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Length 19 miles
Time 4 hours
Total Climb 3100 feet
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Old Coast Road

This is a mixed ride that follows the dirt Old Coast Road through a slice of the Big Sur back country and returns via Highway 1 to complete a loop. The ride can be summed up in a nutshell as "two pairs of climb/descents over a dirt road, followed by a return via a paved road". That might be underestimating the return portion over Highway 1, though, because there's a good amount of pedaling to be done on that leg of the ride too, but it wouldn't be shortselling the biking appeal of the overall route, because this ride has little appeal from a pure mountain biking point of view. You should think of it more as an "excursion by bike". However, that's not to say that it doesn't have plenty of other factors going for it or that it's not enjoyable.

Old Coast Road is not a fire road in the way a Bay Area mountain biker would typically understand it. It's actually a public road that's open to everyone. It just happens to have a dirt and gravel surface. As its name suggests, it used to be the main coastal thoroughfare along this portion of the coast until Bixby Bridge was completed and Highway 1 bypassed Old Coast Road in the 1930s. The road is not even that deserted, in case its location might suggest to you that it would be; I've encountered six motor vehicles even on its most remote stretches, and many more over its parts that are close to Highway 1, not to mention the numerous private homes you'll encounter along the road.

Still, the road passes through some of the prettiest nature you'll find anywhere in the area. You'll be pedaling along beautifully lush and rugged creek beds, through redwood groves where the ground between the majestic tree trunks are carpeted with clover in a story-book-like setting, and you'll be catching great views to the surrounding mountains and to the ocean fairly regularly. Add to that the rugged beauty of the coastline that will accompany you on the Highway 1 segment of the ride, along with the potentially gorgeous display of dune flower color along that road (they seemed to be going especially wild when I did this ride in early July) and you end up with a good slice of California coastal bliss, even if technical biking fun is not one of the factors that will play into it. Taking the trip on a bicycle will at least allow you to stop and smell the flowers more easily, literally as well as figuratively.

The best direction for this loop is a detail about which I'm a bit ambivalent. I feel it's safe to say that the more popular direction for this loop is actually counter-clockwise. The few other riders I've encountered on this ride were riding in that direction, and most written resources recommend that direction as well. Two good reasons for doing it that way would be to be riding on the seaward side of Highway 1 for better views and for taking Highway 1 in the southbound direction so that the prevailing winds are in your back. My reason for doing this loop clockwise was to avoid doing the steepest climb on the route. This climb is labeled as "Sierra Grade" on the USGS topographic map and it appears as the long descent that follows the first major climb on the ride route on this page. The grade of this 1.5-mile portion of Old Coast Road is quite steady at 12%. By doing the ride clockwise, I've effectively replaced this with a 3-mile climb instead, whose steepest half-mile stretch averages only 10.5% grade. If you can stomach the 1.5-mile 12% climb (keeping in mind that short stretches of that will occasionally reach up to 15% or more), then you should certainly do the ride counter-clockwise and enjoy that 3-mile slope as a gentle glide along a pretty, redwood-covered creek bed instead.

The suggested parking spot for this ride is a tourist parking lot on the northern end of Bixby Bridge. There's space there for about 10 or 12 cars (if people park head-in, as they should). There's also some space for roadside parking along the first few yards of Old Coast Road itself, right across the road from there. You can expect some trouble finding available space here around midday, especially on weekends. If you arrive early, I wouldn't expect you to have a problem. When I showed up at 9:00 AM on a Saturday, mine was the only car there, but all parking spaces were full when I finished my ride in the early afternoon. There are head-in parking spaces along Highway 1 at the southern end of Old Coast Road as well, which could accommodate about 10 cars at most, in my opinion. In case you have difficulty finding any parking at one of these places, your "plan B" for parking could be any one of the numerous roadside "vista point" pockets along the northern stretches of Highway 1 that are traversed on this loop.

When you first start out on Old Coast Road on this ride, after gaining a very small amount of elevation, you first descend to the creek bed of Sierra Creek. These early stretches of the ride also happen to provide a few good views back toward Bixby Bridge, so don't neglect to look back along the first half mile or so of the ride. After crossing the creek, the road starts a three-mile climb, which never deviates far from this creek bed except for its last quarter mile. This is the part of the ride with the lushest tree cover. While Old Coast Road starts out as a very smooth and extra-wide dirt road, it narrows as you gain elevation, though it never gets rutty or too rocky. Roughly the first half-mile of this climb is the steepest, averaging a hair under 10.5% grade. The rest of it is gentler, especially around the middle of the climb.

As you crest that first climb, you emerge from tree cover and get your first good look at the surrounding hills and at the ocean while you start descending on Sierra Grade. The width of the road increases once again in this segment. Actually, it reaches the width of a boulevard at some spots. This extra twisty downhill segment is also quite fun, as a matter of fact, and even gets somewhat rocky near the end of the descent and is washboarded around some curves, all of which provide some unexpected mountain biking appeal.

On some maps, you might notice an unnamed road that connects Highway 1 directly to the bottom of Sierra Grade, almost forming a "belt line" across this loop. If you see that road and think of the possibility of using that as a bail-out option for cutting the ride short, you'll be mistaken. It's not a public road that you can use. Keep that in mind.

After reaching the valley floor at the end of Sierra Grade, you'll cross two sturdy steel bridges over Little Sur River as you continue mostly flatly along the water for about half a mile. This short segment of the ride is once again very lush and looks like a forest paradise. The second major climb of the ride starts before too long, though. This climb is more even and its grade averages a little under 10.5% over 1.5 miles. Most of this climb is under partial tree cover, though this consists of less dense oak trees rather than the redwoods that were near the creek beds. Still, I'm sure these sparse oaks will provide welcome relief if you do the ride on a hot day.

When you leave this second major climb behind you as well, you start a scenic descent that's open to views of the ocean all the way down to Highway 1, with the exception of a few small pockets of surprisingly dense woodlands that you snake through on your way down. When you emerge from the southern end of Old Coast Road, what awaits you is over eight miles of paved riding to return to your starting point. For the first 3.5 miles of this return, Highway 1 is very wide, very straight, and quite set in from the coast. Things start getting a little more interesting when Highway 1 starts climbing and following the coast more closely after that. After the road crosses the mouth of Little Sur River in a wide arc, it starts a 500-foot climb, which might feel unwelcome after more than 15 miles of riding. This climb starts by averaging just under 6% grade, and then slackens over its second mile. The ride then ends with a mile-long descent that drops you onto Bixby Bridge, which you'll be pedaling across.

Around the four-mile mark of this ride, you'll encounter a sign stating that the next 6.5 miles of Old Coast Road (i.e., its entire remainder) goes through the private property of El Sur Ranch and forbidding any trespassing, camping, loitering, etc., along the road, and similar signs are repeated until you reach Highway 1. Those of you who might be thinking of extra exploration off the main route or might be reading this with bike touring in mind and intend to pitch camp along the ride might want to know this.

The Highway 1 portion of the ride has very smooth pavement and is accompanied by a paved shoulder that's usually two to four feet wide, even on the bridges (though Bixby Bridge is a bit narrower). There are some limited sections where the shoulder is reduced to only one foot wide on the right-hand side of the white line, where things get a bit more hairy, but some of those segments feature some extra gravel space on the side. Overall, I find the portion of Highway 1 on this ride reasonably safe for bikers.

There aren't too many focal points on the Highway 1 portion of the ride (other than the frequent coastal views from the higher elevations of the road), but one notable exception to this is the Point Sur Lighthouse. If you can spare the time, you can visit the lighthouse as part of your ride. Its website lists regularly scheduled guided tours that are available year-round, although it does mention that the tour takes three hours and I'm not familiar with the possibility of visiting the lighthouse without a guided tour, though I would expect it to be possible.

Of course, the other obvious point of interest on this ride is Bixby Bridge itself. This pretty bridge is one of the major points of interest along Highway 1 and, if I'm not mistaken, is the largest bridge along this road. Unless you've seen it before, don't neglect to stop and snap a picture or two.

© Ergin Guney


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