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17-Mile Drive: A bike ride like no other

I’m a “scenic” cyclist. When it comes to biking, I’m in it for what there is to see, and the Pebble Beach 17-Mile Drive offers a perfect ride with its visual feast of twisted Monterey cypress forests, gorgeous coastal panoramas, golden beaches, and sneak peeks at the extraordinary homes of the rich and famous.

A many-splendored ride

Situated between Pacific Grove and Carmel on the Monterey Peninsula, the 17-Mile Drive loop first opened in 1881. As the area developed, the route shifted, yet still remains exactly 17 miles long.

The Drive charges an entry free for cars, but it’s free for cyclists. From the Pacific Grove Gate entry, the road swiftly descends to the coast, swinging along Spanish Bay’s south side, before curling towards Point Joe and China Rock, named in honor of the Chinese fishing villages once situated in the area. With surf frothing over promontories against a backdrop of the infinite navy-blue Pacific Ocean, it’s a natural photo op.

Bird Rock is for the birds – literally. These guano-whitened heaps of rock jutting from the ocean provide safe haven for nesting cormorants as well as other species. Near Seal Rock, listen for honking seals, happily sunning themselves or arguing on the rock’s crest. Fanshell Overlook provides a sweeping vista of the route you’ve just covered. And then, it’s into the woods.

This is when biking 17-Mile Drive is actually becomes even more fun than driving it. The second half of the ride snakes up a short steep hill, narrowing as it enters into a cypress forest, before twining its way among the mansions of the rich and famous. Stand up on your pedals, and you can often peer over the walls to glimpse architecturally stunning homes. It’s also easier to stop and stare through gates. Cars can only stop in designated areas.

The multi-million dollar homes are built on a grand scale. The architecture ranges from eclectic to elegant, from uber-modern to Spanish missionary. On one ride, I stopped to chat with a carpenter who was hand-hewing, then smoothing down roof rafters from a massive pine. He shared that the demand for distinctive architecture and unique interior facets draws many artisan crafters to the region.

Ancient Monterey Cypresses
Although planted elsewhere, the Monterey cypress only occurs naturally in two places in the California, both on the Monterey Peninsula – and 17-Mile Drive passes through one of them. Pause at Cypress Point Overlook to view the rugged Pacific coastline twisting southwards. A short pedal beyond is Crocker Grove, a 13-acre nature preserve that hosts numerous native species. It’s a good place for a break and to take a nice hike to see the “granddaddy” of all Monterey Cypresses.

The road treks along through the forest, opening to a reveal the 250-year old famous Lone Cypress clutching the ragged rocks of a steep promontory. One of California’s most recognized and photographed landmarks, it’s protected from any contact. Visitors can hike down to a viewing platform, or enjoy the view from the roadway overlook. The Drive then meanders through Ghost Grove, an eerie gathering of living and dead cypresses, trunks bleached white by sea spray and sun.

A final downhill roll and you’ve arrived at Pebble Beach Lodge in Stillwater Cove. There’s an old street clock that makes a great photo op – take a selfie to prove you’ve really been there!

At this point, the Drive loops back, making a steady climb up the ridge for a great view of Monterey Bay, and then wanders back along the ridge through pine groves and homes, passing Huckleberry Hill and the Poppy Hills Golf Course, as it heads back to the Pacific Grove Gate. Many cyclists choose instead to turnaround and enjoy the coastal portion of the ride from a different angle.

So you can’t get lost, the 17-Mile Drive loop is marked by a dashed red line. You can download a map which outlines the route and its highlights to plan your ride ( Motorcycles are not permitted on the Drive.

The first part of the ride from the Pacific Grove gate allows ample shoulder space for bikers. Starting at Spyglass Hill, you share the road with traffic, and biking single file is a must. Classified as an easy-to-moderate ride, morning through early afternoon is the best time for your trip, as traffic is minimal.

Expect temperature shifts as the Drive passes through a variety of topographies – bring layers. Contrary to what normally happens in mountainous areas, it usually gets warmer instead of cooler as you climb because the cooling influence of the ocean does not reach the higher elevations. Do bring plenty of water and a picnic, as there are no places to stop for food until you reach the Pebble Beach Lodge.