Cycling from the Bay to the Sierras
by Doug Williams
One of the big advantages of living in the Bay Area is the close proximity of the Sierra Nevada, one of California’s most beautiful places. It’s a well traveled weekend destination for many, but not so many have taken advantage of that proximity and made the journey by bicycle. I live in Oakland, and my family lives in Sonora & Jamestown, so I’ve made the trip a few times, including riding over Sonora pass and back over Tioga pass on a month-long tour back in ’11. Here’s some notes on how best to bike from the Bay to the foothills, and from there to the Sierras:
Part I: Escaping the bay:
Wherever you live in the Bay Area, you’re not far from some gorgeous roads & trails for cycling, but to start our journey, we’ll need to make it to Livermore, so hop on your favorite road (Morgan Terrritory, anyone?) or catch BART to Dublin/Pleasanton and nip across town til you’re spitting distance from the Lawrence Labs. Now we have three choices for crossing the hills East of Livermore.
1. Altamont Pass Rd:
Paralleling the 580 Freeway to the North, Altamont Pass Rd. is your easiest option in terms of climbing. A very gentle climb and descent through a lovely valley, we’ll see a lot of windmills going this way. Those things are there for a reason though, so beware that this is often a windy route! Those of us who prefer a climb to a headwind may prefer:
2. Tesla Rd./Corral Hollow Rd:
The southernmost of our options for crossing the hills into the valley, this is in my opinion the most scenic route. About double the elevation of Altamont Pass Rd, but it’s worth it for expansive views of the rolling hills, especially in the Winter & Spring when they’re emerald green and you can understand how Dublin got its name.
3. Patterson Pass Rd:
The middle option is also the highest, but just barely, 100ft more elevation than option 2. Patterson Pass is also very scenic, until it sort of unceremoniously dumps you out at a big power station. It also tends to be the windiest of the three in my experience, this would usually be my last choice, but it’s good to have variety.
Part II: Crossing the Valley:
Once we’ve crossed the hills into Mountain House/Tracy, we’ll generally be following the 205/120 corridor towards Oakdale. There are two ways to go here:
1. The Northern Parallel:
If you’ve taken Altamont Pass Road into Mountain House, this is the most natural continuation, Altamont Pass Rd. turns into Grant Line Rd, which then meets Byron Rd. heading into Tracy. From there you’ll be on tiny farm roads through cattle feed lots and ag land. Warning: this part of the journey can be quite pungent!
After making your way through Manteca, Highway 120/Yosemite Rd. is the simplest continuation. It’s very busy with high-speed traffic, so not the most pleasant, but there’s plenty of shoulder, and a rumble strip separates you from traffic which provides some peace of mind. It’s also fairly well traveled by local bike commuters and recreational cyclists, which helps. Lone Tree Rd. and East River Rd. look to be interesting alternatives here which I’ve not tried – if you’ve ridden them let me know! Eventually you’ll come to 26 Mile Rd just before Oakdale proper, where you’ll turn left to get to Rodden Rd. and Orange Blossom Rd. These beautiful byways follow the Stanislaus river to Knights Ferry.
Knights Ferry is a gorgeous place to stop and get a bite to eat, or a hotel, or a campsite (There’s a little RV park that allows tent camping for cyclist at a discounted rate). If the weather is warm, a dip in the river can be very refreshing, although be cautious, as the current is VERY swift at times. Also don’t miss the chance to ride across the covered bridge before heading back to highway 108. There aren’t many covered bridges in the West, and this one has a lot of history, including some of the original timbers from the 1800s.
2. The Southern Parallel:
This follows more naturally if we take Patterson Pass or Corral Hollow Rd. into Tracy. Here we’ll cross the San Joaquin river on Durham Ferry Rd./Airport Way, pass by Caswell Memorial State Park, then continue to Ripon, crossing the Stanislaus river at Army Corps Park on a lovely, if brief, cyclepath. We’ll find our way to Claribel Rd, which can be a bit harrowing if traffic is heavy, as there’s not much shoulder. It leads us out of town into some beautiful farm roads, eventually connecting to Rock River Rd. Beware there are some unpaved roads here, which can be a bit sticky if it’s rained recently:
They’re very well maintained though and are mostly glassy smooth, no need to bother with knobby tires or anything. Rock River Rd. is a beautiful little climb, just enough to let you know you’re leaving the valley for:
Whichever route you take, crossing the valley is the least fun part of the trip, mostly just a long flat slog, so you have to use your imagination a bit to enjoy the scenery. Take this giant warehouse for example:
Can’t you just imagine it’s filled with cheetos? If you were to pull off the road and sneak in, you could swim in the huge pile of them that just sits in the middle of the concrete floor waiting to be bagged up and shipped off to gas stations and liquor stores.
Part III: The Foothills
After taking Rock River Rd. or Highway 108 from Knights Ferry, a short jaunt on La Grange Rd. takes us to Red Hills Rd. leading through the Red Hills Area of Critical Environmental Concern (Try saying that ten times fast) which is always gorgeous.
It’s one of a few places in the world where ultramafic soils allow specially adapted ultra-rare plants to flourish. Great place to stop and take a hike if you’re not in a hurry. Red Hills Road leads you to Chinese Camp, then back to 49 and 108 (Unfortunately not much of an alternative through here). I like to hang a right on Bell Mooney Rd at Woods Crossing, then take Campo Seco Rd to Washington Street, which is the main drag into downtown Sonora. We’ll climb a bit more than 2000 feet getting up here from the valley flats, but the grade never gets too steep and the scenery is some of the best on the route.
Part IV: The Sierra
Once we establish a base camp in Sonora, or at least get a snack, there’s a plethora of gorgeous rides up into the high country, including Ebbetts Pass, Sonora Pass, and the many dirt roads in between. I’m very fond of the Sugar Pine RR Trail from Twain Harte to Strawberry, Donnell Vista Point and of course there are many miles of beautiful roads in the foothills around Sonora and surrounding towns, as highlighted elsewhere on this blog. Check in with the fine folks at Sonora Cyclery before you leave town for more suggestions!
Ride Map from Doug William Bike Vacation
Bike Valley to Sierra