Five Classic Road Climbs in California


, by Max Leonard

Cyclists in California can enjoy deep forests, stunning coastlines and several mountain ranges – traversed by some of the country’s best roads. Photography by: onewithahalf

The Golden State is one of the crucibles of cycling in the USA, and in its almost 900-mile length it houses deep forests, stunning coastlines and several mountain ranges –traversed by some of the country’s best roads. Here are five of Strava’s go-to climbs across the state.

Mount Baldy

Our southernmost pick is located in the Angeles National Forest and is a favorite of riders in the greater Los Angeles area. At 10,068 ft / 3,068m, Mt. Baldy’s peak is the highest point in the San Gabriel mountains and Los Angeles County, but the rideable roads end at the bottom of the ski lifts that service the resort’s pistes, at around 6,400 ft / 1,960m.

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The best road up is the GMR, or Glendora Mountain Road, which starts in the valley on the outskirts of the Los Angeles metropolitan area. This climbs fairly steadily for the first 8 miles / 13km, before easing off at a junction, where the right-hand fork becomes the Glendora Ridge Road. This follows – yes – an undulating ridge line for around 5 mi / 8km, with great views over the valley, lakes and dam below, then the climb ramps back up for another 5.5 mi / 9km or so, at which point you hit the Mt. Baldy Road and Mount Baldy Village.

The village can be pretty quiet outside of ski season, but there’s often an open door around the back of the Mt. Baldy Lodge for thirsty cyclists. From here, it’s a 4.77 mi / 7.67km hard slog averaging 8.6% through thin air up to the parking lot and the ski lifts.

The climb is 22.4 mi / 36km in all, with plenty of bumps and short downhills, which means that if you ride it as an out and back, you’ll climb over 8,000 ft / 2,400m in total. Ride it in the early mornings or on the several weekends of the year when it’s closed to motor traffic.

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Mt. Baldy was frequently featured as the Queen Stage in the much-missed Tour of California, and its segments all have a pro rider as the KOM, be that Robert Gesink, Ian Boswell, or Tadej Pogačar, who won here during the final edition of the race.

Gibraltar Road

Known as the hardest climb for roadies in Santa Barbara County, Gibraltar Road also has exceptional views over the ocean.

It’s another climb that featured in the Tour of California, with the 2018 edition’s Stage 2 stats listing it as 12km / 7.5 mi at 8%. Egan Bernal won this stage, riding the climb in an impressive 27’12”, and sure enough he took the Strava KOM.

The Strava segment measures 6.14 mi / 9.88km, starting a little further out of town, and its 8% average gradient hides some big variations: much of it is at 10% or greater, with short sections at 12% and even 15% – balanced out by a short downhill towards the end.

The climb officially ends where Gibraltar Road hits E. Camino Cielo, but turn left at the top and you can continue to La Cumbre peak, the highest point in the Santa Barbara area. Turn right and follow the road awhile, and it turns to dirt and eventually descends back towards town. If you’re descending the actual climb, look out for motor traffic coming towards you.

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Naciemento–Fergusson Road

The rolling ocean road through the Pfeiffer Big Sur State Park, with its famous climb up and over the Bixby Bridge is renowned as one of the best rides not just in the state, but maybe in the country as a whole. But far fewer riders attempt the Naciemento–Fergusson road, which heads inland from the coast and up through the Santa Lucia mountains. It’s the only road to traverse these peaks, but even so, it’s barely two lanes wide and has no center line, and is encroached upon by beautiful forest.

It tops out at 2,785 ft / 849m after almost seven miles of twists and turns. The road is well paved, but may be difficult to ride after washouts in winter storms, and the farther reaches beyond the summit are occasionally closed because of military activity on the surrounding land.

Best instead to descend back towards the Pacific, taking care for oncoming cars and stopping at any of the lookout points for a stunning photo of Highway 1 and the ocean.

Mount Tam

There are not many more popular California ride destinations than Mt. Tamalpais, and probably none that are more historic – in cycling terms at least.

Situated in Marin County, just over the Golden Gate Bridge from San Francisco, it’s a popular destination for riders from the city. The name means something like ‘coastal mountain’ in the language of the Miwok native people, and it is sometimes called the ‘Sleeping Lady’ after a Miwok legend. But for most bike riders it is best known as the mountain on which the ‘Repack’ races took place from the mid-’70s to mid-’80s – the downhill dirt time trial that was fundamental to the birth of the mountain bike as we know it.

The view from the top of Mount Tamalpais. Photography by: Pung

The Repack trail has long been closed to bikes, but people still ride – MTB or gravel – up the old Railroad Grade, which is a long and steady dirt trail to the peak following the path of an old railway.

Road-wise, there are many routes to the top, but the most famous and scenic is known as the ‘Alpine Dam’ route due to the dam it passes by. The segment starts in Fairfax, where the Marin Museum of Bicycling and Marin Mountain Bike Hall of Fame are located.

Ebbett’s Pass

Ebbett’s Pass in the eastern Sierra Nevada is one of the giants of this untamed corner of northern California. First crossed by fur traders in the mid-nineteenth century, it now borders Yosemite National Park, Lake Tahoe and other areas of outstanding national beauty. While Tioga Pass, a near neighbor, at 9,945 ft / 3,031m to Ebbet’s  8,733 ft / 2,663m, is significantly higher, Ebbetts is perhaps the better ride.

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Designated a California State Scenic Highway, it winds through glacially carved valleys, surrounded by granite and basalt rock formations and mountain streams.

The approach from Markleeville to the east is particularly challenging, with steep, blind hairpin turns towards the top, but the road surface is good until the last few miles and the sense of achievement when summiting is unforgettable. Ebbett’s Pass – like Tioga, Monitor Pass, Carson Pass and the other high passes that surround it, Ebbett’s shuts sometime in November with the first big snowfall and is not usually plowed until early June – although bikes can often sneak up to the top before the road is officially open!

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