Distance: 53 miles out and back
Elevation gain: 4720 ft
( A Best of the Best ride)
This route is covered thoroughly in words and pictures at toughascent.com.
Note 1/2021: This road is officially closed at the moment as a result of last summer’s fires. See https://www.bigsurcalifornia.org/highway_conditions.html. See Michael’s comment below. But also see Joel’s: if the road is closed to cars but bikes are permitted, it might be the perfect time to do the ride.
This is the best ride in California and Oregon. It’s a long way from anywhere, so you’re going to have to go out of your way to get to it, and it goes from the middle of nowhere to a blank spot on Hwy 1. This is all to your advantage, because it means you’ll pretty much have the road to yourself (see update below).
It’s one of those rides where you just ride the road, from its start to its finish, then ride back. In the process you’ll ride through four distinct ecosystems and experience four distinct kinds of riding, each a perfect example of its type: first, easy rollers through a valley full of golden grass and magnificent oaks, then gentle climbing along a pretty creek as it ascends a small riparian canyon, then vigorous climbing as you leave the creek and ascend to a saddle through oak forest, and finally a steep plunge down a steep, twisting road to Hwy 1 with views of the sea and coastline that are simply astonishing. The riding on the return is different but just as wonderful: a challenging 7-mile climb up from the ocean, a flat-out slaloming descent, an easy roll along the creek, and finally the oaken valley. It’s all just perfect—you’ll swear Disney built the course.
(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.)
The ride is not terrifically hard—all the nasty is in the 7-mile climb up from the beach—but as always don’t trust Mapmyride’s rosy elevation gain. My computer racked 5600 ft vert.
It’s impossible to get lost once you’re on Nacimiento-Fergusson itself, but finding it is a bit of a challenge. Drive to Fort Hunter Liggett near King City. It’s a large, functioning army base no one’s ever heard of. If you ask directions, show the locals you’re cool by pronouncing Jolon Rd. “ho-LOAN.”
Once you turn onto the base, you’ll pass an unmanned gate of sorts on the outskirts and drive for a few miles through open country with little signs of life. As you approach the base complex, about a mile before the fort main gate the road makes a sweeping curve to the R, and on the outside bend of that curve, on your L, is a small road that immediately crosses a metal bridge. That’s your road. There is no sign reading “Nacimiento-Fergusson,” but a sign reads (among other things) “State Route 1” with an arrow. (Once you begin riding, the road is clearly signed “Nacimiento-Fergusson” in the first 1/2-mile and whenever necessary thereafter.)
DO NOT PARK AT THE INTERSECTION or anywhere else along the roads—this is a military base, after all. Drive on, pass the front gate to the fort on your R, pass the huge, gleaming white Hacienda on your R, and come to an intersection of (counting the one you’re on) no less than 6 roads. In front of you is a narrow fork with a sign between them reading “Mission San Antonio.” Take the fork to the L of the sign, drive to the mission (it’s barely visible from the intersection), and park there. It’s a real, functioning Spanish mission, Mission San Antonio de Padua, with plenty of parking. The mission itself is worth checking out. There is some interesting history here.
Ride back to that road with the bridge and take it. After a short up and down, you’re looking at a few easy warm-up miles through a grassy valley dotted with magnificent old oak trees. You can see the draw you’ll soon be climbing ahead of you. Then you climb peacefully along the creek at a constantly varying 0-4% through a pretty riparian woodland of sycamores, yellow penstemon, ceanothus, and California’s state plant, poison oak, until you cross the creek on a small bridge and the road tilts obviously up. The new climb is moderate of pitch and serpentining without interruption and ends at an abrupt, razor-sharp summit—you can almost stand with one foot on each watershed.
This ride is in our list of Best Descents, but not for what’s about to come—the drop to the ocean is so steep and the curves are so tight that you’ll be constantly braking, the road has a lot of loose rock, marble to softball size, so you have to go cautiously, and the sight lines are terrible so you can’t see cars coming. But the vistas are bucket-list so you don’t want to skip it. The entire Pacific Ocean is laid out before you.
At the bottom you’re on as isolated a stretch of Hwy 1 as there is, but there’s a tiny jewel of a campground called the Kirk Creek Campground, thank god. There’s a good bathroom but no water source, so I always just ask one of the campers for a couple of bottles’ worth, which they’re always happy to give. One time the campground host bawled me out for eating a sandwich at one of the picnic tables without paying the day use fee, but I think it was an aberration.
The 7 miles back to the saddle is a truly challenging climb, especially in the first 2-3 miles, which has a lot of 8-10%. After that it mellows out. It is also mostly in full sun and typically very hot later in the day. But of course you can always lose yourself in the scenery. Past the saddle is one of my favorite descents and the reason why the ride is in the Best Descents list—long, smooth, never straight, with wide, cambered curves you can take at speed and frequently good sight lines. Then it’s back along the creek and through the valley and back to your car for some serious gratitude for a universe that gives you such things as this ride.
Afterthoughts: I always drive to and from the ride, but if you want to stay in the area you’ve got a few options (other than King City 15 minutes away, which is a valley ag town without merit). You can stay at Kirk Creek Campground and do the ride backwards. There are at least two small, pretty campgrounds along the ride route, between the military land and the summit. And there is the afore-mentioned Hacienda, a complex designed in 1930 by the famous Julia Morgan for William Randolph Hearst that sits on the military base and rents rooms to civilians (thanks, Patricia).
Shortening the route: Obviously I hate to give up any of it, but if you must, it’s just a matter of choosing what sort of riding you want—flat oak meadow, mild creekside climbing, serious climb to a summit, or hairy descent to the sea.
Adding miles: I’m not a fan of riding Hwy 1, because of the traffic, but the section to the north and south of N-F might not be bad, since you’re a long way from the more popular stretches near Big Sur and San Luis Obispo.
At the Hunter Liggett end the riding is flat, hot, and boring in all directions. At the ridge summit you cross a dirt road called the Coast Ridge Road that is reputed to be nice riding if you’re on your mountain bike, but why would that be?
Forty miles away is the road into Pinnacles National Park—Hwy 146, sometimes labeled Shirttail Canyon Rd (there is no road sign at the intersection). It’s a ride worth doing if you’re nearby. It climbs steadily out of the valley into the foothills for 7 miles to the Park Visitor Center at pitches ranging from 6% to the occasional 13%—2000 ft. gain in 7 miles, so you’ll work—then it drops precipitously for 2 miles to the trailhead parking lot. Skip those last two miles unless you want to do some serious climbing or you want to hike some trails. The 7-mile return ride is the reason for coming, a roller coaster that will have you whooping and hollaring as you touch 35+ mph through the esses. The landscape is fairly bland, so I wouldn’t do it for the scenery, but the road is varied of contour and pleasingly narrow, and the traffic is absurdly light for a road into a National Park—I’ve done it 6 times and seen an average of 2-3 cars in the 7 miles each time (always on weekdays).