Distance: 25-mile dumbbell
Elevation gain: 3340 ft
(Note: Apparently there was a nearly-impassable washout on Old Howell Mt. Road earlier in 2023 but the road is now clear—see reader comment below.)
This ride is a bit of a grab bag. It strings together three climbs and three descents, each with its own character. Locals typically ride it one way, from south to north, and continue on, as a part of pleasant longer routes we’ll discuss in Adding Miles. But it’s equally good in both directions, and I’m not crazy about those longer routes, so I’ve mapped it as an out and back dumbbell. The scenery is fairly ordinary for the area, and I wouldn’t drive far out of my way to do it, but it has nice variety, a very nice climb, and the thrill of riding a Forbidden Road (see below). It also includes 1.6 miles of a nasty mix of heavy traffic and broken pavement which you must simply survive.
Because Old Howell Mt. Road is officially closed to all vehicles (see below), many maps (including electronic ones) don’t acknowledge its existence. Also, various maps have various opinions about what it’s called. Just follow the route map and you’ll be fine.
Park on Silverado Trail just outside St. Helena at the intersection of Silverado Trail and Old Howell Mt. Road (at the intersection the road is signed Howell Mt. Road, but is signed Old Howell Mt. Rd. at its other end. RidewithGPS calls it “Howell Mountain Road South”). OHMR climbs from the gun, so consider warming up on Silverado, the region’s primary bicycle path, which is nearly flat and heavily trafficked but with a plentiful shoulder (the only shoulder in the Wine Country, that I know of).
A short leg up OHMR brings you to the intersection of OHMR and Conn Valley Rd. CVR is serious vineyard country, as evinced by the 20 wineries whose names hang from the unmissable sign at the intersection. Go L to stay on OHMR, and very soon you see a permanent sign that reads, “Road closed ahead: no vehicles, no bicyclists, no pedestrians.” Indeed, shortly thereafter you reach a permanent and serious gate across the road. But as is almost always the case with road closures, there’s an implied “Just kidding!” for cyclists, getting around the gate is easy, and the road, while having its share of vertical pavement cracks, is a ride with zero peril. This means you get the road to yourself and you get to feel like you’re behaving badly.
OHMR is a steady moderate climb through typical east Wine Country dry scrub. Watch for a nice open vista to the southeast, with Lake Hennessey in the distance. After 4 miles, OHMR dead-ends at a road that is Howell Mt. Rd. to the R and Deer Park Rd. to the L.
Here you have a choice. As I’ve routed it, you go straight across onto White Cottage Rd. and ride it for 4 miles to its end. White Cottage is a pleasant but not exciting steady climb through fairly developed terrain on a polished, wide two-lane road. The eponymous Cottage is nowhere in sight.
The alternative is to go R and take Howell Mt. Road through Angwin to the juncture of Ink Grade, White Cottage Rd., and HMR. The upside to HMR over White Cottage is, after Angwin the road contour is more interesting (windier). The downside is, at least through Angwin, the traffic is heavier. Since you’re going to do this leg twice, I suggest you go up White Cottage and come down HMR.
Just before White Cottage dead-ends at Howell Mt. Rd., it crosses Ink Grade. You could go L and descend Ink Grade for 4 miles to its end on Pope Valley Rd., then turn around and ride back up, but it’s a rough descent (not horrid, but not smooth) and most locals prefer to ride to the intersection with Howell Mt. Rd. and take HMR, a much steeper (9-12%, compared to Ink Grade’s 5-8%), therefore faster way down, to Pope Valley Road. I’ve mapped it that way, but in fact I’m not sure I prefer it, because the descent on HMR is at least as rough as Ink Grade, so the broken pavement hurts more, and it’s a bigger road, so there’s no sense of back-country.
Assuming you come down HMR as mapped, go L at the imaginary community of Pope Valley onto Pope Valley Road and ride a couple of flat miles to Ink Grade. Ride past the Ink Grade turnoff for 1/4 of a mile to witness Hubcap Ranch (words fail me), and return to Ink Grade. Climb Ink Grade. This is the area’s bad-ass climb, but it’s really quite pleasant (4 miles of mostly 4-6%, with moments of 7-8%), and it has a nice, unpolished atmosphere. Since the more car-friendly Howell Mt. Rd. almost duplicates the route, you should see no vehicles. I saw one—the ubiquitous UPS van. Don’t miss the tongue-in-cheek “Col de la Croix de Ink Grade” distance-and-elevation markers along the route.
At the top of Ink Grade, decide how you want to return to the White Cottage/Old Howell Mt. Rd. intersection—either turn R onto White Cottage Rd., which in this direction is a mellow, fun descent, and retrace your steps, or turn L onto Howell Mt. Road. Again, I suggest you go whichever way you didn’t ride up.
Back at the intersection, descend Deer Park Rd. It’s awful—lots of cars whizzing past you at 55 mph while you fight for control at 35 mph over dangerously broken pavement and no shoulder. After 1.6 miles of this, which feels like 10, bail out to the R onto Sanitarium Rd. (you’ll feel like checking in), which is heaven in comparison to what you’ve just done—fully domesticated but very fast (40 mph if you want), glassy smooth, almost car-free, quiet, pretty. Perhaps the high point of the route if you’re into thrills. When it returns to Deer Park Rd, it’s a stone’s throw down DPR to Silverado Trail, which you take L back to your car.
At the bottom of Sanitarium, there are a couple of little detours you can take to the R to add 3-4 miles to the route and avoid the little leg of Deer Park Road at the bottom of Sanitarium—first, Crystal Springs Rd., which seems to be a local favorite, and second, Glass Mountain Rd., which is shorter and I think a bit prettier. Both go north and run into the Silverado Trail, which you take L back to your car.
Shortening the route: Do either loop by itself. I think they’re equally good.
Adding miles: On Pope Valley Rd. you’re in the midst of eastern Wine Country cruising country. The roads in every direction are worth riding. Continuing W on Pope Valley Rd., you can ride to its end and continue on Butt Canyon Rd. all the way to Middletown (16.5 miles). Turning R on PVR, you soon reach Pope Canyon Rd and Chiles Pope Canyon Rd., both staples of regional touring. Chiles Pope Canyon dead-ends on Hwy 128 , which will return you to the Napa Valley (don’t go the other way on 128—the traffic is deadly), while Pope Canyon connects with Berryessa Knoxville Rd., which runs for 37 miles all the way to Clear Lake (where it’s called Morgan Valley Rd.). It’s all good, none of it is great.
You’re 11.5 miles down Silverado Trail from the Old Lawley Toll Rd, a tiny gem of a climb I absolutely love but which stands in the midst of a cycling wasteland (since Hwy 29 is unrideably trafficky) and is only 4 miles long. You don’t want to drive any distance to do 4 miles, so you should go bag it now while you’re in the neighborhood.
Just on the other side of St. Helena is Spring Mountain Rd./St. Helena Rd., a road which on paper looks like a perfect ride—small, relatively untrafficked, curvy. It’s up and down across the ridge between the St. Helena valley and the Santa Rosa valley, and it’s a pretty good ride with a couple of drawbacks that keep me from recommending it: 1) the climb up from St. Helena is really steep, steeper than I find fun either going up or going down (like, lots of 12%+); and 2) the pavement on the Santa Rosa side is uniformly lousy, the kind of lousy I find really interferes with my pleasure. If they would repave the west side of the summit, riding just it as an out and back would be a dream. But this is Sonoma County after all.