Distance: 31 miles one way
Elevation gain: 2214 ft
(A Best of the Best ride)
Update 2018: a fire swept through this area in recent years, and almost all of Jesus Maria Road burned. What was lush woods is now often charred sticks with new green underbrush returning (see photo below). It’s still a great road, but with a very different feeling. jr
Update 1/2021: Great news: Jesus Maria Rd has just been widened and repaved along its entire length and is now smooth. This thanks to local cycling organizations and the state of California, who spent $200K for the repaving. If someone spends $200K to prep a ride for you, you owe it to them to go do it. For details on this and other aspects of California’s $14-million commitment to improving bicycling infrastructure in the Gold Country, see the CalBike website and Bestrides’s introduction to the Gold Country in the By Regions section. Greenery is returning to the region as well, so there is no reason to delay doing this ride any longer. jr
This and the Cream of the Sierra Century are the two best rides in the Gold Country. It’s a tougher climb than our other Gold Country roads (lots of 8-11%). I amassed 2450 ft of gain in the 14+ miles between Mokelumne Hill and Railroad Flat Road, which is a lot. Jesus Maria itself is a narrow, serpentining crawl up through a canyon, and it used to be deserted but like everywhere else in California the occasional vacation homes with their $30,000 gates are beginning to appear, and you’ll see perhaps a vehicle per mile. Thanks to the burn, the scenery varies from stark to lovely, and Jesus Maria itself offers some fine panoramic vistas, which are a rarity in the typically wooded Gold Country. Like the Clinton Road ride, it’s a U-shaped course leaving you with an unpleasant stretch of Hwy 49 to close the loop.
(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.)
Ride out of Mokelumne (“muh KELL uh mee”) Hill on Hwy 26 and in 2 miles turn R on Jesus Maria Rd. (clearly marked). Immediately you’re into a steep little climb that will strain your still-cold legs, but fear not—it’s short. At the top you encounter the last thing you’d expect heading east from Hwy 49—a challenging descent. It’s almost 2 miles long, and it’s an absolute hoot. Every curve is a little technical puzzle to solve. No two corners are alike, and no corner is a simple arc. The road pitches up and down, cambers left and right. It’s asking a lot, but while you’re trying to find good lines, try to notice how lovely the scenery around you is becoming, riparian trees largely undamaged by fire.
At the bottom of the descent you ride levelly along a pretty riparian woodland, then have to gain back all that lost elevation and then some. You climb, quite steeply for 2 miles (8-11%), then more moderate stuff, until you’re 9 miles into the ride, after which the road rolls up and down, sometimes steeply, to mile 14. The climbing work is never really over until Railroad Flat Road. The road contour is constantly changing, and the scenery is varied—lush creekside woods, meadows, open grassy hillsides, conifer forests, stands of dead tree skeletons (see photos at the end of this post).
When you dead-end on Railroad Flat Rd., you have a big decision to make: go on, or turn around. Both options are really good. If you turn around, you won’t be saving a lot in the way of miles or effort—there is 1230 ft of climbing on the 13-mile return “descent,” which qualifies it as a moderately difficult climb. But it’s a very good ride, with better descending than you’ll get doing the loop, though the brand-new road surface is a trifle chattery. Save some energy for the last mile of JMR, which is an 8-11% pitch.
Assuming we’re following my loop route, go R on Railroad Flat Rd. This new road is the antithesis of Jesus Maria—wide two-lane mountain main artery, with noticeable traffic and no shoulder. Ride into and through the community of Mountain Ranch, one of those real Gold Country towns that’s never seen a tourist and doesn’t want to. There’s a big grocery store there, as far as I know the only place to reprovision on the route.
Just past Mountain Ranch, Michel Rd. takes off to the L and you have a choice. If you liked the last few miles and want more just like them, stay on the main road, which has changed its name to Mountain Ranch Rd., all the way down the hill to San Andreas. If you want to see more back country, go L onto Michel Rd. We’re going L. Don’t let the wide smooth surface fool you—it won’t last. You’re soon back on a one-lane, patchy road through nice woods. Watch for Old Gulch Rd. taking off to the L. Take it if you want more adventure. If you’ve had enough, stay on Michel, which soon runs back into Mountain Ranch Rd., which in turn will run you into San Andreas. But we’re taking Old Gulch, because it’s some of the best riding and prettiest scenery on the entire ride. It’s more remote than Michel, it’s calendar pretty, and the road contour is constantly invigorating. It’s almost all down, and it dead-ends on Calaveritas Rd., another polished two-lane roller, but with much less traffic than Railroad Flat Rd., that you take to the R into San Andreas.
Now our route ends, because the good riding ends, and we have to do what we usually have to do in the Gold Country, unless we can thumb a ride: suffer Hwy 49 back to the car—9 miles this time, of grinding up and down on the shoulder and ignoring whizzing traffic.
Shortening the ride: There is really no easy way to do this, since riding JMR as an out and back is about as hard as completing the loop. Old Gulch Road makes for a short, lovely little out-and-back. I’d ride it uphill (west to east) first, but it’s not a killer climb.
Adding miles: As always in the Gold Country, good riding is in all directions. Read the Adding Miles sections for Cream of the Sierra Century and Clinton Road for details. All the seductive-looking roads you see on the map within the Jesus Maria/Mountain Ranch/Hwy 49 triangle are dirt. Hwy 4 is hell until you get east of Big Trees State Park—big, very busy, and constant big rollers—but then it gets smaller and quieter and finally turns into our Bear Valley to Mosquito Lake ride. San Domingo Rd. is smooth dirt.
A general word of warning about riding in the Southern Southern Gold Country: every back road I’ve ridden south of Jesus Maria Rd. has had stretches of pavement ranging from poor to comically horrible. That includes every Bestrides ride in the area—Ward’s Ferry, Old Ward’s Ferry, not so much Priest-Coulterville—and others like Dogtown Rd. If poor pavement bothers you, ride somewhere else.
San Andreas is the terminus of a west-of-Hwy-49 road of particular charm, Pool Station Road. Like all roads west of 49, it’s rollers through grassy hills, but it’s shadier and flatter and thus more pleasant than most. It rolls for c. 12 mi, then ends at Hwy 4, making for an easy out-and-back. If you want to keep riding, ride down Hwy 4 to Copperopolis and continue on O’Byrne’s Ferry Rd., which is much like Pool Station Rd. but a step drier and less charming.