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 the best of the three.  It’s a conventional climb-out-descend-back ride through varied, dramatic, and beautiful  terrain (in the spring), 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.  This ride is the best in the area, and it’s still poor.   If they’d repave the road, this would be a Best of the Best ride.

The elevation numbers (2700 ft in 22 miles) suggest a fairly hard climb, but the climb is actually harder than the numbers suggest.  There is little elevation gain in the first and last miles, so the bulk of the 2700 ft is gained in a 3.5-mile stretch, 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—both times I’ve done it, on beautiful weekday midday in spring, 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, crappy-looking 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 6 miles or so) is through drop-dead gorgeous oak canopy.  There’s some of this on the San Juan Grade ride, but this is better.  The climbing starts out flat and slowly increases to moderate.

The second section is significantly steeper.  At first it continues through the canopies; then it breaks out of the woods and climbs an exposed and dramatic ridge spine. All told, you’re in for about 3.5 miles of steadily steepening pitch, until the last mile or so contains some truly hard stuff.  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.

Section 3 is a complete surprise.  Two 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.  At the big circle intersection, go R and climb a slight rise to the official parking lot.

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

The entire park includes 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.  Looking west from the main parking lot by the billboard, the views are actually quite poor because it’s overgrown, so ride 100 ft down the little paved road past the picnic tables (if the road you came in on is 12 o’clock, this road is 11) to the secondary parking lot—from there you can see Monterey Bay quite clearly.  The two smokestacks of Moss Landing are just visible if it isn’t cloudy.  It’s quite a vista.

Leaving the valley, the land begins to roll

The descent going home is at first a disappointment.  After the 2 miles of roller coaster, the 3.5 miles of steep 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 steep stuff, the surface improves (somewhat, though it’s a problem throughout the ride) and you can get off the brakes and have some 25-30-mph fun.  It would be marvelous if the road surface were better.

After the ride, I suggest you devote the rest of the day to exploring San Juan Bautista.

Shortening the route: Ride the first 6 miles and turn around.  Of course you’ll miss the roller coaster and the vista if you do, but it’s still a lovely ride.  If you want to do no work at all, drive to the park and ride the roller coaster out and back (4 miles).

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.

4 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. Brian

    Watch out for goats in the road while descending past the ranches! Some sections of road were not the smoothest, but I was on a gravel bike so didn’t mind at all.

  3. 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

  4. LejfK

    I combined your local loop (in the San Juan Grade ride’s Adding Miles–jr) with this climb as the kicker at the end for a solid 50+mile ride. Wonderful day out. I appreciate your comments about the road conditions and I would describe them as “not entirely terrible” – just tell yourself you’re going out on a gravel ride and you can feel pleasantly surprised (that last descent was a little hairy, though).

    Thanks so much for site–great work. I’ve used it frequently to discover great out-of-town rides.


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