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Length 34 miles
Time 4 hours*
Total Climb 2500 feet
Fun Rating
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Aerobic Difficulty
Technical Difficulty 
* On a road bike

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Pope Valley Loop
100% ROAD

This loop is a good way to experience the quiet parts of the wine country. It takes you through three valleys; or four, if you count Conn Valley, which is a small one. For a ride that does so in what is thought of as a hilly area, it contains a suprisingly low amount of climbing. Not only that, but the amount of torturous climbing is particularly low. If you're the kind of rider who is okay with climbing but dreads the thought of super-steep grades, then this might as well be tailor-made for you. However, to avoid any confusion or misunderstanding, I should point out right from the start that this route uses a closed road. It's not a mistake. But more on that below.

I've taken this ride idea directly from Bill Oetinger's excellent 75 Classic Rides, Northern California book. This is a book that I've referenced and recommended on other occasions. It's an easy recommendation to make to anyone looking for inspired ride ideas that appear to be a product of actual crafting and informed choices arising from deep experience. But let me repeat that I'm not affiliated with Bill or with his book in any way, other than being a satisfied reader.

The scenery is one of the strong suits of this ride. Naturally, you pass by a lot vineyards and see a lot of wine-country landscapes, especially in the lower elevations. There are some longer views to be had in the uphill portions of the ride, but it's not something that constantly accompanies you. In fact, it's a relative rarity. A lot of the ride route is actually under considerable tree cover. Although I don't have much riding experience in this area in the warmer months of the year, I would expect this ride to be a decent option on an uncomfortably hot day.

The ride begins from St. Helena and, although it heads directly away from the core of the wine-country traffic on Route 29 and takes Silverado Trail on its way to the backroads, the first four miles of the route still mean that you will be in fairly dense traffic for a little while at least on weekends. For parking, my suggestion is to use street parking in the outer neighborhoods of the town. I've picked Starr Avenue for this, which is a particularly wide street with plenty of unlimited and spacious street parking.

Things get quieter as soon as you turn onto Sage Canyon Road. This road takes you along part of the coast of Lake Berryssa and over into the canyon of Chiles Creek. The pleasant views of this reservoir lake that you catch along the way are among the highlights of this ride. There's little elevation gain to complain about on this road. There's a short stretch that averages about 5% grade where you climb up from the valley floor to the level of the lake but, after that, it does not involve any real work. The road still had more traffic than I was expecting, however, and it looked like the majority of that traffic was recreation oriented, at least on the weekend morning when I started my ride. Most of the passing vehicles were carrying canoes or towing boats.

The climbing work begins only after you turn onto Chiles Pope Valley Road. Where this road leads you to is the flat and spacious Chiles Valley. Seeing that Chiles Pope Valley threads through a canyon to reach this valley floor, you may expect, like I originally did, that you will be ultimately descending to this valley. But, no. You actually climb through the hills to this high valley. The grade picks up slowly as you gain elevation on this road, though it doesn't exceed 5% for a few miles. The final 0.7 miles of this road, which ends right where you reach Chiles Valley, is the part of this climb that has the steepest and most consistent grade, and even that's no worse than a touch under 6%. So, there's not a lot to complain about up to this point in terms of the effort required.

As you start following the rest of Chiles Pope Valley Road along the quiet and idyllic Chiles Valley, the elevation gain initially continues for a couple more miles, though much of this is at negligible grades. Then you start an uneven and gentle descent toward Pope Valley. This descent eventually flattens and is ultimately punctuated with a climb where it seems the road needs to get over a minor rise that's right at the threshold of Pope Valley. You climb for only a quarter mile to do this, at grades that don't get any worse than 7%, and mirror that with a descent of somewhat gentler grades that follows immediately afterward.

There's not a lot that would allow me to differentiate the scenery of Pope Valley from Chiles Valley. It's another peaceful, pretty valley with a sprinkling of vineyards. The one thing that stands out, though, is the one-horse town of Pope Valley that you thread through. The Pope Valley Market that's at the towns main (only?) junction is a great rest stop opportunity and it seemed to me like this is no secret to the cyclists of this area. Meanwhile, what appears to be a junkyard of old cars and vintage farm equipment that's right across the road from that store serves as another focal point of visual interest.

As you head further northwest along Pope Valley, the turn onto Ink Grade Road is easy to miss unless you remember to look for it. If you ride far enough to see the funky "hubcab ranch" on the right like I did, that should serve as your sign that you've missed that turn. (I've edited out that part of the GPS track that's presented on this page.) Bill's description of this ride makes it clear that he has consciously chosen the Ink Grade route to climb back out of Pope Valley rather than the more heavily used and better paved Howell Mountain Road for the two good reasons that the former carries much less traffic and that it climbs much more gradually to the same elevation to cross over the hills. During the time I spent on Ink Grade Road, I believe I saw a grand total of three cars, which was on a Saturday.

Ink Grade Road is where the only serious climb on this ride arrives. The grade of this climb is not very consistent for the first mile and a half or so. There are one or two spots in that stretch where the grade reaches 10%, but the part of the climb that feels like real work begins only after that and lasts for two miles. The slope starts out quite consistently around 7% in this segment and relaxes a little further in the last half mile. The climb actually doesn't end after Ink Grade Road. There's a little more pedaling to be done after you turn onto White Cottage Road, but that part of it is comparatively minor.

The bulk of your ride on White Cottage Road is a descent with a slowly steepening grade, though this is interrupted in a couple of spots. One of these interruptions where the road climbs out of a creek bed is especially noticeable by the significant pedaling work that it requires. The grade does reach as high as eight or nine percent in the steepest part of this bit, but the whole thing lasts for less than a quarter mile, and the steep portion is much shorter than that. Other than that, what White Cottage Road does is mainly to take you through parts of the small community of Angwin before leading you down to Old Howell Mountain Road.

A potentially controversial aspect of the route is the use of Old Howell Mountain Road to descend back toward St. Helena (rather than Deer Park Road). Like I mentioned at the beginning, this road greets you with signs announcing that it's a dead end and that it's closed 500 feet from the top. You do come across a barrier blocking all motorized traffic at that point. However, the road was entirely passable for bicycles at the time of my ride. I get the impression that this road was still open to traffic at the time Bill included this route in his book, though I could be wrong. The questionable aspect of this is that things may have changed by the time you read this. It's possible that the road may have been fixed and reopened for all traffic or (more likely), it might have become much harder to or possibly impossible to pass for anyone including bicycles due to new slides. One thing that makes me less worried about my inclusion of this road on this route is the fact that I see fairly heavy use of it in recent Strava data. During my ride, I encountered a number of slides on this road, especially near the upper parts of the road, but none of them posed a complete obstacle and at least one of the slides had clear signs of having been mitigated to allow bicycles more easy passage. The road surface is unexpectedly good for what's a closed road, but it has unrepaired longitudinal cracks, some of which could be risky to bicycles with narrow tires, so you need to stay on your toes. This is without mentioning that there are patches where debris has been carried onto the road by rain runoff and there was at least one fallen tree, which wasn't really blocking anything at the time of my ride, but there could be more by the time of yours.

This road descends along a hillside that's open to Conn Valley on one side. However, it does not provide the views that you might expect given what you know about how it's situated. You do get one spot near its upper end where you have a wide view available, and another one in its lower stretches, and that's about it. The rest of the road is hemmed in by considerable tree cover.

Bill describes Old Howell Mountain Road as almost being feasible for a descent without using any brakes at all, but that must have been the case only when the road was still open to traffic because, as of the time I did the ride, it felt more like an obstacle course where you needed to worry about multiple things ranging from grass growing through the pavement to all the other road hazards I've already mentioned above. This does make it relatively more fun maybe. Plus there is the guarantee that you won't have any traffic while the road is closed.

The quality of the pavement on the ride varies considerably. On busier roads, as you might expect, the quality is top notch. On the minor roads traversed during the ride, it ranges from grade A to C. Pretty much on every road on the route, there are some patches that seem to have had a recent layer of pavement applied, mixed in with very patchy and very broken segments. I would say the average quality of pavement over the backroads portion of this ride falls somewhere around a subjective B- level.

Since the ride begins and ends in St. Helena, which is one of the hot spots of Napa Valley, your choices for after-ride treats are wide open. There's the fact that a lot of the food options in this town are relatively upper-end establishments, some of which are truly world-class, but informal options aren't hard to come by either. One particular place that could be worth some time after your ride is the Velo Vino tasting room (or Clif Family tasting room), which has the Clif Bar founder behind it.

© Ergin Guney


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