Distance: 26.5-mile lollipop
Elevation gain: 2800 ft
The area around Grass Valley and Nevada City is a warren of pleasant, quiet, unflat, thickly wooded back roads, none life-changing but all worth riding and all pretty much the same. Bestrides has three routes in the area: Dog Bar Rd., Red Dog/Pasquale, and this one. None of the three has any striking vistas or unique geological features—just nice quiet riding through pretty country. Each of the three has many route variations and alternate options not much worse than the ones I’ve chosen. Feel free to modify, add to, and alter at will.
One of my favorite kinds of road is one that is paralleled by a newer, bigger road that has the same starting and stopping points. The newer, bigger road has all the traffic, the commerce, and the noise, and you’re left with the old, skinny, meandering, isolated track . This route has 3 such back roads, so you get a lot of tranquil riding—except for the two short stretches of Hwy 174, you pass nothing but occasional houses and ranches, and few of those. It also has a lovely road contour in its opening miles: not too steep, sweetly meandering, easy ups and downs through really pretty woods. This ride is at its best in the first 30 minutes, so if you don’t love it then, go ride something else, because it isn’t going to get better.
There are no long hills and only a couple of little steep grades on this route, but you do exceed the 100 ft/mile elevation gain threshold for difficulty, so you’ll be going up and down, albeit moderately, all the time.
There is no particular reason to begin this route at any particular spot. I begin near Grass Valley, because that’s where I am most likely to be housed. Begin at the intersection of Rattlesnake and Lower Colfax Road, which you ride through on our Dog Bar Road ride. Parking is a bit scarce, in small dirt turn-outs. Ride SE on LCR, the first of our parallel back roads. It parallels Hwy 174, so all the traffic is on the highway and you should have the place to yourself. For the first miles, it’s a lovely meander up and down on a sidehill of a small canyon, among trees that are lush and pristine—enjoy them now, because I’m sure the State of California will soon go in there and clear out all the underbrush and 2/3 of the trees in the interest of forest fire suppression. You’re gently descending overall, which means that the return ride is a mellow climb.
After a while LCR gets larger, wider, and more built up with houses, but it’s still nice. It dead-ends at Hwy 174, in an area called Chicago Park apparently. I know because there’s a charming, iconic corner mercantile there called Chicago Park Store. You’re probably not ready for ice cream yet, but it will be a sweet oasis on the return ride. I think it’s the only re-supply spot on our route.
Turn R on 174 for the short descent to Bear Creek. 174 is busy and straight, but the scenery is actually quite pleasant (see accompanying photo), and anyway it’s short. You’ll see a prominent sign pointing towards Rollins Lake to your L and encouraging you to take the side road, but don’t—it’s Rollins Lake Road we want, and that’s not it.
After crossing the large, unmissable bridge across Bear Creek, we’re going to do our second parallel back road: Old Grass Valley Road, paralleling 174. Don’t take the unsigned turn-off immediately after the bridge—continue uphill for perhaps a quarter mile and take the next exit to the L. It’s clearly signed.
Old Grass Valley Road is a tiny ribbon of pavement through dense forest. It’s quite steep in places, and the pavement is imperfect, as you’d expect on a road no one should be using. In other words, it’s a blast. Don’t fret the steepness—the road you’re avoiding by doing OGVR, Hwy 174, has exactly the same elevation gain, and it’s a lot less fun.
Immediate- ly after OGVR debouches onto Hwy 174, 174 seems to T. Go L, following the signs to Rollins Lake. You’re now on Rollins Lake Road, the main artery, and for the third time we’re going to take a parallel back road. A short leg down RLR, take signed Nelson Grade Road to the R. NGR is ignored by most maps, and it’s weirdly sandwiched between Rollins Lake Road to its left and Hwy 80 to its right—they’re so close that you can often see first one road then another as you ride, and when you can’t see Hwy 80 you can sometimes hear it—but miraculously NGR has a great sense of isolation, with almost no traffic, almost no development, and in fact not much of anything except trees and a lot of vertical (as one would expect from any road named “Grade”). Once it starts up, it’s all up for 3 miles. It averages almost 7%, with occasional steeper pitches.
When NGR seems to T, go L for 150 ft and T again on Rollins Lake Road. Take RLR to the L.
Rollins Lake Road is in many ways the mirror image of NGR: it’s bigger, wider, straighter, smoother, and more manicured. The first few miles of the return are a dreamy, effortless descent, a constant 25-30 mph where you won’t push a pedal or touch your brakes. Once the descent is over, there’s a surprising amount of climbing back to Hwy 174, and, since the road is so domesticated, it isn’t much fun. By the way, despite the name, you get only one brief glimpse of the lake on either RLR or NGR.
There are at least two alternatives to riding the NGR/RLR loop as I’ve mapped it. If you prefer small/isolated/curvy/slow to the alternative, you can ride Nelson Grade out and back and skip Rollins Lake Road entirely. Or, if you like small/curvy for climbing and larger/straighter for descending, do what the friend of Bestrides who suggested this route does, and ride the loop as a figure-eight: ride east (descending) on Rollins Lake Road to Glen Elder Road, which is a short connector between RLR and Nelson Grade. Take Glen Elder to Nelson Grade. Continue east (up) on NGR to the top of the loop, descend on RLR, cross over on Glen Elder, and return to 174 via Nelson Grade. This way all the descending is on the bigger road and all the climbing on the smaller.
If you’re like me you’re expecting the return ride on 174 to be boring traffic hell. Not so. The ride back to the Bear Creek bridge is actually grand, a fast, glassy-smooth slalom descent where the traffic won’t bother you because you’re going as fast as or faster than they are. So I don’t recommend Old Grass Valley Road on the return, but it’s there if you abhor highway riding of any sort. Once over the bridge, 174 is…yeah, pretty much boring traffic hell, and all up to boot, all the way back to the Lower Colfax Road turn-off.
Back at the Chicago Park Store, eating your ice cream, you have a choice. The beginning of Lower Colfax Road is also the beginning of Mt. Olive Road, a lovely, precious little connector between 174 and Dog Bar Rd. It’s mostly dirt, but if you’re set up for it, and you prefer loops to out and backs, I encourage you to take Mt. Olive to Dog Bar and up Dog Bar and Rattlesnake back to your starting point. See our Dog Bar ride for details.
Assuming we’re sticking with our mapped route, the ride back up Lower Colfax is delightful. In fact, once you clear the houses and ranches in the first miles, I like LCR as much going up as I do going down. It’s never work, and the slower speed lets you take in your surroundings. The last miles are nearly flat and especially pretty, so you return to your car in the best of moods.
Shortening the route: Ride Lower Colfax Road as an out and back, or ride the LCR/Mt.Olive/Dog Bar/Rattlesnake loop.
Adding Miles: The simplest way to extend this ride is to add Dog Bar/Rattlesnake to the route—instead of returning on 174 north when you get off Rollins Lake Road, take 174 south and work your way through Colfax and over to the southern end of Dog Bar and ride it north.
The Grass Valley/Nevada City area is a warren of back roads, all worth riding. See our Dog Bar and Red Dog/Pasquale rides’ Adding Miles sections for names of good roads, or just wander.
A great option to add miles is to take Tokayana Way, which is a great ride, out of Colfax then descend Milk Ranch to the Bear River, cruise through the campground along the river, then climb Plumtree back out. From there you can turn L to return to Colfax or R to connect to Dog Bar Rd just 1.5 miles away. I’ve ridden it a dozen times and encountered 1 car, a mailman.
I prefer to do the Rollins Lake-Norton Grade Loop in a figure 8 ( they connect at the lake via Glen Elder Rd), I use Norton Grade for the slow climbing and Rollins Lake Rd for descending.
Love your site!
Rode this Sunday 4/3/2022, as the return section of a loop begun on Dog Bar. I left Empire Mine SHP around 9am, Lower Colfax Road was a delight with only 2-3 cars the entire route. I did the figure 8 option on RLR/NGR and it was excellent, I didn’t see a single car on the NGR climbs. Great time of year—cool temperatures and lots of green grass and flowers.