Lucia to Fort Hunter-Liggett
Central Coast California
Ride the Pacific Coast mountain range
RIDE IT on a PASHNIT MOTORCYCLE TOUR
28 Miles - LENGTH
Narrow coast range mountain road, poor to good PAVEMENT
Many hairpins, huge drop-offs, sandy, blind one-lane - CURVES
Lucia to Fort Hunter-Liggett - CONNECTS
King City, Jolon (on base), Gorda - GAS
Mission San Antonio de Padua - HISTORY
2780 ft - PEAK ELEVATION
Twisty narrow paved one-lane mountain road. Worth the detour off Hwy 1 at least to ride to the top of the range and back to see the Big Sur Coastline. Numerous viewpoints.
Looking for a rather slow but very twisty road that traverses the coastal mountain range and drops you smack in the middle of the Californian Big Sur coastline? You should be. This would be Nacimiento Road which is the only paved road splitting 100 miles of rugged Big Sur Coastline providing a backdoor to the Pacific. Won't recommend a specific direction to ride it, either one will do you fine. But as to stick with the reward at the end, let's ride it westbound from Fort Hunter Liggett.
You can reach the start of this ride after riding Highway G14 (aka Jolon Rd pronounced “ho-LOAN”) from either King City (19 miles) coming from the north or Paso Robles (45 miles) from the south. The most direct route from the 101 freeway is exit at Jolon Rd (Hwy G18) and ride for Lockwood. Not much gas out here, so make sure you have a full tank before heading out into some of California's more remote riding areas. There is a single pump along Jolon Rd six miles east of Jolon at the Pleyto Country Store north of San Antonio Reservoir serving the boat traffic.
The region is remote and isolated. There are signs denoting you've entered a military reservation as the base lies on either side of Jolon Rd. The main entrance to the Fort Hunter Liggett Military Reservation is well marked; an EZ-Up on steroids provides shelter for the gate guards if there are any. The street name is Mission Rd. Gate guards (private security) can answer any questions, but will warn you to keep speeds low on the base, plus not to stray off the main road. The M-551A1 Sheridan tank pictured below is just inside the main gate.
If you enjoy a slice of history, Mission Rd leads to one of the state's most well-preserved California Missions. Mission San Antonio de Padua was founded in 1771 by Father Serra as the Spanish crept up the California Coastline establishing a network of missions to convert the indigenous Indians to Christianity. These missions today stretch from San Diego all the way to Petaluma north of San Francisco. Mission San Antonio in the San Antonio Valley is said to be the best preserved of them all. The gardens inside the courtyard have also been completely restored in the last few years.
Isolated from the Gold Rush that flooded California with Argonauts in the 1850s (the largest mass migration of people in modern history), the valley was originally a large cattle ranch, then owned by William Randolph Hearst who continued to use San Antonio Valley for ranching. The Hearst Foundation aided the preservation of the mission and financed its restoration in 1949. The land was later traded to the US Government to become the Army base Fort Hunter Liggett that exits today.
The mission is still active to this day, and church services are still held there every Sunday at 10 a.m. The mission is open daily 10am-4pm (8:30am-6pm June to September). Closed Christmas day. Mark your calendar, the Annual Festival is the second weekend in June.
There is gas on base at 80 Infantry Rd near the mission.
Located within the Fort Hunter Liggett military base, the Hacienda is a historic building that now functions as a hotel. The 1930s hotel was built by William Randolph Hearst and designed by Hearst Castle architect Julia Morgan.
The property was placed in the National Register of Historic Places on December 2, 1977. Sold by Hearst in 1940 to the United States Army, the hotel was originally known as the Milpitas Hacienda, Hacienda Guest Lodge and Milpitas Ranch House.
The Hacienda also sits a short distance away from the Mission San Antonio de Padua established in 1771. The mission fell into disrepair in the late 1800s, and was further damaged by the 1906 earthquake.
Restoration efforts have spanned over 50 plus years, and beginning in 2005, a team of volunteers began restoring the gardens in the interior courtyard of the Mission. Over 8 million dollars has been spent on a state-mandated seismic retro-fit and the mission states 75% of the work has been completed although they expect to spend another $35 million to restore this historic site. The mission is made out of adobe, which is mud bricks often mix with straw. Steel rebar is added to the adobe walls to give the structure strength as this site is over an active earthquake zone.
There is a quick loop that can be ridden around the mission. Hang a left on Del Venturi Rd and circle around on Milpitas Rd (just after crossing the San Antonio River), and back on Sulphur Springs Rd.
Nacimiento-Fergusson Road (commonly called Nacimiento Rd) begins when it cuts off from Mission Creek Rd and begins the westward trek. The photo at right is the concrete water crossing which is parallel to the steel bridge. So no, you don't have to ford the San Antonio River to ride the road. But you can.
The sad part of this ride is quickly evident in the photos below. Yes Virginia, that's wide-open smooth two lane, a meandering gentle ride across the Stony Valley. Massive oaks line the road and an occasional tank range are worth gaping at for a moment or two. Note the signs for tank crossings (25 mph speed limit here) and specially built concrete pads in the road to support the weight of the tanks.
It's easy to see why the Army wanted this land from William Randolph Hearst. It was purchased in 1940 and used as a training facility during WWII peaking at a coverage of 266,950 acres.
Even at its present size of 165,000 acres, it's the largest Army Reserve Base in the United States. Despite its vast size, there are said to be only 250 full time staff that live on base. 250 people on 165,000 acres makes for a very remote place.
Hearst Castle is directly across the mountain range from Fort Hunter Liggett and one of Hearst's mistresses even lived here at the Milpitas Ranch House which was designed by architect Julia Morgan. Marion Davies, Dick Powell, Will Rogers, Jean Harlowe and Errol Flynn have all stayed at the Hacienda as guests of Hearst during the 1930s.
With warnings from the gate guard in mind, the meandering ride becomes a 40 mph limit, then slower, then even slower. Oh well. Not much one can do about that. Hand on hip, enjoy the ride and scenery.
The tank ranges are interesting although I've yet to ride through here when active military exercises are taking place. The adjacent valleys provide an excellent natural range for tank exercises. The Air Force also uses the ranges for live fire bombing runs. Several rides through here have seen vast stretches of land blighted from grass fires.
With summer temperatures that can easily reach 100+ degrees in these mountain valleys, the spring green can quickly go to a golden brown. Fire danger is so high, over 800 miles of fire breaks have been graded across the base to quickly fight & contain fires. Winter brings out the brilliant green you often see in these photos and the closer you get to the coast, the green continues to increase.
The high quality pavement lasts about 8 miles before the road begins to narrow. When Nacimiento reaches the east boundary of the base, another unmanned guard shack appears. On the flip side of the reservation border, the road changes face to a narrow mountain road up an over the range.
Motorcyclist Magazine (Oct '05) once named Nacimiento Road as one of the Top 10 Motorcycle Roads in the World. The article was written by Werner Watcher, the owner of Edelweiss Bike Tours and I'm not sure if local riders familiar with California's vast array of dreamy motorcycle roads would agree. I wrote a similar article for Friction Zone Magazine a few years back with somewhat different choices. California's Top 5 Roads
Even Reader's Digest hopped on the bandwagon adding Nacimiento Rd to their "The Most Scenic Drives in America" list calling it "a white-knuckle side trip with hairpin curves and panoramic views."
If you love narrow mountain backroads, you will love the Santa Lucia Mountain section of this ride into the Los Padres National Forest. While the eastern half of the road was level with the San Antonio River, now it must go up and over to the range. And if you are brave enough to ride this in the height of the summer heat, a welcome respite is in store.
Nacimiento flows over a cattle grate and that wide pavement ends. Here it twists and turns, carving itself up this mountainous valley past a small campground (Nacimiento State Campground- 8 sites, open year-round) along the Nacimiento River which at this point is just a small mountain stream. Word has it this is a good stream for trout fishing.
The road here can be dirty. Especially in spring, be wary of sand kicked up onto the road in tight hairpins where vehicles cut the corner and kick the slippery stuff onto the road. Paving varies through the years and no center line exists on the western half.
There will be opposing traffic on this road so keep an especially watchful eye on blind corners. Anything from a pickup pulling a camper to the entire Corvette Club.
All motorcyclists love a good story. This one involves a Pashnit Motorcycle Tour I was leading in late April. Hwy 1 was closed south of Montery due to a slide and we routed around this portion by heading south on Carmel Valley Road. Halfway down, it began to rain and we paused the tour group to put on rain suits. A light cold rain, nothing to worry about and we continued to Fort Hunter Liggett to make our way back out to the coast via Nacimiento Rd. Climbing the coast range, the rain we had experienced earlier had fallen as snow here.
A light fluffy snow had accumulated on tree branches, hillsides, capped all the adjacent hilltops and created a slushy mess on the road surface. We've ridden through this type of snow before, and it was only a few miles to the summit.
Once we crested the range, we would be able to coast down the ocean side and quickly leave the snow behind. All went exactly as planned and we played in the snow on the summit. A marvel to see in person, all the surrounding mountaintops were covered in snow overlooking a deep blue Pacific Ocean. Two decades of riding this region and never seen anything like it - just beautiful!
When the ride climbs to 2780 feet at the crest of the Santa Lucia Mountains, you'll notice two fire roads headed in either direction of north and south. The northerly one is North Coast Ridge Rd (aka Cone Peak Rd) which heads 6 miles to the Cone Peak Trailhead. Cone Peak at 5155 ft is the highest coastal mountain in the Lower 48. Cone Peak can also be reached from Lime Kiln State Park.
Cone Peak is said to be one of the most spectacular coastal mountains in the Lower 48 States. At 5155' high and less than 3 miles from the ocean, the average gradient from summit to sea is 33%, which is steeper than Mt. Whitney to Owens Valley. From the summit on Nacimiento Rd, take a 2 mile trail to the summit with 1300' of elevation gain. You can also hike the mountain starting from the ocean at Kirk Creek Campground and hike the 23-mile round trip up Vicente Flat Trail with a 5300 ft elevation change. You can even camp at the summit near an old fire lookout. The views are amazing. (Click link to view a Google Image search for Cone Peak Trail fire lookout).
This region may experience wildfires. In 2016 during the height of a 4-year drought, the Soberanes Fire burned 132,127 acres through steep canyons and as we rode down the coast that season with the Pashnit Tour group, we could see the fire had burned down the hillside all the way to edge of Highway 1 and almost to the ocean in some places.
South Coast Ridge Road is a yearly graded fire road that will connect back with Highway 1 some 23 miles later. Easily tackled on your garden-variety dual-sport or larger adventure bike, South Coast Ridge Road (FR 23S05) runs for 15 miles to Los Burros Road (FR 23S01) with an additional 8-mile sequence carved into the spine of the range. Satellite maps also show Plaskett Ridge Road connects back to Highway 1, but county level maps also reveal at least three gates on it too.
The southerly entrance to this ride of Los Burros Road (aka Willow Creek Rd) is found at Cape San Martin 2 miles south of Plaskett Creek Campground and 1 mile north of Gorda. If you venture onto roads such as this, take detailed maps such as USFS maps or GPS as numerous unmarked spur roads split off from this 23-mile route atop the range. The view on this road is truly the meeting of heaven and man.
Freak snow flurries on the Coast Range in late April
Up until now, all epithets of 'best road', 'most scenic' and any other 'in the world' designations have fallen on deaf ears, weighted under a heaping pile of California Roads that far eclipse this particular ride. You can smell it and feel it long before you can see it, but once you crest the Santa Lucia Range, the very sight of the Pacific Ocean from these heights is positively overwhelming! Make sure you stop for a moment to absorb the view.
Nacimiento Rd cuts down a grassy hillside interspersed with occasional trees and the usual drop-offs into the canyon below. Short-lived valleys all contain groves of trees that the road will delve into from time to time, but for the majority of the ride down, it is a wide open view across the Pacific.
The ride will drop 3000 feet in a few miles so pick your viewpoint at will. Each one provides a slightly different photo if you're in pursuit of that perfect magazine article shot (Cycle World, Issue 3, 2019).
Despite the coolness of the ocean, the hillsides will be a golden brown color in fall. So if you love that glowing green color, make sure to ride in the springtime when all these hillsides are alive with wildflowers and fresh grasses.
While springtime will give the best photos, it can also bring heavy rains which if you look at the photo at right, notice the mud that covers the inside of the corner. Not exactly the best riding conditions, but it can make for an adventurous ride.
The streams that fall from the Santa Lucia Mountains vary from year to year in flow and these quick forays into the trees offer a respite from the heat in summer. If you are the hiking sort, you can actually make out the path along the creek.
It was an adventurous day. As we climbed Nacimiento Road, one particular hillside was collapsing and water was seeping from the sludge as it oozed onto the road. I felt as though if I waited there long enough, I might be able to see the hillside actually moving.
A springtime of heavy rains all along the Pacific Coast brought this scene to us. The road, if you can see, was completely covered with a thin layer of slimy mud.
My fellow tour guide had his hand up to warn the riders following him up Nacimiento Road. We had to duck under the tree but everyone made it just fine, including the two-up couple from Texas on the Goldwing in front of him.
The last portion of the ride is where the view is the strongest of the Big Sur Coastline with sweeping 180 degree views both north and south.
Brilliant green changes to golden brown in the fall season
Nacimiento Road finally ends when it reaches the base of the mountain and intersects with Highway 1. There is a cattle grate at the very edge of the road on a slope in a 90 degree corner that's worth pointing out since you have to stop here for traffic. The campground you can see in the photos right on the ocean is Kirk Creek and offers several campsites right above the crashing surf. The campground is located on a bluff overlooking the Pacific Ocean, at an elevation of about 100 feet. It offers fantastic views of the Big Sur coastline. Campsites are spacious, open and grassy. Each site has a view of the ocean, where sunrises and sunsets are outstanding.
North of this ride is Lime Kiln State Park and a few more miles at the point is Lucia. The Lucia Lodge, originally built in the 1930s is located here with a small restaurant and 10 cabins sitting perched 300 feet above the ocean. No cell signal. No TV. Just you and that ocean. Lucia Lodge has a small restaurant and we have stopped here for lunch with the Pashnit Tour group. The restaurant is open for lunch and dinner throughout the year. Lunch is served between 11 AM and 4:30 PM. There is indoor seating for rainy wet days and outdoor deck overlooking the ocean for warm sunny days.
South nine miles away is Gorda which does have gas that is often the highest priced gas in the state on any given day. Beyond that lies Salmon Creek Waterfall and Ragged Point.
My least favorite corner along Nacimiento Road is pictured above, the hairpin at left. While I love hairpins as much as the next guy, vehicles seem perfectly content, likely even finding it sporting, to cut the corner and spray the road with a layer of sand and gravel.
While the supermotard fella in front of me lights up the rear and powers around probably grinning from ear to ear, my trek is a carefully chosen tepid path of least resistance.
And get ready for a dramatic change in temperature as you begin the descent to the ocean below. Temps can easily drop 20 degrees, and if it is summer hot, that will be a welcome change. Heat in the valley also creates fog, and we've been at the summit many times looking down on a marine layer of fog hanging over the ocean. Every ride is different but fog is more prevalent in the mornings and often burns off by mid-day. However, there are Pashnit Tours we've done along Highway 1 Big Sur where we never saw the ocean. All day fog is possible.
Once you look into the photos shown here on this page, pause for a moment & stare into them. You'll quickly realize Nacimiento Road has to be the best place on the Pacific Coast for taking photos. The sense of space gazing out over the surface of the ocean is overwhelming. On the right day with the right light, the ocean is the deepest blue.
Every trip along Highway 1 Big Sur should include a ride up Nacimiento Road to the top of the range and back down. No it's not necessary go all the way to the summit, the ride up is endlessly twisty but it's not a go fast road. Nacimiento requires concentration and patience. Don't have the time, ride a mile up to capture the photo below of Highway 1. One amazing viewpoint leads to another and then leads to another.
Nacimiento Road has one of our all-time favorite vistas in the state, these visually stunning viewpoints pictured here are easily missed if you didn't know about Nacimiento Road. It's worth it to take a moment, get off the main highway and climb up the range until you hit an elevation with a great view. After 7 miles of sharp turns, switchbacks and jaw-dropping views, it reaches the 2780 ft summit. The views never stop and you can ride all the way up to the top of the crest of the range or stop half-way up.
Nacimiento Road is paved, but goaty, narrow and the usual drop-offs into the valley below. Some claim it is one of the best motorcycle roads on the Central Coast. I suppose that depends on what you came for, and what bike you are on. Views, yes. Great pavement, nope. It also dips in and out of forest alcoves that blanket the hillsides at times, and then bursts out into steep hillsides covered in scrub brush. Watch out for car clubs. Trains of corvettes coming over the range from King City may suddenly appear coming around a blind corner.
The view alone is worth it, ride on up to the viewpoint of your choice, and then ride back down. We think it’s a can’t miss and have taken every tour group up to one of the viewpoints for nearly 20 years. During the heat of summer, the temperature will change 20 degrees in 5 miles as you ride out of the cool blanket of air that sits atop the ocean surface.
If your Highway 1 ride is non-stop fog, this detour is a must to run up Nacimiento Rd until you ride above the ocean fog layer.