Distance: 27.5 miles
Elevation gain: 3540 ft
(A Best of the Best ride)
(A Best of the Best descent)
Some of this route is covered in words and pictures at toughascent.com.
The Santa Monica Mountains are THE road network for cycling in the LA area (see LesB’s excellent overview in the comments section of this ride and follow its links). Everything between Hwy 101 in the north, the ocean in the south, and between Deer Creek Rd. to the west and Topanga Canyon Blvd. to the east is worth exploring, except the major through-routes. If you haven’t been there, it’s pretty much the exact opposite of your LA stereotype—lovely serpentining climbs and descents on small roads largely without car traffic or houses, through wild, rocky, shrubby, narrow, steep canyons.
Most loop routes involve riding a stretch of Hwy 1, the Pacific Coast Highway—you ride the PCH, climb up into the mountains, ride east or west, then descend back to the PCH—but the PCH is surprisingly pleasant. Sure, it’s a zoo, with masses of traffic both automotive and human, but it’s a “scene,” easy to enjoy, and there’s usually ample room for bikes. Once you leave the PCH you will climb, often at 7-10%. The only alternative to steep climbing heading north are the main arteries, Malibu Canyon Road and Topanga Canyon Blvd, and they’re both very busy. This route is only one of many, but it includes what I think is the best descent in the area, and one of the best on the planet: Tuna Canyon Road (named not for the fish but for the tuna, the fruit of the opuntia cactus, aka prickly pear).
(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.)
Park at the bottom of Tuna Canyon Rd, or anywhere on the PCH between Tuna Canyon and Malibu Canyon Rd. Parking along the PCH is surprisingly easy—much of it has a free unstructured parking curb along the north side. Ride the PCH west to Malibu Canyon Rd. and take it north. MCR is basic hectic shoulder riding, but it’s only for 4.5 miles. It’s quite a striking canyon visually and would be a great ride were it not for the heavy traffic and occasional lack of shoulder room. There are formal little turn-outs for you to take photos and regain your nerve. It’s big easy rollers—you’ll gain about 250 ft in the 4.5 miles.
Turn R onto clearly marked Piuma Rd. and climb at 6-8% without interruption for 5.5 miles to an obvious saddle—you’ll see the radio tower marking the summit as you approach. This is pristine climbing through lovely, wild country and along a ridge spine with great views of the Santa Monica mountains to the west and north and the coastline and ocean to the south. I saw 2 or 3 cars. The road contour is so delicious, the first time I rode it I abandoned my ride plan and turned around at the summit to enjoy the descent. Which I give you permission to do.
But Tuna Canyon awaits, and it’s better. Descend a mile past the saddle and go L on Schueren Rd., go R onto Saddle Peak Rd, and follow it to Tuna Canyon. Go R on TCR and enter paradise. The houses disappear, you’re absolutely alone, and you have a bucket-list, glassy, graceful, steep slalom descent through a pristine coastal canyon. And it’s a one-way road, down only, so you have the whole road to yourself—no chance of on-coming traffic (except for the occasional scofflaw cyclist). Pure bliss.
Shortening the route: You can ride up Las Flores Canyon Rd, which is very steep. You can ignore the One Way signs on Tuna Canyon and ride it as an out-and-back—Jeff below encourages this (it’s 8.3% average, with moments of 14%). But, as Charles points out after Jeff, to do so seriously imperils descending riders, who have every reason to expect an empty road, and I encourage you not to do this. Or you can ride up Topanga Canyon Rd. (boring, busy, but not dangerous or difficult) and back down Tuna.
You can youtube videos of Tuna Canyon descents if you want a preview.
Adding miles: Many other roads in the area are reputed to be good, though I haven’t ridden them: Yerba Buena Rd., Encinal Canyon Rd., Latigo Canyon Rd., Las Flores Canyon Rd., Old Topanga Canyon Rd.—everything that’s a fine line on the AAA map. As always, avoid the bigger roads: Decker, Malibu Canyon Rd., Kanan, and Topanga Canyon Blvd. See comments below for more suggestions.
The most famous and most ridden road in the area is Mulholland Highway, but I wouldn’t ride it except out of necessity because of the traffic and the general air of reckless mayhem. Before you venture forth on it, google the Youtube videos of cyclists being wiped out and motorcycles crashing for recreation on it. Charles below says road work on Mulholland has temporarily halted the mayhem.
If you want to go big and get a grand survey of the area’s roads in one throw, ride the route of the Mike Nosco Memorial, an 80-mile loop (with 8900 ft vert) ridden once a year as a group ride by the locals to honor one of their own. Better yet, join the ride, on Nov. 3—it’s even free. The route includes the toughest climb in the area, Deer Creek Rd., which leaves Hwy 1 near Pt. Mugu State Park and reaches pitches of 18%.
Afterthoughts: The Getty Villa is a stone’s throw to the east of Topanga Canyon Blvd., a perfect way to unwind after a ride. Reservations are recommended. This is not the Getty Museum, which is huge, but rather Getty’s first go at a museum, a cozy little hacienda.
The Santa Monicas are one of many mountain venues in SoCal, probably the best. The range starts in Hollywood and traverses westward for about 20 miles till it smacks headlong into the Pacific Ocean. This abrupt termination of the range creates a 40-mile long coastline rife with steep roads down to Pacific Coast Highway. There are ~12 that are considered major descents by cyclists.
Patrick Brady describes the Santa Monicas from a roadie’s perspective quite eloquently in his blog, “Red Kite Prayer”:
Malibu: Heaven has mountains
Tuna Canyon Road:
The most technical of the paved descents. Your elevation gain must be a misprint. It’s more like 1800 ft. Some cyclists do the Tuna ascent despite the one way signs pointing down. They stay hugged to the shoulder.
Encinal Canyon Road is a long uneventful 6% grade. For the Santa Monicas, it’s a boring ride.
Las Flores Canyon Road is steep, narrow and twisty, back-woods. Bring gears.
I disagree about Decker — not so much traffic there, despite having a CA Hwy number. Maybe because of its steepness. I witnessed an SUV turning off Decker onto PCH with smoke pouring from its brakes! Killer ascent with 6 false summits. Historically cars have plunged over cliffs on this road, there are rusted hulks down in canyons to attest. There was one overboard on one of my rides and another reported just recently.
On weekends the death-wish motorcyclists on Mulholland are definitely a drag, but I have ridden it a lot and have never been taken out. The further west you go the fewer motorcycles there are. You can avoid them almost completely by going on a weekday. The MC hangout, Rock Store, isn’t even open on weekdays.
Talk of Descents in the Santa Monicas is incomplete without mention of Deer Creek Road. Getting there: About a mile from the bottom of Yerba Buena, Cotharin Road branches off westerly and promptly smacks you with a ~20% grade then levels off to a nice 17%. Cotharin eventually becomes Pacific View Drive, which becomes Deer Creek. The 1400ft Deer Creek descent will heat your rims from braking for turns so that you can’t touch them. Faster and not so twisty as Tuna, but more of a thrill ride, with distracting breath-taking views of the Pacific Ocean.
Deer Creek Descent
The next most popular venue for roadies in SoCal is the Palos Verdes Peninsula, a small mountain about half the size of the city of SanFran. And though it’s small, with a max peak of 1400ft at the FAA antenna farm, it has a good share of challenging ascents. Some of these are described in another blog, Seth Davidson’s “Cycling the South Bay”:
Top Ten Climbs on the Palos Verdes Peninsula
I bow to your expertise in all cases, and thank you from the bottom of my heart for all your info—primo stuff!
LesB, you’re puzzled by the 42-ft elevation total for Tuna Canyon Rd, but my route goes downhill, so there is basically zero climbing. You’re of course right, the gain is significant if you’re riding uphill.
I live at the top of Tuna Canyon (43 years) and climb Tuna 2 to 3 days a week. It used to be two-way, and as a one-way it’s safer now going up than down because I can see traffic coming. It has several sections of 12% to 20+%. I make it up the 4 miles to Saddle Peak in about 35/40 min (I’m 73). I live in a great place.
Chapeau to you, Jeff. You must hold the Strava record for the Tuna hill climb in the 70+ age group. Tuna does have several c.-20% pitches, which is why I’ve never thought to ride up it. The bottom 4 miles average 10%.
Tuna Canyon Loop was WONDERFUL!! I was visiting family in Topanga Canyon, and did a variation that added about 15 miles to the route. It was so much fun, if they hadn’t been expecting me back at the house I would have done the loop twice! Thanks again Jay for sharing all these wonderful rides. I check your website before I travel anywhere in California. Looking forward to trying some of your Oregon routes next year.
Was there noticeable fire damage in the Tuna Canyon area?
Nope, I didn’t see any fire damage. Just gorgeous scenery on all sides.
I met Jeff (previous commenter—Ed.) at the top of Tuna when he helped me with some C02 when I got my second flat. Not only is Jeff an impressive cyclist for any age group, he was a professional race car driver who has won Le Mans! Props, Pops!
WOW! Chapeau indeed!!
Did the Tuna Canyon ride but went up Topanga Canyon to Fernwood Pacific. Good climb to Tuna Canyon road. I didn’t see a single car on Tuna Canyon. Beautiful descent to PCH. Great recommendation.
Great ride. Note, you need to go RIGHT when you hit Tuna Canyon Rd (not specified in the directions above)—otherwise you’ll end up descending Fernbrook Canyon Rd and eventually hit Topanga Canyon, missing the famed Tuna Canyon descent. It’s an easy mistake to make if you’re not looking out for it.
I’ve added it. Thanks.
First-time riders really need to be cautious descending Tuna. It has some very sharp corners, some slightly off-camber, and is deceptively steep, especially when the road begins to open up near the bottom. Riders on carbon wheels with rim brakes can easily overheat their rims if not careful in their braking.
Also, the comments regarding the road surface of Yerba Buena no longer obtain since they’ve repaved the entire surface, as well as Cotharin, Deer Creek, and Mulholland from PCH to the junction with Little Sycamore Canyon Rd. Yerba Buena is now one of the nicest roads in the Santa Monica mountains.
As an intro to Malibu riding, it was great, and I thought the Piuma climb was also decent. I have to admit, coming from Northern California, I found the SoCal scrub a bit monotonous.
Commenter Jeff may be able to claim special privileges based on his age and residency, but it’s irresponsible to glibly suggest climbing Tuna Canyon Rd. You are right that some people do it, but doing so is very dangerous, more so for cyclists descending than those flouting the law and ascending. There are a number of blind corners where you absolutely cannot see the approaching traffic and–speaking from first hand experience–when you are descending Tuna at speed you have nowhere to go should you be so unfortunate as to encounter someone crawling up the road.
Also, because you discuss the rest of the canyons, I’ll add a couple of other noteworthy points:
1) Ventura Country repaved Yerba Buena Road following the fires. What was once the absolute worst road surface is now an absolute delight both to climb and descend. Cotharin and Deer Creek also have new pavement.
2) The portion of Mulholland Highway between Cornell and Kanan Dume (often called “Rock Store” or “The Snake”), which was badly damaged in the fires and subsequent mudslides, is now closed to vehicular traffic. What was once to be avoided out of fear for your life is now a pleasure–better as a climb because the road surface has a lot of debris but still a nice descent. And that closure seems to have reduced the prevalence of car and motorcycle idiocy on the rest of Mulholland Highway.