Gravel roads less traveled: Tuscany vibes in California's North County

Yuri Hauswald (hesitantly) shares the hidden gems of gravel riding in Atascadero Valley

North County Tuscany
(Image credit: Yuri Hauswald)

There are gravel riding gems everywhere, but they can be hard to find. This is the first installment in a series that aims to help you get inspired and find your next best gravel adventure. 

In this article, off-road pro and gravel veteran Yuri Hauswald (hesitantly) puts the spotlight on California's North County that has a lot more to offer besides wine, breweries, cheese makers and vast farm country.

I’m usually a paper shredder when it comes to secrets, especially when it involves revealing hidden riding gems, but this one is just too good to keep to myself. 

Nestled halfway between San Francisco and Los Angeles, securely tucked into the undulating, fertile and wooded folds of the California Coast Range, sits “North County”, otherwise known as Atascadero, CA.  With over 250 wineries there’s a reason this region has been primarily known for its grapes, but that’s about to change with the coming of The Bovine Classic, a new mixed terrain cycling event that’s going to showcase the beauty, and the bounty, of the Atascadero Valley. 

This region was originally home to the Salinan Indians and the Obispeno peoples, who called it tsiskikiye or “place of much water,” which definitely wasn’t the case when we explored this dynamic landscape in mid-September: it was actually dry as a bone in most spots we rode. 

Atascadero is perched on the eastern slopes of the California Coast Range, which has its terminus just south in Santa Barbara County, and is characterized by scrub oak and a much larger biome of drought-resistant plants located in areas that experience a Mediterranean climate. This fertile region brings together a potpourri of wine makers, brewers, cheese makers, distillers, cider makers, agricultural product makers and food providers, which means that at the conclusion of any ride you can get your fill of artisanal local food and beverage. 

North County Tuscany

(Image credit: Yuri Hauswald)

Speaking of other parts of the world, there are latitudinal reasons why this area looks, and feels, a lot like the Tuscan region in Italy, and it’s not just the fact that some homesteads have cypress lining their driveways, as both wind barriers and symbols of immortality.

You know what else this area experiences? An abundant diversity of plant and animal types. This biome is comprised of Mediterranean-esque forests, scrub and woodlands and has a vast variety of fauna including hundreds of bird and mammal species. 

When asked what makes this region unique, Bryan Yates, the founder of The Bovine Classic, states, “I think geographically speaking we’re something like 2/3 the size of Napa and Sonoma combined, but we’ve got 1/10th the total population. The whole Paso region has got a real Sergio Leone refined Spaghetti Western vibe to it.” 

Like the fabled white gravel roads of Tuscany, the North County delivers the goods when it comes to a diverse offering of mixed terrain roads to sample. Regarding the type of riding that exists here, Yates replies, “the best rides here (at least for me) are always the mixed-surface options. Hidden Strade Bianche-style dirt farm roads, truck trails, vineyard paths and single-track sections loosely connect many parts of the Atascadero Valley Area." 

"Finding these dirt gems is like gaining secret access into the historic essence of San Luis Obispo’s north county.” 

And you know what else makes this region so unique? There are over 614, 000 acres to be explored here. Oh, and did I mention that this region is flush in road improvement dollars ever since a bond measure passed a few years ago? This means that many of the remote, twisty farm roads are ribbons of buttery smooth asphalt that stretch as far as the eye can see.

North County Tuscany

(Image credit: Yuri Hauswald)

Beside the dynamic and challenging terrain, and the bounty of food that exists in this region, is the history that you get to pedal through. 

“The past comes alive in rustic one-street ranching towns such as Creston, Santa Margarita, and Pozo, which all date to the 1800s,” Yates points out. 

Speaking of the “town” of Pozo, its saloon just reopened after a two-year pandemic hiatus, but it might not be the only act in town bringing folks back to the well, so to speak. 

See, there’s some challenging mixed terrain riding out there, and it’s even more remote, and wild, than what we rode in Atascadero. 

North County Tuscany

(Image credit: Yuri Hauswald)

It’s obvious to me that Yates is creating something really special here, something that is going to make the North County known for more than just its wineries and food offerings, but he doesn’t just see himself creating an event. 

When asked what he aims to do, he replies, “Someone recently called me a race promoter, which I really bristled against. I see TBC through the lens of being a coach or experience producer. My role is to create a space for people to connect at a heart level to themselves and others and a beautiful place.” 

Yates is working with Operation Surf, a non-profit that harnesses the healing powers of the ocean to help injured military and veterans restore hope and purposes in their lives, by offering a $5,000 Moriah Wilson scholarship to send one female veteran to a surfing camp for recovery, connection and community. 

Looking to connect your head, heart and stomach to a new place? Well, saddle on up and make your way to Atascadero, CA —for The Bovine Classic or your own riding— before this “secret” Central Coast gravel riding gem isn't so secret anymore. 

North County Tuscany

Bryan Yates and Yuri Hauswald

(Image credit: Yuri Hauswald)

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