A redwood grove near the base of the Braille trail.

Mountain bike rides around

Santa Cruz
and Monterey County

- Big Basin - Sea-to-Sky - Butano - Wilder Ranch - Henry Cowell - Nisene Marks - Soquel Demo -
- Toro Park - Sea Otter Classic - Old Coast Road - Photos - Links - Home -

Well known to us in times past for the surfing, it is always a pleasure to return to Santa Cruz to check out the trails on our mountain bikes. This page covers rides in the southern part of the Santa Cruz Mountains (the Midpenisula page covers the rest) and the northern tip of the Santa Lucia range can be found under Monterey below. As we now live in San Francisco, trips this far south have become rare, but there are several rides that make it worthwhile. The number of rideable parks around Santa Cruz seems limited compared to other counties, but the trails it does offer have mostly been excellent and in the case of Soquel Demonstration Forest have a greater re-ridability factor than anything I have seen in Marin. Unfortunately, much of the wilderness of Santa Cruz County is privately owned and has been logged at some time or another.

Santa Cruz is a mellow place, and this includes the prevailing attitude toward bikes. Where wilderness is available to the public, reasonable access had been granted to us and we have found the hikers to be very friendly. Perhaps it was just our brief experiences here, but peaceful coexistence between the different trail users seemed to be realized when tolerance and common sense courtesy were given by all.

Big Basin State Park: Middle Ridge Road

Heading back to the car along Northern Escape. "The survival advantage of knowing the rigidness of trees became clear in distinguishing the forest from the twisting boundaries of the path. As approaching images of roots and sand became recognition and knowledge of their threat, the unconscious feel of balance kept me aloft as I maneuvered on by. The logical connection of these senses formed an awareness of danger and fun, but weaving into these sequential moments of unified perception was the memory of my latest fall where each small pile of leaves might hide in the shadows deep crevices or loose rocks that could throw me hard onto the ground. At least the replacement brakes gripped well, resisting my usual pace with ease. I was pleased with my new helmet and saddle, and the lycra rips might have been fashionable in decades past. Harder to explain was why the rough vibration of the trail under scattered sunlight, shining through the leaves and sparkling on the slothful trickle of summer creeks, would conjure a sense of pure joy that keeps me coming back." (b. June 23, 2002; summer solstice)

Directions: A century ago, in September 1902, Big Basin became the first California State Park whose intent was to preserve one of the few ancient redwood groves south of San Francisco. By car, my favorite way is 280S to 92W, turning left on Skyline Highway (35S). Turn right on 9, then continue on 236 to the Big Basin visitors center and get a map. If you already have a map, save yourself 4 miles of twisty single lane road by starting at the intersection of China Grade and 236. Mountain biking here mainly consists of two fire roads that descend from China Grade, on the northeastern rim of the "basin," down to the visitors center. On bike, you can always climb one of these fire roads to the top, but you may be tempted by the much easier and paved North Escape Road, turning left on 236 and another left up China Grade. After China Grade becomes dirt, the fire road begins on your left at the metal sign which says "Johansen." In less than a mile, Middle Ridge Road forks to the left while Johansen continues right. Both connect with Gazos Creek Road, and a left turn gets you back to the visitors center. If you're feeling good, continue on Middle Ridge Road past Gazos Creek to Hihn Hammond Road, turning right to the Mt. McAbee overlook. From there, you can follow Hihn Hammond Road back to the start.

Profile: Park Headquarters start at 1000 feet and China Grade peaks at 2200 feet. The paved route to the top is 8 miles, but climbing only in the last five. The last part of North Escape is the worst of it, around a steady 7%. The rest is less than 5%. There is no traffic on North Escape, and very little on China Grade. It's all fire road downhill, and got pretty steep on parts of Middle Ridge. It was sandy with poor traction in the summer, so go easy on the turns, but otherwise it's very tempting to build speed. Middle Ridge joins Gazos Creek Road at 1300 feet. If you wish, it's a 1.5 mile detour to the Mt. McAbee Overlook at 1730 feet. You'll pass one steep hump (maybe 100 feet) to get to Hihn Hammond Road, and then the 400 foot climb is over the last mile.

Comment [7]: The uphills were just steep enough to make us feel good when we cleared them, and the downhills just steep enough to instill a sense of fear. But here we could enjoy the shady forest, little creeks, and scenic overlook without getting wiped out. Most of the old growth is close to the park headquarters, so you may want to secure your bike and check out the smaller trails in the area. Back to top.

Big Basin State Park: Sea-to-Sky trail and waterfalls

"Storm clouds at long last broke under blue skies as we stood at the lip of high valley, where the redwoods growth gave way to Ponderosa pines just thin enough to view of the ridges and valleys extending out to the coast. There, parasurfers had skipped along wave fronts driven by the offshore winds, where earlier we had turned out backs to the sea and followed the straight route inland to the forested heart of the park. Beneath cotton clouds, whose harsh grey edges portented rain that today would never fall, the sparkle of wildflowers under subdued light accentuated the greys and greens of the forest closing down the valley walls, squeezing the creekside meadow under its damp shadow. Here the wetness brought both vibrant growth and mustly smells of soggy decay, where wheels sank into mud casting flecks across frames and back that dried into dirty crust. Passing beneath carcasses of fallen trees, and over the paths of fleeing newts, the trail sidetracked the swollen creek until bikes could go no further. After the white roar of Berry Creek Falls, the trail twisted on slippery steps skyward, through the wet claustrophobia of ferns and moss and roots. Upward it climbed beside white rapids vertically dropping into clear frigid pools, in a chain of waterfalls extending beyond sight up the slopes of the mountain wall." (b. May 4, 2003)

Directions: From the tire tracks in the mud, this is a very popular ride up the valley where Big Basin opens to the sea. By car, Take Highway 1 south from San Francisco about 20 miles past Half Moon Bay to Waddell Beach. On bike, The Sea-to-Sky trail begins just across the street from the beach parking, and follows Waddell and Henry Creek for the next 6 miles. There's only the one legal bike route in this part of the park, and at the end is a bike rack where you can park your rig (although it's pretty small, and I wouldn't doubt it gets full on busier days). On foot, follow the Berry Creek trail to the waterfalls. While Berry Creek Falls is pretty impressive, don't stop here because Silver Falls and Golden Cascade Falls form a beautiful chain of falling water down the mountainside-- and the trail (mostly a stairway) follows close by. We continued up to the Sunset Trail Camp where the forest thinned to allow scattered views of the surrounding ridges and valleys. There's plenty of other trails so bring a map if you want to check them out. Heading out is straighfoward, but sometimes in the dense forest it wasn't fully clear which turn was the right way back.

Profile: This isn't where you go to prove your skill as a mountain biker, but it's a fine place to pedal through forests of the north Pacific and enjoy. You'll start at sea level and eventually reach 500 feet along the 6-mile legal portion of the trail. There's definately more climbing in the last 2 miles of the ride, and one tecnical section in the middle, but it never gets extreme or lasts for too long. It was, however, very muddy when we went, getting progressively worse toward the end. It may be worth tolerating the mud to see the waterfalls at their fullest.

Comment [9]: While the valley was seasonally ripe with wildflowers as we passed along the forest creek, the waterfalls were unlike anything I've seen in the Bay Area. If the sun was shining and the trails weren't so muddy it might have scored a perfect 10 as the ultimate date ride. While your date may not appreciate some of the climbing near the end, the beauty of the woods and falls will surely reconcile any ill feelings. Back to top.

Web Page - Map Link - mtbREVIEW.com - Photo Exhibit

Home to California's official state mollusk, rides in Santa Cruz pass through the wet forests of coastal redwood where the Banana Slug thrives. Except for a few groves, essentially all of it is second growth from extensive logging around the turn of the century. Given the life cycle of the redwood, in just another 2000 years the place will look like it did a century-and-a-half ago. Anyway, these decomposers have weathered deforestation well, and their 6-8 inches yellow bodies are common sights along the trail. If you want to have fun, pick one up and play with them in your hands. They start to purr and turn different colors! Seriously, they really like it!! Hehehe, as you can see I am easily amused.

Butano State Park: Ridge Loop

"Back home, pulling out my bike clothes, the lingering scent of wood ash brought me back to the hot plasma rhythms of the campfire. The seductive dance held my gaze as the redwood forest faded to blackness. Orange-cast figures circled the pit, whose soft conversation blended into the thousands of clicks, chirps and commotion of the nocturnal creatures that emerged from the woods. This was in the campground along Little Butano Creek, surrounded by bike trails that ran along the ridges. The anticipation of my planned ride the next day was occasionally disturbed by predictions of rain, but only gossamer clouds floated across turquoise sky as I rode up the Butano fire road to the abandoned airstrip at the summit. Across the green coastal grasslands on the north canyon wall spread scenic panoramas of the valley, and after passing through the redwood grove scattered patches of chaparral grew amid loose gravel falls along the dry east ridge where trickles of stones would tumble under sprinting lizards. Rounding the summit to the Olmo fire road, fast drops through the forest grew darker in the shadows as I coasted toward the wet green valley below." (b. May 27, 2002; Memorial Day)

Directions: Although technically in San Mateo Co., it's a northern offshoot of Big Basin. This route follows the ridgecrests that outline the valley. By car, take highway 1 south past Half Moon Bay to Pescadero Road and turn left. In Pescadero, turn right on Cloverdale Road to Butano Park Road. Turn left, and you can park in the front lot, which is free if you are camping, or there is street parking nearby. Get a map at the ranger station, or pick one up near the campground restrooms. On bike, leave the park, turn right on Cloverdale Road which has a bike lane, then another right up an unmarked paved road just before reaching Canyon Road. The road quickly leads to a gate, which has about six locks on it. Despite this unwelcoming trailhead, an opening in the barbwire fence leads to a detour around the gate where the Butano fire road begins. The peak is unremarkable; you'll know you've passed it when you get to the first significant downhill section. You'll find the airstrip just beyond it. Continue to the Olmo fire road (a right turn after the camping area) which drops to the paved road that follows Little Butano creek. Turn left and return to the ranger station.

Profile: The Butano trailhead starts around 150 feet and rises to the ridge summit at 1716 feet. I can't find any reference of the distance (and the map is missing a scale), but it's all smooth, mild grade over hardpack fire road. It's a dream climb-- you couldn't make 1700 vertical feet much easier. Overall I'd guess it's a 4% average grade, so that would be about 8 miles to the summit. [EDIT: oh, dear, I guess subjective estimates mean nothing. I must have been feeling good that day. We went back a couple years later, and it clocked at just under 5 miles, for a somewhat steeper grade. Still a nice climb.] Near the top you'll run into a brief steep(er) section, but since you're almost there go ahead and gun it. It's a mild drop to the Olmo fire road, which continues down steep rutted grades condensed by short, grinding climbs. Trail quality in the first half is so gravelly your tires will sink on the drops, but for the second half it firms up well. The Olmo fire road can have heavy hiker traffic.

Comment [7]: Butano fire road offers lush vistas of the forest valley, and Olmo fire road delivers some thrills on the way back down. The forest is new growth, but old enough to almost be convincing and expecially pretty along Little Butano Creek. But it is new growth forest, and the fire roads are awfully wide. Back to top.

Web Page

Wilder Ranch State Park

"A bobcat scurried under the bushes, as we cooled off along the flat Old Cove Landing trail near sunset, which passed along the palisades where the plantations reached all the way to the shoreline. Reading the information sign at the end of the ride, I learned that eighty percent of all brussel's sprouts grown in the USA are grown on this very ranch." (b. January 14, 2001)

"Along misty bluffs and jagged seashore, up stepwise terraces into the hills, a Faustian bargain rules a botanical fantasy land, where if plant ecology wants to benefit from the wet Pacific air it must first adapt to salt. A unique flora prevails along the coast of the state, and nowhere else, extending several miles in from the shore. Here grasses have a unique sound as they blow in the wind, and cypress trees quietly lurk in the fog. But today, their twisted shape stood out vividly in the light of day as we cranked up mellow fire roads under brilliant blue skies. We crossed gullies on the ride back down, where washed over by fresh water the firs, oak, and redwood found routes of westward advance from inland ranges. And so we rode over, up, and around the twisty gulches, on quick and fun pathways, rolling through riparian woods, before returning back to the sea." (b. October 5, 2003)

Directions: Wilder ranch lies on the coast, a couple miles north on Highway 1 from the city limits of Santa Cruz. It is a popular biking destination for the locals. A wide variety of trails ranging from very smooth fire roads to technical spurts of singletrack can be found along it's windswept coastal foothills and riparian groves in deep gulches leading out to the sea. By car, from San Francisco, take Highway 1 south to the turnoff a few miles past Davenport. If you reach Santa Cruz, you just passed it. You can easily park alongside the highway for free, but I didn't feel like griping about the $5 parking fee. It is gated at night, but we arrived early. The ranger gave us a couple maps to boot. Since there is no official online map that might be the way to go. On bike, from the ranch exhibit, we headed right on the Engleman Loop to the Long Meadow trail, which proved to be a quick and direct climb to the high point of the park. Coming down, it is hard to go wrong. The Chinquapin trail is a mild descent to the Eucalyptus Grove, and a left turn on the Eucalyptus Loop goes through some interesting singletrack. It connects to the Enchanted Loop, which clockwise takes you down some of the more technical singletrack in the park. If you continue down the Baldwin Trail you'll get to ride along the Brussel's spout plantation over coastal bluffs back to the ranch. Either that, or the Wilder Ridge trail to the Zane Grey trail offers a fun, rocky return to the old ranch. I heard the Old Cabin Trail and Cowboy Loop are recommended, but we haven't ridden them yet.

Profile: The Englesman and Long Meadow Trails lead directly and quickly to the 1000 foot summit of the park. It's around four miles, with a few nasty bits, but mostly a mild grade of 5% or less and gets easier as you go. Wilder Ranch is neither a gruelling climb nor a hard core descent. But the initial drop along the Enchanted Loop (going clockwise) was pretty beat up.

Comment [8]: Wilder Ranch has fun trails going through a very pleasant and scenic area. It's a good place to just have fun. We were on so many different kinds of trails, passing through such varied scenery, even getting lost in the Brussel's Sprout farm, that it actually felt epic even though we only went 16 miles. Back to top.

Web Page - Map Link - mtbREVIEW.com - Photo Exhibit

Henry Cowell State Park: Observation Deck

"There was a rapid change in the growth as the old redwoods along the lower creek thinned to new growth forest and became replaced by oak, ponderosa pine, and manzanitas along the drier ridge. Gazing southward from the observation deck, the Monterey Bay stretched across the treetops, and the tail end of the Santa Cruz Mountains could be seen dwindling into the flat Salinas Valley. Beyond the mouth of the Salinas River, the Santa Lucia range rose suddenly from the plain, beginning its southward migration to Big Sur and beyond." (b. April 28, 2002)

Directions: By car take 280 south, then 17 south toward Santa Cruz. Just beyond Scotts Valley, take the Mt. Hermon Road exit and head west until it ends at Highway 9 in Felton. Turn left and follow it a couple miles to a large sign for Henry Cowell on the left hand side. Park somewhere around the sign and bike in. On bike pass the ranger kiosk to the parking lot. To the left is a little railroad museum which is worth checking out. After that follow Pipeline Road a couple miles to Powder Mill Road. Make a left, then another left on Ridge Road observation deck. To get back, retrace the way you came-- essentially all other routes in the park are off limits and there were "no biking" signs galore. A couple legitimate sources describe continuing on the Ridge Trail back to Pipline Road, but the sign said it's off limits to bikes and the entire trail is loose deep sand (literally like a beach) and waterbars. Don't bother.

Profile: The parking lot is around 200 feet and the observation deck is at 800. The 4-mile route is pretty flat until you pass under the railroad tracks where the climbing begins which proceeds in a stepwise fashion, pretty steep in a handful of streches. It's all blacktop until you get to the Powder Mill trail, where it becomes fire road with several sandtraps. On the way back, booking down the steep parts of Pipeline Road was fun albeit not very challenging.

Comment [5]: The railroad museum is nice and the ride along the creek is quite beautiful. But once you pass under the railroad tracks, the forest seems mostly new growth. The deck itself has the most bland architecture imaginable and the views from it aren't that great, being too far in the distance. Back to top.

Web Page - Map Link

While there's no substitute for finding out about the defense mechanism of the banana slug other than first hand, if you must know you'll be covered by rubber cement and your fingers will go numb. This time I'm not kidding! Been there done that. This and more on banana slug biology.

Forest of Nisene Marks: Sand Point Overlook

"On the fast ride down we crossed a series of streams, or maybe the same one winding back and forth. While our our feet were freezing from the icy water our bikes have never been cleaner. The first stream flowed from from the mountainside down a deep jagged crevice lined with a dense mixture of ferns and mosses. Towering redwoods stood far above on the rims of the gorge whose rusty trunks glowed in the streams of sunlight that found it's way through the shady woods. The moist ferns and conifers looked right out of the Triassic, and the trail was the only marker of human presence. At any time a dinosaur could have come lumbering through and, except for the cool winter weather, wouldn't have been a bit out of place." (b. January 1, 2001)

Directions: This 22-mile loops starts in Aptos, follows Aptos Creek Road to the San Point Overlook, continues north down the Hinckley Basin fire road, and returns along country roads and city streets. By car, take your favorite route to Santa Cruz then head south on Highway 1. A few exits past Capitola, take the State Park Road exit, and turn left. Turn right on Soquel Avenue when it comes up in a couple blocks, and pass under the railroad bridge. Aptos Creek Road is your next left turn, and follow that a couple hundred feet to the dirt parking lot. On bike, follow Aptos Creek Road toward the earthquake epicenter and Sand Point Overlook. Head back down on Hinckley Basin fire road to West Ridge Camp and Olive Springs Road. Coast down to San Jose Soquel Road, turn left, then around 5 miles make another left on Soquel Avenue and return to the parking lot.

Profile: From the parking lot (elev. 150) it's a 9-mile ride to the San Point Overlook (elev. 1550). It starts out as nearly flat for 4.6 miles, then the climbing starts at the earthquake epicenter turnoff. It's a steady grind over smooth fire road with solid traction from elev. 380 to 960 feet in 1.2 miles (9% grade). A "top of incline" sign marks the end of it, and the remaining 600 feet of climbing to San Point Overlook is evenly divided over 3.0 miles. After Sand Point the trip down is a quick 3 miles on eroded and rooty fire road. Hinckley Basin fire road is poorly marked with trails branching from it, so just keep going straight down on the main fire road and steer away from "No Trespassing" signs. Those trails do look tempting, don't they?... anyway, legal singletrack is just over the ridge in Soquel Demo. After four stream crossings along the valley floor, you're back on the streets for awhile which are never too bad in terms of grade and probably mostly downhill. Just sit back, get into a good cadence, pretend you're on a road bike, and enjoy. Or at least tolerate it, because there is about 10 miles more of this to go.

Comment [9]: The ride up to Sand Point is a little bland, but pretty, and good exercise if you go fast enough. It's not old growth, but well on the way to reverting to a natural state. Riding down West Ridge offers a little downhill fun, and the final stretch along the Hinckley Creek seems particularly remote and lively. Back to top.

Web Page - Map Link - mtbREVIEW.com - Photo Exhibit

The legality of Mountain Bikes in Nisene Marks is under fire. California Superior Court Judge Judy Hersher ruled on December 13, 2004 to order cyclists out of Nisene Marks State Park. A change in General Plan to open some singletrack in the northwest corner to bikes apparently prompted this lawsuit, and the two plaintiffs would concede to allow bikes on fire roads but not singletrack. California State Parks has 60 days from the judgment date to file an appeal. The suit was based upon (1) alleged insufficiencies in the Environmental Impact Report (EIR), (2) violation of California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA), and (3) violation of the Nisene Mark's Grant Deed Restrictions. The judge found the EIR in the general plan to be adequate, and in compliance with CEQA, but ruled against mountain biking as a violation of the original deed. Given that there was nothing in the deed referring to bikes, and this very deed expired in 1993 since no heirs opted to have it extended, hopefully the appeal process will proceed in our favor, and more singletrack opportunities in Santa Cruz will become available. The ROMP site has ways to express your concerns to your representative.

Soquel Demonstration Forest

Singletrack at Soquel. "Wind blew tears in my eyes as I flew though the dense redwoods; the tree trunks, undergrowth, and shafts of sunlight blended together like drops of paint falling in water. Vision narrowed with pinpoint clarity on the thin line of singletrack, winding down the hillside, covered with roots, sticks, erosions, boulders and long dropoffs into steamy gulches. With each passing moment of awareness, forged from the senses at a feverish pace, instinct calculated the precise curvilenear path to deliver me quickly and safely across these obstructions. My limbs became a coordinated symphony of handbreaking, cranking, changing gears, and shifting weight to keep me aloft around the tight switchbacks and over the frequent logs fallen across the path. As velocity built, the vibrating chaos and random pounding of the trail spread through the front suspension into my hands, through my teeth and into my skull, tightly focusing the experience into a manic synthesis of dirt, rattle, and laughter." (b. January 20, 2002; Tractor Trail)

"The flat, straight entrance lasted a moment before banking off into a gravity glide down through the woods. Cautiously feeling our way along rounded angles and screaming drops, it had, after all, in its bootleg heyday been rumored to be a technical ride. Within the shadowy greys and browns and greens, we lurched foward in a series of arcs, connected dot-to-dot along high speed berms flowing over ridges and dips. Stop-frame trajectories moved in comic book panels, laid over the forest, painted with bright and primary hues. As moment to moment motion flowed the frames collapsed into a smooth sinusoid, yawing and twisting through three-dimensional space. Shattering square borders, the writhing track swirled down a sibilant Dr. Suess skyway, slithering in silky rhythms, into the shady valley below." (b. July 6, 2003; Braille Trail)

"'I'm just taking a breather,' I told Kenny, who stood above me atop the perilously steep drop-- heavily worn and deeply rutted with exposed rocks along its pitch, which approached vertical to my perception anyway. The fact I sat in brush midway down the slope, covered in redwood mulch, with the bike twisted and abandoned randomly beside me, of course would lead one to doubt. And though I had indeed endo'ed, the pure white adrenaline rush of the moment gave this ride the sparkle it needed, and the rest of the way would be a fearless race down winding track along steep hillsides, lit by a perfect shade of rich green, through which the last remnants of sunlight cast a warm and pleasant autumn hue." (b. October 10, 2005; Sawpit Trail)

Directions: Soquel Demonstration forest consists of three technical singletrack trails running in parallel from the backside of Nisene Marks toward Soquel Creek up to 1800 feet below. Bikes are welcome here, and since it is fairly bland new-growth redwoods other trail users generally don't bother. By car take 280 south, then 17 west toward Santa Cruz. Near the top of the ridge, take the Summit Road exit and follow it over the freeway. Keep going straight, following signs to Coralitos, and it becomes Highland Way. Follow that on ever dwindling mountain road, past the broad valley that opens to the right, to the parking area at a bridge crossing a ford to Hinh's Mill Road. There has been a series of break-ins, so don't bring anything expensive, and I once saw a car with it's windows simply rolled down. On bike continue south on Highland Way to the Buzzard Lagoon dirt road. Follow that up the mountain, turning right on Aptos Creek fire road which is the only other fork as I recall. Follow that, past the gate, to the flat clearing with a nice panoramic vista at the entrance to the Ridge trail, which is a shallow but at times technical singletrack descent. The Braille and Tractor trails each branch to the right and descend to Hihn's Mill Road. Or keep going straight and you'll descend along the Sawpit Trail. At Hinh's Mill Road, at the bottom, turn right and crank back to the start. Along the way you'll pass the Sulphur Springs trail which leads back up to the Ridge Trail-- I imagine steeply. So if you want some more then head back up and choose one of the other trails down.

Profile: It's a 5 mile ride from the parking lot (elev. 1600) to the Santa Rosalia Overlook (elev. 2531) where the Ridge Trail begins; most of the elevation gain was in the first two-thirds, then it's up and down along the ridgeline. It never gets terribly steep, except maybe in a couple parts, so stay fresh for the ride down. The Ridge Trail rolls up and down for 1 mile before the Braille turnoff (elev. 1900), which is rolling and twisting singletrack and along the way down there are many stunts (log piles, jumps, a short hogback, and a teeter-totter), that usually have an alternative route around them. The Tractor Trail, starting 0.4 miles after the Braille turnoff (elev. 1800), is mostly shallow and fast singletrack weaving through redwoods like the forests of Endor-- with a couple of particularly steep descents that stand out in memory. Or continue straight on the Sawpit trail, which is more fun, fast and intense singletrack, and the prettiest of the three. We both agreed Braille was the easiest, though were split on the other two, Kenny thinking Tractor trail was the hardest, and me going with Sawpit. Guess we'll have to do Tractor trail again as a tie breaker! At Hinh's Mill Road road, from the trail you took (Sawpit, Tractor, and Braille start at 600, 800, and 1000 feet respectively) climb up the valley for 3 or 4 miles, steeper at the start, easing up toward the end, to a peak of 1700 feet before a comfortable downhill finish the last half-mile to the car.

Comment [9]: Soquel Demonstration Forest is a mountain bikers playground, it may well be your best bet for an afternoon of pure fun in the Bay Area. Never has it disappointed. The climbing is on mild to moderate fire roads, and downhill is mostly doable, even for us, though neither would want it any harder. It was wicked fun, my only complaint is that most of it had a new growth feel-- though we both agreed Sawpit was the most scenic and there were a few areas as lush and remote as you could hope for. But that all fades into the background during the mad descent down sketchy singletrack into Soquel valley. Back to top.

Web Page - Map Link #1 - Map Link #2 - mtbREVIEW.com (Soquel) - mtbREVIEW.com (Braille) - Photo Exhibit

As with Joaquin Miller, I feel I need to put in a plug here about skidding, as the Ridge Trail was heavily damaged clearly by mountain bikes, though the remaining trails were mostly in pretty good condition except in a few patches. To keep from skidding the technical sections you need to be putting about twice as much breaking power on the front wheel (left hand grip) as the rear. Hydraulic disk breaks greatly help with this, full suspension helps also, so if you want to keep the good trails open and in good shape then strongly consider investing in good equipment, and ride at reasonable speeds.

Monterey County

While it is hard for me to think of coming to Monterey without scuba gear, the fertile mountains separating the Salinas Valley from the coast are the areas described by John Steinbeck in Of Mice and Men and Tortilla Flats, among other works. They epitomize the rustic paradise of the Central Coast, where acres of vinyards and cattle pastures stretch across gentle hills rolling westward toward the sea. This area has the beauty of the Sonoma wine country, without the pretentious bearing. In our brief exposure, the Fort Ord Public Lands adjacent to the Laguna Seca racetrack, and Toro Park literally across the street on 68, seem to be the two major areas for mountain bike rides. Laguna Seca is famous for the Sea Otter Classic, a series of road races, cross country races, and slaloms held at the end of March, just after the rains with the onset of spring. While Monterey is outside the Bay Area, it is still easy to plan a day trip here.

Toro County Park

"This evening was met not by brilliant sunset, but a grey-fading of light as the incipient fog grew denser, bringing a piercing chill to the upper peaks with moisture from the sea. Earlier, the ascent to the crest had been a sunny, albeit miserable ordeal, but once there, legal singletrack rolled along the ridgeline, beneath imposing peaks, and over hidden valleys, as mystical ranges faded to the west into the coastal haze. There atop the ridge had been a small network of pristine rolling singletrack that offered a brief glimpse into the mountain biking perfection that could be realized if rational trail management practices would only elsewhere prevail. As we headed down reluctantly from this little newfound Eden, descending over the Salinas Valley, the soil sharply transitioned from the packed fertile clay to broken stone red-tinted with iron. Carefully picking a line through hedges of dense scrub, down stepwise, bright white shale, dusted with thin layers of loose gravel, only the cautious and precise duet of front and rear braking would barely maintain that razor-thin margin of safety between total surrender to runaway speed or an uncontrolled skid down the trail." (b. April 11, 2004, Easter Sunday)

Directions: Toro County Park is right across the street (Highway 68) from the Sea Otter Classic track, and what it lacks in race course excitement, it makes up for in scenic singletrack splendor. Trails in Toro ascend quickly from busy picnic grounds that crowd the valley floor, up to wild, technical, and surprisingly remote terrain. By car, Take 101 south to the southern end of Salinas then follow signs to the Monterey Peninsula. Soon you'll find yourself on 68 west, and about 6 miles from the 101 will be prominent signs to the park. There is pleny of parking outside the gates, which close at sunset, or maybe a little before. On bike, heading there, we had basically no info about the park except that bikes can ride there and it's steep. We had hoped to find a better debriefing at the park entrance, but no luck, the maps are inadequate, and the signs are just carved wooden posts at trail junctions. The Cougar Ridge trail happened to be the first trailhead we found without a "no biking" sign so we went for it. In retrospect, maybe we should have looked around a little longer...

Profile: From the main park area (elev. 100), the trails climb very quickly, like between 1 to 2 miles, to the confluence of Toyon and Cougar Ridge (elev. 1600). Climbing the Cougar Ridge Trail ranged anywhere from barely manageable in the granny gear to impossible. There was a section of trail that must have been around a 20% grade... in deep sand! I have no idea how the sand didn't wash away with the first rain but that's the way it was. Not knowing any better, I'm pretty sure we took the wrong way up. I think there is another route that bikers usually take, and here's my reasoning: there were no bike tracks on the Cougar Trail, whereas there were quite a few on the Toyon Ridge Trail, which we took back down, and mountain bikers tend to like loops. Ergo, I figure there must have been another trail somewhere that would have been part of a standard loop, and by process of elimation that would be the Olleson Trail. Now I can't say from the inadequate online map whether it is legal or not, or if it's any better than the Cougar or Toyon Trail, but I can say that's the one we would look for next time. Descending the Toyon Trail started as singletrack, ended as fire road, and either way got pretty loose, steep, and technical in a number of sections. There were several branches from the main fire road as well that return to the valley floor.

Comment [6]: If we had found a better way to the top it would have scored quite a bit higher. As it was, it was still a nice little adventure ride, about exactly what I would expect from Monterey, and I have no doubt, despite how far away it is, that we will head back someday and try to find "the other" route to the summit. Back to top.

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Fort Ord Public Lands: Sea Otter Classic

"On singletrack, you're only as fast as the guy ahead. This a priori fact led me to question the logic of racing on trails to thin to pass. Did the wear on these pleasant and pastoral routes really justify a test of performance with this limitation? Time trials on singletrack I could understand, and riding for fun certainly... but thousands of racers in heats of 200 made me wonder. We were following the cross country course of the Sea Otter Classic one week after the event, where over 10,000 bikers, some of the best, had gathered in a congested orgy of races, slaloms, sugar narcoses and marketing. Today, the washerboard indentations on the trail, and dusty wind blowing across the sand traps felt like the decaying evidence of a once great biking civilization, now extinct, having crumbled beneath the excesses of energy gel and titanium frames. Left behind was an empty quiet, and from silent echoes of races past came melodies of singing birds, and breezes in the leaves. Today the occasional, lonely group of riders passed through the wildflower meadows, rising from the greasy tears and sweat that fell from contestants days before." (b. March 31, 2002, Easter Sunday)

Directions: By car, take 101 south to the "Monterey Peninsula" turnoff in Salinas, then head toward Monterey along 68. Just past Salinas, take the Reservation Road turnoff, make a left turn at the Highway Patrol station, then right on Creekside to the trailhead. Starting here, rather than at Laguna Seca, is advantageous because it starts at the nadir rather than the apex of the profile. There are so many trails here that many of them just have numbers. On bike, We took Old Reservation road to 3, then headed west on 33 to 36. Crossing Jack, we took 10 briefly, then went down Redrock Ridge (which wasn't part of the course but was highly recommended; 10 to 43 is the race route). On Pilarcitos Canyon Road we turned left and followed it west to the scenic lookout, and back to the intersection with Skyline road. Tired? Late? Skyline and Oil Well Road offer a fast, easy route back, but the 47 detour and the Goat Trail (10 to 41) are the course. From the lake, we took the street back because my rear derailleur came apart on the Goat Trail. Kenny's bike has a guardian angel looking over it. Mine has a junkyard farie.

Heading eastward on singletrack 47 Profile: Overall, the 18 mile undulating course ranges between 100 and 800 feet, 2400 feet total according to the online profile. From the car, you'll start with a quick 400 foot climb to a ridge overlooking the Salinas Valley, then maintain roughly the same elevation with brief ups and downs for a couple miles. Redrock Ridge is a 250 foot drop on technical singletrack down to Pilarcitos Canyon Road. Then it's all smooth fire road to Laguna Seca, starting with a gentle rise, then "the grind" which is a stable 400 foot climb over a mile to the high point of the course. Heading back along Skyline Road, much of the remaining course (47 and 41) is roller coaster singletrack in a generally downhill direction. These trails are widened and worn from heavy abuse, and have a few steep but brief climbs.

Comment [7]: First the good news, this route contains miles of casual singletrack across grassy hills and oak savannas ripe with the spring bloom. Given the preeminence of the race in today's biking community, it is worth checking out just for that. But most of the singletrack was pretty washboarded, likely due to skidding from crowded racers piling up in the tight spots since it's otherwise not steep enough to call for heavy braking. Also, it's quite a long drive if you're heading south for a joy ride, and Henry Coe is on the way. Without these caveats it would score at least a point higher. Back to top.

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Aluminum or Steel? Aluminum bike frames have almost completely replaced steel ones due to lighter weight, despite the greater durability and supple qualities of steel. Interestingly, a very similar debate exists among scuba divers regarding tank material. Again, aluminum is lighter and it's tensile strength allows it to endure greater air pressures, thus longer bottom time, and it's more corrosion resistant. Steel is more durable and has a few diehard fans that say it just feels better. Bike frames maybe, but tanks? I guess you just have to try it.

The Old Coast Road

At the bridge over Little Sur creek. "'Which way are you going?' the man in the van asked as he crossed the bridge over Little Sur creek. Deep in the shady valley, tucked within the hills, we basked in the calming trickle of the water flowing below. Purified through rock and earth from mountains to the east, our thoughts had been lost in its clarity where the mind floated downstream in a quiet afternoon dip. Breaking our gaze, glancing back, we pointed up the road. 'That's quite a pedal you have,' he warned, shaking his head, driving on by. The looming threat he portented lay behind the deciduous grove, hidden beyond the redwood canopy that towered high above. But for now, light from the midday sun, which had pounded us over the last windy ridge, sparkled and twisted in dancing rhythms on gentle currents rolling below. Soon the water would reach the Pacific and be lost in sapphire brine, which we passed an hour before rolling with the southerlies down Highway 1. His simple words resonated with a meaning rarely spoken in these times." (b. June 22, 2003)

Directions: The Old Coast Road is a dirt highway between Bixby Landing and Big Sur, that before the construction of Highway 1 was the only route along the coast. Still open to traffic, it crosses windy ridges and redwood valleys along the northwest edge of the Santa Lucia Range. By car take 101 south to Prunedale, 156 west to Castroville, then Highway 1 south 15 miles past Carmel to Bixby Bridge. There is parking on the northern side. On bike, continue south on Highway 1 for 8 miles to the Andrew Molera State Park entrance. There, the Old Coast Road heads inland crossing two ridges and climbing up a third before returning to Bixby Bridge. No regrets, but it would probably be easier doing it in reverse, and if you park at Andrew Molera you can finish the day with a ride along the coastal bluffs. The ranger can explain which trails there are legal, and one crosses the Big Sur River on thin planks reminiscent of freeriding.

Profile: From Bixby Bridge (elev. 276), Highway 1 slowly climbs for about a mile to Hurricaine Point (elev. 560), before a gradual 7 mile descent to the entrance of Andrew Molera (elev. 100). The Old Coast Road turns left and climbs up three ridges (elev. 942, 1200, and 400 feet respectively), and between them it drops back down to the 100 foot contour, into the Little Sur and Bixby River valleys. That all happens within its 10-mile length, so there are some significant grades to contend with. Without distance data I'd guess the first is around 10% and the second two reach into the teens, but at least they were very even on well-maintained hardpack. I hear the climbs are more gradual in the reverse direction, but we can't in fairness make that determination having ridden them only downhill. Frequent shade and the coastal breeze kept the ride cool, sometimes chilly, even on a bright summer day. Prevailing winds blow south along the coast.

Comment [7]: Even the ride down Highway 1, with rocky hillsides still green this late in the year and puffs of yellow and tan spring wildflowers scattered about, made it almost worth the trip. While the Old Coast Road is a tough workout through beautiful scenery, there are still cars driving by and it never reaches the potential that rides here would have if only bikes could ride off road. Back to top.

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Click to expand

One of the funner places to ride in Santa Cruz, in fact the whole Bay Area, is Soquel Demonstration Forest, where there are miles of moderately to significantly technical singletrack to be had. You'll start out cruising along the Ridge Trail here, before choosing between the Braille, Tractor, and Sawpit trails to take down to Soquel Creek. It's fairly dry near the top, but redwood grow increasingly dense while descending down the valley wall. If you choose the Braille Trail, there are also a number of stunts along the way.

Hey there, big fella, hold still for a second while I get a picture. This shot shows clearly where banana slugs get their name, and at 4-5 inches this guy is a young pup. This is near the end of the bike portion of the Sea-to-Sky trail in Big Basin, although could be just about anywhere around Santa Cruz.

The little bridges look tempting as well, but this is right where the bike trail portion of the Sea-to-Sky trail in Big Basin ends. Beyond the bridge the trail passed through remarkably green woods (at least the day we went, near the end of the rainy season), up to a series of waterfalls high along the ridge. The second shot shows one of many, and just a baby at that.

Two shots from Eagle Peak, in Toro Park, where the Cougar Rigde Trail and Toyon Ridge Trail meet. Here begins a small network single track that extends southward along the ridgeline and overlooks the amazing views of this northern point along the Santa Lucia range. The second shot is looking over the rather abrupt descent down the Toyon Ridge Trail to the valley floor, with the broad Salinas River valley extending into the background.

This is midway up the Cougar Ridge Trail in Toro Park, which I don't recommend you take up-- try the Olleson trail instead. However, from Eagle peak you can ride out to this point without much trouble. Just avoid going down the Cougar Trail beyond this point which is steep, slippery and sandy... unless of course that's what you want!

We started our ride on the Old Coast Road, just north of Big Sur, by first coasting along Highway 1 between Bixby Bridge and Andrew Molera State Park.

Heading north on Old Coast Road, down from the Sierra Grade toward Bixby Bridge. The Old Coast Road crosses a series of ridges running east and west through the Santa Lucia Range. Their southern faces are covered mostly with grasslands or chaparral and offer beautiful views. Northern faces are covered with dense forest, mainly redwoods, and offered a cool respite on the ride down.

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This mtbREVIEW.com review describes a loop that connects Butano and Big Basin. It's not included above because the part of the Butano Road which crosses private property is off limits only to bikes-- by deed of the owner. What a jerk! The idiot probably thinks a good time in the wilderness is sitting his lazy butt on a horse. Actually, since bikers are the only trail users likely to take that route he's effectively closed it off to the public, and the park service should have recognized it. I learned this from the wall map at the Big Basin Visitors Center.

In Santa Cruz there are a number of agencies protecting and developing trails in ways good for mountain biking. Check out Trailworkers.com and Mountain Bikers of Santa Cruz for more info about trail issues and volunteer efforts.

Here's the webpage for the Ventana Wilderness Alliance which contains general information about the Santa Lucia range. While digging through their site I found a link to MapTech.com which has the entire NGS countour maps for the United States on-line. Enter the state, and a nearby city or marker, and it will bring up the contour map for that area. Way cool!! No more guessing profile information for me!

Here's couple of things in Monterey you can check out when not biking. Also, here is the link to the John Steinbeck Museum in Salinas, and some pictures and history of Fort Ord.

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A fishing pier in Capitola