Distance: 18.5-mile out-and-back
Elevation gain: 2680 ft
(A Best-of-the-Best descent)
Shirtail (one T) Canyon Road is the access road into Pinnacles National Park from the west side, the back door into the Park. Also known as State Route 146. As with all rides entering National Parks, if you want to go beyond the ranger’s station you’ll need money or your NP pass and ID.
Shirtail Canyon Road heads east from the outskirts of Soledad, and as you approach the area from the north or the south on Hwy 101 your heart will sink, because you’re in the dead-flat, totally agricultural Salinas Valley and you’ll assume the route is straight, flat, and boring. But Soledad butts up against the eastern edge of the valley, so SCR climbs from the get-go, often steeply (check that elevation-to-distance ratio), and is constantly changing its shape and pitch, which makes for a moderately interesting (though scenically fairly boring) climb and an exhilarating descent.
It’s a dead-end ride, taking you past the Pinnacles westside visitor center and stopping at a featureless trailhead parking lot, so you can’t loop it. I guarantee the ride is a workout (again, check that elevation-to-distance ratio), but if you’re disappointed by the small mileage total I’ve described an add-on which I like a lot in the Adding Miles section.
I am downright picky about when I think you should do this ride. 1. Ride it in the spring, when the hills are green. 2. Avoid riding it when it’s hot, because there is next to no shade. 3. Avoid riding it on Saturday morning, when everyone is driving in, or Sunday late afternoon, when everyone is driving out. 4. Don’t ride it when the valley wind is blowing, because it funnels straight up the canyon, hits you on your nose during the descent, and turns a wonderful descent into a white-knuckle stressfest.
With any ride on National Park roads there’s a concern about traffic. I’ve never had a problem here, even though the road is narrow (often signed “one-lane,” rather over-dramatically) and has absolutely no shoulder. The road is wide enough, the drivers are in no hurry, the sight-lines are good, and almost all traffic enters Pinnacles from the eastern entrance. On a lovely Saturday afternoon in spring I saw perhaps 30 cars, roughly two a mile.
This ride is listed in the “Monterey Bay Area” ride list, but that’s a cop-out. If you look in our ride map, you’ll see that it’s in the middle of nowhere. Nacimiento-Fergusson, also in the middle of nowhere and probably the nearest other ride in driving time, is listed in the “Southern California” ride list. What can one do? Sometimes categories fail you.
Start at the intersection of Shirtail Canyon Road and Metz Road. You’re a couple of miles out of Soledad, and it looks fairly insecure there, so you might feel safer parking in town and riding to the intersection, but I’ll warn you those are dead flat, dead straight, uninviting small-town-outskirts miles. At the intersection there is a large dirt turn-out. Pinnacles, despite being a National Park, is practically ignored by the Soledad community, so there is next to no signage directing you to the intersection and, incredibly, there is no sign for the Pinnacles at the intersection, despite the fact that Shirtail goes to Pinnacles and nowhere else (there is a tiny sign advertising a vineyard). There is also no road sign, anywhere along the route, so I’m taking it on faith that what I rode was in fact Shirtail Canyon Road. This under-the-radar status works to your advantage, because it means you will meet 30 cars on the ride instead of 300. There is a prominent sign for Pinnacles once you start up SCR.
As I say, the ride climbs from its inception. You get some breaks (you descent a total of 800 ft. on the climb, which you’ll notice on the return), but it’s mostly up for the first 7 miles, gently at first but then a stretch of 8-12% stuff. You’re riding up a small and unprepossessing canyon bounded on either side by those round hilly grassy mounds you see all over western Central California. If you’re there in the spring, as I counseled, it’s pretty enough, with a few shapely oaks scattered along the roadside, but it’s not memorable, and any other time but spring it’s brown and therefore worse. After the hard climbing you do some charming whoop-dee-do’s, then climb some more.
Around 7 miles in you reach, in rapid succession, a gaping cattle guard requiring some care (I walked it), a standard National Park photo-op entrance sign, and the Visitor Center. It’s an unpretentious but likable operation, with some nice informational placards outside if you don’t want to leave your bike and go inside.
The two miles of road past the Visitor Center are down (steeply at first, then less so), and there’s nothing to see at road’s end unless you plan to hike, so consider turning around at the Visitor Center unless you just want 2 more miles of climbing.
The ride up SCR is nice enough but the descent back to your car is a dream: lots of variety, a blem-free road surface, smooth sweeping turns that don’t necessitate braking and let you see on-coming traffic, some really good whoop-de-doos you can take at speed, and a long 4% run-out at the end when you can pedal hard and feel like a god. If you can catch it on a wind-free day, it’s one of Bestride’s best descents. You can easily break the 35-mph speed limit.
Shortening the ride: Turn around at the Visitor Center. I don’t think the first 7 miles can effectively be shortened.
Adding miles: If 20 miles just doesn’t float your boat, there’s an unexpected way to add some good miles: Metz Rd. Driving Metz from Soledad, you’d swear it’s as worthless as a road can get, but on the south side of Shirtail it’s a whole other animal. It runs for 18 miles from Shirtail to King City outskirts, and while the last 7 of those 18 (nearest King City) are on the valley floor and therefore very ordinary stuff, the first 11 are rewarding. The road runs above the lip of the valley about 50-100 ft up the sidehill, so it has to follow the contour of the grassy mounds. So it’s up and down, back and forth, with a lovely overview to your right of the Salinas River, the railroad tracks, and the never-ending agricultural work below you, with the hills rising steeply on your left. If you ride to where the road drops down to the valley and ceases to be interesting, then turn around, you add 22 miles to our Shirtail out and back, for a respectable mileage total of just over 40. Absolutely no shade on Metz, so not advisable in extreme heat.
Beyond that, there is nothing in the immediate vicinity. Our legendary Nacimiento-Fergusson Road ride is a 45-minute car drive to the south.