Distance: 26-mile loop
Elevation gain: 1410 ft
Note: This route was untouched by the Camp Fire of 2018.
This loop consists of roads covered by the Wildflower Century, my hometown cycling club’s annual spring ride, and since 4000 cyclists do it every year there’s a good chance you’ve been over these roads. But this loop goes backwards to the Wildflower direction, and it’s a wholly different, and better, ride. It’s got a lot of points of interest besides the riding—a famous dam, century-old olive orchards, a state-of-the-art sustainable farm, a covered bridge, nationally renowned wildflowers in season, a Gold Rush cemetery, and two old Gold Rush towns complete with historical plaques and one-room museums.
This is the rare Bestrides ride where you have some hard choices about which way to ride the route—see Alternate routes below.
Do not do this ride on a weekend day during wildflower season—the roads are absolutely unsafe for cyclists (see more below).
(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.)
Table Mountain is a huge mesa (Spanish for “table”) outside of Oroville. The ride climbs up to it, traverses it, and drops down the other side. The rest of the ride is getting back to your car, though much of it is nice riding. Warning: this ride has about seven miles of boring—my absolute limit.
You can begin the loop anywhere, but I like to get the boring leg out of the way, so I start at the intersection of Table Mt. Boulevard and Cherokee Road. There’s lots of safe curbside parking in the neighborhoods to the immediate southeast, and if you’re not comfortable with that there is a huge parking lot a couple of blocks due south surrounding government buildings (and a 7-11 for afters). Ride north for 7 miles on Table Mt. Boulevard and turn R onto Coal Canyon Road. You’re immediately surrounded by lovely olive trees, some well over 100 years old. On your right you’ll pass Chaffin Farms, a farm nationally renowned for its sustainable farming practices. Look for the chicken yurts, little portable tepees that help spread the chicken poop throughout the orchards. Coal Canyon crosses Highway 70 and becomes Wheelock (only one L) Rd. Wheelock dead-ends at Durham-Pentz Rd. The riding is less than exhilarating for the next 3 miles or so. Go R on Durham-Pentz until it dead-ends at Pentz Rd. Go R onto Pentz until it dead-ends at Highway 70. Just before Hwy 70 you’ll pass a school, where water fountains are available if the grounds aren’t locked up. If they are, the fence is scalable.
Slog up the shoulder of boring and busy 70 for an unpleasant half-mile or so and take the first R onto Cherokee Rd. The riding will be fine from here to your car. The first 1.5 miles of Cherokee Rd. is a lovely ride that used to be one of the prettiest, sweetest climbs in Bestrides, but after the dreadful forest fires of recent years California went on a fuel-removing spree and the magnificent oak canopy has been cut way back. It’s still very good.
At the top of the climb you level out at the old historical town of Cherokee, which is now just several houses, some stone ruins, a small museum that never seems to be open, and an interesting historical marker worth reading. Cherokee was a major diamond mining center, and one of the miners moved from there to South Africa, where he helped found DeBeers, the company that controls the world’s diamond market.
The next 8 miles roll across Table Mountain itself, at first a lovely ride through foothill oak and scrub and past real, low-rent ranches. A mile or so past Cherokee, on the R, is the Cherokee Cemetery (there’s a small sign), with gravestones from 1871. At 19 miles into the ride, Derrick Rd. (signed) takes off to the L, and signs pointing L read “Oregon City” and “Covered Bridge.” For a nice diversion, follow those signs L. In 0.5 miles you pass under the covered bridge, and just beyond is a) the plaque detailing the history of Oregon City and b) the Oregon City schoolhouse, now an interesting museum of local history. It’s usually closed, but the keeper lives next door and will be happy to let you in if she isn’t busy.
Back on Cherokee/Table Mountain Rd, in another 1/2 mile you get to the nationally famous wildflower fields on both sides of the road. You can’t miss them—huge rolling lava fields full of either wildflowers, green grass, or dead grass, depending on the season of your ride (see Afterthoughts below).
Now for the descent: 3.5 miles of rollicking, very fast roller-coaster. It’s open enough that you should be able to see cars approaching (but see the warning about traffic in Afterthoughts). This would easily be a Best of the Best descent were it not for the road surface, which is rough—not pot-holey, tire-threatening rough, but chattery, rattle-your-teeth rough. If the county ever repaves it, it will be marvelous.
At the bottom of the hill you ride back along the Feather River to your car. If you look upstream when you first hit the water you can catch a glimpse of Oroville Dam, one of the world’s largest earth-filled dams, which made national headlines by coming close to self-destructing in the winter of 2016, threatening much of Northern California with a flood of Biblical proportions.
Alternate routes: There are two other ways to ride these roads. 1) Ride the loop in the other direction, counter-clockwise. This reverses the climbing/descending, so instead of a short, sweet climb up to Cherokee and a long, rough, rollicking descent down to Oroville, you get a long, gradual ascent up from Oroville and a short, super-sweet, glassy-smooth descent down to Hwy 70. The two routes are about equally good. I might choose the direction that puts the wind at my back for the dull, flat miles on Table Mt. Blvd. 2) Ride Cherokee Rd only, as an out-and-back. This adds to the climbing only slightly (because it eliminates the climbing on Wheelock, Coal Canyon, and Hwy 70) and gives you a ride without a boring mile. It also solves the dilemma of which direction to ride in and avoids having to deal with the wind. This is now my preferred way of doing this ride, and I recommend it unless you’re opposed to out-and-backs in principle. All you miss are the ancient olive trees and Chaffin Farms, and you get to do both good climbs and both good descents. Start at the Oroville end, so you get 10 minutes of flat warm-up before the first climb. I’ve mapped it here.
Shortening the route: Climbing up to Table Mountain from either side and turning around makes a nice out-and-back. Start at the intersection of Cherokee Rd. and Hwy 70, or somewhere near the intersection of Table Mountain Blvd. and Cherokee Rd., and ride as many of the semi-flat miles on top of Table Mt. as you like.
Afterthought: The spring wildflowers are a treat if you can schedule your ride to coincide with the bloom. Bring a lock and walking shoes and do your best impression of the Sound of Music’s Maria through the fields of lupine, goldfields, and owl clover. Start at the obvious parking lot on the north side of the road and follow the little creek downstream to get to a lovely waterfall. Of course to see wildflowers you risk rain, for that is the rainy season—which is why the Wildflower century is ironically run later in the year after all the flowers are gone. Wildflower websites will tell you when the Table Mt. wildflowers are peaking (usually March to early April). But of course with wildflowers come wildflower tourists. Table Mountain Blvd. is thick with traffic on wildflower weekends, and there’s no room on the road for them and you, so absolutely do not do this ride on a weekend day during wildflower season.
Weather matters on this ride. Chico-area winds are predominantly from the north, and if a north wind is snorting, that first leg of the loop can be horrific. I’ve done it in a death-march paceline at 10 mph. If it’s like that on your day, ride whichever way has the wind at your back on the Table Mountain Blvd. leg or ride the out-and-back route. Also, on a normal summer afternoon the temperature on the first half of the ride can be well over 100 degrees, so ride early.
You might wonder why, if mine is the good direction, the Wildflower Century goes the other way. It’s about safety. Long ago the Century did go my direction, but a cyclist was killed by a car while descending Table Mountain Road, and the ride committee decided the descent couldn’t handle thousands of cyclists at high speed dodging cars on a weekend.