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Length 13.5 miles
Time 2.5 hours
Total Climb 1600 feet
Fun Rating
Scenic Rating
Aerobic Difficulty
Technical Difficulty 

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Bolinas Ridge (short loop)

Bolinas Ridge Trail follows the spine of its namesake ridge for 11 miles from Bolinas Fairfax Road to Sir Francis Drake Boulevard, paralleling a roughly straight stretch of Highway 1 north of Stinson Beach. This fire road constantly trends downhill as you follow it northwest. It constitutes a fairly well known option for mountain bikers in Marin. A consistent and long descent coupled with good scenery and extension opportunities to build this into rides of epic length probably have something to do with this, as well as the sheer riding fun that this fire road provides as I've come to discover.

If you'd like to descend this trail, the quickest loops into which you can incorporate it would involve either a return on its western side (by riding on Highway 1 for a while, followed by Olema Valley Trail) or a return on its eastern side (via Cross Marin Trail). This particular route opts for the latter, shorter option, which is a mixed ride of fire roads, a paved trail, and a couple of minutes on a road.

The ride has only one climb. It's not very long, but it's a bad one. The elevation profile plot above illustrates this almost cartoonishly. On the positive side, though, once you put this climb up Shafter Grade behind you, what's left is only a fun and scenic descent, and then some flat and easy pedaling.

I've started this ride from the parking lot of Samuel P. Taylor State Park. This is the only spot along the ride route where you can be somewhat confident of finding available parking. This being the parking lot of a state park, there's a day use fee you'll have to pay in order to park here. At the time I write this, the fee is $8 per car. There's a booth but it was not staffed on the Saturday when I did this ride, so I had to self-pay by depositing the fee in an envelope. So, bringing exact change (and checking the website to see if the amount has changed since I wrote this) would be a good idea. As for free parking, I saw some cars parked on the side of the road at the trailhead of Bolinas Ridge Trail on Sir Francis Drake Boulevard and some cars on Taylor Park Road at Francis Drake (near the intersection with Platform Bridge Road), but none of those seemed sure enough to rely on. I suppose you can also see if you can find a spot into which you can squeeze in Olema, which is very close to the northern end of this loop. But, taking up a spot in what little parking space the handful of businesses have in that tiny village and going for a long bike ride probably wouldn't constitute a class act.

The ride starts right at the point where the flat Cross Marin Trail switches from paved to gravel, which is near its midpoint. As you set out from the parking lot and start heading southeast on Cross Marin, you'll start riding on a wide and smooth fire road with a (more or less) settled gravel surface. It's a tame and completely flat recreational trail but its setting is undeniably pretty as it cuts through a redwood forest while following the rugged and picturesque Lagunitas Creek.

Near the end of Cross Marin Trail, you take a bridge that drops you onto Sir Francis Drake Boulevard, after which you turn right and only need to ride a few seconds before you get to where you pick up Shafter Grade through a small parking lot. You'll find a sign at the entrance of this lot that labels it as the "Leo T. Cronin Fish Viewing Area". The climb up Shafter Grade is only about 1.5 miles long but averages 13% grade overall. (The first half of the climb averages a bit over 14%.) There's no way to sugarcoat it: this is a very steep and difficult climb. Mere mortals will have to hike-a-bike significant stretches of it. Think of it as some limited pain you have to get through in order to be able to enjoy the rest of the ride. Meanwhile, this might also mean that, for good climbers who like to test themselves with a serious climbing challenge, this trail is a good one to sink their teeth into.

The climb up Shafter Grade is almost as wooded as the beginning of the ride, but the tree cover thins out as you near the top of the ridge, and the ride becomes exposed to the sky as soon as you reach Bolinas Ridge Trail. The portion of Bolinas Ridge that is to the south of this spot is not included on this ride and happens to be mostly under tree cover. But, the part of Bolinas Ridge traversed during this ride is almost completely devoid of it.

The portion of Bolinas Ridge Trail on this ride is a fire road that is just as often in the form of a doubletrack. In fact, there are many stretches of this doubletrack that devolve into only a single half that's more heavily used, and in those cases you could easily think of yourself as following a narrow singletrack across a grassy meadow. What's even more surprising, though, is how technical this portion of Bolinas Ridge Trail gets. It's way more fun than your average fire road. There are some seriously rocky downhill stretches on this trail and even the parts of the trail without any significant amount of rocks can often be uneven enough to be entertaining. On top of all this, the early stretches of Bolinas Ridge Trail traversed on this particular ride have some truly great views as a backdrop, though this doesn't last for long. Then, for a while, Bolinas Ridge Trail settles into a line that follows the very edge of the vegetation that covers the northeastern slopes of the ridge. After continuing through a moderate amount of vegetation like this for not much more than a mile, the trail re-emerges onto bare meadows and cow-grazed slopes for good.

Make sure you don't miss a left turn in order to stay on Bolinas Ridge Trail (rather than continuing onto Jewell Trail) and the trail will soon drop you onto Sir Francis Drake Boulevard once again and end at a trailhead there. At this point, you turn right and glide downhill for about half a mile on this road so that you can pick up Cross Marin Trail again near its beginning by the intersection of Francis Drake and Platform Bridge Road. This time, you will be on the paved half of Cross Marin Trail. Easy pedaling for another 3.5 miles over this flat trail, in the company of plenty of road bikers, will take you through tree cover varying from redwood grove to semi-open meadowland. It will eventually deposit you back where you had started, right at the spot where the paved portion of the trail ends and its dirt part is about to begin.

The possibilities for turning this into a longer ride are fairly extensive. The options closest at hand are some of the trails that are right across the road from the suggested parking spot in Samuel Taylor State Park. A quick loop over Barnabe Road there (a fire road) would add about 3.5 miles and 1200 feet of net elevation gain to your ride, in addition to affording some more great views from the 1460-foot Barnabe Peak if it's a clear day. For more ambitious rambling, you can pick up Peters Dam Road (it starts right next to where Shafter Grade starts and parallels it for a very brief distance) and turn onto San Geronimo Fire Road. San Geronimo Fire Road can take you up to Pine Mountain and could even be connected to Repack Road or Camp Tamarancho. Keep in mind, though, that if you start looking into options along the lines of these latter ones, you'll be at least tripling the ride's length before you know it. Options to the west of Highway 1 are more limited, unless you're interested in road riding. If you're okay with using Highway 1 as a connector for a few miles, it will take you to the Five Brooks trailhead from which you can take Olema Valley Trail for more than five miles before climbing back to Bolinas Ridge Trail via either the very steep McCurdy Trail (average slope 15%) or earlier via the even steeper Randall Trail (average slope 16%).

If you look for some post-ride beer or treats, you'll need to drive a little. I would say that your primary options are split between driving 7.5 miles northwest to Point Reyes Station and driving about 10 miles back to Fairfax (though there are a scattering of roadside eateries on the way to Fairfax, too). Point Reyes Station is a cute small town that grew out of a railroad stop, as its name suggests. Today, it's a charming destination for a weekend trip and provides ample opportunities for food, drinks, window shopping, and some rest, not to mention the fact that it also seems to feature a decent bike shop (Black Mountain Cycles). Meanwhile, Fairfax is naturally a much larger destination. It could be considered the closest thing to a pilgrimage site for mountain biking and, as such, there are a number of places in tiny downtown Fairfax for coffee, some drinks, or a meal, that are frequented by mountain as well as road bikers. Some quick suggestions would include the Java Hut or The Coffee Roastery for coffee, and Splitrock Tap & Wheel or Gestalt Haus for a quick bite in a cycling-oriented setting.

If you find yourself in Fairfax after the ride, no biking-focused discussion about Fairfax could be considered complete without a mention of the Marin Museum of Bicycling. This local treasure has been (very justifiably) the new home of the Mountain Biking Hall of Fame ever since it opened in 2013. It's a great place to admire some seriously historic bicycles (some not even called that yet back then) going back to the 19th century and, more importantly, to see first-hand some of the very pivotal bicycles and read their stories from the early history of the sport, many of which were ridden on Repack Road and the other trails in the very hills surrounding the town. That's without getting into the distinct possibility of running into Joe Breeze himself at the museum, or one of the other "founding fathers" of mountain biking. I would strongly recommend this place to any first-time visitor. In fact, the museum is easily worth a visit in its own right to anyone who has a serious interest in the sport.

© Ergin Guney


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