Sonoma to Rohnert Park
This is a long, wandering loop through pleasant wine-country landscapes. I took this ride route from a "card deck" titled "Bay Area Bike Rides Deck", by Ray Hosler—essentially a book of recommended ride routes in the format of a deck of cards. A card deck is not a bad idea for a guide for bike rides, actually: while it means that the textual description for each ride is a bit brief, it does make it easier for you to take the card describing a particular ride with you. Beyond that, though, the main reason I like this "guide" is the fact that its route selection appears to be more consistently inspired and well informed in comparison with many books that list ride options in a similar way. So, I would heartily recommend it. And let me quickly add that I'm not affiliated with this guide or its author in any way.
This ride should represent the best road biking that Sonoma County has to offer, but a few factors take a little away from it: The pavement quality is not the best, along major portions of the route. There are several very steep climbs involved. And a couple of stretches of the route are major roads that are flat, wide, and boring. Having said that, there's a lot that this ride has going for it too: Much of the ride still takes place on roads whose traffic ranges between light and very light. You visit the cute Glen Ellen along the way (twice, actually). The ride starts and ends at the tony Sonoma town center, giving you a good excuse for an indulgent post-ride lunch. And, finally, how bad can any road ride through the wine country be after all?
While it has its flaws, one strength of this ride route is the flexibility it allows to be sliced up into meaningful shorter ride options. One obvious possibility of carving out a shorter ride from this route would be to omit the side trip heading west from Glen Ellen to end up with just a Valley of the Moon loop. That would be a ride of nearly 18 miles, with only about 700 feet of total elevation gain; an easy recommendation to those who are looking for an option that can be pulled off even by most beginners. Another change that might make sense is to cut the subloop west of Glen Ellen short by using Sonoma Mountain Road to cross to its other side. That would still leave you with nearly 34 miles of riding distance, but shave off about 700 feet from the ride's total climb, if I'm not mistaken. The third suggestion that comes to mind easily is for those who'd rather minimize the uninteresting wide arteries and suburban stretches on the ride. My suggestion for those of you would be to start and end the ride in Glen Ellen instead, and ride only the loop that lies west of there on this route. This will leave you with a 25-mile ride with about 2600 feet of elevation gain.
The starting point I've picked for the ride is by some street parking near the Sonoma Plaza. On the block where I parked for this ride, the parking was free but limited to three hours between 9:00 and 5:00, with the exception of Sundays. You can either start as much before than 9:00 as you expect to exceed three hours to finish the ride, or simply opt to do it on a Sunday when there are no time limits. More simply, you can also go a few more blocks into the more out-of-the-way side streets of Sonoma and easily find unlimited street parking there.
The first type of scenery you'll ride through as you move away from the Sonoma town center in the beginning of the route is the "suburban" strip that the Sonoma Highway (Route 12) passes through on its way northwest into the Valley of the Moon. This is an uninteresting stretch with fairly busy traffic. Like most of the rest of the ride, this segment doesn't have any shoulder space or bike lane that's worth mentioning, at least not beyond the first couple of miles. Very rarely is there more than a foot of paved width on the outside of the line marking the road's edge. However, the traffic lanes are comfortably wide and riding on this road does not feel particularly stressful.
Around the four-mile mark from the beginning, the scenery begins to turn more into what you'd expect from a wine-country ride: the businesses and homes along the road peter out and you start encountering frequent sights of vineyards by the road. Traffic disappears and you enter even more of a country-road setting when you turn onto Dunbar Road. Pavement quality, which was nothing to complain about from the beginning of the ride up to this point, also suffers in this stage, though. You end up on an even more minor road when you turn onto Henno Road and start heading toward Glen Ellen. While Dunbar Road was seen fit to be split by a double yellow line, Henno Road is too narrow to have any marked lines. The pavement here is still a bit rougher than I would have liked, but this is a slightly more twisty road and a fun segment of the route.
Henno Road connects you to Warm Springs Road as it skirts by Glen Ellen without setting foot in the town center. Warm Springs Road marks the beginning of the "western loop" of the ride route. This sub-loop is where all the significant climbing of the ride takes place, though you don't encounter any serious uphill stretches until three miles after your turn onto Warm Springs Road. The pavement quality on Warm Springs Road is better than the several miles that precede it on the ride, but it could still be better.
Your return to top-quality pavement happens when you turn onto Bennett Valley Road. The first of the painfully steep climbs on the ride also arrives around the time this road brings you to some of the portions of the ride with the fewest signs of settlement. First comes a quarter-mile uphill segment on Bennett Valley Road that tops out at 9% grade or so, but that's not even worth a serious mention. A stretch of about a third of a mile in length that quickly follows that bit averages over 10% grade overall. However, what's worse is that its steepness increases toward the end, topping out near 14% grade before you find some relief. Less than a mile after this, you'll find yourself working up grades ranging between 7% and 9% once again, but that will feel like a blessing after that steeper segment.
That episode is the worst part of the crossing toward the plains on the Rohnert Park side of the route, but not its last climb. After only another quarter mile of uphill effort, Bennet Valley Road begins to descend slowly to cross to the other side of its wide namesake valley. When you reach the foothills on the western side of this valley, you turn onto Grange Road. This road constitutes the last climb on your way heading west. Pedaling Grange Road is real work, but it's not much to complain about. Though the very beginning starts out with a discouraging slope for a moment, the grade of this 1-mile climb usually fluctuates around 6.5%. You also catch some open views toward the countryside on the east from at least a couple of spots on this stretch, as you head up.
Possibly the most memorable part of the route heading toward the outskirts of Rohnert Park is what follows this climb on Grange Road. Not long after that moderate one-mile climb is over, you plunge through the short, narrow, twisty, and shady Crane Canyon. This exhilarating stretch barely lasts for a mile before you're deposited for good onto the flats west of the Sonoma Mountains.
The 2.5 miles you cover on Petaluma Hill Road is among the less interesting parts of the ride. The stretch on this ruler-straight road with moderate traffic serves little purpose other than connecting you to the roads you'll follow to cross back over the hills toward the Valley of the Moon. Though it might not be exciting, this stretch is at least reasonably safe and comfortable to ride on, thanks to a bike lane of generous width.
What is psychologically the "return" part of the ride begins when you turn onto Roberts Road and quickly find yourself on backroads again. On your way through Roberts Road and then Pressley Road, you initially follow open lands, lazily passing by a few pictureque vineyards along the way. Though you will have been gaining elevation since you turned off Petaluma Hill Road, things won't get serious until Pressley Road suddenly takes a turn and hits you with a steep stretch featuring grades around 10%. That climb eases up in less than a mile, but not before you see slopes reaching 14% grade. A very brief respite comes next, only to be followed by another quarter-mile stretch that takes you north of 10% grade once again. That's all you'll have to suffer through on Pressley Road, but that doesn't say much. Because, you soon join Sonoma Mountain Road and there's more pain to come over the first two miles you cover on this one. Basically, there's no way for me to sugarcoat it: this second crossing on the route over the Sonoma Mountains is the toughest portion of the ride. There are two more quarter-mile stretches on Sonoma Mountain Road that exceed 10% grade, and the second of these that brings you to the highest elevation of the route happens to be the worse one by far, with its second eighth of a mile averaging nearly 15% grade! It doesn't help that these arrive between the 25- and 30-mile marks of the ride, where many riders may already be scraping the bottom of their energy reserves. If there's any positive side of this, it's the fact that, once you make it past that highest elevation point of the ride, there's nothing else that can seriously be called a "climb" for the nearly 12 miles of the route that remains after that point.
Sonoma Mountain Road also happens to be one of the most minor roads on this route. While Pressley Road has a double yellow line along its middle, most of Sonoma Mountain Road doesn't. Although there is a sprinkling of residences all along this latter road, at least some portions of it do a good impression of wilderness. It features a surprising dip through a small grove of redwoods before the worst of the final climb is over. And, once you start descending back toward Glen Ellen, you can catch nice views on the left-hand side from a number of spots. This three-mile descent is broken up by only one quarter-mile section that requires some pedaling, and it's a fun and twisty descent overall. Parts of it are fairly steep, with the grade dipping past -10% in several places, and possibly reaching -16% in one particular spot. Much of this downhill stretch also has a good amount of tree cover. Once again, though, the pavement of this road is not the smoothest, which takes away something from the enjoyment of the descent for me.
Unlike your first pass through Glen Ellen in the earlier part of the ride (where you bypass most of the core town unless you alter this route), your second arrival in Glen Ellen on the ride has you pedaling right through the heart of town. If you feel tempted to take a break here to indulge in some of the gourmet goodies to be had in the shops and restaurants, there's little reason to hold back: you have less than 10 miles to go after that point and it's virtually all flat (with an imperceptibly descending slope that should help your average speed). Most of this remaining mileage is not very enjoyable, though. This flat and straight leg on Arnold Drive becomes a busy suburban road the further you head southeast. If you'd rather look for the silver lining, though, this part of the ride does have first-class pavement and generous shoulder space for cyclists, and I'm sure many riders will appreciate the simple fact there's no more climbing to be done.
© Ergin Guney
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