Distance: 31 miles one way
Elevation gain: 2214 ft
Update 2018: a fire swept through this area in recent years, and much of Jesus Maria Road burned. What was lush woods is now mostly charred sticks with new green underbrush returning (see photo at the end of this post). It’s still a great road, but with a very different feeling. jr
This ride is not for everyone. It’s a steeper climb than our other Gold Country roads, and the road surface is often poor. The road surface means you can’t turn around at the top and ride it back down if you find you’re not up for a long day, because the road surface won’t let you. It’s often very narrow, hardly more than a paved animal track (ignore the AAA map, which shows it as a main artery). But the scenery is as good as the Gold Country gets, and if you’re feeling up for a bit of wildness and want to see the back back-country, this ride is for you. 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 very soon turn R on Jesus Maria Rd. 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 a bit kooky. It’s also 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, but the road surface (here, at least) is remarkably good. It’s asking a lot, but while you’re trying to find good lines, try also to notice how lovely the scenery around you is becoming.
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 (8-12%), 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 road surface for much of this is very patchy, but they’re good patches (if there is such a thing)—smooth enough that riding over them doesn’t destroy your momentum. Anyway, at 5 mph it’s not a big problem. Much of the road is barely one lane. I have no idea what cars do when they meet. The scenery is varied and quite grand. Along the route you get the only vistas I know of in all my Gold Country riding.
When you dead-end on Railroad Flat Rd. go R. This new road is the antithesis of Jesus Maria—polished, 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: This isn’t easy to do, because Jesus Maria (which is kind of the point of the ride) is so rough that coming back down it isn’t an attractive option, so you’re committed to continuing on. The only leg that works as an independent ride is Old Gulch Road, which would make a 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—huge, very busy, and constant huge rollers. 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 from Jesus Maria Rd. south has had stretches of pavement ranging from poor to comically horrible. That includes every Bestrides ride in the area—Jesus Maria, 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.