Distance: 22 miles out and back
Elevation gain: 1014 ft
Update 11/18: The Camp Fire raced through this canyon on 11/8-9/18. The area is much changed. Much of the understory burned off, which makes the landscape more open, so Butte Creek and the canyon walls are actually prettier because you can see more of them. Most of the big trees seem to have survived. About a third of the houses burned and are now being rebuilt in some form. The covered bridge burned to ash. It’s a different ride, but I think it’s better, especially in the spring when the loss of canopy results in an abundance of spring wildflowers. JR
This is the only ride in Bestrides I can do from my front door. It’s a perfectly charming meander with pretty scenery and a road contour that is ever-changing. In 11 short miles you get a number of bonus features: mid-Nineteenth-Century rock walls, a lively creek lined with stately sycamores, tailings left by the Gold Rush argonauts and their placer mining, a grand little canyon with dramatic rocky bluffs, a small back-country museum, a working flume, a great piece of cycling sculpture, and the remains of one of California’s finest covered bridges. So the ride keeps you interested. In addition, the elevation profile is perfect for your legs: a few miles of gentle rollers, then a little moderate climbing, then more rollers, then a bit more extensive climbing to get really warm, a short recovery period, and finally a 1.5-mile brisk climb to put all that warm-up to use. With the final climb, the ride’s a good work-out; without it, it’s an easy stroll.
Park at the south end of the Steve Harrison Bike Path where it intersects the Skyway. Appreciate the Bike Path’s gateway arch, in the form of a chainring, made by a local artist to honor Steve, a beloved local cyclist who died tragically. Head east on the bike path bordering the Skyway for 50 yards and merge onto Honey Run—not “Honey Run Road,” as non-local maps insist, just Honey Run. Local lore tells several tales about the origin of the name, but it’s a sweet, flowing ride from the get-go, so let’s pretend it refers to that. You’re leaving the flats of the Northern California Valley and heading east through Butte Creek Canyon into the first ripples of the Sierra foothills.
Honey Run used to be back-country, but like everywhere else the back roads of Chico have been built up, so traffic can be irritatingly dense for the first 5 miles. The road is moderate-sized two-lane without shoulder, but motorists are very used to your presence and behave civilly. Even so, I’d try to not do this ride during morning or late afternoon rush hour. For the first 5 miles, Butte Creek keeps you company—quite dramatic in times of high water, and still bearing along its banks the boulder fields left by 49er gold mining. Observe how the bluffs build on both sides of the canyon as you continue into the canyon—the walls will keep building until they’re 2000 ft above your head. Note the power lines crossing the road—they come all the way from Lake Oroville 20 miles to the south and go north to I don’t know where. Watch for rock walls, built by miners and farmers (not Chinese laborers, as all California school children were taught) in the late 1800’s from stones gathered in the fields, on the north side, and large sycamores, identifiable by their nearly white, smooth bark, to the south. The houses you pass fall into 3 periods of architecture: pre-60’s shack, when living here was as outback as living in the Yukon; 60’s and post-60’s Hippie back-to-the-land sweat lodge; and 90’s and post-90’s super-rich McMansion.
4.2 miles in you hit an unmissible fork in the road. To the L is our route, Centerville Rd. The fork to the R (still called Honey Run) crosses Butte Creek on a modern bridge. 50 feet downstream from the bridge was a piece of California history, the Honey Run Covered Bridge, built in 1886. There’s a water bib by the outhouses nearby that seems to work even when the bridge rec area gate is closed, so you can do the rest of the ride out with very little water and resupply here on the way back.
Once on Centerville Rd., ride to where the road turns to gravel. After the fork the road is less trafficked and the landscape even prettier than before. You leave the creek, the houses thin out, the bluffs grow grander. About 8 miles in you hit a series of 3 very short pitches, the Three Sisters, then descend to what locals call “the Steel Bridge” even though there is no visible steel because it replaced a bridge that had a steel superstructure that was destroyed in flood waters one winter. Cross Butte Creek (it’s pretty there, and the swimming hole is pretty good) and do the one real climb on the route (7% average) for 1.5 miles to the end of the pavement, where you turn around and ride home.
Just as you start to get into the climb, you pass the Centerville-Colman Museum, a classic back-country one-room neighbor-tended museum that used to be the local one-room schoolhouse. It’s only open on weekends from 1 to 4 pm, but if you’re there then it, like all such places, is well worth a stop, not so much for the museum collection as for the folks who care for the place, who are always a treasure—serious, knowledgeable, friendly, generous, unpretentious, and passionate.
At the turn-around point, the road crosses an old Power Company flume. Like all flumes, it has a maintenance footpath along one side, which you can explore on foot or mountain bike if you’re willing to ignore the half dozen signs telling you not to. The flume used to run water, but I haven’t seen it do that since the Camp Fire.
The ride back is just like the ride out, squared, because it’s a splendid 1.5-mile descent followed by a lovely, relaxed, up-and-down-back-and-forth saunter made nearly effortless by the imperceptible descending. It’s especially gorgeous in later afternoon when the light is low, the foliage is back-lit, and the bluffs are in chiaroscuro. The Three Sisters, when you hit them, are one of the world’s great 20-second descents—there are two blind corners, but trust me, they’re both completely safe, so stay off the brakes throughout, or you’ll wish you had.
Shortening the ride: If you don’t want to work, turn around at the Steel Bridge…but you’ll miss the best part of the ride.
Adding miles: At the Covered Bridge fork you can go R and continue up Honey Run. In 5 miles you’ll be in the large village of Paradise, which was obliterated in the Camp Fire. If you go this route, the first 2 miles are mellow, then you have 3 miles of demanding, dramatic climbing through constant tight switchbacks over rough pavement. Going up is a grind, but coming down is worse. It’s too rough, too steep, and too curvy to be much fun. Consider doing the first 2 miles as an out and back 4-mile add-on to Centerville. Most locals who ride up the Honey Run climb loop around back to Chico by means of Neal Road, which is boring but smooth.
If you’re on a gravel bike, you can continue on Centerville Rd. when it turns to gravel. It will climb gradually up through the same canyon until you come out on the Skyway above Paradise. It’s a fairly boring ride but the views are grand. One reader says the road is or was washed out part-way up, but I suspect that was temporary.