Road, Lone Tree Road, and this one.  This is by far the best of the three.  It’s a conventional climb-out-descend-back ride through varied, dramatic, and beautiful  terrain (in April), with a mountaintop, a simple State Park, and a stunning view westward at the turn around.

The image of Hollister is hot, dusty, dead flat agricultural fields and a culture stuck in 1955.  Some of that is true.  Hollister is hot and dry in the summer, and cold and dead in the winter, so I would try hard to schedule my riding for late spring (April) after some rain, when the grass is green and the area is momentarily a gorgeous, lush garden.  The town of Hollister and the surrounding agricultural valleys (Santa Ana Valley and San Juan Valley) are pancake flat, but they’re surrounded by small, rolling hills rich with meandering roads offering ideal riding contour.  The three Bestrides rides from the area all have substantial climbing.  As to the culture, Hollister is not especially hip, but it’s a pleasant, easy-going town, and San Juan Bautista 6 miles away is a small Old California treasure with a grand Spanish mission and adjacent historical State Park well worth an afternoon.

Hollister in April would be a cycling mecca were it not for one thing: the road surfaces in San Benito County typically vary from poor to awful.  The only exception I know of is this ride, which is one of the main reasons why it’s #1.   The surface isn’t great, but it’s good enough that you can actually enjoy the descending, which isn’t true about large portions of our other two Hollister rides.

The elevation numbers (2700 ft in 22 miles) suggest a fairly hard climb, but the climb is actually harder than the numbers suggest.  The first 4 miles are very mellow and only net you 500 ft of gain, and the last 3 miles are easy rolling, which leaves you with the bulk of the 2700 ft in the 4 miles in between, which translates to lots of 8-11% stuff.

Fremont Peak State Park, your destination, seems to be largely unvisited, so the traffic is next to nothing—on a beautiful weekday midday in April I saw perhaps 6 cars in the 22 miles, and there was one car in the Park parking lot.

Park on The Alameda (a street) just south of Hwy 156 in the town of San Juan Bautista (“St. John the Baptist”), which happens to be the exact same spot from which we begin the San Juan Grade Road ride.  As I said in that ride, a quarter mile or so down The Alameda is a loose three-way intersection without street signs.  Take the very wide road to the left, 100 ft before the other two forks separate.  There is a sign reading “Fremont Peak State Park 11 miles” pointing you in the right direction shortly before the turn-off.  Ride to the end of the road at Fremont Peak State Park and ride back.

Nothing better than this

The ride up divides neatly into three equally rewarding sections.  The first (the first 10 miles or so) is through drop-dead gorgeous riparian oak canopy.  There’s some of this on the San Juan Grade ride, but this is better.  The climbing is easy to moderate.

The second section breaks out of the woods and climbs an exposed and dramatic ridge spine.  There are grand views of the San Juan Valley behind you and the dirt trails crisscrossing the Hollister Hills State Vehicular Area on your L.  This is the section that gradually steepens until at last you’re working hard.

Section 3 is a complete surprise.  2-3 miles from the end, the road summits, and the rest of the ride is an absurdly sweet little roller coaster with no work and no overall elevation gain through more of that oak canopy you thought you had left behind for good.  This little leg is as sweet as cycling gets, and it’s over far too soon when you roll into Fremont Peak State Park itself.

Looking down along the spine with San Juan Bautista in the background—click on it to appreciate

The park consists of two picnicking areas with tables, a plaque detailing the fairly ignoble history of the peak and John Fremont, a billboard map, an “observatory” that apparently gives some sort of tour infrequently, and a short hiking trail to the actual summit, which I didn’t do.  But you don’t have to do the hike to get the view.  Standing in the main parking lot by the billboard and looking to the west, I was astonished to discover that you can see Monterey Bay quite clearly.  The two smokestacks of Moss Landing are easily visible if it isn’t cloudy.  It’s quite an experience.

Leaving the valley, the land begins to roll

On the return, after the roller coaster the descent down the ridge spine is steep enough and the road surface rough enough to make the riding rather hairy, since the turns are tight, the road is narrow, and the drop-offs are exposed.  Once off the ridge, the surface improves (since roads are torn up by hard braking) and the sightlines get good and you can really let it go, as Elsa would say.  There are some glorious 30-mph stretches in here where you can just relax on your bike and slalom—the only really great descending I know in the Hollister area.  The last few miles back to your car are tranquil shallow descending, a perfect cool-down.  I suggest you devote the rest of the day to exploring San Juan Bautista.

Shortening the route: I wouldn’t.  Of course you can ride up the hill until the pitch gets unpleasant, then turn around, but you’ll be missing the best part of the ride—the roller coaster, the park, the vistas— if you do.

Adding miles: Do the two other Bestrides rides in the area, San Juan Grade Road  and Lone Tree Road.  San Juan Grade and San Juan Canyon Road begin from the same spot.  Lone Tree Road is a short car trip away.  For other Hollister-area riding,  see the Adding Miles section of the San Juan Grade Road ride.

2 thoughts on “San Juan Canyon Road

  1. Caleb

    Did this ride today and really enjoyed it. This is a great climb! The descent on the ridge is pretty hairy, but the views are spectacular. I wish the road surface on the ridge was smoother, but oh well. I plan on returning to Hollister to check out other rides in the area. Seems like a good area for climbing.

  2. Peter

    Thanks for the ride—that middle section felt as hard as the description! You can actually keep riding past the top car park up to some telecommunications towers—a few hundred metres. It’s very steep, but it’s there.
    The way down was one to concentrate on—narrow, with a lot of blind corners and variable surface. I missed having disc brakes


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.