Distance: 46-mile loop
Elevation gain: 2083 ft
This may be the prettiest wooded ride, mile for mile, in California. And it has the selling point of starting and ending in downtown Mendocino, one of my favorite places. It climbs and descents up and over a summit among simply perfect piney woods, passes a classic country store, descends gradually along the Navarro River and its stunning riparian redwoods, and ends with a pretty but trafficky leg on Hwy 1 that’s thick with lovely, charming inns and one State Park to stop and explore. The road surface is glass, except on Flynn Creek Road, where it’s OK to poor. It rides equally well in both directions—see Which Way to Go? below for the comparative virtues of the two routes. I’ve arbitrarily picked the clockwise route to describe. It’s a bit harder than Mapmyride’s elevation total would suggest—I clocked 3300 ft of gain—but it’s never steeper than moderate.
(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 town heading south on Hwy 1. You immediately cross a large bridge over Big River and turn L on Comptche Ukiah Rd. You soon climb moderately up two pitches through perfect conifer forest, over a summit, and down a descent (two descents actually, with a short climb between) that is borderline Best-Of-List-worthy. I don’t include it only because it’s so smooth, so easy, so picturebook that it’s almost placid—every curve is so effortless you could almost go to sleep. Look around—I think the foliage between the summit and Comptche is as pretty as California forest gets.
Roll into Comptche, an intersection with a few houses and a pleasant little grocery store for resupplying. The gas pumps used to sell “Arab Gold” gasoline, but I guess the issue got too touchy because it’s just “Road Gold” gas now.
Turn R on Flynn Creek Rd (the only other road in Comptche), which is less lush than Comptche Ukiah but still pretty. In this direction it’s a short, fairly steep climb (the hardest work on the loop), then mostly gradual descending on a road with an excellent, constantly entertaining contour but a surface that is consistently poor. It dead-ends on Hwy 128. Turn right on 128 and ride to Hwy 1, where it dead-ends.
The 12 miles on 128 are like nothing else I know. Take your time—you’re riding through some of the best redwoods accessible to bikes. They aren’t as big as the old-growth trees of the Avenue of the Giants or Big Basin, but they have something the big trees can’t match: because they’re just a thin strip of trees between you and the river, and because they’re between you and the sun, the light illuminates them like the rose window of Chartres Cathedral—glorious, in the religious sense of the word. Try to ride this leg when the sun is shining and it’s low in the sky (i.e. not at noon), to get the effect.
Hwy 128 can be trafficky, and there’s no shoulder, but the two lanes are wide enough and the road straight enough that vehicles can pass anywhere comfortably while you hug the fog line, so it’s never a problem.
At Hwy 1, turn R and ride 11 miles of Hwy 1 back to Mendocino. This stretch of Hwy 1 is busy, often narrow and without shoulder, and consists of constant rollers (you’ll climb 850 ft in those 10 miles), but it’s a pretty stretch of Hwy 1 with some good views of the matchless Mendocino coastline and several dramatic bridge crossings over river mouths debouching in mostly-deserted beaches. This stretch of road is also lined with interesting settlements worth exploring: in the order in which you’ll encounter them, 1) Albion, 2) Heritage House, 3) Little River, and 4) Van Damme State Park (good beach walking and kayaking on your L, good fern canyon hiking on your R). Right after you cross the Albion River Bridge, you must take a side trip on Albion Ridge Rd. and look at the support system holding up the bridge. It’s an engineering marvel.
Which Way to Go?: Riding counterclockwise, opposite to the way I’ve mapped it, has the following virtues: 1) you get to do Hwy 128 early in the day, to beat the traffic; 2) you get to do Hwy 1 early in the day, to beat the traffic; 3) you get to ride Hwy 128 uphill, an imperceptible 2% that slows you down for better scenery gawking; 4) you do the serious climbing later, when you’re warmed up; 5) you typically get a tailwind on Hwy 1; 6) you end with a descent instead of 10 tense, tiring miles on Hwy 1; 7) you do the climbing and descending later in the ride, when the road is dry; and 8) you ride Hwy 1 in the west lane, the one nearer the sea, so the views are much better—believe me, it matters. Pluses to going clockwise, as I’ve mapped it: 1) you get a splendid long descent west of Comptche; and 2) The climbing is less intense. I truly can’t decide which way is better, and tend to alternate my rides, first one way, then the other. If you’re going clockwise, starting at the intersection of Hwy 128 and Hwy 1 solves a lot of problems.
If you go counterclockwise, know two things: 1) the climb out of Comptche contains the Mother of All False Summits—you climb, get a substantial downhill and think it’s over, then climb plenty more. And 2) at the exact summit of the climb out of Comptche you intersect with Little River Airport Rd, and you have a choice about which way to go. If you continue on Mendo-Comptche, the descending is smooth and graceful, as you carve big turns like a downhill skier. The forest scenery is nice but no better than what you’ve just ridden through. If you take LRAR, things are more intense. For 3 miles, the riding is as good as cycling can get, a fast and exciting slalom on a perfect pitch—not too steep, not too shallow—on glassy new pavement through a new, more jagged forest I find sublime in the original sense. Then, around the intersection with Albion Little River Rd., the pavement gets poor for a short stretch, then turns into unblemished, moderately rough chipseal for the rest of the trip to Hwy 1. So go straight if you want dreamy, take LRAR if you want drama. Taking LRAR adds about 1.5 miles of Hwy 1 to the ride. It also takes you by the Pygmy Forest, worth a detour on foot if you like either ancient miniature trees or elevated boardwalks. You can walk your bike, so you don’t need a lock.
Shortening the route: While I would hate to give up any of this loop, I must admit that either the Hwy 128 leg or riding from Mendocino to Comptche and back would make a lovely out and back.
Adding miles: As much as I love Mendocino, there are only two good big rides in the area: this one and the Branscomb Road ride. You can extend this ride in two directions. 1. From Comptche you can continue up the Ukiah Rd. as far as you like, all the way to Ukiah if you’re of a mind (33 more miles). Touring cyclists often through-ride from Ukiah to Mendocino. The road would be a world-class ride—constantly serpentining and gorgeous—were it not for the road surface. It’s glass for 8 miles beyond Comptche—then there’s a long stretch that varies from bad to ghastly. To me the bad stuff is unrideable, especially downhill. It’s also a major effort, in either direction, since the east half of the route is one monster hill up and down. Mendocino to Ukiah: 44 miles, 5800 ft gain. The route offers two splendid perks: Orr Hot Springs, a small, charming Hippy holdover, and Montgomery Woods State Natural Reserve, a fine stand of old-growth redwoods with a short loop trail.
2. You can continue east on Hwy 128 all the way to Boonville—the road stays a gorgeous gradual ascent all the way—or even continue on past Boonville on 128 to its end, all good stuff though more domesticated east of town. See the Mountain View Road ride and its Adding Miles section for possibilities in the Boonville area.
The Mendocino area has an abundance of what San Juan Island sailors call gunk-holing—poking around at a leisurely pace into nooks and crannies. These would include almost anything paved, but I would point you especially to
1. The Old Haul Road, an abandoned road, now multi-use path, among the sand dunes heading north from the northern border of Fort Bragg. Beginning at the Pudding Creek trestle, it goes to about a mile north of MacKerricker State Park, where it disappears into the dunes and reappears after a few miles and ends at Ten-Mile Beach. It’s a short ride (maybe 6 miles) and the road surface is often poor—too poor for road bikes—but it has a definite surf-and-history cachet and offers great access to relatively deserted beaches. I do it on fat tires.
2. Navarro Ridge Road just north of Hwy 128. It’s paved for 5 miles, then very rideable dirt for another 3 or so before hitting a locked gate. Pleasant, nearly flat, pretty, isolated (I saw 1 vehicle on the ride out), with one dramatic view of Hwy 1 serpentining down to the mouth of the Navarro River.
3. Pt. Cabrillo Drive. It’s a whopping 3 miles long, but all of them joyful, and in those 3 miles you get the Pt. Cabrillo Lighthouse (open to the public, with a store, a museum, and a restored 1900’s house you can tour), Caspar Beach (a Fifties throw-back), and a side-trip to Seal Lion Rock at Caspar Headlands State Reserve (google for directions). You can make a loop from Mendocino to Pt. Cabrillo Drive to Caspar Little Lake Road to Little Lake Road.
4. Heeser Drive along the Mendocino Headlands. This back door to Mendocino isn’t about riding, it’s about exploring the greatest coastline in the world. You don’t have to go far from your bike—walking 20 ft from the road will put you on the lip of wildly eroded cliffs above endlessly churning caldrons of white foam. It would be a shame be anywhere near Mendocino and miss it.
5. Road 500B (named after Nathaniel 500B, an early explorer and trapper). It’s perhaps a mile long and begins directly across Hwy 1 from the Mendo-Comptche Rd. The ride isn’t special, but it has the best view of the town of Mendocino there is. Googlemaps and others call it Brewery Gulch Road, but it’s clearly signed “Road 500B” at both ends. Make sure you’re on the Brewery Gulch Road that’s on the west side of Hwy 1—there are two.
The Jackson Demonstration Forest to the immediate east of Mendocino has a nice warren of dirt logging roads and singletrack that cries out for mountain biking. There’s a MTB map and guidebook in local stores.
In case you get a hankering to ride Hwy 20 between Fort Bragg and Willits, don’t—it’s a deathtrap. Beautiful forests, but absolutely no room, no visibility, and lots of traffic in a hurry. I’ve driven it 80+ times and never seen a bike on it, for good reason.
Afterthoughts: Like all northern coastal areas, Mendocino is foggy and drippy, and the road to Comptche is largely in deep shadow, so wait for dry conditions or prepare to climb and descend in drizzle.
Finding affordable lodging in Mendocino is an art. Ft. Bragg, eight scenic miles to the north, has standard motel accommodations at reasonable prices. Lodging in Mendocino tends toward expensive B and B’s in Victorian farmhouses or weekly rentals of people’s second homes through airbnb or some such. My secret spot is Alegria, a not-cheap but joyful, friendly, and unaffectedly luxurious B and B in downtown Mendocino with great deals if you come in the off-season (which is when you want to be there anyway). Tell Eric I sent you. Fort Bragg, 20 minutes down Hwy 1, has conventionally priced motels.