Sweetwater Springs Road
As the title of this page suggests, this is a road loop whose highlight is a Sonoma County backroad called Sweetwater Springs Road. The route is taken from a book. Sweetwater Springs is a road that wouldn't be on my radar if I hadn't seen it there. The name of the book is Road Biking Northern California and its by John Nagiecki and Kimberly Grob. This road ride guide is an easy one to recommend. Many of its suggestions are well-considered routes.
The ride strikes a good balance between providing backcountry solitude and being a posh wine-country cruise and features a number of noteworthy perks. One of these is that you can easily add a short side trip to see some impressive old-growth redwoods at Armstrong Redwoods State Natural Reserve. The second one is that you pass by a number of wineries along the way, presenting the possibility of numerous indulgent rest stops, which is especially appropriate since most of them arrive at a point in the ride after all of the ride's serious effort is behind you. There's even the possibility of transforming this ride into an all-out winery expedition. Last but not least, the route gives you an excuse to see Guerneville, which is worth your time if you haven't been there before.
Speaking of "the ride's serious effort", there's only one big climb on this route, but there's no getting around the fact that it's a pretty bad one. In fact, parts of this climb qualify as quite simply the steepest segments on any road ride I currently represent on this website. More on this below.
The ride begins from the Guerneville town center. The suggested parking link points out street parking on First Street, which is just one block off the town's main drag, which is River Road. There are no parking signs on the block that my link points to, which implies to me that parking is not subject to restrictions of any kind. It doesn't look like you should have any trouble finding spaces available on this street especially if you arrive in the morning. Even if you do, you shouldn't have to range very far to find street parking elsewhere in this small town.
The ride starts out with what could be considered a nice and gentle (i.e., essentially flat) warm-up segment by heading north on Armstrong Woods Road toward the Armstrong Redwoods State Reserve. If you come all this way and not take a short detour to meander through this majestic growth, it would be a loss. You pass by a staffed entrance booth as you enter the park, but entry is free of charge for bicycles. One of the things worth seeing while you're in the park is the Colonel Armstrong tree, which you can get to by traversing just a few dozens yards on a dirt path off the northern tip of this spur of the route into the park. (You'll find signs pointing the way.) This is a 1400-year-old specimen that appears like its best years are still ahead of it.
On your way back from the redwoods, in order to continue with the loop, you turn onto the road that gives this ride its name. Sweetwater Springs Road is a narrow and twisty country road. One thing worth pointing out is that, at the time of my ride, there was a sign encountered shortly after starting to ride on this road that claimed "pavement ends in 3 miles". I'm not sure until what date this may have been true, but it certainly wasn't when I did the ride. Sweetwater Springs Road is a paved road from beginning to end. The road has hardly any traffic. During the nearly two hours it took me to traverse this road from beginning to end, I encountered less than 10 motor vehicles, and that includes a small airplane that passed overhead.
It's not long after you get on Sweetwater Springs Road that you arrive at the ride's bad climb. The overall climb is just over two miles in length, over the course of which you gain a touch over 1000 feet. The slope is actually tougher than what these numbers imply, however, because the climb is broken in two spots and you even lose a bit of elevation at one of these. What's really worth attention, however, is a quarter-mile section near the beginning of this climb where the overall average grade is above 14%! It should, therefore, not surprise you to hear that the slope actually flirts with 18 or 19 percent grade in at least one spot here. The rest of the climb is never that bad again, but it's still very tough. The average grade stays around 11% in the remaining uphill stretches of this two-mile slog to the highest point of the route, so the next spot where the slope temporarily gets around 13 or 15 percent is never long in coming on the way there.
If there is any good news about this climb, it's that its worst stretch is only a quarter mile in length, meaning in the worst case it could just as easily be walked, which is more or less what I did. While the remainder of the climb is still tough enough to be memorable in its own right, at least the slopes are such that mere mortals have a hope of pedaling them up.
One point of interest in the early part of Sweetwater Springs Road is an old mine. You catch the first sight of the tailings of this mine almost at the moment the ride's big climb begins. The USGS topographic map labels this as "Sonoma Mine". A quick Internet search reveals that this was a mercury mine, active from the beginning of the 20th century to the early 1970s, if I'm reading the information correctly. Plenty of wooden structures at the mine are still standing. Sweetwater Springs Road passes right by the doorstep of this facility, so you get to take a good look at it. I wouldn't call this mine one of the highlights of the ride exactly, but it gives you something to look at while you're panting up some of the toughest parts of the climb.
When the descent after the big climb begins, it begins steeply and gets even steeper as you continue. There are moments near the top of the descent where views open up looking down the canyon traversed by the rest of the road. It doesn't take long for the tree cover to thicken and obscure any views, which is not a bad thing because this fast descent is curvy and (still) narrow and deserves all of your attention. In fact, if you attempted to do this as a climb from the opposite direction, you'd be faced with an even scarier challenge than this ride's tough climb: the overall average grade of a bit more than the first quarter mile from the beginning of the serious climb in the other direction averages just over 16% according to my GPS data! This is enough reason in itself not to do this loop in the counter-clockwise direction, in my opinion. The grade slowly slackens from the moment the climb in that direction begins (which means the very beginning is even steeper than that 16+ percent), but the slope of road dips below 10% only for a couple of limited stretches.
When the steep part of the descent ends and the road settles at a grade following the gentle downhill glide of the creek that it begins to follow, the road surface becomes bumpier. Sweetwater Springs Road is never super smooth to begin with, but the part of the road up to this point features pavement that's at least intact, whereas at this point in the descent, the patches on the road and the patches on those patches proliferate greatly. This continues through the portion of the canyon where Sweetwater Springs Road goes through a surprisingly shady patch and even passes through some redwoods. As the vegetation begins to thin out, you find yourself pedaling uphill again. This is where Sweetwater Springs Road climbs out of the valley of Porter Creek and settles into a smaller and shallower valley before it resumes its descent. While this stands out as the ride's "second climb" in the big picture, it bears no comparison with the first big climb. This second one lasts for only about half a mile and, while it does reach about 10% grade for a spell near its beginning, it backs off from such steeper slopes after that and features a couple of breaks along the way. Meanwhile, this smaller valley that the road follows before it leaves all hilly terrain behind is a very pretty one, with grassy slopes on either side, a sprinkling of oak trees seemingly adjusted to just the right amount to be cute, and playful curves.
Scenes of vineyards begin even before Sweetwater Springs Road ends by delivering you back to the Russian River bed. This early evidence of wineries that you encounter just before Westside Road is just a sign of what's next, because this is where the "wine country" portion of the route begins. The next six or seven miles of the ride on Westside Road passes by one winery after the next, as the route heads back into the Russian River Valley. The pavement of this road is buttery smooth, too, at the time I write this. Altough there is no substantial shoulder or bike lane on this road, the one- or two-feet-wide shoulder that exists is smooth enough to be ridden continuously, except for the occasional spot when it disappears completely.
Along the way, the route merges onto River Road, which is the main thoroughfare along Russian River. This road is considerably wider than Westside Road and features a paved shoulder of generous width all the way through. The traffic on River Road is heavy, while that on Westside Road might qualify as light to moderate. I would expect the traffic load of all of these roads to be lighter on weekdays, but I've only ever spent time here on weekends.
River Road takes you through the meandering and slowly narrowing valley of Russian River. As you go further, you leave the greatest density of wineries behind and start catching glimpses of the river itself from some spots here and there (though you need to be on the opposite side of the ride to see any of these well). Having said that, you encounter possibly the biggest winery in this area only a few miles before the end of the ride, which is Korbel. A couple of minutes after you pass by Korbel, you'll arrive at the tiny hamlet of Rio Nido, after which the presence of shops and homes along the road never truly ceases until you roll back into Guerneville shortly.
The chance to see the town of Guerneville is not the only advantage of starting the ride from there. This town also holds some of the better eateries you'll find in this vicinity, so those who may look for a bite to eat after the ride will be in luck. Of the eateries on Main Street Guerneville, the only ones I've tried are Boon Eat + Drink (seriously good food, but I've only eaten there for dinner) and Main Street Station (decent food in a modest setting). There are a number of others. Those who would rather seek out the familiarity of a fast food chain will even find a Subway here. And those who are looking for decent coffee should not overlook Coffee Bazaar, on the first block of Armstrong Woods Road north of River Road. Finally, one possibility that shouldn't be neglected is to drive the couple of miles back to Korbel Winery for a bite. They have a cafe with seriously good sandwiches and deli fare, and feature a good amount of outdoor seating in a nice and leafy setting.
© Ergin Guney
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