Distance: 24 miles out and back
Elevation gain: 3060 ft
Note 11/12: Pine Flat Road, along with Chalk Hill Road, was a victim of the Kincaide Fire. Nibbles (below) says they’re both still grand.
This ride is a climb. Just one big, hard, magnificent climb up a 1-1/2-lane road without a center line (my favorite road size). I learned about it when someone told me it was a favorite training ride of Levi Leipheimer. But it’s more than just a training ride. It’s very pretty in a dry, barren sort of way, with grand, expansive views, it has a lot of variety to the road contour, and it dead-ends at the summit, so it has no through-traffic. Except for a few scraggly houses, it’s just you, the road, and the scenery.
(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.)
You’re going to climb from the floor of the Alexander Valley to the spine of the ridge to the east (actually the northeast, which Northern Californians call east). Begin at the Jimtown Store on Hwy 128, a favorite destination for local cyclists. The store is well worth a visit. Ride east—to your right if you’re looking at the store’s front door—on Hwy 128 and continue straight onto Pine Flat Rd. It will soon begin to climb, moderately and pleasantly for several miles. Keep looking around you—the views keep changing as you gain elevation. You’ll ride through some steeper pitches until you reach a saddle, pass through it, and surprise!—you descend into a sweet little hidden valley, the eponymous Pine Flat.
Beyond the valley the road turns seriously steep—“damn it I absolutely will not walk this” steep at its worst—with lots of pitches in the teens and the occasional 17%—as it climbs up to the next ridge to the east. It moderates, then goes around a left turn, and, bang, you’re done. You finish at the precise spine of the ridge—the road continues down the back side, but it’s private and gated off. Pat yourself on the back, enjoy the views, try to ignore the spent cartridges that litter the ground and disturb your tranquility, and ride back home.
The ride back down isn’t all ideal. Some pitches are too steep to enjoy (especially watch the first hard L turn that comes very soon after you start back—I went rocketing off the road there when I vastly overestimated my braking power). There is some rough road surface near the top. But much of it is great, and it gets better as you get lower and the road gets straighter and smoother and the pitch gets shallower. The last few miles are dreamy, as close to soaring as you can get on solid ground.
Shortening the ride: Ride to Pine Flat and turn around.
Adding miles: Pine Flat Rd is close to almost all the other rides in our Wine Country ride list and several other good rides. Remember, no riding on numbered roads. Hwy 128 south has a great contour, but it’s usually very busy with cars and passing is difficult. But all the roads that climb out of the valley, to the east and to the west, are good (and vertical). A stone’s throw to the north (take Red Winery Rd. to the R off Pine Flat Rd. and you won’t have to go on 128 at all) is the excellent Geysers Rd. A twenty-minute drive takes you to the Sweetwater Springs Road ride. Paralleling Sweetwater Springs Rd. to the north is the epic Skaggs Springs Rd., a 37-mile-one-way monster with a huge amount of elevation gain running from Lake Sonoma to the coast at Stewart’s Point. I don’t find the scenery especially rewarding or the road contour especially interesting until you get close to the coast, but it’s Big, and it’s a staple ride of local pros in training. If you want to test yourself, it awaits. Don’t do it on a summer afternoon—the first two thirds are full sun.
A car trip south on Hwy 29/128 brings you to Oakville Grade, a famously challenging little pitch. If you take it R it leads to Mt. Veeder Rd., and the next-door Trinity Grade, which is almost as good.
If you’ve had enough climbing and want to ride something flatter but still want to avoid the high-traffic wine roads, you have some options among the network of roads crossing the valley between Hwy 128 and Hwy 101. About three miles south of Pine Flat Rd. on 128 is Chalk Hill Rd., a 9-mile light-hearted up and down meander through classic vineyard country that I’m very fond of (it too burned in the Kincaide Fire of 10/19). It has the advantage of ending in Windsor, a lovely place to be. About six miles more down 128 is Franz Valley Rd., which leads to Franz Valley School Rd., two short but lovely back roads you could ride as an out and back. Mark West Springs Rd/Porter Creek Rd/Petrified Forest Rd. has a lovely contour and beautiful scenery but is a fairly main artery and thus trafficky and often without shoulder. Spring Mountain Rd./St. Helena Rd. is discussed in the Adding Miles section of the Old Howell Mt. Road ride.
A nice, moderately climbing ride in the area is Mill Creek Rd., across the valley from Pine Flat Rd. and a bit south, off Westside Rd. (or 4 miles north of Sweetwater Springs Rd. on Westside Rd., if you’re coming from that ride). Don’t confuse it with the other two Mill Creek Road rides in Bestrides. It’s a 20-mile out-and-back through redwoods and deciduous forest along a nice little creek—a completely different ecosystem than Pine Flat’s grass and oak hills or the valley roads’ gently rolling, vineyard-covered bumps. It begins with 1/4 mile of stiff climbing, but then is mellow rolling over 3-7% bumps for 8 more miles. At that point the road takes a sharp L turn and rises at a painful pitch that touches 17% for the next 1/2 mile, then climbs less painfully for the last mile until the pavement ends at a ranch driveway and you turn around. On the ride out you’ll climb about 1420 ft. (in 9 mi.). If that’s more than you want to do, just park at the top of the first climb (there’s a nice dirt turn-out)and turn around before the second (you’ll know it when you see it)—the outbound ride then becomes 8 mi. and 820 ft (just over half the vert). Since the outbound ride follows a creek upstream, the return ride is fast and almost effortless. This is Sonoma County, so the pavement varies from OK to lousy—a definite nuisance but not a deal-breaker.
Mill Creek Rd. used to be a fairy forest, but 2021’s forest fire hit it hard. The damage increases as you ride—at first there’s nothing, and by the end of the ride you’ve seen major devastation. As always, the signs of life returning can be fascinating and inspiring, but still much has been lost. If it weren’t for the pavement and the burn, Mill Creek would be bestrides-worthy.
I wouldn’t ride Alexander Valley Rd., the road that goes the other way from the Jimtown Store, for fun. It’s a flat, essentially straight road through typical picture-book wine country, but the traffic is often busy enough to be a problem. It does have the distinct advantage that it takes you to Healdsburg, a town celebrated in story and song for its food and general charm. Avoid Dry Creek Rd. except perhaps on a weekday morning in winter—it’s a major route for winery-hopping.
Further south are Bennett Valley Road and Warm Springs Road, which intersect. They’re popular bike routes, because they’re small and they meander effortlessly and playfully through pretty forests and tidy farms. But they’re a popular alternative to Hwy 12 for cars going between Santa Rosa and Sonoma, so they can be very trafficky, and there isn’t much room for the both of you.