Distance: 34 miles out and back
Elevation gain: 4840 ft
A general word of warning about riding in the Southern Southern Gold Country: every back road I’ve ridden from Jesus Maria Rd. south has had stretches of pavement ranging from poor to comically horrible. That includes every Bestrides ride in the area—Jesus Maria, Ward’s Ferry, Old Ward’s Ferry, not so much Priest-Coulterville—and others like Dogtown Rd. If poor pavement bothers you, ride somewhere else.
This is a classic “drop down into a river canyon, cross the river, and climb up the other side” ride. Thus it’s a lot like Mosquito Ridge Road, but not as good, because the road surface is often poor and the rock strata are only fair, but it’s a dramatic canyon, and the road surface is at its best when you need it the most, which is on the steep descending and climbing near the river. The primary appeal is the solitude and the narrowness of the road—traffic averages 1-5 vehicles per transit (16 miles), and the road is often precisely one car-width wide, so you have to pull off onto the hillside to let the rare car pass. No centerline, no fog line, no shoulder, no guard rails—just a little ribbon on pavement between cliff and drop-off.
The ride’s unique feature is the bridge across the Tuolumne River, which is either a work of art or an abomination, depending on your taste (see photo below). From either side of the canyon there are some spectacular views of the river and road below you, so you can look down on where you’re heading (or where you’ve been), which is something I always love. It’s usually ridden in one direction only, as part of several possible loop routes in the area (see Adding Miles), and it’s certainly easier that way. As an out and back, it’s serious work—4840 ft of gain in 34 miles. There are no 15% killer pitches, just a lot of 7-10%, and there’s a lot of variety in the pitch, so no endless grinds.
This is a slow ride and possibly a hot one, so unless you are reprovisioning in Groveland I encourage you to take a third water bottle and drop it at the bridge for the climb back to the car.
You could start the ride at either end, but it’s better from the north, because if you start at the south end the ride begins with 7 miles of descent, then 3 miles of tough climbing on cold legs—from the north you begin with 6 miles of rollers as a warm-up.
At the north end, you can pick from any of a number of starting places, and they all give you about the same ride: the town of Sonora (which is practically a city), the intersection of Ward’s Ferry Rd. and Tuolumne (TWA lum me) Rd. (there’s a large dirt parking area there), or the town of Tuolumne. I’ve started in Tuolumne, not because it’s a charming town flush with vitality (it isn’t), but because Yosemite Rd., the first few miles of the route, is a bit better surfaced than Ward’s Ferry and thus a mite more pleasant. Ride out of Tuolumne on Main St, which turns into Yosemite, and follow Yosemite (there’s one surprising L turn at an intersection) until it dead-ends at Ward’s Ferry Rd. Go L on WFR. You will soon meet a small sign that inexplicably says “Ward’s Ferry Road closed,” which you can ignore, and a large sign that says, “Caution: steep grades, narrow one-lane road, no turn-outs”—in other words, cycling heaven.
Immediately after the Sign of Doom, you drop 2.6 pretty steep miles to the Tuolumne River. By some miracle (and in violation of all logic), just when the pitch gets steep the road surface gets pretty good, and stays that way until the worst of the climbing is over. When you begin to get glimpses of the river ahead of you, look over the drop-off—there are great views of the bridge crossing the river below you, where you’ll be in 8 minutes. As you round the hillside and see the river downstream, note the log flotillas along the river bank, awaiting the log drive—a rare sign since the logging industry died.
At the river you encounter Graffiti Central. The bridge has become a kaleidoscopic, ever-changing graffiti artists’ canvas, almost all of it good-natured and pleasing to the eye, once you get over your environmentalist knee-jerk outrage. There are even spray cans left along the sidewalk so you can sign the guest book as it were.
On the other side of the bridge, 7 miles of climbing awaits. The first 3 are demanding but not vicious. You climb to another, smaller bridge across a tributary, do one more steep pitch, and the rest is moderate. At the intersection of Deer Flat Road and Ward’s Ferry Rd you can go either way. WFR is smaller, a bit more interesting, with more climbing and a rougher road surface. DFR takes you more directly to town, and I’ve mapped it that way. When DFR dead-ends on Hwy 120, go L for a kilometer or so into town.
Groveland is a busy place, because it’s on a main route into Yosemite. It offers a nice Michoacano restaurant, a pleasant city park with good bathrooms, and the self-proclaimed oldest bar in California, the Iron Door Saloon (the Magnolia Saloon in Coulterville claims to be “California’s oldest operating saloon,” since 1851. I’ll let them duke it out) . The supermarket is fifty feet down Ferretti Rd on your L at the far end of town.
On the ride back, when the descending begins the road surface goes to hell, but don’t despair—remember, as soon as the pitch gets steep the surface gets good. Some of the descending is very good, but there is absolutely no place to get around on-coming cars and no way to see them coming, so be cautious. About the time the descending gets good, you’ll meet the Ward’s Ferry Rd./Theil Rd. fork, and if you’re like me you’ll go L, rocketing off onto Theil Rd. in error. Luckily a “not a through road” sign will alert you to your mistake immediately.
On the far side of the big bridge, you’re looking at that 2.6-mile stretch of what is now serious climbing work. This is the only stretch of road on the ride that is fully exposed to the hot summer sun, and on a sunny July afternoon it’s a griddle. Try to schedule the ride to not be there then. The view of the bridge below you is more rewarding now, because you know what you’re looking at.
When you’re back at the aforementioned “caution” sign, the worst of the climbing is over, but there are still 6 miles of mostly up to go, so don’t burn all your matches on the steep stuff.
Shortening the route: The obvious cut is to ride down to the river and turn around. Both sides of the canyon are equally rewarding.
Adding miles: Locals ride Ward’s Ferry Road as part of a loop, but that usually involves riding a substantial leg of Hwy 120, which I wouldn’t do in the summer, since it’s very heavily trafficked with cars heading to and from Yosemite. With one possible exception. If you look at a map of Hwy 120 just west of Groveland, you’ll see a 4.5-mile stretch that looks like spaghetti, and a straighter 1.7-mile cut-off called Old Priest Road. This little pocket is the stuff of cycling legend. Old Priest Road averages a mind-boggling 17%, which means much of it is well over 20%. It’s reputed to be the steepest climb in the Sierra. Since Hwy 120 has the same elevation change in over twice the distance, it’s a more reasonable 7% or so, which makes for a fantastic descent (if you’re willing to dodge the cars). All of which means you can ride up Old Priest and down 120, and satiate your climbing and descending jones in a little over 6 miles. I wouldn’t go near Old Priest on a wet or icy day, and I wouldn’t consider descending it ever.
The north half of our route goes right past our Old Ward’s Ferry Road Et. Al route.
Three miles west of Groveland is the “town” of Priest Station, just a cafe, and the trailhead for our Priest-Coulterville Road route. So you could ride from the oldest bar in California to the other oldest bar in California in 13 miles.