Distance: 18 miles out and back
Elevation gain: 2400 ft
The ride to the lighthouse is the iconic ride in Pt. Reyes National Seashore. Deservedly. But it’s not the only good ride, and Limantour Road has a lot to recommend it. In fact, it may be the better ride, depending on your taste and mood.
Let’s compare the pros and cons. The lighthouse ride has a better road surface (lighthouse great, Limantour only good). It’s longer—over twice as long if you start from Pt. Reyes Station. It has a lighthouse with a great little museum, historic dairy farms, a great short hike out to Chimney Rock, and world-class wildflowers in the spring. But, except for one small hill, it’s all small rollers through open, fairly barren country. Limantour is one big hill—all up, then all down. It’s short, but it’s enough climbing to be a workout—harder than the lighthouse ride because it has more elevation gain per mile (the lighthouse is about 3500 ft in 40 miles; Limantour is 2400 ft in 18 miles) and more steep stuff. The terrain is prettier and more varied than the lighthouse ride—lush woods, coastal canyons, esteros, sand dunes. It’s got a very nice descent on the return ride. It’s got a great Visitor Center (if you start at Bear Valley). The Visitor Center has a splendid bathroom, worth checking out even if you don’t need one. At the turn-around Limantour has a grand beach you can easily walk your bike to and enjoy in bare feet. And it’s much less crowded—whereas on the lighthouse ride you might easily see 40-50 bikes, on Limantour I saw 3. Likewise for car traffic.
Time for the standard Northern California coastal weather warning. Do not choose your clothing according to the weather at Bear Valley Visitor Center, Pt. Reyes Station, or anywhere else at all inland. On any day of the year, the weather at the summit or the shoreline can be cold, windy, and foggy. Wear as much as you can comfortably, then pack at least one complete additional clothing layer. Take the glove liners, the leggings, and the skullcap. Don’t argue with me.
Start at the Bear Valley Visitor Center, because it’s a great place, it has a great bathroom, it has lots of parking, and there’s a lovely meadow across the road from the parking lot dotted with big shade trees for relaxing under after the ride. Ride out of the Center and turn L on Bear Valley Road. Take the first L, onto Limantour Road (clearly signed). As of 6/21, there is a semi-permanent sign reading “Road Work Next 8 Miles” (in other words, the entire length of the road), but I saw no work in progress and the road didn’t need it anyway.
After a brief spell of flat, climb for 4 miles through consistently pretty woods. The contour is varied and the pitches are never daunting—a lovely little climb—and you may decide at this point that you aren’t going to get in any work today. Fear not.
At the summit you break out into the open, the road rolls for a while, you may well hit fog, and the road may become drippy.
The descent is consid-erably steeper than the climb up and not a favorite of mine, but the views are fine. You’re in coastal canyons, and soon you’re riding the spine of one of them, with views of Drake’s Bay and Limantour Estero opening up before you.
Halfway down the descent you hit an unexpected fork, and it’s easy to get confused. Stay R and follow the minimal signage to Limantour Beach, named for Joseph Limantour, a trader and sea captain who achieved some notoriety by totaling his schooner nearby.
The road doesn’t actually take you to the beach; instead it takes you to something ecologically more interesting, the Limantour Estero, where the bay waters and fresh waters from Marin mix in the tidal stew and wonderful environmental things happen. It’s important, it’s pretty, and there are informational placards to help you understand what’s going on.
From the primitive parking lot at the end of the road you have a 1/5-mile hike through the Estero, over the dunes, and down to the beach. It’s easy walking, even barefoot, so you don’t need shoes. You can ride the first bit of it by taking the side road to the visible dumpsters to the east of the parking lot (the portapotties are there as well, hiding behind the shrubs), and in fact you can ride almost to the dunes, if you don’t mind a bit of sand riding. I didn’t see signs saying not to.
The ride home is a mathematical puzzle. The elevation profile shows the ride in and the ride out as being similar, but I found the latter much harder than the former. The elevation gain is identical (just above sea level to the summit), but the climb out is shorter (says me) and thus steeper. The first two miles after leaving the beach parking lot is major work (up to 14% in places).
The descent on the east side is tons of fun, especially in the second half—very fast sweeping corners where you can sustain 35 mph without risk. A good reason to do this ride in dry weather.
Shortening the Ride: I don’t see how—you can’t not get to the beach.
You can ride the rest of Bear Valley Road, which is quite pleasant, but it’s very short.
See the Adding Miles section of the Pt. Reyes Lighthouse ride for other possibilities.