Top Cycling Routes in Southern California
If you are a cyclist in California, you’ve ridden on the Historic Pacific Coast Highway 101. It’s easily the most popular cycling route on the west coast. While the majesty of the ocean and beach are synonymous with California, head east and you’ll find some fantastic riding with these top cycling routes in San Diego, Los Angeles and Santa Barbara.
If it’s your first time leaving the friendly confines of the coast, I suggest one of the cycling rides recommended for beginners. Many of the rides require a great deal of bike handling skill and include interaction with traffic on open roads – be sure that you are prepared to deal with both.
The 38 mile long Swami’s loop is home to the similarly named World Famous Swami’s Ride on Saturdays that starts from Nytro multisport in Encinitas. Whether it’s Saturday with the cycling group or a weekday with friends, you’ll always find cyclists using this route as part of their training.
The route turns east through LaCosta before turning south into Elfin Forest and east to Escondido where you can refill your water bottle at the “Church” spicket—the regrouping location of many rides on this course. Riders then head back along Del Dios and through Rancho Santa Fe to the coast. With undulating terrain and respectable hills, this is a great course to spin through or get a hard effort in.
Recommended for: Beginners, Novice, and Expert Cyclist
Great Western Loop
The Great Western Loop is a popular east county cycling route in San Diego. This 42 mile loop takes cyclists through Willow Glen, Dehesa, Japatul, Lyons Valley, and Jamul featuring elevation gains that will make you feel like your climbing the the mountains of the Tour de France.
One of the highlights of this ride is stopping to regroup with riders at the Lyons Valley Trading Post. The donkey across from the store named Black Jack, is a welcome mid ride distraction and part of the tradition of this ride—just please don’t feed him human food.
Recommended for: Novice and Expert Cyclists (and anyone making their first adventure away from the coast)
The Donut Loop
The Donut Loop in Palos Verdes is one of the oldest routes in Southern California dating back to when it started in front of a donut shop. The route is 28 miles long, and covers the Palos Verdes peninsula from east to west. This loop is good for a weekend warrior or any cyclist or triathlete training for a race.
This ride is a solid rolling loop that is as challenging as it is with gorgeous views of Catalina, Point Vicente Lighthouse, Fort MacArthur, and the open space of the peninsula itself.
Recommend for: Beginners, Novice and Expert Cyclists
Glendora Road/Mt. Baldy
You may be familiar with this ride if you’re a fan of the Tour of California. The 44 mile route is one of the most famous climbs in SoCal – Glendora Mountain Road to Mount Baldy ski area. The road hugs a tight slope with incredible views while weaving in and out of the mountainside.
The climb includes 3 miles of grades that range from 10-16% that resemble the Alps. You can get a welcomed respite during your ride—late in the climb— by stopping at the ski resort for a snack before heading on up towards the summit.
Recommended for: Novice to Expert Riders
Tuna Canyon/Santa Monica Mountains
With it’s many canyons, and winding climbs and descents, the Santa Monica Mountains are the antithesis of what comes to mind when you mention SoCal. Between Mullholland, Topanga, and the many other routes through the mountains, my favorite is the 27 mile loop of Tuna Canyon.
Ride this route in the spring, and you’ll see tons of wildflowers, and very few cars or homes. To get to Tuna Canyon, head east on Piuma Canyon Rd road through the steep canyons that will take you up to Saddle Peak Rd. where you’ll be rewarded with panoramic views of the SoCal shoreline.
From this point on, Tuna Canyon will reward you with an epic descent. Tuna Canyon is a cyclist’s nirvana—a one way, slaloming road, that hugs the pristine canyon’s every bend. The road spills you out onto the Coast Hwy where you can head over to Malibu Farms for a post ride meal, or explore one of the other canyons leading up into the mountains.
Recommended for: Novice to Expert Cyclists
If you look east in Santa Barbara you’ll see mountains, and that’s exactly where Gibraltar Road goes—into the mountains. I like to start at Tucker’s Grove for this 22 mile ride so that I can get a few miles in to warm up before I hit reach the This is a relentless climb with 8 miles of inclines ranging from 6-12% grade.
Save some gears as the top half is steeper than the bottom half on this climb. At the top of the climb, you’ll roll onto Camino Cielo and its breathtaking views spanning 360 degrees of Santa Barbara County.
The return trip down to the coast is a fun one on an old stage road that will keep your heart rate high and test your handling skills. Depending on your preference, finish up by heading over to Handlebar Roasters or Hollister Brewery for the perfect atmosphere to revel in your achievement.
Recommended for: Seasoned Novices and Expert Cyclists
Honorable Mention: Henshaw Loop – 100+ mile route in San Diego includes Palomar Mountain, and very pro cyclist or triathlete uses this to route as part of their training.
Thousand Palms/Dillon Road – 20 miles of non stop pedaling on this often windy ride.
Santiago Canyon – OC’s longtime premier location for time trials.