Distance: 27.5 miles
Elevation gain: 3540 ft
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 Canyon 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.
(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. Enter paradise. The houses disappear, you’re absolutely alone, and you have a bucket-list, glassy, graceful 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.
If you’re set on avoiding Malibu Canyon Rd, there are alternatives. You could ride up Las Flores Canyon Rd, which is very steep. You could ignore the One Way signs on Tuna Canyon and ride up it illegally—I’m told cyclists do (it’s 8.3% average). Or you could ride up Topanga Canyon Rd (boring, busy, but not dangerous or difficult). See Adding Miles for other suggestions.
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.
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.
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.
Tuna Canyon takes its name not from the fish but from the tuna, the fruit of the opuntia cactus (prickly pear).