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Length 27 miles
Time 5.5 hours
Total Climb 3850 feet
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Scenic Rating
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Bolinas Ridge (long loop)

This long, mixed ride along the San Andreas rift zone brings together a lot of things. There's a good amount singletrack mileage; a ton of fire road mileage; dense foliage; wide-open grassy meadows; a road climb; good views of the ocean, of Bolinas Lagoon, and of Tomales Bay; a road climb; a relaxed and beatiful segment on Highway 1; and a visit to a cute and tiny West Marin town (Olema), not counting the opportunity to visit another sweet town, Point Reyes Station, after a few minutes of driving once you finish the ride. The proportion of fun on the ride is higher than what the percentage of singletrack might lead you to believe, because a sizable portion of Bolinas Ridge Trail is quite entertaining despite being nominally a fire road. The ride takes some stamina, at least for the sheer number of miles involved. There is one tough climb on singletrack and the ride's main climb is on Fairfax-Bolinas Road. The latter is not excessively steep but it's also not short. So, this is not a ride I could recommend to you if you're not in good shape or if you're having a bad season.

The starting point I've chosen for this ride is the parking lot at the Five Brooks trailhead of the Point Reyes National Seashore. Not only is this free parking lot quite spacious (due to its frequent use by vehicles pulling horse trailers) but it also allows you to do most of the ride's climbs before most of its descents, which I find preferable.

This is a loop that has a clearly preferred direction, in my opinion, which is counter-clockwise. Doing the ride this way will allow you to descend the most scenic, later parts of Bolinas Ridge Trail and to tackle most of the ride's elevation gain on a paved road.

The ride begins on Olema Valley Trail. The first mile or so that you cover on this trail would probably qualify more as a fire road. When I did this ride, there were plenty of stretches that were trampled by horses near the beginning, which is what you'd expect in the vicinity of Five Brooks Ranch. There were numerous wet and muddy spots along this stretch too, despite having been several days since the most recent (light) rain, although this was a mid-April ride. The trail turns into a singletrack once you cross a wooden bridge at the beginning of the ride's first notable climb, and much of the rest of Olema Valley Trail is a narrow singletrack. The singletrack part of the trail was mostly overgrown during my ride, which is fairly common for lightly used trails in early spring.

The narrow singletrack might sound nice, but it's far from smooth. It feels a bit like riding on a never-ending rock garden. The early parts of Olema Valley Trail are flanked frequently by stinging nettle. Poison oak, while not abundant, is also in the mix. In the later stretches, stinging nettle was sparse during my ride, but poison oak more plentiful. If you're riding with shorts, there's no getting through this trail without some burning on your calves, which will be from the nettle, though the ride is long enough that my symptoms went away not long after I left this trail behind. Meanwhile, if you're exposed to the poison oak, its symptoms don't show up until much later for most people anyway. The overgrown singletrack segments also hide a few potholes that are big enough to catch your front wheel and stop you as if you've hit a wall. So, keep your speed in check and pay attention.

The ride's worst climb begins before the first mile of the ride is over. The length of this climb is only a bit over a quarter mile, but you gain about 250 feet in that distance, bringing the overall average grade to more than 15%. The amount of the climb might feel surprising as well as its steepness. While these early parts of the ride are the "lower" half of the loop, this first climb (and the continuing gentler elevation gain) takes you to around 600 feet of elevation. Meanwhile, at a point in the second half of the loop across from Highway 1 roughly aligning with this spot in the first half, Bolinas Ridge Trail isn't much higher than 800 feet elevation anyway. Although this trail might appear to be a "valley floor" trail judging by its position on the map (at least after that one bad climb), it actually features a lot of short ups and downs along the way and felt like much more work than I expected. It took me 1.5 hours to cover this trail, and not all of that slow progress was due to picture taking. I'm a slow rider, but that's pretty slow for 5.5 miles even for me. Between the (at least seasonally) hostile plants, bad drainage, and almost constantly bumpy ride, the next time I do this ride I'd much rather cover this portion of the route by following Highway 1 all the way.

Many of you must realize this already but, for the benefit of the rest of you, it might be worth pointing out that this ride takes place along the San Andreas rift zone. The lower half of the loop takes place virtually on the fault line itself, while Bolinas Ridge itself clearly appears to be shaped by the fault too, so the second half of the ride also follows features shaped by the fault. In practice, there's nothing particular "rifty" about the trail or the environment, other than the overall straightness of the geographical features. But, it's an interesting thought to keep in the back of your mind during the ride.

The climb on Fairfax-Bolinas Road is the ride's big one, yet it still felt like a relief after Olema Valley Trail. Well, at least initially. The paved climb lasts for a little over four miles. The slope is moderate and you'll be glad to hear that it gets slightly easier as you get higher. The first mile or so of the climb averages a grade of 8%. A slightly shorter second segment averages nearly 7%, and the final parts never go much above 6.5% grade. The road also changes character a little bit as you make your way up. The lower stretches are sunnier and provide nice views. The upper stretches feature more trees, including redwoods, though most of those are on either side of the road. The road itself almost never becomes completely shady, but the trees on either side are enough to make all views disappear, except for some partial peeks through tree trunks near the very top. The pavement was completely intact and uncracked at the time of my last ride, though the asphalt surface is coarse. However, that matters little at the low speeds of the climb. Meanwhile, the traffic on this road is always very light.

When you finish Fairfax-Bolinas Road and reach Bolinas Ridge Trail, your expectation might be that "the climb" is over and that now you'll be following the ridgetop and—judging by the appearance of the elevation profile plot—starting a net descent. That net descent doesn't actually begin until you cover about a mile on Bolinas Ridge Trail. This continuing one-mile climb has a much milder average grade than Fairfax-Bolinas Road. But, because the slope is not even, the short ups and downs continue to feel like real work. Even after that, the 400 feet of net elevation that you lose over 5.5 miles on Bolinas Ridge Trail doesn't feel much like a real descent. Subjectively, it's more like following a flat trail that has no shortage of short climbs, as you can tell by the sawtooth appearance of the pseudo-flat section around the midpoint of the elevation profile plot.

When Bolinas Ridge Trail starts out, it's in the form of a forest fire road under the shade of young redwoods. For about a one-mile stretch that straddles the highest point of the route, it becomes more of a sun-baked fire road flanked by chaparral. The trail then returns to a tree cover that's very similar to its early stretches and continues in that shady setting until shortly after its junction with Randall Trail; effectively a little over three more miles.

I should make it clear that I'm not trying to disparage Bolinas Ridge Trail by labeling it as a "forest fire road". As far as fire roads go, the first half of this trail is a very fun example. (I'll get to its second half in a bit.) The things that make the trail fun are the frequent encounters with tree roots that improve the "surface interest" of the trail and the "down" parts of the unending ups and downs on the trail.

While Bolinas Ridge Trails starts becoming more open shortly after its junction with Randall Trail, it undergoes a bigger transformation near where it meets Shafter Grade. Grassy meadows along the trail open up first on one side and then on both sides of the trail shortly after that junction. And about half a mile after Shafter Grade, Bolinas Ridge Trail begins a descent that actually feels like a descent. This is the beginning of what I consider to be "the second half" of the trail and its markedly different in character from its first half. The descent is more pronounced (though short uphill efforts are still included), the tree cover is gone and the trail is surrounded by grassy meadows, and idyllic views open up around you that reach all the way to Tomales Bay, and the trail is often narrowed down to a fun singletrack that includes a number of relatively technical sections. Over roughly its last two miles, Bolinas Ridge Trail becomes more of a stereotypical fire road again, though the great grassy setting and excellent views stay with you almost until you return to pavement.

When you return to paved roads, your descent essentially continues for a little over a mile but this time on Sir Francis Drake Boulevard. Of course, there's nothing like a real boulevard about this road; it's a narrow mountain road with no shoulder space. The traffic on this road feels no less busy than that on Highway 1 (at least on weekends). So, while the pretty scenery stays with you almost until this short road segment ends in Olema, it feels less enjoyable in the intimate presence of fast cars. It would serve you better to concentrate your attention on following a safe line at the edge of the road on this segment.

With a couple of restaurants, a deli, and an art shop or two, the tiny hamlet of Olema is a decent place for a rest stop. On the other hand, though, you'll have less than four miles of road riding left before you finish the ride at this point. This segment on Highway 1 is pretty similar in character to the part you will have just finished on Francis Drake, but it felt a little bit safer to me. The road still affords very little paved shoulders space, and that only rarely, but it does occasionally have some flat dirt space next to the pavement, which Francis Drake doesn't. Since you'll be doing this ride on a trail-capable bike, it will often be convenient to use that extra dirt space next to the road. Plus, the lack of a persistent downhill grade probably has something to do with that safer sensation. In reality, this is a pretty busy road segment on popular days, probably a bit more than Francis Drake.

One bad surprise of the ride is that, once you turn back into the driveway of the Five Brooks trailhead, you will have one last serious climb to cover before you get to the car. It's not long, but the grade of this driveway exceeds 10% in one portion, which feels like a lot after such a long ride and nearly 4000 feet of cumulative elevation gain.

For some food after the ride, your closest option will be in Olema. You'll find only a couple of options there, but that might be all you need. I've eaten at Farm House Restaurant only once, but I remember being pleased. Meanwhile, the adjacent Olema Liquor & Deli shop would work better if you're looking for something quicker or for groceries. Beyond that, Point Reyes Station is easy to recommend. It's a cute small town that grew out of a railroad stop, as its name suggests. Today, it's a charming destination for a weekend trip and provides ample opportunities for food, drinks, window shopping, and some rest. My favorite spot for espresso-based drinks there is Toby's Coffee Bar (a tiny stand tucked into Toby's Feed Barn). For a meal, the Station House Cafe is hard to fault, and they have plenty of outdoor seating. Another option I like is the Cowgirl Creamery deli in the Tomales Bay Foods building on 4th Street just off the main drag. It might be useful to know that Point Reyes Station also hosts at least one cool bike shop and frame builder: Black Mountain Cycles.

© Ergin Guney


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