Ten Great Rides: Sonoma Coast
Map of the route Turn by Turn Instructions Ride with GPS link
This ride is a very simple loop from the west county town of Occidental north to the Russian River, out to the coast, and down the coast to Bodega Bay, then back inland over a couple of quite hilly side roads. Although the total miles do not add up to a long journey, those steep hills will make this a challenging proposition. There is also the possibility of heavy traffic on the coastal highway. Most of the time, Hwy 1 is not overly busy, and local riders visit it frequently. But the beaches between Bodega Bay and the Russian River are a popular tourist destination, and things can become quite congested on summer or holiday weekends.
The ride begins in the center of Occidental. This is a fun little town for visitors. If you are from out of the area, you might consider doing this ride, then hanging around in the town for dinner at one of the nice local restaurants. The town is famous—in a provincial sort of way—for its huge, Italian, family-style restaurants. Most folks are familiar with the general idea of family-style dining: a limited menu, almost never varying, but offering vast mountains of good, wholesome food at reasonable prices. Negri’s and the Union Hotel stand opposite each other at the center of town, one on each side of the street. Both restaurants have their faithful patrons and both appear to be operating at full capacity all the time. There are three or four other, smaller restaurants in town as well.
We leave Occidental on Bohemian Highway, heading north. Hope for a balmy day: we begin with a downhill, and the only thing that could detract from this excellent descent is doing it when it’s too cold, first thing in the morning. This is an absolute blast of a downhill, with one snappy curve after another to challenge your handling skills, most of the time on silky smooth pavement. After about three miles of this fun, the grade eases off, but still stays mildly downhill, as we follow Dutch Bill Creek all the way to the riverfront town of Monte Rio. Along the way, the surrounding countryside consists mainly of forest—a mix of fir and broadleaf trees—with a few isolated houses and some summer camps scattered along the creek.
Boho Hwy becomes Main Street as it slides into the town of Monte Rio. The route turns left on Moscow Road and heads west along the south bank of the Russian River. Scenery continues the same: dense, dark redwood forest bordering the river. Cool and pleasant on a hot summer day; clammy and damp on a cold winter day. The road is almost flat for its entire length. Moscow Road crosses the river and dumps into the little village of Duncans Mills at about mile 10. Duncans Mills is intentionally quaint. Almost the entire town was put together here back around the 1970’s to resemble a western pioneer town. The fact that it succeeds in this architectural trickery is a testament to the quality of the original plan and its execution. It’s a nice place to visit. There is a good bakery and coffee shop on the left, just at the far end of the bridge.
The route turns left in front of the Pink Elephant and heads west along the south bank of the Russian River on Moscow Road. Scenery continues the same: dense, dark redwood forest bordering the river. Cool and pleasant on a hot summer day; clammy and damp on a cold winter day. The road is almost flat for its entire length. Moscow Road crosses the river and dumps into the little village of Duncans Mills at about mile 10. Duncans Mills is intentionally quaint. Almost the entire town was put together here back around the 1970’s to resemble a western pioneer town. The fact that it succeeds in this architectural trickery is a testament to the quality of the original plan and its execution. It’s a nice place to visit. There is a good bakery and coffee shop on the left, just at the far end of the bridge.
Now the route heads west on River Road, also known over this section as Hwy 116. It carries a fairly heavy traffic load and the shoulder width varies from some to none. It is not a great back road experience. And yet cyclists ride it all the time because there is simply no other way to tie several good rides together out here. In general, our experience has been that the bikes and cars have learned to share this section; to get along. This run along the north bank of the river is almost all level until one small shoulder of the nearest ridge forces the road up and over a little rise within the last mile before reaching the coast highway.
When Hwy 116 meets Hwy 1, we turn left and head south. (The mouth of the Russian River and the town of Jenner are just a mile north of this junction.) The long, modern bridge crossing the river (heading south) marks the beginning of a moderate climb from sea level to the top of the bluffs over the ocean. The uphill lasts for about a mile and gains a couple of hundred feet along the way. Nearing the top, there are beautiful views back to the river and bridge and to the town of Jenner. Once up and over the top on this little rise, we have really arrived at the coast. The ocean takes center stage and will be the main attraction for most of the next ten miles.
This run down the coast is great fun, as long as you don’t get tangled up with too much traffic. If you’re lucky, you may catch a tailwind along the ocean bluffs and be blown down the shore at an impressive clip. It isn’t a straight run though: the road dips and dives into and out of numerous little canyons where small streams plunge to the beach. This makes for a constantly varying dance on the pedals, as you zoom down into the arroyos and then stand and sprint up the other side over the next headland. Sometimes the road tiptoes right along the edge of the cliff, and the huge surf explodes on the jagged rocks just yards away. In places, the shore is jumbled with massive standing stones, some carved into arches, with the water surging through.
The highway glides downhill right to sea level at the mouth of Salmon Creek. There is a small cluster of beach houses here—doing a passable imitation of a Maine seacoast village—but no public services. Climb gently up the other side of the creek’s little valley, and soon you’ll be at the left turn onto Bay Hill Road. This junction—at around mile 22—is just on the north edge of the town of Bodega Bay. There is a coffee shop right across the road from Bay Hill.
If it has “Hill” in the name, you can be fairly certain it’s going to have a climb in it somewhere, and in this case, the climb begins immediately and continues—with a few flat spots mixed in—for a mile and a half, to a 750’ summit. It’s a stiff climb, but not absolutely brutal. On the way up, you can enjoy the view back out to sea, beyond Bodega Harbor and Bodega Head. By taking Bay Hill Road, the route bypasses the fishing village of Bodega Bay. If you want to avoid the climb on Bay Hill, you can stay on Hwy 1 right through the town. There is a good deal more traffic in and around the resort, which is one of the reasons we’re detouring around the town on Bay Hill. The landscape on the top of Bay Hill is empty, grass-covered hills, rolling down the mountainside until they crinkle up into deep, creek-cut canyons.
The descent off the backside of Bay Hill consists of several moderately steep pitches strung together with almost level bits. The last and fastest section whistles downhill through the dappled shade of a dense eucalyptus wood, and then you roll out at the bottom to another run along Hwy 1. This time you’re only on the main highway for a little less than a mile, and most of that is done at top speed on a long, smooth, straight descent to the junction with Bodega Hwy.
Shortly after turning left onto Bodega Hwy, we drop into the tiny hamlet of Bodega (often confused with the larger seaside town of Bodega Bay). A note about Bodega: there are several handsome Victorian structures in town, and one of them was prominently featured in Alfred Hitchcock’s classic thriller The Birds. Hitchcock shot the movie here and in Bodega Bay, and in a bit of cinematic license, he blended the two villages into one town. All of the waterfront scenes were shot in Bodega Bay, but the schoolhouse scene, where the crows congregate on the jungle gym—was done in Bodega. Can you find the old schoolhouse? It’s next to the church.
Salmon Creek Road veers off to the left in the middle of town. This is a very nice cycling road, with pavement that varies from quite good to mediocre-but-tolerable. There are numerous short, very easy rollers along the road, but no significant climbs or descents. As is the case with most dead-ends, there is no traffic. For almost its entire 4-mile length, it parallels Salmon Creek, and the road is shaded by pretty glades of laurel and willow. The road becomes a private, dirt drive at a little bridge over a creek, and it’s a tranquil spot to stop for a snack. We mention this in case you have a wish to pad the miles on this little pocket-sized ride. If you do, Salmon Creek Road is a nice way to do it.
After leaving Bodega, the route heads east on the highway—a busy highway, but with big shoulders on this section—for a fraction of a mile and then turns left onto Joy Road. After a brief level prelude, this tiny lane tilts up on end in the first of two, brutal, back-to-back walls. Neither is very long, but they are steep: 350’ in half a mile for the first one. Then a brief drop into a saddle in the trees before hitting the second climb: 400’ in .7 of a mile. That’s not the end of the climbing, but the wicked grade eases off to the point where one can sit down and take a few normal breaths. Easy climbing—mixed with little rollers—continues for another mile to a summit at 1000’. After that, our dance card is filled with downhills almost to the end of the ride.
We snake down off the ridge on Joy in a twist through the trees and then, after a swift, sweeping right onto Bittner Road, funnel into deep forest on a steep, fast plunge of about a mile. As we drop into the canyon, we’ll pick up a little stream by the side of the road. Those are the headwaters of Salmon Creek, and this is the third time we’ve encountered it on this ride: first as it emptied into the ocean, then along its middle reach by Salmon Creek Road, and now at the point of its birth. A little bit of easy uphill at the end of Bittner ushers us back into the center of Occidental.
We are offering an alternate route for part of this loop. It is much shorter than the basic loop, but is much hillier. This is Coleman Valley Road, heading west right out of the center of Occidental. Normally, we wouldn’t suggest such of combination of short miles and hard climbs, but because the road is here and is so very nice, and because we’re discussing local options, we feel we should discuss it.
Coleman Valley begins with a stout climb of about 400’ in a little over a mile. Then our riders get to rest and enjoy the view on a more-or-less level run across a wide, sweeping meadow, with a splendid view of Mount Saint Helena and the other peaks of the Mayacamas Mountains on the far, eastern horizon.
There is one more little bump of an uphill to the first big summit and then the road plunges down into its namesake valley on a slithery run through the woods. Pass the one-room school house and the pretty farm next door and cruise down the length of the valley. Very abruptly, the road rounds a right-hand bend and tilts up onto the hillside, beginning a succession of short, steep pitches that will eventually climb to panoramic views over the Pacific and miles and miles of empty hills. Once up on this second 1100’ summit, this spectacular back road bends to the south and waltzes down the ridgeline in a rollicking series of small ups and downs. Coleman Valley Road winds through thick forest for most of its first half, but when it breaks out onto the ridge above the ocean, the trees fall away and the hills are mantled in only green, windblown grasses. Hence, the wide-open, uninterrupted views.
Finally, the winding road crests the last of the little uphill rollers and one is confronted with a very hairy downhill. Stop for a minute to admire the sweeping panorama along the seashore, far below. Take in the sights now, because you won’t have any attention to spare for the scenery once you launch off into this 1.5-mile, 800’ amusement park ride. It’s steep; it’s twisty; it’s bumpy. There are cattle guards to hop and potholes to dodge. There are many spots where the cliff just spills away suddenly from the edge of the narrow road. Like a large, writhing snake, this tangled descent can be a handful. But if you like technical, tricky downhills, you’ll have a ball on this one. The bottom of the descent means Hwy 1. Coleman Valley tees into the coast road about a mile north of Salmon Creek, and the rest of the loop would be the same as on the basic course.