Butano State Park
87% FIRE ROAD13% ROAD
This is a pure fire-road ride in the out-of-the-way Butano State Park. I'm sure few, if any, mountain bikers in the Bay Area would think of this park as a destination for mountain biking. This ride description won't change their mind about it. However, if you find yourself in the vicinity and looking for a ride option, or you're really looking for something you haven't tried yet and wouldn't mind driving here to do a ride and you're okay with a fire-road-only loop, then this ride has more to offer than some other options out there. This was only my first time riding at Butano and I'm pleasantly surprised about how it exceeded my expectations. Here's why...
Butano State Park really only lends itself to a single mountain-biking loop, and this one is it. There is actually a good selection of singletrack trails in the park, but they're all closed to bikes. This only leaves fire roads for bikes, and this ride includes almost all of the park's fire roads. The only choice with which you're left is whether to do the loop clockwise or counter-clockwise. The clockwise version shown on this page is the option that will result in easier climbs.
The greatest thing this ride has going for it is the simple natural beauty of its setting. We don't exactly have a shortage in the Bay Area of biking trails threading through lush woods or traversing never-boring geography, but this locale is still one of the few that stick out among all the rest. In its remoteness, this park is among your best bets for finding anything that approximates true wilderness within an easy drive from Bay Area towns. Despite being so close to the ocean, you don't actually catch any ocean views during the ride. However, the views of the surrounding ridges that you can enjoy from a few spots along this route present a forest that looks nicely untouched and stretches in every direction. Moreover, the creek bed of Little Butano Creek nestled among impressive redwoods at the heart of the park is one of the lushest and most picturesque I've seen in our area. The creekside parts of the park are also the most crowded, due to the park's popular campgrounds that are clustered there, but this takes away little from the beauty. On this ride, you really only get to see that part of the park near the very end of the time on your bike.
Parking inside the park is subject to a fee. At the time of this writing, the fee is a relatively hefty 10 dollars. On the Saturday morning when I did this ride, the entrance booth was not staffed, so I had to self-pay by placing cash in an envelope and dropping it into a slot. You might want to be prepared for such a scenario by bringing exact change and having a pen available. Incidentally, the suggested parking spot within the park that's linked on your left holds enough spaces for only about a dozen cars, and there aren't many other parking lots inside the park. So, don't be naive enough to expect any available space here on a popular day, unless you show up early.
For those who might prefer to look for free parking, Cloverdale Road (from which the park's driveway is accessed) did not seem to me to be very suitable for roadside parking. However, it wouldn't be a big challenge to park in Pescadero and bike in from there (by adding eight flat miles of road riding to this route) or by finding a nook along Highway 1 where you can park and biking your way in via the gorgeous Gazos Creek Road.
Another nice aspect of this ride is that the climb is gentle. This is something that's true for very few extended fire-road climbs in our area. Over the nearly five-mile main climb of the ride, the average grade rarely exceeds 8% with any regularity. Meanwhile, more than two miles of this climb has a grade around 5%. The climbing slope becomes more variable after the six-mile mark of the ride, and many of the steepest climbs of the route actually arrive in what's nominally the descending half of the loop.
The ride also features a unique curiosity that you won't encounter on any other ride listed on this website: You'll be passing through a gravel landing strip near the highest elevations of the ride. The park's map marks this is an "abandoned" one. To be honest, it isn't much to look at. It's little more than an almost-flat, much elongated, gravel clearing, though a very big one. As far as structures go, there's only a tiny cinder-block shack that seems to be solar-powered. It may have been the radio beacon transmitter. Still, it's an interesting conversation piece and something you don't get to see very often.
You'll notice that the ride features a spur that continues along Butano Fire Road before doubling back to return and turn onto Olmo Fire Road. This is just some extra ride mileage my riding buddies and I wanted to add to the ride, because, after that relatively gentle climb, for a moment it looked like the ride might not end up being enough of a workout. You can just as easily skip that out-and-back spur of the ride altogether or continue it even further than we did. If you opt to do it, though, keep in mind that the "descent" portion of the ride will involve a good amount of pedaling too, and make sure you reserve enough of your energy for that. The particular spot from which this route turns back on that spur is not special in any way; it's merely the point at which we decided that the descent became a little too consistent, implying that we might have to climb too much on our way back.
One word of warning about continuing further east along Butano Fire Road: The segment of this fire road that starts where Butano Fire Road meets the state park boundary and ends at its junction with Johansen Road is on private property and a couple of maps I know clearly state that bikes are not allowed through that stretch. On the other hand, you can also find mountain biking maps that show the entire length of Butano Fire Road as being legitimate. My inclination is to trust the maps that mark it as illegal. You can make up your own mind. However, note that the first "private property" signs you'll start encountering on Butano Fire Road do not indicate that you've reached this stretch. You'll start seeing these "no trespassing" signs long before you reach that illegal stretch and while you're still within state park lands. These early signs merely indicate that the lands alongside the fire road are private property. By the way, this ride does not enter that stretch of private property.
Olmo Fire Road has some stretches whose character is dramatically different from any part of the ride up to that point. Long stretches of this trail in the higher elevations of the ride are covered edge-to-edge with a cross between fine gravel and coarse sand. These parts are colloquially called "chalks", I believe. This layer is quite thick and soft in many spots. Unfortunately, some of these soft and loose stretches arrive at steeply descending portions of the trail, making parts of the descent quite treacherous. Remember to be careful through this section of the ride.
At the end of the loop, you'll be brought back to the heart of the park. You'll have a short distance to travel on the park's main driveway, which will give you your best sampling of the lush and picturesque creek bed that's at the core of the campground area.
For some food or refreshments after this ride, the tiny nearby town of Pescadero is an easy recommendation. Duarte's Tavern is the first option there that naturally pops into my mind. This obvious choice traces its roots back to the Prohibition Era. The food there is good, and the desserts are great. In case you don't already know, their "signature dish" is their cream of artichoke soup. Duarte's isn't the only game in town, though. Pescadero Country Store also serves a wide variety of food from sandwiches to bar food to restaurant entrees. Their thin-crusted pizzas are also quite good. And if all you're after is some good coffee, you can't do much better than Downtown Local. Their vinyl record collection and the nostalgic curiosities that make up the rest of their decor are worth a look even if you're not interested in any coffee.
© Ergin Guney
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