5 hidden mountain bike rides less than an hour from Petaluma

In spite of its “extreme” reputation, mountain biking can be a quiet, contemplative, therapeutic activity, accessible to riders of all levels.

Hidden realms of wonder surround us, and your mountain bike can take you there. And you won’t have to dodge cars and trucks along the way! Yes, you’ll probably fall down at some point, but chances are you’ll get up, laugh, brush yourself off and call it an adventure.

For novices and casual riders, it’s particularly important to match where you choose to ride with how you prefer to ride. For example, Annadel State Park, the epicenter of Sonoma County mountain biking, is not the best place for beginners or those who prefer a less demanding experience.

Here are a few suggestions for novice-level, user-friendly dirt rides. Technical Difficulty (TD) refers to the degree which your bike-handling skills will be tested. Gravity Bludgeon Factor (GBF) refers to fitness required. In either case, when you encounter a tough section, it’s okay to walk the bike.

That’s why mountain biking shoes have recessed cleats, so you can walk in them. You heard it here first.

Rush Creek and Deer Island Open Space Preserves, Novato

Drive time from Petaluma: 15 minutes. TD: low. GBF: low.

Here you will find the kinder, gentler riding Bush the elder promised us. The options are limited, but what’s there is peaceful, relaxing, quiet and scenic. Beware, there’s enough poison oak to cover a blimp in weeping blisters (which hopefully won’t hover over your family picnic). Google “Rush Creek Open Space Preserve” or “Deer Island Open Space Preserve.”

Bear Valley Trail, Olema

Drive time from Petaluma: 45 minutes. TD: low. GBF: low.

A well-maintained, well-mannered fire road that follows Bear Valley creek through a lush, leafy valley that provides some shelter from coastal weather. Out-and-back from the Bear Valley Visitor Center to the end of the bike-legal section, marked by signage and a bike rack, is about 6.5 miles, round trip.

From the bike rack, if you want to continue to the coast, you’ll have to do it on foot. This is the most popular trail in the park, so expect plenty of foot traffic. Google “Point Reyes National Seashore map,” then click on “South District Trail Map.”

Bolinas Ridge Trail, Olema

Drive time from Petaluma: 40 minutes. TD: low. GBF: low to moderate.

This fire road/double track runs the top of the Bolinas Ridge from Olema all the way to Fairfax-Bolinas Road, about 11 miles. From the trailhead on Sir Francis Drake Boulevard, go as far as suits you and then throw it in reverse.

Views include redwood groves and wildflowers in the spring. There are some deep ruts, but they will swallow you only if you make a point of riding into them - kind of like sticking your arm in a giant clam and tickling its uvula.

The various options that drop down the sides of the ridge are for the strong and adventurous. Google “Bolinas Ridge trail map.”

Five Brooks – Wildcat Camp, Olema

Drive time: 45 minutes. TD: low. GBF: moderate.

This is your ticket to a breathtaking world apart, but fair coastal weather is a must. Start at Five Brooks Stables parking lot and take the Stewart Trail (actually a dirt road) up to Firtop summit (about a 1,000-foot elevation gain), then continue down to Wildcat Camp on the coast, 6.7 miles one way. As an added bonus, it’s worth the walk down the beach about a mile to Alamere Falls. The return trip gets steep as you approach Firtop summit and a few rest/walking breaks may be in order.

Plenty of foot and hoof traffic on the weekends. Google “Point Reyes National Seashore map”, then click on “South District Trail Map.”

Mount Burdell, Novato

Drive time from Petaluma: 15 minutes. TD: low. GBF: moderate.

Loose-over-hardpack fire roads that for the most part are in pretty good shape, but there are some rough patches. Standard-issue California oak savanna offers great views.

There are options to form loops of various lengths. You can’t get lost unless you insist on riding blindfolded. Easiest access is from the gate at the big bend in San Andreas Drive. It’s a shame you can’t drop into adjoining Olompali State Historic Park from Burdell summit, but nay, it’s not permitted.

Let us be thankful for that which is. Google “Mount Burdell Open Space.”

(NOTE: This column has been changed to reflect that biking along the beach is not allowed in Point Reyes National Seashore. Matt Muldoon is active in the Petaluma cycling community. He is a member of the Petaluma Wheelmen cycling club and a volunteer coach with the Casa Grande High School bike team.)

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