Spicer Reservoir Road

Distance: 20.4-mile double out and back
Elevation gain: 2000 ft

Between Murphys and Ebbetts Pass on Hwy 4 I know of only three paved back-country roads. Luckily, two of them, this ride and our Big Trees Parkway ride, are excellent rides. Those two plus our Bear Valley to Mosquito Lake ride make the west end of Hwy 4 a pretty rich riding area all by themselves.

Spicer and Big Trees are almost mirror images of each other. They’re both out-and-backs that head south from Hwy 4, drop for a few miles of delicious, sweeping curves to a pretty river crossing, and climb the other side, all through pretty Sierra forests on excellent pavement. Both are bare of any signs of humanity except for road signs and occasional campgrounds. Both are closed by snow in the winter and open when the weather warms, usually some time in late June. Both are surprisingly wide two-lane roads where cars have lots of room to pass at all times. Neither has suffered forest fire damage as of 7/23.

So how are they different? Big Trees has the whole State Park experience: spectacular scenery (in this case giant sequoias), educational nature trails, a Visitor Center, crowds, packed campgrounds. Spicer has a beautiful lake at the turn-around. Big Trees’ big descent is longer—4 miles vs. 2.5 miles—and slightly more exciting. (Therefore Big Trees’ long climb is also longer—4 miles vs. 2.5 miles—and slightly steeper. See how that works?). Big Trees costs $10; Spicer is free. Spicer is higher in elevation, so you get some of that magnificent Sierra exposed granite; Big Trees is pretty much just trees.

You would think that both rides would suffer from car traffic, Big Trees because it’s one of the state’s most popular summer tourist spots and Spicer because it’s the road to one of the area’s most attractive boating destinations. But in fact both rides can be traffic-free, if you choose your riding time wisely. I’ll explain why Big Trees can be car-free in that post. Spicer is largely deserted most of the time because boaters only drive to and from lakes at certain times: Friday afternoon/evening and Saturday late morning/early afternoon heading in, and Sunday afternoon/evening heading out. The rest of the time the road is yours. Or so logic tells me. I had only Saturday in early July to do this ride, the worst possible time, so I started riding at 9 am and had the road to myself. Traffic began being an issue around 11 am, when I was done.

Of Spicer and Big Trees, which ride would I do if I could only do one? It’s a tough call, but I’d go with Spicer, for its views of the lake, its more varied scenery, and its more varied road contour. But if you’re all about long descents, go with Big Trees.

Streetview only maps the first quarter of SRR, and sometimes that’s a sign that the road becomes impassable, but in this case not so—the road is wide and immaculate in its entirety.

Incredibly, although Spicer Reservoir Rd. is large and well-maintained, there is absolutely no signage at the turn-off on Hwy 4—no indication of road, lake, boat ramp, power station, dam, or anything. There are small signs reading “Spicer Reservoir Road” and “Sno-Park” about 1/4 mi. before the turn-off to the west. So keep an eye on your GPS.

Of course you can ride this road by parking at the Hwy 4/Spicer intersection (there is a huge Sno Park parking lot 1/4 mi. down Spicer), riding to the end of the road, and riding back. But the riding profile means that if you do that you begin with the best descent, before you’re awake enough to enjoy it, and you follow it with the hardest climbing, when you’ve hardly turned a pedal. So, even though it involves an additional 2.9 mi. of car miles, I encourage you to drive down Spicer to the Stanislaus River crossing and park there. Ride to Hwy 4, then turn around and ride to your car. Continue past it and ride to Spicer reservoir, then turn around and return to your car. That way you warm up on the easier climb, are wide awake for the best descending, and are fully warm for the harder climb. If climbing on cold legs isn’t your thing, there is a quarter-mile of flat at the river crossing where you can do some warming up. I’ll describe the route assuming you’re taking my advice.

There is a campground at the Stanislaus River crossing but they ask you not to park there unless you’re camping. There are dirt pull-outs a stone’s throw beyond the bridge. The river itself is small but lovely, and a post-ride plunge is a perfect end to the ride.

Don’t ride off quite yet. The granite hill to the immediate southeast of the bridge is the best scenery on the ride until you get to the lake. Check it out.

Ride to Hwy 4—2.9 easy to moderate miles of climbing through conventionally pretty Sierra scenery. At Hwy 4 turn around and enjoy a really good, fast, sweeping descent back to the river. The sight lines are all excellent, the road surface is next-to-flawless, and there isn’t a sharp bend anywhere, so you can carry a lot of speed and shouldn’t need brakes.

As you pass your car, you can drop any clothing you no longer need. The 1 mile south of the bridge is the hardest climbing on the route, but it’s never fierce, and after that it’s charming shallow rollers and short climbs/descents to the lake (7.2 mi. total). This is as pleasant as riding gets. Note the one unexpected hairpin turn clearly indicated on the map.

As you approach the lake (which is actually called the New Spicer Meadows Reservoir) you’ll hit an intersection you might not even notice. A small sign with arrows points L to “boat ramp/day use” and other things. The main road clearly goes R (just follow the freshly painted brilliant yellow double line), but my GPS called that L turn the “main road.” It isn’t—it’s a 1/10th-mi. spur that goes (as the sign says) to the tiny boat ramp and small shoreline day use area. Go there only if you want to play in the lake water, use the bathroom, or see a large map of the lake. The vistas are on the other road.

Spicer Reservoir

Assuming you’ve followed the yellow line, you won’t get a good view of the lake for a while. Even though the map makes it look like you’re riding along the lake shore, you’re actually rolling up and down 100 ft or so above the waterline, and trees and boulders are blocking your view. When you finally get to the one and only spot where you see the lake in all its glory, it’s splendid—stop, take it in, and get off your bike and stroll around. Consider clambering down to the lake—it’s a moderately steep but completely doable scramble. Beyond this point (marked by a “No camping beyond this point” sign on a tree) the road drops steeply for a half-mile, then ends in the middle of dam engineering—interesting, but leaving you with a tough half-mile climb getting back. Do it if you wish (our map skips it), then turn around and head to your car.

The ride back is without major climbing and without exhilarating descending—just an idyllic meander through Sierra paradise. (OK, there’s one 1/2-mi. climb you’ll notice). The ride back down the climb you did going out is too steep and too straight to be of much interest.

Shortening the ride: From the Stanislaus River bridge, either out-and-back makes a lovely ride. The southern route gives you the lake and the sweet rollers, so I’d do it first. If you’re all about ripping descents, do the northern route.

Adding Miles: As far as I know, there are only 4 paved roads in this area other than housing developments: Hwy 4 itself, Spicer, Big Trees, and Broads Crossing, which I haven’t ridden but which looks good and heads south from Hwy 4 at a signed intersection between Spicer and Big Trees. The Spicer/Hwy 4 intersection is 6 ridable miles from our Bear Valley to Mosquito Lake ride and, in the other direction, 16 mostly unpleasant miles to the Broads Crossing turn-off and 19 miles to our Big Trees ride.

If you’re in Murphys and looking for short, easy, mellow riding, there are two possibilities: Six Mile Rd. and Murphys Grade Rd. Both run between the town of Murphys and Hwy 49 and are pretty and pleasant but are too short to be Bestrides-worthy (six miles one way, both rides).

Six-Mile Rd. is the skinnier and quainter of the two. It meanders pleasantly past pretty woods, the occasional farmhouse, and one enormous vineyard (Ironstone) for the eponymous 6 miles, then dead-ends into Hwy 4, which is unrideably trafficky this close to Hwy 49, so expect to ride SMR as an out and back. It’s truly small, varying from standard country two-lane to true one-lane on very nice pavement (except for the 1/4 mile at the Murphys end), and should be traffic-free west of Ironstone.

Murphys Grade Rd. is the alternative route from Hwy 49 to Murphys, the main route being Hwy 4. It’s bigger and more domesticated than Six-Mile and considerably busier, but the bulk of the Murphys traffic should opt for the highway (except for now—6/23—when Hwy 4 is under construction). It’s entirely through lovely, lush woods thanks to the creek running alongside, the road contour is gently sinuous, and the road surface is great. It’s all uphill heading east, as the word “grade” implies, but it’s the mildest grade in the world, averaging around 3-5%. This one you can partially loop, by taking French Gulch Rd. the other way—FGR forks off MGR about one-third of the way from Why 49 to Murphys and returns to Murphys. FGR is more work—a fair amount of 8-10%. If you ride MGR from Murphys to Hwy 4, then return to FGR and take it back to Murphys, you’ll ride 12.5 mi. and climb 1020 ft.

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