If you live in Sacramento and are yearning for expansive beauty from on high, you have to leave the city limits.
Sacramento is as flat as can be. The first rolling hills are in Fair Oaks. Things get more interesting in Folsom. And by the time you get to El Dorado Hills, Placerville or Auburn, you’ve hit the mother lode of climbing, fitness challenges and inspiring vistas that will make you forget how hard you’re breathing and how much your legs ache.
Sure, many of those climbs in the foothills can be challenging, but there’s a big upside: spectacular views once you reach the summit.
There are numerous hills with great views, but let’s start with perhaps the best known one – and the view that actually calls on you to go down, not up, to get there. We’re talking about Foresthill Bridge, and even though it’s the highest bridge in California and fourth highest in the nation, you actually ride down a rather long, steep hill from Auburn on Foresthill Road to get there. You’ll want to feather the brakes as you descend or you can find yourself going far too fast.
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If you’re riding on the road, you’d be forgiven if you’re not that impressed as you make your way across the 2,428-foot expanse, which was built in 1971 for $13 million and retrofitted for earthquake protection from 2011 to 2015 for $74.4 million. You don’t really get a sense of how high you are – 730 feet above the North Fork of the American River, unless you’re standing on the sidewalk close the railing. It’s worth a stop, though most cyclists are too eager to tackle the subsequent climb in either direction to lose their momentum.
To get an expert take on climbs and views, we went straight to the source – Torey Philipp, a competitive cyclist for Herbalife presented by Marc Life & Nature’s Bakery team, who in 2016 recorded 1 million feet of climbing on Strava, the popular app and website endurance athletes use to track their workouts.
He’s done the research and he knows all the quiet roads and great hills across the region.
“It’s like a playground for bikes,” Philipp said of the Sierra foothills. “You have so many roads to choose from. You’ve got back roads, country roads, climbs, descents. We have it all right here.”
One of his favorites is Rock Creek Road near Placerville. He advises cyclists to start in Placerville and descend Highway 193, then make a short climb before taking a right on Rock Creek.
“From there, you have a view of the South Fork of the American River the whole way. It’s gorgeous. It’s hard to beat. It’s a 3- or 4-mile climb up to Swansboro. There’s one little shop where you can get a lemonade.”
When he’s not training or racing, Philipp is the assistant brewer at Mraz Brewing in El Dorado Hills. He says the views he takes in can be a useful distraction.
“Sometimes it’s rewarding to see what’s out there. It does take your mind away from the pain in your legs,” he said.
Speaking of pain, Philipp points to notorious Iowa Hill for both the climbing challenge and the views. Starting in Colfax, you actually start by making a long, twisting descent down Iowa Hill Road before crossing the North Fork of the American River and starting the climb. It’s tough. It’s relentless. It seems like it will never end. For the first several minutes, take your mind off the steep grade by looking to the right as you rise – you’ll see the river, a small waterfall at certain times of the year and far-flung views beyond.
The road is narrow and lightly traveled. On a quiet day, it’s possible you won’t encounter a single motorized vehicle. When it’s hectic, you might see five in an hour. But it’s not for the faint of heart. Iowa Hill is very remote. The tiny town 9 miles east of Colfax only recently got phone service. Residents continue to rely on solar panels and generators for their electrical power.
Said Philipp, “You can’t make the climb easy. It’s just so steep.”
There’s a small, old-fashioned store in Iowa Hill that sells Gatorade out of a fridge. Traffic lights? Movie theater? Restaurants? Not here.
We also sought expert input from Katherine Benbrook, owner of Cycle In, an indoor cycling studio in Carmichael. Even though she leads numerous workouts on stationary bikes, Benbrook ventures outdoors and into the hills whenever possible.
One of her favorites for views is Clark Tunnel Road to Boulder Ridge in Penryn. She also likes riding from Folsom to El Dorado Hills to Ridge Road, “where you can see the Sacramento Valley, the city of Sacramento and the Berryessa hills,” Benbrook said.
Outside of the Sacramento region, Benbrook is a fan of the Mount Diablo climb in the Bay Area, both for the workout and the views. She also recently did the Wine Country Century, a 100-mile ride starting in Santa Rosa. Along the route, riders climb Coleman Valley Road out of the town of Occidental and are rewarded at the top with one of the great views of the Pacific Ocean.