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The world of gravel cycling is exploding. More and more people are venturing beyond the tarmac in search of quieter, safer roads, exploring the world around them in the process. But if you’ve never ridden gravel before, it can be hard to find the perfect trails and roads to explore this burgeoning discipline of the sport.
Enter our Recommended Routes series. In partnership with Continental, we’ve pulled together a bunch of the best gravel cycling routes around the USA. Stay posted for future episodes in the weeks and months to come.
Photos by Chris Corona | Words by Fisher Curran
Santa Cruz is nicknamed “Surf City,” a moniker that has, over the past century, shaped the mentalities, behaviors, and philosophies of those who call Santa Cruz ‘home.’ In biblical fashion, three young Hawaiian princes appeared in 1885 at the bustling beachfront near the mouth of the local San Lorenzo River hauling long, heavy, 100-pound redwood planks: the first surfboards. Despite Christian missionaries’ efforts to curb the royal Hawaiian practice of “surfboard swimming,” the sport weathered the test of time.
Today, you’d be hard-pressed to find an empty break anywhere along East Cliff Drive. The Hook, Jack’s, Pleasure Point… From first light onwards, you can expect to see a full crowd of amorphous black wetsuits staring seaward, eagerly awaiting another incoming set. West Cliff Drive is much the same. Dawn patrol traffic at Steamer Lane is as busy as the workday shuffle along Highway 1.
Counter-culture flag-bearers, action-sports pioneers, seers of Mother Nature – over time, the ideologies of surfers have passively woven themselves into all facets of outdoor activity here. And that includes bicycles.
There really is a little bit of Santa Cruz for all sorts of riders. In fact, on any given day, you’re guaranteed to come across a pack of lycra-clad roadies, a caravan of beat-up weathered trucks shuttling mountain bikers up to trailheads and, of course, crews of gravel grinders eagerly jumping ‘onto the beaten path.’
Gravel is paradigm-breaking. It is playful exploration and adventure. It is rule-bending. It is unique. For all of these reasons, it comes as no surprise that it’s a welcomed discipline in Santa Cruz. With a vast amount of route offerings connecting tarmac to dirt, you simply cannot go wrong with a rigid frame, a dependable set of knobby tires, and a little bit of childlike curiosity.
The Buzzard Lagoon loop starts in a small town to the east of Santa Cruz called Aptos. This quaint hitching-post town is complete with a BBQ joint, burger restaurant, ice cream parlor and, of course, a café. Be sure to stop at the local Cat ‘n’ Cloud coffeehouse for freshly pulled espresso and a flakey, buttery pastry: perfect kick-starters to help shake off the frigid nip of the early morning ocean air.
From Aptos, the route points northeast towards Day Valley. Within minutes, you’ll find yourself on mellow rolling tarmac twisting past apple orchards, equestrian centers, and egg ranches. The pavement points upward briefly as you pedal to the crest of Cox Road. Once there, a downward plunge along Freedom Boulevard leads to Corralitos.
Riding past the Corralitos Meat Market, you begin the first major climb of the loop: Eureka Canyon. This 8.75-mile (14 km) stretch features 1,608 feet (490 meters) of elevation and a steady average gradient of 3.4%. Fortunately, the experience of this ascent is a transformative one. Once the climb begins, you leave behind the vast stretches of rolling farmland. The quality of the tarmac slowly deteriorates while the sprawling expanse of the Soquel Demonstration Forest quietly envelops you. Road traffic conventions like ‘double solid yellow lines’ and ‘traffic lights’ are replaced with unmarked right-of-way wooden bridges and fire road access barriers.
Eventually, Eureka opens up to a ridgeline that overlooks the Demonstration Forest’s valley floor. Way off into the distance on a clear day, you can just make out the faint shimmers of the light bouncing off the Pacific.
The junction at Ormsby Cutoff marks the top of Eureka Canyon climb. Once you see mailboxes on your left, you know you’ve made it. From here, the real fun starts. Drop your tire pressure, abandon the pavement, and turn onto the dirt of Buzzard Lagoon Road. The semi-packed access road features dry, dusty dirt with the occasional chunky section of rock outcropping. While Buzzard Lagoon Road is a dirt climb, it is forgiving with its frequent undulations.
For those more spirited folks looking for something more ambitious, Cusack’s Trail runs adjacent to a portion of Buzzard Lagoon Road. This 1.1-mile (1.8 km) optional detour features 185 feet (57 meters) of elevation change and an average grade of 2.9%. Not bad, until you consider the max gradients approaching 30%. The dry riverbed terrain—complete with its light-duty rock gardens; precarious rain routes; and short, but narrow chutes — makes for quite the challenge on a rigid bike. Choose to ride Cusack’s as either a descent or a climb, as both ends connect back to the main route. This makes it easy to get right back on track.
All that is left of Buzzard Lagoon Road is a short pitch past a marked access gate toward the Santa Rosalia Viewpoint: a forest clearing complete with a few wooden benches, a trail map, and a phenomenal view of Monterey Bay. This is a great place to take a breather, bask in the sunshine, and munch on some mid-ride snacks. Often times, you’ll sporadically encounter groups of mountain bikers passing through on their way to drop into Santa Cruz’s famed “Flow Trail.”
From this point forward, it is (quite literally) all downhill. Pointing toward Aptos Creek Fire Road, you’ll leave behind the wide-open views near the top of Buzzard Lagoon and dip back into the splotchy sunlight of the Demonstration Forest. For the next 11.5 miles (18.5 km), you’ll be treated to a mellow, rollercoaster-like cruise that snakes around massive patches of redwoods. The 2,608-foot (795 meter) dirt descent offers plenty of time to shake out the legs and snap a photo or two as you gradually return to sea level.
Passing Sand Point Overlook and continuing down the twists and turns of the fire road, you’ll eventually arrive at a flatter section that meets Aptos Creek. All that is left after crossing a few weathered bridges is a flat segment past a ranger’s station and the entranceway to the Forest of Nisene Marks. The remainder of the route is pockmarked with singletrack entrances that run adjacent to the fire road. Savor the roots, the rocks, and the dirt while you can. Shortly after this segment, the terrain abruptly transitions back to tarmac, which is a refreshing change following the recent dirt descent.
Continuing onward, the tangled mess of the forest gradually recedes and the sunlight steadily brightens as the route shows signs of an end. Soon, familiar sounds of passing traffic, car horns, and crosswalk signals begin to fill the air. You’ve returned to Aptos – real life – tired yet transformed, and eager for the next adventure.
What you need to know
On average, Santa Cruz graciously offers 262 sunny days per year, so you won’t be hard-pressed to find a pleasant day to ride. Apart from the sporadic winter rains, most of the year is dry and temperate. At its hottest – during the summer months – temperatures in Santa Cruz average in the high-60s to mid-70s (20-24ºC).
While summer is an ideal time to ride, be prepared with extra layers and warmers. Early mornings can still be frigid. Also, once you enter the forest canopy (especially at elevation), the temperature can take a quick dive.
Bobcats, deer, mountain lions, and raccoons all call the Forest of Nisene Marks home. However, due to the consistent flow of foot and bike traffic on the Aptos Creek Fire Road, it would be rare to encounter any critters in broad daylight. If you’re lucky, on quieter evenings you may catch a glimpse (or even hear the hoots) of the owls that nest in the redwoods.
Do keep an eye out for the famous Banana Slug, which you’re almost guaranteed to see. Bright yellow and measuring up to almost 10 inches (25 cm), these slow-moving slugs are hard to miss.
While you can get by with a skinnier set of tires and modest road gearing, it is highly recommended that you choose to run a dedicated set of tubeless gravel tires and a generous gear ratio for climbing. The terrain and conditions change frequently, so it is best to be prepared with a wheelset and drivetrain that can accommodate any surprises.
Bike shops and repairs
Epicenter Bicycles is a local Aptos shop right at the start and finish of the Buzzard Lagoon loop. This is likely the best bet for quick-fixes, last-minute food items, extra tubes and CO2, and everything else you may need just prior to setting out.
If you’re traveling south to Santa Cruz from anywhere in the North Bay, there are also dozens of retail locations to choose from as you drive toward the route’s starting point in Aptos. Another Bike Shop, Bicycle Trip, and Spokesman Bicycles offer an incredible array of products and services and are staffed by experienced local riders who likely know every inch of the roads and trails in this area.
If you’re in Aptos and you’re hungry: you’re in luck. BBQ Appointments is a legendary staple in this area. The frequent hangout of several ‘once-burgeoning’ professional mountain bikers, Aptos BBQ features stellar food, a vibrant atmosphere, and museum-worthy walls adorned with mountain bikes frames, helmets, jerseys, and other kinds of memorabilia from over the years. Not to mention live music nightly.
Just down the road, Zameen is a tried-and-true Mediterranean spot with plenty of vegetarian options. The salads, wraps, and combination bowls are completely customizable and satisfy many different dietary needs. In the same small plaza, Taqueria Los Gordos is a ‘must-visit’ if you’re a fan of Mexican food. There’s nothing like a post-ride burrito.
For a drink and a meal, check out burger. This casual, roomy hangout features a hefty menu of craft beer options. For a more dedicated spot for drinking, you’ll have to travel a bit further west to Beer Thirty Bottle Shop & Pour House. This is a low-key, dog-friendly beer garden that offers the best of bottled and local brew. Humble Sea Brewing Co.. is also worthy of a visit, although it is further away on the west side of Santa Cruz.
If you have time, be sure to take a drive down to the end of 41st Avenue and take a walk along the East Cliff drive. Here is a great spot to sample the everyday hustle-and-bustle of Santa Cruz life. If at any point you wish to take a break, there are plenty of grassy spots adjacent to the footpath where you can sit and watch the local surf crowd battle for waves. If you prefer, there are also plenty of steps leading down to the beachfront. In the warmer months, the colorful beachside bungalows lining the footpath are accented by the vibrant wildflower blooms that adorn the cliffside.