Willow Valley Road Loop

Distance: 19.3-mile lollipop
Elevation gain: 1900 ft

(A Best of the Best ride)

There are four Bestrides rides in the Grass Valley/Nevada City area—Dog Bar, Red Dog/Pasquale, Willow Valley Road, and Lower Colfax Road.  They are all pleasant up-and-down strolls through nice woods—no grand vistas, no awe-inspiring crags, no waterfalls, nothing of the sort.  Each route has its virtues. Dog Bar has the best descent (on Rattlesnake), but it’s also the most built up.  Dog Bar goes to Grass Valley, a lovely town.  Red Dog/Pasquale and Willow Valley begin and end in Nevada City, a very lovely town, and both go through the prettiest woods. Overall the best of the four is Willow Valley, and I’d do it first, then any of the others.

This slightly odd-shaped lollipop introduces you to the fine roads to the east of Nevada City. The woodland scenery is choice, the road surfaces are good to great, the road contour is consistently interesting, and there is a pretty lake and an off-road dirt adventure in the middle of it all. Almost all of the roads are centerline-less one-lane plus or small two-lane, traffic is close to nothing, and all the climbing is mellow (unless you don’t want it to be—see below).

RidewithGPS does a poor job of navigating you through the off-road segment, so I’m going to lead you through it step by step. I encourage you to read that segment carefully, if only that segment.

Start at the corner of Willow Valley Rd. and Nevada St. in Nevada City. There is abundant street parking in front of houses. Starting here means the ride ends with a fairly fierce little climb up Nevada. You can put the climb at the start by beginning at the corner of Boulder St. and Nevada. It’s up to you.

Ride up Willow Valley Rd. At first it’s built up with friendly, small houses, but surprisingly soon you’re in woods, and the occasional house is set back from the road where it doesn’t interfere with the sense of being in the forest. The road also sheds some width, from a modest two-lane with dividing line to a sweet one-lane plus. Climb all the way to the end of the road at Hwy 20.

Scotts Flat Road

All this climbing is fairly mellow (you’ll see moments of 10%, but it doesn’t feel that bad), and if that disappoints you you can opt for more difficulty, thusly: At the intersection of Willow Valley Rd. and Scotts Valley Rd. (not Scotts Flat Rd.), our route goes L and stays on WVR. If you want to test yourself, go R onto SVR. The next mile+ is consistently 10+%, with plenty of 13%, and it’s hard. If you go that way, you’ll lop off the descent down Scotts Flat Rd. (see below), so I suggest that when you reach the intersection of SVR and SFR you turn L, ride up SFR, turn around at Hwy 20, and descend SFR, because it’s really sweet. But if the rigors of SVR have slaked your thirst for climbing, go R on SFR and continue on our route.

Assuming you stayed on Willow Valley Rd., as our map does, you deadend at Hwy 20. All the extended climbing is over—the rest is downhill or rollers. Go R onto 20 and ride the short stretch to the intersection with Scotts Flat Rd. Hwy 20 Is straight and busy but there’s plenty of shoulder so it’s no problem.

Scotts Valley Road (which we’re skipping)

At the intersection of 20 and SFR, there’s a lot going on. You’re at a hub where many mountain bike trails meet, so you should see lots of MTB activity. There’s a famous little store that’s been there forever and caters to riders (mostly mountain bikers), the Harmony Ridge Market. They have good freshly-made sandwiches, along with the other usual stuff. Across the street is a new, snazzy resort, and in the parking lot is posted prominently a large map of the trail system in the area, which will inspire you to return if you’re a MTB-er.

Ride down Scotts Flat Rd. It’s a mellow and sweet descent on another small road in pretty woods and with houses set back discreetly among the trees. SFR is the main route from Hwy 20 to Scotts Flat Lake, so it may see a lot of recreational and boat traffic on summer weekends—I don’t know. I was there on Tuesday and Wednesday after Labor Day, and the road, campground, and marina were deserted.

Casci Road

Stay on SFR past the first of two recreational areas with campgrounds (signed with a small “Gate #1” sign and an arrow pointing you down the road toward Gate 2), ride past most of Scotts Flat Lake, and when you get to Gate #2—the marina and day use area—find Casci Rd. heading off on the L (clearly signed) and take it.

Casci Rd. is an odd duck that I really like. It hugs the shoreline, so you get lovely views of the lake through the shoreline trees, it looks manicured, it’s absolutely barren of houses (except for one mansion), and it’s lined with signs prohibiting parking, so it’s deserted. There is in fact no reason for it to exist (signs say it’s a fire road, but that’s hard to swallow). Consider it a very expensive bike path.

Scotts Flat Lake Dam

Casci continues for several miles, but after it clears the lake it turns from flat to very steep and immediately turns to gravel, so at the unmistakable steepening our route turns around.

You may notice as you ride Casci that between you and the lake is a prominent parking lot. It’s the day use area for the lake, and you can access it by riding into the marina parking lot, riding through the campground via an unsigned, tiny road, and out the other side. It’s pleasant and adds perhaps a mile to your route, and you’ll want to do it if you want to get your feet wet in the lake.

hike-a-bike

Ride back to Gate # 1, a large and imposing campground with a large sign reading “Scotts Flat Recreation Area, Deer Creek Campground,” a very stout gate across the road, a guard station in the center of the gate, a large trailer for the campground host, and a lot of signage telling you you aren’t welcome. Believe it or not, you want to go in there.

Here begins our adventure. RidewithGPS glibly tells you to turn onto “Dam Rd.” There is no such thing. Instead, ride through the gate, through the large campground and out the other end, continuing south and downhill toward the water. Very soon you end up at a formidable gate across the lake’s dam. Here’s a map.

Pasquale Road

On the gate is the following remarkable statement: “Permission is granted for pedestrian or bicycle use for recreational purposes.” Thank you very much. Despite that spirit of accommodation, getting through or over the gate (you can’t go around) is difficult. Once over or through, ride across the dam on the rideable dirt dam top, enjoying the view of the lake. On the other side, several dirt roads set forth. Take the one uphill and directly in front of you (it’s rideable), and in 1/10 mile you’re at dam #2, the spillway dam. This one has fencing on the sides and a paved surface. On the other side, take the only dirt road, to the L. and along the shoreline. Eventually this road dead-ends at paved Pasquale Rd., but first you have to climb, at a pitch steeper than my tires could manage. I walked it. It isn’t painful—the woods are exquisitely beautiful in there, and the silence is delicious. At the end of the dirt road, climb over another stout gate with another “Permission to pass…” sign.

Back on Pasquale, we’re on the route of the Red Dog/Pasquale ride. Follow Pasquale to Red Dog, Red Dog (which turns into Boulder) to Nevada, and Nevada back to your car. Pasquale’s praises are sung in the other ride description. It’s one of my favorite bike rides anywhere, a uniquely charming contour through uniquely gorgeous woods. Red Dog, more developed, bigger, faster, is splendid in its own way, a 30mph+ ripper that’s the most exhilarating descending on the route.

If you’ve already ridden the Red Dog/Pasquale ride and don’t want to repeat yourself (which I frankly cannot imagine), when you get back to Gate #1 don’t turn into the campground, continue west on Scotts Flat Rd., ride either down Scotts Valley Rd. (short and steep) or up Scotts Flat Rd. and down Willow Valley (longer, mellower, with climbing), and back on Willow Valley Rd. to your car.

Shortening the route: Omit Casci Rd. Ride the Scotts Valley Rd. cut-off instead of upper Willow Valley and upper Scotts Flat. Ride to the Willow Valley Rd./Hwy 20 intersection and turn around. You can skip the Pasquale half of the route and ride back the way you came out, but I don’t think it reduces the mileage total.

Adding miles: You can add the other half of the Red Dog/Pasquale route. For other options, see the Adding Miles section of Red Dog/Pasquale. From Nevada City it’s about 3 miles to Grass Valley and the turn-around for our Dog Bar ride and the trailhead for our Lower Colfax Road ride.

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