Ken Roberts - - Bicycling

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California Bay area visit

10jun : on

what's here: seaside | farms + wine | climbs | Sonora

I flew into San Francisco and rode single for a few days and then Sharon arrived and we rode tandem over Memorial Day weekend, with the aid of a rental car -- and we had a great time.

I’m posting this report as advice for future visitors (including myself on another visit hopefully) -- and so local cyclists can correct any misimpressions, or add more ideas: “Since you liked X, next time you should try Y”.


Wow, I was very impressed. All our previous trips like this were in western Europe, but northern California lived up to some of our favorite riding in Europe.


Some of the great “mountains + sea” loops in the world.

  • Mill Valley - Panoramic - Stinson - Muir beach + woods loop [ photos ] : We did it on Sharon’s first morning -- in “full tourist” mode with walking on the sand + waves at Stinson and the rocks of Muir Beach Overlook, walking thru the big redwoods in Muir Woods.

Since we're pretty slow climbers, starting early in the morning from Mill Valley near Sausalito (instead of San Francisco) and riding counter-clockwise worked really well -- since it seemed like most of the vehicle traffic in the morning was going west or north (toward the beaches). We got our north- and west-bound climbing done and were descending to Stinson Beach before most of that traffic started. Then we did our south-bound climbing on route 1 later when the traffic started -- but most of it was going the other direction. Also by riding that section south-bound on the right side of the road, we were on the outside of most of the curves, so overtaking cars could see us more easily -- and we had better views over the ocean, than if we'd done the loop clockwise.

Climbing east up from Muir Woods had lots of curves, some with limited visibility -- but most of cars seemed to be traveling slowly and carefully -- I suspect because drivers who want to go fast choose route 1 instead. And because lots of the weekend drivers thru Muir Woods are tourists who don't have much experience with steep curvy roads. I think the Muir Woods climbed started around 10% grade, then lots at 8% (less steep than what I calculated from topo software -- I'm guessing there were too many tight curves for the software map to get accurately, so the distance on the actual road was longer than the topo software calculated).

see photos slideshow on Picasa

  • San Francisco city - Golden Gate park + bridge - Sausalito - Mill Valley - Paradise - Tiburon ferry loop [ photos ] : We rode it in the afternoon after the Stinson-Muir loop. (bike rentals available in SF, though we started from Mill Valley).

Note that finding the way on to sidewalks at the south end of the Golden Gate bridge when coming from the direction of Golden Gate Park is not straightforward, so if you're a visiting like us, find the answer in advance. Also the signs exiting the north end of the bridge about construction and which roads to Sausalito were currently open or closed was confusing and we wasted some hill-climbing work and time. I guess like with lots of bridges + transportation in USA, clear communication with cyclists is not a high priority -- next time we'll check ahead.

I used topo software to try to find the least hilly way on the city streets from Crissy Field to Golden Gate Park. Even the gentlest way  (which mostly followed a numbered bike route) was plenty hilly. We got off and walked at least two times.

  • Carmel - Aguajito Rd - Monterey bike path - 17 Mile Drive - Carmel loop [ photos ] : we rode the next day. (bike rentals available)

Some of the most interesting views we found on 17 Mile Dr were on the south "extension" by Pebble Beach -- which goes out by the shore where the marked bike route goes inland. But this extension had some short steep climbs with no shoulder.

We got two or three more great beach views by not cutting the loop short at the main street of Carmel -- the main west beach of Carmel and the quieter south beach are different from 17 Mile Drive, and we found riding the Carmel residential streets pretty special too.

Getting back to Monterey: (actually we started in Carmel, so we rode this part first). Getting thru the streets of Carmel to route 1 includes some steep climbs. Much (but not all) of this climbing can be done on quieter streets, if plan route in advance. Riding route 1 back to Monterey would be a simple way to close the loop. Except that after the first half-mile going north from Carmel, there was a sign saying that bicycles are not permitted and must exit to Aguajito Rd. This required more climbing and more distance, but actually Aguajito was mostly pleasant, and finished with a long downhill to the north side of Monterey - (then perhaps a little trickiness in getting across the busy road to the bike path?)

see photos slideshow on Picasa

  • Occidental - King Ridge - Meyers Grade - Coleman Valley loop: not ridden by Sharon + me because had too many steep hills when I checked it out by car, but the sea views made me hope I’ll get the chance to ride it myself next time.

The inland portions of those loops were also interesting (e.g. houses in the redwoods of Mill Valley, residential streets in Carmel, inland ridge crest on Meyers grade loop).

  • Berkeley - Oakland ridge: world-class water views on Skyline + descending Tunnel Rd. To get up there, I climbed Centennial (with a stop at the Lawrence Hall of Science viewpoint), but I think Spruce to Grizzly might work as a less steep way up to the ridge.


  • northwest Marin + southwest Sonoma counties -- some great horse + cow farms. (and I'm a long-time lover of our great farm country riding in the mid-Hudson valley and eastern Pennsylvania, who is almost never impressed by farmland when we ride other regions.)

  • Pleasants Valley - Winters - Vacaville loop: horses + cows (also an ostrich), lotsa quiet nice roads, some walnut orchards. Only drawback was the grass was colored yellow-brown instead of green. Not what we’re used to around New York. (a couple of people suggested that it might have been greener if we'd come earlier in the year)


Dry Creek was the best riding we found. Least interesting for the bicycling itself was Napa valley. (For us what was missing was little side roads paved thru the vineyards like in France)

steep climbs

Some of the best in the world:

  • Bohlman + On Orbit: key for me is that the climbing on these very steep roads near Saratoga is interesting, with variations in steepness, and curves -- also some views. For a slightly longer steep steep section, can finish with left turn from On Orbit to Apollo (dead end). But I thought it was worthwhile to continue with a short descent to end of On Orbit, then left on Bohlman Rd (again) up to some more views (and note comment in Western Wheelers description about connecting to Black Rd, which I did not check). lat/long = (37.249546,-122.03933) [descrip on Western Wheelers]

I measured overall steep section as +1410 vertical feet (430 meters) at about 13-14% grade, including +200 ft (60m) about 17-19% in On Orbit, preceded by around +250ft (80m) on Bohlman at about 14-16%. Total climbing around +2000 vertical feet (620m), if start from Big Basin Way / rt 9.

also interesting + steep nearby:

* Hicks + Mt Umunhum: Unfortunately it started raining so I turned around at the gate, so I missed out on the highest. Good challenge but not quite as interesting as Bohlman. (37.182031,-121.867175) [descrip].

I measured the total climbing from start of steep section up to gate as around 1610 vertical feet (500m), starting with around +600 vertical feet (180m) at about 13-15% grade.

* Alba Rd: Seemed like the steep + interesting climbing I would enjoy, but it was raining so on this trip I checked it out only by driving. (37.096881,-122.107201) [descrip]

I didn't make any measurements myself, but other sources seem to agree that the steepness is around 10-12% grade, including some short steeper sections. Total climbing around +2050 vertical feet (625 m)

(but it's hard to see how to put all three of these climbs into a loop ride of less than 75 miles / 125 km)

I didn't make any measurements myself, but from topo software looks like the overall steep section is around +725 vertical feet (220 meters) at about 16-17% grade. But that includes significant sections much steeper, like 25% or more.

  • San Francisco streets: Ultra-steep challenge, and 5 out of the steepest 9 are close together. I did them around midnight after I got off the airplane and assembled my bike. Steepest I ever climbed -- up to over 30% grade. Glad I did them at night. Progression of steepness: Started with
    * Fillmore St + Webster St (37.794762,-122.435052), then the two
    * Jones St blocks (37.800069,-122.415869), and the steepest
    * Filbert St (37.800239,-122.418401).
    (Finally a victory lap on famous Lombard St curvy steep block next to Filbert.)

alpine climbs

Sonora Pass was amazing [ photos | low-res ] -- in the same league with the famous climbs of Europe for scenery -- dramatic rock formations by the road up the West side -- and riding so soon after the road opened, snowy mountains above. lat/long = (38.324622,-119.751921). And with all the snow around, the (shorter) East side starting from Leavitt Meadows (38.324942,-119.553308) was also great -- the climbing itself perhaps more interesting than the West side.

Exaggeration: Some websites and road signs give rather inflated claims about the steepness of Sonora Pass. I measure the two sustained-steep sections on the west-side road as around 11-14% grade for 350-450 vertical feet each. The two steep sections on the east side are shorter. Perhaps a bigger difficulty factor is altitude acclimatization: Sonora is higher than any paved-road pass in Europe. But for steepness challenge, the comparable sections of Bohlman + On Orbit in the Bay area are 2-3 times bigger than the steep sections of Sonora.

I've heard that some cyclists reported sections of 15%. I'm not convinced there's a sustained section on either side that steep. But that number seems within the typical error range for this sort of tricky measurement -- either I or they could be inaccurate. And if someone wants to claim there's a short section steeper than 15%, like say at the top of the west-side lower steep section . . . well I'm not convinced, but I'm not going to argue. Or a very short section steeper than 15% at one of the switchback curves on the east-side road. But . . .

for purposes of training + planning to attempt to pedal up Sonora Pass from either side, there's no need to worry about anything steeper than 14-15%. There's no significant section at steepness anything like 20% or more. Note that 14% grade is steeper than 99.99% of the hills on paved roads in USA, and steeper than most of the climbs in the famous pro road-bike races in Europe like TdF or Giro or Vuelta.

see photos slideshow on Picasa

Too bad Tioga Pass (highway 120) (37.912344,-119.257836) wasn’t open yet this year. It’s such a long drive from San Francisco to Sonora, so it would have been nice to have something else spectacular to do nearby.

I also missed out on the chance to try the lower-altitude non-alpine but very steep climb of the Old Priest Grade.  Alongside highway 120, could use Mocassin Switchback as a longer introduction, afterward use 120 as a descent). lat/long = (37.817446,-120.286388). From topo software and other sources, seems like it's 1400-1525 vertical feet of climbing wtih average steepness about 13-14% grade.

info sources

(other than BikeForums)

  • Krebs cycle maps : I used North San Francisco Bay + South San Francisco Bay.

  • Ride Bike! : route ideas with detailed descriptions

  • John Nagiecki and Kimberly Grob book: Road Biking Northern California.

  • Undiscovered Country Tours [] : (website has lots of creative ideas for tours, but for some of them would need to use vehicle support to make them work well)

more . . .

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