Wards Ferry Road crosses the Tuolumne River canyon at the east end of Lake Don Pedro and connects Sonora to Groveland and Big Oak Flat. A bike ride on Wards Ferry is an adventure unto itself with steep descents on narrow pavement with almost no traffic and epic climbs out of the canyon in either direction. The descent from the Groveland side is especially fine. The low-tech historic road stands in stark contrast to the modern graffitti-plastered bridge over the river, built when the river was inundated by Lake Don Pedro.
The loop uses New Priest Grade, the long winding section of SR 120 between Moccasin and Big Oak Flat. Ride the loop clockwise to descend on New Priest Grade and minimize time on the heavily traveled highway, or do it counter-clockwise if you’d rather, but pick an off-peak time to avoid buses, boats, and RVs and the intermingled smells of overheating brakes and coolant as you climb the grade.
Old Priest Grade is the much straighter, narrower, and steeper road parallel to and to the south of the highway. South County locals depend on the old road to bypass the slower traffic on the highway, so it may be driven faster and with less attention to your safety than you might like. The locals will not expect bikes on this road. If you really can’t resist the pull of a ridiculously steep climb, look for a quiet time to conquer Old Priest Grade, perhaps very early on a Sunday morning. It would be great to close the road for a couple of hours per year to let everyone get a chance to suffer up the hill. For a slightly less ambitious but traffic free and still plenty nutso substitute, try Covington Road in Columbia.
The bike ride can be extended to Coulterville via Priest-Coulterville Road and Marshes Flat Road or SR 49. Return via Jacksonville and Twist Roads. The loop on the map was started from the shady spot at the intersection of Murphy Road and Lime Kiln Road, but the ride can be started in Sonora or Jamestown. Big Oak Flat has places to refuel. Moccasin has no store, but is an interesting stop to explore a piece of the Hetch Hetchy system supplying water and power to San Francisco. There is small neighborhood of modest employee housing reminiscent of similar public projects of its day like the Presidio and the older State Parks, and there is a historic Powerhouse. There is green, shade, and bodies of water (no swimming) on a hot summer day.
Combining Wards Ferry with Cottonwood Road out of Tuolumne, Cherry Lake Road, and SR 120 makes a loop worthy of training for the Death Ride with multiple climbs through the various forks and tributaries of the Tuolumne.
Download file to view the loop on the Google Earth bike map
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- 32 miles, as mapped
- about 5,000 feet total climb
- roads: paved
- terrain: moderately hilly to very steep
- tires: road
- seasons: all, with precautions for summer heat
- current weather