Chileno Valley Road/Tomales Bay Loop

Distance: 48-mile loop
Elevation gain: 1620 ft

The network of roads in Marin County between Highway 1 and Highway 101 may be the most heavily ridden cycling roads in rural California, but that’s just because they’re easily accessible from the population centers clustered around the Golden Gate Bridge.   They aren’t the best riding in California.  They’re fine.  They’re nice.  And they’re all the same—moderate rollers through dairy farm land on good road surfaces.  So there is no best route.  Feel free to ride on any road that catches your fancy, with two caveats: 1) try to minimize your time on the obvious main arteries—Pt. Reyes Petaluma Rd., Tomales Petaluma Rd., Sir Francis Drake Blvd.—and 2) be sure to include Chileno Valley Rd., which is a cut above the rest.

One of the charms of this area is the unpretentiousness of it all.  There are few if any multi-million-dollar mansions or grand wrought-iron gates on this route, and the farm houses are real—old, family-owned, working dairy farms.  The oyster restaurants along Hwy 1 are housed in shacks.

Like all grassy hills in California, these are burned brown during the dry months, so the scenery is prettier in spring and fall after the rains return.

The century that covers this area is the Marin Century, and, since the roads are all about the same, it’s a perfectly fine introduction to the area, if you want to ride 100 miles of it, which I don’t.

For those of us who want to do fewer than 100 miles, here’s a representative loop that covers a lot of the best stuff, including a very sweet (though crowded) stretch of Hwy 1, and the food is fantastic—artisanal cheese, great delis, two killer bakeries, and the best bread in the world.  So bring money.

I actually don’t ride this route as mapped any more.  I like a good hill, so I do the 36-mile  Marshall Wall option described in Adding Miles, but I have to give up Pt. Reyes Station to do it.

There must be something wrong with Mapmyride’s elevation total.  There are no killer climbs, but all that rolling adds up, and I’m willing to guarantee you’ll get a workout.  The Marshall-Petaluma Rd loop has 3000 ft of gain, which isn’t nasty but is far from flat.

This route comes by way of my friends Susan and Hazi.  I’ve always ridden it counterclockwise, though I see no reason why you have to.  You can begin it anywhere.  If you start at the intersection of Nicasio Valley Rd. and Pt. Reyes Petaluma Rd (aka Petaluma Pt. Reyes Rd.), go NNE (which Northern Californians call “east”) toward Petaluma.  The traffic here is the worst you’ll see until Hwy 1.  Soon on your left you pass the Cheese Factory, with good bathrooms and free cheese samples.  Note the “No lifeguard on duty” sign on the bathrooms. 

Chileno Valley Road

Take the first L onto Hicks Valley Rd. (clearly signed, though my Marin Bicycle Map inexplicably labels it “Wilson Hill Rd.”), then the first R onto the real Wilson Hill Rd.  The “hill” of Wilson Hill Road is probably the longest climb you’ll do all day, unless you take the Marshall Wall option below.  Take the first L onto Chileno Valley Rd.  Enjoy this stretch—it’s the best of the inland legs on the route, pleasant rollers through pretty farmland and next to no traffic. 

Rocks break up the grassy hillsides

Turn L at the T onto Tomales Petaluma Rd. and ride to Hwy 1—five miles of mostly climbing on a road with pretty constant traffic but a nice, big shoulder.  Turn R and ride the ¼ mile to the tiny, doll-like town of Tomales.  Try to plan your ride so you can stop for lunch, because the sandwiches at the deli on the northeast corner of the downtown intersection are great.  Note the building with the formal “Not a Bank” sign across the street.  It’s not a bank.  The baked goods at the corner deli are very good, but you might want to wait, because in 20 miles the baked goods are better.

Go south on Hwy 1, retracing your last 1/4 mile, and continue on Hwy 1 all the way to Pt. Reyes Station.   This is one of the few rides in Bestrides that features extended Hwy 1 riding, and it may or may not be to your taste.  It can be heavily trafficked, especially on weekends, because you’re riding through some prime oyster dining territory, and it’s skinny with no shoulder, so the riding can be fairly hairy.  But the road has a wonderful contour and it’s a visual feast, with grand views as you roll along the edge of Tomales Bay.  Hwy 1 rolls constantly here, so don’t expect a flat ride.

The Marshall Wall summit. Marin is never flat.

In Pt. Reyes Station, one of Northern California’s best villages and a prime cycling destination, there is much to eat: you have upscale restaurants,  the best bread in the world (Brick Maiden Bread), and one of the best dessert bakeries anywhere.  Remember how you passed on the sweets in Tomales?  It’s so you can gorge at the Bovine Bakery now.  There are also nice public bathrooms.

Don’t continue down Hwy 1—ride out the east side of town up the little hill and take the immediate R onto Pt. Reyes Petaluma Rd.  Stay on it back to your car.

The restaurants along Tomales Bay aren’t pretentious

Shortening the route: Marshall-Petaluma Road (see details below) neatly bisects our loop, so take it to cut your mileage nearly in half.  The northern loop is a bit better than the southern, since it has Chileno and the prettier leg of Hwy 1, but you give up Pt. Reyes Station and you add a major hill, so I’m not sure it’s any easier. Since it’s now my preferred route, I’ve mapped it here:

Adding miles:  There is endless good riding in all directions off this route.  Pt. Reyes Station is the starting point for our Point Reyes Lighthouse ride.   Marshall Petaluma Rd, which bisects our loop and climbs up and down over the best summit in the area, is fine riding, with a slightly different flavor than other Marin roads—more wild canyon than rolling farmland—and it’s very lightly trafficked, because it’s twisty and it dead-ends at a point on Hwy 1 that is far from any town.  It has a justly famous hill, the Marshall Wall, on the eastern side of the summit (despite the name, it’s more long climbing than abrupt wall, though there is one 10-12+% pitch), so riding east to west is harder than west to east, but it’s a demanding climb either way.  There are good vistas from the summit.

Most cyclists are coming from the southern population centers, so they ride to our loop via Lucas Valley Rd. or Sir Francis Drake Blvd., both with beautiful densely wooded terrain, great road contour, a lot of traffic and no shoulder.  Both roads deposit you on Nicasio Valley Rd, a slightly busier, straighter, and wider road than our loop but nothing to dread.  Lucas Valley Rd is a beautiful climb and descent, in either direction, if you can catch it early in the morning before the traffic, and it has the perk of taking you past Skywalker Ranch, George Lucas’s research facility (the valley was not named after George).   There’s nothing to see but a driveway and a gate, but you can tell your friends.   At the summit of LVR there’s a big rock, and you’ll wonder if it has a name.  It’s called Big Rock, and it marks the trailhead for the famous Big Rock Trail.

All the smaller roads immediately north of Tomales are good as well, and the good riding just keeps on as you go northward through Sonoma County and toward our Wine Country rides.

From Point Reyes Station you can make a longer loop by continuing south on Hwy 1 and turning L at Olema onto Sir Francis Drake Blvd.   This route will take you through the prettiest and most treacherous stretch of Sir Francis Drake, past the stunning Samuel P. Taylor State Park trees.    The road is scarily narrow, the traffic is pitiless, and the shoulder non-existent, but the previously-dreadful road surface has now been repaved (in 2014).   And wow, those trees…  Stop off at the State Park to stroll, get water, or spend the night if you’re touring.  Turn L on Nicasio Valley Rd. to get back to your car.

A word about Spring Hill Rd.  It parallels Chileno Valley Rd, the best road in the area, so you might be tempted to make a loop going out Chileno and back on Spring Hill.  Be warned: they took all the terrible road surface in Marin and put it on Spring Hill Rd.  You will suffer.  But the flip side is, because of that, it’s car-free, so you will have the road to yourself, and it’s very scenic.  If you get into the right mood, it can be a very pleasant experience—like backpacking amidst boulders.

Afterthoughts: This area is typically hot in the summer, but it can be windy and/or foggy, and the stretch along Tomales Bay can catch an on-shore breeze that bites, so take an extra layer of clothing.  The last time I rode these roads, it was August and the temperature on Hwy 1 was 61 degrees at 1 pm.

Tomales Bay, with Point Reyes National Seashore across the water. It’s prettier than it looks here.

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