Whether you are new to an area or just got your first gravel bike to explore the backroads you have been living near for years, you are probably wondering where you should ride. You are not alone. Between moving home several times and frequently working in new places as an active travel guide, I have had to start my local bike route repertoire from scratch too many times to count. Thankfully, studying as a geologist, working as a travel guide, and taking on many of my own adventures by bike and foot, has afforded me the ability to easily discover local routes. I have learned through a lot of trial, and error, what makes a route safest and anxiety-free. That doesn’t mean it takes a geology degree to find a decent gravel road or trail. It’s super simple to plan a route anywhere once you know where, and how, to look. The best part about planning a route for your gravel bike is having more options on what roads to take since you are better equipped for any road surface!
Alexa cooking up a spicy gravel route at home.
What Is a Gravel Road & Why Is It?
Take a moment to think about what a “groad” (gravel road) really is and why they exist. Keep in mind, not all groads are literally loose aggregations of small stones. Depending on the nature of the local geology, the groad could also be broken-up asphalt, sand, packed dirt, mud, slickrock, big rocks, sharp rocks, round rocks, etc. That’s what makes the roads so technical, and fun, for cycling.
Knowing why these roads exist in the first place will help you figure out how to best go about finding more information about them. Groads that pass through agriculture are simply the most affordable option for farm trucks and tractors. Some groads could be abandoned railway tracks that have been converted into recreational pathways called “rail trails”. Most unpaved roads on federal lands are for some kind of access by the public, land management, and/or private corporations. It requires a decent sum of money and labor to make a road--even an unpaved one. So, naturally, every groad was developed for a reason. We can use these reasons to learn more about groads near you.
You can use your favorite search engine to find out more about what kind of land you have access to, what kinds of maps are readily available, and who might have already done some gravel riding in the area before you. Take a quick look at a map application like Google Maps to see what kind of land you’re going to be riding on: recreational, agricultural, commercial, or residential.
If you’re traveling to a popular area like a national park, you may find countless accounts of gravel rides that folks have already done by simply searching “gravel bike routes in [insert name] national park”. Although, you should still take note of when they completed the ride as parts of the route could change over time due to construction and weather. Most parks--and other protected areas--typically have all of the guides and maps necessary to easily plan a route. You can also try to find guides and maps from the same sources you would use to buy a book.
Uinta National Forest, Utah, USA
If you live near a forest area, there should be maps available that provide information about the forest roads as it is likely the roads were developed for loggers or forest firefighters.
If you find yourself in a very remote area that isn’t frequented by travelers and less likely to have online resources available, then you may have to start from scratch. This could be the case for an agricultural or commercial area. Don’t worry. There are other ways to access more information. You would be surprised how many others like to ride on the groads less traveled.
Bike Shops/Sporting Goods Stores
If you haven’t already discovered the local bike shops or sporting goods stores, I recommend you checking them out and making yourself familiar. These shops aren’t just for getting spare tubes and figuring out the squeaky noise your bike is making. They are also a pillar of the recreational community, a visitor center, and an informational kiosk if you will. It’s very likely that the folks working on bikes are also riding bikes or, at the very least, they hear enough from the locals to know what’s hot on the trails. Ask them about the local groads and they should be able to point you in the right direction. You might even discover a gravel group ride!
Even if the bike shops don’t have a group ride to offer you or if there isn’t a local shop, you may do some more digging on the internet to see if there are any local rides or events at all. Check social media sites like Facebook and Instagram for the local bike shops, cycling clubs, and races. Not that you have to attend them to do the ride, but you can get an idea of what’s popular based on what the members are talking about and where sanctioned events are held. You might find a GPS file you can access from past events on their websites that will give you every detail of the route. Even if you don’t gather all of the details about every single part of the route and what roads to take after exhausting these resources, you may still learn about some really cool destinations and you’ll only have to figure how to get from your starting location to that cool place.
If you have the opportunity, participating in these group events can be a great learning experience. Not only will you learn about the routes, but you will make connections and learn so much more about bikes! Make the experience what you want it to be.
Alexa using a water resistant map to gain her bearings alongside her Liv Devote.
Don’t fret if you don’t have your mind made up yet. We haven’t quite exhausted all resources. We still have the great multitude of applications that have compiled a lot of this information to create user-friendly navigational tools that will guide you. Apps like RideWithGPS, Strava, and Komoot make it easy to discover rides and track your activity in whatever way you like. There are many other apps and every cyclist has their own preference as to what app works best for them. It’s up to you to find what works best for your needs. It will take time and you may even find that you like to use a combination of apps but they all have the basic ability of finding local routes. For now, I’ll highlight what apps have worked best for me on the groad.
Screenshots of using the “Find” tool on RidewithGPS to browse routes other users have already made.
RideWithGPS is best for discovering routes that others have already made and documented with accompanying images, downloading them for offline use, and being able to turn on navigation to follow the step-by-step directions and track your ride.
Screenshots of the “Explore Routes” tool on the Strava application.
Strava is all about popularity. It's best for exploring suggested routes and “segments” of routes with statistics about all of the riders who have completed it before, investigating a global heatmap that reveals how popular the roads/paths are by bike, and tracking your activity along with the option for live location sharing. As of summer 2020, Strava has also made it ridiculously easy to draw up your own route right on your phone or it will suggest a route for you based on preferred mileage, elevation, and surface type. This is currently my favorite tool in route planning.
Screenshots of the navigational tool on the Komoot application
Komoot is best for navigating to destinations and routes based on your type of riding and fitness level. You can simply choose your starting point and destination, and the app will produce the route for you while also providing a ton of specific detail about how difficult it is and how much of the route is paved, asphalt, singletrack, etc. You can also add stops in between if you want to set up a cafe stop or stop for a dip in a river.
All of these apps are free until you want to use more of the perks like weather forecasts, multi-day tour planners, and offline maps.
Assess & Amend
Once you have a good handle on the route you want to take, you should evaluate the plausibility of it in terms of access, current conditions, and staying within your physical limits. I recommend doing this even if you have found a complete route on one of the previously mentioned apps.
Screenshots of Google Maps satellite imagery capturing the transition of the same road (White Canyon Creek Road) over 3 sections from well-graded groad to double-track to barely visible single-track.
Pull up the area on your favorite map app (I prefer Google Maps or Strava) and make sure to have the “Satellite” filter activated. This will allow you to see what the road looks like. Zoom in closely to the specific roads you would like to take and check for:
Some gates may only prevent vehicles and allow pedestrians & cyclists to pass. Some gates may prohibit any access at all. It is best to check “Street View” on Google Maps where the pavement ends or the groad passes property lines. It may just end up being a part of your journey there to find out!
Double- or Single-track. This is all about your comfort zone. If you’re new to riding on rough terrain, you may prefer double-track which is essentially a full road for vehicle use. There are times that a groad can turn into a single-track trail which is perfect for mountain bikes but only sometimes favorable to gravel riding. If you are up for the challenge, take it! If you wanna ride nice and easy, stick to the double-tracks/groads.
Google Maps usually highlights road closures with a red/white striped line. If not, it is still worth checking for road closures with the local Dept of Transportation--usually accessible online.
Keep in mind that the imagery could be outdated and the roads could look different now in some ways. If you find that the roads you originally planned to take don’t meet your needs for space, access, and ease of navigation, then evaluate the neighboring roads. Is there another road nearby that runs the same direction but offers more space? Are there roads accessible to detour around road closures? It may add more miles but it could be worth the feeling of safety and comfort to enjoy riding.
A dreamy groad amidst the Southern Utah landscape.
Knowing Your Limits
Besides road access and safety, the biggest factors will be how long you want to ride and how much you are willing to gain/lose in elevation. You can check these details on a given route on the apps mentioned or you can use Google Maps to navigate by bike and it will give you these details. Feel free to adjust avoid hills or nerve-wracking descents. You can work your way up to that later. If you don’t know your physical limits yet, just make sure you are able to safely turn around and route yourself back earlier than planned. The trick is to remember that you usually have to ride back as far as you have come so don’t keep riding out if you feel wiped already. You need the energy to get yourself back to where you started.
Give It the Old College Try!
Now that you have exhausted your local resources, tested out some apps, passed judgment on the potential route, and prepared for the elements, you just have to grab your bike and get out there! Just keep in mind the 6 “P” Motto: prior planning prevents piss poor performance. You have done all that you can to prepare yourself mentally and physically. It just comes down to giving your route a try. If it doesn’t go as planned, you can always turn around, re-route, or try again another day. There is always beauty in the journey beyond the pavement.
This little SoCal road cyclist never imagined herself grinding through gravel. Even after years of riding a road bike, I still looked at off-road cyclists as freaks of the sport (in an admirable way). I realized that I already had a little bit of the technical skill. All I was lacking was a proper gravel bike. Once I made the leap to get one, I started with small laps on some dirt tracks and I gradually worked my way up to riding dozens of miles over rough roads in the middle of nowhere. Now all I want is to share this joy of pushing the limit and discovering new passions with everyone. As a Black Fox, I strive for every human to enjoy outdoor spaces in the most respectful, equitable, and sustainable manner.