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Length 45.5 miles
Time 5 hours*
Total Climb 3550 feet
Fun Rating
Scenic Rating
Aerobic Difficulty
Technical Difficulty 
* On a road bike

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San Juan Bautista to Elkhorn Slough
100% ROAD

This is a loop that explores the large, sparsely populated expanse of land that falls roughly within a triangle formed by Watsonville, Hollister, and Salinas. The route is aimed mainly at putting together a handful of wonderful cycling roads, although there are quite a few other, less interesting roads in the mix in order to tie those few gems together. As a bonus, the ride also takes you through two cute, small towns; the historic San Juan Bautista (along with its Spanish mission of Hollywood fame), where the ride begins and ends, and the much smaller Aromas. Of course, there's also a short stint along the scenic Elkhorn Slough to look forward to, as well as two or three other stretches of the ride with memorable scenery. All of these may not add up to enough reason to earn this ride a place on the shortlist of the typical Bay Area cyclist, perhaps, but for anyone looking for something new to try out, my guess is that this ride will easily satisfy.

I did not put together this ride route myself. I took it straight off one of my most trusted source of inspired ride route suggestions, the 75 Classic Rides Northern California book by Bill Oetinger. You will find several other road rides that I list on this site that are also coming from this book. I'm a big admirer of Bill's carefully and tastefully selected ride routes, and this particular ride gives me no reason to change my opinion about that. By the way, I'm not affiliated with Bill or with his book in any way. I'm just a satisfied reader.

The desirable cycling roads on this route that I consider to be the main point of this ride are San Juan Grade, Elkhorn Road, School Road, and—if I'm a little generous—Vega Road and (its continuation onto) part of San Miguel Canyon Road. When you add all the roads in between that you'll need to navigate in order to string these together, this is not exactly a route that will be easy and intuitive to follow. In fact, I can count 26 separate road names on this route, without even counting the couple that you use more than once. So, unless you're accompanying someone who knows their way around, you'll need to be well prepared for at least your first time doing this ride. If you don't mind having to constantly look out for road signs, a printed set of route directions might be enough to do the trick, since all roads on the ride are well signed. However, my top recommendation, as usual, would be to load the GPS track on this page onto a phone app or a GPS device you can follow during the ride.

The setting of the ride ranges from ranches and light residential settlement to empty backcountry. At one end of the spectrum, you have your exposure to Elkhorn Slough to help your sense of communion with nature, while, on the other, there are short segments on wide roads with fast and busy traffic that shatters the illusion. Overall, this is a ride that's more likely to leave you with the sensation of exploring the outskirts of settled areas, than it will be to give you a sense of solitude and wilderness.

The ride has arguably two "major" climbs that might stick out in your mind afterward (San Juan Grade and Carr Avenue), though there are a couple more memorable uphill efforts along the way that are shorter but steeper. However, the route involves no clear "climbing part" or "descending part" or any particular mountain along the way that can be singled out. You simply travel crossing over numerous minor hills and ridges (with the higher ridge you cross on San Juan Grade being one possible exception to this). Partially as a result of this, there are few parts of the ride where you travel flatly for any significant distance; most of the time you're either climbing or descending gently. This means the total elevation gain for the ride is a respectable amount, though it isn't an excessive amount for a ride of this length.

For parking at the beginning of the ride, I've used the main drag of the San Juan Bautista town center, Third Street. Street parking here is subject to no limitations that I could see. Arriving early on a weekend morning, I found that most parking spots were available even right in the heart of town.

Shortly after you leave the density of the San Juan Bautista town center behind and reach meadows and ranches, you'll find yourself on San Juan Grade. Thinking back on the ride, I might even consider this road to be the biggest highlight of the entire route. Since you'll be on it for almost seven miles, it also constitutes one of the longest segments of the ride. You start out on a flat portion of Salinas Road which is an extension of San Juan Grade in all but name. After passing by a few nice ranches and some pretty grasslands on that stretch, all of those are left behind when you take a curve, the road's name changes, and your first climb begins, all at once at about the 2.5-mile mark of the ride. The grade of this two-mile climb is a very reasonable six percent as the road snakes up some hillsides under patchy oak cover. While it may constitute a good workout if you attack it aggressively, this is a very pleasant climb by any sensible standard.

At the top of the climb, you emerge onto grassy slopes that are mostly treeless and begin a joyful, twisty descent down the other side. The real descent actually begins about a quarter mile later, when you take a curve at the next small ridge that follows the end of the climb. From here, the continuation of San Juan Grade is discernable as a descent for roughly two miles. With an average grade of -6% in the "steepest" section of this segment, this descent mirrors the San Juan Grade climb almost perfectly. The slope then slowly peters out as the road settles into one of the tentacles of the Salinas plain, just before you turn onto Crazy Horse Canyon Road.

For about half a mile, Crazy Horse Canyon Road puts you to work with a climb at grades reaching up to 8%. This is one of the tougher stretches of the ride but, with only 200 feet of elevation to be gained on this climb, it's not enough of an excuse for complaint. Meanwhile, Crazy Horse Canyon Road is one of the more heavily used roads on the ride route, not least because it crosses over Highway 101 at a busy interchange. So, this is one of the stretches of the ride where you should anticipate more traffic. On the other side of 101, the road continues on as Echo Valley Road in a noticeably more residential setting. Other than one sharp but much shorter climb near the beginning of this stretch, much of your mileage on the quiet Echo Valley Road will consist of a progressively flattening descent.

Not counting a momentary connection on San Miguel Canyon Road, Paradise Road is the road segment that follows Echo Valley Road. Similar to Echo Valley, Paradise Road also starts out with a sharp climb, and a longer and slowly slackening descent. However, the climb on Paradise Road is more memorable than that of Echo Valley Road. Its steepest part is right near its beginning, starting around 12 or 13 percent grade and slackening back to 9 or 10 percent by the end of this short but memorable, quarter-mile effort. As you are descending in the semi-residential setting of Paradise Road, one turn you'll need to take is easy to miss. You'll need to look out for the junction with Walker Valley Road, which you'll use as a connector Elkhorn Road.

You are not immediately faced with Elkhorn Slough when you get on Elkhorn Road. After twisting through small coastal canyons for more than a mile, your first exposure to the wetlands arrives where the road passes by a lagoon at the confluence of two small valleys marked on the topographic map as Swiss Canyon and Strawberry Canyon. Past that, the slough will be an accompaniment to your ride during the nearly three-mile, mostly flat stretch of Elkhorn Road that follows. Along this stretch, you'll be able to catch some decent photo opportunities and you'll be rewarded with the sightings of various water fowl (as well as perhaps an otter or two, if you're lucky) if you allow yourself to stop every and now and then.

The segment on Elkhorn Road is punctuated with a quarter mile or so on a busy road (technically still Elkhorn Road, I believe, but really more like a continuation of Hall Road) before you return to a sequence of quiet roads again: Garin Road, Lewis Road, and Vega Road. For nearly two miles, these roads have you following a small valley that's right over first ridge on the edge of the Watsonville plain (Pajaro Valley). This ends when Vega Road descends to the edge of this plain with a very short descent and starts following this boundary. Soon the road changes its name to San Miguel Canyon Road and quickly turns away from the plain to head back into hilly country. The next few stretches of road are not memorable and they serve little purpose other than bringing you to the tiny town of Aromas.

Aromas is not a big destination, but it makes for a nice rest stop. You'll pedal past a cute library as you reach the town center, and you'll find lunch opportunities and ice cream at one or two eateries in this town, as well as a nice grocery store for basic necessities. Beyond that, you'll probably have little reason to linger here.

What I count as the second of the two noteworthy climbs on the ride is on Carr Avenue, which is the road that takes you out of Aromas. It's not the one-mile length of this climb that makes it significant, but the fact that it doesn't let up until you reach its top. The climb's end-to-end average grade is only 7.5%, but the slope exceeds 10% in a number of spots, at least one of which appears to reach 13%.

Carr Avenue hands you off to Anzar Road, which, if you like, could take you straight to San Juan Highway, which carries you right back into San Juan Bautista. However, the route takes one more detour on this stretch rather than following Anzar Road straight to its end. Since this last diversion through School Road will cost you nearly 300 feet in elevation gain, it might not sound palatable to those who might be feeling tired by this point. However, I would strongly suggest that you not bypass this segment, because it is one of the best parts of the entire ride. That little extra climbing takes you to the top of a nice little ridge whose grassy spine you roughly follow for nearly two miles, with views opening toward both sides from several spots, as the road twists along the way for seemingly little reason other than pure fun.

After that last fun bit of the ride, Anzar Road quickly carries you back to the flats and the rectilinear road network of the San Juan Valley, on your way back to San Juan Bautista. The stretch you traverse on San Juan Highway to reach town is quite unfun and uninteresting but, thankfully, it lasts for only two miles. You can pick up Third Street right after you enter town and you will find yourself back in the thick of the town center in less than 10 blocks after that.

San Juan Bautista, with its authentic western small-town buildings and numerous eateries, is a sweet place to spend some time after your ride. Jardines de San Juan appears to be a great place for a meal, with a wonderful and nicely shaded outdoor seating area, but only if you are able to catch a table there, which I couldn't on the day of my ride. The town has a number of other decent-looking options, ranging from pizza to Basque food. One more option that might seem unintuitive at first is Natural Wonders Health Food Store, where I found good salad and sandwich options (in addition to packaged food and ingredients). Those looking for good coffee will be happy to know that you can also find some of that in town, at Vertigo Coffee Roasters.

© Ergin Guney


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