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Length 34.5 miles
Time 4.5 hours*
Total Climb 3200 feet
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Aerobic Difficulty
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* On a road bike

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Coleman Valley Loop
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Coleman Valley Road is a road that is well known and loved among cyclists. You'll find it incorporated into many route suggestions in its vicinity, including more than a couple of races and organized rides. This is no surprise, because the road traverses a very pretty rural landscape and offers plenty of great views along the way. This route is one of the less ambitious routing options that would allow you to incorporate Coleman Valley Road into your ride, though it still comes at the cost of plenty of short but steep climbs and the occasional interaction with busy traffic.

I actually took the route straight out of the North California Biking book by Ann Marie Brown, which is part of the Moon Outdoors series from Avalon Travel Publishing. Although you might not see me mention this book as often as I refer to my other favorite bike ride guide, Bill Oetinger's 75 Classic Rides Northern California, North California Biking is a book that I refer to a lot and it has helped me greatly. The book includes a fairly complete listing of the most liked road and mountain bike rides in our area (and beyond) and Ann Marie's route selection is sensible and popular. On top of that, unlike Bill who's inclined a bit more toward epic ride lengths, Ann Marie's suggestions often come in more manageable portion sizes. In the end, I would whole-heartedly recommend both books. (I'm not affiliated with either of these books or authors.)

This ride actually offers a lot more than just the opportunity to sample Coleman Valley Road, especially if you're not a regular of this area. The route takes you through a couple of tiny towns, one of which found worldwide fame several decades ago thanks to being featured prominently in Alfred Hitchcock's film, The Birds, which thankfully doesn't appear to have done much to spoil its picturesque charm. You get to see a couple of the historic, one-room schoolhouses that are relatively common around coastal Marin and Sonoma counties. There are great views of the coast and of ocean bluffs in numerous spots, as well as popular restaurants, cafes, and at least one historic general store that can serve as great rest stops along the way. And all of this is accompanies by a heaping dose of blissful, historic, rural Sonoma County sights, not to mention plenty of happy California cows and sheep.

There are a few towns on this route, like Bodega Bay, Bodega, and Freestone, that would serve you equally well as the starting point of the main loop of this ride. If you'll be driving here for this ride, there's no reason not to choose whichever one of these happens to be most conveniently located for you, given the direction from which you'll be arriving. I opted to use Occidental as my starting point not only because it's what's shown as the starting point of the ride in Ann Marie's book, but also because it would mean I would have fresh legs on the initial climb on Coleman Valley Road out of Occidental. Having said that, a similar case could easily be made with respect to the climb on Bay Hill Road for starting from Bodega Bay instead.

As I've just mentioned, Coleman Valley Road introduces itself in an unwelcome way by throwing at you more than half a mile of climbing at an average grade exceeding 9%. The first stretch of this is the steepest, where I can see a 200-yard or so segment whose average grade is above 12% and where one particular spot registered several data points on my GPS between 20 and 23 percent grade (and I can see no evidence on the elevation plot these would be a measurement anomaly). The grade scales back soon enough, however there are plenty more spots where it reaches 10% along the way to the top and the climb on Coleman Valley Road is not evenly sloped. Most importantly, you struggle through the second one of the ride's three tough climbs also on Coleman Valley Road, which is a half-mile stretch where the grade once again averages nearly 10%. With that being the end-to-end average grade of that climb, it won't surprise you to hear that it briefly reaches 13% a few times in that stretch, if not more.

Once you do finish the two bad climbs on Coleman Valley Road, you end up on some grassy highlands overlooking the ocean that look very idyllic. This is one of the parts of the ride where grazing sheeps and cows can be found, implying that there might be a bonus of lamb sightings if you do the ride during the spring. The road is high enough that you get views of the ocean coast from a few spots, but it actually never delivers the wide-open views you might expect given its geographic position, until you begin your final descent down to the coast. There are some stretches where the road pleasantly snakes ahead of you across a landscape of grass, but those are still a bit removed from the ocean.

The amount of traffic on Coleman Valley Road at the time of my Saturday-morning ride was what I'd call "moderate" up to its junction where it splits from Joy Road, which was surprising to me. It gets much quieter after that junction and it loses any painted lines on it along the way. There's a short stretch that you cover on Highway 1 before reaching Bodega Bay. Naturally, this is a part where the traffic will be busy, especially on weekends, but it does also happen to be a very scenic stretch of the road that takes you across some low bluffs with some great views of the ocean from many spots as it passes by a couple of beaches.

Upon reaching Bodega Bay, this ride includes a short spur around Bodega Harbor, which is also part of the original route suggestion in Ann Marie's book. This is aimed at nothing more than a closer look at the lagoon and its marine wildlife as well as another look at the view of the ocean from the parking lot west of Bodega Head. This little side excursion does add 7.5 miles as well as at least 450 feet of additional elevation gain to your ride. So, if this doesn't appeal to you and you have no intention of stopping at the Fisherman's Cove deli for some seafood sandwiches either, you could save yourself some time by skipping this diversion.

Although this ride extends to Bodega Head, you may notice that it doesn't actually visit the "core" of Bodega Bay. That's not an accident. Bodega Bay is arguably a touristy and Fisherman's-Wharf-like contrast to the comparatively historic- and authentic-feeling (though smaller) town center of Bodega. So, if you're looking for large seafood restaurants or gift shops (like the big Tides complex), you might want to visit what's available in Bodega Bay, just a few seconds further southeast along Highway 1 from where this route turns into Bodega Harbor. But, if quaint historic sights are what you're after, then save your appetite for the town of Bodega.

You depart from Bodega Bay on another backroad on this ride, which is Bay Hill Road. The advantage of this is avoiding the traffic of the corresponding stretch Highway 1 as well as taking you through a more idyllic setting. The down side is that it involves the ride's third serious climb. Opting to follow the easier, though much busier, Highway 1 in this part of the route would save you nearly 600 feet of strenuous elevation gain. The overall average grade of the main, unbroken stretch of the climb on Bay Hill Road is 8.5%, but that includes at least one short and nearly flat break along the way. In practice, there are numerous stretches where the grade hovers at or a little above 10% and one 100- or 200-yard stretch where its closer to 15%. On the flip side, this segment provides you with another hearty helping of blissful, rural Sonoma County cycling on a nearly deserted backroad, which can be considered the main point of this ride. So, don't write off this detour before you check some of my photos from this part of the route.

Even after taking Bay Hill Road, you end up returning to busy traffic on Highway 1 and Bodega Highway fir six miles. The nice part of this is that it passes you through the tiny town of Bodega, which is well known nationally (perhaps even internationally in some circles) as the setting for the Alfred Hitchcock film, The Birds. Even just passing through the town center without stopping will allow you to spot not only a few tourist spots themed after the film but, more importantly, also the very elegant St. Teresa church that was prominently featured in it, which happens to be a California historic landmark (not because it was used in the Hitchcock film but because it was built in 1862). If you do decide to take a rest stop in town, you'll find a coffee shop, a quaint restaurant, and a couple of souvenir shops, among others, not to mention good photo ops by the town's ridiculously cute (though apparently still authentic) post office.

Shortly after passing through the town of Bodega, you have the option of hitting the backroads again to avoid the busier traffic by turning onto Joy Road. This is an option that's popular with a lot of cyclists. The disadvantage, once again, is that it will boost the ride's total elevation gain by an extra 300 feet. That was my original plan for this route initially as well but, on the day of the ride, because I was out of shape, I changed the plan and opted to go around the flatter and busier route via Bohemian Highway to get back to Occidental.

The pavement quality of the roads on this ride holds no surprises. Basically, the busier roads have the better pavement and the backroads have worse ones. The less traffic the road carries, the rougher its surface is and the more patches and potholes it has. As I already mentioned, on the first stretch of the route on Highway 1, traffic conditions are a bit hairy. This is a fast road, so the busy traffic on weekends makes it uncomfortable for a cyclist because it has no really usable paved shoulder space. On your stint on Bodega Highway after Bay Hill Road, things are much better because there's a paved shoulder that's almost as wide as one more traffic lane. Although this gets interrupted for 1.5 miles between the junction with Valley Ford Freestone Road and right before you turn onto Bohemian Highway, the rest of it does help. Bohemian Highway has adequate shoulder space only in certain stretches and only barely so, but at least the drivers there seems a bit more careful and slow. By the way, I've counted four cattle guards on Coleman Valley Road (or five, if you include a paved-over one). At least one of these arrive during a steep climb but the remaining ones are worth watching out for during descents.

The ride features some dense patches of tree cover in the inland portions, especially surrounding Occidental, and it gets more sun-drenched the closer you get to the coast. In the interior parts, the route goes through deep and shady rows of redwoods a number of times as well.

Starting and ending a ride in Occidental makes this cute town a natural choice for a post-ride meal or refreshments, but I haven't done that on the day I did this particular ride and I don't come to Occidental regularly enough to have some recommendations in my pocket, so I will, unfortunately, not be able to suggest a particular spot for you. But if you simply look around you in the Occidental town center, you'll see plenty of sweet looking spots for snacks or a meal, some of which are in historic buildings.

© Ergin Guney


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