Distance: 51-mile loop
Elevation gain: 4488 ft
(A Best of the Best ride)
About a quarter of this route is covered thoroughly in words and pictures at toughascent.com, enough to give you the look of the ride.
This ride is one of the harder rides in Bestrides—50 miles, none of them flat, and 6000 ft. of vert by my computer. It’s a big climb through forest that’s as pretty as forest gets, then a leg up and down along the ridge spine down the middle of the San Francisco Peninsula, with a stop-over at an iconic California hippie/biker cafe, then one of the greatest descents in California and Oregon. The ridge leg isn’t an A-level ride, because it’s straight and trafficky with no shoulder, but you’re going to have to do it to get to that descent, so what the hell.
(To see an interactive version of the map/elevation profile, click on the ride name, upper left, wait for the new map to load, then click on the “full screen” icon, upper right.)
Start in the bustling metropolis of San Gregorio, which is nothing but a four-way intersection and a cute country store worth exploring. Look east to the top of the ridge, as far as you can see—that’s where you’re going. Ride south, paralleling Hwy 1, on Stage Road. This road is a lovely stroll on an unused road through grassy coastal hills. It’s so off the grid it feels like you’re in on a secret. Roll up and down to the town of Pescadero, a charming, energetic hamlet with good restaurants, B and B’s, and other signs of life. If you want to do the tourist thing, have the famous artichoke soup at Duarte’s Tavern (the sign says only “tavern,” but it’s a conventional restaurant).
Turn L onto Pescadero Creek Rd., which climbs first through pretty farmland and then through forests and redwoods as gorgeous as anything in Bestrides. At first the grade is imperceptible, then the road rolls up and down pleasantly, and finally it turns 10%-pitch serious in its last couple of miles.
At the bottom of an unexpected, short, and wonderful descent, you come to an intersection and you have a choice. If you’re looking to cut off some miles and/or minimize the climbing pitch, take the cutoff (still called Pescadero Rd.) over to La Honda Rd. and the community of La Honda, then ascend to Skyline Blvd. via La Honda Rd. This route is about 7 miles shorter and cuts out a good chunk of climbing, but it’s also much less dramatic. La Honda Rd. is a large, wide, relatively unvarying shoulder slog with traffic. Not awful, just not nearly as nice as staying right at the intersection and ascending on Alpine Rd. Alpine is steeper, smaller, deserted (except for bikes), much more scenic, and with a nicely varied road contour. We’re going R. There’s a sign as you start up the road reading “Gravel—bicycles not advised.” It’s just there to make you feel burly—ignore it.
Alpine’s scenery is excellent and varied. You’ll do thick redwoods, maple forests, and open grassy hillsides with expansive vistas of the Pacific Ocean and all the country you’ve ridden through so far. Which is a good thing, because you are going to do some serious work here and will need something to take your mind off the pain. At 3.6 miles up, the road T’s, and you have to go L because, as the sign says, R is a dead end. Remember this turn if you decide to ride Pescadero/Alpine as an out and back. By the way, near the bottom of Alpine is a sign reading “(Winding road icon) next 4 miles.” Don’t misread this and think Alpine is 4 mi. long—it’s 7.5 mi.
Oddly, when Alpine T’s into Skyline Blvd. there is no road sign marking Skyline, but you’re obviously at the spine of the ridge and there’s a large sign reading
with arrows pointing straight ahead, L, and R respectively. Go L, toward SF (though note the comments by two locals saying the road you’re about to ride is fundamentally unsafe for cyclists, below).
Skyline is a series of mostly straight, moderately steep rollers along the ridge spine, sometimes through dark, pretty woods and sometimes through open fields with huge vistas of the coast to your L and the south Bay to your R. If it weren’t for the traffic, which is speedy and indifferent to your needs for space, and your tiredness level, it wouldn’t be a bad ride.
From our intersection, the rollers are 80% downhill all the way to the intersection of Skyline and La Honda Rd., where you should stop at Alice’s Restaurant, not Arlo’s place but a local institution nonetheless, with nice outside bathrooms and a big front porch that’s a great place for a breather if the sun is shining.
Now you will pay for all that downhill. From Alice’s to the Tunitas Creek Rd. turnoff it’s 5.3 miles of 90% uphill, most of it at a significant pitch. Get this in your head or the unexpected work will kill you.
Watch your mileage, because Tunitas Creek Rd. is hard to see (there’s a crossroads sign as you approach, and a road sign at the intersection). It’s 5.3 miles from Alice’s, after you pass Corte de Madera on your L and a rock-walled vista turnout on your R., at the bottom of a fairly fast descent. Turn L on Tunitas Creek Rd. and enjoy, as promised, one of the best descents in California and Oregon. It’s perfection—sweeping, banked corners, next-to-no traffic, not too steep, on a smooth-enough surface through pretty forest but with good sight lines so you can see the nonexistent cars ahead of time, and it just keeps coming. I usually have to stop midway just because I need a break from the non-stop giddiness. A sidenote: if you mention Tunitas Creek Rd. to old-timers, they often say, “I did it once and the surface was so terrible I never went back.” Hey, guys, they resurfaced the road for the Tour of California years ago and now it’s fine.
Is it the best descent in Bestrides.org? Of the descents called “best” on the Best Of page, Tunitas Creek Rd., is the longest and most traffic-free. McKenzie, Robinson Canyon, and Ebbetts are all prettier. McKenzie and Ebbetts have the best high-speed esses. Do them all and tell me which you prefer.
At the bottom of Tunitas Creek Rd. turn L on Hwy 1. You are not done climbing. You will immediately have to slog up one final pitch, a typical Hwy 1 mega-roller that goes on far too long. Stare at the ocean and it will pass. Right after, get off the highway onto Stage Rd. (small but signed) on your L and descend to San Gregorio and your car.
If you want a less demanding day, either Tunitas Creek Rd. or Pescadero/Alpine would make a terrific out-and-back. You can also ride up Pescadero Rd., cut over to La Honda, and ride La Honda Rd. down to San Gregorio. This would cut the miles and the elevation gain by more than half and still take you through the prettiest woods on the route, which are on Pescadero Rd.
Adding Miles: All the nearby back roads in the Half Moon Bay area are good. There’s our Purissisma Creek Road ride, but also Lobitos Ridge Rd., Irish Creek Rd., and Lobitos Creek Cut-Off. The riding on the east side of Skyline Blvd is very popular with Peninsula riders—Kings Mountain Rd., Bear Gulch Rd., Old La Honda. See other possibilities in the Adding Miles section of the Purissima Creek Road ride.
Afterthoughts: The weather in the Half Moon Bay area is drippy. I wouldn’t want to come down Tunitas Creek Rd. in the wet (actually, I did once, when the road was only damp, and it was pretty hairy). If at all possible, do this ride in dry conditions.
I’ve never ridden this loop in the other direction, but many people do. Of course you’d be losing that wonderful Tunitas Creek Rd. descent, but I bet descending Alpine/Pescadero is pretty wonderful too.