Tunitas Creek Road and Route 84
This is a pure road ride looping over a route that includes some of the roads most liked by road cyclists in the Peninsula. The ride starts from Skyline Boulevard on the spine of the Santa Cruz Mountains, descends all the way to Highway 1 on the coast, and then climbs back up to Skyline. If you insist on doing your climbs before your descents, it's also possible to start and end the loop on the coast, naturally, as long as you live closer to that area or don't mind the longer drive to get there.
The ride takes you through a healthy variety of terrain, including dense redwood forests; pumpkin patches; cute open ranch land where horses, cows, and sheep graze; a flower farm or two; and wind-swept coastal scrubland. You also string together a couple of tiny hamlets along the way that make for interesting rest stops.
The temperature and weather can vary as much as the scenery across this geographic span. During the summer, when the coast is typically foggy, you might be descending from a warm and sunny Skyline Boulevard to a chilly and blustery Highway 1, and warm up only when you're back in the sun on Skyline. During some months over the rest of the year, the ridgetop is in the marine layer, especially during the mornings, with condensed fog dripping from the redwoods drenching you as much as any persistent rain would, while the coast can be dry and warmer, and maybe even sunny.
Doing the loop counter-clockwise, as in the route represented on this page, is the easier option. Route 84 is a much gentler climb than Tunitas Creek Road. If you're looking for a bigger challenge, do the loop clockwise.
The ride starts from the intersection of Skyline Boulevard and Route 84. This is a little bit of an oasis, with a number of shops, restaurants, and a small gas station (or, at least, gas "pump"). There is some parking shared by the shops as well as some on a small traffic island on the intersection.
First, you start out by heading northwest on Skyline Boulevard. This six-mile segment will have you climbing at a moderate grade, resulting in 1000 feet of the total elevation gain of the ride by the time you reach the junction with Tunitas Creek Road. The average grade of most of this road is a very even 6%. Skyline Boulevard is pretty popular with people on pleasure rides. You'll frequently find exotic or classic sports cars and fast sports bikes whizzing by. It's also fairly common to encounter "club rides", where you see a dozen or more cars or motorcycles of the same brand or type pass by in a convoy. Not surprisingly, a lot of these people have a tendency to speed more than usual, so it might not be a bad idea to time your ride so that you do this portion of your ride at a time of the day when the road might be less crowded; e.g., early in the morning. On the other hand, the same things can be said about Route 84, as well, and I'm not sure you can fit both the Skyline and the Route 84 stretches of this rides all into the quieter time of the day...
Skyline Boulevard is not a very narrow road and (other than the risk posed by fast drivers whizzing by) isn't particularly risky for cyclists in general. Still, there is little shoulder space available on the side of the road, and at the occasional places where it actually happens to be reasonably generous, it's unpaved and soft.
Tunitas Creek Road has much lighter traffic. The first half of this road also happens to be the lushest portion of the ride, where this narrow road squeezes past large redwoods in a number of places. This road is narrow (sometimes very narrow) with no stripe painted down its middle and hardly any shoulder to speak of, but its light traffic still makes it possibly the safest stretch of this ride for cyclists. The steep part of the descent on Tunitas Creek Road (only about two miles) also comes and goes during this dense, redwood-covered first half of this stretch. Toward the coast, the road leaves tree cover and starts meandering almost flatly past scattered homes and ranches. One of the highlights that you'll find in this part of the ride is The Bike Hut at Potrero Nuevo Farm. This is a small, unattended shack on the side of the road that's open 24/7, where bikers can purchase emergency parts and supplies as well as drinks and snacks, and pay for them based on the honor system. It's a brilliant concept if you ask me!
Shortly after that, you'll find yourself on Highway 1. This portion of the ride (potentially unexpectedly) involves a significant bit of climbing, followed by a descent back to sea level. While there's a sizeable shoulder along almost all of this road segment, riding along the (usually) moderately heavy traffic of Highway 1 might not be fun for some riders. And there actually is a narrow bridge right after you first start out on Highway 1, where the shoulder temporarily vanishes, and where you might want to try timing your passage to when there are no buses or large RVs approaching from behind. Otherwise, though, Highway 1 does provide you some nice ocean views and coastal scenery from a couple of spots, naturally.
Just before arriving at San Gregorio, this route leaves Highway 1 to take a side road named Stage Road into the town of San Gregorio. This road is only a mile long and it doesn't save you too much in total distance traveled compared to following Highway 1 all the way to the junction with Route 84, but it seems to be the preferred way of completing this little corner of this ride for road bikers, because it is a much prettier road than the adjacent segment of Highway 1 and has way less traffic. This cute country road will drop you right into the main (and possibly the only) junction in the one-horse town of San Gregorio. The main attraction here (if you don't count a partially derelict gas/service station that seems to be stuck in time a century ago) is the lively San Gregorio General Store, which also happens to double as the post office, not to mention being a popular rest stop for many bikers passing by on Route 84 as well as on Highway 1. It's worth pointing out that this general store features live music on weekends (though this might be seasonal) and makes for an excellent opportunity to kick back a little and possibly mingle with fellow cyclists, as well as carrying some possibly unexpected merchandise such as clothing and books.
Once you're done with the quaintness of San Gregorio, you start heading back inland on the (14-mile) "return leg" of the ride on Route 84. While you may naturally tend to think of this part of the ride as "climbing back up", there's actually hardly any climbing to be felt for more than half of the distance you travel on Route 84. Until you reach the town of La Honda, any pedaling effort you put in seems to be due to nothing more than the natural undulations of just any country road that may as well be continuing flatly on average. The only part of Route 84 that resembles a "real" climb starts a mile and a half past La Honda. Even then, this is a gentle climb where the grade hardly ever exceeds 6%, and is still broken up by short stretches that are nearly flat. The climb continues for less than two miles at that rate, and roughly the last three miles of the climb is, once again, even gentler than that.
When traveled in this direction, the lower elevations of Route 84 start out as a pretty wide country road with a generous amount of paved shoulder along its entire length. Just as you start climbing at a more serious rate shortly after La Honda, the road becomes a little narrower and the paved shoulder is slashed in size. For this portion of the road, the shoulder is never more than one to two feet wide, and there are many spots where even that has crumbled away. When you add the roadside bushes that can be overgrown and tend to force you onto the traffic lane, you need to be really comfortable about riding with traffic in order to feel fine on this portion of the ride.
Since you end your ride right near Alice's Restaurant if you follow the route as described on this page, this should give you incentive to have a post-ride meal there. For me, this is one of the highlights of rides that I do in this area. Their food, while decent, is often nothing to shout about (though the portobello mushroom sandwich is hard to fault). But, there's something about sitting at an outdoor picnic table with your friends after a ride for some food and drinks in a setting surrounded by redwood trees while plenty of motorcycles and some fancy cars come and go...
© Ergin Guney
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