California is one of the most varied, beautiful and challenging cycling destinations in the world. Within this massive state, which is the size of some small countries, you can cruise bike paths along endless sandy beaches, climb for hours up mountains, sweat buckets in the desert and explore the Giant Redwood Forests. I have been fortunate to spend a lot of time in California as an athlete and coach.
These five places — and the linked routes — are ones I recommend most often and dream of stringing together for one amazing week of riding!
1. SANTA MONICA MOUNTAINS
This is my favorite area. The Santa Monicas are the range just north of Los Angeles. They run right along the ocean so you can ride the scenic Pacific Coast Highway, which is the setting for many of the car commercials you see on television. Riding with amazing ocean views on one side and beautiful mountains on the other is an amazing feeling and provides a full day of riding and scenery. Many professional cycling teams hold winter training in these mountains to take advantage of spring-like conditions and numerous cycling routes. Latigo and Mulholland, including the twisty Rock Store descent, makes for a very challenging day in the saddle.
2. SANTA BARBARA
This area offers many beautiful roads through Montecito and the foothills above Santa Barbara. Riding the East and West Mountain Roads provides a rolling, twisty route with amazing ocean views and a tour of some of the best real estate in the country. Those interested in testing themselves on one of the toughest climbs in the U.S., Gibraltar, can access it from East Mountain Road. Many riders do the first 10 kilometers to East Camino Cielo then descend back to East Mountain. More adventurous riders continue across the mountaintop road and tackle the technical road descent at Painted Caves. However you choose to descend, stop at cycling-themed cafe Handle-Bar Roasters post ride.
3. INLAND EMPIRE TO MT. BALDY
The Inland Empire is the urban region extending east from Los Angeles. Mount Palomar and Big Bear offer two mountainous area to explore on road or mountain bikes to the north of the region. Those who enjoy the Tour of California likely recall the epic Mt. Baldy stage finishing in the ski resort. The first stage of the San Dimas Stage Race also does a time trial up Glendora Mountain Road, which itself provides a challenging climb and descent if done as an out and back.
4. SO CAL TO PALOMAR
Mount Palomar is near Escondido, inland from Carlsbad, and not far from San Diego. It offers some of the best corners for descending and climbing and can net more than 1,500 meters of climbing if you start at Highway 76 near Rincon or ride from Escondido. There are two paved options to reach the summit and a gravel road up the backside of the mountain that can be passable depending on the conditions. Nearby Black Canyon offers another gravel adventure, while the town of Santa Ysabel offers great post ride pie!
5. SAN FRANCISCO BAY AREA
Catherine Pendrel is a two-time world champion and a bronze medalist at the Rio Olympics. She has seen many of the roads and trails California offers and found Nor-Cal to be an enjoyable area. “I did a training camp in Half Moon Bay just south of San Francisco last winter. The riding was phenomenal. The Tunitas Creek Road descent really stands out.” This area is easy to add to a week-long trip with other nearby routes. Monterey’s 17-Mile Drive and some of the most scenic sections of Highway 1 and Santa Cruz are must-sees for mountain bikers.