Bike to Climb: Cosumnes River Gorge

Cosumnes River Gorge is a destination for Bay Area and Sactown climbers looking to cut our teeth fists on granite. It’s a great place to learn crack climbing and set trad protection, all the necessary skills to tackle, for example, El Capitan in Yosemite. Now hot tip: you can totally get there by a leisurely train, bus and bike ride. Add on a camp out under the stars and that’s a cragging weekend to remember. Jump to the Trip Description.

My first view of Cosumnes River Gorge is a mossy dome of granite emerging from the Sierra foothills. It hulks, it hefts, it has all the classic qualities of batholith—a plug of hardened magma rising rapidly through the earth’s crust.

Biking to Cosumnes is equally scenic. I get off the bus station in Placerville, cruise the bike trail through town, and turn onto a quiet, gold-country road. It’s California winter with black oaks baring black branches. I pass ranch-style houses with a view and a few red-sided barns. Trump flag and solar panel country.

Only an hour and a half later, I’ve stashed my bike in the bushes and start walking down to the crag. Gutenberg Wall towers above the river, but the main attraction today is the guy highlining 300 feet up above the gorge. His entire family is staked out in lawn chairs. Dad captures it all on a telephoto lens and one sibling wears a Search and Rescue shirt. Now that’s support!

The crag is busy with climbers, but thins out by moonrise. In the evening, I maze through a tunnel of manzanita bushes and find a flat spot for my sleeping bag. Sun sets, dome glows, stars pop, river murmurs.

Next morning, I shake the frost off my bag and jog in place eating cold oatmeal. My friends and I set up top-ropes and start crack jamming with cold fingers and toes. After lunch, I cruise up the fist and finger jams of Testpiece with the sun on my face, pack up my panniers, and ride back to catch the bus.

It’s my first bike camping and climbing overnight. As the climbers say: You Smashed It.

Trip Description

Climbing: See Cosumnes River Gorge on Mountain Project or your favorite local guidebook. I toproped the popular and satisfying crack routes Beginner’s Crack, Unconquerable, and Test Piece on the Main Area of Buck’s Bar Dome.

Transportation: From the Bay Area, take Amtrak Capitol Corridor to Sacramento and transfer onto the bus for Placerville (the Hwy 50, South Lake Tahoe Route). The El Dorado County Transit bus has racks for 3 bikes.

With the weekend schedule, I left Oakland at 7am and arrived in Placerville at 11am, with an hour stop in Sacramento for breakfast. On the way back, the bus picked up in Placerville at 4pm, which was plenty of time for morning cragging and riding back to the station. There was an hour-long dinnertime layover in Sacramento (I biked a few blocks away for a steaming bowl of ramen) and then back to Oakland before 9pm. Schedules change, so check your plans with Amtrak.

Route: Map here. Take Cedar Ravine Road from Placerville, cross Pleasant Valley Road and turn onto Bucks Bar Road. Easy and all paved. It was about 11 miles and 1.5 hours for me on a well-loaded mountain bike. The trailhead is on the right, easily identifiable by all cars in the pullout and the stickers on railing.

Note that Google routed me on (Un)Pleasant Valley Road, which got me flipped off by MAGA guys on a high traffic road with no shoulder. Not recommended.

Camping: Dispersed camping on BLM land*, no bathrooms, no trash cans, no water unless you filter, not a ton of flat spots but you can find them. If you disperse camp, ideally bring a WAG bag for poop, definitely pack out your trash, don’t start a fire or you’ll burn down California again. If you’re driving, better to check out nearby camping areas like Sly Park Campground (12 miles uphill).

*Cosumnes River Gorge was purchased by the American River Conservancy and given to the BLM to preserve the watershed (and access to climbing, woo!). Make a donation to American River Conservancy for their good work.

Season: Spring and fall probably the best. In the first week of January, my water bottle froze and the rock was quite cold for climbing until mid-morning. Very hot in the summer, climb early and jump in the river afterward. It’s a great swim hole!

Wanna bike and climb with me? Drop a comment below!

4 thoughts on “Bike to Climb: Cosumnes River Gorge

  1. Awesome post,Ginger! I love multi-modal trips. Have done many bike-Amtrak-ferry trips, but waiting for my immune system to recover and the pandemic to ease to resume public transit. But I can now combine sailing and kayaking on the same trip! There’s always a way. Are you sorry you sold your kayak and bike trailer?

  2. Very cool. I haven’t been there since the late 80s but used to know it well when I guided for Outdoor Adventures UCD. And this is interesting. You call it Consumnes, with two ‘n’s. That’s what I knew it as all those years. But I see now on MP they call it Cosumnes, and google maps refers to it as Cosumnes River Gorge. Do you know anything about the name change (and why you use the old spelling)?

    1. Interesting! The Falcon Guide, “Rock Climbing in the San Francisco Bay Area” calls it Consumnes, but now I see most other places, including BLM use Cosumnes. Wikipedia says Central Valley locals add the extra “n”.

      I went on a little etymology search and see that Alfred Kroeber (Ursula K. Leguin’s dad and founder of the UC Berkeley anthro department!) discusses the name in “California Place Names of Indian Origin”. He attributes it to Plains Miwok, Southern Maidu and English/Spanish origins. I’m going to edit to Cosumnes to respect the Indian origins of the prefix, though it’s all quite mixed up and likely not the original Plains Miwok name for the river anyway.

      Thanks for sending me on this search, here’s the Kroeber paper if ya want to look it up.

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