Tuna Canyon Road Loop

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.

Piuma Road

Piuma Road

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.

Malibu Canyon Road from Piuma Road: you just rode up that

Malibu Canyon Road from Piuma Road: you just rode up that

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.

Just a perfect 4 miles of road

Tuna Canyon Road: just a perfect 4 miles

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.

Tuna Canyon Road dropping to the sea

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.

AfterthoughtsThe 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 probably takes its name not from the fish but from the tuna, the fruit of the opuntia cactus (prickly pear).

 

9 thoughts on “Tuna Canyon Road Loop

  1. LesB

    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
    http://redkiteprayer.com/about/just-who-is-padraig/notable-work/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.

    Yerba Buena Road:
    You want a taste of the European cobbles right here in Caly? The road surface on Yerba is so rough as to challenge the cobbles, especially from the Yerba summit down to Cotharin Rd. Some nifty descents though. But you will be jarred to the bone and your bike handling skills will be challenged. Don’t crash.

    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.

    I think you have Mulholland Drive and Mulholland Highway confused. Mulholland Drive is above the city of LA and cruises by the Hollywood sign. West toward the vicinity of the 405 it becomes a dirt road. Further west when it re-emerges as a paved road, it is Mulholland Highway, which is above Malibu and the coast. And that us where all the good ascents/descents are. On weekends the death-wish motorcyclists are definitely a drag, but I have ridden Mulholland a lot and have never been taken out. The further west you go the fewer they 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
    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=MBYg36UtR3s

    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
    http://pvcycling.wordpress.com/top-10-climbs-on-the-palos-verdes-peninsula/

    Reply
    1. Jack Rawlins Post author

      I bow to your expertise in all cases, and thank you from the bottom of my heart for all your info—primo stuff!

      Reply
      1. Jack Rawlins Post author

        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.

        Reply
  2. Jeff

    I live at the top of Tuna Canyon (43 years) and climb Tuna 2 to 3 days a week. It used to two-way and as a one-way is 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.

    Reply
    1. Jack Rawlins Post author

      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%.

      Reply
  3. Susan from Berkeley

    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.

    Reply

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.