Mother Lode Tour

AV-Stage3 WillowCreekIIISeven stages • 390 to 500 miles • 40,000’—50,000′

Tour packet: 41 pages, 71 photos, 7 maps

Download tour preview booklet as pdf (2.8 mb)

This tour through the heart of California’s Gold Country has more than a passing resemblance to our Gold Country Tour and also to the Gold Rush Mini-Tour. They share some routes, or at least roads, and they all explore—and rejoice in—this most wonderful of cycle-touring regions. This tour was laid out ten years after those other tours.

No other region in the west offers cycle-tourists such a dense, tangled network of bike-friendly back roads, and it is because of this wealth of good roads that we can reinvent this tour, cherry-picking the best bits from the other tours and shuffling them into new configurations with other roads that are as nice as anything we used before. The result is an epic tour, with spectacular scenery, entertaining roads, and something new (or old) around every corner.

One big difference between the prior tour and this one is that, instead of moving from camp to camp every day, this tour moves between camps only twice all week. There are three loop stages out of Pine Grove, then a shift to Columbia, spending one night in that historic village before riding on to Groveland, where there are two more loop stages from that camp. This means you only have to set up your tents and unload a luggage truck three times all week. All three of the campgrounds are best quality, with showers, swimming pools, laundry facilities, and wi-fi. They all also include motel wings next to the camps, so this tour can be done with indoor overnights.

Each stage offers a longer and shorter option. But it must be noted that even the shortest routes still add up to about 40,000′ of elevation gain for the week, which will make even that “easy” option a challenge. The longer routes will almost certainly add up to the hilliest one-week tour we’ve ever put together, and much of that elevation gain will be accumulated on steep grades. There are long and often hard climbs near the end of almost every stage. That means this tour is not for beginners. You will need to bring a good level of fitness and a good attitude—including a fondness for climbing and descending—to enjoy this challenging adventure.

But if you can manage it, you will be rewarded with some of the best riding and exploring on any tour, anywhere. The winding, narrow, quiet roads are scaled well for bike travel. The scenery is superb, ranging from high Sierra granite to shady oak forest; from rolling meadows of grasses and wildflowers to wild rivers running through deep canyons. And the region is steeped in the colorful history of California’s Gold Rush. You’ll visit picturesque pioneer boom towns every day, from Fiddletown to Volcano, Columbia to Coulterville.

Stage 1: Fiddletown-Omo Ranch Loop
70 miles, 7500′ up and down
74 miles, 8000′ up and down

From the base camp in Pine Grove, this loop heads north to the village of Volcano, climbs Rams Horn Grade, then jumps all over the slinky descent to Fiddletown, another historic village. After several miles of the prettiest, most tranquil back roads, the two routes split—briefly—before rejoining in the mountain hamlet of Omo Ranch. The short route gets there on a simple climb of Omo Ranch Road, while the longer, harder route arrives at the same point by way of Perry Creek and infamous Slug Gulch, a very tough ascent. The route, now together again, continues uphill out of Omo Ranch before diving downhill for many fun miles, back to Volcano. Two medium-hard climbs return the weary riders to camp.

Stage 2: Pardee-Paloma Loop
49 miles, 5300′ up and down
54 miles, 5900′ up and down

Where yesterday’s stage headed up into the Sierra mountain landscape, this stage heads downhill, to the west, out into the rolling grasslands along the edge of the great central valley. It drops first into the old boom town of Jackson, then, after a brief climb out of town, resumes the rockin’ downhill dance, all the way to Pardee Reservoir (impounding the waters of the Moklumne River). Two runs south along the lake—one shorter and one longer—bring riders to the south end of the lake and a run back to the east, with many large and small ups and downs adding to the overall challenge of the day. And as the stage began with a great deal of downhill, it now must end with a great deal of uphill, clawing back up the mountain from Jackson to Pine Grove. Don’t let the low miles fool you. It’s a tough stage.

Stage 3: Sutter Creek Loops
58 miles, 6400′ up and down
67 miles, 6900′ up and down
77 miles, 7600′ up and down

This stage heads downhill again (eventually) to the next historic town north of Jackson: Sutter Creek, one of the best preserved and most interesting of the old gold rush pioneer towns. But before heading downhill to town, it climbs a wickedly steep hill out of Volcano, with grades well up in the high teens. After all that early hill work (up and down), things mellow a bit for the rest of the ride, with a sampler pack of loops on very quiet, bike-friendly roads to the north and west of Sutter Creek, through Shenadoah Valley and through tiny Dry Town. Sooner or later, all the routes return to Sutter Creek and all climb back to Pine Grove along lovely, boulder-strewn Sutter Creek.

Stage 4: Pine Grove to Columbia
Through route: 68 miles, 6000′ up, 6500′ down
Drivers’ loop: 58 miles, 7000′ up and down

Now it’s time to move to a new camp, and that means not only cycling from here to there, but moving any vehicles and luggage you may have. But the folks driving your transport fleet needn’t miss their miles today. We offer a loop for them that travels part way along the route to Columbia, but then loops back to camp. So they can ride, return to camp, get cleaned up, and then drive on to the next camp. The route, both early and late, is wonderful. Large and small ups and downs all day, often—although not always—on tiny roads through the middle of nowhere. Stay in the famous, historic town of Columbia, the best preserved of all the Gold Rush boom towns…one of the marquee attractions on the entire tour.

Stage 5: Columbia to Groveland
Through route: 44 miles, 6000′ up, 5300′ down
Through route (long): 58 miles, 7100′ up, 6400′ down
Drivers’ loop: 40 miles, 3500′ up and down

The last move to a new camp, and once again we provide a loop for the drivers, should they wish to ride and drive on the same day. The through routes—long and short—are as good as anything on the tour, with more highlights than can fit into this little thumbnail description. Up into the mountains near Twain Harte, down to Tuolumne City, then down, down, down into the bottom of the canyon of the Tuolumne River on cliff-hanging, hair-raising Wards Ferry Road. A long but not too brutal climb carries you out of the canyon to the town of Groveland and to a full service camp, which will be home base for the remainder of the tour.

Stage 6: Mather-Hetch Hetchy Figure 8
Basic route: 62 miles, 6000′ up and down
Bonus miles (short): 8 miles, 700′ up and down
Bonus miles (long): 18 miles, 2000′ up and down

Now we really head for the hills, all the way up to the most obscure corner of Yosemite National Park: Hetch Hetchy Reservoir. The basic route doesn’t quite make it to the lake, but contents itself with meandering up to the village of Camp Mather, then returning to camp on more sweet side roads. The bonus miles options represent two approaches to the spectacular Hetch Hetchy (like Yosemite Valley, only with a lake in the bottom). The shorter option climbs to an overlook above the lake, while the longer option continues beyond the overlook, all the way down to the shore of the lake (and then climbs back out).

Stage 7: 49er Loops
Basic route: 50 miles, 6000′ up and down
Long route: 85 miles, 9000′ up and down

While yesterday’s stage climbed into the High Sierra, this one goes in the opposite direction: down and down, endlessly down, to the rolling foothills around Lake McClure and the Gold Rush villages of Hornitos, Bear Valley, and Coulterville. Of course, all that early and profligate descending means the last miles of the stage, and of the tour—weary legs and all—will be uphill. Your legs may not believe it at the time, but these assorted climbs are all relatively easy…long, but never too steep. But make no mistake: the long option in particular today is a tough assignment. If you can finish it, on top of all the other stages, you may count yourself a hardcore rider.