Salmon Falls Road for the uninitiated

Between the busy stretch of Highway 49 east of Auburn and the upscale housing developments of western El Dorado Hills lies a ribbon of silky-smooth asphalt draped over some of the spikiest hills in the area. Salmon Falls Road follows the eastern shore of Folsom Lake as it winds north through El Dorado Hills towards the tiny hamlet of Pilot Hill, taking in some outstanding climbs and descents on the way.

Riders looking for the sort of road-riding they see on TV each year during the Tour De France have the opportunity to pretend they’re ascending the Alps or the Pyrenees, if just for a few miles. Sweeping bends take brave and energetic riders around the dramatic landscape of Sweetwater Basin, offering views of the lake, the surrounding hills, and some of the enormous mansions nestled on the hillsides.

To reach Salmon Falls Road from the Sacramento area, cyclists usually approach from the west along Blue Ravine/Green Valley Road in Folsom. This is a busy, loud, miserable few minutes of riding, but Green Valley has an adequate dedicated cycle lane. Riders should still take care, however, as many drivers on this stretch are not fond of sharing the road, and will often veer into cycle lanes when turning right.

Green Valley Road dishes out a long, straight climb up to the intersection with Francisco Drive before leveling out and dropping away at the intersection with Salmon Falls Road and El Dorado Hills Blvd. Turn left here, and enjoy the immediate drop in noise and traffic as the road bends gently to the right. Salmon Falls then takes riders on an undulating, semi-rural cruise past fields and estates before the climbing begins.

As you start to ascend, the road narrows, which can be disconcerting. Traffic on this stretch is generally light, but some drivers insist on side-swiping, honking, gesticulating or engaging in other obnoxious behaviors when they encounter cyclists on the road. Try and stick to the right shoulder and most vehicles should be able to pass without any trouble.

An easy climb quickly turns into a long, exhilarating descent, which ends with a steep left turn before climbing hard out of the valley again. This is one of the nicest climbs along the road; long, scenic, tough but not too painful for most riders. As you crest the hill, a small housing development on the left signals the start of another fast descent down to the Salmon Fall Bridge, where traffic can be a little heavier. On the other side of the bridge, there is a parking lot with restrooms.

Just beyond the parking lot, the road climbs steeply up towards Pilot Hill. This is the toughest portion of the ride, and it will challenge even the most experienced riders. The narrow, winding blacktop pushes up and up with no pauses for almost three miles before it finally evens out at Pilot Hill. Many stretches of the climb are impossibly steep, with precarious drop-aways a few feet from the edge of the tarmac. The views – mostly behind – are impressive and far-reaching, but best saved for the ride back down.

The 2010 Tour of California took in this portion of Salmon Falls road in one of the earliest stages, taking riders in the opposite direction and incorporating two long, stiff climbs. Local climbing fanatics are encouraged to come out to Salmon Falls Road if they have never ridden it: the more cyclists on the roads, the better behaved the drivers, which can only be a good thing.

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