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John  Must Do Climbs

 by: John Summerson  4/15/2010

Short and Sweet (and Steep)

While climbing is often challenging getting up and over the really steep stuff is another matter entirely.  On severe grade at times doubt creeps in and perhaps even a bit of fear.  Normal riding or even moderate climbing does not produce this reaction but on a steep hill the mind tends to slip a bit, producing different emotions and the hope that there is another gear or two available to ease the pain.  Epic climbs are often epic (difficult) due to their length but when asked to describe what creates the most challenging riding many respond with the very steep, where standing on the pedals may be the norm rather than simply a temporary change in posture on the bike.    

Fargo LA
The 32% grade of Fargo Street in Los Angeles


Californians have the greatest assortment of road bike climbs to choose from in the entire country.  From beyond category monsters in the Sierra Nevada Mountains to more moderate climbs along the coast and the shorter but generally steeper ascents in the Bay Area there are multiple rewarding climbs for all types of riders.  The following climbs, one in each of four regions of the Golden State, are all among the steepest in the state and should be considered must do ascents for those looking to go seriously uphill on the bike.


Regarding the rating listed; in major races climbs are typically rated numerically 1-4 dependent upon their length and grade with 4 as the least difficult classification.  A hill considered more difficult than category 1 is described as hors or a beyond category climb.  Keep in mind each of the below ascents contain sustained double digit grade and are challenging.

Northern California

Fort Ross Road

Total elevation - 1,367 ft | Length - 2.4 miles
Average grade - 10.8% (16%) | Rating - 1.47 (cat 1/2)

Isolated Fort Ross Road is a steep and scenic test.  It begins on the picturesque Pacific Coast Highway north of Bodega Bay.  You get short stretches of shallow climbing at the beginning and end of the climb but the middle core is double digit grade and will make you work. The route is along a narrow and dark road for the most part under thick stands of trees.  Due to its steep grade it is a difficult descent.  This climb leads to other outstanding riding (and climbing).

Crux stretch - The middle 1.5 miles will wear you down.

Directions - From Bodega Bay on Route 1 head north along the spectacular coast for ~22 miles to Fort Ross Road on your right where the climb begins.

Central California

Iowa Hill Road East

Total elevation - 1,192 ft | Length - 1.8 miles

Average grade - 12.5% (18%) | Rating - 1.53 (cat 1)

Iowa Hill Road is a super steep test that climbs at double digit grade right from the beginning out of a river gorge.  The road has several very tight switchbacks along the way and is narrow.  Sparse traffic allows you to concentrate on the ascent but is a good thing as there is severe exposure in places and the grade only eases below 10% as you reach the top of the gorge.  A local club has a time trial race on this one and it is a difficult descent. 

Crux stretch - The entire climb will test you.

Directions – In Colfax, CA heading east on Interstate 80 take exit 135.  At the top of the exit keep straight onto Canyon Way which parallels I-80.  In a short distance Iowa Hill Road appears on your left.  Turn onto Iowa Hill Road and follow it for several twisty miles down to the North Fork of the American River.  The listed climb begins just beyond the river.  

Iowa Hill
The dramatic east side of Iowa Hill Road near Colfax

Southern California

Deer Creek Road

Total elevation - 1,368 ft | Length - 2.3 miles

Average grade - 11.3% (13%) | Rating - 1.54 (cat 1)

Deer Creek Road is a steep and beautiful ascent from the Pacific Coast near Malibu.  An early switchback gets your attention and the grade stays steep until close to the very end of the climb.  Some of the best views in the world can help get you to the top.  You can ride the single lane road beyond the summit as well to the middle of Yerba Buena Road.  From there turn right to descend/return to the Pacific Coast Highway.

Crux stretch - The big switchback at mile 0.4.

Directions - The climb of Deer Creek Road begins from the Pacific Coast Highway a short distance west of Malibu, CA (just west of Yerba Buena Road). 

Deer Creek
Scenic and steep Deer Creek Road near Malibu

Bay Area

Bohlman/Norton/Kittridge/Quickert/On Orbit

Total elevation - 1,569 ft | Length - 2.6 miles

Average grade - 11.4% (20%) | Rating - 1.88 (cat 1)

This combination of roads is another very steep climb through a hillside neighborhood above Saratoga in the Bay Area.  Near the bottom of Bohlman Road turn left on Norton over double digit grade and then a short descent.  At mile 0.8 turn right on Kittridge and a very steep section.  The grade is never below 10% on this stretch.  At mile 1.3 a very steep switchback becomes Quickert along with increased grade.  The slope eases just before you turn left on On Orbit Drive for the steepest climbing on the hill as the grade approaches 20%.  Just before On Orbit descends take a left on Apollo Heights Court to finish the torture.  This is a very difficult descent.
Crux stretch - The section from Kittridge to Quickert and the near 20% stretch on upper On Orbit.

Directions - From the intersection of Route 9 and 6th Street in Saratoga, CA head south on 6th to Bohlman Road (cemetery ahead and to the right). Turn right on Bohlman Road to begin the listed climb.

John can be reached at jsummers@wfubmc.edu

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