Ups and Downs on Sheep Ranch Road

Sheep Ranch Road looking toward the community of Sheep Ranch. (Click on image for more photos)

I used to fancy myself a pretty good climber, and so it came as no surprise I would one day want to ride on Sheep Ranch Road. Nestled in the Sierra foothill Gold Country, it’s known far and wide for its steep climbs.

Like the gold miners of the 1840s, I sought something precious — a challenging day riding through California’s glorious countryside, cloaked in pines, oaks, grassy slopes and wildflowers. Ah, the beauty of it all.

I set out early Sunday morning for a one-day blitz, driving across the Central Valley, through Stockton and then Highway 4 to Murphys (2,175 ft., 663 m). Much to my surprise, Hwy 4 is nothing like the congested Hwy 120/108 I had come to know from my many Sierra rides starting in Sonora. It’s a relative wilderness driving Hwy 4 across spectacular rolling hills, once past what little there is in the way of orchards at the far northern perimeter of Central Valley.

I parked at the modest Murphys Park on S. Algiers Street a stone’s throw south of Main Street. It has bathroom facilities and there’s plenty of parking just down the street at the Black Bart Playhouse.
I started off right on time at 8 a.m., stopping to take a photo of the historic Murphys Hotel, serving the public since 1856. Under clear skies and crisp cool air I went a short block to Church Street on Algiers, hung a left and then hung a quick right onto the signed Sheep Ranch Road.

Immediately I started climbing on smooth pavement, passing houses among a forest of oaks, toyon, and pines. It wasn’t long before I started seeing the patch-quilt road for which Sheep Ranch is known. There are patches on patches on patches. At least there weren’t any wheel-sucking holes.

Mercer Caves
After a mile I reached the first summit (2,400 ft., 731 m) and started a bumpy descent, passing the Mercer Caves, at one time a sacred Indian burial site before being discovered by miner Walter J. Mercer in 1885. More teeth-chattering descending took me to San Domingo Creek, a scene I would learn to fear as the ups and downs took their toll.

I started another climb of about a mile, with the grade gradually increasing to as much as 13 percent, but I was fresh and in the cool air the climb didn’t faze me. A beautiful ranch house occupied an idyllic narrow canyon to my right.

At 2760 ft., 841 m. I started another descent. I would discover throughout the ride that the altitude never went above 2,800 feet and never went below 1,000 feet. How much climbing can there be in such a narrow span? Indian Creek, with its couple of played out mines, came next.

I started another climb. It was much the same, long stretches of 10 percent, punctuated by short sections of 13-15 percent. The miners no doubt carved a trail with horse and mule and later widened the path for horse and wagon, not giving much thought to gradient.

Passing Fallon Road on my right I told myself I would make a side excursion and come back down this way; there are uncompromising views higher up at 3,000 feet.

At 2,728 feet I crested the hill and started down the steep road to San Antonio Creek. This was a more serious descent with plenty of sections of 13-15 percent. The next climb is no less forgiving as it took me to Sheep Ranch, a community of sorts — mostly a collection of houses at an intersection.

Beyond Sheep Ranch the road improved and took on a civilized appearance with white fog lines and double-yellow center stripes. As I climbed the side of a rock wall I enjoyed a slightly less steep climb that eventually broke out into a lush valley studded with oak trees and the occasional ranch house.

After 13.8 miles I arrived at Railroad Flat Road and told myself it wasn’t that bad even if all the climbs were well over 10 percent. I was fresh.

Heading north on the wider Railroad Flat I enjoyed smooth pavement and light to moderate traffic. Railroad Flat had a nice descent dropping 100 feet into another wide valley.

Jesus Maria Delights
In four miles I arrived at my designated left turn onto Jesus Maria Road. It reminded me of a mish mash of roads in my area – Old La Honda, Carmel Valley’s upper reaches, and later even Ebbetts Pass. Each climb, and there were quite a few, jabbed up. No let up here. I finally reached the big descent where I stopped to take in the panorama of the Sierra foothills. I rested my bike against one of those flimsy reflector poles, where the road dropped straight down 20 feet. All it would have taken was a gust of wind…

Jesus Maria Road before the big descent.

I continued down the bumpy road for several miles before it leveled out in a secluded valley carved out by Jesus Maria Creek. Now this was my kind of riding.

Hawver for the Dogs
My next turn came on Hawver Road at the base of a steep hill occupied by the Blue Jay Mine. I knew Hawver was dirt. I downshifted after crossing the creek and started climbing. The road had gravel but it wasn’t too bad. Quickly the road steepened, 13-14-15-20 percent. When I was young and strong…no problem. Not today. This went on for 0.3 miles before the grade became more civilized.

I rode on climbing past occasional houses, wondering if I would be accosted by our four-legged friend. One house even had a sign for “Dog Crossing.” It was not far beyond this house where I had one of those moments of dread. Two Great Danes dashed from my left down a driveway, barking like crazy. I had a steep climb ahead and knew I couldn’t outrun them. As fate would have it, Danes are passive beasts and they didn’t run beyond the end of the driveway. I was spared.

More climbing with occasional flat sections through the countryside brought me to a brief descent on a section of pavement, followed by more dirt and then pavement again. As is typical for this area, the climb quickly turned into a slugfest with sections of 17 percent. I peaked at 1,656 feet and began the swift descent to the uninteresting Gold Strike Road.

San Andreas Rest
In less than 2 miles I arrived in San Andreas (1,008 ft.), 38 miles on my cyclometer, where I stopped for food and drink at a gas station. I bought a quart of Gatorade and figured that would see me back to Murphys. With the temperature hovering in the upper 70s it still wasn’t all the bad with a cooling breeze.

After a brief stretch of riding on moderately busy Hwy 49 I turned left onto Mountain Ranch Road and then right onto Calaveritas Road (little skulls). Each climb started seeming like it was too steep at this point as fatigue set in.

I arrived at the community of Calaveritas and had to stop to take a photo of the railroad trestle in the middle of nowhere. Lovely. This ancient mining town used to be hopping but the gold played out eons ago and the town burned down.

Fricot City Road’s Dirt

More climbing brought me to Fricot City Road, which headed uphill inexorably. At some point I knew it turned to dirt. Many sections of 14 percent punctuated the climb. By now it was getting annoying, especially considering I wasn’t gaining all that much altitude.

In all this wilderness I came upon yet another community in the middle of nowhere — a state-managed reform school, Rite of Passage, home of the Rams. I can think of worse places to be held. As I passed by this most unusual location high in the foothills, I saw teens working out on the well-manicured football field.

Fricot City Road at its most civilized shortly before pavement and Sheep Ranch Road.

Not far beyond the school the pavement turned to dirt. This time the climbing wasn’t so bad and I had high hopes I could make it to 2,700 feet without any steep stuff. As I rolled along looking at steep hillsides I was struck by how familiar it all seemed compared to Loma Prieta Road.

Pedaling along in the bright sunshine with smooth dirt under my wheels and wildflowers everywhere, what more could I ask for? Pretty soon the climbing became more serious with stretches of 10 percent. Finally, in what I later discovered would be the last of the climbing, some sections of 14 percent made life difficult.

At the crest of a hill with what looked like more climbing ahead I stopped and took a photo. I knew I was fairly close to pavement and Sheep Ranch, but I wondered if I could make it beyond that as the leg cramps were starting.

After less than a mile I reached pavement and raced down to Sheep Ranch Road, turned right and plunged back down to San Antonio Creek. From here the climbing took on a different complexion as the leg cramps took hold. Advil did not come to the rescue this time. I dipped my hat in the creek and brushed off a tick looking for a meal.

With temps in the low 80s I climbed back up the road I had raced down earlier in the day. At the summit of the climb I heard a hissing sound. Flat. A chance to rest.

Eventually I made it back to Murphys and rehydrated at the local food market. It was at this market on several Sierra rides we stopped for refreshments under the burning sun on our way back to Sonora.
Sheep Ranch Road lived up to its reputation in every respect. In only 63 miles I had logged 9,230 feet of climbing. (The Mt. Hamilton ride of 102 miles is only 7,800 feet of climbing.) But I didn’t see a single sheep.

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