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Length 13.5 miles
Time 3.5 hours
Total Climb 2350 feet
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Big Basin

Sadly, the "CZU Lightning Complex" wildfires that started in August 2020 have burned through almost the entirety of Big Basin State Park, resulting in the indefinite closure of the park and all of its trails, and even of the only public road through the park. While most of the park's redwoods, and especially the old-growth specimens, have surely made it through this fire just fine, just like they have through so many other fires over their long lives, all of the facilities in the park's headquarters area have been lost to the fire and will have to be rebuilt from scratch. The bottom line is that you will not be able to repeat this ride until all of that reconstruction and clean-up work is completed. There's no set time frame for this that I'm aware of. Check the park's website via the link available on this page for the latest updates.

Considering how large Big Basin Redwoods State Park is, it's a little surprising how few opportunities it provides in terms of trail ride loops. The mystery diminishes when you realize that bikes are not allowed on singletrack trails in the park. Only the fire roads are bike-legal. This particular ride even includes a big chunk of paved roads in the mix. That's mostly okay, though, since traffic on the paved roads in this park (with the exception of Route 236) is almost non-existent.

Under these conditions, you may not expect this ride to be particularly interesting in terms of mountain biking, and you'd be correct. However, one thing about Big Basin that is not true about too many other parks in the Bay Area is its remoteness. If you'd be interested in doing a ride in something more closely approximating a true wilderness without requiring any suspension of disbelief while there's a town over the next ridge or a housing development at the top of the hill or anything, you might like this ride.

Of course, the other big draw of this ride are the redwoods. If you like the thought of biking under these giants that tower hundreds of feet above you, the appeal of this ride is effectively doubled for you. Big Basin is one of the go-to spots in the Bay Area for seeing giant, old-growth redwoods. While this route does pass by some very large specimens, much of the route takes place under redwoods that look not very different from the kind you might encounter in so many other spots around the bay, such as at Skeggs Point. But, if this leaves you hungry for seeing some of the really ancient giants, you'll be glad to know that a few such examples are to be found within sight of the park's visitor center, and if even that doesn't cut it for you, you can follow or precede your ride with a hike on the very short (and hiking-only) Redwood Loop Trail right near the visitor center, which will show you some more of the largest trees in the park.

The trails are relatively well signed on this route. The signs are of varying quality, with some being more minimal or clearly older. But they mostly do the job. I wouldn't want to do this ride by relying solely on trail signs, though. I remember one unsigned split on East Ridge Trail that was particularly unclear. For any unsigned junctions where there's a clear "main" direction, though, it should be a fairly safe bet to follow that one, because all the junctions on this ride at which you do need to take a turn had a clear sign as of the time of my last ride.

The ride begins from the park's main parking lot in its headquarters area. This parking lot is very large and it's subject to a day-use fee, which is $10 as of 2018. Unfortunately, you don't have many options to get around this fee. If you insist on free parking, the only feasible options I can imagine would be to find some informal spot on or near Route 236 somewhere between the park's HQ and Boulder Creek, and to connect to this loop via Lodge Road or China Grade Road. However, I'm not at all certain of the legitimacy of any such parking in these areas, so don't take this as a recommendation.

This mixed ride begins with a road segment of 4+ miles. You pedal briefly on the (relatively) busy Route 236 at first, but you turn onto Sky Meadow Road very soon and, within minutes, end up in a setting that feels like the middle of nowhere. This stretch is also the part of the ride where you can stop to take a closer look at Sempervirens Falls, at a well signed turn-off. It won't be an experience about which you'll be telling your grand kids on your death bed, but it's easily worth a quick stop as one of the minor attractions on this ride. This road segment is a sustained climb after about the first mile of the ride, but it isn't one that ever feels tough. The grade never exceeds 10% or so in this portion of the ride, and usually stays below 7%.

You follow Lodge Road after Sky Meadow Road and, right after you leave behind the last park ranger residence that this road passes by, the pavement turns much more noticeably marginal. It doesn't take long after this for you to reach the junction where you pick up East Ridge Trail. In addition to the end of this portion of pavement, this transition also marks the beginning of some of the ride's steepest climbs. These steep segments are never long (at most a quarter mile each), but they are repeated at least three times and the slopes do reach or approach 20% grade, and actually get closer to 25% in at least one spot. This roughly one-mile stint on East Ridge Trail mostly takes place under tree cover like the part of the ride up to this point, but things do begin to open up a little and become sunny on a few of the higher spots, even presenting some restricted views from one or two places. The segment on East Ridge Trail also includes the only part of the ride that would pass for singletrack where the trail is narrowed down by some grass over a short stretch, although East Ridge Trail is otherwise effectively a fire road.

When East Ridge Trail ends, the ride's next paved segment begins, which is on China Grade Road. This puts an end to the erratic ups and downs on East Ridge Trail and puts you on a steady climb once again. This time, however, the average slope of this paved climb is significantly higher than that of the ride's first road segment, averaging a fairly even 7.5% over nearly a mile, whereas about 1.5 miles of your earlier paved segment was at something more like 5% grade. You cross Route 236 shortly after you get on China Grade and continue on the other side. These are some of the sunniest stretches of the ride, with most of the distant views available, though these aren't particularly inspiring. Monterey Bay is visible from some of these spots when the clouds allow it, but it's in the distance. The rest of the scenery is dominated by an expanse of forested ridges.

Roughly the second mile that you cover on China Grade features an easier slope on average, though the grade is less uniform over this stretch. This is also the part of the route where you pass through the highest spot of the ride and begin the descending trend. You leave pavement behind one more time when you continue onto Butano Fire Road at a junction where China Grade ends.

Don't get too accustomed to Butano Fire Road, because you stay on it for less than a mile. The descent really begins when you turn onto Johansen Road. We're not talking about anything steep, though. Johansen is a smooth and mellow fire road that feels wide enough for three lanes of traffic. After an initial fast dip, this fire road settles into a relatively steady slope around -4 or -5 percent, as it lazily loses elevation under substantial tree cover.

Things change when you turn onto Middle Ridge Road at a prominent junction. This is one fire road that's serious about descending. You encounter a few short and tough climbs once you get on Middle Ridge Road, but this road soon settles into a half-mile descent with and end-to-end average grade of -14%. This part does feel more like a mountain bike ride rather than simply being a bike ride on a forest road. These upper reaches of Middle Ridge Road are also among the sunnier parts of this route. After completing that descent, Middle Ridge Road suddenly changes its mind and has you gaining elevation for more than a quarter mile. But this is really the last bit of real work you will have to do before the end of the ride.

Another spot that's worth a stop comes shortly after the steep descent resumes following that last bit of climbing, when you reach the well-signed Ocean View Summit. If you allow the name of the place to set your expectations though, you'll be sorely disappointed. While this area is devoid of tree cover and there is a small patch of an elevated viewing area, you'll almost need binoculars to see any significant amount of the ocean from here, not to mention some very cooperative coastal weather. Still, it's not a bad idea to look around from there to get your bearings and to stretch your legs. A brighter spot is that the part of the route around Ocean View Summit also happens to be the only part of the ride where the trail becomes anything resembling technical, due to the bare rock surfaces that start to predominate in this brief section.

After Ocean View Summit, the descent continues all the way back to the parking lot, with only one very short interruption where you'll encounter a steep climb again. This stretch of the trail also gets back into redwood tree cover for the most part, though the fire road surface isn't terribly interesting for biking. The slope fluctuates quite a bit, but there are multiple stretches that are steeper than -20% and at least one place where it exceeds -25%. So, any skittish riders will probably want to ride this descent a bit cautiously.

© Ergin Guney


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