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Length 48 miles
Time 5 hours*
Total Climb 3950 feet
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* On a road bike

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Marshall - Chileno Valley Loop

Here is a nice and long rural loop through the back roads of the Marin countryside. While the ride length is quite substantial, this is not a ride that would require race-day physical fitness in order to pull off, because the total elevation gain over the entire ride averages out to less than 100 feet per mile; a modest amount for a ride in a hilly area, in my opinion.

The ride starts at Helen Putnam Regional Park, right at the outskirts of Petaluma, extends all the way to Highway 1 on the Tomales Bay coast, and turns back inland along the valley of Keys Creek before starting to follow Chileno Valley back to the start. These are some of my favorite parts of the Bay Area for road rides. It's a very open and green, rolling countryside (doubly green if you do it between January and April) with a few tiny settlements dating as far back as the statehood of California and a number of dairy farms. You'll be riding along shallow valleys meandering through soft-looking, rolling, grassy hills with clumps of trees here and there, and picturesque rocky outcrops seemingly arranged at regular intervals purely for aesthetic effect. Grazing "happy" California cows will be staring at you from the side of the road along many stretches of the ride. You'll also have a tasting of some coastal riding along Highway 1 and a brief, refreshing stretch along (the redundantly named) Laguna Lake later in the ride. On the gorgeous day of this particular ride, I encountered three separate artists on one short stretch of Highway 1 who were set up with their easels and parasols at the side of the road, painting landscapes of the Tomales Bay view.

A quick note about the starting point of the ride: You'll notice that I've started this ride from the paid parking lot of Helen Putnam. This is both because it was a lazy choice where I know I'll find legitimate parking if I arrive early enough, and also because I try to use every excuse to help local parks via entrance fees especially since I don't otherwise get to do any volunteer work to support them. Those who don't subscribe to my philosophy shouldn't have too much trouble finding free street parking in the Petaluma neighborhoods that start from the northern boundary of the park. Meanwhile, the beginning of this loop is so close to Petaluma that, for anyone who lives in town, the best option would be to bike their way straight from home. Those of you who do decide to park in Helen Putnam Park may want to know that, at the time I write this, the fee is $7 and there's a payment machine that accepts cash and cards.

The ride starts out by bisecting Helen Putnam Park via Ridge Trail. This is a paved service road. You could just as easily leave the park instead and loop around it to reach Windsor Drive via Chileno Valley Road and Western Avenue. It's just that this short trail is arguably a little more interesting than following a couple of suburban roads, though it does mean that you'd have to start your ride with 200 feet of elevation gain in about half a mile, before you get a chance to warm up.

Speaking of elevation gain, there are two noteworthy climbs on this ride. The first of these arrives not long after you leave Petaluma behind and it's not too bad. It starts just past the six-mile mark of the ride and keeps you working for a mile and a half. The grade stays at or below 7% during this climb, with the only exception being a short section less than a quarter mile long where it's more like 8.5%.

The second climb is the more serious one. It arrives on your way to the coast, shortly before you reach Marshall. This 1.5-mile climb is broken into two portions by a quarter-mile flattish section. About 0.4 miles of the first part of this climb is the worst of all and averages a quite even 11% grade. The shorter portion after the flat area has a less even slope and rarely exceeds 9% grade at its worst. I've seen one written description that refers to this overall climb (predictably) as "The Wall".

Seeing that you have to clear a challenging climb on your way to the coast, you might dread the thought of having to repeat the ordeal in order to return inland from the coast to complete the loop. Fear not, because the route follows a river bed on the way back from the coast, so there's no such return ordeal. For the remaining 28 miles of the ride after "The Wall", there's no extended climb. This is part of what I like about this loop.

Near the start of the ride, as you head out of Petaluma on a road labeled "D Street Extension", you'll have a very wide and very smooth paved shoulder on which to ride. This is then reduced to a one- to two-foot-wide paved shoulder (though still quite smooth) as you start the first climb of the ride I explained above, when you continue onto Point Reyes – Petaluma Road. The traffic is at a moderate level through these stretches.

After you crest the first climb, swoop into Hicks Valley, and turn right onto Hicks Valley Road, the traffic virtually disappears along with the shoulder space. This is a narrow two-lane. The 13.5 miles of the ride starting with Hicks Valley Road and ending in Marshall is one of the most deserted portions of this route. You'll probably encounter more cyclists than motor vehicles here. This also happens to be the most picturesque inland segment of the loop, if you ask me. The harder one of the two major climbs on the ride, as explained above, also arrives on this leg of the ride. When you complete this climb, you'll be at the highest elevation of the loop. If you're lucky enough to do the ride on a day when the coast is not under a blanket of fog, you'll be treated to very wide and pretty views of the sea as you start your fast descent from there toward Marshall.

Marshall is the smaller of the two settlements you'll have a chance to visit on this ride. (I'm not including Petaluma in that list.) This tiny hamlet appears to be little more than a smattering of homes, some restaurants, and one store that are spread across a relatively long section of Highway 1. Most of these are south of the intersection where you'll be connecting to Highway 1, though. Since the loop turns north from that intersection, you'll be missing most of them unless you temporarily leave the loop and head south for a brief distance. One possible reason for doing so could be replenishing your water supply. If you follow the ride route exactly, you won't get another chance to do that until you reach Tomales. You might think that any restaurant you encounter along the road could provide an opportunity for this, and I'm sure they would help you if you're in serious need, but at the one restaurant between Marshall and Tomales where I asked for some bottled water or soft drinks, they didn't sell any to go.

The portion of the ride on Highway 1 features the only thing in the second half of this ride that approximates significant pedaling effort. As the road dips into and out of each creek bed and gully along the coast of Tomales Bay, it seems to alternate fairly constantly between short uphill and downhill stretches. It's nothing to write home about, but a couple of these are on the steep side, and they may feel unwelcome if you're beginning to feel tired by this point. By the way, this segment of Highway 1 happens to have little to no shoulder space suitable for road bikes. It's also quite narrow in some places and, needless to say, features moderately heavy traffic. So, this leg of the loop is an obvious candidate for the riskiest part of the ride.

Shortly after turning back inland along Keys Creek, the ride passes by the town of Tomales, which is the second of the two small settlements I mentioned. The loop itself bypasses the heart of the town, actually. But, I would recommend that you cover the less-than-half-a-mile spur heading north from the loop to this tiny town's main intersection to see it, because you'll find a deli and bakery there with yummy stuff, as well as a grocery store where you can find a wide selection of bottled drinks and other supplies. It makes a good place for a rest stop, especially with the bakery's outdoor benches, where a small "community" of road bikers had congregated at the time of my visit. Plus, the Tomales "main street" features some very cute western small-town architecture, despite stretching for no more than a block or two.

As you head further inland from Tomales on Tomales-Petaluma Road, the scenery has more of a "country road through farmlands" vibe, in contrast to the comparatively untouched countryside sensation that Hicks Valley Road and Marshall-Petaluma Road provided earlier on the ride. This road sees some traffic too, but not as much as Highway 1.

When you turn onto Chileno Valley Road, things turn quieter again. The first mile and a half of Chileno Valley Road may feel like a climb and, technically, it is. But, with grades not exceeding 5% except for a few brief moments, it's not one to be taken very seriously. After a short descent that follows that mild climb, Chileno Valley Road continues almost perfectly flatly for about six miles, though the elevation profile will show you that you're imperceptibly gaining a miniscule amount of elevation during this time. Over the last 2.5 miles of the ride, the grade is less even and you'll find yourself having to pedal over a few humps on the road once more, before making it back to Helen Putnam Park just as the grade feels like it's picking up again.

One interesting type of roadside attraction that you'll keep encountering on this ride are tiny historic schoolhouses. There are four such examples you'll be riding past: Union School, arriving early on the ride, around the 5.5-mile mark; Lincoln School, on Hicks Valley Road; Marshall School in Marshall; and Laguna School, near the end of the ride. All of these are still in use as schools and their establishment dates range from 1872 to 1906. I find this fascinating.

© Ergin Guney


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