San Juan Grade Road

Distance: 18 miles out and back
Elevation gain: 1700 ft

A few words about riding around Hollister generally:

First, the image of the Hollister area is hot, dusty, dead flat agricultural fields and a culture stuck in 1955.  Some of that is true.  Hollister is hot and dry in the summer, and cold and dead in the winter, so I would try hard to schedule my riding for late spring (April) after some rain, when the grass is green and the area is momentarily a gorgeous, lush garden.  The town of Hollister and the surrounding agricultural valleys (Santa Ana Valley and San Juan Valley) are flat, but they’re surrounded by small, rolling hills rich with meandering roads offering ideal riding contour.  The three Bestrides rides from the area all have substantial climbing.  As to the culture, Hollister is not especially hip, but it’s a pleasant, easy-going town, and San Juan Bautista is a small Old California treasure with a grand Spanish mission and adjacent historical State Park well worth an afternoon.

Second, the road surfaces in San Benito County vary from poor to awful.  You just have to live with it (or ride somewhere else).  The one exception is our San Juan Canyon Road ride, where the surface is OK.  If for no other reason, that makes San Juan Canyon Road the best ride in the area.  I’d do it first, then this one, unless you don’t want to work.

San Juan Grade: very pretty country (in April)

San Juan Grade Road is an relatively easy (1900 ft in 9 miles of up) climb and descent over a low pass, then a return climb and descent back to your starting point in the town of San Juan Bautista.  It’s a “highway” in name only, since it’s a back route to Salinas (on various mapping sites it’s labeled “Salinas Highway,” “Hwy 3,” or “Salinas Road”) and almost all traffic takes the modern multi-lane.  In 22 miles I saw 9 vehicles.  

The wooded north side

The north and south sides of the summit pass are about equal in climbing effort but radically different in character: the north side is mostly wooded, through very pretty, riparian oak forest with a very poor road surface (see above); the south side is all fine vistas of open,  rolling grasslands dotted bucolically with picturesque cows and of Salinas in the distance, with a surprisingly good road surface, viz., it’s not terrible (there’s a distinct line across the road where the surface suddenly improves).   It’s still bad enough to put a slight damper on the otherwise swell descent.  Descending the north side is borderline misery.  Both sides serpentine pleasantly, not a moment of the climbing is strenuous, and the scenery is consistently charming and human-free (in April—see above).   A very pretty little ride.

Looking south from the summit, with Salinas in distance

Begin exactly where our San Juan Canyon Road ride begins.  Park on the Alameda (which is a street)  just south of Highway 156.  Ride south on the Alameda.  Immediately you hit a three-way intersection, where the wide San Juan Canyon Road (the route for our ride of the same name) takes off to the L, then in 50 more feet a small road (which will turn to dirt) goes straight and the obvious main road curves to the R.  There are no street signs.  Take the road to the R and stay on it until you reach the intersection of it (now finally signed “San Juan Grade Rd”) and Crazyhorse Rd. in 9 miles.   It’s uninterrupted climbing, then a little rolling, then uninterrupted descending (the sawtooth elevation profile in the Mapmyride map is bogus).  At the intersection, turn around and ride home.  Now go check out the mission, the State Park, and the town of San Juan Bautista.

Shortening the route: Ride to the summit, check out the vistas to the south, then turn around.

Classic contour on the south side of the summit—click on photo to really see it

Adding miles: Our ride is a leg of a popular local loop that turns R onto Crazyhorse at our turn-around and works its way around to School Rd. and back to your starting place.  Crazyhorse isn’t especially good riding, but School is, a charming, very small back road clinging to the sidehill and giving you fine views of the hills to the north while it follows the Five Rules of Dodgeball: dodge, duck, dip, dive, and dodge.

Do the other two Hollister rides in Bestrides, San Juan Canyon Road and Lone Tree Road.

School Road

About 8 miles to the east is Cienega Rd. (“see EN uh guh”), the most popular bike route in the area, an easy, charming, and pretty (in April) meander through riparian oaks and small, unpretentious farms I would do as an out-and-back (18 miles one way), but locals do as a loop, returning on Hwy 25, which is reputed to be good.  Heading south away from Hollister, Hwy 25 is also good.  But Hwy 25 is the road to Pinnacles National Park, and since they upgraded Pinnacles from a National Monument the traffic must have gotten worse.  A longer ride that’s reputed to be worth doing is Road J1 from Paicines to Panoche.

Looking north from School Road

2 thoughts on “San Juan Grade Road

  1. Kevin Eastman

    Pay attention to Jay’s warnings. Ignore the pretty pictures! The north side of San Juan Grade should be on a “Worst of the Worst” list for its abysmal pavement. What a mess. I might ride up the north side if I was leaving San Juan Batista but I never want to ride back down again. Riding should be fun. This was not. But I loved the little town of San Juan Batista, and San Juan Canyon Road is much nicer.

  2. Will Stark

    I did this ride at the end of April and it was beautiful! Cows dot the landscape, with lush green grass blowing in the wind. It looks like the WindowsXP wallpaper–if you know, you know. The grade is nice and consistent. I saw about 10 cars. Yes, the north side pavement is bad; however, it is now a bit better–they filled a few hundred pot holes in the worst stretch. Still bumpy and stressful at times. Bring your biking gloves to save your hands. If you ride a gravel or mountain bike, you can make this a loop by taking Old Stage Coach Rd.–half of it is on gravel/dirt and closed to cars.


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