Readers often ask me why Bestrides doesn’t cover Washington state. The answer is, I don’t think the riding is good enough. I’ve done a fair amount of riding there, and it’s often nice, but it can’t match the two states below it. Sorry, Washingtonians.
I know of five Washington rides that are worth traveling a distance to do. On the east side of Mt. Rainier there are two roads going into the park. One ends at the Sunrise Visitor Center. The other goes to the Paradise Visitor Center (and continues west through and out of the park, though I’m not recommending the west half because it’s heavily trafficked). At the northern border of the state, the Mt. Baker Highway climbs up to Artist’s Point and dead-ends there. All three rides are out and backs through splendid scenery, long, fairly monotonous climbs followed by long, fairly monotonous descents. The vistas are as good as anything you’ll see anywhere. The pitches are all moderate, hour after hour. Mt. Baker is the hardest climb. The ride to Sunrise has the best descending. The ride to Paradise has the grandest scenery. All three rides are on roads that are pretty popular with cars, so a weekday morning is recommended. All three can be closed by snow, so check road conditions before going. Through much of the summer on snowy years the Mt. Baker road is free of snow only to Austin Pass (5.6 miles short of the road’s end), in which case I would wait, since those last 5.6 miles are by far the most rewarding.
The fourth ride I like is in the San Juan Islands, an archipelago of gentle, flat, domesticated islands between the city of Vancouver and the island of Vancouver. The islands are all connected by small ferries that welcome cyclists. Every island has its charming little village or two and is criss-crossed by easy, pleasant roads through fields of small-farm agriculture (I once saw a man plowing a field behind a team of horses), with occasional views of the sea and adjacent islands. It’s pretty much paradise if you’re looking for mellow, but it’s more about being there than riding. The one great ride in the islands is Orcas Island. Orcas is shaped like a horseshoe, and the ferry drops you at one end. Ride the main road most of the way to the other end of the horseshoe, where you’ll find the San Juans’ only real hill, and it’s a pip: Mt. Constitution. Climb it and let the spectacular panoramic views at the top take your breath away. Then ride back.
The fifth ride, Hurricane Ridge Road, in Olympic National Park, is a famous climb I have only driven. It dead-ends at the Hurricane Ridge Visitor Center. Like the first three rides, it’s a long out-and-back slog, with a road contour even more featureless than the others, again with spectacular scenery, and sporting a serious traffic problem. Expect a shoulder ride much the way.
An excellent guide to these and 70 other Washington rides is Mike McQuaide’s 75 Classic Rides Washington (The Mountaineers Books).
Oregon and California Regions
For Californians, the cycling in Oregon is an under-utilized treasure. The southwestern forests are virgin and lush. The Willamette Valley is the aesthetic standard by which all agricultural regions are measured. The coastal highway is far less hectic than Highway 1 down south and dotted with charming small towns. The road surfaces are uniformly excellent—if there’s a pothole in Oregon, I haven’t been able to find it. Oregonians don’t litter, and you never see broken glass. Because Oregon still has a vigorous logging industry, there are roads everywhere, to accommodate the logging trucks. The cars are driven by friendly and courteous folks. And the back roads are free of traffic like almost nowhere in California. The climbs are less fierce—pitches above 6% are rare. Some Oregonians refer to Oregon from Bend south as “Northern Northern California,” and I recommend you adopt that attitude if you’re a Californian rider.
Most strikingly different are the two state’s coasts. California’s Hwy 1 is a cyclist’s nightmare, heavily trafficked by generally hostile drivers, mostly up and down, with very few communities for respite, and the few roads that head east from Hwy 1 tend to be vertical. Oregon’s Hwy 101 is a much more tranquil, flatter, less busy, friendlier road with lots of charming small communities and lots of mellow roads heading east from it along essentially flat rivers.
Because Oregon loves its cyclists, it’s probably the best state in the Union for cycling maps. Once there was a beautiful thing called the Lane County Bicycle Map, which covered Eugene, Oakridge, three rides in our list (Aufderheide, Gardiner to Eugene, and Alpine to Alsea), and dozens of other good rides. It also mapped out eleven prime rides in the area, with elevation profiles and descriptions. Pure bliss. Sadly it is no more, killed by the internet. If you can find an old copy, treasure it. Many other state regions have their own cycling maps, most of them downloadable. There is also an excellent cyclist’s guide to the entire coast, the Oregon Coast Bicycle Route Map, free from the ODOT and available at Oregon Welcome Centers. It even tells you the direction of the prevailing winds.
You’ll notice there are no rides in our list from the eastern side of Oregon. That’s because pretty much everything east of Bend is desert—dry, monotonous, and barren to my eye. Some riders—those who like great distances, moonscapes, and solitude—like it out there, especially the area around and north of Baker and John Day. If you’re one of them you might consult the Oregon Scenic Byways website for routes. Jim Moore (below) also has some excellent suggestions. But it’s not my kind of riding.
The basic online source for Oregon riding is Rideoregonride.com. Like all such sites, it seems to miss most of the great backcountry routes, so if you limit yourself to its suggestions you’ll probably end up riding the merely good, but it’s worth a look.
Since I created this site, I discovered Jim Moore’s 75 Classic Rides Oregon: the Best Road Biking Routes from Mountaineers Books. It’s simply the best road riding guide to anywhere I’ve ever seen. I recently did a nineteen-ride car trip through Oregon based almost entirely on its suggestions, and it never let me down. It contains (usually in altered form) many of the Oregon rides in this website. I would begin any exploration of Oregon’s riding riches there. When one of my rides is covered in Moore’s book I mention it at the beginning of the write-up.
Oregon rides, north to south:
Hood River to The Dalles
Vernonia to Astoria
Three Capes Ride
Lolo Pass Back Road
Siletz Bay to Newport Inland
Alpine to Alsea
Marys Peak Road
Shotgun Creek Road
Sweet Creek Road
Gardiner to Eugene
Eagle’s Rest Road
North Fork Siuslaw Road
Burnt Mountain Road/Tioga Creek Road
Elk River Road
Brice Creek Road
Galice to Golden
Tour de Fronds
Gold Beach Century
Dead Indian Loop
Old Siskiyou Highway
Cycling the Northern California Coast
The Northern California coast, for cyclists, is Hwy 1, which is solely for touring riders, and a lot of roads that take off from Hwy 1 and all do roughly the same thing: immediately climb like mad into lush coastal forest, then roll up and down eastward through the many ridges of the Coast Range. (If you’re riding west from Hwy 101 or another of the inland north-south highways, the profile is reversed, of course.) I’ve given you four such rides (plus one ride that’s slightly inland). There are lots more rides leaving Hwy 1, and they’re all fine adventures I encourage you to explore. Just look on the map for any road leaving Hwy 1 heading east, make sure it’s paved, then head down (or rather up) the road.
Krebs has a good map covering this area.
Cycling Northern California Inland
“Northern California” always seems to be a default category: if it isn’t coastal and it isn’t the Gold Country and it isn’t urban, it’s “Northern California.” So it is here. There is nothing these rides have in common except they’re north of San Francisco, they’re in an area without a familiar label, and they’re all good.
Northern California Inland rides:
Forks of Salmon
Mt. Shasta Climbs
Mill Creek Road
Lassen National Park
Warner Valley Road/Juniper Lake Road
Highway 32 Canyons
Paradise to Butte Meadows
Oroville to Forbestown
Clear Lake to Cobb
Wooden Valley/Pleasants Valley
Bald Rock Road
Scott River Road
Cycling the Northern Gold Country
“Northern Gold Country” I define as everything north of Hwy 50 and east of Hwy 80. A lot of it is very good stuff—almost any road in the triangle formed by 50, 80, and an imaginary line running due north from Pollock Pines is worth riding. But honestly, the riding south of Hwy 50 is usually better. The rides in our Southern Gold Country list just scratch the surface of the fine riding in the area, whereas these six rides are all I can truly call special there. But I stand by those six.
Cycling the Southern Gold Country and Sierra
The Gold Country below Hwy 50 is one of the greatest cycling destinations in California. It’s a volume thing. From Placerville south to Jamestown, for 75 miles, everything on the east side of Hwy 49—everything—is worth riding, and much on the west side of 49 as well, incredible as that may sound. So the few routes I give you in this region vastly under-represent the opportunities. Think of it as a starter kit for the area. I’ll tell you about some great routes and encourage you to explore everything else. And I’ve favored the more off-the-radar routes, the ones you’re less likely to stumble upon on your own. But go make your own discoveries.
80% of the area is beautifully mapped by AAA’s Gold Country regional map, and I encourage you to get it, however much you like Internet mapping sites. Just remember to check to make sure the road is paved before heading out. The maps won’t always tell you—for instance, Dogtown Rd. is a good ride, but San Domingo Rd., from Dogtown Rd. to Sheep Ranch Rd., is a gorgeous, but dirt, road—perfect for your mountain bike. On the AAA map they look the same. Often the maps are simply wrong—the Benchmark atlas of the area says that Hawyer Rd. is paved and Old Gulch Rd. is dirt, whereas it’s the other way around.
The layout of the terrain is dead simple. Hwy 49 runs north and south a bit uphill (eastward) into the Sierra foothills. Everything to the west is rolling grassy farmland, all very much the same, pretty and perfect for a lazy bucolic roll (before the summer heat sets in). If you want to ride out there, the best roads are Sutter-Ione Rd and Stony Creek Rd, so try to include them in your route. The century that covers this area is the Party Pardee, a spring metric put on by the Sacramento Bike Hikers, and it’s a joyful, great-hearted century I totally endorse and ride every year even though the roads themselves are merely very nice—not special enough for our list. Everything to the east of 49 is more hilly, and it gets more and more hilly the further east you go (Hwy 4 famously hits 24%) until you’re on the spine of the Sierra. So every road that runs east runs uphill, every road that runs west runs downhill, and every road east of 49 that runs north and south is a series of ups and downs as it crosses a series of creek canyons and ridges running perpendicular to your route. There is no flat road in the Gold Country.
Remember our general rule: avoid roads with numbers. All the highways have double or triple the traffic of the back roads. Hwy 49 itself is the worst—it’s almost always unpleasantly trafficky. But sometimes you have to go there, because that’s where the supplies are or because you need to complete the last leg of a loop. So be it. Hwy 4 is the next worst.
Seasons matter here. You can ride the Gold Country all year round, but when you ride has a big effect on the experience. Since all Gold Country riding is up and down, I wouldn’t want to ride it in the wet, which means you have to watch the weather report closely in the spring and definitely wait for a dry weather window in the winter. The Gold Country is Sacramento and the Bay Area’s favorite summer playground, so the earlier or later in the year you ride, the less obnoxious the crowds and traffic will be. Spring is manic anywhere near Daffodil Hill. Fall is beautiful but everywhere you ride will be plagued by eye flies, those little black gnats that hover in front of your face. The summer is surprisingly hot. Mountains = cool, right? The Sierra Century, from which our Cream of the Sierra Century ride is drawn, is run in the summer, and it’s often flirting with 100-degree temperatures even at its highest elevations. Just put all this info in the hopper and make your choice. The Ebbetts Pass ride and the higher sections of the Carson Pass Plus ride and the Yosemite tour are closed by snow in the winter.
Part of the allure of the Gold Country—the reason why the Bay Area non-cyclists are here—is the large number of charming towns. Sutter Creek, Amador City, Mokelumne Hill (muh KULL uh mee), Murphy’s, Angel’s Camp, Volcano, Columbia—they’re all rewarding places to hang out in, especially Murphy’s, Sutter Creek, and Columbia. These three are a little precious, a little theme-park-ish, but it works. Many of these towns lie on Hwy 49, which is why we don’t want to ride there. Lodging in the area can be quite upscale, but there are mom-and-pop motels to be found, and a number of quaint restored hotels (in Volcano, Jackson, and Mokelumne Hill, for starters) that are fun and can be inexpensive.
In the summer of 2015, the Butte Fire burned a vast tract of prime riding land south and east of Mokelumne Hill. I haven’t visited the area since, so I’m not sure how the fire has affected the quality of the riding.
I’ve included the 6 Sierra rides in this section because I didn’t want a section with only 6 rides, and because the Sierra rides cover a vast territory (getting from Yosemite to the Bestrides nearest it to the south, Kings Canyon, is a 7.5-hr drive, for instance) so they don’t really constitute a region. There are many famous roads in the Sierra that aren’t here (circumnavigating Tahoe, Tioga Pass, the area around Bishop, the area east of Mammoth), because I don’t think they’re good enough—all too trafficky, too tedious, or too doggedly hard. You can find the hardest of them at pjamm cycling, including Onion Valley Road, the hardest ride in California.
Southern Gold Country and Sierra rides:
North South Road
Carson Pass Plus
Blue Lakes Road
Cream of the Sierra Century
Jesus Maria Road
Ward’s Ferry Road
South Upper Truckee Road
Old Ward’s Ferry Road Et. Al.
Cycling the Wine Country
The Wine Country (the Napa and Sonoma Valleys and surroundings) is probably the area of California most populated with tourists on a summer weekend day (Yosemite may be worse—not sure). The traffic is about as “rural” as downtown San Francisco. And the drivers have come to drink. So you have to use your wits to ride there. Follow one simple rule: don’t ride on any road with a highway number. That means, stay off Hwys 101, 128, and 29. That’s a loss. Hwy 128 east of the Silverado Trail would be a great ride if they closed it to cars. But we can’t have everything, and once we agree to stay off the big highways there’s plenty of splendid riding left to us on the back roads that wander up into the hills lining both valleys, where the cars and tour buses full of tipsy wine tourists never go. To quote Walter Huston in “The Treasure of the Sierra Madre”: “Up there! Up there’s where we’ve got to go!”
Anything that goes east/west from one valley to another would probably be great riding—beautiful, challenging, windy—were it not for the traffic, which can be fierce, so try to find roads that aren’t main arteries. For instance, Hwy 29 from Middletown to Calistoga is a gorgeous road, but it’s solid cars, no shoulder, and no room for passing—in other words, a nightmare for cyclists. Similarly, Calistoga Road/Petrified Forest Road from Calistoga to Santa Rosa is beautiful, but again it’s the main artery between two fairly large and active towns, so traffic can be daunting. And so it goes. That’s why all the good routes are either dead ends (Pine Flat Road), loops that leave a valley and return (Geysers Road), or less-used alternates to busier roads (Sweetwater Springs Road).
Since the good roads always climb up from the valley, all 6 rides in this section have serious climbing. If you’re looking for something more mellow but still want to avoid the traffic of the wine roads, check out the rides in the Adding Miles section of the Pine Flat Road ride.
Sonoma County would be in the running for Best Place to Ride a Bike in California were it not for the road surfaces, which are uniformly bad once you get off the heavily trafficked routes. Not just imperfect—often a real impediment to one’s riding pleasure. Every Wine Country ride in Bestrides has serious road surface issues. If your bike will run larger tires, you’ll want them.
The Wine Country is also one of the most expensive places to rent lodgings in California. There are some not-so-horrific options: 1) stay in Rohnert Park, where there are a lot of cheap motels (in both senses) at the Hwy 101/Rohnert Park Expressway interchange; 2) find an airbnb in Santa Rosa; 3) camp at the KOA in Cloverdale; 4) find one of the few inexpensive places actually in the Wine Country, like the Calistoga Hotel. Remember, if it’s cheap, there’s always a reason.
Krebs has a good map covering this area.
Wine Country rides:
These three rides are all close enough to the Golden Gate Bridge to be folded into the Bay Area section of the list, if geography were everything. But, as anyone in the Bay Area will tell you, it isn’t the Bay—it’s Marin. It’s a state of mind thing. You had to be there.
Pretty much all of the small roads in Marin are pretty good, and much of it is pretty indistinguishable. Here are the three rides that rise above the norm. See the Adding Miles discussions for each to see other possibilities.
Krebs has a good map covering this area.
Cycling the Bay Area
To those who have never been, the Bay Area of the mind’s eye is like Coruscant in Star Wars—solid metropolis, endless urban hive. Nothing could be farther from the truth. Yes, the Bay itself has a lot of urban steel along its shoreline, but just behind that steel curtain in all directions lie magnificent cycling roads through farmland, dense woods, or wild grassland. And because the Bay’s flatland has a hilly spine to the west and east, those roads usually involve world-class climbing. The names for some of the climbs are the stuff of legend: Mt. Hamilton. Mt. Diablo. The Bay riding can stand up to that of any place in the world (four of the Best of the Best rides are from this region). Yes, the traffic can be horrific, but BART helps (see BART discussion below). And yes, lodging is pricey. Luckily my brother lives there.
Four of our East Bay rides—Grizzly Peak Blvd to Redwood Ave., Palomares Rd., Calaveras Rd., and Sierra Rd./Felter Rd.—are legs of the Best of the Bay Century, a wonderful century with (obviously) outstanding riding, but also wonderful food and a uniquely cheerful, friendly temperament. They actually greet me by my first name, and I’m from out of town! It’s also the only century I know of that’s one-way—you ride straight south, then jump on BART to return to your starting place.
Riding in the Bay Area is all about using the Bay Area Rapid Transit System, the region’s subway. BART goes by many of the rides in our list, and they’re happy to have you and your bike on board. This means you can park somewhere safe (like a BART station) or lodge somewhere cheap (like Pittsburg) and ride BART to your ride, or you can BART to the start of the ride and end at another BART station.
You can take a bike on any BART train at any time, in any car except the first one. But the cars are jammed at rush hours, and handling a bike in those crushes will make you a lot of enemies and put you in a very bad mood, so try to avoid those times. BART users are happy to walk you though the process of buying a BART pass and using it, so just ask anyone nearby how it works. Bikes aren’t allowed on the escalators. There are elevators, but they’re tiny, unpleasant, and slow, so you’ll probably end up climbing (a lot of) stairs. At almost every bank of turnstiles, there’s an extra-wide one just for you that makes it easy to pass through with your bike. Keep track of where you are en route—the name of the station is often unreadable from your seat.
Krebs has a good map covering this area. For any riding in San Francisco proper, The San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency has prepared for you the SF Bike Network Map, detailing all bike routes, lanes, and such. You can request a paper version by mail.
Bay Area rides:
Golden Gate Bridge Loop
San Francisco’s Wiggle Loop
Grizzly Peak Boulevard to Redwood Road
Sierra Road/Felter Road
Morgan Territory Road
Purissima Creek Road
Pescadero/Tunitas Creek Road
Del Puerto Canyon Road
Mill Creek Road #2
Cycling Monterey Bay
I’ve included the rides in the Hollister area in the Monterey Bay section—a bit of a stretch, but it’s only a short drive (c. 25 miles) away.
Monterey Bay itself is a wonderful place, or rather two wonderful places, Santa Cruz and Monterey. They’re almost an hour’s car trip apart, and they couldn’t be more different as riding destinations. The hills above Santa Cruz may well be the greatest cycling destination on the West Coast—a network of marvelous cycling roads weaving their way up and down (very up and down) through lush California coastal Redwood forest. Here you can take a map and wander freely, knowing wherever you ride will be good. I’ve given you six great routes, but there are many other good roads, so here’s a list of all the good roads I know in the Santa Cruz area—I suggest you take a paper map, highlight all of them, then invent routes that link several together. I’ve included roads in our three rides (other than Big Basin), for the sake of completeness.
Good Santa Cruz area roads (in no order)
Ice Cream Grade
Upper China Grade (rough surface)
Jamison Creek (very steep)
Alba (very steep)
Bear Creek (beautiful, but busy connector with no shoulder—be careful)
Summit (trafficky east of Hwy 17 to Soquel-San Jose)
Highland (rough surface)
Eureka Canyon (great sausage shop at Corralitos)
E. Zayante (rough at top)
Mountain Charlie (steep, rough)
Branciforte (with Green Valley, nearest to flat in the list)
N. Rodeo Gulch
Soquel-San Jose (very fast, smooth descent)
Brown’s Valley (signed “Brown Valley”)
Green Valley (pleasant farm country)
Pine Flat (easier climbing, fast, relatively straight downhill, scenically ordinary for the area, moderate traffic)
Empire Grade (same as Pine Flat)
In fact, there are only a few roads to avoid, always because of traffic: Highway 9, Bear Creek Road, Mt. Hernon Rd., maybe Graham Hill Road, and of course Hwy 17.
If you want an good organized introduction to the riding in the area, check out the Santa Cruz Mountains Challenge, a century with routes of various lengths, the longest being a killer 135-mile route with 13K of elevation gain. It’s in late July.
Monterey is the opposite of Santa Cruz. It has almost no small back roads—just big through-traffic routes, lousy for riding. But it does have three rides I like, and those three I really like. I visit the area once a year, I do these three rides, and I go home.
Monterey is the home of the Sea Otter Festival, the biggest bike festival in the United States and maybe in the world. It’s four days of immersion in everything cycling, it’s in a great venue, it’s essentially free (about $30 for four days), and if you haven’t been you simply must go. It has amateur racing, pro racing, centuries, fun rides, some of the best mountain bike trails in the state, about 400 industry vendors happy to chat with you about their products, swag and discount deals galore, trials demonstrations, kids’ classes, a pump track, the finest bikes in the world for you to demo, and 40,000 riders who share your passion. It’s 80% mountain biking, but that’s OK—there’s more than enough to keep you busy, and you might consider demoing a $10,000 mountain bike while you’re there and seeing what that’s all about.
Lodging around Monterey is all about location. You can spend a fortune for a room in a Pacific Grove B and B overlooking the water, you can pay $80 for a standard motel room just down the road in Marina, or you can do the easy, scenic half-hour drive to Salinas and get a Motel 6 for $55. As far as I know, lodging in Santa Cruz is all pricey. As of 4/16 airbnb is illegal in Monterey but not in Pacific Grove.
There are roads in the Monterey area I’d make an effort to avoid. Hwy 1 most obviously—it’s downright dangerous for bikes from Monterey to Big Sur. The first 12 miles of Carmel Valley Rd. is big and busy and you’ll be on the shoulder the entire time. Laureles Grade is touted as the area’s plumb climb, but I see nothing good about it—a straight up/straight down hill from a too-busy road to a too-busy road, itself heavily trafficked, littered with glass.
Krebs has a good map covering this area.
Monterey Bay rides:
Bean Creek/Mtn. Charlie/Soquel-San Jose
Bonny Doon/Empire Grade
East Zayante Road
Robinson Canyon Road
Lone Tree Road
East Carmel Valley Road/Cachagua Road
San Juan Canyon Road
San Juan Grade Road
N. Rodeo Gulch Road
Felton Empire/Empire Grade
Cycling Southern California
I don’t know a lot about riding in Southern California. So I’m sure my list is missing a lot of good stuff. You locals, please tell me what I’m missing. Much of the riding I’ve done there has been guided by toughascent.com, my inspiration in cycling and blogging. So in several of my ride descriptions I’ll encourage you to consult his more extensive treatment of the ride. And don’t miss LesB’s excellent introduction to the area in the comment section at the end of the Tuna Canyon Loop ride.
If you’re from Northern California (or anywhere other than Southern California), you have a lot of stereotypes to overcome. Specifically, these aren’t urban rides. They’re all nearly car-less (at least on weekdays), and many of them are as wild and Out There as anything in Northern California or Oregon.
The further south you go, the less lush the terrain gets. By the time you’re down to the Mt. Figueroa ride, as soon as you start to climb you’re in what I call mountain desert—waterless, brush-covered hillsides. It has its own beauty.
Southern California rides:
Peachy Canyon Road
Santa Rosa Creek Road
Tuna Canyon Road Loop
Glendora Ridge Road
Santa Rita Road/Cypress Mountain Road
Adelaida Road/Chimney Rock Road
Prefumo Canyon Road/See Canyon Road