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. Both have excellent road surfaces, resurfaced in the last couple of years (as of 2022). The lighthouse ride is 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 Best of the Best 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 typically see 2 or 3. Likewise for car traffic and people.
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 and picnic tables 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).
After a brief spell of flat, climb for 4 miles through consistently gorgeous woods. The contour is varied and the pitches are never daunting—a lovely little climb. You’ll work a little in the last half-mile.
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 considerably steeper than the climb up, too steep to be much fun, and often very windy, so it’s not a favorite of mine, and the climb back out after the turnaround is tough, so decide before descending if you want to turn around now. There’s a road sign a short way down the descent telling you to prepare for 17% pitches, which I think is an exaggeration, but it’s steep. That said, the views on the descent are great. 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.
As I said, the ride home is much harder than the ride out. The RWGPS elevation profile doesn’t agree—it says the ride in and the ride out are about the same. Hogwash. There’s no comparison. Be prepared for a mile of so of 11-13% stuff that’s truly taxing.
The descent on the east side is pure joy, especially in the second half—a Best of the Best descent. It’s very fast, with big, sweeping corners where you can sustain 35 mph without risk, in part thanks to the outstanding traction provided by the new road surface.
Shortening the Ride: Ride from the Visitor Center to the summit and return. You’ll get the ride’s best ascent and the best descent, but of course you’ll miss 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.