California’s 10 Best Cycling Destinations
With a wide range of topography and unparalleled scenery, California is a wonderland for cycling. Whether you’re looking for a mellow ride along the beach or a challenging climb through the mountains, California has it all. A number of California boutique hotels and B&Bs offer front-door access to some of the most incredible cycling routes in the state. Here is a list of our favorite California cycling destinations, along with the best local bike stores and events an avid rider could hope for.
Marin County is widely regarded as the birthplace of mountain biking, which is quite fitting given the plethora of gorgeous rides through the Golden Gate National Recreation Area, along the Marin Headlands, through Muir Woods, and over Mount Tamalpais. Sir Francis Drake Bikeway (aka the Cross Marin Trail) runs on the recycled roadbed of the former North Pacific Coast Railroad, along a babbling creek and past thick redwood stands. It’s a relatively easy entrée into the area’s cycling riches, with an elevation gain of just 164 feet and 5.3 miles of shady track. While it runs along a busy roadway, the trail itself is closed to cars. The Paradise (aka Tiburon) Loop is a slightly more challenging 26-mile ride with a 1,000-foot gain. Many cyclists like to ride over the Golden Gate Bridge from San Francisco to Sausalito to pick up this trail in Mill Valley. From there it runs on a quiet road until the final payoff: spectacular views of the Pacific Coast from Tiburon to Paradise Cove and beyond. The Mount Tamalpais Old Railroad Grade near Mill Valley is even more ambitious, with many advanced cyclists calling it one of their most challenging ever. The wide out-and-back trail runs for 13.7 miles with a 2,342-foot elevation gain, ending at the summit of Mount Tamalpais’ East Peak. There, riders can take in views of the Bay, the San Francisco skyline, and the Pacific Ocean.
While in the area, riders might want to check out the Marin Museum of Mountain Biking, featuring bikes and gear from the 19th century to the present day. It’s also the home of the Mountain Bike Hall of Fame. Above Category Cycling, once named one of the Top 10 Bike Shops in America by Outside Magazine, is also worth a stop.
Where to Stay in Marin: Mill Valley Inn is located in downtown Mill Valley at the foot of Mount Tamalpais, just steps from miles of hiking and biking trails. Waters Edge Hotel in Tiburon juts out over the harbor, providing glittering panoramas of San Francisco Bay and the city skyline. The Pelican Inn captures the spirit of 16th-century England from its secluded spot near Muir Beach, barely 20 minutes from the Golden Gate Bridge.
Santa Ynez Valley
Bucolic vineyards, a mild year-round climate, and a network of peaceful country backroads have helped the Santa Ynez Valley become a premiere cycling destination for amateurs and professionals alike. The Ballard Canyon Loop is an easy family-friendly tour with stops for a quick bite or sip in the charming towns of Solvang, Los Olivos, and Ballard. The paved route runs for 13 miles with minimal elevation gain, ambling along mostly quiet rural roads through grasslands, vineyards, and horse ranches. One highlight is a scenic and gentle mile-long descent roughly halfway through. The Wine Country Loop also runs mostly along tranquil rural roads but offers a bit more of a challenge. It also doubles as a scenic tour of Santa Ynez Valley Wine Country. The undulating route runs for 73 miles past vineyards, woodland, and farmland, with an elevation gain of 3,600 feet. With an average 8% gradient over 40 miles, the Figueroa Mountain Loop is one of the toughest climbs in Southern California. In fact, it was a favorite training ride for Lance Armstrong and the Discovery pro cycling team. The ultra-secluded route features epic views across the Los Padres National Forest and the San Rafael Mountains, through farm and ranch country, up the mountain, across the ridgetop, then back down the back side of the mountain. After the first ridge, there’s a nearly one-mile descent into a narrow valley and along a peaceful creek. The area hosts several iconic cycling events, including the Solvang Century and the Figueroa Mountain Gran Fondo.
Where to Stay in Santa Ynez Valley: Amid the Danish bakeries and windmills in downtown Solvang, Hamlet Inn is a former motor lodge turned budget-friendly hipster haven. The Landsby exudes a modern Scandinavian lodge aesthetic with airy guest rooms and a garden oasis of fire pits and romantically lit trees. Ballard Inn & Gathering Table is nestled in a country neighborhood of orchards and vineyards with an award-winning restaurant. Built in 2001 but designed to evoke a grand Victorian mansion, Santa Ynez Inn exudes sophisticated elegance with its muted color palette and refined décor. ForFriends Inn features a festive backyard wine garden and a delightful mix of Victorian and western décor with main house rooms and brand new cottages.
Sonoma County offers some of the most diverse cycling terrain in the state, with routes that pass through redwood forests, deep canyons, wildflower meadows, stands of oaks, and quaint towns. The area also boasts a stunning coastline and the iconic Russian River. An easy trek through Dry Creek and Alexander Valleys offers the most accessible sampling of the area’s riches. It’s considered by many to be the definitive wine country ride. The ride begins in Healdsburg and connects two wine regions. At 30 miles in length with an elevation gain of 1,321 feet, the route has just a few short hills. Along the way, cyclists can take in leisurely views of small family-run vineyards in Dry Creek Valley and the broad vistas of the Alexander Valley. Valley of the Moon steps things up a notch. The route begins in Glen Ellen and travels 28 miles along a mixture of quiet backcountry roads and more heavily trafficked highways, with a total elevation gain of 1,968 feet (with several challenging climbs). Along the way are meadows, oak and redwood forest, vineyards, and grand country estates. King Ridge is considered the crown jewel of North Bay cycling roads, going on for 55 miles and gaining nearly a mile in elevation. The longest climb goes on for six miles just north of Cazadero (a 1,600-foot elevation gain), but a 4.7-mile descent along the coast is a fitting reward. The remote, mostly paved ride begins in the little town of Monte Rio on the Russian River, then travels along rivers and creeks, through deep forest, and along a ridge with panoramic views of the Pacific Ocean and rolling hills off either side.
Where to Stay in Sonoma County: Gables Wine Country Inn is a beautifully restored 1877 Victorian on three-and-a-half acres with vineyard views. Built in 1901, Healdsburg Inn on the Plaza occupies a turn-of-the-20th-century building in a prime downtown location right on the plaza. Housed in a 1906 farmhouse, Mine + Farm offers a modern bed and breakfast experience set on two-and-a-half acres with farm-fresh eggs from the farm’s own flock and produce grown on the property. Raford Inn is a Victorian country estate in the Russian River Valley, overlooking acres of vineyards. On the Sonoma Coast just three hundred yards from the water, Bodega Bay Inn exudes a laid back vibe.
Truckee and Lake Tahoe
The area around Lake Tahoe is a cyclist’s dream of alpine lakes and pine forests, with an abundance of bike paths for every skill level and type of bike. At the easy end of the spectrum is the Truckee River Legacy Trail, a relaxing ride for the entire family that begins and ends at the Truckee River Regional Park and follows the Truckee River. The dedicated shared-use path spans 4.7 miles, with a 207-foot elevation gain. Along the way are benches and interpretive signs that illuminate the local history and wildlife. A longer route on the scenic Truckee River connects Tahoe City with Truckee along the path of the original 1860 Tahoe-Truckee Toll Road. Painted Rock Mountain Trail follows native single and double tracks through forested mountain terrain, for cyclists looking for a little more of a challenge. The ride begins and ends at Tahoe XC Center, with a total of 13.3 miles and an elevation gain of 1,486 feet. There are views of Lake Tahoe and two exhilarating downhill sections on the way to Painted Rock, a great lookout spot to Squaw Valley to the west and Truckee to the north. With its steep climbs, deep sandy narrow sections, rock steps, and high altitude, the Star Lake Loop Trail will challenge even the most experienced cyclists. The trail runs for 21 miles, with a 3,556-foot elevation gain. Along the way, it offers majestic mountain views, seasonal wildflowers, and an up-close encounter with the high alpine ecosystem.
Where to Stay in Truckee and Lake Tahoe: Donner Lake Inn is a five-room mountain lodge set on an acre of forest across from Donner Lake. In South Lake Tahoe, Black Bear Lodge is a nine-room rustic-chic retreat tucked among the pines. In Tahoe City, The Cottage Inn at Lake Tahoe is a cluster of cozy cottages just a stone’s throw from the lake and its own private beach. On Lake Tahoe’s North Shore, the Vistana Inn is a family-friendly four-acre property on a forested hillside. Tahoma Meadows Bed & Breakfast Cottages boasts 16 historic red cottages on Tahoe’s quiet west shore.
Humboldt County is a paradise for both nature lovers and adventure seekers, due in part to its pristine beaches and majestic stands of ancient redwood trees. It’s a natural fit for cyclists, so it’s no wonder they flock there year-round to hit the tracks. Many choose to start out with an easy ride along the Avenue of the Giants, a 32-mile out-and-back route with a 1,780-foot elevation gain. The road passes through beds of redwood sorrel, vibrant forest ferns, and some of the largest and oldest tree specimens on Earth. Although the road runs through Humboldt Redwoods State Park car traffic is minimal since the main highway parallels the Avenue just to the west. To add more of a challenge, riders can take the Adventure/Gravel Route along the Eel river, up into farming and orchard country, back to the redwoods, and then back onto the Avenue of the Giants. This 20%-gravel route includes a two-mile climb of around 1,100 feet, for an average gradient of 10%. But for the ultimate adrenaline rush, the Paradise Royale Loop Trail gains 2,229 feet over 11.6 miles. Repeatedly listed among the top 30 best trails in California, the trail was designed and built for a mountain bike experience. A hair-raising descent that seems to go on for eternity is the highlight of the loop.
Where to Stay on the Redwood Coast: In the tiny fishing village of Shelter Cove, the Inn of the Lost Coast stands on a cliff overlooking the ocean, surrounded by rugged terrain, black sand beaches, and unparalleled scenic beauty. Benbow Historic Inn is an elegant, Tudor-style hotel built above the banks of the Eel River in 1926 and listed on the National Register of Historic Places. Located in Fortuna, near the northern end of Humboldt County’s famed Avenue of the Giants, Redwood Riverwalk Hotel is a great base camp for outdoor adventures. The Carter House Inns are an enclave of four magnificent Victorians at the gateway to Eureka’s Victorian historic district.
While San Francisco is known as a starting point for rides into Marin, the city’s own Presidio National Park offers 25 miles of bike routes. Routes along the park’s 1,500 acres include views of the San Francisco Bay and the iconic Golden Gate Bridge, just for starters. The easy, 4.3-mile Golden Gate Promenade connects the Marina district to the Golden Gate Bridge along a flat path. Part of the regional Bay Trail, the promenade stretches along the San Francisco Bay shoreline offering views of the city skyline, the Marin Headlands, and of course, that famous bridge. Extend the ride by crossing the Golden Gate Bridge into Marin or turning south to connect with the California Coastal Trail through the park and its stunning views of the Pacific Ocean. In Golden Gate Park, the Golden Gate Park Loop goes through the third most-visited park in the United States, passing the California Academy of Sciences, Conservatory of Flowers, de Young Museum, Japanese Tea Garden, and a wide variety of flora and fauna along its 6.3-mile stretch and 400-foot gain. The Great Highway Bike Path runs north to south along the Pacific Coast, highlighting coastal scenery along a relatively flat, paved route with minimal encounters with city traffic.
Where to Stay in San Francisco: The Lodge at the Presidio, a 42-room hotel housed in former US Army barracks built in the 1890s, is San Francisco’s closest lodging to the Golden Gate Bridge. The Inn at the Presidio once housed bachelor military officers after it was built in 1903, later becoming the first hotel to open inside the Presidio. At the top of the city’s prestigious Pacific Heights neighborhood, the Hotel Drisco is a luxurious turn-of-the-century hotel just two blocks from the Presido’s southeast gate. The historic Monte Cristo Inn sits at the junction of the Presidio Heights, Pacific Heights, and Laurel Heights neighborhoods, and has been a part of San Francisco since 1875. Stanyan Park Hotel is an affordable, elegantly-restored, 1883 Beaux Arts-style hotel located directly across from Golden Gate Park.
Santa Monica, Topanga Canyon, and the Santa Monica Mountains combine to form an ideal biking destination, thanks to a temperate climate, varied topography, and a bike-friendly community. For casual riders looking to explore Santa Monica without working up a sweat, a ride along Main Street is just the ticket. The city has installed green bike lanes and bike corrals to make riding safer and more convenient, and the Sunday Farmer’s Market offers a free bike valet. The Marvin Braude Bike Trail (known locally as The Strand) stretches 22 miles from Pacific Palisades south to Torrance. Widely acknowledged as Los Angeles’ most popular bike path, the trail passes colorful piers and lively beach crowds with ocean views as far as the eye can see. There’s no automobile contact for most of the trail, except for a few miles in Marina del Rey. The Eastern Santa Monica Mountains Loop Trail runs 63 miles with an elevation gain of 8,300 feet, combining the best cycling roads in the Santa Monica Mountains into a ride that will challenge the most serious rider. More incredible rides in the Santa Monica Mountains include the Latigo Canyon Loop, Cold Canyon Loop, Mulholland Highway Loop, and Old Topanga Canyon Loop.
Where to Stay in Santa Monica: Just a block from the beach, Channel Road Inn was named by both Travel and Leisure and Sunset Magazine as one of the best bed and breakfast inns in Los Angeles. It provides easy access to the area’s bike routes, including a pedestrian and bike tunnel that connects with the Marvin Braude Bike Trail just two blocks away.
With long stretches of scenic country roads studded with stately vineyards, Napa Valley is ideal for exploring from a bike. Many of the area’s roads are well-paved and relatively flat, but the winding back roads that hug the valley also provide a challenge for experienced riders. The Napa Valley Vine Trail is a planned 47-mile, family-friendly trail connecting the entire Napa Valley from Calistoga to the Vallejo Ferry and the greater Bay Area. So far, 12.5 miles have been completed (from Yountville to the south end of Napa), creating an easy and flat ride with minimal car contact. The Skyline Trail Loop to Lake Marie is not quite as easy, with its 1,292-foot gain over 6.4 miles. It offers expansive views of the oak forest and open grassland on a popular shared trail with many offshoots to explore. The Mount Veeder + Dry Creek Loop spans 31 miles and gains 1,800 feet, including a single 1,285-foot climb that stretches for 7.2 miles. The route runs on a shared paved road with low car traffic.
Getaway Adventures offers guided tours through Napa’s country lanes, with winery stops along the way.
Where to Stay in Napa Valley: Completely redesigned in 2021, Milliken Creek Inn is an exclusive three-acre hideaway along the banks of the Napa River. The Cottages of Napa Valley, once a secret hideaway for Clark Gable and Carole Lombard, are located right along the Napa Valley Vine Trail between Napa and Yountville. They offer complimentary cruiser bikes for cruising into town. Just two blocks from the famed French Laundry restaurant in Yountville, Lavender is an intimate bed and breakfast inn combining the warm colors of Provence with contemporary design elements. Located in St. Helena on a gated four-acre estate along the famed Silverado Trail, Vignoble House is a contemporary three-story inn with four guest rooms, inviting communal spaces, and resort-like grounds.
Cycling is one of Pacific Grove’s most popular activities, so it’s no surprise that its rocky coastline appears to have been designed just for cyclists. The flat and accessible Monterey Bay Coastal Recreation Trail begins in Pacific Grove and runs all the way to Castroville, with street traffic kept separate from cyclists and pedestrians. The 2.2-mile stretch of the trail from Lovers Point to Fisherman’s Wharf is by far the most popular section, as it provides opportunities to see the best sights along the Monterey Peninsula coastline. 17-Mile Drive is another easy and scenic ride that passes through stately homes along the coast, providing opportunities to snap photos of The Lone Cypress Tree, Spanish Bay, and the Del Monte Forest.
Local cyclists trust Winning Wheels for their knowledgeable staff, Big Sur Adventures for their awesome customer service, and Pacific Grove Adventures for their impressive selection of electric bikes.
Where to Stay in Pacific Grove: Built in 1889, The Centrella Inn is a National Historic Landmark nestled between downtown Pacific Grove and the coast. The Green Gables Inn is an 1888 Queen Anne Victorian with panoramic views of the Monterey Bay. The Martine Inn is known for its museum-quality antiques and sweeping views of the coast. The oceanfront Seven Gables Inn exudes opulence, with crystal chandeliers, gilded-framed mirrors, and Persian rugs. The Gosby House Inn is a Victorian mansion with a charming courtyard patio in downtown Pacific Grove.
Whether it’s through the mountains, to the coast, or just tooling around town, any bike ride in Ojai is as likely to include breathtaking views of the nearby foothills as it is the area’s avocado and citrus orchards (particularly Ojai’s famous Pixie Tangerines). The Ojai-Ventura Bike Path is a safe, scenic 18-mile trail leading all the way to the Ventura coast. Most of the trail is gently sloping and runs parallel to the Ventura River. The Lake Casitas Trail is an easy scenic trail that runs mostly flat along the east shoreline of Lake Casitas, a 5.7-mile out-and-back. In addition to spectacular views of the lake, cyclers might also spot wildflowers and an abundance of local fauna.
The Mob Shop is the preferred choice for local bike rentals and repairs in Ojai. In the spring of 2023, the shop is hosting the Ojai Valley Gravel Mob, a hard ride of 58 miles with an 8,000-foot gain and truly spectacular views.
Where to Stay in Ojai: Built in 1874 as Ojai’s first schoolhouse, Lavender Inn is a Craftsman-style inn with an idyllic location near village galleries, restaurants, shops, and local bike trails.